I don’t know about you, but my favorite races every year come from the Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories. I don’t really understand why that is, but maybe if I keep writing about it, I’ll figure it out. This year we have some prime candidates for each field, with both looking hotly contested. I have two categories to get through, so let’s not mince words and just jump straight into it, shall we?
Best Original Screenplay
Original Screenplay is always a fun one, because this is the field where the freak flag can really be allowed to fly. I mean, the last five winners included an exposé on the Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse, a washed-up actor trying to put on a play while haunted by his former character, a man who falls in love with his computer, a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter and lavishly murders slave owners with a traveling dentist, and Owen Wilson as Woody Allen going back to the 1920s to hang out with Ernest Hemingway. What an odd collection. So the real question here is what films are likely to join them?
I’m going to take a risk here and say the most likely winner is Damien Chazelle for La La Land. Chazelle came within striking distance in 2014 for Whiplash, and the Academy may be looking to make it up to him. The fact the performance is a musical romance certainly adds to its appeal, and as long as the script is as strong as the songs, Chazelle should be taking home the win here. That being said, musicals don’t usually fare well when it comes to screenplay nominations, and an original musicals’ odds are even worse. The last time an original musical was nominated was 1980, for Fame. However, my tenacity is unbreakable, and I stand by my #1 pick.
The #2 contender hot on his heels is acclaimed indie writer/director Jeff Nichols for Loving. Historical films usually do well here, especially when combined with a strong indie screenwriter. And when that screenwriter gets a chance to direct, it pretty much seals the deal. Look at Spotlight last year-written and directed by Tom McCarthy, an acclaimed indie writer/director-which went on to win screenplay on top of Best Picture (the only other award it won-a testament to that film’s script). Nichols is a mortal lock for a nomination, and expect him to be battling it out with his rival wunderkind.
After that we have the indie darling in The Birth of a Nation. I just get the feeling that if they have the ability to nominate Parker for acting, directing and writing, then they are going to take advantage of nominating it for acting, directing and writing. It’s that simple. Early critics seem to indicate that the script is the weakest part of the film, but they don’t necessarily say that as a negative. They just feel that it isn’t as great as everything else. Just so long as the Academy doesn’t “Revenant” it, Parker should stand a chance at three nominations.
For the final two spots, it was a toss up. I mean, what should I go with? A biopic, like The Founder and LBJ? A beloved writer, like Woody Allen’s return to form Café Society, Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply or Christopher Guest’s Mascots (God, I hope so for that last one). Or what about something surrealist like the mind trip that is The Lobster? No, instead I’m going to go with Passengers and 20th Century Women. Passengers is a script that’s been going around for ten years, with everyone who comes across it saying it is great and they can’t wait to see it on the big screen. I bet the Academy will reward that tenacity. Meanwhile, Mike Mills was incredibly close to being nominated for his heartwarming Beginners in 2011. If 20th Century Women captures that magic again, he should get his chance. And that concludes one of the more bizarre categories in the Academy’s repertoire.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Now that we got the oddball out of the way, let’s look at the more sophisticated older brother, Best Adapted Screenplay. This is where you get all the artsy renditions of classic books. Very rarely does the Academy take a risk here-last year’s The Big Short was the edgiest winner I’ve seen in this category since I started following these awards in 2008. For this category, you have to look at prestige, talent, and just a hint of literary genius. So let’s get started.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is far and away the frontrunner for this award. Simon Beaufoy is one of the most beloved screenwriters in Hollywood right now-indeed; he already has an Oscar in each of the writing categories. And adapting a darkly satiric war epic for a director as beloved as Ang Lee is certainly going to bring you attention. As long as Beaufoy doesn’t botch this script, he should start practicing his speech now.
Following on his heels is national treasure Tony Kushner, adapting the already-existing script by August Wilson for Fences. For those playing along at home, that’s a Pulitzer Prize Winner adapting the work of a Pulitzer Prize Winner. That’s some mighty fine caliber working there, and even if Denzel lacks the ability to direct the film, I’m confident Kushner will find himself nominated at this year’s ceremony.
Finally, we have Silence. Silence is based on an acclaimed book rich with allusions and metaphors, each more tantalizing than the last. However, some films, no matter how rich their material, are more just visual treats. Sure, Life of Pi can sneak in despite a lack of real dialogue, but more often than not we’re looking at a scenario like The Revenant-the artistry outweighs the script, and the writers go home empty handed. So while I trust Jay Cocks to deliver a strong script to Martin Scorsese, I keep a wary eye on this one, lest I get burned again.
The one wild card here could be the return of a former Oscar writing darling. He’s done some brush up work here and there, but he hasn’t written a major script since his breakout hit, and he hasn’t ever made one alone. But adapting a tome from the modern literary catacombs could put him back in the race. That’s right, I’m referring to the incomparable poet Ben Affleck for Live By Night. Unless the film doesn’t come out this year (which, as I continue to beat this dead horse, may or may not happen), Affleck should be back in the screenplay race, a location many people think he should never have left.
As for the nominee, it could really be anything. I’m always afraid after 2012, when Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour snuck in and destroyed everyone’s predictions. However, I don’t anticipate a move from the indie scene the way it happened that year. Therefore, despite strong writing pedigree, I believe The Yellow Birds and Moonlight fall by the wayside. It is also worth noting that death has a habit of boosting your chances, so keep an eye on the late Melissa Mathison for The BFG (which she definitely deserves). Yet she is not my pick. I also really want to pick the Phillip Roth adaptation, American Pastoral, which people love in test screenings so far. But yet again, this is not my pick. Instead, I am expecting a satire to sneak in. A pitch black comedy about the state of our military, because that is the way this year seems to be going. So I am going to pick David Michôd’s War Machine, a Netflix adaptation of the life of Stanley McChrystal, the filter-less commander of the Afghanistan forces. If it can find its balance between comedy and drama, this could be the next war satire to receive a nomination, like Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove before it.
That about covers the writing branch of the Academy. Tune in tomorrow when I predict the niche Features, it should be fun! You can find my full list of contenders for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay here and here, and you can check out my Top Five for each below:
Best Original Screenplay
- La La Land
- The Birth of a Nation
- 20th Century Women
Best Adapted Screenplay
- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
- Live By Night
- War Machine