2010 can only be called the Year of the Director where the Oscar race is concerned. I wouldn’t presume to say anything deeper than that. Sometimes talking about the Oscar race feels like other contests that are judged superficially – political campaigns and horse races. In truth, we are talking about subjectivity. We are talking about art. We are talking about those things because good ideas still drive great movies. But we must also confront what drives Hollywood — money and power. The Oscar race is, therefore, squarely in the middle of those two dynamics; it has never been art for art’s sake.
“He’s nobody. He’s the author,” says Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love. And that’s mostly true. But the Oscar race lifts up a few names in celebration, which can completely alter a career. You have to admit that having an Oscar for writing a screenplay would be a spectacular thing, particularly if you didn’t ever see that in the plan – someone like Diablo Cody, or even last year’s Geoffrey Fletcher, who beat Jason Reitman to become the first ever black screenplay winner in their 83-year history. Way to go, Academy. You might all call foul and say it shouldn’t matter what color of skin they have. And you would be mostly right except for one thing: it DOES matter, Blanche. It DOES.
Diversity in the screenplay race this year is not quite as evident as it was last year. There are probably more women writers presenting work this year that will be up for awards consideration. As usual, the adaptation race is where the heat is on. Only one original screenplay is heavy in the race, and that’s The King’s Speech, by David Seidler, whose credits mostly come from television. Right now, in the dawn of 2010’s Oscar race proper, it holds the first place spot. But it is going to inevitably feel some heat from Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
Inception is one of the true anomalies of the year: an original screenplay backed by Big Studio, by all rights uncompromised and unique – praised by the critics and successful at the box office. Moreover, The Dark Knight‘s snub is one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, they expanded the Best Picture race to ten from five. Finally, Nolan’s Oscar story doesn’t stop there. Those of us who remember Memento will recall many believing a great injustice had been done when that film lost the Oscar. The main reason for this was that, so the theory went, was that Nolan was excluded from a WGA nod and thus, his trajectory was interrupted. Or it could have been that the Academy liked Gosford Park better as a film. They don’t tend to reward showy writing like Memento was, or else Charlie Kaufman would have won sooner than he did.
Sooner or later, though, they will have to confront the genius that is Christopher Nolan, whether it’s this year or another. Like Gosford Park versus Memento, The King’s Speech versus Inception will revive a similar dynamic: a film they love versus a celebrated, risk-taker. We know that Academy members vote with their hearts so The King’s Speech is the much safer choice here. I suspect with that film it is going to win many awards because the characters are so beloved. Remember how they threw awards at Slumdog Millionaire? Love is blind. It has no immediate limitations. It is only after the heat wears off and in the afterglow that logic kicks back in.
This is not to say that The King’s Speech isn’t better or worse than Inception. They are different worlds, these movies, and different approaches to filmmaking.
The other films that seem primed for an original screenplay nod right now would include Mike Leigh‘s out-of-the-park Another Year, Derek Cianfrance‘s decade-long marital drama, Blue Valentine, Lisa Chodolenko and Stuart Blumberg‘s groundbreaking The Kids Are All Right, Heyman, Heinz and McLaughlin for Black Swan, Bill Ivory for Made in Dagenham. Still kicking around would be Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere — Coppola, one of the few female auteurs working in film, is always someone to take seriously. The Fighter, which hasn’t yet been seen, is an original screenplay and one to hold a place for. I don’t think Jim Brooks’ How Do You Know will be in play, unfortunately.
The race feels right now like it’s down to three main choices: Inception, The King’s Speech and Black Swan. The King’s Speech will win if it wins Best Picture, most likely. But Inception is a serious threat, I would think. I just don’t think they’re ready for Black Swan yet. But we’ll see.
Finally, although it isn’t being seriously considered at this point, but props to Australian sensation David Mich√¥d for his writer/director debut with Animal Kingdom. It should be one of the original screenplay contenders this year. It just needs a bit more buzz.
The adapted race is, as usual, much more tense and competitive. This year the single-most talked about writer of the year, though, has been Aaron Sorkin. There doesn’t appear to be much debate. It’s still too soon to say he will win for sure but the chances are strong. Sorkin has not only never been nominated for an Oscar, but he has written, quite simply, the script of the year. Part of this is his trademark rapid-fire dialogue, but Sorkin did not become one of Hollywood’s best writers because he could write good dialogue. Having gone to hell and back has given him more depth, an ability to perhaps go deeper than he normally does. Gone is the usual Sorkin sap, which was mostly overkill in An American President and was occasionally tough to take on The West Wing. There is a little bit of what he does in The Social Network in A Few Good Men, but Sorkin is enjoying a career peak right now and there is a good chance he will be rewarded for that.
Of course, he is helped along by Fincher‘s precision. The two of them are like yeast and moisture – Sorkin has the stuff to make the bread rise. Fincher has the stuff to keep it from rising too high. Finally, Sorkin’s writing really takes flight with Jessie Eisenberg‘s delivery Eisenberg, too, elevates the material and adds yet more complexity. This is one of the many reasons for The Social Network’s flawlessness. All things work together like a well-oiled machine. You leave the theater with more than you came in with, and that is perhaps the highest compliment of all.
Giving The Social Network a tiny bit of raw heat is Simon Beaufoy‘s adaptation of 127 Hours. This is without question one of the best films of the year – harrowing, unforgettable. Not only is James Franco off the charts crazy good, but the adaptation is streamlined to give the story more universality. Finally, Ralston himself could have some force in the race – a truly likable guy, Ralston is out there with one and a half arms still conquering the world.
Right behind that film is Toy Story 3 — Michael Arndt already won and double wins in the screenplay category do happen but they are extremely rare. This goes double for The Coens and True Grit. They’ve actually won twice now. So are they going to win a third time? Hm. Magic Eight Ball doesn’t like those odds. This is how much the Academy loves them the Coens, though – these dudes have won Oscars in both the original and the adapted categories. How often does that happen?
Winter’s Bone is a potential dark horse in this category. Like True Grit, it is an adaptation of a well written novel. It also has the advantage of having been co-written by women. But more than that, it is just plain good. How to Train Your Dragon is a clever adaptation in that it isn’t much like the book at all. It is mostly an original screenplay, though it will have to be credited as adapted. It would be great to see it nominated. But there are other forces to be reckoned with.
Finally, the Fair Game screenplay might see some recognition because of the high profile source material – the combination of books by Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson coming together for an adaptation by Jez and John Henry Butterworth. Quite a bit of material was culled for this, and it seems on track for both a USC Scripter nomination and a Writers Guild nod.
The Way Back, Keith Clarke and Peter Weir‘s adaptation of The Long Walk, could be up for some awards consideration.¬† It’s also worth mentioning David Lindsay-Abaire who adapted his own script, Rabbit Hole. Ryan did some fast research to see if there was any match-up between the Pulitzer and Oscar, and there isn’t much. A few here and there. Broadway plays that are celebrated don’t always translate into Oscar-winning screenplays, like Glengarry Glen Ross, which was ignored (“You stupid f*cking c&nt”), though Doubt was nominated last year.
It’s also worth mentioning The Ghost Writer, even though it probably doesn’t have a chance, being Polanski’s bad year and all. Hopefully he’ll continue to turn out great work.
Some of the themes being chewed on this year include rural noir in both Winter’s Bone and True Grit. True stories with The King’s Speech, The Social Network, 127 Hours, The Fighter, The Way Back, Conviction. There is also a current of the visionary pulsing through the race with Nolan and Aronofsky, and a bit with Sorkin.
It is a director’s year, but even so, someone had to write those scripts. And they have to give out Oscars for two of them. The winners aren’t always the most deserving. Like every other category it comes down to timing, buzz and the thing with feathers.