Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oscars 2014: The Screenplays

There's only a few days left before Oscar night, so now's as good a time as any to begin our annual Oscar previews. As in previous years, we're covering each of the top eight categories - the four acting, two writing, Director, and Picture - and evaluating each nominee's merits, determining who has the best shot at winning, and publishing my personal ballots for each category (if I actually had a vote).

We're going to kick things off this year with the writing categories, which tell two very different stories. On the one hand, Best Original Screenplay may have been the most competitive category of the year, with at least a dozen viable contenders fighting for five spots; it's no surprise that some high-profile works were left out (Selma, A Most Violent Year, Interstellar) in the end. On the other hand, Best Adapted Screenplay didn't seem to have very many contenders at all, and still managed to pull off two glaring omissions (Gone Girl and Wild) while loading up on some rather perfunctory scripts. That's a shame, because there were several other great contenders available, even if they fell outside the purview of "traditional" Oscar contenders (Under the Skin, Snowpiercer, A Most Wanted Man).

Here are your nominees for this years' writing categories:


American Sniper; written by Jason Hall

The factual errors in American Sniper have been well-documented, though its tough to say whether this is to the detriment of Hall's screenplay or not. Hall is simply adapted Kyle's memoir, and in some ways the skewed history works by illustrating Kyle's mindset in wanting to serve in the military. Yet it's still clumsy, and the script doesn't balance Kyle at war and Kyle at home enough to make a clear impact. It introduces ideas only to drop them immediately afterward, making it more of a work of missed opportunities than a work of excellence.

The rest of the nominees, plus Best Original Screenplay, after the jump.

The Theory of Everything; written by Anthony McCarten

McCarten's screenplay, believe it or not, actually suffers from many of the same issues that Hall's faces. It's adapted from Jane Hawking's memoir, and early on it pays equal attention to both Stephen Hawking and Jane, detailing the origins of their relationship and exploring how they would be attracted to one another. However, as the film carries on, Jane becomes increasingly marginalized, transitioning almost into the film's de facto antagonist. It's a betrayal of the central relationship, one that's not alleviated by devolving into standard biopic structure. It has some charm, but not enough to rescue it.

Whiplash; written by Damien Chazelle

Truth be told, Chazelle's screenplay is only nominated in this category because of a bizarre reading of the Academy's bylaws. Chazelle, in an effort to get funding for the film, shot a single scene from this script and entered it at Sundance. Because it won a prize there, the Academy considers that scene a short film, and thus the film is adapted from that "short film." Semantics aside, Chazelle's script is easily the best in this category. The characters are well-created, the dialogue is punchy, and the structure is thrilling and air-tight. The whole thing crackles with kinetic energy, which makes it stand out in this category even more. It's a knockout.

Inherent Vice; written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson

It's hard to tell how much of Anderson's script is "adapted:" he reportedly lifted the majority of the film's dialogue directly from the source material, Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel of the same name (I have not read Pynchon's novel, so I'm not sure how much of this is true). This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the film's phrasings and prosaic rhythms are unique and highly enjoyable, especially as the actors wrap themselves around their lines. Regardless, Anderson's work holds up well as a shaggy, drugged-out twist on film noir, even if it doesn't really amount to much in the end. It's fine work, but it's not going to convert the uninitiated into Anderson's (or Pynchon's) cult following.

The Imitation Game; written by Graham Moore

By all means, Moore's screenplay should get credit for avoiding the standard pitfalls of the biopic genre. Instead of trying to cram the entirety of Alan Turing's life into a two-hour running time, Moore focuses solely on his recently-declassified involvement in breaking the German "enigma code" during WWII. Moore's script keeps the focus on Turing, but it willingly cedes the spotlight to some of his compatriots, too, particularly Joan Clark, the group's only female cryptologist. It also doesn't wear out its welcome, letting revelations arrive organically without much contrivance. Yet for all of this, there's some glaringly clunky dialogue here, making an otherwise great script feel terribly overwritten.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." At the moment, this one is like Moore's to lose: the Academy clearly liked The Imitation Game a lot, given its eight nominations, and this seems like the most likely place to recognize it. But Hall's script for American Sniper may be just as likely, given the film's financial success and, like The Imitation Game, this may be the only place they would want to honor it. But for now, I'd say give the advantage to Moore and The Imitation Game.


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); written by Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo

I honestly cannot praise the script to Birdman enough. The writers have crafted a screenplay that's practically bursting at the seems with ingenuity, delusion, egotism, integrity (or lack thereof), anger, joy, dismay, and insanity. It often feels like it could be the work of acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, but though it earns those comparisons, it deserves to be seen as its own brilliant work. It's a showbiz satire that's clearly in love with show business, even as it recognizes that it's an industry that's just as likely to chew you up and spit you out as anything else. It's easily the most astounding work in either writing category this year.

The Grand Budapest Hotel; screenplay by Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness

Anderson has long been known for his diorama-like direction, but not enough has been said about his skill as a writer. Anderson has a deft skill for mixing his hyper-literate humor with a healthy dose of melancholy, with a streak of sadness evident in each of his characters. This applies to his script for The Grand Budapest Hotel as well, which transplants his style into a Ernst Lubitsch screwball comedy. It's a delicate balance of madcap humor and deep sadness, with both sides perfectly encapsulated in the character of M. Gustave, the protagonist. It's quality work, one that should earn Anderson the recognition as a writer that he deserves.

Foxcatcher; written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

This category is no stranger to the "original work that feels like it should be adapted" nominee, and that distinction falls to Frye and Futterman's work for Foxcatcher. Their script, much like the film itself, is technically excellent, exploring the dynamics between wrestlers Mark and David Schultz and their millionaire benefactor, John du Pont. Scenes in which these characters interact are well-written, especially given Mark's reticence, telling the audience about the character in as few words as possible. But the end result, just like the finished film, ultimately lacks broader meaning or a sense of importance. It has all the makings of a great script, but never quite lives up to that distinction.

Boyhood; written by Richard Linklater

I was a big fan of Boyhood - enough so that it placed #10 on my year-end top-ten list. But for everything that makes the film the rousing success that it is, the screenplay is rather low on that list. Since it was written in snippets over the course of the film's 12-year production, the script can't help but feel a little patchwork, written in response to what was happening in reality rather than vice versa. This isn't to say that Linklater isn't a strong writer, but that his scripts are often the result of improvisation; they're testaments to his skills as a director moreso than as a writer. The screenplay for Boyhood is a terrific work, make no mistake, but it doesn't really stand out as one of the year's best feats of writing.

Nightcrawler; written by Dan Gilroy

Gilroy's screenplay promises the arrival of singularly exciting voice, even though Gilroy has been working for years (he was a longtime writer for the Bourne franchise). The character of Lou Bloom is a wholly remarkable creation: the American entrepreneurial spirit as seen through a shattered funhouse mirror, a slick psychopath who talks in business-school buzzwords and empty platitudes. Gilroy has crafted a delirious thriller that preys on the basest instincts of American capitalism, the 24-hour news cycle, and how far people are willing to go to succeed. The best testament to Gilroy's work is that it could have made a great satire if it wasn't so terrifying.

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." Birdman and Boyhood are the obvious choices, but since they're likely to take Best Picture and/or Best Director (possibly split them?), I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they split the vote here, allowing Anderson and Guinness to walk away with the Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

My ballots:


1. Whiplash; written by Damien Chazelle
2. The Imitation Game; written by Graham Moore
3. Inherent Vice; written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
4. The Theory of Everything; written by Anthony McCutchen
5. American Sniper; written by Jason Hall


1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); written by Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo
2. Nightcrawler; written by Dan Gilroy
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel; screenplay by Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness
4. Boyhood; written by Richard Linklater
5. Foxcatcher; written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

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