Oscar Circuit: Best Original Screenplay

midnight_in_paris.jpg
Woody Allen made history when “Midnight In Paris” earned the filmmaker his third Oscar and 15th nomination for screenwriting last year.

Whether viewed as a consolation prize for a well-regarded film that has no chance of winning Best Picture, or a sign that a film in the discussion for the Academy’s highest honor has broad and far-reaching support, the Writing categories – Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay are not always that easy to predict. A case could be made that more adventurous films land in the Academy’s screenplay categories, but with regard to the Original Screenplay category, only five films (Thelma & Louise, The Usual Suspects, Almost Famous, Talk To Her, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) have won the Oscar since 1990 without landing a Best Picture nomination. Three Best Picture nominees are competing in this category and it would seem that for the other two nominees, being featured in the clips package will be as close as they get to scoring a win this year.

 

The 2012 Nominees for Best Original Screenplay are:

  • Amour – Michael Haneke
  • Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino
  • Flight – John Gatins
  • Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
  • Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal


OPCC_01_AMOUR_8.14_Layout 1AMOUR
Michael Haneke
Including his nomination for Best Directing this year, this is Michael Haneke’s second Academy Award nomination.

History is not necessarily on the side of Michael Haneke when it comes to this category. Just four films spoken in a non-English language have won the Original Screenplay Oscar since the Academy issued the prize for the first time in 1940. In 1944, Swiss-made and German-spoken Marie-Louise became the first film from a foreign country to win an Oscar in this category. The iconic 35-minute French short The Red Balloon surprised in this category, and although based on a novel – a pool of writers earned Best Writing – Directly for the Screen for the 1961 romantic comedy Divorce, Italian Style.

But one other film has a curious connection to Amour this year. The fourth foreign-language film to win Best Original Screenplay, A Man And A Woman, was the 1966 winner, scored 4 Oscar nominations (winning Foreign Language Film as well), and shared a story of two people, both recently widowed, who fall in love with another, but are haunted by the memories of their recently departed spouses. That film’s actress Anouk Aimee received a Best Actress nomination and starred alongside…Jean-Louis Trintignant, who co-stars with this film’s Best Actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva.

Okay. That’s too…weird, no?

Clearly the Academy feels Amour is a profound and touching film, despite the polarizing reactions it instills in people who see it. With five nominations and a likely victory for Best Foreign Language Film, are stars aligning for Amour to replicate the success of A Man and a Woman? Toss in the possibility of an Emmanuelle Riva Oscar win, which seems to be gaining some serious momentum, and suddenly Amour is a potential winner in this category. And then in a wide-open director’s race, could Michael Haneke win there too? Then what does that all mean?

The film’s power and haunting simplicity transcends all languages and Michael Haneke’s personal and visceral work here is hard to deny. The film affects anyone who has witnessed or been with someone in the final days of their life and underestimating the power a film like Amour has on the Academy’s voters, could be a mistake.

But seriously, that A Man and a Woman connection. Why has that not been more reported on? Hmmm…

Django Unchained International PosterDJANGO UNCHAINED
Quentin Tarantino
This is Quentin Tarantino’s fifth Academy Award nomination and his third as a writer. He was previously nominated for both directing and writing Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino won an Academy Award for his Pulp Fiction original screenplay.

Despite the controversies that have surrounded this film since it was first unspooled in front of critics last November, Django Unchained survived the attacks that the film was careless and reckless in its raw and provocative language and its exploitative veering towards violence and blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Like most Quentin Tarantino films, people simply were entertained and by and large, most people love this verbose and overlong slavery-slash-civil war-slash-modernized spaghetti western epic.

Admittedly, I kind of love it too. The excessive nature of it. The fact that it can contain so much violence and irrefutable nastiness and still deliver boundless vials of energy, blood, humor, and feverish unpredictability.

Tarantino is buoyed greatly by his actors who reciprocate their love for his written word so excitedly. Perhaps none more so than Oscar nominee Christoph Waltz, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his loathsome, charismatic Nazi villain in Basterds. Here, he simply illuminates when given the chance to recite Tarantino’s dialogue. Jamie Foxx is quietly affecting in his leading man role and as surprising as anything is the fact that we finally have Tarantino writing a tender love story, which works quite well amidst all the chaos and bloodshed happening around us.

Leonardo DiCaprio looks almost liberated playing such a nasty and grotesque character, letting all pretense go and firing off Tarantino’s barbed dialogue with wicked delight. Much has been written about Samuel L. Jackson’s stunning turn as Stephen, Calvin Candie’s house slave, who is amongst the most intriguing and menacing characters as has ever appeared in a Tarantino film. Tarantino loves moral ambiguity and all of the main players in Django see the world in shades of grey or devil-tinged red.

Django Unchained may find Tarantino nearing 50 years of age, but his wanton provocation has never been more laser focused than here.

flight_ver3FLIGHT
John Gatins
This is the first Academy Award nomination for John Gatins
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A tricky balancing act, Flight deals with a lot of issues and subplots, but its core is Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn as Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot whose escalating use of drugs and alcohol complicates Whitaker’s heroic landing of a badly damaged plane.

Smart to focus on Whip Whitaker, Gatins explores deeper issues of trust, love, and family loyalty, while also taking a look at the bureaucracy and nefarious ways in which scandals and PR nightmares are handled just outside of the public’s view.

But although I like the film and love Washington’s performance, I struggle with this nomination personally. A lot of critics, including myself, have complained that the film shifts its narrative tone at will, which may be symbolic of Whip’s worldview, but also lends itself to inconsistency and jarring change-ups. Director Robert Zemeckis overthinks certain elements of the story, implementing heavy-handed musical cues to introduce characters, while I personally found Gatins’ screenplay underselling intriguing subplots that seemed quite worthy of exploration. Whip’s relationship with his son is relegated to two scenes, one cliched Drunk-Dad-Challenges-Teenage-Son moment that seldom, if ever, works effectively anymore and a softer, more purposeful scene that buttons up their story. The manner in which Whip nearly derails an NTSB deposition and finds Goodman’s drug dealer swooping in to save the day is goofy and pointless. Most alarmingly, the inevitable scene where the two pilots meet for the first time at the hospital, after the accident, rife with tension and anxiety, ultimately becomes played for comedic laughs. Easily one of the year’s more baffling narrative decisions.

And yet as I put my complaints on the table, the most vexing element of Flight for me was that, despite those aggravations, I was riveted the entire time.  Gatins does understand his main characters and their motivations, he just falls victim to incorporating more and not less. When his focus is locked in on Denzel Washington and many of the scenes featuring Kelly Reilly and an on point Don Cheadle, Flight is a compulsively watchable melodrama.

moonrise_kingdom_ver2MOONRISE KINGDOM
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
This is Wes Anderson’s third Academy Award nomination. He was previously nominated as the director of Animated Feature Film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and was nominated as a screenwriter for the film The Royal Tenenbaums. This is Roman Coppola’s first Academy Award nomination.

This is my maybe my favorite original screenplay of 2012 and I was clinging on to the hope that Moonrise Kingdom could land in the Best Picture race and steal away a couple of nods for Costume Design and Cinematography. Apparently the year’s quirky soup du jour from 2012 was Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. But I digress.

There are countless joys in Wes Anderson’s quirky and sentimental romantic comedy Moonrise Kingdom. From the opening momentswhen Benjamin Britten’s composition The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra sets the perfect tone for introducing us to all of the film’s players, we understand that Wes Anderson’s film is going to take us to a completely different place and time. We soon are privy to an elvish narrator (Bob Balaban) who pops in and out, resetting our understanding of time and place, and then we experience the joy of finding two terrific and natural talented young actors (Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward), ably keeping pace with the rhythm and cadence a Wes Anderson film requires. As the film adds in one element after another, the charm of Moonrise Kingdom is unavoidable.

Not only has Anderson and writing partner Roman Coppola concocted an engaging and heartwarming love story between two troubled 12-year old kids who, after meeting at a camp, plot an elaborate scheme to run away with each another one year later, Anderson has tapped into that whirlwind and stolen heart excitement of a first love. Filling out his ensemble with a well-intentioned but overzealous Scout Master (Norton) who cannot fathom the idea that a boy would ever consider quitting scouting, two dysfunctional parents whose failure to communicate has long and far-reaching effects on their daughter (Murray, McDormand), a dedicated Social Services worker (Swinton), and a lonely, lost police captain (Willis), Wes Anderson offers wonderful symbolic slices of 1965 life, in an idyllic picturesque landscape, where unspoken tensions are simmering to a boil as a historic hurricane threatens to impact the island.

Where in the past Wes Anderson’s films have not always been everyone’s cup of tea, Moonrise Kingdom is as sweet and tender as anything he has ever created. Coming in at an efficient and syncopated 94 minutes, Anderson gets his high profile cast to take chances in new and unique ways, all playing with varying levels of tangible vulnerability. Bruce Willis has the best of intentions, but struggles to allow himself to let his guard down and connect. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand have a stunning failure to communicate with their children or each other, and Edward Norton clings to his scouting life because he is so paranoid of failure. Each actor runs the Wes Anderson dash and are still able to build their characters efficiently, allowing us to understand and recognize just who these people are, why they are in the situations they are in, and what limitations they possess in changing their lives for the better.

And again, Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman steer the ship, their young love reminding us of that first real crush we all had, their awkwardness both innocent and wise beyond their years, and serving as the eye of a metaphorical hurricane which enlightens the characters and the audience into a new state of being.

zero_dark_thirty_ver3.jpgZERO DARK THIRTY
Mark Boal
This is Mark Boal’s second Academy Award nomination. He previously won an Academy Award for writing the original screenplay for The Hurt Locker.

Sequenced almost in different acts, Zero Dark Thirty also becomes a dynamic procedural-style tale once military interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) departs for a job in Washington and Maya (Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain) becomes the figurehead leader of the manhunt to kill Osama Bin Laden. Faced with a gender-driven workplace, Maya is consistently finding her successes supplanted or co-opted by her senior officials and those with leverage and power over the operations. Undeterred, Maya continues her work, succeeding for years in fits and starts, becoming increasingly more defiant and necessarily vocal. Bigelow, drawing not so subtle parallels between Maya’s gains and strides and eventual validation as a woman working and conquering in a mostly male environment, binds these different elements together with razor-sharp precision. And Mark Boal’s screenplay is ratcheted down and locked in to keeping us edgy and unsure of what is transpiring.

Just when you feel that Zero Dark Thirty is going to devolve into an office-based, dialogue-dense boardroom thriller, Boal and Bigelow remind us that we are operating within a timeline defined by terror – the 2005 London subway bombing, the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, the 2009 attack which claimed the lives of nine Americans – seven of them C.I.A. Fear populates scene after scene and each time Maya and her team are exposed to, or experience these tragic episodes firsthand, their dedication and steadfast resolve in continuing on is remarkable.

When Maya can no longer tolerate the pointless gender-driven obstacles tossed in front of her, she finds her voice. Later, in private, she lets her guard down ever so briefly and allows suppressed emotions to spill out of her in a moment of pure catharsis. Zero Dark Thirty is an extraordinary film, made all the better by having a powerful character guide us through one of the most remarkable stories to come through our cinemas in a long, long time.

Zero Dark Thirty masterfully dissolves the suspense of the investigation confirming Osama Bin Laden’s location into the actual raid itself, easily one of the most incredible and stunning sequences I have ever experienced in a movie theater. No one could breathe at my screening, reviewers were sitting still and unable to move, struck by tension and anxiety so thick that we all sat in silent contemplation for a few minutes once the film concluded.

When I saw Zero Dark Thirty, I proclaimed it was the best film I had seen since The Hurt Locker and no matter how it has been attacked and fallen victim to the Oscar political smear campaigns that are now an every year given, I still hold tightly to that conviction. This is without question a film I will revisit time and time again and for my mind, not only was it 2012’s Best Film, but it was also honored as such in the Awards Circuit’s staff-wide inaugural Circuit Awards. Zero Dark Thirty needs few, if any awards to retain its standing in my mind as a modern day masterpiece.

FINAL THOUGHTS…

Wow. This is a difficult category to predict, since two films seem to be pushing ahead in the race and one film, worthy of an Oscar win in other years, rests comfortably between two films whose nomination serves as their win.

A case can be made that the Academy feels Amour is more than just a Foreign Language winner and citing Michael Haneke here would allow them to look elsewhere in Best Directing. As BAFTA showed us this year, people simply love Quentin Tarantino and there is something to be said in looking at Django Unchained preserving the controversies and becoming his biggest grossing film ever. In that regard, it is completely reasonable for voters to fete a film that overcame the naysayers and beat the odds.

Mark Boal won this category three years ago for The Hurt Locker and as Zero rests in third place and has a Best Picture nomination, the film’s waning support means it sits atop a list of longshots.

John Gatins may be back in the future and perhaps, in time, Wes Anderson will win an Oscar for his iconic wit and style.

So…acknowledging I will likely get this wrong…

If I Had A Vote: Moonrise Kingdom, (with Zero Dark Thirty compensated in other areas of my ballot.)

Predicted Winner: Amour, in something of an upset.

SNUBS

The first snub that leaps to mind is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which divided and drove away audiences in equal measure. Clearly the film was praised by only the actors branch, as the perceived Best Picture contender landed three acting nominations and nothing else. I for one held out great hope for Rian Johnson’s intuitive and stunning Looper, another of my favorite films of 2012 to land a nod here. Alas, Looper was never viewed as anything other than a genre pic, and its ruthless and uncompromising nature seemingly left voters cold.

Other people have pointed to French language film The Intouchables as missing here, while films such as End Of Watch, Arbitrage, and Seven Psychopaths had their champions as well.