My Thoughts: All right, we're getting this thing done. For you this might be spread over the course of a week, but I'm writing our next seven articles in a row right now so that we can finally bid a fond farewell to 2014 and start heading into the next chapter (hint: my favorite chapter this millennium) of the OVP. Until then, we have a disappointingly male lineup (seriously-no female screenwriters at all?), but one that vastly improves on Adapted Screenplay (see links below) for 2014.
We'll start with what may be the most difficult of the films to judge, which is of course Boyhood. Richard Linklater's magnum opus (seriously-doesn't it already feel like this movie should have won the Oscar over Birdman in Best Picture?), is a sight to behold, but in terms of traditional screenplays, it's hard to judge. After all, it's very clear that Linklater, while he somewhat had an idea of what was going to happen as the years went on, clearly rewrote to match the personalities and persona of his star. He had no way of knowing, for example, that Ellar Coltrane wouldn't turn into some he-man jock where being a gangly hipster at parties would no longer fit the mold. The film's writing, though, is unbelievably natural and raw, and we get a truly expressive, improbable linking together of four different lives. All-in-all, while the screenplay isn't what you'd instantly shine a light on when reviewing the picture (that would be the directing and writing), it's still something that glues together a magical story, and is intensely sharp, much like so many of Linklater's other pictures.
We turn next to a film that is entirely dependent on its screenplay, and the sharp words being spoken onscreen in Birdman. The movie is a series of wonderful cuts and edits and shots, but none of that would mean anything without the biting monologues that come out of the mouths of Stone, Keaton, and Norton alike. Honestly it still baffles my mind that a film such as this, so full of verve came out of the dour mind of Alejandro Inarritu, none of whose films before or since really resonated with me, but here it just works. I keep thinking of the way that so many of the speeches are meant to not only be convincing the audience and the listeners, but the speakers themselves, as the writers shrewdly observe that this is a group of people who talk first and listen second. It's a wonderfully-explosive series of moments and I am in awe of what this team pulled together.
Unlike the rest of these movies, Nightcrawler is that inevitable original screenplay nominee that is getting its only citation of this year's Oscars for writing, which is a shame in that it's better than all but one of these movies overall. A lot of that rests in Dan Gilroy's fingers, as so much of this film is about peeling back layers. Think, for example, about the terrific story structure of having Jake Gyllenhaal, cautiously handsome and with those disarming doe eyes, become a sociopath of unspeakable contempt as the film progresses, and how our audience proxy is not a strong, confident woman, but a weak-willed protagonist far over her head. The film is filled with blistering writing, chastising the news media who only wants a car crash (in the wake of the Donald Trump nightmare we're experiencing, this film has only gotten more ominous). The movie is ahead-of-its-time and devastating, parading as a dark comedy even if there's so much tragedy underneath.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is really two films when it comes to the screenplay. Its story, after all, is relatively predictable and occasionally even underwritten. Considering how good she ended up being in Brooklyn just a year later, it seems a pity to think of how poorly done someone like Saoirse Ronan's Agatha is, but the writers frequently just interject Wes Anderson regulars willy-nilly throughout the picture, and the actual structure of the film is sometimes lacking...except when it comes to Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes' series of bon mots, wonderful asides, and ribald ribbing of everyone in sight (even himself) is a glorious treasure, and I cannot believe he didn't land a well-deserved Oscar citation for such a performance. Hats have to go off to Anderson for giving us so many quotables from such a man, but it's clear that he built the entire film around the character, then rushed the rest of the cast through making for an uneven screenplay.
The one true dud of the bunch, I'm sorry to say, is Foxcatcher. Part of the film's problem is that it's unwilling to say what it wants to, perhaps out of fear of a lawsuit, but the underwritten homosexual moments of the film (particularly John du Pont's lust over Mark Schultz, and the way that it is implied that Mark gives in to those demands in hopes of recapturing his Olympic glory) is a huge crutch on the impact of the film and its performances. The female roles are vastly ignored in the picture (poor Sienna Miller-does her agent hate her or something with these meaningless parts in important films?), and while occasionally the film is insightful (the look at how out-of-touch and ridiculous the mega-rich are is perhaps the only interesting angle of the story that actually works onscreen), the moments that fail are too much to outweigh the occasional glimmer.
Other Precursor Contenders: The Globes combine adapted and original into one category, so only three originals were cited, though all were nominated here: Birdman (their victor), Boyhood, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The BAFTA Awards split their categories up, and weirdly enough nominated five Oscar nominees, but not all five in this category as joining The Grand Budapest Hotel (their victor), Boyhood, Nightcrawler, and Birdman was Whiplash, which suffered from quite a bit of category confusion as there was a scene that was released from the film as a short picture, but it was really just a snippet from the eventual movie so adapted always felt somewhat specious. The WGA also put Whiplash in original, and actually duplicated the BAFTA lineup verbatim, including having Grand Budapest in the winner's chair.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I surely would have made room for the wonderful ensemble work of Pride, which actually finds a way to give a dozen characters stories and personalities, which is not an easy task for such a movie. And I would have included the provocative but brilliant Stranger by the Lake amongst the nominees-it may have been too risque for older Academy members, but its story unfolds in an eerie series of shots that feel almost alien from our universe, and a little gay sex never hurt anybody.
Oscar’s Choice: In one of the closest battles of the evening AMPAS' love of Birdman triumphed over The Grand Budapest Hotel's otherwise impressive awards haul.
My Choice: For me it's a tight race between Linklater, Inarritu, and Gilroy, as all are turning in superb pieces of work that would have clobbered in adapted. I think I'll stick to Boyhood in the lead, followed very closely by Nightcrawler, then Birdman, Grand Budapest, and Foxcatcher way in the back.
Those are my thoughts-what about you? Are you siding with the Academy on picking the nastier side of Hollywood's celebrity culture, or are you with my preference for the languid growth of Boyhood? Where should Whiplash have gotten nominated by the Oscars-here or where it landed in adapted? And does anyone actually like Foxcatcher? Share your thoughts in the comments!