Oscar Blitz 2023 – Original Screenplay

If you’ve been keeping up with the Blitz coverage so far, this category may feel like a bit of déjà vu. With only one exception, the list of nominees for Original Screenplay this year is exactly the same as for Best Director. And even then, we’re not talking about a difference in films, merely the addition of one extra writer for one of the nominated scripts. In case you were wondering why I waited two weeks in between these two categories, this is it. It’s almost like a much more forward facing version of the old Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories.

That said, this doesn’t mean that my rankings will be the same. In fact, checking my notes, only one nominee winds up in the same place here as they did in the previous category. It’s not exactly rare when a filmmaker directs his own script, but it is really weird when all five nominees fit that criteria. As such, it requires a bit of parsing between the different aspects of the overall creative vision. What a writer pictures in their head when typing is hardly ever what ends up on the screen. Dialogue can be changed on the fly, and storyboarding and shooting scripts (which are much different than screenplays) can make certain scenes more important than originally conceived, or render them superfluous. By the time filming is complete and the footage makes its way to the edit bay, entire sequences can be rearranged at the whim of the director when they come up with a new idea.

In that respect, I think that at least for this year, it’s most proper to treat the script as a statement of purpose or proof of concept. Just as the screenplays themselves go through multiple drafts, it feels like we can judge the nominees as the first drafts of the final films. How good is the dialogue? Do the underlying concepts work? Is the story engaging? Based on the script, how ready was the actual movie for audiences, critics, and voters? That’s what guided my decisions this year as a means to differentiate between our hopefuls as writers and directors. Since the overall projects were kept close to the filmmakers’ vests, the main question I’m asking myself is, was the script good enough to go all-in with the production, or should these men have perhaps solicited outside help while they focused on directing?

This year’s nominees for Original Screenplay are…

The Banshees of Inisherin – Martin McDonagh

There is arguably no better writer working today that can make small stories seem as big as possible. A couple of hitmen stuck in a boring city, a blocked writer trying to work out his characters, a woman from a rural heartland town using every resource within her limited means to bring attention to her plight. These are the relatively low stakes webs McDonagh can weave in ways that feel far more epic than they’d otherwise be. It’s no different for The Banshees of Inisherin, which perfectly encapsulates life in an insular community, while also providing a microcosm for the actual war of independence fought on Ireland’s mainland in the background. He’s able to create a perfect setting for the type of plot he wants the audience to see, one of extreme measures to handle mundane issues, the ultimate mountain out of a molehill.

As for the characters, they’re about as great as you can make them. Colin Farrell may not have been able to get a hold on his players in Seven Psychopaths, but McDonagh has expert command over who his people are, and what motivates them. In particular, with our four leads (Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Barry Keoghan, and Kerry Condon), he’s crafted personalities and desires that are always in conflict, but never once incompatible. He’s showing us throughout that there are simple solutions to everyone’s problems, if only they’d pull their collective heads out of their arse and think about something other than their selfish wants and needs. This is especially true for Farrell and Gleeson.

Finally, there’s the dialogue, which is note perfect, because it’s specifically tailored to the characters themselves. Gleeson speaks eloquently and softly, making sure that whatever message he needs to convey gets across as clearly as possible while not wasting words. Farrell, on the clear opposite end of this spectrum, goes on and on with extraneous explanations and tangents, at times completely at a loss but never shutting his gob. It’s a tremendous contrast to a movie like Babylon, where the script just beat you over the head with the same lines over and over again, but without having anything to say from an artistic standpoint. Here, Farrell’s redundancy has a point. It’s meant to illustrate that he’s a dullard, that Gleeson has a valid critique in his former best friend, and that he’s not just making things up to justify his actions. But going further, the repetition serves another purpose for the character, in that it’s the only way he knows how to make his own point and feelings known. He’s simple, which makes it harder for him to convey what’s on his mind in new ways, but going over the same ground is his way of asserting his own agency, and it’s meant to illustrate that he still has value. Trust me, I can relate. Do you have any idea how many times I go back over my paragraphs in these posts to make sure I don’t say “film,” “movie,” or any other related synonyms too often? It’s maddening sometimes.

That’s how masterful McDonagh is at writing these lines. The fact that most of them are also darkly funny as fuck is just an added bonus.

Everything Everywhere All at Once – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

Nearly everything I just said about Martin McDonagh can apply to the Daniels, though obviously within the contexts of the respective worlds they build for their films. This is only the second feature that the duo has done together, with the other being the brilliant but underrated Swiss Army Man. But before they became film directors, they made their bones with music videos, and if you watch some of their work there (“Turn Down for What” and “Simple Song” chief among them), you get a good impression both of their visual artistry and their writing style. Just like McDonagh, they know how to take a fairly simple concept and make it much bigger than the average person would imagine, whether it’s a family trashing their late patriarch’s house looking for their inheritance, an apartment building full of people who get progressively horny thanks to a dank beat, or on this grand stage, with a woman discovering the best version of herself by living dozens of alternatives and finding a way to reconnect with her family in a way that makes her feel happy and fulfilled.

The overall plot of Everything Everywhere isn’t all that complex. There are literally thousands of films where a protagonist living a boring existence becomes an unexpected hero. It’s what’s done with the idea that matters, as the story takes the viewer on a journey that bends the very fabric of reality while still containing the core events within essentially three locations (the laundromat/apartment, the tax office, and the dimensional gap with the bagel). Every single story beat occurs relative to those three areas, with the characters never physically deviating all that much. That’s because the Daniels wanted to create a bombastic story that reinforces a simple truth about love and family.

When it comes to the characters themselves, they pull off an utterly amazing feat of creating a cast that has many different versions of itself, but remains the same core people throughout. Whether he’s kicking ass, taking names, being playful, or confessing his deep feelings for Evelyn, Waymond is always a kind, genuine person who loves his life. Dierdre is an assertive professional who’s completely over everyone else’s bullshit, be it when she’s lecturing the Wangs or doing a flying crane kick from the top of a flight of stairs. Gong Gong is hard-nosed and rigid, both when it comes to traditional Chinese values or his adamant belief that Jobu has to be killed. Evelyn is strong, willful, and expressive in all forms. And of course, whether she’s a nihilistic young adult or a world-ending agent of destruction, Joy is someone processing generational trauma the only way she knows how. That is character design 20 levels above what most writers can pull off.

And of course, the dialogue is some of the funniest ever put to film. Whether the jokes are over-the-top (Raccacoonie), an eye-popping piece of the action (Jenny Slate punting her dog), a perfect line to punctuate a tense moment (Tallie Medel’s slightly awkward “What did he say?” when Gong Gong realizes what “girlfriend” means), or just a simple bit of silliness that means everything and nothing at the same time (the googly-eyed rocks), there is not a single false moment in anything said or done in this script.

The Fabelmans – Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner

This is the fourth film Kushner has written for Spielberg, and the first where they’ve directly collaborated on the script. The two certainly work well together, playing to each other’s strengths, but as I noted when I reviewed the film, the screenplay is one of the few lesser elements.

The plot, for the most part, is perfectly fine and believable, because it’s a dramatized version of Spielberg’s own life. Given that, I completely buy the scenes exploring the origins of his obsession with filmmaking. Spielberg has his faults like any other artist, but he’s never dishonest. It’s just a matter of what lengths he’ll go to in order to get his point across. And that’s where the story occasionally falters. As I mentioned in the review, the bulk of the third act is completely unnecessary. It only serves to pad the runtime to over two and a half hours, and Sam’s bullying at the hands of antisemitic classmates feels like an Afterschool Special, adding nothing to the proceedings, both on a narrative and meta level. The scenes that relate to the end of his parents’ marriage can stay, but all the high school drama that’s not related to filming the senior beach trip could have been easily excised and none of the story’s overall impact would have been lost.

From a character standpoint, the screenplay comes up short again. Every single punch is pulled when it comes to Mitzi and her transgressions. It’s one thing to give your mom the benefit of the doubt, but this script lets her completely off the hook, even when she does things that are objectively shitty and wrong. On the flipside, Burt is turned into the antagonist seemingly just to have one, even though he’s the one character who consistently acts in good, upstanding ways. He doesn’t understand his son’s hobby, but he openly (and financially) supports it at every turn. The moment he offers practical caution, however, or asks Sammy to do a project for the family, he’s somehow the bad guy. What sense does that make? He even basically suffers on his own from his wife’s infidelity, and yet she’s the one lionized while he’s treated like he drove her away. Spielberg does allow for some thoughtful self-examination through Sam, but he never applies that crucial even-handedness with his parents.

As for the dialogue, most of it is fine, but there are a few cringe moments. Relating to the bastardization of Burt, the fact that either Sam or Mitzi objects whenever he properly uses the word “hobby” to describe Sam’s filmmaking is one of the more frustrating runners. Further, there’s the “Apologize for Jews killing Jesus” bullshit, the schmaltzy and pandering “Movies are dreams” speech, and everything involving the monkey.

On the whole, The Fabelmans is a really good movie, but I said back when I first saw it that it was just below the level of what I’d consider great. The script is a significant contributor to that downgrade.

Tár – Todd Field

The success of Tár from a screenplay perspective comes largely from the overall structure of the plot and the dialogue. I can’t really say much about characterization, because this is a “Showcase Film” where only one character truly matters, and that’s Lydia herself. Everyone else is a momentary distraction, only memorable via their relationship to her, to the point that the one who sticks out the most is the one we never actually see, Krista Taylor, whose story unfolds entirely off screen.

Obviously the dialogue is brilliant, as Field is able to slowly devolve Lydia’s high-minded nature and status over the course of the film. She speaks in very highfalutin tones, using big, smart words early on to convey her expertise and perceived superiority. By the time her fall from grace is complete, she barely speaks beyond the monosyllabic, and uses much more curt and crass language when she does feel the need for an extended thought.

This leads back into the overall structure, which illustrates Lydia’s spiral as something of a literary tornado. When she’s on top, she’s at the mouth of the funnel, swirling around and reaching across a wide swath of metaphorical territory. As her influence wanes, so too does the story thin itself out, with various tangents and plot threads being left by the wayside, whether they’re fully resolved or not. By the end, she’s just a tip touching down, still able to cause some damage and devastation, but a very narrow stretch of the mass that she once was.

On a more thematically-appropriate note though, the plot also unfolds something like the way a classical symphony might. The first movement is typically the longest, which correlates to Lydia’s lengthy monologues and flowery language. The middle parts introduce variances on the theme which disrupt and alter the tempo, which certainly aligns with the more rocky stages of the story where Lydia tries to keep her house of cards standing. Finally, after a climactic crescendo, the final movement gives way to calmness, and ultimately, silence. Right on cue, this is where Lydia tackles Mark Strong, ending her prestigious career, and leaving her to conduct video game orchestras for cosplaying fans at conventions. The film notably cuts out and ends before this degrading (to her) phase of her work is able to actually produce any significant sound.

Triangle of Sadness – Ruben Östlund

Of all the entries, this is the one that most feels like it needed a Page One rewrite with another author. Östlund has a few solid ideas in his script, but they only work as vague concepts. A satire about the idle rich? Sure, why not? It’s been done before, but in clever hands it can be very satisfying. An exploration of shallowness, regardless of class? Okay, intriguing, but you have to make sure not to punch down at those who don’t deserve it. Quirky characters who illustrate the inequities of capitalism? Alright, but you’re starting to sound a bit too repetitive. Asserting that everyone is an opportunistic, stupid, piece of shit, even the downtrodden if they get a chance? SHUT UP ALREADY! ALL YOU”RE DOING IS FINDING DIFFERENT WAYS TO SAY THE SAME THING, AND BECOMING MORE INSULTING IN THE PROCESS!

This is part of a larger problem I brought up when reviewing the double-dose of bear movies over the weekend. You can’t just come up with what you think might make a good gag or a cool shot and then stop at whatever you can tweet out or make into a TikTok. You have to come up with an actual story to flesh things out. A feature length plot can not be attached to a hashtag. There are moments in Triangle of Sadness where Östlund sems to understand this concept, and others where he appears to have never even considered it. On the yacht, we’re introduced to an elderly couple who got rich making weapons. They seem sweet as all get out until they reveal the source of their wealth. That creates an instant of surprising irony, and it’s paid off in golden satirical fashion when the pirates blow them and the ship up using one of their grenades. That’s well done. But then you have Therese, arguably the smartest and most observant character in the film, but one who can only speak a single sentence in German after suffering a stroke. Again, the irony is there, but instead her tragedy is drawn out over two full acts and played for a cheap laugh that ultimately comes to be at her expense. Rather than explore the implications of her disability, her presence quickly becomes a reminder that, “Oh hey, there’s a lady who can only say one thing in German. Isn’t that funny/pathetic?” No to both.

And then of course there are the basic failures of story and character. While there are some intriguing moments here and there, they all happen in the second act aboard the yacht. Everything that happens afterward on the island is insulting in the extreme, and everything that comes before it with Carl and Yaya is boring as fuck. I don’t give a single solitary shit about what happens to any of these characters, save for the nameless workers on the boat who end up casually killed off in the explosion to get us to the island, so we can once again focus on the people who don’t merit a moment’s attention.

All of this comes back to the core problem. Ruben Östlund came up with some good ideas for scenes or isolated shots. But he didn’t come up with a story or compelling characters. The best he does is in the middle act, where we get some good jokes, one or two insightful discussions on class warfare, and the absolutely insane Captain’s Dinner. A better writer would have taken this screenplay, scrapped the first and third acts, and expanded the second into a feature on its own, culminating with the rich but dark gag that leads to the boat blowing up. As soon as Clementine asks Winston, “Is this one of ours?” we should have just cut to the explosion and rolled the credits.

My Rankings:
1) The Banshees of Inisherin
2) Everything Everywhere All at Once
3) Tár
4) The Fabelmans
5) Triangle of Sadness

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, we resume our excursion through the Short Film program, with a look at some of the best true stories that can be crammed into 40 minutes, from touching family portraits (involving both people and animals) to the long-term consequences of political action (or lack thereof). It’s Documentary Short!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which screenplay was your favorite? Which element of writing is most crucial to your enjoyment? How often should a director film their own script? Let me know!

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