07 February 2014

A Closer Look at the 2014 Academy Award Screenwriting Nominees

The Academy Awards Ceremony is less than a month away now, so every week leading up to that we're conducting a more in-depth analysis of some of the categories. Not the crappy Sound Mixing ones, folks, just the important awards. C'mon - name the last five winners of Sound Mixing and then the last five for Best Actor. Today we talk about writing, the core, first ideas that made any great film. For the Academy Awards, this comes in Original and Adapted categories.

Best Original Screenplay

Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen

Two years ago Allen nabbed this award for Midnight in Paris (2011), becoming the most nominated screenwriter in history, along with the oldest winner. With two additional awards in this category underneath his belt, it's tough to completely rule him out, but Blue Jasmine hasn't had as much non-Cate Blanchett-related buzz as some of his other works. He was also a non-presence at the Golden Globes despite being honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award. It's as if Woody doesn't even care if Woody wins this. There's almost no chance this happens.

Nebraska: Bob Nelson

Director, Alexander Payne has a pair of awards for the Adapted Screenplay Category for Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), but Bob Nelson isn't known for much else. There is a lot of kindly "aw shucks" goodwill towards this odd film, but it doesn't really have momentum in this category.

Dallas Buyers Club: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack

Here is another film where the acting tends to overshadow the writing. Both McConaughey and Leto are virtual locks at both their acting categories for good reason, but the writing isn't elevated tremendously above the typical biography-as-conduit-to-examining-social-issues trope.

American Hustle: David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer

Here is where we really start to dig into some competition. I originally picked American Hustle as the winner here as a consolation for its Best Picture loss to either 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Gravity (2013), but it hasn't quite racked up the amount of  precursor awards to really justify even that prediction any more. Will the Academy turn around to the ultimate hollowness of the Hustle experience? Or are they taken in by the flash? Is that the whole point? Did Russell hustle with Hustle? We'll find out.

Predicted Winner: Her: Spike Jonze
So it's about a man in love with his phone?
Why does anyone think this movie is far-fetched?

After winning both the Golden Globe and the WGA top award, Her seems really to rock on March 2nd. More and more this film is getting over its seemingly absurd premise and people are starting to think that it's more prescient of our times rather than an egregiously goofy premise. Plus, Spike Jonze does deserve an Oscar for a career made from weird roles in movies from Three Kings (1999) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), fun in old age makeup in Jackass movies, and some great directorial efforts in underrated flicks from Being John Malkovich (1999) to Where the Wild Things Are (2009).

Best Adapted Screenplay

Philomena: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope

The rise of Philomena, or Philomania, as the trend is called, would be a pretty hearty upset. There's an interesting story here about Judy Dench trying to find her son and the wacky adventures she gets into with Steve Coogan, but no one's really expecting much out of this small-scope tale. And please don't go see this movie because I said it was a wacky Steve Coogan adventure. IT is not.

Before Midnight: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater

There is this contingent of fans who love these movies, including Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Will this be the indie equivalent to Return of the King (2003), that nabs what would basically be an honorary Oscar for the good work done on behalf of the entire trilogy? Methinks not, although the stretched out dialogue scenes that form most of this film do deserve some hefty praise for their authenticity and natural feel - and the flick has racked up a handful of critics' circle awards for its writing already. A hearty upset could be brewing here.

Captain Phillips: Billy Ray

I keep getting stuck wanting to add a "Cyrus" to the end of that name, but there is a strong amount of goodwill towards this Somalian Pirates Tom Hanks vehicle. Even if I can't get "Somalian Pirates We" out of my head every time I think of it. Anyway, Captain Phillips is a decent movie, but not really a great one, and its praise has been more focused on its acting and direction anyway.

The Wolf of Wall Street: Terence Winter

There really wasn't a snappier film this year, and both Terence and Marty deserve a lot of credit for creating a three-hour film that doesn't drag for a single scene. It's a whizzing yarn that toys with its narrator, fourth wall, and offers a rich intertexuality with its audience and inspirations ranging from Wall Street (1987) to Goodfellas (1990). But yeah, it's also far too divisive and insane to lock this one down.

Predicted Winner: 12 Years a Slave: John Ridley
Also known as "Chiwetel Ejiofor Looks Sad for Two Hours"

For most of the night, 12 Years a Slave's main competition ought to be American Hustle and Gravity, neither of which are represented here. In addition to that simple math, 12 Years offered us one of the best screenplays of the year; an authentic adaptation of Solomon Northrup's original 1853 tale of his horrifying experience. As a film, the writing lets the characters grow and change on their own (often fending off or descending into hopelessness) while trimming any scene that is unnecessary, offering a brisk pace (despite McQueen's lingering camera) that contributes to the emotionally raw experience. This all feeds into the whole point of the movie, which showcases the brutality of the peculiar institution. It's the kind of wholesale coherence in theme, tone, and objective that makes a great film, even if you're not queuing it up on Netflix to relax on a snow day a few years from now.

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