There are an awful lot of categories this year with no clear winner (score, the sound awards, cinematography could surprise, supporting actor is way up in the air). Even many awards with frontrunners have a 2nd or 3rd option close behind. The frontrunners appear to be Argo and Django with Lincoln and ZDK as spoilers, respectively. But we could also see SLP and Amour win these... I'm not sure either writing category can be considered a "lock" at this point, but who really knows?
Sorry I haven't taken the time to get photos and video clips, but it's crunch time and I just wanna get this stuff out there.
Best Original Screenplay Nominees
Amour - Michael Haneke
Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino
Flight - John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty - Mark Boal
5. Flight - This was clearly a filler nomination. Not a bad screenplay by any means, but overshadowed by the style of the filmmaking and the quality of performances. That said, I think that way this film tackled alcoholism was even more fascinating than a movie like Young Adult, despite the risks it takes in addressing the disease head on. It avoided movie-of-the-week cheeseball stuff, so I don't mind that it made the cut. Made the cut over The Master? Eh...maybe not.
4. Amour - This was a nice movie, but Haneke's strengths really seem to be as a director. Sometimes I felt like I was watching the same scene over and over again. They were varied slightly, to move the story along just slightly, and that worked most of the time. But if a different director had taken this screenplay, and made a 90-minute movie instead of a 2-hour movie (which seems plausible given the scant amount of material to work with), would we still be praising the screenplay? I'm not convinced.
3. Zero Dark Thirty - This is the screenplay giving Tarantino the most competition right now, and coming off a WGA win, it may very will win the Oscar as well. (It's hard to say, given Django wasn't eligible for the WGA award.) While I wasn't crazy about the film, I'm not sure that's the screenplay's fault. The movie was too episodic - too jumpy - was that the screenplay's lack of organic transitions through time? Or was it Bigelow's directing that pushed from event to event? A combination? I'm honestly not sure. I think my biggest problem with the screenplay is the fact that I really don't find Maya - the lead character - very interesting. We know we has one singular obsession, that she has an ambivalent relationship with torture, and that she's got a strong will and mind to back up her emotions. But... is that a character, really? Or is it just a collection of a traits designed to push a story forward?
And I won't lie, I still a have a grudge against Mark Boal for his totally undeserving win for The Hurt Locker in 2009. He doesn't need another one.
2. Moonrise Kingdom - This movie was just delightful and charming and wonderful to behold. Anderson's directing and always unique look elevates it visually, and the performances are all off-beat and perfect, frequently showing us new sides to actors we thought we knew completely. The way the screenplay handles young romance is delicate, and at moments uncomfortable, but underneath all the quirky Wes Anderson-ness of it all, it's honest to its core. But I submit the same challenge here that I posed with Amour - give this screenplay to a different director, and is it still the screenplay that shines? Maybe it's not fair to separate a writer/director's writing from his directing but these are different categories after all, so I'm not sure this is the screenplay that quite deserves to win.
1. Django Unchained - I had a few issues with this movie as well, but those were limited almost entire to directorial choices. I think this screenplay passes the test I've used - give this screenplay to a different director and I suspect the movie would still work. It would be different, but it could be nearly as good as long as it was well-cast and the director has just the right amount of crazy. (I hesitate to ask, but without Tarantino behind the camera, could it have been an even better movie?) The movie could have been shorter, but that's an editing problem not a writing one. Some of the characters are archetypical, but that fits in with Django's mythological themes. Most of the characters are remarkably fleshed out. The dialogue, as always, is fascinating and intelligent and disarming. This seems like the most deserving winner to me and I suspect it will keep the momentum until Sunday.
Will win: Django Unchained
Should win: Django Unchained
Should have been nominated: The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson. Regardless of one's opinions of the movie, it was a fascinating character study. I know people who hated the movie once they got outside the theater, but while they were inside they couldn't take their eyes off the screen. Also, NOT Looper, which I applaud for originality, but had some serious plot issues.
Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees
Argo - Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild - Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi - David Magee
Lincoln - Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell
If Original Screenplay is about bringing to life a world from scratch, I compare the screenplays merits with the work on the production and try to determine where the credit is deserved. With Adapted Screenplay, though, I consider the challenge of the adaption itself as well as the writing merits.
5. Argo - I don't hate Argo. I even think it deserved more nominations than it got (Director, Prod. Design, Costume Design). But the screenplay was one of its weakest elements and it pisses me off that it's currently the most likely winner in this category (also Best Picture, but that's a different conversation). Every single character in this screenplay is a cardboard cut out. Arkin's character is just a bag of one-liners, Affleck's character is the most boring man alive. At least Bryan Cranston made his boring character interesting to watch. There was basically zero character development or change over the course of the film, and the only really emotional thread was a very thin subplot about Affleck's kid. The dialogue is merely efficient, but that seems appropriate for this sort of procedural. And the blending of pseudo-thriller scenes with historical commentary made for a more interesting movie. But overall, honestly, how do people think this is writing that deserves to win the same award won by Larry McMurtry, Aaron Sorkin, Joel & Ethan Coen, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Robert Bolt, Horton Foote, James L. Brooks, and Billy Wilder?
4. Silver Linings Playbook - This is fine enough I guess. It's got great characters, but those were in the book. I suspect Russell wrote some of the stronger scenes to his taste and he deserves credit there. But near the beginning of the movie, Bradley Cooper sits down with his therapist, who appears to already know him and know his backstory. Then Bradley Cooper narrates in full all the events that got him where he was. To someone who already knew. Plus we get awkward flashback-type scenes during the monologue showing us how his wife was cheating on him. There HAD to have been a better way to tell us who this character was and what he'd been though than having him deliver lines to a character who doesn't need to hear it again. It was just lazy.
3. Life of Pi - The challenge of this adaptation alone deserves recognition. It's a meandering story at times, a poetic and philosophical novel whose narrative is really secondary to its themes, one of which is that the details or reality of a narrative are secondary to the experience of the narrative itself... and so on and so forth. Yet the screenplay here efficiently condenses the breadth of novel's plot without sacrificing its depth, and for a book supposedly "impossible to film," that's a tremendous accomplishment. It's only #3 in my personal preferences because I went back and thumbed through some passages of in the novel, and unfortunately the "efficiency" of the screenplay did sacrifice large bits of really beautiful prose - prose that probably would have seemed overly flowery if it had been translated word-for-word - but beautiful nonetheless, and I felt that the language in the screenplay lacked a certain gravitas or transcendence. Those qualities were more than compensated for with the visuals, but this is the screenplay category. So, well, there it is.
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild - I don't know the source play for this film, but basically all the pretty language I think Life of Pi had to discard for the sake of cinema, Beasts managed to maintain due to it's almost pidgin-like dialect. It was fascinating and immersive language servicing a unique story and complete human characters who were defined by certain functions but never confined to them. This, to me, is Moonrise Kingdom's adapted counterpart - a 90 minute film with unique characters and circumstances that seem implausible in the real world, but somehow convince me of their reality nonetheless.
1. Lincoln - I'm gonna throw something when this doesn't win on Sunday. Kushner doesn't begin with "characters" the way most of these other adaptations do, he begins with historical figures and then gives them flesh and blood and brains until they become characters in an historical battle of wills. Unlike Argo which fills in the necessary spots with stand-ins for the people who were really there, Kushner recreates those people, gives them motivations and emotions and some of the most brilliant dialogue on screen this year. Consider Lincoln himself, not a saint here but a man struggling to work within the limits of his power, questioning even his own political excesses - his speech on why and how he exercised the power of the presidency to make the Emancipation Proclamation, despite its potential illegality, is a powerful insight not only into period politics but into the self-reflective nature of a man confined to the rules of those politics. There are moral issues of slavery at work here, but as is frequently the nature of politics, morality comes second to what can actually get done, and the stress it causes to those moral men and women is apparent in every scene of this film. Kushner's screenplay balances character, history, and drama in one of Euclid's triangles that Lincoln speaks of with such tension that despite knowing the outcome of history, we're left always worrying that tension will snap and give way. Some criticism was given to Joseph Gordon Levitt's subplot, but I appreciated it more with a second viewing. Creating Mary Todd Lincoln as a woman overcome with grief to the point of flirting with insanity, but not falling over the cliff, showed remarkable restraint by both Kushner and Sally Field. And there was even room left over for a few surprises, regarding, for instance, Stevens and the person who finally reads the 13th Amendment out loud. And finally, as wonderful a job as Spielberg did crafting this film, this is one of those screenplays that could be read on its own, or given to another director and still make an excellent film (though perhaps not quite the same caliber as the one Spielberg made). On top of all this, Kushner tackles one of my favorite challenges to see screenwriting overcome - taking a story which by rights really ought to be dull and making it a fascinating character study and process story. Consider the work Sorkin did to turn a book about the creation of facebook for crying out loud into an exciting... legal drama? buddy comedy? cyber thriller? A movie about getting votes in congress just shouldn't be this good.
I'm reminded as I write this of Neil Simon. I've seen bad productions of Simon's plays. Like, bad direction, bad acting, bad timing. But the audience was still laughing. Because Neil Simon is almost impossible to mess up, he's just that good. Similarly, Kushner here is so good that it's hard to imagine really bad film resulting from this screenplay. Unlike Argo which required Affleck's deftness, or Life of Pi which required Ang Lee's ambition and soft heart and remarkable effects, or Silver Linings Playbook which is nothing without its cast. Lincoln is, simply, a remarkable screenplay.
And I'm going to throw something when it doesn't win.
Will win: Argo
Should win: If you read this far, I'm not going to bother answering that.
Should have been nominated: Eh, Cloud Atlas maybe? I still haven't gotten around to Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I know many people who feel that was snubbed here.