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Stoner Movies That Should Have Won an Oscar

We think highly of them, at least.

by Gabriel Alvarez

by Gabriel Alvarez

It’s not like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which will announce 2017 nominations on Tuesday, Jan. 24, has a total aversion to marijuana. Easy Rider (1969) and American Beauty (1999) are just a few examples of films that featured pot smoking that were bestowed with nominations or awards. It’s just that we know that stoner movies are always gonna have an uphill battle getting recognized by the Academy.

Maybe that’s because the average Oscar voter of today is said to be a 63-year-old white male, who is probably out of touch, although that doesn’t entirely make sense, since they would have reached early adulthood in the swinging ’70s, and you figure they’d be hip enough to be cool with the herb.

Whatever the reason, as the country’s laws begin to change and the mainstream takes a more accepting view of marijuana, it’s high time we leave behind stodgy stances against the wonder plant. Hopefully, Hollywood, a supposed liberal bastion, will be more open to making more marijuana-based movies. In the meantime, here are a few past films that, in our opinion, should have gotten at least a nod from the Academy.

Warning: May contain spoilers.

American Ultra (2015)

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Yes, it’s super doubtful that a genre-bending movie aimed at stoners would be recognized by the usually stuffy Academy. It’s questionable if members even see these type of movies.

But, if you can imagine for a moment this movie getting an Oscar nod (taking a few tokes will help), it would be for its inventive screenplay by Max Landis, which incorporates a nerdy sleeper agent (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart), graphic novel-like super villains (Walton Goggins), dumb-ass dope dealers (John Leguizamo), and an evil smarmy government head (Topher Grace) in a story where balls-to-the-wall action is briefly interrupted for stress-relieving weed breaks.

Pushing past the boundaries of what a stoner movie can be, American Ultra builds on Pineapple Express’ ability to take an action picture format and weed it out, but showing enough restraint so that the picture never bogs down just to fill some sort of marijuana joke quota. Another nice touch is when Eisenberg is trying to make a heartfelt connection with Stewart and his words start off sounding like the typical jumbled thoughts when someone gets stoned, but turn out to actually be meaningful.

Saving Grace (2000)

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This good-natured foreign film for the most part fits right into the Academy’s wheelhouse. It’s a light comedy about a middle-aged woman (Brenda Blethyn) living in a quaint English seaside village. But, things go wrong early as Grace finds herself in heavy debt after her husband dies and resorts to growing marijuana to save her home from foreclosure. The film, co-written by Craig Ferguson (who also co-stars), has a sweet ending, and the humor is mostly prim and proper and never truly risqué. If you’re an American who can deal with heavy accents, it’s a good choice if you ever want to show your uncool parents a non-offensive movie about weed.

While Blethyn was nominated for a Golden Globe, it seems as if the Academy may have been reluctant to acknowledge the film because of its marijuana-related plot. Or maybe, the Academy is filled with secret pot smokers who got so stoned they forgot to vote for it.

Leaves of Grass (2009)

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Ed Norton in dual roles sounds like automatic Oscar bait. When an established actor pushes his- or herself by taking on a challenging part it usually drums up interest right away.

Leaves of Grass, however, flew under the radar. The film stars Norton as both Bill Kincaid, a highly-touted college professor living in Providence, R.I, and his hick brother Brady Kincaid, who grows hydroponic marijuana back in their Oklahoma hometown. The twist is that Brady isn’t some stereotypical dunce but instead is a pothead blessed with a brilliant mind. But even with all his smarts he’s still gotten himself into serious trouble with some drug dealers.

Director Tim Blake Nelson seamlessly puts the actor side by side with himself in an impressive technological feat. But there’s more than just camera tricks. Norton delivers his usual strong performance(s). There’s also good support from Susan Sarandon and Richard Dreyfuss. In fact, the late Roger Ebert called Leaves of Grass “some kind of sweet, wacky masterpiece.” And while that’s up to every viewer to decide for themselves, one criticism of the film is that perhaps all the philosophy-based dialogue might have gone over average IQ heads. But, fortunately, you don’t have to be a genius to know when an actor is in a zone doing impressive work.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

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Rightfully regarded today as one of the best teen comedies of the ’80s, it’s still easy to figure out why Fast Times never received any official accolades upon its release. Aside from the fact that comedies usually get less acclaim than dramas, it’s unlikely that a humorous film depicting masturbation, underage sex, and recreational marijuana use by minors would have sat well with older audiences. That the film later shifts gears, and we get a dramatic turn of events involving teenage abortion, was probably too much for some adults who grew up in a different era to handle.

Although the movie was marketed as yet another raunchy teen flick, of which there was tons being pumped out back then, Cameron Crowe’s sharp script and director Amy Heckerling’s spot-on handling of the material made it rise above the standard fare of the day.

With all due respect for Phoebe Cates’ stunning pool scene, Sean Penn as the boneheaded stoner Spicoli stole the show. Penn brought to the screen a very specific type of character native to California, a hard-partying surfer dude you just know wakes and bakes every morning. You can practically smell the aroma of Sex Wax and weed in his baja hoodie. It’s a great performance.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

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Telling the insane, drug-fueled adventures of Hunter S. Thompson (reporting as his flippant alter ego Raoul Duke) and Dr. Gonzo (modeled after real life attorney turned Chicano author-activist Oscar “Zeta” Acosta), Terry Gilliam’s hallucinogenic re-interpretation of Thompson’s seminal counterculture book, which originally was published as a Rolling Stone article in 1971, is an explosion of paranoia, surrealism, and dark, twisted comedy. Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro spend the majority of the film sweaty, dirty, and disheveled, turning up a middle finger at all forms of authority as they consume a never-ending supply of narcotics, including marijuana.

The film is technically not a stoner film. It gives the audience a scary vision of being under the influence of heavy drugs. But many of the people who have watched it more than once have no doubt taken a few bong hits beforehand.

Fear and Loathing bombed at the box office, which might have affected its award chances, but Gilliam’s outlandish film was bound to divide critics anyway. When you strip away all the chaos, it’s a total downer of a story as Thompson is hit with the reality that our country was heading in a direction far away from freedom.

The Harder They Come (1972)

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Jamaica is so closely associated with ganja that one can see the smoke in The Harder They Come even when it’s not there. Of course, there is herb in Perry Henzell’s film, but the main focus is the struggles of the talented Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, who is pursuing his dreams of becoming a recording artist. It doesn’t take him long to figure out how shady the music business is, and before he knows it, he’s transporting marijuana for drug dealers in order to make money. It’s only when he becomes a known outlaw that success as a singer starts happening for him.

The raw grittiness of The Harder They Come is partly what makes it so special. It looks almost like a documentary, recording real life—both the misery and joy—in vibrant, beautiful colors. We also know that even though it is a condemnation of a music industry that exploits artists, there’s nothing hazy about the movie’s overall message that the poor, especially blacks and other minorities, have the odds so stacked against them they can never make it out of their conditions.

If anything, though, the film’s amazing title song by Cliff should have been awarded with an Oscar nod.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

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In some ways, Dazed and Confused feels like a ’70s version of the Oscar-nominated American Graffiti (1973), George Lucas’ coming-of-age-in-the-early-1960s dramedy. Both take place in one day and feature a large ensemble cast of young actors. Both Richard Linklater and Lucas appear to be more interested in exploring the feelings and fears of their characters rather than setting up a plot-heavy story line. The directors would rather focus on universal emotions like teen angst and the prospect of newfound freedom, as well as other aspects of our youth that we forget or feel less connected to when we get older.

Both films are also about the fun that only young people with no responsibilities can have. These slices of Americana transport their respective generations to a time when they first broke their curfew, or in the case of Dazed, the first time getting high. That first time you see the world—and yourself—with a completely different perspective can be mind-blowing or scary as shit, something Linklater’s film pulls off extremely effectively.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Considering how well loved The Big Lebowski is today, it does seem a little peculiar that the film was ignored by the Academy, and more so when you consider the checklist for why the film should have been nominated:

  1. The Coen brothers were already on the Academy’s radar. Barton Fink (1991) and Fargo (1996) were both nominated.

  2. The story unfolds like (fucked-up) film noir, a staple of old Hollywood sure to be admired by most members.

  3. Although infused with stoner sensibilities, the humor doesn’t rely on the audience being smokers in order to enjoy it, and the film’s many laughs hold up after repeat viewings.

One has to wonder if the drug use in the film turned off voters. But then again, maybe it’s not that deep. Initially, the general public didn’t flock to the theater to see the now cult favorite. It took a while for audiences to fully appreciate this blunted tale of mystery, nihilism, and bowling best enjoyed with a bong on your couch.


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Gabriel Alvarez

Gabriel Alvarez has written about rap music and movies for over 20 years. He’s from Los Angeles.



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