As a writer, the Screenplay categories are among my favorites. They’re also the only categories where I even have a calculable chance of ever getting nominated myself. Currently, those chances stand at 0.000000873%. It’s the three that’s most important. Last year it was 0.000000871%. Things are starting to look up for me, I can feel it.
Jokes aside, the script is always the most important aspect of a film from where I sit. No matter how great the actors are, no matter how mind-blowing the effects can be, if the underlying material is crap, it’s really hard for a movie to succeed. You have to have a good, believable story and dialogue that’s compelling. And that goes for silent films, too. Whatever lines you put on the cutaway slates had better be clever and not too cheesy, dammit!
If a screenplay has lines that are either too clichéd or too clever for their own good, it fails. If the story has too many plot conveniences or lays on the moral too thickly, it fails. If characters behave in ways that betray their own development, or abandon the idea or development entirely, it fails. There are so, so many ways for a script to flop, and drag the entire movie down with it. So when you have something truly brilliant, it shines all the brighter.
Sadly, there are times when the Screenplay categories are treated as an afterthought, consolation prizes for films that won’t end up winning Best Picture. But it appears that the trend is reversing. For example, the last two Original Screenplay winners went on to win the top prize as well, and five of the last 10. Chuck in three more of the last 10 Adapted Screenplay winners getting Best Picture, and maybe, just maybe, the Academy voters are treating the words on the page with a bit more respect.
This year’s nominees for Original Screenplay are:
Judas and the Black Messiah – Screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King, Story by Berson, King, Keith Lucas, and Kenny Lucas
The screenplay for Judas and the Black Messiah sets out to do two big things. One, it seeks to portray Fred Hampton, a man vilified and murdered by the government, as the exact opposite of his FBI profile. The second is to show the inner turmoil and conflict in the man hired by the Feds as an inside source.
Will Berson and Shaka King, along with the Lucas Bros. accomplish this lofty goal in an ambitious way by framing Hampton’s life and death as a modern Passion Play, depicting his good deeds, his betrayal, and his legacy beyond life. And like the original Passion Play, it is meant to incite anger. Thankfully that anger is directed at the racist system that did Hampton in, rather than, you know, Jews. That’s some pretty ballsy storytelling, but the experiment is not only structurally sound, but thematically apt.
As for the dialogue, it’s fine enough. For the most part it’s casual, normal chatter, friends shooting the shit and occasionally orating with purpose, just as normal people would talk. Some could argue that this muddies the messianic metaphor just a touch, as Hampton is a man of the people rather than the son of the divine, but I don’t mind it, because it’s important to show his humanity as much as his advocacy, because again, part of the point is to show that he wasn’t a dangerous terrorist like the government depicted him. So it all works out.
Minari – Lee Isaac Chung
Lee Isaac Chung succeeds so beautifully where Hillbilly Elegy failed with essentially the same core story, a tale of rural life and the power of family based on his upbringing. The difference is that Chung’s story is inspiring and feels real and applicable to just about any family, migrant or native, while J.D. Vance’s was just a judgmental and insulting display of white privilege couched in tired yokel stereotypes.
Chung’s story is simple, but not simplistic. The Yi family has conflicts, but they’re real-world, adult relationship conflicts that belie the idea that a “model minority” exists while also being recognizable to pretty much anyone. Parents fight, there are money troubles, kids act out, moving to a new environment has culture clash moments. All of this is universal, and it’s arguably more impressive in a script where half the dialogue is in Korean. Parasite won the category last year during its upset sweep of the Oscars, so why wouldn’t it be possible here? To create such a relevant story that can resonate with audiences nationwide despite not being primarily in English is no small feat. I’d even say it’s a feature here, because the Yi children, Anne and David, are fully Americanized, and therefore speak both languages fluently, making them both convincing audience ciphers.
As to the dialogue itself, the fact that the depiction of class struggles and the adjustment to rural life is accomplished completely without judgment is astounding. Part of why I hated Hillbilly Elegy so much is that just about every character other than J.D. Vance is stereotypical “white trash.” Here, though, not only are the locals not there to be the butt of jokes, but they stand as examples of how two very different cultures can find common ground. Take Paul, who sells Jacob his tractor and works on the farm with him. He’s a very committed evangelical who speaks in tongues and literally carries a cross. And yet, despite these eccentricities, despite the fact that Chung is daring you to mock him, he’s welcoming and fundamentally decent, looking to be friends without attempting to convert the Yis to his brand of faith.
In a lesser film he’d be a one-dimensional racist antagonist. But here he’s just a somewhat odd fellow who nonetheless becomes an adopted member of the family, and the way he and Jacob talk to each other suggests an instant rapport that feels like it could have gone back years. There’s a humanist understanding between the two that even though they come from completely different backgrounds, they become as close as brothers and speak to one another in completely normal terms when it would have been so easy to go for cheap jokes or controversy. Chung’s script is the best example of how “less is more” can really work to the film’s benefit.
Promising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell
Unpopular Opinion Time! Promising Young Woman has a lot of great stuff going for it. The acting is spectacular. I love the casting choices. The production design is superb (I’m actually kind of pissed it didn’t get nominated). And as a director, this is a tremendous first effort from Emerald Fennell. But I’ll just say it and await the flame war – the script is by far the weakest aspect of the film. It might even win this category, as it’s taken home honors from the Critics Choice Awards and the Writers Guild of America, but I stand by my nuclear take. This script is just not that good.
There are a couple of truly awesome moments, I’ll grant. Those are the bits when Carey Mulligan is able to entrap Connie Britton and Alison Brie into situations where they can experience for just a few moments the fear, trauma, and insecurity that victims of sexual assault feel all the time. They looked the other way, and excused a crime, and for that they got some poetically just comeuppance. I absolutely LOVE these scenes, because they’re clever and expertly paced.
Apart from that, though, there are a lot of problems. First off, the messaging is way too heavy-handed. There is literally not one redeemable male in the entire film, except maybe Clancy Brown as Cassie’s father, but even he can be dismissive of Cassie’s situation and her mother’s emotions. Otherwise, every single man in this movie is either a rapist, an attempted rapist, or a rape apologist, and they’re all painted with the same broad brush. I’m not saying that Bo Burnham’s character isn’t a dick, but he is not as responsible for Nina’s attack as the guy who actually did the deed. He witnessed it and didn’t stop it, which sucks, and is more than enough reason for Cassie to break up with him. But that does not make him just as bad as the actual rapist, even though the script says he is, including a complete heel turn when he’s confronted with the evidence. This is what I was talking about in the review when I said the film is good at intentionally lacking subtlety but piss poor about the fact that it completely lacks nuance. From Cassie’s notebook where literally every guy she pulls her drunk trick on tries to take advantage of her, to Christopher Mintz-Plasse being a self-described “nice guy” despite doing lines of coke off his coffee table, there is no room in this story for any guy to not be outright evil.
And yet despite that, the script never takes the risk to go all out on the revenge fantasy. Hell, at times it’s so unfocused that it shifts gears in the second act to become a half-assed rom-com. If you’re going to depict all of these men as one-note predators to the point of it being gratuitous, then go all the way with it and have Cassie exact some deliciously gory vengeance on them. At least have her go Hard Candy and pretend to neuter them or something. Make the payoff worth the tease. For a while I almost thought that was the point, to have Cassie go right up to the edge of making them suffer but then leaving them be with a little bit of fear of God in them, to show that she’s not the monster they all are. But given the lengths she goes to at the end, if that was the intent, it was completely negated.
When it comes to the dialogue, things don’t improve. Cassie’s mom only talks about her getting a boyfriend and moving out. Every guy she confronts calls her a bitch. It’s just a sad, trite, cycle of bad line after bad line. Cassie herself is whip smart, and she gets some damn good lines depending on the situation, but apart from her, Laverne Cox gets a decent joke here and there and that’s it.
Finally, any script that includes Paris Hilton’s bullshit pop song as a device for flirting should be disqualified from ever being considered for an Oscar.
Sound of Metal – Screenplay by Abraham and Darius Marder, Story by Derek Cianfrance and Darius Marder
Going back to what I said in the preamble about even silent films needing to have good dialogue, Sound of Metal has a lot of its best exchanges when it takes Paul Raci’s (and Depeche Mode’s) advice and just enjoys the silence. Some of the best lines and jokes of the film’s necessary lighthearted moments are either signed or spoken to someone who can read lips, reinforcing the communications abilities of the hearing impaired. Scenes where Ruben writes down his thoughts on makeshift cue cards because he can’t hear or read lips, combined with Lou speaking and Joe listening with his eyes are masterfully done.
And from a story standpoint, the film works with pretty high function. The plot beats land and make sense for each individual moment, the characters are given proper motivation for their actions, and events unfold in a way that comports with personal logic. Even one of the more maudlin moments, when Joe feels betrayed by Ruben getting cochlear implants and essentially kicks him out, can play on the surface like some “Afterschool Special” bullshit, but it rings true for everything established about his character. It may feel a bit much for you or I, but it makes complete sense within the context of his character development, and that’s proper storytelling.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin
Sorkin got the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, and it would appear that this category is a two-horse race between him and Emerald Fennell. I’ll weigh those chances more when I make my official predictions, but suffice to say, this is a very Sorkin script, which is popular both with the Academy and writers in general.
Aaron Sorkin has an affinity for the stage and Broadway, to the point that on his TV shows (West Wing, Sports Night, The Newsroom) he found ways to work in theatre references into almost every episode. The script for The Trial of the Chicago 7 reads very much like a stage play for that very reason. Characters are placed in positions in the courtroom that correspond to a stage, when they have something important to say, they’re often standing while everyone else is sitting (whether it’s the courtroom or the comedy club where Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman tells his jokes), and the biggest moments are basically directed at the audience without officially breaking the fourth wall. It’s funny that two of the Adapted Screenplay nominees are taken from plays – as well as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – and yet it’s this Original Screenplay that feels the most like it’s a stage play being filmed.
The story is clean and smooth, although it’s been well documented what liberties Sorkin had to take with the actual events in order to make it that way. Some events were shifted up and down the timeline, different defendants were given different sections of the transcript, and Michael Keaton was brought in as a dramatic third act witness. It very much fits the formula for a courtroom drama, while taking a few knowing shots at it.
As for the actual spoken lines, if they’re not in the official court record, they’re 100% pure Sorkin. If you’re a fan or detractor of his work, you know exactly what I mean. They’re smart, potentially too smart for the room. They’re funny, mostly because they point out the obvious bullshit for what it is. There are oversimplified explanations of complex issues that are spoken so fast that you don’t have time to question the validity or accuracy of anything being said, but it certainly feels correct. Thankfully there’s an historical record to back up most of it, so we needn’t worry that he’s pontificating for the sake of hindsight. And for what it’s worth, unlike his last Oscar-winning effort, The Social Network, this time his protagonists are inherently likable, so the smart dialogue plays more charming than smarmy. Whether that’s better or worse in the Academy’s eyes remains to be seen, but I certainly appreciated it.
2) The Trial of the Chicago 7
3) Judas and the Black Messiah
4) Sound of Metal
5) Promising Young Woman
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Join the conversation in the comments below! What was your favorite screenplay? How do you judge a script’s quality? Does not liking PYW’s script automatically make me a sexist? Let me know!
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