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.

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If you care to watch.  There are a few notable writers who are glaringly missing from this.


More about the film after the cut — video from Sundance.

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If you want to change the world you have to have to strong shoulders. It would never be enough for Ava DuVernay to have made Middle of Nowhere, a film she funded by herself (for around $200,000). She also had to work with her distribution company to get that film into theaters.  That proved more difficult than she thought it would.  Turns out, the art house crowd is resistant to films about African Americans, made by African American filmmakers.  She mentioned this in her Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.  The multiplexes weren’t so resistant because — though we don’t like to admit it — our economy has continued to replenish a kind of forced segregation. This is true about most minorities, actually – films at the art house are for the white community. I found this really astonishing news. So Duvernay’s task was to change that. To nudge the door open a tiny bit by making a path for black audiences to go to the art house.

Isn’t that interesting? That’s perhaps why there is forced segregation in the Oscar race, and why so few black directors are taken seriously enough to be considered for the Oscars. If DuVernay is nominated for an original screenplay Oscar (she is not a WGA member so she won’t get a WGA nod) she will be the first female black auteur to do so.

I guess I never really connected the dots, to realize that art houses were so exclusionary – and not deliberately, of course. That’s just the way things go.  Imagine how much more money the smaller independents could make if they could learn how to bridge the gap between the hispanic, black, and asian communities? Instead, we rely on one small group of people from a certain type of community to fund these movies.

Perhaps DuVernay will make a difference.

Have a listen to that Fresh Air interview – it’s quite insightful, not just about the black film community of storytellers, but about how DuVernay grew up in a “family of women” and found her voice. She didn’t like the rules so she changed them. How about that.

Two clips from the film after the cut.

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Tavis Smiley is probably the most interesting talk show host, as far as I’m concerned. He’s one of the few who can seamlessly blend Hollywood and the politics of Hollywood. Most of them don’t even notice, let alone talk about it. In short: I love him. Anyway, you might be interested to hear what DuVernay has to say about raising and using her own money to make the film, becoming a filmmaker.

Tavis Smiley: “There is a formula in this town that you could have used to make this process a lot easier. There is a certain type of film where if you make it the studios will throw money at you that you didn’t ask for. They would give you deals beyond those movies to do TV shows – negroes will turn out in droves to see them. So there is a formula in this town that Tyler Perry and others have used that makes money, and it makes it a lot easier to get your projects made because white folk will throw money at you to get that kind of story told. That’s my statement, not yours. The question, then, for you to answer is why take the road less traveled, why engage a process that you know is going to be difficult to climb, that you know you’re not going to get money for…what drives somebody to beat their head against the wall when they know there is another way, there is another formula that you could have employed.”

Watch the video to see how DuVernay answers that:

Watch Filmmaker Ava DuVernay on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wonders whether audiences will come out to see Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere – I have no idea if they will. I’m guessing the target demo will not. But I’m hoping that anyone who wants to see a dreamy, haunting and altogether unforgettable film made for thinking adults will check this one out. Lots of really great movies hitting theaters soon, in rapid succession. A few of them should not slip through the cracks – Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom and now, Middle of Nowhere.


To say that “Middle of Nowhere,” winner of Sundance’s coveted directing award for writer-director Ava DuVernay, sheds long-overdue light on infrequently explored aspects of African American life is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

For the truth is that it is uncommon to see serious adult dramas this moving and accomplished, so attuned to real people and their complex, recognizable emotions, no matter the racial makeup of the characters involved.

So though it echoes the films of Charles Burnett, the plays of August Wilson and “A Raisin in the Sun,” at its heart “Middle of Nowhere” is old-school, character-driven narrative at its most quietly effective.

NY Times’ Manohla Dargis names Middle of Nowhere a Critic’s Pick:

A plaintive, slow-boiling, quietly soul-stirring drama about a woman coming into her own, “Middle of Nowhere” carries the imprimatur of Sundance, but without the dreary stereotypes or self-satisfied politics that can (at times unfairly) characterize its offerings. The journey is hard in Ms. DuVernay‘s movie, as well as politically freighted, but also more complex than it might initially seem.

If Ava DuVernay is nominated for an original screenplay Oscar for Middle of Nowhere — a slim possibility, if more people see it — she will be only the second black female screenwriter in 85 years of Oscar history to do so.  You have to yawn all the way back to 1972 to find the one and only co-writer of Lady Sings the Blues, Suzanne De Passe nominated alongside Terence McCloy and Chris Clark. DuVernay will be the first writer/director nominated as an individual.

The Oscars make  a difference because they represent the status quo, the power dynamic in Hollywood.  Kathryn Bigelow can win Best Director and Best Picture and it doesn’t really change things for women filmmakers. It’s still a white man’s game.   But by some miracle, Bigelow made what was the best reviewed film that year. It was thrilling that any woman could have achieved just that much. Maybe women aren’t getting major deals and maybe they aren’t really winning any awards but there is no getting around the idea that it happened. Bigelow happened. If I was a young filmmaker in film school looking at the Oscars I might think, you know, I can do that too.  Maybe I can’t make Avatar but I can sure as hell make The Hurt Locker. And you know, that’s not nothing.

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The Best Actor race is getting crowded this week, with Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs and now, Richard Gere in Arbitrage. The timely pic is a chilling illustration of the way powerful people use other people to get what they want out of life and usually win. The screenplay is flawless; no character gets the short shrift.  Every line crackles with Mamet-like intensity.  It will surely be among the best original screenplays this year.

The film feels particularly poignant now, with an election that is positioning the rich against the middle class. In Arbitrage, integrity — laid squarely on the antihero (Richard Gere) — is conquered by the better game. Because the script is played out like a chess game, every move is deliberate.  I love movies like this because I know that a couple more viewings will reveal patterns I missed the first time.

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True Blood star Anna Paquin talks about her role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret

Anna Paquin burst onto the movie scene in 1993 at age 11 when she won an Oscar for her performance in Jane Campion’s The Piano. Her filmmography since then has encompassed everything from indies to blockbusters and has featured films from a long list of great directors including Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Noah Baumbach, Cameron Crowe, Franco Zefferelli and Gus Van Sant. She’s also been busy on stage and on television, most recently as Sookie Stackhouse on HBO’s hit series True Blood. Paquin completed shooting on Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret back in 2005, but the film reportedly got stuck in the editing room with the director unable to trim the film to an agreeable length for the studio and the studio unwilling to continue funding a film that might not ever get released.

Luckily, hope was not abandoned, a cut satisfactory to all parties was finally achieved and Margaret was released in the Fall of 2011. Somewhat lost in all the controversy surrounding the film’s journey to the big screen is what a terrific piece of work it is. There are a couple of wonderful supporting performances from Jeannie Berlin and J. Smith-Cameron and a remarkable star turn by Paquin who really shines. Her character Lisa is a somewhat privileged New York 17-year-old who is precociously intelligent but not at all emotionally equipped to cope with a very adult tragedy she finds herself wrapped up in. Paquin tears into Lonergan’s finely drawn, full-blooded character with the fearlessness you’d hope for from an actress who has been working at her craft for the better part of two decades.

Paquin recently took a few minutes out of her busy schedule shooting the 5th season of True Blood to talk to Awards Daily about Margaret.

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We have a master list of 265 screenplays eligible for Oscar consideration.  We need to separate the Adapted from the Originals so that Rob can finish constructing the simulated Oscar ballot .  It’s a monster project, so can I enlist your help?  I’ve made a really rough stab at dividing them up, but I’m sure the two lists I’ve drafted are riddled with mistakes.  Please take a look after the cut and tell me what I’ve got wrong. Thanks!

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March is practically last year as far as the awards race is concerned and that’s a shame. Hollywood can’t release every good movie between September 1 and December 31 (though the studios seem to try harder to do just that every year) and inevitably excellent films get left out in the cold when it comes time for end of year recognition. That’s the risk faced by Tom McCarthy’s Win Win. Perhaps hoping to capitalize on the strong buzz it received at its Sundance premiere in January and to take advantage of a relatively quiet film release calendar, Fox Searchlight chose to begin Win Win’s limited release on March 18.

From a box office standpoint, that was probably a wise strategy. Win Win is a gentle film, couching its drama in plenty of humor while not forcing its relevance on the audience. Such a film risks getting buried in the onslaught of prestige pictures.

The thing is, Win Win is a story of ordinary, decent-but-flawed people trying to get by as best they can in today’s world. It doesn’t need millionaires playing a children’s game to carry its message, or a handsome man of comfort and privilege who is a bad husband but happens to own a big chunk of prime Hawaiian beachfront. There’s no murder-mystery at the story’s heart, nor nostalgic wishful thinking for a world that no longer exists, but Win Win is deeper and darker than it appears to be on the surface. It is a ground level human story that plumbs a surprising moral gray area and is more penetrating than it’s been given credit for.

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"We Need to Talk About Kevin"

Kenneth Turan gives Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin a rave, pointing out how if Ramsay were a male director she would, arguably, be more celebrated. I would add to that if men gave birth to babies and raised them the film would be more “universal,” but since the gaze is decidedly male, giving birth certainly female this is a story that mothers in particular will feel the full force of…but pure artistry alone should have male critics also noticing Ramsay’s work — here is one who did:

Working from Lionel Shriver’s celebrated novel, Ramsay and her equally unflinching star, the mesmerizing Tilda Swinton, present a troubling, challenging examination of what Ramsay, speaking at Cannes, called “one of the last taboo subjects: You’re meant to instantly love your baby from the moment he’s born, but what if you don’t?” And what if that baby grows into someone terrifying?

If this were a just world, Ramsay’s name would be more celebrated than it is. Her extraordinary debut, 1999’s “Ratcatcher,” won her the British Academy of Film and Television Arts prize for best newcomer in British film, but because of five frustrating years spent in a fruitless attempt to film “The Lovely Bones,” “Kevin” is her first feature in nearly a decade.

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Jon Hamm profiles Kristen Wiig for GQ.

Kristen is incredibly shy; she has her hoodie pulled up and her sleeves pulled over her hands. But this is a woman who wore coconuts on her tits on SNL; she can go to the craziest, most grotesque places on the planet in character. Kristen came late to performing, and the way she rose through the ranks speaks both to her drive and to her wild talent. The first time I noticed her was watching the SNL sketch “Lady Business.” Kristen’s line was “I’m a bitch in the boardroom, a bore in the bedroom, and I’m a bear on the toilet,” which she delivered with over-the-top seriousness. I thought, “My God, this girl is funny.”

Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne on ‘Bridesmaids’ and the C-word, after the cut.

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Jon Hamm profiles Kristen Wiig for GQ.

Kristen is incredibly shy; she has her hoodie pulled up and her sleeves pulled over her hands. But this is a woman who wore coconuts on her tits on SNL; she can go to the craziest, most grotesque places on the planet in character. Kristen came late to performing, and the way she rose through the ranks speaks both to her drive and to her wild talent. The first time I noticed her was watching the SNL sketch “Lady Business.” Kristen’s line was “I’m a bitch in the boardroom, a bore in the bedroom, and I’m a bear on the toilet,” which she delivered with over-the-top seriousness. I thought, “My God, this girl is funny.”

Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne on ‘Bridesmaids’ and the C-word, after the cut.

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(thanks to twitter pal Glenn Dunks @stalepopcornau for the ‘stinkface’ headline)

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Sasha already mentioned this last week, but well worth repeating the heads up for anyone who forgot or might have missed it. Sunday and Monday, November 20-21, the American Masters series broadcasts its 2-part profile of Woody Allen. Promo preview after the cut, along with a clip from Vulture of Woody raiding his bedside “Idea Drawer.”

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Last year Roadside Attractions brought us Winter’s Bone and Biutiful. This year they’re handling distribution for Albert Nobbs, Project Nim, and this weekend deliver the biggest under-the-radar surprise of the month. Margin Call opened in limited release just a few days after being nominated for Best Ensemble by the Gotham Awards. Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Aasif Mandvi. It’s showing in 56 theaters. Trust me, it’s worth driving quite a distance to find one of those theaters. The New Yorker’s David Denby says it’s “easily the best Wall Street movie ever made.”

In “Margin Call,” the executives working late at an imperiled investment firm in Manhattan stand in an office tower and stare at the lights and the streets below, wondering if the great city isn’t a dream. The movie is a fictionalized account of a disastrous twenty-four hours in 2008, when “financial instruments” that had seemed solid dissolved into air. The rush of panic is halted, now and then, by moments of disbelief. Earlier in the movie, two of the company’s young analysts, sitting in the back of a Lincoln Town Car, look out at the people walking by and marvel at how little they comprehend of what is about to hit them. As visual and verbal rhetoric, the awe-inspiring appearance of Manhattan at night and the moods of choking anxiety aren’t terribly fresh, but the writing and the acting in “Margin Call” are so good that we get completely caught up.

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Probably the only television exposure more prestigious than a 60-minutes segment in peak Oscar season, a profile on PBS American Masters is a rare honor reserved for national treasures. All the more rare when it spotlights a subject as chronically shy and elusive as Woody Allen.

Allen has agreed to finally open up about his life and career for a two-part PBS “American Masters” documentary tentatively titled “Seriously Funny — The Comic Art of Woody Allen” which will debut Nov. 20 and 21. The documentary will feature vintage clips of Allen performing stand-up on variety shows in the 1960s, show him visiting his old New York neighborhood and showcase clips from several of his landmark movies, including “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Match Point.”

The special also comes as the 75-year-old filmmaker is enjoying his greatest recent success with “Midnight in Paris.”

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@CineVue and @Raindance tweet links to a great resource at raindance.org where you can read and download 8 scripts by Christopher Nolan — Following, Memento, The Prestige, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception and The Keys to the Street (unproduced).   Production notes and screenplay analysis on selected titles are also available.

The site hosts pages where you can find suites of scripts by Tim Burton and The Coen Brothers, too.  But you’ll have to pay for a premium membership,  £50 a year.  Links after the cut.

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Since much of a best screenplay nomination hangs on the past pedigrees of the writers, directors and cast, it’s never too soon to begin groping in the dark to wonder which films might emerge as this year’s frontrunners for best screenplay. A message from phantom this weekend suggested it might be fun to venture some blind predictions. At this stage we can already begin to see important puzzle pieces fall into place, yet it’s early enough in the process so that we can later claim plausible deniability if some of our premature expectations are horribly off-base. I’ll kick things off by naming 21 titles in each category — Original and Adapted — roughly arranged according to idle speculation and wishful thinking. You’ll let me know what I’m leaving out, which scripts you expect to shine brightest, and which ones are pipe-dreams.

Best Original Screenplay

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick
Win Win, Thomas McCarthy & Joe Tibani
Meek’s Cutoff, Jonathan Raymond
Rampart, James Ellroy & Oren Moverman
Iron Lady, Abi Morgan & Michael Hirst
Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley
Shame, Abi Morgan & Steve McQueen

Alternates and Best Adapted, after the cut.

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