Every year, the Academy Awards and its voters honor screenwriters old and new by handing out the statue for the Best Original Screenplay, often while employing a lackluster script of its own. While it remains to be seen what kind of material host Ellen DeGeneres will be given, you can bet than the stage direction "This is the part where you dance" will show up more than a few times. Probably in between jokes about Christian Bale’s gut, or his beard, or his hair.
There are a few dancing scenes scattered throughout this year’s Original Screenplay nominees, sometimes with a phone and sometimes with a bull, but these films are much more memorable for their portrayals of love, aging, survival, family and – in American Hustle’s case – pulling the ultimate con. I can’t promise that my own writing about these films will be worthy of awards and praise, but I think I can safely say my prediction will hold true by the time the ceremony airs on March 2.
And I didn’t even need an artificially intelligent OS to help me, though she was pretty good at giving me moral support as I wrote.
DARK HORSES: Dallas Buyers Club and NebraskaSometimes the most meaningful stories are in the most obvious of places, such as the history books. Other times, they come from a much more personal place. The back end of this year’s nominees exercises those points of view to tell hard-hitting emotional tales, but not necessarily the ones that the Academy will douse with honors.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club is definitely one of 2013’s most memorable films, but that is in large part due to the gobstopping performances of leading actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, both of whom took on physical transformations to truly become the real-life characters they were portraying. And while there is an undeniable power to the story of Texas bigot-turned-savior Ron Woodroof and his behind-the-scenes battle for proper HIV medical treatment, screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack carved a fairly rote path to take viewers from emotionally challenging point A to point B, adapting history in as simple a manner as possible.
Meanwhile, Bob Nelson’s script for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is anything but intuitive, taking viewers on a road trip both literally (across the Cornhusker State) and figuratively (through one’s mortality), with stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte proving that sometimes the hardest relationships to be a part of are the ones that we are born into. With its ensemble cast and introspective themes, Nebraska could easily take this prize in a different year, but the competition this year is just a little too stiff, much like my back after a long car ride through the country.
CONTENDERS: Blue Jasmine and American HustleIt’s like Woody Allen took a trip in a time machine back to a point in his career where he was running on all cylinders and somehow co-wrote Blue Jasmine with himself. While the nominated actresses Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins are no doubt worthy of their praise, the words coming out of their mouths are just as important as the manner in which they were delivered. It’s been a while since I genuinely disliked a film character as much as Jasmine, but it’s a testament to how richly imbued she is on the page, a pillar of class on a foundation of classlessness. And the deft switching between past and present doesn’t hurt either.
I often think David O. Russell scripts are more interesting than the films he inevitably directs, and I am assuming his American Hustle screenplay, co-written with Eric Warren Singer, is quite a treat on the page without all the gaudy wigs, sunglasses and uncomfortable accents. But once you fill the screen with Hollywood’s elite and give them free reign over how to play the parts, then the characters become more important than the real life story being told. While this film may end up sweeping the Oscars for its performances, let’s not forget that one of the most memorable aspects of American Hustle involves an ice fishing story that doesn’t even get fully told during the movie. If something that isn’t on the page is more memorable than what is, I’m not sure this really deserves top honors.
FRONTRUNNER: HerScience fiction is not a genre that the Academy readily acknowledges, and even less so when it involves technology as a replacement for humanity. But Spike Jonze has created a story that transcends genre and gets to the heart of who we are as people and what we may or may not want for ourselves if the pickings are tailor-made for us. Though Jonze’s cinematography is quite gorgeous (when the camera isn’t pointed directly as Joaquin Phoenix’s often blank face), it’s the relationship he crafts between Theodore Twombly and his operating system Samantha that makes this a lock for the win.
After all, this is for "Original" screenplay, and it’s the only movie here besides Nebraska that truly fits into that mold, as two of the films are based on real events and Allen didn’t really stretch himself for Blue Jasmine subject matter. But Her is both a complex look at how some people are unequipped to handle grief on their own and a tale of how fascination with technology (or anything) can easily become an addiction with no easy exit. While there are a few shortcomings, Jonze has created the atypical romantic drama that defies most expectations, with dialogue I could easily hear myself blurting out if Scarlett Johansson was ever talking to me from my phone. Expect this Oscar to sit next to the screenplay Golden Globe that Jonze already won. Maybe there’s room for the WGA Award as well.