Saturday, February 22, 2014

Oscars 2013: The Screenplays

Just a little over a week from the Big Night, aka Hollywood's Christmas Day, it's time to begin the annual plunge into the year's top categories. We'll begin with the screenplays, which features a fine crop this year. It's strange how these categories shook out, though. This year was rather weak in terms of the adaptations - the five nominated films, plus The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12, and Blue is the Warmest Color were the only real contenders - but those few possibilities were incredible, and the five nominees easily rank amongst the year's best scripts. On the other hand, it felt like there were endless possibilities for Original Screenplay (Frances Ha, Enough Said, Prisoners), yet the Academy ended up going with the least exciting (and interesting) lineup.

Anyway, the nominees are:

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Before Midnight; written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke

The nomination for Before Midnight as an adapted screenplay - just as it's predecessor, Before Sunset, was in 2004 - and not original is because of the Academy's odd rule that sequels are "adaptations" because they feature recurring characters. If that's what it takes to get this film nominated, though, so be it. The film's screenplay is a marvel, of course, with a number of delicious monologues ruminating on love and life in the film's first half that any actor would kill to recite. But, as has been detailed in numerous reviews, it's the punishing fight that Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) have in their hotel room where the screenplay really sparks. There's not a single false note in this film: this is the work of artists who are perfectly in-tune with who these characters are, and how they are together. It's flawless work.

The rest of the Adapted nominees, as well as the Original category, after the page break.


Captain Phillips; screenplay by Billy Ray

It's rare to see a thriller screenplay that manages to pack so much emotional and geopolitical depth while maintaining pulse-pounding action. But Billy Ray accomplishes this exact feat with his script for Captain Phillips. In adapting Richard Phillips' memoir A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, Ray fleshes out the story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009 by creating well-rounded characters on both sides of the situation. Instead of rah-rah American heroism (it was still accused of this by some), the pirates' situation is also considered, spending time to examine how these men ended up aboard this vessel and why it's so essential for them to return with a major haul. It's interesting that the screenplay was nominated when Paul Greengrass' direction was not - this isn't exactly a writer's movie, per se - but the screenplay is more than worthy of the recognition.

Philomena; screenplay Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope

The beauty of Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's screenplay for Philomena, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sexsmith, is that it sneaks up on you; like Philomena (Judi Dench) herself, underestimate it at your own risk. On the surface, it's a tender story about a woman looking for the child she was forced to give up decades prior. But then there's the heartbreaking twist about halfway through, after which it introduces a surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced discussion of faith that never condemns either side of the divide (believer vs. agnostic), nor does it draw attention to itself in any heavy-handed way. That it does this with equal parts gravity and humor is all the more impressive. The result is a screenplay that works well beyond expectations, and does a great job at opening up its story to explore grander themes.

12 Years a Slave; screenplay by John Ridley

Solomon Northrup's memoir 12 Years a Slave, which John Ridley adapted, is his incredible account of the time he spent in slavery in the antebellum South, a born freeman who was captured and forced to endure the most oppressive institution in American history. Obviously, much of the screenplay's power comes from the story itself. But Ridley wisely lets this story speak for itself, opting out of any sort of framing device or other narrative tricks and just letting the audience witness the horror of Northrup's situation. It's terrific work, and certainly one of the year's best screenplays.

The Wolf of Wall Street; screenplay by Terence Winter

Out of all the nominated screenplays, none quite have the epic sprawl of The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort. Terence Winter's script spares no detail of the debauchery that Belfort's (Leonardo DiCaprio) success allowed, dizzily spinning from one drug-fueled orgy to the next, all funded by his illegal dealings in the stock market. If there's any key flaw here, it's that there's a bit too much here; after a while, the endless sex and drugs begins to become numbing (although that may be the point). Though the screenplay is still a great achieve, ultimately, this is a director's film.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." Well, obviously 12 Years a Slave is the presumed frontrunner in this category, given the film's stature as a Best Picture frontrunner as well (in fact, I'm starting to wonder if this may even be one of the few categories that the film actually can win anymore). However, Philomena has the hallmarks of a potential spoiler: it's definitely going to have some appeal, and if the voters feel like rewarding the film anywhere, this seems like the most likely place.

My ballot:

1. Before Midnight; written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke
2. Philomena; screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
3. 12 Years a Slave; screenplay by John Ridley
4. Captain Phillips; screenplay by Billy Ray
5. The Wolf of Wall Street; screenplay by Terence Winter

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

American Hustle; written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell

American Hustle may just be David O. Russell's best work as a writer to date. Collaborating with Eric Warren Singer for this romp that's loosely based on the ABSCAM operation of the 1970s, the film features a knotty web of a narrative - everyone's getting over on everyone else - and some of the most quotable dialogue of the year ("science oven," anyone?). The screenplay, then, is a major part of what makes the film so enjoyable. However, it does lack in well-rounded characterizations. On paper, at least, the only characters that really feel like human beings are Irving (Christian Bale) and Richie (Bradley Cooper). It's a good script, but it's more clever than anything else.

Blue Jasmine; written by Woody Allen

For his latest film, Woody Allen - a perennial nominee in this category - crafted this modern-day spin on Tennessee Williams' classic A Streetcar Named Desire, with Cate Blanchett's Jasmine filling in for Blanche Du Bois and San Francisco subbing for New Orleans. In fact, the film borrows so much from the play that it's tempting to say this should have been considered an adaptation rather than an original work. That being said, it's a well-crafted script, with plenty of juicy monologues for Blanchett to chew over and characters that feel hopelessly tethered to the downward spiral that is Jasmine. It's far from Allen's best work, but it's still very good.

Dallas Buyers Club; written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack

If there's one type of film that the writers' branch loves to nominate, it's original screenplays based on real-life people, with no one particular source serving as inspiration. Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack's script for Dallas Buyers Club, based on the story of Ron Woodroof, may play a little loose with history, but does so in service of making this film more of a character study than a full-blown biopic. Given how fascinating and tragic the history of the AIDS epidemic is, it's a shame that the script doesn't have enough room to further explore the notion of buyers clubs and the various, still-evolving subcultures that the film briefly touches on, though some of that probably disappeared during the many rewrites it received (Borten began working on this project in 1992). For what it is, though, it's a fine examination of this character, even if most of the film's success comes more from the strong performances that its decent script.

Her; written by Spike Jonze

None of the nominees in this category put the "original" in Original Screenplay quite like Spike Jonze's script for Her. Using the sci-fi premise of a man who develops a romantic relationship with his operating system, Jonze's screenplay presents a narrative that seeks to examine some the universal truths about relationships and how we connect with one another (though some have found this problematic). More than that, however, the script fully develops both Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), even though the latter is not a tangible character. There's also a fair amount of humor and wit here, too, keeping the whole thing humming along smoothly. It may be the most human work in the category.

Nebraska; written by Bob Nelson

Nebraska is the first produced screenplay by Bob Nelson, and at times, it has the shagginess and cloying characterization of a "first screenplay." Each of the characters can easily fit into a "type," and this kind of "returning home to family" narrative has been done plenty of times before. But there's real heart in Nelson's work, as very little that these characters do or say feels false or devised. If anything, it's remarkably natural, and gives off the distinct feeling that these characters have history beyond what's on the page, subtly suggested in throwaway lines and decisions. This much is certain: as a first screenplay, it's a damn good one.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." The most obvious choice here is Her, which has already won a number of screenplay prizes - including the Golden Globe, which doesn't distinguish between adapted and original - and has strong support from writers. However, as American Hustle's chances in other categories dwindle, it seems as though this may actually be it's best shot at a win. Otherwise, it may join The Turning Point (1977), The Color Purple (1985), and True Grit (2010) as the only films to score 10+ nominations only to end up empty-handed. Though it doesn't nearly stand as much of a chance, Nebraska seems like a possible spoiler to keep an eye on, too.

My ballot:

1. Her; written by Spike Jonze
2. Nebraska; written by Bob Nelson
3. Blue Jasmine; written by Woody Allen
4. American Hustle; written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
5. Dallas Buyers Club; written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack

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