OSCAR GUIDE: Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

Posted by · 11:54 am · March 5th, 2010

Woody Harrelson in The MessengerBest Original Screenplay: 2009’s most difficult category to predict. Why? Certainly not because of each contender’s merits (when does that ever come into play with the Academy). No, this field is a hair-puller because you have a vibrant, likable personality up against the Best Picture frontrunner, always a recipe for a close race (and, sometimes, a recipe for upset).

This year’s nominees contain four Best Picture nominees and one surprise (which thankfully ousted the most overrated indie charmer of the year). Atypically, there are as many Best Picture nominees represented here than in the adapted field, which can’t be a bad thing.

The nominees are:

“The Hurt Locker” (Mark Boal)
“Inglourious Basterds” (Quentin Tarantino)
“The Messenger” (Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman)
“A Serious Man” (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
“Up” (Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter; Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy)

Only two of the films nominated feature Oscar-returning screenwriters (each of them with wins under their belts). Three of the films are war studies (two of them sincere). But what will last gasp campaigning mean in the final analysis? (It is entirely possible I could change my final prediction in this category, so check back Saturday for my full list of final predictions.)

Mark Boal is very much in the news lately for the work he put into “The Hurt Locker,” which was inspired in large part by the reportage that yielded his 2005 Playboy piece “The Man in the Bomb Suit.” But regardless of craven lawsuits, the film has found itself in the frontrunner position for Best Picture, which means Boal’s work ought to be taken seriously here. He crafted a non-traditional narrative around an enigmatic lead character, finding authentic dialog rhythms and a structure that nevertheless worked to his and the film’s advantage. Levels of poignancy are reached in the third act, especially in the film’s final moments, that leave the viewer on a very thoughtful note, which could go a long way toward securing support from members who want to be a bit serious with their vote.

If frivolity is preferred to sincerity, then there is the always charming Quentin Tarantino and his WWII romp “Inglourious Basterds” to consider. The screenplay is, like Boal’s, very non-traditional. A typical over-abundance of lofty dialog, which Tarantino calls his “poetry,” rubbed a few wrong, but found just as many supporters along the way. The film was a critical hit overall, which yielded eight critics’ awards for Best Screenplay throughout the circuit. But industry-wise, the BAFTA and WGA (which is beside the point, since Tarantino is not a signatory) went another way. And even the Harvey-friendly HFPA didn’t bite, which raises the question, while it’s undeniable the film has a following and many love it, does anyone truly take it seriously? And did that last aggressive push do more harm than good?

The big surprise in the category (and a welcome surprise at that) was Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman’s nomination for “The Messenger.” An interesting companion piece to “The Hurt Locker” this year, the screenplay depicts the agony of loss and the psychological torment of the war at home. A number of scenes (perfectly acted by the year’s best ensemble) capture the raw emotion of that reality, interspersed with the moving emotional journey of the film’s lead. One can only imagine that the film was close to a Best Picture nomination, given a savvy campaign and this unexpected mention, but it’s still left to be seen whether enough members have actually seen it. If they did, this could be an interesting spoiler, or at least maybe a beneficiary of a split vote. Then again, probably not.

The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, found their way back into Oscar’s good graces for the third time this year with the seemingly esoteric, but cunningly universal (and brilliant) “A Serious Man.” In a just world, they walk away with the Oscar. But the reality is, even with a Best Picture nomination, chances are slim. With their screenplay (which was written in tandem with “No Country for Old Men” and “Burn After Reading”), the Coens assembled perhaps their most intimate portrait to date, one of notable insight and a thoughtful piece that, quite hysterically, pretends not to be thoughtful at all. And that’s the point the Coens make with their film, from an opening quote on black until the narrative’s end: accept the mystery. And receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.

To be perfectly honest, if you want to know the true dark horse lurking and waiting to spoil, I’d point you to Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and the animated Best Picture nominee “Up.” First, the film is racking up plenty of number two votes in the Best Picture field. It’s probably safe to assume Pixar has been close to a screenplay Oscar the last few times out, and this is one of the most powerful, emotional narratives of the year, one that blends sincerity with absurdity and sticks the thematic landing. The only real hurdle is the old standby: animated filmmaking is not taken seriously outside of its ghetto category. But in a tight race, anything can happen. While the two frontrunners are somewhat marred by competitive controversy, Pixar looks like a safe bet and a vote you’d feel good about making.

Will win: “The Hurt Locker”
Could win: “Inglourious Basterds”
Should win: “A Serious Man”

Should have been here: “Mary and Max”

(from left) Jeremy Renner and Evangeline Lilly in The Hurt Locker

What do you think deserves to win this year’s Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? Have your say in the sidebar poll!

→ 27 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

27 responses so far

  • 1 3-05-2010 at 12:18 pm

    David said...

    While I do not think that Tarantino will win this year (it’ll be a close one, but I think Hurt Locker will prevail), I do object to you knocking its chances by citing its Golden Globe loss in the Original Screenplay creenplay category. It’s unfair because it lost to Up In the Air, the lock for the Adapted Screenplay category. For all we know, the HFPA could have had Tarantino right in second place, and he would have taken it, had they split their screenplay categories in the same fashion that the Academy does.

    Personally, I think because Tarantino was up against Reitman & Turner at the Globes, and that he was ineligible with WGA, this race is quite ambiguous because of the absence of legitimate precursors that we can count on. I still think that Hurt Locker’s momentum will propel it to a victory, but Tarantino hasn’t really “lost” much… so much as he hasn’t competed. If that makes any sense.

    But, nobody knows anything.

  • 2 3-05-2010 at 12:18 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    It should go to Tarantino – original screenplay isn’t always a serious category – look at Ghost winning or Good Will Hunting winning.

  • 3 3-05-2010 at 12:24 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    Yeah, Up winning Original Screenplay is my ballsy insane unlikely prediction. You know why it would be awesome? BECAUSE THOMAS MCCARTHY WOULD GET AN OSCAR! After being snubbed for The Station Agent and The Visitor, this would be an acceptable make-up win for him. Also, the writing on Up was some of PIXAR’s most intelligent, witty, and emotional work.
    And Up makes nearly everyone cry. That factor cannot be underestimated.

  • 4 3-05-2010 at 12:24 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    David: It’s not a knock it’s just simple fact. The HFPA are consistently wooed by Harvey Weinstein (The Great Debaters, Bobby, hello) and there were plenty who thought Quentin would win that night. Reitman even said during his acceptance, flat out, “Quentin I thought you were winning this,” so it shouldn’t go unmentioned.

    But I follow your logic otherwise. Believe me. This is the closest race for me to call.

    /3rtfu11: Both of those films were dramas that didn’t feature 10 second close-up of scalpings. They were quite “serious.” So I don’t get your point, really.

  • 5 3-05-2010 at 12:28 pm

    brian said...

    Inglourious Basterds is so much more obviously written than the more subtle Hurt Locker, it feels the same way when Juno won. Plus Tarantino is a star and Mark Boal is not. Added to that, this is the only award Basterds will get outside supporting actor. It seems like Basterds is the one here. Am I wrong?

  • 6 3-05-2010 at 12:29 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Not an unsound line of logic by any stretch, brian.

  • 7 3-05-2010 at 12:31 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    thats the best should have been there so far kris, wish more people had seen mary and max. im rooting for basterds, a serious man would be second, than up than hurt locker, still havent seen the messanger so no comment. didnt catch the last station in time either, o well

  • 8 3-05-2010 at 12:34 pm

    MovieMan said...

    Will win: “The Hurt Locker”
    Could win: “Inglourious Basterds”
    Should win: “Inglourious Basterds”
    Should have been here: “Away We Go”
    Commentary: I have not seen “The Messenger,” so no comment either way. The writing on “A Serious Man” was it’s biggest problem and the reason I didn’t like the film as much as just about everyone else. The writing on “The Hurt Locker” has no chance to lose, but I for one thought it was thin material for a screenplay that never quite took advantage of the material. Same with the writing for “Up,” which got bogged down in silly humor for an hour. The best writing of the year in general was Tarantino’s masterpiece, which I’ve made no bones about being the Film of the Year. I’ll talk more in depth in tomorrow’s Oscar Guide entry, but in a just world, this would win almost every award it’s up for.

  • 9 3-05-2010 at 12:34 pm

    Megan said...

    I really want this one to go to Quentin. I strongly contend that his film deserves more than just one acting award. I really do. He’s the only one I know who can make the “talky” parts of movies the truly best parts. A true master of his craft.

    That aside, I just wasn’t moved in any way by HL’s screenplay. In fact, the only line that I found compelling-and it’s an odd one-is when Guy Pierce says, “Is it weird that I’m craving a cheeseburger…?” I loved that line. Don’t know why. Other than that, while the screenplay was appropriate and it worked, a lot of it felt familiar.

    Oh, and the fact that “Somebody to Love” is playing on the radio right now reminds me: I also loved Serious Man’s writing. I almost revere the Coens for creating this inconceivable unity between comedy and drama. If they won-and it’s a total longshot-I’d be a happy girl.

    To me, it’s simple:

    Basterds > Serious Man > Hurt Locker

  • 10 3-05-2010 at 12:36 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    It’s a toss-up for sure.

    What could be argued against Inglourious Basterds would be that Tarantino has already won in this category and he did it for a film most people would agree is far superior (as a film and as a screenplay) to Inglourious Basterds. Not that he wouldn’t deserve to win it again, but he’s already been awarded for his unique style and voice, and he doesn’t make the kind of movies the Academy en masse goes gaga for.

    But The Hurt Locker is so non-flashy for an Original Screenplay winner. Most of the winners in recent times have been more unique and distinct, like Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Juno.. And that aspect of it speaks for Inglourious Basterds.

    One of them will win, but the odds seem 50/50. I might as well flip a coin to make my final pick.

  • 11 3-05-2010 at 12:40 pm

    Al said...

    I agree with the notion that Mary and Max should be there. Hell, it were up to me, it would be in animated feature, and best picture as well. Best Director too, while we’re at it. Top 5 of the year, easily.

  • 12 3-05-2010 at 12:43 pm

    Joe said...

    Kris: you know “A Serious Man” should win. I know “A Serious Man” should win. Maybe the Academy does too? For many of the same reasons that Sandra Bullock is being predicted (BP nomination and absolutely nothing else), I’m going out on a limb here.
    Interestingly enough, I would have picked “500 Days” (barely) over “ASM”. Oh, how we can completely agree on one film, and completely disagree on another.

  • 13 3-05-2010 at 1:37 pm

    Al said...

    By the way, I agree with David. Tarantino may not have won screenplay at Globes like many people thought, but again, the winner is now in a different category all together. So he cares if Tarantino didn’t win as expected, what David was saying is he won’t be against Up In The Air again. A very valid point. Same with WGA. Obviously Hurt Locker was going to win that, its main competition wasn’t in the running. The only real precursor that HL won in my eyes was the BAFTA.

    Basterds for the win.

  • 14 3-05-2010 at 1:39 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think you both missed the point, but whatever. My brain hurts.

  • 15 3-05-2010 at 2:24 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Easiest decision ever: “A Serious Man.”

    The Coens are master writers, and this is probably the culmination of their brilliance. There was no more consistently funny, thought-provoking, or profoundly layered film in 2009, let alone the past decade or so, one that tapped so deeply into life as it pertains to philosophy, religion, and the very core questions of human existence, done through an intricate folk retelling of the Book of Job.

    It’s a piece of complete perfection, and the clear victor among these five.

  • 16 3-05-2010 at 2:33 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Oh, and Quentin should certainly not win. That’s a bloated and baggy script, the main thing that makes “Inglourious Basterds” sometimes maddeningly slow. Those prolonged conversational scenes do NOT need to last as long as they do. Learn when to hold back, buddy.

  • 17 3-05-2010 at 2:40 pm

    Megan said...

    Speaking English:

    Pretty much in agreement with you on comment 15, but in complete opposition with comment 16.

    This to me is the real white-knuckler of the big night. I may very well space it through the rest.

    Agh. This is starting to feel like a chore. Sunday can’t get here soon enough.

  • 18 3-05-2010 at 2:46 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I always err on the side of Most. As in Most Visual Effects, Most Art Direction etc. and Basterds certainly fits Most Screenplay. However, this logic proved me wrong when Julian Schnabel lost Best Director for Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

  • 19 3-05-2010 at 3:03 pm

    Al said...

    Is everyone really so tired of this season? Too me its possibly one of the most exciting races of the past 2 decades, at least top 3. Every comment that talks about the length seems to be complaining. Sure almost all of the races are wrapped up, but I honestly believe its a broader game than Avatar V. Hurt Locker in terms of best picture. just a thought.

  • 20 3-05-2010 at 3:04 pm

    Chase K. said...

    I though Speaking was gonna go for Mark Boal on this one – I’m 0-1.

  • 21 3-05-2010 at 3:13 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Al: I’m exhausted. The bags under my eyes don’t lie.

  • 22 3-05-2010 at 3:14 pm

    howard said...

    Seriously a serious man. Should have not been nominated

  • 23 3-05-2010 at 4:26 pm

    Al said...

    Kris, I understand, and Im not complaining about everyones desire for the finish line, I just personally love this season.

  • 24 3-05-2010 at 4:52 pm

    goodvibe61 said...

    It has to be Basterds. The main thing at the end of the day is that The Hurt Locker’s writing is one of the more average qualities it possesses. It’s not much more than functional, it takes a couple of serious missteps, and the building blocks that make up its construction end up not amounting to all that much.

    If Up In The Air were here it might be different (because the Academy’s gonna want to recognize that film and the screenplay is the obvious choice). But it’s not.

    Tarantino is a visionary. The fools out there whose initial comments about this screenplay (gosh, he can’t spell! He’s a child! He’s an idiot!) know who they are and revealed far more about their understanding of writing on the page vs. filmic storytelling than anything else.

    IB for the win.

  • 25 3-05-2010 at 5:07 pm

    Glenn said...

    But remember, the Globes had no where else to reward “Up in the Air”, a movie they clearly loved.

    “First, the film is racking up plenty of number two votes in the Best Picture field.”

    Hmmm. Seems strange to seemingly write that as face. I do, however, love how you grabbed a hold of the word “sincere” (or “sincerity”) and ran with it in this entry. Funny how that happens sometimes when you’re writing.

  • 26 3-06-2010 at 12:08 am

    Simon Warrasch said...

    Will win: The Hurt Locker
    Could and SHOULD Win: Inglourious Basterds!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 27 3-06-2010 at 9:46 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Glenn: I assume you meant “fact” instead of “face,” and if so, not strange at all. It’s a fact.