OSCAR COUNTDOWN 2015: Original and Adapted Screenplay

I’m… exhausted. Oscar season’s in its last week and, once again, it’s weighing down on us more than we’d hoped. It’s remarkable how, a week from today, one of these categories’ winners will gravely alter our disposition for the rest of the week. Also tedious, but not without worth, the process of sizing up the nominees and predicting the winners. It’s a big reason I’ve paired them up with my dream ballots, mixing work with fun in ways that ought to be already intertwined. For one of these two categories, that sense of fun is gravely needed.

NightcrawlerBest Original Screenplay

The original screenplay category isn’t scrambling for quality, and there’s a nice dose of diversity that you can often rely on this category to provide. That the most homogenized work here is on Birdman, a visually distinct one-take sleight-of-hand trick, speaks to that, but it also speaks to how the spoken word isn’t one of the film’s best traits. With so many of the film’s effects being yielded by the senses, the words often come across as stumbling and artificial. Lines like Naomi Watts’ “We share a vagina,” are frustrating for multiple reasons, but they don’t efficiently convey or subvert the film and theater business’ continual lack of self-respect, that core dynamic of the film. The lickety-split pace may charm the Academy, but it’s a tough fight.

Another film featuring clearly artificial dialogue, though one that accomplishes it to unsettling effect, Nightcrawler‘s presence here is largely due to the still-absent performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. His lines come off with such detached chill as to at once evoke a sociopath and an overly driven co-worker, but he’s not the only one given a delicious character to chew on. The naivety of Riz Ahmed’s character and the grotesque desire of Rene Russo’s flesh out a disturbed world, though one that the film surrounding it struggles to convey in a wholly absorbing, world-destroying way. Its nod is its accomplishment.

So, too, is Foxcatcher‘s, though that’s not for even a slight lack of invention in the screenplay department. It’s clear enough that Foxcatcher isn’t the 100% accurate story of the John Du Pont story, and that’s where the film’s fangs sink in and start draining our blood. It’s clear this was an uncomfortable environment in real life, but the script crucially helps render the characters deceptive of each other and themselves, and even comically so in the process. It doesn’t escape E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman that there’s a dark comic quality to this odd set-up, and they manage to milk that without losing a suffocating sense of unease.

The Grand Budapest HotelSo when it comes to the win, who can we most trust will win? It’s tempting to say Boyhood, but by its very nature the screenplay was loose, if largely non-existent. There are some props due to the improvisational grace of this, and Linklater definitely had a clear vision of events that made this as effective an encapsulation of a life in breakneck motion. Still, I imagine the Academy will be hankering to award a more iron-clad case of screenwriting.

So it’s pretty hard to doubt Wes Anderson’s chances here. He’s made his way to this category twice before for the dense, lightly fictionalize worlds he’s created. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s positively invented his own world on top of our own, while not losing Europe’s historic sense of loss. It’s an enthusiastic, bustling work, certainly in terms of production, but also in its literary charm. The mix of sporadic deadpan and florid poetics do as much to build the world as the production elements… okay, that’s taking it a bit far, but the script’s contribution is essential, thriving, and I imagine it’ll be the obvious choice for many Academy members.

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should Win: Foxcatcher

Original ScreenplayDream Oscar Ballot

  • E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman, Foxcatcher
  • Phil Lord & Chris Miller, The LEGO Movie
  • Oleg Negic & Andrei Zvyagintsev, Leviathan
  • Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac
  • Gillian Robespierro, Obvious Child

Runners-Up: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Immigrant, Listen Up PhilipPride, Selma

Some of the year’s best screenplays are dense feats creation and allegory, none more so than Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which is at once bloated with ideas and impulses Trier couldn’t bare to part with, and yet totally dense by necessity, each moment building towards its distinct, twisted climax (heh). A shorter tablet of epic original literature on the screen, Leviathan also makes bleak statements about human nature and corruption, but wrought in biblical strokes. The lead of Foxcatcher may only believe himself a god over men, but the careful and random shifts in the relationships he has makes it such a haphazard stranglehold of a film. Which leaves… two films that aren’t strangling at all. I hesitated a year ago when I wondered if The LEGO Movie was technically adapted, but the story and spirit bursts with unconventional originality, even while wearing a predictable storyline as its skin. Obvious Child, in the meantime, is just so cleverly, openly written that its refusal of anger and cynicism is just refreshing from start to finish.

Inherent ViceBest Adapted Screenplay

Here’s where we struggle a bit. Significantly, in fact, as this category feels too attached to its Best Picture frontrunners to really make any exciting, outside the box decisions. I’ll save the most unusual decisions for later, but first let’s discuss those aforementioned Best Picture additions. The Imitation Game has been in the position of frontrunner at least once this season, even if it’s a drab, evasive depiction of Alan Turing’s life. Hell, who are we kidding? The most significant aspects of his life are brushed under the rug as secondary. The script prioritizes its status as a war drama more than it does depicting the encroachment of Turing’s freedoms. The film’s been on the downswing for much of the season, so any major wins would be surprises.

One compliment you can give to The Theory of Everything: it doesn’t forget whose life it’s focused on, though it perhaps should’ve been willing to budge a bit more. More affecting as a marriage study than as a cloying depiction of Stephen Hawkings’ life, one imagines this would’ve been a much paler affair if the love story at its center didn’t collapse in real life. It’s certainly a more respectful, if still problematically idolizing, portrait of a famous scientist, though it doesn’t make any extraordinary leaps with the material. A shame since it’s about a man researching the birth of the universe.

The presence of American Sniper here does feel a bit unintentionally awkward given how vocally unsavory Chris Kyle, writer of his own memoir, was in life. Not to mention how little the film desires to be about that Chris Kyle. I suppose they really do reinvent his life to some degree, and it’s to the benefit of the film that Bradley Cooper doesn’t have to hack away at a wholly contemptible character. In terms of writerly elegance, it’s not the most exciting, and it takes a number of a cheap shortcuts to get where it’s going.

WhiplashIf it’s entirely mystifying what changes were made in adapting Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” to the big screen, that only amplifies its effect. Paul Thomas Anderson’s work here is subtle, lending more emphasis to Pynchon’s words than to his own invention, but he does make the story into his own distinct beast, as P.T.A. is wont to do. Even if it’s a bit messier than some of his previous work – or any of it, really – it’s still a refreshingly free-flowing addition to a category in desperate need of creativity.

So desperate, in fact, that they even nominated an original screenplay. Whiplash‘s existence may be based on selling the concept via a short shown at Sundance 2013, but it’s an original concept that has little right popping up here. That said, the field’s prime for it to dominate in ways previously unexpected. It’s one of the passionate favorites of the Best Picture field, lively and seething and downright furious, to the point where I can imagine a scenario in which this surprises with the Best Picture win, thanks to be well liked enough by many. I think it’ll be the surprise of this race, at least, and I wouldn’t be absolutely surprised if it walked away with every award it’s been nominated for except Best Picture. But that’s a conversation to save for Friday, when we get to the big race.

Will Win: Whiplash
Should Win: Inherent Vice

Adapted ScreenplayDream Oscar Ballot

  • Andrew Bovell, A Most Wanted Man, based on the novel by John le Carre
  • Gia Coppola, Palo Alto, based on the short stories by James Franco
  • Riko Sakaguchi & Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, based on the folk tale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”
  • Walter Campbell & Johnathan Glazer, Under the Skin, based on the novel by Michel Faber
  • Lukas Moodysson, We Are the Best!, based on the graphic novel “Never Goodnight” by Coco Moodysson

Runners-Up: 22 Jump StreetThe BabadookThe Boxtrolls, Cold in JulyEdge of Tomorrow

Yep, not even a single nominee in my runners-up pile. That may give some reason to mistake 2014 for a weak year of adaptations, but the most impressive feats of adapting come in both subtle and broad shades. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is the most traditional work here, but with a progressive feminist angle on the relentless manipulation of womens’ life and physical beauty. We Are the Best! takes its feminism to closer to today, and it rebellious attitude feels even more genuine for being a home-grown collaboration between Lukas and his partner, Coco. Gia Coppola’s to be commended for taking a short story chronicle by James Franco and making it as honest and cautionary as Palo Alto is, where teen anxiety and ostensibly promiscuity are depicted without ever being patronizing. A Most Wanted Man is only years, not miles, away from its source material, applying John le Carre’s story swiftly to post-9/11 themes while maintaining its emotional core of tender human manipulation. But no adaptation this year is as wild a reinvention as Under the Skin, reshaping the entire story while still accurately conveying the themes of amorphous identity at the novel’s heart.

What are your dream nominees, and who do you hope/think will win?

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  • I have a feeling that Birdman and The Imitation Game will win screenplay awards. I know TGBH seems most likely, and it may… but something tells me Birdman wins screenplay. Whiplash win would please me but well, it belongs in original screenplay.

  • I have done the will win/should win post on my blog if you would like to see:
    http://t.co/sK4CFPvnkx

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