In a town where there are more screenwriters than there are people you’d expect that more original screenplays would get produced. It hardly ever happens and when it does, it only sometimes turns out well for all involved. Not every great director can write, and even fewer great writers can direct. Some can do both. Most can’t. This year’s best original screenplays are almost all the work of writer/directors, with a few collaborations in there too.
Two of the best adapted screenplays this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Argo are mostly original works that must be called adapted because them’s the rules. Argo was based on a magazine article but all of the flourishes and style come from Chris Terrio. Beasts was based on Luci Alibar’s play but since it’s so far removed from anything we can imagine on stage the film feels as original as you can get.
Winning Best Picture from an original screenplay when the director is also the writer is extremely rare. It happened recently with The Artist, and before that, with Crash, which was co-written by Paul Haggis. But ordinarily, Best Picture comes either from an adapted work or from a collaborative effort when the writer and director are two different people.
We’ve covered the strongest contenders for adapted, now let’s take a look at Original Screenplay standouts from 2012.
Mark Boal’s screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty. Telling the true story of a classified op landed Bigelow and Boal right in the middle of a partisan battle, but beyond that, how do you tell this story and have it not be “just another Hurt Locker”? By taking the story into Maya (Jessica Chastain’s) internal world, Boal was able to make better sense of the mission not yet accomplished when The Hurt Locker ended. The first film was about characters who had no control over what was happening to them and no power to win a war that couldn’t be won. Their efforts were subverted at every turn and death took them out at random. It was that calling, that hollow fear that Boal’s script for Zero Dark Thirty answers. Maya’s relentless hunt for the terrorist who ordered the hijacked planes that led to two wars that ultimately killed over 6,000 American soldiers seems to answer what ails us. We should be satisfied when they finally carry out the raid in what she calls “100% certainty” that they have the right guy. But Zero Dark Thirty wouldn’t be a great screenplay if that was how it ended.
And it wouldn’t be a great screenplay if Boal “took a stance” on torture other than to honestly portray how those inside CIA and our military view the issue. It wouldn’t be a great screenplay if it celebrated our booyah victory against terrorism. It is a great screenplay because it doesn’t do any of those things, it flips the question back on us where it belongs. This is something we as a nation have to decide how to reckon with. Beyond that, Zero Dark Thirty is also tensely paced, even funny in places. Like The Hurt Locker, Boal has written wildly original and interesting characters that only a smart, intuitive director like Bigelow could realize on the big screen. Zero Dark Thirty is the favorite to win in the original category and it might do just that.
Django Unchained. Ever imaginative, Tarantino has been exploring genres of cinema for decades now and each time he almost reinvents the wheel. It isn’t that Django Unchained is what people like to call “top tier Tarantino,” in a sense that doesn’t matter at all, does it? Tarantino is the kind of writer Martin Scorsese would be if he was a writer. There is a scene in Django Unchained where white racists are gathering as a Klan-like mob (the Klan was officially formed after slavery ended) and the topic at hand happens to be how uncomfortable the bags over their heads are. It’s such a funny scene, something that would only pop up in a Tarantino movie. Django Unchained feels like a movie within a movie because it references so many famous spaghetti westerns and movies about slavery. It upends them by making fun of them. While it’s true that this probably isn’t going to be Tarantino’s Oscar-winning screenplay, it’s hard to think about the original writing in film and not think about this imaginative piece.
Middle of Nowhere. Writer/director Ava DuVernay’s film is about the main character Ruby evolving to make smarter decisions about her life, but it also about the uncelebrated lives of uncelebrated women beyond their relationship to men. It’s one of the only movies this year or any other that acknowledges women can be both learners and teachers, mothers and professionals — that they aren’t required to be just one thing to be made more palatable for the target demo. Populated by rich, original characters, DuVernay’s screenplay is unexpectedly moving, partly because you really have no idea where it’s headed. Her characters are surprising because her writing is surprising. In Hollywood they will tell you that as a woman you can’t really get work after 40. They will tell you that films about black characters don’t make money, unless they specifically target a certain kind of African American audience — either the romcom or the action/comedy genres. They’ll tell you that you have to have a leading male, rather than female, and they’ll tell you that to sell a movie you need stars. Somehow writer/director Ava DuVernay decided not to listen. She made a movie anyway and she made it her way, one that defied the usual conventions about the kinds of story she is supposed to tell. She made a movie that crosses gender and ethnic identity.
The Master. Like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson is one of Los Angeles’ native sons, someone who grew up absorbed in the language of film. To that end, both of them take their references more from film than from real life, thus their films tend to dwell more in the abstract rather than the literal. Where Django is wildly entertaining (albeit almost unbearably violent), The Master is wildly obtuse. It never comes right out and says anything and yet it maps out character development in such a way that you are the one, inevitably, who must dig for deeper meaning. Where Tarantino is most gifted with shots and dialogue, Anderson is more gifted with clever roadmaps that lead to a more universal theme. The Master is about finding something to guide you in life and how that something doesn’t have to be a faux god, but can be vitality itself, life, love, sex.
Amour. Michael Haneke’s Amour says so much about how we love, what defines devotion and what it means to simply be living versus what it means to be alive. In the universe of these two married people, they are each other’s whole world. This, to the exclusion, perhaps, of their daughter. This, perhaps, to the exclusion of whatever else there is in life. But they have each other to talk to and that is all they require, so great is their relationship. As one starts to deteriorate, the other doesn’t waver, simply does what needs to be done. But after a while, quality of life vanishes. Amour is a truthful, beautiful, painful look at what true love really means and romance has very little to do with it.
Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s clever escapist dream about an adolescent love story is one of his best scripts and one of his best films. It’s about that imaginary place in our deepest memories, a diorama of a time and place most of us can’t get back. The first kiss, the first love, the imaginary pathway to happily ever after. But it isn’t roses and sunshine, it’s subversive too, and even a little bit scandalous. Moonrise Kingdom should end up being a Best Picture nominee but if not, at the very least, Anderson and Coppola should be acknowledged for screenplay.
Looper. One of the most breathtaking moments in film in 2012 was the second half of Looper. You went in thinking you were seeing one movie, but half-way through you realize it’s something else entirely. Unusually respectful avoidance of spoilers has made Looper less talked-about than it should be. Indeed, it is one of the sci-fi/horror standouts of the last ten years. Looper is a mind-bender about time travel but it is also a movie about the ongoing debate, nature vs. nurture. Can a mother’s love change a person’s nature? What does our identity really mean to the bigger picture? Looper is Bladerunner’s punk little sister and will be remembered for years to come as one of the standouts this year.
Flight. John Gatins story about crashing a plane and crashing a life gave Denzel Washington and his castmates much to work with. The film is about sobriety, about taking responsibility for the mistakes in your life, owning up to them, and not running from them. Made endlessly watchable by Washington’s pivotal performance, and Zemeckis’ tightly woven direction, Flight depends on the metaphor that living is a lot like flying a plane — you can only lie to yourself for so long before your actions catch up with you and it doesn’t take much to send your life into a spiral.
Arbitrage. Nicholas Jarecki’s film about the kind of people who took full advantage of a crooked system before the Wall Street collapse and how they slimed their way out of consequences, earning bonuses all the while, lining up the 8-ball again exactly the same way once the dust settled. Arbitrage is about how the ruling class rewrites the rules and rigs the game so that they are always the winners. Arbitrage tests the Hitchcock theory about whether audiences are still with the protagonist even if they don’t morally approve of his actions. Turns out that, yes, we want Gere to get away with it even if we don’t agree with what he’s doing. It isn’t until the film ends that we realize how much we’ve been had by a clever character and a clever script.
Original Screenplay at the WGA will be different from Oscar because so many contenders aren’t eligible for the WGA.