This is the rare year in the Academy that Original Screenplay is the lesser of the two Writing categories. And it’s not just in the quality of writing, but in the competition for the prize. Almost certainly the award will come down to Sam Mendes vs. Quentin Tarantino. One will win here, the other will likely win Best Director. But in my ideal world, neither one would take top honors. Meanwhile, over at Adapted Screenplay, you have a legitimate three-horse race, and outside of that, one of the other two nominees could pull what would be an upset for lack of better term.
For me, Original Screenplay really comes down to two elements. One, how good is the story? Two, how good is the dialogue? And if you’re looking for an X-factor, it’s how well the two elements jive together. For example, you can have a brilliant story with very little dialogue and make it work. But if it’s noticeable that no one’s talking, and really for no reason (see: Hidden Life, A), then the story gets dragged down. Similarly, if there’s too much talking and not enough visual storytelling, then the lines have no impact. With Adapted Screenplay, the X-factor is how accurately the script reflects the source material, and whether that matters in the grand scheme of the production. But with Original, it’s a little bit harder to pin down, because you have to get inside the mind of the writer, rather than reflect their skill through the lens of the original work.
This year’s nominees for Original Screenplay are…
Knives Out – Rian Johnson
These days, the name of the game is subversion. There are perfectly fine, lovely films, that tell completely original stories, while others stick with familiar themes and story lines. For that latter group, if you’re going to succeed at the box office, with critics, or with the Academy, you’d better have the cleverness and wit to take audience expectations of a given genre and turn them on their collective ears.
Rian Johnson succeeds in spades with Knives Out. After his polarizing take on Star Wars a couple years ago – where he literally told the audience through Kylo Ren to let go of “the past” and “kill it if you have to” – he goes for the proverbial jugular yet again, only this time he’s not toying with a sacred cow. Instead, he brilliantly takes the whodunnit genre, which hasn’t really had much recent material to go off of, looks at every trope and cliché, and flips it around to the delight of all.
The beauty in the work is in the simplicity. Need a sleuth? Give us a private eye who talks like a countrified Southern lawyer. Need suspects? Have the entire family fit neatly into one of several mystery archetypes, and have them be so outlandishly set in their roles that it borders on farce. Need a great running gag? Have everyone confidently state that the immigrant’s family comes from any number of different countries. Need a solution for the murder? Leave the answer relatively in plain sight, so that as we search all around for a reason NOT to go with the obvious, we are then surprised when the obvious answer turns out to be right.
Well played, sir. I’m genuinely upset that this is the film’s only nomination.
Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach
This is a familiar story as well, one that’s already been awarded by the Academy. At its most basic level, Marriage Story is just Kramer vs. Kramer for the 21st century. Where Noah Baumbach separates and improves upon that framework, however, is in keeping an intense focus on the characters.
One of the most exquisite moments in film for all of 2019 is the opening of this movie, where Charlie and Nicole each narrate a montage about all the things they love about each other. For the first few minutes of the film, we’re introduced to a family unit comprised of people who deeply care for one another. Then we’re completely jerked out of that reverie as we join the story in progress inside a marriage counselor’s office where Nicole is completely unwilling to read anything complimentary about Charlie.
This moment sets the tone for the entire film and highlights the underlying tragedy. These are two people who live in a world of performances and communication, but they can’t communicate with one another. Their marriage probably can’t be saved, but as the acrimony grows between them, you always come back to this opening moment as a reminder that while differences may not be able to be reconciled, it’s no reason that they can’t work out an amicable agreement that protects and serves the best interests of their child.
1917 – Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
I feel like this should be given an Incomplete grade, as there’s really not much in the way of story or dialogue in this particular screenplay. It is admirable that Sam Mendes created this tale from a “fragment” of some offhanded war story told by his grandfather, who served on the Western Front. But in the end it’s just too basic for my tastes. For the most part, the story is, “Hey, wake up, deliver this message,” and then Blake and Schofield go from Point A to B to C to D to E to F to deliver said message, with varying dangers and the occasional bit of expositional character development along the way.
The closest the script gets to anything profound is in a rather lengthy scene late in the film, when Schofield encounters a young French woman caring for an orphaned baby in her ruined city. The dialogue is still scant here, but that’s because of a language barrier, so it’s up to the stage directions to get all the points across. In that sense, the scene really works, and offers a bit of humanity and respite in the otherwise high-octane journey. I like 1917, a lot, but the script is very much NOT the film’s strong suit.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood – Quentin Tarantino
This script is vintage Tarantino, filled with lengthy, reference-heavy monologues, pithy observations about life, and an odd but undeniable understanding of the human condition. Also, in a refreshing change, the casual use of the n-word has been dialed back significantly.
The real draw is in the opposing one-on-one forces. Sometimes they’re in real time and in the same setting, like the utterly brilliant face-off between Brad Pitt’s character and Bruce Lee. Sometimes the conflict isn’t even in the same section of town, like the carefree nature of this film’s version of Sharon Tate and the Manson Family members up in Chatsworth.
Also, in true Tarantino fashion, some of the best dialogue happens as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is shooting his latest pilot. The inside Hollywood lingo, the actual script he’s performing, and the conflicting acting styles of Dalton and his child counterpart is extremely meta, even by QT’s standards.
Parasite – Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won
Just as Rian Johnson excelled at subverting the whodunnit tropes, Bong Joon-ho also deftly toys with the audience’s expectations, only he ratchets up the achievement by doing it for multiple genres as he’s switching them. Parasite is a wholly unique story culled from well-worn elements because Bong is able to weave in between the conventions of satire, farce, heist, and thriller, all without missing a beat.
Part of the reason the film flows so well is because the Kim family is able to do what Charlie and Nicole couldn’t in Marriage Story. They communicate flawlessly with one another. As their growing manipulation of the Park family escalates, everyone is taking meticulous notes, making sure no detail is left up to chance. Scenarios are rehearsed, boundaries are tested, and obstacles are expertly removed all in the name of hatching the perfect crime. The now meme-ified “Jessica” cover story jingle is just the best known example of this talent.
But more so than any other film and script on this list, the words people say truly carry weight. The film’s shocking climax is built up over the course of the story by Mr. Park’s ever-increasing distaste for the “smell” of poverty. He observes it in Mr. Kim, which prompts changes to the whole family’s routine so that they aren’t found out. But really, it’s this simmering contempt that finally breaks things wide open and leads to the surprising ending. Words have power, even more than the perceived power that the Parks have by their station or the Kims have by slyly usurping it. Among the many genius ideas of Parasite, this is arguably the strongest.
2. Knives Out
3. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
4. Marriage Story
Next up: Conduct yourselves appropriately. It’s Original Score!
Join the conversation in the comments below! How would you rank these films? Which worthy script do you think should have been included? Is the “Jessica” song stuck in your head now? Let me know!