Previewing the 2014 WGA nominations

Posted by · 4:49 pm · January 2nd, 2014

As you may have noticed earlier today, we are now firmly into the Guild stage of the season — with the critics (bar a few groups, notably the august National Society) having largely had their say, it’s time for the industry to pinpoint their favorites of the season. More often than not, Guild nominations usher in a wave of dull consensus: while you’d hope various groups of professional peers would single out different films for different reasons, they have a tendency to zero in on the same tightening circle of Oscar contenders, whether the films particularly excel in their department or not. (Remember when “Sumdog Millionaire” won everything from the SAG ensemble prize to the Costume Designers’ Guild award a few years back?)

With that in mind, the idiosyncratic qualifying requirements for the Writers’ Guild Awards are something of a mixed blessing. Every year, a number of films that are either written by non-Guild members, produced by companies that aren’t Guild signatories or outside Guild guidelines are disqualified from the race — which usually leaves a number of heavyweight titles on the sidelines. Only last year, eventual Oscar winner Quentin Tarantino was WGA-ineligible for “Django Unchained”; ditto “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Amour,” also nominated by the Academy’s writers’ branch. (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Master” and “Looper” all benefited from their absence.)

On the one hand, it’s unfortunate whenever red tape prevents the recognition of good work. On the other, however, the disqualifications make the WGA less predictable than most Guild honors, while the elimination of otherwise surefire favorites gives less-hyped underdogs a moment in the sun. “I Love You Philip Morris” was a particularly unexpected nominee in the adapted field a few years ago; “Zodiac,” shamefully ignored throughout the 2007 race, found some respite here. The WGA is also kinder than the Academy to commercial comedy and genre film — Judd Apatow, never cited by the Academy, is a two-time nominee for Best Original Screenplay — though animation is largely barred. Swings and roundabouts, then.

This year, the most crucial WGA disqualifications are in the Best Adapted Screenplay race. Rather than expanding our options, however, they have the unfortunate effect of making an already lean category practically threadbare. John Ridley’s screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” widely agreed to have the Oscar just about in the bag, is out of the running; same goes for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s Venice-laureled, semi-comedic script for “Philomena,” widely tipped for an Oscar nod whether the film scores for Best Picture or not.

Three adapted screenplays would appear to be fixed in place, both here and in the Oscar race. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke received Oscar and Guild nods for their spry, organically developed work on “Before Sunset” nine years ago, and there’s no reason to think they won’t do the same for a follow-up as beloved as “Before Midnight.” (Both are original screenplays, of course, but let us not carp.) “Captain Phillips” may seem more a director’s showcase than a writer’s one, but it’s proved a solid all-rounder in the race thus far and should net “Hunger Games” alumnus Billy Ray his first WGA nod. And “The Wolf of Wall Street,” divisive as it may be, is surely too flashily loquacious for the writers to resist, particularly with Terence Winter already a four-time WGA winner for his TV work on “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

What benefits from the absence of “12 Years a Slave” and “Philomena,” then? “August: Osage County,” most likely: Tracy Letts hasn’t exactly done his Pulitzer-winning play many favors in this overly compressed adaptation, but residual prestige should overcome the tepid reception. More interestingly, look for the WGA to stick up for an indie darling in Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s much-admired script for “The Spectacular Now.” The duo were Guild-nominated and Academy-ignored four years ago for “(500) Days of Summer,” and look set to repeat that feat. Beyond that, options are few and not especially tempting: “Labor Day?” “The Book Thief?” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?” Probably not.

There’s a greater range of possibilities for Best Original Screenplay; sadly, there also seems to be less wiggle room at the top end of the ballot. Unlike its adapted counterpart, all the major Oscar contenders are WGA-eligible. So look for Woody Allen to score his 21st WGA nod for “Blue Jasmine” tomorrow: he’s not infallible with the Guild (he missed for “Match Point” in 2005), but the film’s semi-surprising PGA nod this morning is a significant sign of strength. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” meanwhile, may have been passed over by the producers, but it’s harder to imagine the writers doing the same: the Coen Brothers have six previous WGA nods, including two (“Burn After Reading” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There”) for films passed over by the Academy.

Another previous nominee, of course, is David O. Russell, sure to be nominated again (with Eric Singer) for his playful, plotty work on “American Hustle” — with the film shaping up as a major Best Picture threat, he may well be our default winner here. (Fun fact: he was first nominated here for “Three Kings.” His co-writer? “12 Years a Slave” scribe John Ridley.) Spike Jonze hasn’t been WGA-nominated before, but it sure feels like he has — so close was his connection with Charlie Kaufman on his first two features. The same kind of familiarity-by-association, only in reverse, applies to “Nebraska” writer Bob Nelson: Alexander Payne’s last four bittersweet character comedies all scored here, and that seems likely to continue even without Payne’s name on the script.    

And there’s the rub: five spots seemingly filled already, and that before we’ve even got to Nicole Holofcener, a surprise nominee three years ago for “Please Give,” on stronger form in “Enough Said.” Or Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron for “Gravity” — before you raise your reservations about the space spectacular’s (perfectly fine) script, remember that the WGA nominated “Avatar” in 2009. Or Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack for “Dallas Buyers Club” — after the film quietly nabbed SAG and PGA nods, why couldn’t it continue its stealthy progress here? As for “Saving Mr. Banks,” the film may seem to be losing steam — but might the writers not respond to a film so heavily focused on the pains of adaptation and script development? 

Much to think about, then. But here are my best guesses:

Best Original Screenplay
“American Hustle” (David O. Russell and Eric Singer)
“Blue Jasmine” (Woody Allen)
“Her” (Spike Jonze)
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (Joel and Ethan Coen)
“Nebraska” (Bob Nelson)

Best Adapted Screenplay
“August: Osage County” (Tracy Letts)
“Before Midnight” (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke)
“Captain Phillips” (Billy Ray)
“The Spectacular Now” (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber)
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (Terence Winter)

What do you expect (or hope) to see nominated tomorrow? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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