Saturday, February 11, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Screenplay

Jeff Bridges (left) and Gil Birmingham in Hell or High Water, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Original Screenplay

The nominees are:

20th Century Women, written by Mike Mills
Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan
La La Land, written by Damien Chazelle
The Lobster, written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Manchester by the Sea, written by Kenneth Lonergan

Each of the films nominated here is defined by its singularity of vision. They could only have come from the minds of their respective writers because they present ways of looking at the world that are wholly unique. Four of these films were also directed by their writer or co-writer, which is for the best because in most cases it would be folly to hand over one’s point of view to an outside perspective.

Every one of these films is a fully realized universe unto itself, whether a Santa Barbara boarding house in the 1970s, the desolate South amid a recession, a dreamer’s fantasy of Hollywood, a singles retreat in a dystopia, or a small fishing community in New England. All of these writers, through their words and stories and characters, have taken us somewhere new, somewhere unexpected, and showed us lives we never thought we would see and of which we never knew we needed to be a part.

The Lobster – Dystopias have been all the rage for a while now. It perhaps has something to do with the success of The Walking Dead on TV or perhaps all those young-adult adaptations like The Hunger Games. Whatever the case, everyone seems to be piling on, and it seems every week we get a new version of our post-apocalyptic future. Each new creative team wants to go bigger, darker, and scarier than the last, trying to top whatever the newest invented threat is. Truthfully, and some of you must agree, it is exhausting.

I say all of this by way of introduction to the world of The Lobster, a dystopia in which co-writers Lanthimos, who also directed, and Filippou argue the tools of our oppression are already at hand and they are as mundane as a dinner party at a stuffy hotel. The writers do not need to invent a new threat for their world. What greater threat could there be to our humanity than bureaucracy, which by its very nature is inhumane?

Beyond this of course, The Lobster is set in a world in which humans must pair off or face being transformed into an animal of their choosing. The premise alone, executed as well as it is here, would be enough to earn a nomination, but Lanthimos and Filippou are not satisfied with just their intriguing and admittedly oddball scenario. Their script is a scathing satire of the ways in which we live today, a dark warning not of where we are headed but of where we already are.

La La Land – Now, if I may flip 180 degrees in the other direction, Chazelle’s bright, poppy fantasia is the world as we wish it would be. Set in a Hollywood where dreamers and their dreams matter, La La Land is the story of what it is to struggle and chase and search, of getting knocked down and wondering if you have the strength to get back up again.

Chazelle rightly does not pretend achieving one’s goals comes without sacrifice or does not require hard work and dedication, and as we all know, even those qualities sometimes are not enough. The fantasy of La La Land is not success without struggle but that our struggles ultimately will prove worth it, that we are not simply spitting into the wind.

The coup de grace of course is to make all of this a musical in the grand tradition. In a culture in which cynicism is cool and winking at the audience is expected, Chazelle plays it straight with sincerity and earnestness. You want to doubt him and scoff at his creation, but from its opening song-and-dance number, you are too busy being enthralled and delighted to remember you came to laugh at the movie, not with it.

Manchester by the Sea – What springs immediately to mind with this film is grief. Oh, there are a few other words, to be sure, but grief is what stands out. The beauty of Lonergan’s script is that it is not about Hollywood grief, the kind of all-consuming sadness and recovery we have seen in countless films before. You know the movies. They would be called weepies in another time. Characters experience loss and tragedy and are devastated, but through some force of will or outside strength, they move on happily. Manchester by the Sea is not that kind of film.

Lonergan instead examines the true nature of grief in all its messy, painful, frightening, and sometimes humorous ways. His characters experience a tragedy and loss with which we are all familiar, and they react in ways that feel real and human, which in itself is shocking enough to see in a film. Lonergan knows there is no magical cure-all, and there are some wounds even time cannot heal. The people in Manchester by the Sea grasp for meaning and search for ways to make sense of it all, but unmoored by grief, they really are just looking for connection to anything or anyone.

Hell or High Water – Sheridan is probably best known as an actor, particularly for his long-running role on the TV show Sons of Anarchy. Another couple scripts like his first two, though, and he will not be known primarily as an actor much longer. His first produced screenplay was for last year’s popular slow-burn thriller Sicario, which creates tension and intrigue mostly through silence. This is what makes his script for Hell or High Water such a surprise and delight.

While ringing all the tension and thrills it can out of a story of Texas outlaws, Sheridan’s screenplay is also highly literate, gifting its characters with the kind of sinewy monologues and smart, rapid-fire dialogue actors just devour. And the audience eats it up as well. There is, however, a third level to Sheridan’s brilliant script beyond its sturdy premise and whip-cracking dialogue. Underneath it all, it tells a tale of an area of this country left decimated by the recession and still struggling to survive.

Bank robbers have long been portrayed in movies as heroes, but here, that classic trope takes on an even deeper meaning. The banks represent the institutions that have destroyed these towns and these people, and these men’s crimes, as the community sees it, are extracting payment for the debts these banks owe us all.

20th Century Women – Writer-director Mills has made just three features, with five years passing between the first two and six years between the second and this one. One imagines the problem is more of financing than will or desire to work. If that is the case, let us hope some brave studio steps up and gets Mills working again because I cannot not imagine waiting another five or six years for the next Mills gem.

Like his wonderful previous feature, Beginners, Mills sketches the lives of his characters in a gorgeous array of images and impressions, offering up a kaleidoscopic view of the whole. 20th Century Women is the story of five very different people and how they are defined both by their actions and their reactions to the rapidly evolving world around them. Mills takes the kind of characters we think we know – the arty punk girl, the quiet shy boy, the down-to-earth bohemian, etc. – and explores the choices and contradictions that make them who they are, not simply who we think they are.

The final analysis

This award has gone to the Best Picture winner the previous two years and a Best Picture nominee each of the past 11. So, while The Lobster and 20th Century Women would both be deserving winners, they are probably out of the running, their profiles not high enough to compete in this group.

There was a time early in this Oscar season when it looked like Manchester by the Sea might be a serious Best Picture force and like Lonergan would be a shoe-in for this award. The film, after all, rests almost entirely on his shoulders, and his script carries most of the burden. However, that time seems to have passed, and even the award Manchester by the Sea looked assured of (Casey Affleck for Best Actor) is in doubt.

That leaves Sheridan and Chazelle, Hell or High Water and La La Land. The smart money of course is on the big, bold Best Picture frontrunner. Only once since 2001 has the Best Picture winner been nominated in this category and not gone home with the prize – in 2011, when Woody Allen won for Midnight in Paris over The Artist, the script for which was most likely undervalued for being for a silent film; also, the Academy just really loves Allen’s writing. The point is if La La Land really is going to sweep its way to Best Picture, it better win here. But the Academy is not above throwing a curveball just to keep us all honest, and Hell or High Water is the exact kind of dialogue-heavy, intricately plotted script they have loved in the past and will love again, sooner or later.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: The Lobster
Should have been here: Jackie

Tomorrow: Best Adapted Screenplay

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