FIRST HALF FYC: Best Screenplay (Original and Adapted)

Posted by · 1:17 pm · December 14th, 2010

For the third episode in our new Oscar-season feature, we take a recess from the acting races and look instead to the screenplays that roped the actors in to begin with. If you’re new to the feature (or even if you aren’t), the game is simple: railing against awards voters’ usual bias towards late-year releases, we’re highlighting a ballot’s worth of notable contenders in each major category, from films released in the first half of the year.

I’ve been doing the categories on a one-by-one basis, but today I’m doubling down and covering both the Original and Adapted Screenplay races. This is partly in order to squeeze in everything I want to cover before Oscar nomination morning, but also partly because one of the categories proved less than rewarding on its own: starting with the adaptations and finding the pickings so slim, I decided that a beefier post was to be created from twinning the categories.

That’s not to dismiss the films and screenplays I’ve selected, even the least of which offer substantial points of interest — and for which I still have more affection than some of the bigger names being  tossed into the Oscar ring. Indeed, the films in this list that don’t entirely click for me are no less (and often more) intriguing than those that do.

Finally, a comb through the list of first-half releases (Mike D’Angelo’s is usefully comprehensive) in search of Best Original Screenplay contenders threw up more possibilities than I had bargained for — this time tomorrow, I know I’ll regret not sticking “Mother” in there, but a balance had to be struck.


Yorgos Lanthimos, “Dogtooth”
A kind of stealthily passive-aggressive horror narrative, Lanthimos takes a simple, even fairytale-infused, high concept and plugs in so many conflicting wires of metaphor that it becomes very hot to the touch indeed. The heady sexual content, meanwhile, rattles the viewer without selling characterization out to shock value.

Andrea Arnold, “Fish Tank”
Okay, so some are now saying this film was eligible for last year’s Oscars, but I’m sticking to my guns, dammit. [UPDATE: I’m right to do so — it’s eligible this year.] You probably know by now why I love this film, and Arnold’s bristling script is a key factor: unafraid of the direct metaphor, she settles on a structure that only seems loose-limbed until a risky third-act left turn that divides viewers.

Adam Green, “Frozen”
Of 2010’s weird mini-trend of confined-space thrillers, culminating in the Oscar-hyped “127 Hours,” Green’s Sundance-stamped stuck-on-a-ski-lift drama was both the least heralded and the most resourceful, with denser emotional lining than Rodrigo Cortes’s NBR-awarded “Buried.” Shot through with grim humor, it deserves a second look, independent of such comparisons.

Jessica Hausner, “Lourdes”
The story revolves around miracles, and in this pitch-perfect screenplay, Hausner has virtually conjured one herself: an acute, dryly funny but generous-spirited investigation into organized faith that questions and critiques without drawing clean borders between truth and belief. No one and everyone is right in Hausner’s church.

Nicole Holofcener, “Please Give”
Holofcener doesn’t exactly move the needle much in her fourth feature screenplay: it mostly refries issues of class, marriage and body image from her previous work, but does so with the grace and confidence of an articulate auteur who hasn’t yet finished saying her piece. Crisp and witty, with more staying power than I anticipated at Berlin in February.


Catherine Breillat, “Bluebeard”
I’m on the record as a non-believer in Breillat’s deliberately chintzy approach to fairytale subversion here (I rather prefer her follow-up, “Sleeping Beauty”), but the script, with its staggered literary voices and potentially rich structural preoccupation with the very nature of storytelling, deserved more fleshed-out cinematic treatment.

Roman Polanski and Robert Harris, “The Ghost Writer”
I’ve expressed my puzzlement over the continued success of Polanski’s film on the European circuit rather a lot lately, so you may be surprised to see it here – but while it suffers from a woolly final act (arguably a problem inherited from Harris’s own source novel), this is for the most part a tidy, yet pleasingly oblique, suspense exercise.

William Davies, Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders, “How to Train Your Dragon”
Honestly, unlike the Academy, I’m loath to declare “Toy Story 3” an adaptation, but even if I swung with that, I’d still throw my lot here: the film’s character schematics are unexpectedly classical, the humour is playful without descending into wiseass-ery, and the writers by and large sidestep the contrived third-act chaos that is lately a staple of the medium.

Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet, “Wild Grass”
I haven’t the read the novel on which Alain Resnais’s extravagantly loopy comedy of manners is based, so I can’t vouch for how many of its disorienting segues and backflips in perspective are the innovation of the screenwriters. Either way, the script offers Resnais an ornate framework of reality and projection around which to curl his cinematic language.

Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini, “Winter’s Bone”
Likely the only screenplay on this list that we’ll hear called on nomination morning, Granik and Rossellini’s take on David Woodrell’s acclaimed novel plays fascinating hide-and-seek games with its genre, shifting its weight from earnest social tract to crow-black comedy in its opening acts to protect the grisly thriller it eventually becomes.

Next week, we’ll return to acting races, as the leading men of 2010’s first half come under scrutiny. Don’t expect much holiday spirit in the selections. For now, however, which screenplays from the Jan-to-June window would you love to see pop up on nomination morning?  Have your say in the comments.

[Photos: DreamWorks Animation, Kino International, IFC Films, Anchor Bay Films, Palisades Tartan, Sony Pictures Classics, Strand Releasing, Summit Entertainment, Roadside Attractions]

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25 responses so far

  • 1 12-14-2010 at 1:30 pm

    seasondays said...

    i cannot agree more with your thoughts on HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON screenplay

    although i did like more TOY STORY 3, i do believe that DRAGON has a much better script

  • 2 12-14-2010 at 1:39 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Despite not working with a 100% fine-tuned screenplay, I would consider the Safdie brothers for DADDY LONGLEGS. Also throw in Maren Ade for EVERYONE ELSE.

  • 3 12-14-2010 at 1:49 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Everyone Else hasn’t reached UK shores yet, and it kills me.

  • 4 12-14-2010 at 1:53 pm

    Jasper said...

    Glad to see that Please Give and Dogtooth’s screenplays are being remembered somewhere.

  • 5 12-14-2010 at 2:05 pm

    Michael said...

    I just caught Everyone Else, and I really did appreciate the film a lot. It had traces of a Euro-flavored Five Easy Pieces to me, although they are both completely different films. I really wish more foreign films could be considered in the major categories.

    Any champion of Dogtooth instantly gets a high five from me. I love that insane strange little movie so much and I couldn’t agree more about its ingenuous screenplay. I still need to catch Lourdes and Wild Grass, but I would more or less agree with all of the other films you mentioned. Perhaps I would also throw in Greenberg as well.

  • 6 12-14-2010 at 2:17 pm

    forts said...

    Am I alone thinking the best part of Toy Story 3 was its script? How To Train Your Dragon was more airy and free but I liked the tone set by the screenplay in TS3 more.

    I also enjoyed the writing in Shutter Island, even if it was overly complex.

  • 7 12-14-2010 at 2:42 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    Guy, what are your thoughts on the Greenberg script? Did you not include it because you don’t like it or because you think it’s already gotten enough notice?

  • 8 12-14-2010 at 3:01 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Though I don’t think it’s as tight or as artful as Baumbach’s previous work, I like Greenberg’s script just fine — just not as much as the five listed here. It’s not as if the number of contenders I like in a given category cuts off at five.

  • 9 12-14-2010 at 3:04 pm

    Eli said...

    I have to say, I saw Everyone Else when it came to the U.S. over the summer, and I wasn’t entirely taken with it. It’s interesting thematically – and gorgeously shot – but the narrative ultimately left me unsatisfied. The characters were too far removed emotionally.

  • 10 12-14-2010 at 4:34 pm

    Noles said...

    Inception should win best screenplay. Hands down. It’s the best original work of the year.

  • 11 12-14-2010 at 4:35 pm

    Liz said...

    Yes for “Frozen”! It was my favorite of the confined-space movies this year, and it really annoys me that it was by far the least-loved. Any one of the characters was more interesting than the one in “Buried,” and “Frozen” even outstrips “127 Hours” in the body horror department. So underrated!

  • 12 12-14-2010 at 4:37 pm

    Liz said...

    OK, I’m not surprised about people not reading the article and just wanting to post their thoughts. But do people not even finish reading the headline? Do they zero in on the “FYC” part and skip the other two words?

    First. Half.

  • 13 12-14-2010 at 4:44 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    FYI, I confirmed Fish Tank is eligible this year, so all good.

  • 14 12-14-2010 at 4:46 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    “… and the writers by and large sidestep the contrived third-act chaos that is lately a staple of the medium.”

    This is usually my biggest problem with most animated movies and I’m glad to hear someone finally address it. I haven’t seen “How to Train Your Dragon”, but I just rented it and plan to watch it shortly, and if it really pulls off a unique third act, that will be quite the accomplishment for an animated film.

  • 15 12-14-2010 at 4:47 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Noles: Not that it fits the remit of the article, but I think Inception’s screenplay is a real mixed bag — the concept is strong, the characterization weak, and the exposition awfully, well, exposed.

  • 16 12-14-2010 at 5:12 pm

    Jeremy said...

    Any eligibility issues for “The Square”? I know it received a stateside release in April.

    Also, whether it’s deposited into the Adapted or Original category, the screenplay for “Toy Story 3” will be on my ballot.

  • 17 12-14-2010 at 5:40 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Yes. Rewarding Nolan for Inception can only be taken as a reward for thinking and dreaming big because the actual screenplay is terrible writing.

  • 18 12-14-2010 at 6:02 pm

    Joe7827 said...

    Gary Whitta! Gary Whitta!! And I agree with Please Give.

  • 19 12-14-2010 at 6:17 pm

    Lev Lewis said...

    I’m gonna be a jerk and say you should’ve thrown in “Mother”. Perhaps over “Frozen”. I’d be on board with a “Frozen” mention if it weren’t for the wolves.

  • 20 12-14-2010 at 6:54 pm

    John said...

    1. Shutter Island–good words, fun plotting, a twist which isn’t that hard to guess (at least not the basic idea of), yet it is a good twist because it gives the story resonance. Bad twists may be unseen but make no sense in the structure of the piece. And great last line.
    2. Kick-Ass. Funny words, complex plotting, characters which work as archetypes yet also perform actions dictated by character.

    1. Inception–I thought this was the second half the year, but I saw someone taking potshots at it, so I thought I’d rebut. This was the kind of script I love… great ideas, dense plotting, yet emotional thrulines carry the action. Also, the characters are constantly dealing with fantastic situations, yet reacting in ways that seem reasonable ( a difficult thing to do in this sort of piece)
    2. Harry Brown–the best of the old-guy action movie genre that’s been springing up. Why because it is first and foremost the story of an understandable man doing things we can support. you need that to make a vigilante movie work. Once you have that, we can get into the whole DEATH-WISHy ness of the film.
    3. Splice–Twisted stuff that proceeds from reasonable motivations. Gives the mutant a character rather than making her a nonentity. Great end.

  • 21 12-14-2010 at 10:57 pm

    Angry Shark said...


    Shutter Island
    How to Train Your Dragon
    Winter’s Bone
    The Ghost Writer

  • 22 12-15-2010 at 1:51 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Lev: But… but… the wolves are the best part!


  • 23 12-15-2010 at 7:16 am

    Bill_the_Bear said...

    As for “The Ghost Writer” script, it’s actually the final act (i.e. after the Ghost leaves the Professor’s house) where the script diverges notably from the original novel. Up until then, the script follows the novel almost totally.

    Also, I found the screenplay of “Please Give” the weakest part of the movie, particularly the characterization of the Catherine Keener character…quite unbelievable.

  • 24 12-15-2010 at 7:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks for the correction, Bill. My memory is shot.

  • 25 12-15-2010 at 12:05 pm

    Andrew F said...

    “Fish Tank” is eligible? Awesome! But why aren’t we seeing any campaigning for it, and a complete absence from the critics awards? I would at least think that Fassbender should get some traction.

    @John: I too loved “Harry Brown”. A real emotional hook in a gloriously pulpy film.