Sunday, February 14, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Screenplay

Inside Out is the seventh Pixar film nominated for Best Original Screenplay in the company's history.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Original Screenplay

The nominees are:

Straight Outta Compton

The Writers Guild of America handed out its awards last night – in a somewhat bewildering bi-coastal ceremony, it should be noted – and as predicted, The Big Short was cited for best adapted screenplay, and Spotlight came away with the best original screenplay award. We discussed yesterday how little the Writers Guild means in terms of predicting the Oscars, but it never hurts to have more hardware on your shelf to impress voters as they mark their ballots.

Regardless of the Writers Guild, those two films were always favored to win their respective screenplay categories at the Oscars, which puts both in good position to take Best Picture as well. The last Best Picture winner not to win a screenplay award was Million Dollar Baby in 2004. The last Best Picture winner not even nominated for a screenplay award was Titanic in 1997, which puts nominations leaders The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road in a more precarious position than they otherwise might seem.

Spotlight – I may have a few biases here, to which I will readily cop. Co-writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight is my favorite nominated film and my No. 2 film of the year. As a journalist myself, it fills me with pride to see depicted the best of what my profession can accomplish, even if we often fail to live up to that standard. In fact, I think it happens to be the best movie about journalism ever made – no slight intended against the masterpiece All the President’s Men. McCarthy is also among my favorite independent writer-directors and has been since his excellent first film, The Station Agent.

What McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have accomplished with their screenplay for Spotlight is nothing less than a feat of journalism itself. They interviewed endlessly, researched doggedly, and revised relentlessly to portray with the utmost accuracy and sensitivity the Boston Globe’s quest to expose the depths of the Catholic Church’s abuse. Their dedication to the truth is like that of the reporters about whom they are writing because the story is too important to be anything but honest.

McCarthy, a double nominee this year in Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, was previously nominated as a co-writer on Pixar’s Up, which I believe to be the crowning achievement in Pixar’s storied history. Singer’s only previous feature writing credit came for The Fifth Estate, another film about the importance of information. Like The Big Short in Best Adapted Screenplay, Spotlight is the only Best Picture frontrunner in this group, and McCarthy and Singer should win this award in a walk, which is just as well since no other film deserves it more.

Ex Machina – Since 2000, only three writing teams have won this award. Generally, Best Original Screenplay goes to a single writer who has boldly expressed a unique vision of the world. Interestingly, this year, the only solo nominee in this category is Alex Garland for his sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, which is nothing if not a bold expression of a unique vision of the world. The film is a puzzle box that dares viewers to get lost in its labyrinthine web of psychological games and elaborate misdirection. It is a smart, intricately woven script that unlike so many others in its genre, trades in intelligent ideas rather than unintelligible action.

Garland was a novelist in the 1990s who shot to fame after the release of director Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, for which Garland wrote the rightly lauded and still admired screenplay. This is just his fourth feature script since that 2002 hit, but each one has explored similar themes of humanity, science, technology, and what makes us each unique or not. Garland was something of a surprise nominee, but his inclusion in the category is warranted and welcome. One only wishes the Academy had found room for this film elsewhere as well.

Inside Out – Pixar has a solid history of picking up Best Original Screenplay nominations. Since Toy Story was released in 1995, writers on Pixar films have nabbed seven nominations in this category, plus a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for Toy Story 3. It makes sense as the company has emphasized a story-first approach to filmmaking since its beginnings. Apart from the Toy Story trilogy, Inside Out is probably the company’s most critically acclaimed film. It explores the inner world of a preteen girl struggling with depression by taking the audience on a journey through her subconscious, accompanied by the emotions Joy and Sadness.

Co-writers Ronnie Del Carmen, Josh Cooley, and Meg LeFauve are all first-time nominees for whom Inside Out represents their first feature screenwriting credit. In contrast, co-writer-director Pete Docter has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay four times, Best Animated Feature three times, and Best Animated Short once. He won Best Animated Feature in 2009 as the director of Up. I criticized the film somewhat upon its release for not taking enough chances or imaginative leaps within its premise, but the premise itself is so inventive and the world of the story so fresh and interesting that that criticism seems less valid with added distance and time.

Straight Outta Compton – Amid this year’s backlash over the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations was talk of the Academy nominating only the white writers of a critically acclaimed, predominantly black film. It seemed to me an odd point to make then and still does. The writers branch liked the work, regardless of the race of the writers, but one wonders why a film that speaks so directly to the black experience in America has four white writers in the first place. I say kudos to the Academy for acknowledging the story and shame on the producers for not finding a more diverse group of voices for its telling.

S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus reportedly began shopping their original version of the story in 2004, a version with a much narrower focus than the finished film. Andrea Berloff was later brought in to broaden the focus of the story, and finally, Jonathan Herman came on board to rework Berloff’s script. Savidge, Wenkus, and Berloff received story credit for the film, while Berloff and Herman shared the writing credit.

Though the film mostly avoids the “too many cooks in the kitchen” vibe suggested by its complicated origins, it relies heavily on some of the more obvious musical biopic tropes and is overlong. The nomination is not without merit, but it is likely running fourth or fifth in the category and will not win unless the Academy is feeling particularly guilty about its lack of diversity. Even then, awarding the film’s four white writers for telling the story of a black rap group is unlikely to assuage those feelings of guilt.

Bridge of Spies – After picking up three below-the-line mentions on nominations morning, when Bridge of Spies was called out for Best Original Screenplay, I felt certain Steven Spielberg would be nominated for Best Director and the film would be a force to be reckoned with in the Best Picture category. While the film picked up an impressive six nominations, Spielberg was not cited, and the film is most likely a Best Picture also-ran. What I forgot to consider was how much the Academy loves Joel and Ethan Coen, given their films are exactly the right kind of weird – arty but not outré.

The script, however, did not originate with the Coens but rather co-nominee Matt Charman, who had the initial idea to bring the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to the screen. This is just Charman’s second feature script, while four-time Oscar winners the Coens need no introduction in the cinema world. They have shared Oscar wins for Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, and each has 14 nominations across five different categories. This is their first nomination for a film they did not direct themselves, and the nomination is probably as far as this goes.

The final analysis

It may be a race to the finish line for the top award, but on the way there, Spotlight will pick up this prize, and I will be ecstatic to see McCarthy with an Oscar. As with The Big Short in Best Adapted Screenplay, a win here for Spotlight would signify little, while a loss would be an early indication that something else will be named Best Picture. The other nominated screenplays range from solid to excellent, but nothing is in the same league as McCarthy and Singer’s accomplishment, and that should be enough to carry the day.

Will win: Spotlight
Should win: Spotlight
Should have been here: Mustang

Tomorrow: Best Animated Short

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