Far and away, my favorite categories every year happen to be the Screenplay awards. Maybe it’s the writer in me, maybe it’s because these are the spots where creativity truly shines, but I love seeing credit being given to the brains behind our favorite films, whether they are based on books, older movies, plays, or just original ideas fresh from the screenwriter’s mind. So it is with great joy I turn our attentions toward the Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories as we continue our march towards my complete list of Oscar predictions!
Best Original Screenplay is, and always has been, my favorite category at the Oscars. This is the category where fresh ideas thrive. While your usual Oscar contenders do often pop up here, like Green Book, Spotlight, and The King’s Speech, more often than not, the nominees in this field represent originality, creativity, and uniqueness. Past nominees alone include First Reformed, Her, Get Out, Beverly Hills Cop, Back To The Future, and more. As mentioned before, typically you can just get away with throwing in one extra name among your Best Picture contenders – last year saw Green Book joined by fellow nominees Roma, Vice, and The Favourite. This year is a little more complicated – at the moment, only two of my Best Picture predictions are purely “original.” That would be Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood and Marriage Story, both of which you can count as contenders for Best Original Screenplay this year. Hollywood is a mortal lock – Tarantino has won this category twice already, and been nominated two more times beyond that. For his Hollywood-loving magnum opus, it’s hard to not imagine him as the frontrunner this year, and that’s what he’ll remain until this fall is through. Meanwhile, Baumbach is already a nominee for The Squid and the Whale, and should have been nominated for helping write Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Academy loves talky dramas that give great roles to beloved actors, and that is exactly what Marriage Story is purported to be. If you happened to possess a proclivity toward gambling, I would go put money on these films receiving nominations next January.
After that, things get a little tricky. Without Oscar frontrunners to pack the field, we have to start judging each film on a different metric – who’s the writer, what’s the story, will there be clever dialogue, and is/will the film be a hit? To break this down, we have to look at all sorts of factors: how to biopics usually fare, like A Beautiful day In The Neighborhood, Rocketman, Harriet, and The Two Popes? Were any indie films massive successes, like Blinded By The Light, The Last Black Man In San Francisco, and so on? And will the foreign language revolution help shape the race, a la Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory or Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite? We’ll know soon enough; but in the meantime, I think there are three contenders that seem relatively safe, thanks to box office success, creativity of concept, and the influence of writer. Let’s start with the safest bet: The Farewell will receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. One of the surest ways to earn a writing nomination is a semiautobiographical story that takes classic tropes and turns them on their head with comedy, warmth, and a large ensemble. You are especially safe if the film is a box office hit. Look no further than nominations for My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Big Sick for proof. In The Farewell, Lulu Wang explores grief, cultural divide, coming-of-age angst, and family drama in a funny, uplifting tale about family and heritage. It’s a marvelous film, and while I’m not confident in its Best Picture chances (boo), I am confident in its Original Screenplay chances.
As for the final two contenders, we’re going to have to go off previous nominations to figure out who will get what. One of the Academy’s favorite types of films to nominate are smart throwbacks with clever dialogue. The Favourite, Three Billboards, Hell or High Water, Nightcrawler, In Bruges, and anything by Wes Anderson help prove that point. Therefore, it seems highly likely that Rian Johnson’s Star Wars follow-up Knives Out will receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Like former nominee Gosford Park, Knives Out is a throwback to the murder mystery, complete with a wide cast of suspects, two clever detectives, and witty dialogue. Johnson is an ingenious writer, as Brick, Looper, and The Last Jedi have proven, and the Academy will likely be bending over backwards to reward the revival of the genre. And finally, we have a film on the cusp of Oscar glory: Queen & Slim. Due to its complex subject matter and previous lack of festival appearances, I’ve determined that Universal does not consider Queen & Slim a major contender, and likely won’t push hard for it in Best Picture. That being said, Lena Waithe is a major force in Hollywood right now, and while complicated films often struggle with Best Picture, they often thrive in Best Original Screenplay. Straight Outta Compton, The Lobster, First Reformed, Nightcrawler, Margin Call, and more are films that failed to receive Best Picture nominations, but did receive love from Best Original Screenplay as a consolation prize. I think Screenplay will be the Academy’s best bet to honor the film without giving it Best Picture.
On the flip side of the coin, Best Adapted Screenplay is often the hottest mess of an Oscar category. That’s not to say the screenplays that have won have been bad or undeserving. On the contrary, BlacKkKlansman, Moonlight, and The Big Short are three of the most deserving winners of all time. No, Adapted Screenplay is messy because the rules defining what is “adapted” are so loose. Last year, no one even realized The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was adapted until it received a nomination in the category – and all because one of the Coen Brothers’ six short stories was based on an old novella. Meanwhile, Whiplash got smacked in 2014 at the last minute because it was actually based on…a short film Damien Chazelle had made to practice for the real thing. Yeah, it gets complicated. “Adapted” has come to mean any form of source material used for the final product, even if the source is an article in the New York Times. Furthermore, the Academy loves to play things safe here. Rarely are the films nominated here as risk-taking as The Shape of Water, Get Out, or Her. More often than not, the films here are straightforward love stories and dramas, based on books you were supposed to read in high school. Since The Big Short won in 2015, the only two films outside of the Academy’s normal wheelhouse to be nominated are The Disaster Artist and Logan, neither of which won the top prize. So with that in mind, which adaptations stand the best bet of receiving nominations come this January?
I thought I’d start by breaking down the most common nominee, and the one in which we have an overabundance this year: the conspiracy thriller. Using this term loosely, there are four films contending for Best Adapted Screenplay this year that deal with one man (or woman, in one film’s case) standing up to The System – and two of them are written by the same man. They are The Report, Dry Run, Just Mercy, and The Laundromat. Each film has its perks and disadvantages, and while it is possible that all four end up making it into the Top Five, I would argue we should only look at two, at most. Let’s go through them one by one. The Laundromat has perhaps the most going for it, as well as the biggest hurdle. As we can see from the first trailer released yesterday, it is a weird, scathing satire, drawing more from The Big Short than from, say, All The President’s Men. Writer Scott Z. Burns clearly took some risks writing this one, and while they may pay off in terms of narrative, it is rare the Academy goes for this ballsy of an adaptation. I feel it is much more likely they will go for Burns’ other major awards contender, The Report. The Report tackles the Torture Report in a much more traditional, Insider-meets-President’s Men type way. It shows good people combatting corrupt government officials, and it does so with honesty and traditional goodness. It’s the type of throwback that made Spotlight and BlacKkKlansman hits in recent years, and it’s why I think that, between the two films, The Report is Burns’ best bet at his first writing Oscar nomination.
Moving into the courtroom thrillers, we have Dry Run vs. Just Mercy. Now, Dry Run has a lot going for it on paper. It’s a Todd Haynes film, which helps. It’s sneaking into the later Oscar season, which normally benefits a handful of films. And it’s about one man (Mark Ruffalo) standing up to the DuPont Chemical Corporation, which seems like catnip – especially when you consider that Ruffalo’s last three major films (Kids Are All Right, Foxcatcher, and Spotlight) all earned nominations for writing. The man knows a great script. And before the film threatened to wait this Oscar season out, it was my #2 pick. But then it’s release date got moved all over the place, and other films threatened to move in on Dry Run’s turf. And suddenly the sure bet didn’t seem so sure anymore. No, I’m holding off on Dry Run for the time being. Instead, I’m going with a film that I’ve heard nothing but raves about, and seems poised to win the Toronto People’s Choice Award on its way to Oscar glory. That film is Just Mercy, the true story of a young lawyer fresh out of school who took on an innocent man on Death Row’s appeal, and uncovered a conspiracy of racism and police discrimination in Mississippi. It’s a great novel if you haven’t read it, and if this film becomes the hit I think it will, it will not only be a Best Picture frontrunner, but a Best Adapted Screenplay contender as well. Look for Just Mercy and The Report to be your frontrunners in Best Adapted Screenplay.
Of course, both films have massive competition in the form of a major literary adaptation. I’m talking, of course, about Little Women. Already the fourth adaptation of the classic novel, this time Louisa May Alcott’s novel is being tackled by the tremendous force of Greta Gerwig and Sarah Polley. While these adaptations only have one nomination between the lot of them (in 1933, which won), Gerwig is already on a roll, thanks to her nomination for Lady Bird. And thanks to the interesting angle Polley brought to the table (no slouch of a writer herself), the final product should be interesting and sensational enough to garner a second writing nomination for Gerwig – and perhaps a first win for both actress-turned-writers. Meanwhile, Ford v Ferrari has emerged as the greatest threat to Best Picture outside of Marriage Story and Once Upon A Time. While it is unknown what the source material may be for James Mangold’s car race war epic, it is currently assumed that the film is based on a novel or article. And thanks to the prestige of both Mangold and original writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Jez a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, don’t you know), I can safely assume that unless the film goes Original, this is one of your only locks for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Which brings us to our final slot, which is currently experiencing a bloodbath battle for its inhabitant. Could Shakespeare make it in with The King? How about the Pulitzer Prize with The Goldfinch? Maybe the Academy is feeling a little bit of airport lit, like The Good Liar. Television is well represented with Downton Abbey, as is comic book lore with Joker. And of course we can’t forget Martin Scorsese’s go-to writer Steven Zallian, who has written the three-hour magnum opus The Irishman. However, despite my rule about avoiding satire at all cost, if I’m going to wager that Jojo Rabbit earns a Best Picture nomination, I’m going to have to see it represented in Best Adapted Screenplay. Rabbit is a major risk: it’s a film about a brainwashed Hitler Youth who discovers the horrors of the Holocaust with the help of his mother, a young Jewish girl hiding in his attic, and his imaginary friend, a Fonzie-esque take on Adolf Hitler. It’s big, brash, and ballsy, and if Waititi can pull it off (as he always has in the past), then you can bet he’ll be in competition for Best Adapted Screenplay this January.
That about covers the writing branch for this year. I’ll be back soon with the last three rounds of my Oscar predictions (Features, Music, and The Rest), as well as updates in the aftermath of Venice and Telluride. In the meantime, 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:
- Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood
- Marriage Story
- The Farewell
- Knives Out
- Queen & Slim
- The Report
- Little Women
- Just Mercy
- Jojo Rabbit
- Ford v Ferrari