Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars Predictions 2014: Adapted Screenplay

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.



Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke

Billy Ray

3. 12 Years a Slave
John Ridley

4. The Wolf of Wall Street
Terence Winter

Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope

The best screenplay  of the year  is Before Midnight. Point blank, period, end of discussion. But ok, let’s discuss anyway. This is the magnificent third film — a critical darling —  in the series of romantic moments between Parisian Celine and American Jesse, separated by continents and years (nine, to be exact), and if Before Sunrise is passionate first love and Before Sunset (2004 Best Adapted Screenplay nominee), idealized, second-chance love, Before Midnight is mature love, in all of its complicated, thrill-less and domesticated glory. Because the films are basically two-handers in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy stroll forth in the foreground of gorgeous European landscapes, arguing and discussing and analyzing all of life’s great and small debates, there’s this idea that they are largely improvised, but no: Before Midnight is a tight, tight script, heavy in philosophical dialogue that almost seems better-suited to the stage (the Broadway adaptation, surely, is on its way). These films are so smart about relationships, and this latest (hopefully not last) is the most grounded, impressively expressing the dynamics and rhythms of established relationships, from the banal (he’s a slob, she’s impatient) to larger life issues (an uncertain future), tackled passive aggressively, thoughtfully and ultimately compassionately. It’s gorgeous, honest writing that deserves to win. Of course it won’t.

But what also won’t win is Philomena, about a world-weary journo averse to human-interest stories who teams up with a stubborn, preternaturally sweet Irish Catholic trying to find the child she was forced to give up. Adapted from Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 nonfiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, it’s one part detective story, one part buddy comedy and one part anti-(organized) religion diatribe. Because of this, Coogan and Pope’s screenplay veers into sentiment all too often — that is, when it’s not leaning heavily on Philomena’s naïveté for comedy. It’s certainly not the most polished script among the nominees, and though that hasn’t stopped the Academy in its selection of past winners (see The King’s Speech for another fine example), and Harvey Weinstein sure is pushing for it, it’s very unlikely to come out on top considering its competition.

On the opposite-end-of-the-moral-spectrum, the conservative Academy surprised many with its nomination of the f-bomb-laden The Wolf of Wall Street. Are we meant to root for Jordan Belfort, whose memoir inspired Terence Winters screenplay and who cheated thousands out of millions of dollars with his penny-stock schemes from his storefront Long Island office with a white-collar Manhattan name? That’s the big question, and the script’s gloriously over-the-top depictions of Jordan and his crooked cohorts make for an uncertain answer. But to the minds of many (not me), lacking that definitive moral stance on the swindling stockbroker is the same as condoning his reprehensible actions, and that doesn’t bode well for a win here.

Of all the adapted screenplays, surely Captain Phillips was the least expected to win this year’s Writers Guild Award. But win it did, and thus threw it into more serious contention for this race. Based on A Captain’s Duty by the real life Captain Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, the screenplay details the 2009 hijacking of a container ship  by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa in what is ultimately an exploration of the nature of leadership and how authorities respond under pressure. What’s most interesting is that first-time nominee Billy Ray — who also wrote and directed the sharp journalism thriller, Shattered Glass — subtly depicts leadership from both sides of the hijacking, giving (nearly) equal measure to Muse, the Somali commanding pirate by alluding to the experiences — economic, political — that led to his involvement and subsequent responses to the series of events that followed. Like Captain Phillips, Ray’s writing keeps a tight ship with an economy of words and a juggling of perspectives, but is also finely attuned to the heightened — yet controlled — emotions of such a high-stakes situation. Its minimalism, though (in addition to the film’s nonexistent chance of winning Best Picture), makes it an unlikely Oscar winner. But the film does appear to be making an interesting comeback, winning both the WGA and ACE Eddie Award.

So often a screenplay winner is attached to the winning picture, and of these five nominees, 12 Years a Slave (ineligible for the WGA) is best positioned for the big award. Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, the film has been celebrated for its clear-eyed depiction of the everyday lives of slaves — which rarely have been the focus of any film — from sun-up to sun-down, and the unrelenting suffering of that system. John Ridley’s script (and McQueen’s direction) haven’t fully escaped criticism, however: Solomon is a stoic man, and we’re often kept at arm’s length from him, emotionally. Had Ridley filled out Solomon’s tight-knit family a bit more, the devastation of imminent separation — and the horrifying years to follow — would’ve hit that much harder. Nevertheless, it’s fluidly structured, effective —  and yes, affecting — and it has already garnered the USC Scripter Award. It will more than likely will go home a winner on March 2.


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