THE CONTENDERS: The Screenplay: Part Two (Original)


There is nothing harder for a writer than staying original. Anybody who’s taken a crack at writing a screenplay can tell you that. There are writers that are good with ideas and there are writers that are just good at writing. The nominees for Best Original Screenplay will be announced in only two days. You’d think it would be easy to pick the 5 nominees by now.

It ain’t.

I don’t think there is any doubt Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco’s Crash screenplay gets one of the five nominations. It’s an intelligent and provocative look at racism from the very start. I knew I was in the midst of a good movie from one of the very first scenes involving Larenz Tate and Ludacris.

Look around! You couldn’t find a whiter, safer or better lit part of this city. But this white woman sees two black guys, who look like UCLA students, strolling down the sidewalk and her reaction is blind fear. I mean, look at us! Are we dressed like gang-bangers? Do we look threatening? No. Fact, if anybody should be scared, it’s us: the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people, patrolled by the trigger-happy LAPD. So, why aren’t we scared?

Because we have guns?

You could be right.

They proceed to carjack Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser, turning everything “Anthony” said upside down. Not incorrect, just upside down and throwing audiences curveballs like this has to make them wonder what in the world will happen next. This is a strength most screenplays lack.

I’ve made sweet, hot monkey love to Good Night, and Good Luck for a few months now and I see no reason to stop here. Grant Heslov and George Clooney began with an incontrovertible screenplay that swims in historical record. I’ve given plenty of credit to the film’s acting and directing but the no-nonsense screenplay is the film’s rock. Clooney is a real talent behind the camera, but he and Heslov’s script would have made a good movie even if it were directed by a hack. Consider this another guarantee.

The third and final lock belongs to Woody Allen‘s script for Match Point. I think the Academy will do this just to piss off Laremy (see his review… he loved it!). Allen is an Academy darling, even if he never shows up to the events. The Academy is kind of like the abused wife who doesn’t want to press charges on her husband because when he’s not drunk he can be so sweet to her. With Match Point, Woody took off his wife-beater (now there’s an image for you) and chucked his usual crutches (insanely clever dialogue… a nice crutch to have) and just crafted a good script with strong characters and one hell of a last act. Where did this sudden inspiration come from? Allen’s films often come across as a therapeutic exercise. But for the first time in a long time, it feels this director has something to say about someone other than himself. At the Match Point press conference in Cannes, Woody said “I was interested, probably more superficially in the murder plot… That was really the motivation for me and the creative impulse… One of the tragedies of life is that many, many innocent victims are slaughtered in the name of some allegedly higher truth or benefit for mankind and I think that’s a terrible truth of life that people behave that way with impunity… with no regard whatsoever on the brutal side effects for other people.”

This is very well translated in Allen’s sharp and wicked screenplay, which also has very much to do with luck; bad or good. Allen’s luck will not have run out on January 31st.

Things get more difficult from here on in. Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale may grab one of the spots but it’s hard for me to determine. I haven’t seen the flick but I can say I didn’t much care for Baumbach’s teaming with Wes Anderson in 2004’s Life Aquatic. Wes, bring back Owen Wilson already!

Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman turned in a real winner with their Cinderella Man. A traditional film that feels new, Cinderella Man‘s screenplay is sprinkled with solid dialogue, heartfelt characters, a terrific (if inaccurate) villain and a focused narrative that makes for a well-constructed underdog story. I’m going to predict the Academy gives some love for the screenplay to make up for its lack of a Best Picture nomination.

Sometimes the Academy likes to pretend it’s more hip than it actually is. Let’s hope that’s not the case and that the 40 Year-Old Virgin script (written by Judd Apatow and Steve Carrel) doesn’t find itself a nomination. Don’t look at me that way, I loved the movie just as much as you did. But one of the 5 best original screenplays of the year? Is that really what your heart tells you? Well, that’s what the Writer’s Guild of America seemed to feel when they announced their nominees for Best Original Screenplay. Still, I’ll be the first to admit that it would be pretty cool to see the words “Academy Award Nominee” before Steve Carell’s name. Could happen, but I’d have to think it is strictly a dark horse.

I haven’t read or seen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, but the film certainly has its fans. Have enough Academy voters seen it? The buzz is low enough that either they haven’t or they did but it doesn’t have enough juice. Now, reread this paragraph, this time replacing Cache with Tommy Lee Jones‘s directorial effort. No need to repeat myself.

Everybody seems to have pretty much forgotten about The Upside of Anger which means my hopes for a Joan Allen nomination and my silly prediction in my Best Actress column are fool’s gold. Same goes for Mike Binder’s smart and solid screenplay.

I really miss the Weinsteins. When they were running Miramax, they had an amazing talent for marketing films nobody would otherwise see or they would fool people into thinking something is better than it is. Chocolat was a sweet little movie that Miramax conned everyone into thinking was a Best Picture contender. No such luck for Mrs. Henderson Presents. I don’t even see a screenplay nomination in its future.

So, by process of elimination, I have to assume Cinderella Man and The Squid and The Whale will find themselves Best Original Screenplay noms. Both of them may have to watch their backs for a little Steve Carell love juice, but I think they can, for the most part, rest easy. Now here are some other movies that they don’t have to worry about since our world is so unjust.

Will someone please set the record straight on Oldboy for me? When did this officially come out? This year? Last year? The year before? Is it eligible for contention? If so, why wasn’t it a Best Foreign Film Contender? The screenplay, easily one of the year’s most wicked, is an almost perfect modern tragedy by way of the revenge genre.

Despite recent claims, I do have a heart and The Family Stone got it pumping. On paper, the synopsis looks like the kind of movie I break out my Ginsu carving knives for, but the truth is writer-director Thomas Bezucha dug deeper than I had anticipated. This was one of the sleepers of the year in my book.

I hated a lot of Tony Scott‘s Domino. I thought some of the performances were weaker than they should have been and that Tony Scott’s directing was a sausage patty overcooked to the point of being a hockey puck. But deep within that mess of a film was a great script by Richard Kelly. I didn’t need Scott’s cut-a-minute frenzy to tell me this was an incredibly strange and unpredictable thriller.

Elizabethtown. A name powerful enough to make many a film critic cringe in fear. But I’m sorry, I loved this movie. It’s not Cameron Crowe‘s best film, it’s flawed, but was one of my very favorite movies of the year. Crowe’s wonderful, genuine screenplay – his personal take on failure, familial relationships and (like most Crowe films) finding oneself – is offbeat and awkward in all the right places. It dares to take a lengthy journey in its last act that made others roll their eyes while it stole my heart.

It’s hard to tell where Terrence Malick‘s screenwriting begins and the editing ends in his pictures but there is an undeniable level of artistry even in a flawed film like The New World. I think The New World is more conservatively told than The Thin Red Line (there is a very clear point A to point B) but that doesn’t mean Malick doesn’t explore his natural tangents. His characters’ narrations are not strictly storytelling, but brave poetry and that he pulls it off (for the most part) in this medium is something to admire. Even cherish.

Finally, here’s a real underdog. I’m actually beginning to wonder if it has a legitimate chance now… Hustle & Flow was one of 2005’s great surprises. I am only a moderate hip-hop fan but this film just gets under your bones. The screenplay by writer-director Craig Brewer doesn’t throw away a single character and gives the best roles yet for at least two actors: Terrence Howard and Anthony Anderson. I won’t be totally surprised if this is one of the unexpected nominees Tuesday. Work that trick!

This is my last column before the real contenders are announced. This undercard concludes Tuesday morning. My predictions will be taking some lefts, some rights, a jab here, a jab there and probably an uppercut or two. I’ll deal with the bruises, the bloody noses. If I get knocked out, I’ll just have to get back up on my feet again. I’ll be around for the next fight, a little tougher and a little smarter and more than a little uglier. Ill feelings if things don’t go my way? Maybe, maybe not. So come on, Academy, give me your best shot. I must break you.

Want my opinion on the Adapted Screenplays? Well, click here and get the skinny.

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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