Sunday, February 15, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Screenplay

Jake Gyllenhaal and Renee Russo star in writer-director Dan Gilroy's Oscar-nominated Nightcrawler.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Original Screenplay

The nominees are:

Birdman, written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alexeander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, and Nicolás Giacobone
Boyhood, written by Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher, written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel, written by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler, written by Dan Gilroy

Some of my favorite nominations each year come in the Original Screenplay category. While the whole Academy might not embrace the strangeness of some of the year’s most out-there films, the writers’ branch has no such difficulty. It sometimes takes a writer to recognize the challenge of writing, and if you want a quick rundown of the best films in any given year, a look through the Best Original Screenplay nominees will give you a pretty good starting point.

Just in the last decade, some of the great films that could not find traction in Best Picture but snuck in as screenplay nominees include Match Point, In Bruges, Margin Call, and The Savages. This is the category that made Oscar winners of films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Chinatown, and Citizen Kane. Original Screenplay is home to the kind of outside-the-box thinking that would serve the rest of the Academy well.

Still, when it comes to the win, the whole Academy votes, and they are as susceptible as always to their preconceived notions and general tendencies. Best Picture nominees tend to dominate. In fact, the last film to win without a corresponding Best Picture nomination was the aforementioned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004. If it is a possible winner, so much the better. This year, three of the five nominees are also nominated in Best Picture, and two are likely battling it out for the win.

Birdman – This is the best script of the year, hands down. Nothing else is as insightful, cutting, and damn entertaining as the Hollywood takedown written by a talented group of veritable outsiders, Iñárritu, Dinelaris, Bo, and Giacobone. Though dialogue-heavy, the film moves at the speed of light as characters go in and out of rooms, go on and come off stage, and twist and turn through a film that is light on plot but big on themes of art and artistry, love, respect, and truth.

It is a lot to cover in a two-hour film, but Birdman never feels overstuffed. The best part is that it is about self-serious characters, which means that anytime the script starts to dip into self-congratulatory reverie, someone is there to point out how full of shit it all is. While many words have been written about the meta-textual meaning of Michael Keaton, a former Batman, playing an aging actor who played Birdman, a Batman-like superhero, that is not even the most interesting meta-angle of the story.

The script serves as its own commentary on itself, and somehow, the writers find a way to have their cake and eat it, too. Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is seen as a joke, and everyone treats him that way, but he weathers the critiques in the pursuit of accomplishing something real and true. The script, while giving voice to its own detractors, takes Thompson seriously, and though it satirizes and pokes fun at the whole world of self-aggrandizing art and artists, it is as serious a consideration of its themes as you are ever likely to find.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Anderson and Guinness’ story is a frothy confection, not unlike one of their characters’ famous baked goods. It is a jaunty ride through a fantastical world that is tackling the same problems as ours. Anderson has always specialized in fantasies, but this is the first time the fantasy has hinted at real-world issues such as war and fascism. While Anderson has never shied away from grief in his films, it always feels coated in something sweet. Here, Anderson and Guinness allow the pain to melt away some of the sugar, and the film is better for it.

M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is another in a long line of eccentric male protagonists in Anderson films, following in the footsteps of the Steve Zissou (Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore), and Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums), among others. They are all men out of time in one regard or another, and they all stretch the boundaries of audience credulity. Fiennes brings to the role a degree of humanity that is rarely on the page in Anderson films, and if Anderson and Guinness win their first Oscars, it will be in part because Fiennes was able to elevate a good script into something more meaningful.

Boyhood – Linklater has been nominated for this award twice, and this is the closest he has come to winning. If Boyhood were more of an awards juggernaut – like The Hurt Locker or The King’s Speech – he would have a decent shot at taking home this prize, but he might have a better chance in the Picture or Director categories this year. That is less a reflection on Linklater’s script than on how competitive a year this is.

One thing I think that has always hurt Linklater in the screenplay category is how improvisational his films feel. Linklater’s best films are always highly naturalistic and intensely humanistic, featuring the kinds of characters we might run into in our everyday lives. They feel so real that their conversations seem off the cuff, as though they are just living out normal interactions and Linklater happened to point a camera at them and start filming.

That degree of naturalism does not come easily, and Linklater has spent decades developing his craft, delivering with Boyhood perhaps his most humanist take on what it is like to be part of an American family. Every moment, every interaction is scripted and comes from years of dedication. It takes an incredible amount of hard work to make something look this effortless, and few are as good at it as Linklater.

Nightcrawler – I wish this film had caught on more with voters. I truly do. It is a meat-and-potatoes thriller that at the same time serves as a brutal satire of the modern news media. It showed strength with the various crafts guilds and looked like it might be headed to a spot in the Best Picture lineup, but come nomination morning, it found itself shutout everywhere but here. The recognition is well deserved as Gilroy’s script is a marvel, exposing the seediness of a world that cannot help but be attracted to that which should be repulsive.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the embodiment of the worst habits that society encourages and embraces but taken to their logical extreme. Nothing and no one matters if it gets in the way of what he wants. Bloom is to the self-actualization set what Gordon Gekko was to yuppies. He is the villain. We should hate him, but there is a part of us – and not a small part – that wishes we had the guts to be just like him. Gilroy deserves a prize just for shining a light on the darkness buried inside us.

Foxcatcher – This is one of the stranger nominees this year, since movies based on true stories more often than not come from scripts based on books written about those stories. In fact, it was a strange year in general with a number of films based on true events made from original screenplays, including this, Selma, and Mr. Turner. At the same time, Futterman and Frye’s script has a distinctly literary feel to it, mixing the lurid detail of a true-crime novel with the stateliness of a chamber drama – like In Cold Blood by way of Ethan Frome.

The influences makes sense when you remember that two-time Oscar nominee Futterman was previously recognized for his work on director Bennett Miller’s Capote, all about the writing of In Cold Blood. The story of how John du Pont came to be a murderer is the basis for Futterman and Frye’s own true-crime tale. While milking every ounce of suspense and intrigue out of the story, they present the facts as coldly as possible within the icy and unsettling world Miller creates. It is a gamble that pays off beautifully.

The final analysis

This comes down to Birdman vs. The Grand Budapest Hotel, two comedies that are as different from one another as they could possibly be. The Academy, as a whole, likes to feel good, and Anderson’s romp is clearly the feel-good picture of the two. Some of this depends on whether Birdman sweeps or if the Academy spreads the love. If Birdman has the momentum, it will take this. Otherwise, The Grand Budapest Hotel is in the lead, particularly after winning the Writers Guild award last night, though Birdman was ineligible with the guild. Still, my bet is that Anderson wins his first Oscar, recognition that will bring no end of delight to his many supporters.

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: Birdman
Wish it had been here: Frank

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