What makes a good screenplay? Ask a variety of people and you will likely get varying answers back. Original screenplays don’t do as well as adapted screenplays because their stories aren’t yet tested. Adaptations can go woefully wrong but if the source material has been approved the chances of the thing being good are vastly improved. Also a good indicator of a potentially great screenplay is a director who draws from his or her own source material. If you know the director you are mostly going to know the work. And then there are the shots in the dark – good scripts that find their way to a director in hopes that they’ll make magic happen. My comrade Ryan believes that no good movie can be made from a bad script but I disagree. I think bad screenplays can make good movies and that good screenplays can make bad movies. It all depends on the director’s level of skill and a good amount of timing and luck. Some movies hit at exactly the right time, thus their meaning is deeper than it would be caught out of time. Something that resonates today might not resonate in five years. And something that seem obscure and irrelevant could seem like the best thing ever written in five years time.
This year, there are some great scripts and there are some terrible scripts. What we look for in our Oscar watching are those that most of the voters will think are good. The writers dictate the screenplays.
Screenplays get in for two reasons. 1) the writing is so very good it cannot be ignored, 2) the best picture is such a formidable contender it hits almost every category because it can’t be ignored. And 3) it’s a consolation for a film everyone liked but a film that wouldn’t otherwise make the Best Picture cut, or a film they want to honor that has no other shot in any other category. No, films don’t get nominated by committee but it somehow turns out that way. Frozen River last year is a good example of that. Too small for Best Pic but screenplay they can manage, even if the screenplay wasn’t that deserving (maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t).
In looking back at the days when the Oscars did have 10 nominees, it was more often than not that the screenplays nominated matched many of the Best Picture contenders. With ten films represented, it would seem logical that many of those scripts would also be represented.
This year, there are a good many original scripts that stand out as the best of the year. The first one that comes to mind for me is A Serious Man. The Coens are, hands down, the smartest writers working in film today. There isn’t a shred of doubt in my mind about that. Burn After Reading was put forward as an Oscar contender last year but it wasn’t fully appreciated, I don’t think, by awards bloggers or critics. I’ve now seen the film probably ten times and I can say that its screenplay was one of the best written of the year. It is so layered, so complex, so funny but unfortunately it couldn’t be understood in one go.
A Serious Man is similar in that you know you are dealing with layered material. It is obscure but every line has meaning. It is fat free, this writing, and it is darker than the Coens’ usual fare, even darker than Fargo. Still, there is a remoteness to it that might prevent it from winning here. I have a feeling that, with ten Best Pic nominees, screenplay is where we are going to feel the tug of a split vote. Therefore, I don’t see A Serious Man winning here, but since we’re pointing out great writing, we have to start here.
The Hurt Locker – our original screenplay frontrunner is the best script of the year, and some might think that there wasn’t enough dialogue to qualify. Any good writer knows that where films and novels are concerned, dialogue is only part of good writing. What happens to the characters when they’re not talking is good writing. All three of the main characters in The Hurt Locker suffer a moment that changes their way of viewing themselves and the world we’re living in. When Jeremy Renner’s character develops a bond with an Iraqi boy, believes him to be dead, and must remove the bomb from the kids’ innards is unforgettable. He then seeks out to avenge the boy not realizing that the boy wasn’t the one who died. At that moment, his character shifts.
For Anthony Mackie the pivotal scene involving the man who wants the bomb to removed from his chest, “I have a family, I don’t want to die.” After that scene, Mackie realizes that he wants out, and he wants to be back home with his girlfriend. He finally decides he’s ready to be a father. Poor Brian Geraghty, his one relationship with the doctor is shattered when an IED from out of nowhere decimates the doctor and with him any hope Geraghty’s character had of remaining mentally stable. In so many ways, The Hurt Locker is flawless in its writing. What I most love is the complexity of the characters, but especially Jeremy Renner’s. We see him playing tough, taking risks, taking hits to the gut – but we also see him crying in the shower, tormented about having to remove explosives from the inside of a dead kid. It is powerful stuff, and much of it is to do with Mark Boal.
If the awards decide to split up and one film doesn’t take all of the main slots – a scenario that might make sense would be Avatar for Pic, Bigelow for Director, Boal for Screenplay and Reitman for Adapted Screenplay. That only leaves out Inglourious Basterds, which should or might take Best Supporting Actor. It would be funny if Tarantino won Best Director but I really feel like it’s Bigelow’s to lose at this point. Precious will get the Mo’Nique win.
Inglourious Basterds — what an odd film this is, what an entertaining film it is. It is wholly Tarantino. He wrote the script first and then realized his own vision with the help of some great actors. What is intriguing about Basterds is its playful dance with film history, specifically World War II Nazi-obsessed film history. I was fascinated to find out that when they first screened Gone with the Wind they did so at a theater in the valley. The audience thought they were going to see a different movie but an announcement came on screen that instead, they would be seeing a surprise. They then locked the doors and showed them Gone with the Wind. What strikes me about this is that they locked the doors at a time when no one really worried about fire danger. Tarantino plays with this idea.¬† I can’t pretend to completely understand the film – like much of Tarantino’s stuff he doesn’t dumb it down for the crowds, thus, I believe, it is open to interpretation. The film is robust so far in the Oscar race and has yet to suffer a major setback.¬† It seems like an easy to call to think of this film as a frontrunner, or at least a strong contender, for an original screenplay nomination. Can it win? It’s possible, but it has to dethrone Hurt Locker.
The Messenger – there probably wasn’t a more difficult, but richly drawn character piece than this one. Each different person we encounter in the film has a story and a backstory, flaws and graces. Oren Moverman showed what he could do when he co-wrote I’m Not There with Todd Haynes but The Messenger, which he co-wrote with Alessandro Camon, is about those powerful words that have to be delivered to families who have lost their loved ones in the war. It is writing that will tear you to shreds, and it’s an actor’s dream.
Bright Star – Jane Campion is one of the few women who not only writes her own stuff, does it in a unique way, but also navigates her own vision. She is creating a canon of work that evaluates her own evolution as a woman and as an artist. She isn’t one who must subvert her own identity in order to play with the big boys and we are seeing the result of that: this is a man’s world and a boy’s world. Films have been catering to the fanboy class for so many years, catering to the target demo of 12 year-old boys there is hardly room for any woman let alone one as uncompromising as Jane Campion. This is both for “artsy” films as well as mainstream ones.
So everyone wants to know why Bright Star never went anywhere. The reason is that it didn’t pay off for women romantically – the two characters barely kiss. So it isn’t a bodice-ripper that we women can sink into and live out our Keats fantasies. It is far more ambiguous than that.¬† There appears to even be a question as to Keats’ sexuality at all. The film has an obtuse ending, not a satisfying one. It is fairly dark and depressing ultimately, in keeping with Mr. Keats’ writing. Campion was truthful to herself and her source but that probably meant less people connected with it. It is a film that will likely be studied and analyzed for years to come. In terms of the Oscar race, with the Coens, Tarantino and Campion, there is a sense of the “been there, done that” scenario. A great leap forwards is needed (like No Country) in order to break through that stigma. Campion is not done. I hope we’ll be seeing more work from her in the future.
500 Days of Summer – in terms of pure giddy delight and originality, this could be the Annie Hall of this generation. Since Woody Allen writes smarter overall than most it was easier to see how Annie Hall was a cinematic revolution; nonetheless, most young ones can’t relate to Annie Hall, and so they might bond, instead, with 500 Days. ¬† It is insightful on the subject of first love. The dialogue is original, unconventional, outside the box, and funny. The film also has Fox Searchlight behind it, which is as good as gold in the Oscar race.
Avatar – I’m not going to lie, I thought this was a great story well told. Original? No, not really. Dances With Wolves won the Oscar for being an adaptation and back then no one thought IT was particularly original. Writing isn’t just dialogue — both Invictus and Avatar have awkward dialogue throughout – but writing is story. It is setting. It is tension, suspense and climax. A good writer can hold an audience and make the audience care what happens to the characters. So a few people say the story didn’t work. Well, maybe for them it didn’t. But for many of us it did. Not just the plot, which could be argued as unoriginal or whatever, but the whole thing, written completely from Cameron’s head – it is his singular vision. Surely that counts as original writing nonetheless.
Up – No other production company can tell stories as beautifully as the folks at Pixar on such a consistent basis. Pixar is now a brand and that brand means that they treat their animated films like features and they never shortchange their audience in the story department. It is a tribute to their greatness that every film they’ve ever put out figures into the screenwriting category somehow. Up in a beautifully told, unforgettable story about unfulfilled hopes and dreams, about true love, and about packing it all in and going for broke.¬† Bob Peterson and Pete Docter had nice symmetry making it a sentimental story on the one hand, and a silly comedy on the other. Up is easily, as we come to a close, one of the year’s standouts.
It’s Complicated – I give Nancy Myers props for being one of the few in the romantic comedy genre to have her own ouvre. Moreover, she will have written one of the year’s other big hits. If Julie & Julia is to be considered for adapted, It’s Complicated should be considered for original. Not saying it’s the most original or best written script of the year, mind you, but that it is on the level of Julie & Julia. And it is one of the few original scripts written by women.
Here are a few other original screenplay contenders that have a good shot at being remembered:
Away We Go