Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: The screenplays

The prevailing trend of criticism among stuffy movie reviewers over the past few years (or decades, or millennia) is simple: Hollywood pictures are too rote. Scan the web for reviews of movies such as The A-Team, and you'll invariably find cineastes grousing about how studios are recycling the same tired ideas over and over and how filmmakers are prioritizing action and star power over foundational elements like plot and character. Now, the Manifesto has always prided itself on steering clear of this haughty line of scholarly arrogance; I can't say that I've never met a blockbuster I didn't like, but I've never dismissed a movie solely because it made money.

Nevertheless, if we assume that these stodgy critics actually have a point (and, on occasion, they do), then perhaps no two Oscar categories are more important to modern cinema than the next two. Good movies begin with good scripts, so the celebration of top-tier screenplays is particularly noteworthy in the current era. In theory, an Oscar-winning screenplay could shape the contours of stellar screenwriting for years to come. Or it could be the script for Crash.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

NOMINEES
127 Hours – Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
True Grit – Joel & Ethan Coen
Winter's Bone – Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini

WILL WIN
It's tempting for me to just triumphantly shout "SOCIAL NETWORK!" and be done with it. But I'm wary of that film's 2009 doppelganger, a truly excellent movie that dominated on the awards' circuit for most of the season before inexplicably lagging during the home stretch, ultimately coming away with exactly zero Oscars. The film I'm referring to is, of course, Up in the Air, which charged out of the gate only to fizzle at the finish, with the final insult coming when it lost this category (where it had been perceived as a virtual lock) to Precious. And the similarities between Up in the Air and The Social Network are alarming: Both received near-unanimous adulation from critics, both were warmly embraced by audiences, both were initially perceived as the Oscar frontrunner at the time of their release, and both eventually ran out of steam (presumably, in the latter's case).

The crucial difference, at least for this category, is that whereas Up in the Air featured a highly visible cast – with an established superstar in the lead role – The Social Network's most recognizable figure is Aaron Sorkin. Don't get me wrong, Jesse Eisenberg is already a phenomenal actor, and Andrew Garfield is fast on his way to becoming one, but they don't yet have moviestar cachet (nor does Justin Timberlake – remember who's voting here). Sorkin, on the other hand, is the guy who created "The West Wing" and is reputed as one of the most gifted writers in the business.

It helps that his competition isn't particularly strong. (Of course, I said that about Up in the Air vis-à-vis Precious last year. Grr.) 127 Hours features limited dialogue, and the Academy tends to focus on wordplay more so than storytelling in this category, while the sparse, slow-paced narrative of Winter's Bone is unlikely to inspire many voters. Toy Story 3 packages a delightful story within its witty script, but if Wall-E can't win this award, no animated movie can.

The only true challenger to The Social Network comes from the Coen Brothers, who already won a screenwriting Oscar three years ago for No Country for Old Men. Yet while the redemption tale of True Grit is undeniably appealing, the movie is less memorable for its screenplay than for its striking imagery and breakthrough performance. In any case, none of the competitors features the snap-crackle-pop dialogue that only Sorkin can pen. So even if the movie will find itself grotesquely marginalized for the majority of Oscar night, The Social Network can at least content itself with this award for Sorkin. Why? Because he's CEO, bitch.




SHOULD WIN
I always feel obligated to throw out a cautionary note here in that I'm not qualified to weigh in on this category. That's because the award is for best adapted screenplay; the key is how skillfully the writer can translate previously existing material to the screen. And given that I haven't read the source material for four of the nominees, I can't opine with authority about the relative quality of the adaptations.

That said, The Social Network is my clear winner here for a number of reasons. First, 127 Hours is a screenwriting zero; Aron Ralston's journey may have been extraordinary, but Danny Boyle's and Simon Beaufoy's script fails to adequately communicate the metaphysical weight of his struggle. Second, Toy Story 3 shouldn't even be here – it's an entirely original story that just happens to be based on characters created 15 years ago, so what the hell is it adapting? Third, Winter's Bone was boring. And fourth, as enjoyable a movie as True Grit is, it never digs under the skin of its characters and discovers what makes them tick.

Which is not to say that Sorkin deserves his Oscar as a result of mere process of elimination. The omnipresent danger of a Sorkin script – and the best and worst thing about "The West Wing" – is his tendency to outsmart his audience and cross the line from intelligent writing to outright showmanship. But the dialogue of The Social Network, while smart, is never condescending. True, the characters frequently engage in Sorkin's whiplash-style back-and-forth, but the banter has a surprisingly naturalistic feel, resulting in a script that's both sharp and honest. Throw in a dizzying, brilliantly conceived narrative structure that fluidly dips and dives across multiple timelines and character arcs, and you've got a screenplay for the ages.


MY IDEAL BALLOT
Fair Game – Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 – Steve Kloves
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich

The Butterworths do a magnificent job encapsulating years of thorny political gamesmanship in Fair Game while nevertheless providing a refreshingly partisan perspective. Steve Kloves continues his impressive run with the Harry Potter franchise, excising subplots and spinning new scenes that are fully cinematic yet still feel as though they were birthed in the Potterverse. Wright and Bacall keep the pedal to the metal in Scott Pilgrim in a spirited effort to capture the colorful vitality of a graphic novel. And if I'm forced to consider Toy Story 3 in the adapted category, it's certainly making my ballot – the following scene says more than I ever could (spoilers follow).




Also deserving: The Ghost Writer – Robert Harris, Roman Polanski (for turning something as potentially boring as political intrigue into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse); Love & Other Drugs – Charles Randolph et al. (for never fearing to mix humor with emotion, even if the mixture never quite settles); Never Let Me Go – Alex Garland (for its patience); Rabbit Hole (for its sensitivity); The Secret in Their Eyes – Eduardo Sacheri, Juan José Campanella (for tying its multi-timeline story together with grace and economy).


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

NOMINEES
Another Year – Mike Leigh
The Fighter – Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington
Inception – Christopher Nolan
The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg
The King's Speech – David Seidler

WILL WIN
You know the drill. The past five Best Picture winners have also scooped an award for their screenplay, so it's impossible to pick against The King's Speech here. It's true that the Oscars have shown the tendency to go off a map a bit in this category, awarding such oddball titles as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Talk to Her. That, however, is potentially a byproduct of the curious fact that seven of the past nine Best Picture winners have served as adaptations of previously existing material. The last time the winner in this category triumphed over the eventual Best Picture victor was when Almost Famous knocked off Gladiator in 2000.

If there's a potential spoiler here, I'd point to Inception, as its sheer originality could give it the, ahem, kick that it needs. Alternatively, The Kids Are All Right is a dialogue-heavy film that resides right in Hollywood's backyard. But those are both hefty longshots, so Seidler should feel plenty secure.




SHOULD WIN
Inception, and handily, but I do want to acknowledge Mike Leigh's muted, perfectly pitched screenplay for Another Year. The movie isn't perfect – it could have trimmed a decent chunk of its material without fear of losing its theme (as my father put it, "They should have called it Another Nine Months") – but Leigh continues to showcase a sharp ear for the nuances of everyday conversation, as well as a keen eye for the desperation that clouds the banality of everyday life.

That said, Leigh's screenplay doesn't feature a freight train barreling through a crowded city street as projections of the dream subject's subconscious open fire on a team of extractors who are waiting to burrow two levels deeper into that subconscious before they plant an idea about corporate espionage disguised as a cathartic father-son reconciliation, even though they're all actually just sleeping on a freaking jumbo jet the whole time. Nolan's does. So there.




MY IDEAL BALLOT
Agora – Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil
Another Year – Mike Leigh
Inception – Christopher Nolan
The King's Speech – David Seidler
The Square – Joel Edgerton, Matthew Dabner

Agora is a curious combination of scientific discovery, religious zealotry, and historical bigness, and the script blends it into a thoroughly engaging melodrama. I've been harping on The King's Speech quite a bit recently, mainly in a comparative sense, but Seidler's screenplay is both economical and reasonably stirring. The Square, meanwhile, is chilly noir at its darkest and finest.

Also deserving: Ajami – Yaron Shani, Scandar Copti (for taking an intimate look at a cultural problem); Black Swan – Mark Heyman et al. (for making ballet batshit crazy); Dogtooth – Giorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou (for making homeschooling batshit crazy).

2 comments:

jake D said...

Got quite the, ahem, kick out of this. My favorite part? Either you praising a movie for its "sensitivity" (Rabbithole) or the following quote: "Black Swan – Mark Heyman et al. (for making ballet batshit crazy); Dogtooth – Giorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou (for making homeschooling batshit crazy).". Well said.

Jeremy said...

Thank you, sir. Regarding Rabbit Hole, by "sensitivity" I really meant that I was impressed with the way it handled potentially melodramatic material (in this case, the death of a child and its aftermath) without slipping into actual melodrama. The screenplay isn't perfect -- a few of the supporting characters are thinly sketched, and a few scenes feel forced (though they may be a direct lift from the play) -- but it's refreshing to see a movie that can be honest about marital and familial strife without being maudlin.