Thursday, January 23, 2020

Devouring the Oscars -- Best Screenplay (Original)



A mystery inside of a mystery inside of a hilarious commentary on wealth. The story of the finality of a marriage that finds us where we're at, and at who we are, and demolishes us with the highs and lows of love. A war picture that is pretty much just a picture that circles back on itself and little more. A tale of two friends in two places at the same time: one making a Western, one living one, and the young actress next door. And a mystery and then a mystery and then a few more mysteries inside a mystery inside a powerful, hilarious, and tragic commentary on wealth.

The nominees for Original Screenplay at the 92nd Academy Awards are all pros. Only two of them have been up for this category before. Only one will walk away with the trophy, the third of his career in the category.


Rian Johnson's script for Knives Out not only found its way to the screen as the funniest movie I saw in 2019 but also found a way to make us hear how we sound when we talk the modern political discourse. I reveled in it while I watched it unfold and rejoiced its clever nature when it was done. We are lucky to have such a purely original voice as Rian Johnson in the American cinema. He gave us Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a character I think we're sure to see again. He gave a young actress (Ana de Armas) the chance to power an entire film. And he left no holes in any of the donuts, as far as I could suss out.


Noah Baumbach's script for Marriage Story seems to have bothered some people. People finding Adam Driver's delivery of one particular fight scene unrealistic. How lucky are those people! I wonder how many of us are living with fist-size holes in our walls. I wonder how many of us have begged for forgiveness on our knees, weeping. Baumbach gets it all. His writing is gentle, even when vicious. It invites us into the intimacies of a couple and their son warmly. It lets us feel and react to every turn in its central tension, a divorce between two good people. And there's a good reason this film is not called Divorce Story. It's because of Baumbach's touch as a writer. He lets us into moments of love so perfectly placed that we would just as soon forget all that just to remember that all of it is simply, well, "being alive."


Sam Mendes has never been a screenwriter, and it shows. This is his first writing credit in a career of twenty years. His writing partner, Krysty Wilson-Cairns (mostly a TV writer) is new to the big movie game as well. Weird they are nominated in this category, and weird of the Academy to only nominate four-and-a-half movies for Original Screenplay this year, am I right? Seriously, 1917 is not a whole movie. It's missing both character and story. Thankfully, it won't win this one, while it wins everything else. I suppose I can praise it for its cleverness. It does indeed come full circle, in a way, and was planned from the start as a one-long-take film. I suppose having to write to that makes it a unique venture. But I question where Chris Nolan's screenplay nom was for Dunkirk a couple years ago, a work that is far and away a better narrative-bending feat of writing.



Quentin Tarantino's best film in a decade features a time and place as its stars. Its greatest success. Within that is a supporting cast of players beholden to the movement of time. Rick Dalton's (Leo) long, hungover day on set. Cliff Booth's (Brad Pitt) run-in with a hitchhiking hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) and the Manson Family on Spahn's Movie Ranch, complete with backstory and two beatdowns, an Oscar-worthy masterclass in patience, ferocity, cool, and tenderness only Brad Pitt can deliver. Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) breezing through with pure happiness, a symbol of that time and place, a newlywed be-bopping into a book store and stopping off at a movie house to giddily watch the actual Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin--a brilliant Tarantino touch. And that looming sadness, your own knowledge of that time and place, and the dramatic irony of knowing what you know, while waiting to see what will happen. Oh! And does something happen!


Bong's Parasite, co-written by Han Jin Won, is the script of the year. It plays an angle on an international discourse on wealth inequality that resonates with Americans today as easily as the Korean people for whom it was written. A desperate family running tiny cons, working their fingers to the bone, making ends meet in a world with no jobs, even for the able-bodied. Then, the long-con, a building of those mysteries I mentioned at the top, the assimilation into service of a wealthy family, a return to indentured servitude, this time by choice, and the toll that takes on a new era of lost people. And it's funny...as hell, like non-stop, until it isn't anymore and it's just the messy, violent, fucked up world in which we all try to live. It's a masterclass of story construction and character, all fully realized by a cast of little known (to Americans) all-stars, who just won the big American acting prize as a team at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

So, how will it go? Who's takes the prize? 

I'll work that out here in terms of how I would rank them:

5. Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 (Why are you here? Where is Lulu Wang's The Farewell? Where is the Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems? Where is Jordan Peele's Us? Ari Aster's Midsommar? Come on!! It'll lose here, but...???)

4. Rian Johnson, Knives Out (Wouldn't hurt my feelings if it won. It won't.)

3. Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story (Again, it won't win, but it'd be cool if it did. My personal favorite of the year...until I re-watched Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood.)

2. Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (The clear winner at this point, and I don't mind that at all.)

1. Bong Joon-ho & Han Jin Won, Parasite (Though he'll likely lose to QT, Bong and his co-writer have crafted a truly timeless wonder of a story here, and I would love to see him sneak in and take it.)

8 comments:

  1. I hope Parasite wins this. I'd rank them
    1)Parasite
    2)Knives Out
    3)Marriage Story
    4)1917
    5)OUATIH

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    1. Right on! Knives Out is so good. Hate you don't care for Tarantino's work. I find it to be an outstanding piece of storytelling.

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  2. I would be over the moon if Bong Joon-ho & Han Jin Won took the award home! Who knows, maybe the Academy will surprise us...

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  3. Great writeup, man.

    I think we can all agree that 1917 has the weakest screenplay out of all these nominees. It's great, in my opinion, but it's far behind the other nominees. The rest all have terrific screenplays.

    My ranking from best to worst:
    Knives Out
    Parasite
    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
    Marriage Story
    1917

    I would've definitely replaced 1917 with Uncut Gems. Midsommar, Booksmart, Pain & Glory, The Farewell, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Ford v. Ferrari, The Beach Bum, Waves, Ad Astra, The Art of Self-Defense, The Souvenir, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, & The Lighthouse would've also been good choices for a nomination.

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  4. I have to see Knives Out but, knowing how brilliant Once upon a Time in Hollywood is, I can't see them not give it to Tarantino

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    1. Really you should see Knives Out. It's not quite as good but close.

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