Are original screenplays back in business? I invariably lament that studios these days are afraid to take risks on truly original films, preferring instead to nestle within the cozy security blanket of the built-in audience. (That I make such lamentations while skipping happily on my way to the next corporate blockbuster is no concern of yours.) After all, there's no safer bet in Hollywood than a sequel, except perhaps a low-budget horror movie, or maybe a romance or thriller based on a thriving young-adult literary franchise. But this year's slate of Best Original Screenplay nominees suggests that some movies can feature innovative, challenging premises while dodging the stigma of box-office poison. One nominee has already crossed $150 million, two others will likely end their run with at least $90 MM in the bank, and a fourth nearly tripled its $16 MM budget at domestic theatres alone. So let's not start writing the obituary on original screenplays that manage to stimulate both the mind and the cash registers just yet.
Amour – Michael Haneke
Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino
Flight – John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal
The only nominee with absolutely no chance of winning is Flight.
I'm still half-convinced that it's only here because of a clerical
error, or because Academy members got confused about whether Looper
is spelled with one "o" or two. I don't even feel like making a bad pun
about how its Oscar chances are grounded. Meanwhile, the film fan in me
sorely wants to give Moonrise Kingdom a puncher's chance, and this category does have a history of throwing curveballs (witness past wins for The Usual Suspects and Talk to Her).
Unfortunately, no film without a Best Picture nomination has won this
award since Charlie Kaufman's sublimely weird screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it only had to fend off one Best Picture nominee rather than three. I'm too much of a romantic to write off Moonrise Kingdom's chances entirely, but its odds are only slightly better than those of surviving after getting struck by lightning.
That leaves us with the aforementioned three Best Picture nominees, and
while it's tempting to view this as a two-horse race between Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, I wouldn't sleep on Amour.
It's a tender and moving love story that will likely speak to a large
contingent of the Academy's members (many of whom are, well, pretty
freaking old). Still, in the end, I think Amour's best shot is in
the Best Actress category, and ironically, Michael Haneke's ruthlessly
formal discipline as a director may overshadow his compassion as a
So we're left with a rematch between Quentin Tarantino and Mark Boal,
and it's liable to give me the shakes. For those of you not well-versed
in Manifesto lore, I got burned in 2009 when I tabbed Tarantino's
screenplay for Inglourious Basterds over Boal's script for The Hurt Locker, and I'm not inclined to repeat the mistake a second time around. But here's the thing: The Hurt Locker was the clear frontrunner for Best Picture in 2009, whereas Zero Dark Thirty's buzz seems to have diminished since its release. Django Unchained,
meanwhile, continues to rake in cash, as it pulls off the rare feat of
being a glamorous crowd-pleaser that doubles as a decidedly serious film
about the thoroughly unglamorous topic of racism. Indeed, both pictures
are charged with so much controversy – Django Unchained for its portrayal of racially tinged ultraviolence, Zero Dark Thirty for its unblinking depiction of torture – that they border on scandal.
But their screenplays approach that scandal through different means, and
it's here where I think Tarantino pulls in front. Boal's script for Zero Dark Thirty
is scrupulous and impressive in the way it assimilates and dispenses
information, but it isn't particularly writerly; it's essentially the
template for a compelling, historically divisive police procedural.
Tarantino's story of a black slave spewing wrath at his white masters,
in contrast, feels like it was borne from the mind of a true writer.
Throw in Tarantino's trademark conversational style – personified most
winningly by Christoph Waltz's King Schultz, a noble bounty hunter
masquerading as a dentist – and Django Unchained comes out on top.
Let me be clear: I liked Flight. It's a well-made, efficiently
plotted movie that features a killer lead performance, as well as one of
the most riveting suspense sequences of the entire year. But its
screenplay simply does not belong here. It's not that it's bad – John
Gatins' story of addiction and its consequences make for serviceable,
occasionally intriguing drama. But remove the volcanic fury of Denzel
Washington's acting and the texture of Robert Zemeckis' direction, and
we're left with nothing we haven't seen before, right down to the
unforgivably sentimental conclusion. The category is called Best
Original Screenplay, and for the most part, Flight's script is sorely lacking in originality.
Tarantino's screenplay for Django Unchained is certainly
original; as a writer, Tarantino is truly unique in his ability to evoke
a particular mood and to tell stories with a distinct voice. His movie
would have been vastly improved, however, if his assistant had waited
until he'd gone out partying one night with Uma Thurman, then sneaked
into his office and set the script's last 30 pages on fire. For the
majority of its runtime, Django Unchained is electric
entertainment, a hypnotic and bloody tale of exploitation, vengeance,
and skullduggery. But in the last half hour, Tarantino turns the voltage
up so high that the meter explodes, opting for increasingly monotonous
violence that turns mayhem into boredom. To be fair to his screenplay,
the problem lies more in his failings as a director than as a writer –
it's entirely possible that he filled 15 minutes of action from the
single tag, "Django kills people" – but I can't reward a movie that
stumbles so badly in its payoff, no matter how glorious its setup.
Amour shares a similarity with Django Unchained in that
its writer-director wrings lengthy and elaborate passages of suffering
from a conceptually simple idea. The difference – O.K., one of many
differences – is that where Tarantino's picture sprays bullets and blood
and fells innumerable faceless baddies, the violence in Amour is
muted and intimate, though its stench of death is in many ways more
pervasive. Haneke's clinical examination of the enduring bonds of a
lengthy marriage, and of its gradual disintegration, is pitiless in its
unflinching detail and sense of authenticity. But it is also a generous,
compassionate story of marital love, as well as a thoroughly human
portrait of a man clinging to the one person who provides meaning to his
life, even as hers slips away.
Boal's screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty lacks Amour's depth of feeling, but it's the very absence of feeling that defines the terror-chasers of his pages. Zero Dark Thirty
is about people obsessed with their work at the expense of all else,
and Boal sketches that fanaticism with cool, precise detachment. He
refuses to pander to his audience, preferring to let us draw our own
conclusions, and the result is an exhilaratingly oblique viewing
experience. As a historical document, Boal's screenplay efficiently
streamlines ten years' worth of investigative work into a tidy,
feature-length thriller, but it also encapsulates an entire nation's
stricken panic, communicating Zero Dark Thirty's stakes without resorting to shrill jingoism.
There's no panic to be found in Wes Anderson's and Roman Coppola's screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom,
though its story does court death, cruelty, and other perils of
children's summer camp. What is to be found is a warm, utterly charming
account of young love and all its attendant confusion and jubilation. As
a filmmaker, Anderson is often guilty of subjugating his characters to
his own fastidious style, an approach that tends to yield pristinely
manicured works of museum-grade art that are ultimately drained of
feeling. But while Moonrise Kingdom is undeniably a Wes Anderson
film, its characters come first. A boy-meets-girl story infused with
whimsy and wonder, the movie's underlying emotions are universal, but
Anderson's storytelling is also marvelously idiosyncratic and strange,
with a number of eccentric moments that define the characters rather
than upstage them. At its sizeable heart, the movie is about little more
than two souls falling in love, but there's nothing more important in
their minds, and in ours as well.
MY IDEAL BALLOT
Amour – Michael Haneke
The Cabin in the Woods – Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Looper – Rian Johnson
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Ruby Sparks – Zoe Kazan
The Cabin in the Woods proves to be the most deliriously
entertaining movie of the year, an ultra-meta horror movie that both
stops our hearts and tickles our brains. Looper introduces a
fascinating premise, then builds it out into a series of cascading
encounters that ultimately rise to the level of epic tragedy. Ruby Sparks
takes an equally fascinating premise but turns it inward, using its
innovative ideas as a mechanism to explore the need for reciprocity in
My ideal winner: Looper – Rian Johnson.
Also deserving: Compliance – Craig Zobel (for relaying
its stranger-than-fiction narrative with sickening starkness); Rust and
Bone – Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain (for telling a sentimental tale
in as fiercely unsentimental a manner as possible); Take This Waltz –
Sarah Polley (for its courage in allowing its three main characters to
behave badly); Your Sister's Sister – Lynn Shelton (for its naked
emotion in allowing its three main characters to behave decently).