Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Original Screenplay

Juno – Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl – Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton – Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille – Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco
The Savages – Tamara Jenkins

Will win: Strange group, huh? Usually the two screenplay categories combine to include the five Best Picture nominees, as well as five more movies that are essentially the second tier of Best Picture nominees – call it the Academy’s way of constructing a Top 10 list. But while the Ratatouille nod makes perfect sense – the movie tells a resolutely original story – I’m baffled by the nominations for Lars and the Real Girl (for which screenplay is its only selection) and The Savages (which also has Laura Linney, but that’s it). If I had to rationalize the Lars and the Real Girl pick, I guess you could argue that its most distinctive quality is its wacky premise, which is obviously screenplay-related. But The Savages? No clue. Regardless, if either of those movies wins, then I’m a huge Lars von Trier fan.

As usual, I’ll omit Michael Clayton next, just because it always seems to technically be in contention but never seems to be in actual position to win anything. It’s the Oakland A’s of this year’s Oscars – great regular season record (seven total nominations), no chance against the heavy hitters come playoff time. It needed to pull off a Johan Santana-type trade and send Sydney Pollack, its sound editor, and two of its highest-profile grips to There Will Be Blood for Daniel Day-Lewis. That would absolutely have gone through if Dan Duquette had produced There Will Be Blood.

Anyway, I think Juno wins this, but Ratatouille could make it close. It’s been tricky trying to gauge the buzz on Ratatouille. Obviously it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, but that could be because of that infernal Best Animated Feature category – once voters slotted it in there, they felt satisfied that they’d given the movie its due. Would Ratatouille have received a Best Picture nomination had said Best Animated Feature category never existed? We’ll never fucking know, will we, because the Oscars hate animation and believe it should be segregated, lest it contaminate any of the “real” movies. That’s the only logical explanation for the creation of that category, right? (God, I really hate that category.)

Still, there didn’t seem to be much of an uproar about Ratatouille getting shut out of the big race, possibly because it only received three other minor nominations (for original score, sound mixing, and sound editing), or possibly because all five Best Picture nominees are just too good, so no one could really complain. Then again, can we really discount the winner of 2007’s Golden Tomato – the website Rotten Tomatoes’ designation of best-reviewed wide release of the year (they use some weird weighting scheme in addition to just counting thumbs up and down) – from any category for which it’s nominated?

In this case, yes. Juno may have billed itself as the beloved people’s champ in the Best Picture race, where it’s competing against the critics’ darlings No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, but in the screenplay category it’s the top dog, and it can finally flex its muscle. Take it away, puffy version of Junebug.

(Here’s the real question: Suppose, hypothetically, that Juno were actually based on a novel, or that No Country for Old Men were an original screenplay, and the two competed against each other. Who wins in that scenario? I honestly still think Juno would come up with the victory. Little Miss Sunshine knocked off Babel last year in the original screenplay category, and Juno’s dialogue is just too sharp for it not to win regardless of the competition. And now if Ratatouille wins I’m really going to look like an idiot.)

Should win: The Savages is one of those weird critics’ films that seems completely ordinary while you’re watching it, and you wonder what all the fuss is about, only then you go home, pop open a Sprite, and read a bunch of reviews, and the erudite, perceptive critics all make such lucid, articulate points and draw such interesting conclusions about the finer points of the narrative and the challenging three-dimensionality of the characters that you think to yourself, “Hmm, these guys are smarter than I am, maybe I missed something”. Well, maybe I missed something, but to the best of my recollection, The Savages was completely ordinary, not to mention completely boring.

In contrast, I enjoyed Lars and the Real Girl infinitely more than I thought I would. To be fair, Nancy Oliver’s screenplay has its flaws: It’s overly sentimental in parts, the Patricia Clarkson character feels more like a plot device than a real individual, and it’s crudely obvious in hammering home some of its points (example: Lars is so terrified of human contact that it literally hurts him to touch other people, “like a burn”). But these errors seem insignificant compared to Oliver’s accomplishment of getting us to buy into the movie’s ridiculous premise, showing us a community touchingly characterized by tenderness and acceptance. Everyone in the town cares for Lars, and this affection translates to their enduring care for Bianca. It is oddly moving to see a group of people band together in a united effort to help one troubled soul.

(Here’s a question: If Lars does wind up staying with the real girl, do you think there’s ever a point in their relationship where she turns to him and asks, “By the way, you do know you were dating a doll before we got together, right?”? Perhaps it’s indicative of Oliver’s achievement that we never even consider asking glib questions like this until long after Lars and the Real Girl is over.)

Now, as much as I enjoyed Juno and Michael Clayton as overall films, I’m going to give the screenplay nod to Ratatouille for its magnificent imagination and easy charm. As with his idea for The Incredibles, Brad Bird’s premise is unmistakably original; however, it’s far less accessible, and two summers ago viewers were left scratching their heads when they watched the trailer. A culinarily refined rat roaming the streets of Paris? Was this the new Pixar movie, or a deleted scene from a failed Adam Sandler comedy?

But our skepticism was ill-founded because, in focusing on the specific (you know, the rats), we neglected the piercing universality of Bird’s theme: that innovation is the lifeblood of creation, and that it should be encouraged regardless of its origins. Or, as a character puts it near the end of the film, “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere”. Ratatouille may be about a gastronomic rodent prodigy, but it is also about perseverance in the face of societal derision.

It also creates truly memorable characters, not only the rat chef Remy but the aptly named Anton Ego, a towering, rail-thin culinary critic voiced with magisterial contempt by Peter O’Toole. Ego at first appears to be the most memorable Pixar villain since the dazzlingly effervescent, predatory bird in A Bug’s Life – his review condemning a struggling cook to “his rightful place in history alongside another equally famous chef, Monsieur Boyardee” is both funny and horribly cruel. But he proves not to be a caricature, and at the end of the movie Bird supplies Ego with a triumphant, eloquent speech detailing the merits of artistic criticism. (Could this be why critics responded to Ratatouille so positively? Nah.) It’s a wonderfully multi-faceted screenplay, inventive, funny, and touching. And that’s why it’s deserving of the Oscar.

Sunshine – Alex Garland. Danny Boyle’s highly engrossing tale of a band of dedicated scientists charged with delivering a nuclear payload into the heart of the sun, the movie was applauded by techies for its supposedly accurate scientific appraisals. Apparently the concept that the sun might slowly be dying and that we need to ship off some volunteers to potentially blow themselves up and reinvigorate the solar system’s most important star is actually credible, if also rather terrifying. But while many fans celebrated Sunshine for its technical authenticity – it puts the “science” back in “science-fiction”! – that wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as the various intriguing ethical dilemmas faced by the crew of the Icarus II. Would you sacrifice yourself in order to save mankind? We’ve seen that question before, but how about this one: Would you murder another person to achieve the same ends? Alex Garland’s script is full of cute little moral puzzles such as that, and his ability to cloak them in a scientific context (uh, there are four people on board, and there’s only enough oxygen for three, so you better brush up on your rock-paper-scissors) gives them added weight and accessibility.

(Here’s my own personal, hypothetical moral dilemma: If someone is talking loudly in a movie theatre while the film is playing, is it acceptable to kill that person for the good of the rest of the audience? I say yes. There’s such a thing as justifiable homicide, right? When I went to see Cassandra’s Dream, there was a trio of supremely obnoxious girls who weren’t just chatting on their cell phones for the majority of the movie – they were taking pictures. With flash photography. During the film. The rest of us in the audience nearly transformed into the passengers of the Orient Express; if those girls had been discovered dead when the lights came on, we all would have given each other alibis, and Hercule Poirot himself wouldn’t have been able to discover the actual killer.)

Hot Fuzz – Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg. I’m not quite as obsessed with Shaun of the Dead as most people seem to be, but it’s a worthy parody – call it our generation’s Evil Dead. Wright’s and Pegg’s follow-up is equally entertaining, if equally insubstantial. But I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for any movie that delivers such a deliciously fitting homage to the movie Point Break.

Eastern Promises – Steven Knight. Many thrillers released in the past 10 years or so have employed a various form of the Big Twist. I’d like to say I’ve been able to anticipate most of them in advance, but that’s a pure lie. For all the moviegoing experience I have, I’m relatively blockheaded when it comes to predicting the deliberate surprises of a movie’s narrative. Regardless, while the Big Twist is generally surprising, that doesn’t necessarily make it successful; in fact, it can sometimes have the unfortunate effect of invalidating the rest of the film. Screenwriters are so intent on trying to stun audiences that they’re often willing to abandon narrative coherence in favor of shock value.

Not so for Eastern Promises. Not only is the Big Twist is completely surprising (although you can see it brilliantly foreshadowed in subsequent viewings), but it flows perfectly in the overall context of the narrative. (It also elicited a squeal of delight from my friend Raashi, who had spent the previous 30 minutes with her face buried in her hands.) Kudos.

(Also – and I know I’m about to teeter on the brink of cinematic blasphemy, but just hear me out – I think we all need to take a long, hard look at The Usual Suspects. Don’t get me wrong, I love that movie. I love its deception, its suspense, its pulsing rhythm, its charged action scenes, its coarse humor. But here’s my question: If, rather than coming out in 1995, the original film stock of The Usual Suspects had instead been frozen in a vault for 13 years and was released today, would the movie be so universally well-received? Remember, the twist at the end essentially proved two things: First, Kevin Spacey is – or at least used to be – awesome, and second, the vast majority of the movie never actually happened. In this era of “Holy fuck!” surprises, would people really approve of such an ending? Or would they feel cheated? I’m just asking.
Of course, you could probably just finesse the answer by relating it to the concept of older films being dated in general, but I think most of the classic twist endings in cinema – Psycho, Planet of the Apes, Witness for the Prosecution – hold up surprisingly well with time. But I’m not so sure about The Usual Suspects.)

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