Monday, June 2, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts, 2000: The Screenplays

I've been promising this for nearly over a year now, but it's finally arrived: the rebooted "Oscars of the Aughts." I had originally tried to make this series happen several years ago, when the decade (2000-2009) was still really fresh, and for whatever reason I decided to start in the year 2008 and work my way backwards. Not a great idea, but I was new at this whole film blogging thing back then. I am looking forward to revisiting those years in the future, though, and re-evaluating them.

So what is "Oscars of the Aughts," anyway? The Aughts - we really need to come up with a better name - were the decade when my obsession with the Oscars, and thus my cinephilia, first developed. The first Oscar race I can remember being cognizant of was 2002, when I came across Entertainment Weekly's Oscar preview issue in the waiting room of a diabetes clinic. I was 13 at the time, and flipping through the magazine I was enraptured by these movies that I had never heard of and, thanks to my age, wouldn't be seeing anytime soon. By the next year's race, I was a fledging movie buff who used Yahoo! Movies as my study guide, and I was clipping the list of nominees out of the local newspaper (it's amazing how that dates me) and eagerly anticipating the show. An Oscar nut was born.

The purpose of this series, then, is to invite you on a journey through the past decade's Oscars. I lived in a small North Carolina where the nearest movie theater was at least ten miles away (and the nearest good movie theater much farther than that), so it wasn't really until my freshman year of college - 2008 - that I actually had the opportunity to see all of the nominated films (and expand my cinematic mind in other ways). So by going back through the decade, I'm hoping to get a better understanding of the films and filmmakers who were recognized by the Academy, fill in some blind spots in my Oscar viewing, and contextualize each year's nominees both in terms of their time and in terms of today. Moreover, my knowledge of most of these races was based solely on what I read in Entertainment Weekly or on movie-based blogs and websites, so getting the opportunity to judge them for myself is exciting to me.

Here's how it will work: we'll begin at the beginning of the decade - 2000 - and revisit each year of the decade. We'll be covering the eight major categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Adapted and Original Screenplay (which we'll combine into a single post, as seen here). For each category, I'll provide some context for the year's nominees, assess each nominee individually, and close with how I would have voted if I had had a ballot (not unlike my contemporary Oscar coverage).

Because of the availability of the films, I can't guarantee that we'll work through the years with any regularity, but I won't publish about any year until I have seen all the nominees. I'll announce when the next year will be going up. I hope you'll join in the fun; feel free to share your memories and preferences in the comments. I look forward to hearing what you all think about these contests.

And so, without further ado, let's jump in with the Screenplay categories of 2000. Your nominees were...

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Chocolat; screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs

Chocolat has several major problems, particularly in its inability to settle on a single tone between scenes, and often within a single scene. However, the screenplay - adapted from Joanne Harris' novel of the same name - is one of the film's better elements. Jacob's script is a bit by-the-numbers, but the emotional beats are there in the text, the characters are well-developed, and the story is engaging and capital-R Romantic. Still, against this competition, it's still a tough sell as one of the year's best screenplays.

More after the jump.



O Brother, Where Art Thou?; written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

The Coen Brothers don't often do adaptations, but when they do, you can count on them to apply their unique spin to the source material. With O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they're adapting Homer's The Odyssey, and setting it in Depression-era Mississippi was a brilliant stroke. The story ambles along from one incident to the next, with plenty of wit and humor as Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) bumble their way through a series of challenges as they run from the law. The script's only major flaw is that it loses some of its energy going into the third act, which happens in quite a few of the Coens' films. All told, though, it's a remarkable, fun screenplay, and worthy of its nomination.

*Traffic; screenplay by Stephen Gaghan

Adapted from the British television series Traffik, Traffic certainly has one of the more ambitious screenplays among the nominees. All of the interconnected stories involve the American war on drugs, examining it from the top echelons of drug law enforcement policy to the users looking for their next fix. To cram all of this into a two-and-a-half hour film of course means that some things are simplified, and the various plots convene in ways that are sometimes too convenient for their own good. But overall, Gaghan's screenplay is a terrific work, making the majority of the characters more than just talking heads and into people who feel like real victims of the world they live in. If it presents its points a little too directly, it makes up for it in entertainment and emotional impact.

Wonder Boys; screenplay by Steve Kloves

There's a feeling in Klove's screenplay for Wonder Boys, adapted from the Michael Chabon novel of the same name, that we know this story all too well. We've seen a professor struggling to put his life together while inspiring his students, we've seen men engaged in affairs with women married to the mens' supervisors, we've seen an author pressured to finish his book when a younger challenger seems set to steal his thunder. Yet Kloves retains Chabon's witty language and impish storytelling, focusing on the chaotic life of Tripp Grady (Michael Douglas) as he comes to terms with the fact that his potential may have been squandered. It's entertaining work, worthy of its nomination.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; written by Tsai Kuo Jung, Wang Hui Ling, and James Schamus

There's a lot going on, plot-wise, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Jung, Ling, and Schamus (the latter a frequent collaborator with director Ang Lee) juggle the elements masterfully. Adapting the fourth novel in Wang Dulu's Crane Iron Pentalogy, the writers have crafted a martial arts epic that mixes fighting, romance, and revenge in incredibly moving ways. The script is balanced enough that no particular element - from the central romance to the remarkable action sequences - feels underserved, and each character is given emotional depth and interiority that keeps the action grounded in humanity. Out of these five nominees, this script is easily the strongest.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Erin Brockovich; written by Susannah Grant

It's interesting that Erin Brockovich is considered an original screenplay, since the real story of the titular heroine is almost too good to be true. Grant's script wisely keeps the focus solely on Brockovich (Julia Roberts) and her activist efforts to make Pacific Gas and Electric take responsibility for the contamination of local drinking water. Grant does great service to developing the character of Brockovich, ensuring that she's not overly-sanitized (though she is a little) and keeping her well-rounded. However, the same doesn't always extent to the other characters, which is what keeps an otherwise-great script from really being tops in this category.

Gladiator; screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson, story by David Franzoni

There are a lot of things that work in Gladiator, from the excellent performances to Ridley Scott's masterful direction. The screenplay, too, is something of a marvel: whereas it could have been a standard story, the writers have crafted a tale that places emphasis on the personal journey of Maximus while fleshing out the supporting characters that elevates it beyond a simple sword-and-sandals film. That being said, it is perhaps the weakest of the five nominated screenplays, but that's not really a knock on it's quality so much as a testament to how strong and competitive this category was.

You Can Count on Me; written by Kenneth Lonergan

If there's one thing that's truly great about the Original Screenplay category, it's that smaller-scale films like You Can Count on Me can be recognized when they'll likely be ignored in other major categories (to be fair, this film also picked up a Best Actress nod for Laura Linney). Lonergan's script tells the relatively simple story of a woman (Linney) dealing with the return of her ne'er-do-well brother (Mark Ruffalo). It's a deeply emotional, very human work, one that capitalizes on the sweetness of the central sibling relationship. It also marked Lonergan as a filmmaker to watch, a feat that makes such a small film even more of a delight.

*Almost Famous; written by Cameron Crowe

Journalist-turned-filmmaker Crowe based this film, about a young writer (Patrick Fugit) for Rolling Stone Magazine in the 1970s who follows the rock band Stillwater for a portion of their tour, on his own experiences writing for the rock 'n' roll magazine. As a result, the screenplay for Almost Famous feels completely lived-in and authentic, brimming with little details about life on the road and ensuring that none of the characters - reporters, groupies, musicians, parents - feel like caricatures. It's hands-down Crowe's best work yet - and the best screenplay in this category.

Billy Elliot; written by Lee Hall

Like it's eponymous character, Billy Elliot is an underdog of a film. But the script is nothing short of winning. On the surface, it's a simple coming-of-age story about a boy who loves to dance and finds himself immersed in the world of ballet. But the screenplay has magnificent depth to it, emphasizing the relationships that Billy has with his striking coal-miner father and his tough-minded instructor, all while keeping a focus on Billy's personal growth. The film never cheapens its sentiments or its statements, instead earning each and every one of them through Hall's strong work. It's a quietly stunning work.

My ballots:

Adapted Screenplay

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; screenplay by Tsai Kuo Jung, Wang Hui Ling, and James Schamus
2. Traffic; screenplay by Stephen Gaghan
3. O Brother, Where Art Thou?; screenplay by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
4. Wonder Boys; screenplay by Steve Kloves
5. Chocolat; screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs

Original Screenplay

1. Almost Famous; written by Cameron Crowe
2. You Can Count on Me; written by Kenneth Lonergan
3. Billy Elliot; written by Lee Hall
4. Erin Brockovich; written by Susannah Grant
5. Gladiator; screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson, story by David Franzoni

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