Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oscars Preview - Part Two!

Today, we continue our Oscars preview with a discussion of the races for best adapted and original screenplays.  To put it simply, there can be no film without committing to an idea and crafting words on paper.  In this way, the writing awards are arguably the most important of all awards.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Nominees:
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawk for Before Midnight
Billy Ray for Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for Philomena
John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter for The Wolf of Wall Street

For Film Novices:
This award goes to the best script based on a previous work, which the Academy defines broadly as a previous written work (novel, biography, news article, etc.) or previously created characters or worlds.  Thus, sequels and spinoffs are included in this category.


Should Win: The Wolf of Wall Street
The impressive trick of Terence Winter’s script is that he is able to offer a scathing critique of Jordan Belfort’s hedonism by letting his protagonist attempt to impress and manipulate his audience.  It is a ballsy move, as it assumes an intelligent and thoughtful audience.  This, unfortunately, resulted in many accusing Winter and director Scorsese of defending Belfort themselves, but this was clearly not their intent, as Belfort’s defense of his life in the film as written is contradictory and dripping with chauvinistic egocentrism.  It shows us a man who apologizes for his past at the same time he boasts about it, and by exploring this hypocrisy, Winter shows us in nauseating fashion that Belfort’s pursuits are meaningless without having to tell us as much.  His reserve and respect for his audience should be rewarded.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Interesting character juxtaposition in 12 Years a Slave
Since this is the film with the best shot at winning best picture of the bunch, it will likely take home this award.  The other scripts represent films too small or too audacious to be recognized by Academy voters.  Yet, Ridley’s script is impressive, too.  It is a dutiful and skillful adaption of a classic American memoir, which manages to capture the spirit of Solomon Northup’s humble mourning while at the same time never overdramatizing his plight for melodramatic effect.  By deviating little from his story, Ridley pays homage to an important historical figure while at the same time capturing a dark part of American history that has almost universally been treated at arm’s length.  By having the wisdom to not try to do too much in his adaptation, Ridley’s screenplay is a daring exactly because it is reserved.

Weakest Nominee: Philomena
Some lovely banter in Philomena
This is a good screenplay.  Really, it is.  It just isn’t a great one.  The screenplay’s strength is in the dialogue between its two leads, and while I respect Coogan’s comic influence in this respect, this is not enough to make up for its occasionally over-convenient plotting and trite emotional high-points.  There is nothing wrong with this kind of tear-jerker; it is just that it doesn’t do anything new or particularly intriguing.  While the film is certainly engaging and enjoyable, it is quickly forgotten and lacks the depth of its fellow nominees.

Best Non-Nominee: Short Term 12
The rules of the Academy for adapted works means that this script, which is an expansion of a previous short by director Destin Cretton would fall into this category.  Not only is this film insightful, funny, touching, and bold, but it manages to create believable portraits of its countless young characters despite them being in life situations that are regularly exploited for melodramatic effect.  This careful attention and concern for his entire setting, both in its tragedy and beauty, is refreshing, and there is sincerity and earnestness in Cretton’s writing that is inviting and convincing.


Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
I’m torn in this category.  There are three films here that I would be ecstatic to see win: 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Before Midnight.  Like you previously stated, Terence Winter pulls an impressive trick on the audience, and writes a screenplay that is both a three hour show of what many people would think was the perfect lifestyle, and a scathing critique of that lifestyle and its protagonist. And then there’s Before Midnight.  Writer/Director Richard Linklater also shows us some guts here, as his protagonists in the previous films of the series were full of idealism about love and life together.  He turns the idealism on its head in the third and most mature chapter of the story, showing how love can turn sour, and how the minutiae of everyday life can wear on a relationship.  But ultimately what should and…

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
John Ridley manages to adapt this classic autobiography and writes a screenplay that is reserved even as it is epic.  It could have turned into a sappy, pleading story and likely would have in the hands of many other screenwriters and directors, but Ridley has the sense to turn this story into an unblinking look at this sordid chapter in American history.  In addition, he manages to clearly sketch out the character of this remarkable man at the center of the story.  It’s a beautiful, audacious, script and it deserves this win.

Weakest Nominee: Philomena
I’m just going to say ditto.  I think it’s actually a really good script, managing to be humorous and not too heavy handed, when it could have easily turned into pure melodrama.  But this is a category filled with heavy hitters, and it just isn’t GREAT.

Best Non-Nominee: Short Term 12
Chelsea's favorite scene of Short Term 12
Thank you for recognizing my second favorite film of the year in this category!  (Seriously, see this film, it’s phenomenal).  Once again, this is a subject that could have easily lead to a script filled with pandering melodrama, engineered for maximum tears.  And because it wasn’t, it was a film that actually led to real tears from me.  The dialogue in this film is achingly and brutally honest, and although the plot could distract, the day to day of this story is beautifully realized.

Best Original Screenplay

The Nominees:
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle
Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack for Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze for Her
Bob Nelson for Nebraska

For Film Novices: This award goes to the best script that is a unique creation, neither inspired by nor adapted from a previous work.

Should Win: Her
Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams in Her
It is incredible to me that this is Jonze’s first feature script.  Its content is not only prophetic and insightful, but it is as assured as anything I have ever seen.  Many writers who offer warnings of cultural and technological trends through science fiction do so in a ham-fisted fashion, but Jonze’s script seems to have a deep respect for its characters and their deepest desires above any greater message, and his film is all the more powerful for it.  Never do you feel as if Jonze is judging his human subjects, but at the same time, his indictment and lament of their hopeless grasping for meaning is clear and deeply convicting.

Will Win: American Hustle
Jennifer Lawrence does her thing in American Hustle.
While I would not be surprised to see Her take home this award, it will likely be given to David O. Russell, a director who has seen a lot of love from the Academy in recent years.  I do not see Russell taking home the prize for best director, and that means many times that voters will vote in consolation for a writing award…

Weakest Nominee: American Hustle
… Which is too bad, because the screenplay for Hustle is the least meaningful of the bunch.  It is certainly well crafted and fun, but the film is an expert riff on the gangster genre rather than being anything truly original.  While I respect the writing for its tightly twisting plot and amusing characters, it just doesn’t add up to much in the end.

Best Non-Nominee: Inside Llewyn Davis
Oscar Issac sings a fantastic song in Inside Llewyn Davis.
The Coen brothers are the most consistent and meticulous writers working today, and Inside Llewyn Davis represents possibly their most mature work to date.  I simply adore this film – it respects its audience and offers an involving character portrait that I found deeply affecting.  There are so many moments that I found myself floored because of what the Coens didn’t do – despite creating a desire for resolution and reconciliation, they never once give into the impulse to offer convenient answers or turns in their story.  In doing, they leave viewers with an abundance to contemplate and communicate more about their subject than they would ever do with overt statements.  It is easy to tell someone about the effects of grief, but this film captures its powerfully melancholy grip and invites you to feel its paralyzing uncertainty.


Should Win: Her
Like David, I couldn’t even grasp that this was Jonze’s first screenplay. (He has twice directed Kaufman scripts, which are also fantastic, of course).  If I was surprised by anything else, it was how deeply felt this film is.  It’s an extremely emotional screenplay, with perfect dialogue and beautifully written characters with real honest depth of feeling.  I also want to take this space though and point out the fantastic, poignant, and quirky work that Alexander Payne turned in here for Nebraska.  Another beautiful screenplay, this often sad, sometimes bleak, but ultimately lovely look at the lives of a senile old Midwestern man and his lost son resonated with me because of it’s fantastic drawing of Midwestern family culture.  Great work.
Midwestern family in Nebraska

Will Win: Her
This is subject to change on my final prediction list on Oscar night.  I’m going to remain hopeful for this one and choose Her, as it’s won a few precursors and seems to have a pretty decent shot – the Academy may very well choose to give this award to this film as its token.  American Hustle is its biggest competition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won, just disappointed, because like you said it’s the…

Weakest Nominee: American Hustle
It’s tightly woven and expertly plotted, but the problem is it is shallow and seems to lack any real stakes excepting the scenes with Robert De Niro.  I should also like to point out that Dallas Buyers Club is a weak nominee in this field.  The script is good yes, but the film is made by its committed performances, not the film making itself, and the script occasionally gets a bit on the ham-fisted side.

Best Non-Nominee: Upstream Color
It makes (some) sense, promise!
Inside Llewyn Davis is the typical glorious Coen script, but I’m going to go with the tightly woven Upstream Color.  Writer/director Shane Carruth (Primer) builds a looping mystery that rewards multiple viewings, while managing to have a film that is ultimately about identity and loss.  It’s twisty and perplexing, but that it makes sense in the end is absolutely mind-blowing for a film about pigs and psychedelic worms.

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