Race Weekend Central

Reel Racing: Oscar-Nominated Motorsports Films

Another year of movies is officially in the books after Sunday’s (March 12) Academy Awards, and over the years, many motorsports films have been nominees.

The excellent Everything Everywhere All At Once led all films at the 95th Oscars in both nominations (11) and eventual wins (seven), sweeping every single above-the-line (Best Picture, Director, all acting and specific screenplay) category it was nominated for.

Sunday was full of storylines, my favorite of which was Ke Huy Quan (who famously played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) claiming Best Supporting Actor in an incredible career comeback. And, in a full-circle moment, Best Actor winner Brendan Fraser and Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh (the first Asian woman to do so) had previously starred alongside each other in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. That film graced Ryan Newman‘s car at Chicagoland Speedway in 2008 (yes, everything somehow seems to tie back to NASCAR).

But what motorsports films have managed to score nominations of their own at the Oscars? Let’s start with the most recent.

Ford v Ferrari

One of my top 10 films of 2019 (a very good year, featuring the likes of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, eventual Best Picture winner Parasite and more), James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari was also named as one of the National Board of Review’s 10 best films of the year.

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Four Academy Award nominations followed on Jan. 13, 2020, announced by John Cho and Issa Rae, for Best Picture, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Film Editing. True, it didn’t stack up in quantity to Joker (11 noms), Hollywood (10), The Irishman (10) or five other movies with more acknowledgements, but for a racing film to be noticed that much — and lock down a Picture nomination despite nothing acting- or screenplay-wise — was impressive.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ben Zauzmer publishes a popular list every year of the films most likely to win based on a typically-accurate mathematical model. Going in, Ford v Ferrari ranked at the following:

  • Seventh of nine Picture nominees (1.5% chance of winning, 2.8% behind Jojo Rabbit, 0.4% ahead of Marriage Story and 0.5% ahead of Little Women)
  • First of five Editing nominees (29.7% chance of winning, 1.5% ahead of Parasite)
  • First of five Sound Editing nominees (34.5% chance of winning, 2.1% ahead of 1917)
  • First of five Sound Mixing nominees (41.7% chance of winning, 9.7% ahead of 1917)

A couple of things to keep in mind: this was before Sound Mixing and Sound Editing were combined into one single category, and it’s typically a category won by action or war films. Sometimes, but not always, the same film sweeps both. In the final 10 years of Mixing and Editing being categories of their own (2010-19), the same film won both slots six times (including Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road, Gravity and Dunkirk.

While Ford v Ferrari was favored for both, it was a perfect storm for a split: with World War I epic 1917 also competing — a movie having an advantage in that its execution almost exclusively involved long takes, so much to where the entire film is presented as two continuous shots — that meant action and war movies at each other’s throats for the Sound categories.

Split the categories they did, as 1917 took Sound Mixing while Ford v Ferrari won Editing thanks to longtime Mangold collaborator Donald Sylvester.

Its second Oscar came thanks to the Film Editing category, where Andrew Buckland and Michael McCusker claimed gold statues thanks to the excellent, perfectly spliced together racing scenes.

It also lost to Parasite for Best Picture, though that was no surprise: Ford v Ferrari was a long shot to win the night’s biggest prize regardless, but Parasite‘s historic win more than made up for some of the year’s best falling short.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale both failed to secure respective Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations. However, as someone who saw every movie nominated for an above-the-line category outside of Richard Jewell, I wouldn’t have been opposed to Damon taking the spot of Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) or Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes). Both good performances, but Damon excels as Carroll Shelby.

Bale’s case is a little tougher: I believe he’s the best performance in Ford v Ferrari, but his competition consists of Hollywood‘s Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the legendary Anthony Hopkins (Popes) and both Al Pacino and Joe Pesci for The Irishman. I’d slot Bale in ahead of Hopkins, or maybe even one of the Irishmen, since he absolutely steals the show as Ken Miles.

For what it’s worth, Adam Driver (Marriage Story) or Leonardo DiCaprio (Hollywood) still should’ve won Actor; and I would’ve been rooting for Pitt to win Supporting Actor regardless. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s masterpiece.

Grand Prix

The first and only other motorsports film to actually win Oscar gold is also the one to take home the most trophies, with John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix winning all three categories it was nominated for.

Grand Prix won Best Sound Effects (Gordon Daniel), Best Sound (Franklin Milton) and Best Film Editing (Fredric Steinkamp, Henry Berman, Stewart Linder and Frank Santillo), so it sort of set the precedent for Ford v Ferrari to excel in those categories.

The opening scene of Grand Prix sets the stage for a pretty epic racing film, filled with impressive cinematography to capture the landscapes and on-track scenes as well as ear-splitting sound and some fun driver cameos (including Dan Gurney and Graham Hill).

Some of the melodrama is definitely a product of its time and doesn’t necessarily quite work for me, but on a technical level, few motorsports films are better.

Nominated, But Didn’t Win: Cars and Days of Thunder

Not much to write home about here: animated films are seldom nominated for anything but Best Animated Feature, and Cars received a nomination for said category in 2007. It didn’t win in the 79th edition of the awards, though, as Happy Feet took that crown over Cars and Monster House.

A quick aside: Happy Feet director George Miller is the same filmmaker behind all four Mad Max films, Happy Feet Two, Babe, The Witches of Eastwick and more. The dude is basically the Two-Face of movie genres (and he has Fury Road prequel Furiosa, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Hemsworth and others, on the way next year).

Days of Thunder followed a similar track to its Formula 1-based predecessor and endurance-racing successor at the Oscars in 1991, claiming a nomination for Best Sound, but lost to Dances with Wolves.

Not Nominated, But (Realistically) Could’ve Been

Closing this out with a fun little wish list here. We won’t get too unrealistic, like “Will Ferrell should’ve been nominated for Best Actor for Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby“, but there’s a few feasible nominations that could’ve happened.

First up: Rush. I don’t shut up about this movie, do I? Endlessly rewatchable, Ron Howard’s 2013 effort excels on all fronts, both technically and narratively, and the fact that zero Oscar nominations came its way continues to baffle me almost 10 years later.

I won’t pretend to have seen every film nominated at the 86th ceremony and won’t pretend that some of those nominated didn’t deserve it — in particular Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street as well as the film itself. Wolf is phenomenal.

But to completely shut out Rush … wow. Only nine of the 10 possible Best Picture slots were filled, so there’s an opening there, and I’m sure I’d sub out one of the Actor or Supporting Actor nominees for Chris Hemsworth as the cocky James Hunt or Daniel Bruhl’s transformation into Niki Lauda.

That was also a year in which Rush probably should’ve swept some of the technical categories. Gravity was the critical darling that year, and that — plus a war film in Lone Survivor and a fantasy action movie with the second Hobbit production — seemed like inevitable nominees. Rush deserved so much better.

Senna is the other blind spot; I consider that and Rush to be the pinnacle of narrative and documentary racing films, but both failed to score any nominations. True, Senna only stood a chance in its genre category, but somehow, it didn’t end up with an acknowledgement. It’s considered a 2010 film, having premiered at Suzuka that year, but wasn’t released more widely until 2011 and didn’t even make the shortlist at the 2012 Oscars.

Director Asif Kapadia got his due a few years later, after his Amy Winehouse feature took home Best Documentary in 2016.

Le Mans probably could’ve locked down a few nominations on the technical side in 1972. I also wouldn’t have minded a Supporting Actor nod for Daniel Craig in 2017’s Logan Lucky (Riley Keough was fantastic as well, but Supporting Actress was stacked that year).

On the documentary side, The Last Race receiving a categorical nom in 2019 would’ve been cool as well, and the same goes for Blink of an Eye the following year.

Alas, racing films remain underappreciated.

On to another year of great films!

Follow @adamncheek

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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Winning! Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Wagner, Richard Thomas…

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