Herrington & Akers on the Oscars (2012), Day 4: Screenplays


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The end is near. It's day four of the annual pre-Oscar conflagration here at Sing All Kinds. Where we've been:

Day One: Editing/Cinematography
Day Two: Lead Performances
Day Three: Supporting Performances

Tomorrow we'll finish up with Best Director and Best Picture. But before that, it's time for the starting point of most film projects, the screenplays:

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Nominees:
The Descendants, Hugo, The Ides of March, Moneyball, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

We disagree on George Clooneys chances, but concur that The Descendants is likely to win for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • We disagree on George Clooney's chances, but concur that The Descendants is likely to win for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Chris Herrington: The Ides of March and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are the easy outs as far as what Will Win this category. Hugo has the most nominations of any of the movies in this group, but I really expect it to do its damage in the physical filmmaking categories. Which leaves us with Moneyball and The Descendants, both of which certainly come across as screenplay-first kind of projects. Given that Moneyball has gotten multiple nominations and unites two of the biggest names in screenwriting — Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian — on its credits, it looks like a viable contender. And this seems like its best chance to win something. Still, I think The Descendants has a little more overall Oscar strength than Moneyball and will be considered more screenplay-driven than Hugo. So that's my pick.

Should Win: I'll say my piece here on Moneyball, which, to my mind, is the most overrated film of 2011. I say this as an amateur sabermetrician since discovering Bill James in junior high and as someone who's read Michael Lewis' book: The book Moneyball is flawed to begin with and the film doesn't seem to really understand the book. The result is a film that pretends to be smart rather than a smart film. It apes the brainy verve of Sorkin's roughly similar The Social Network, but in no way matches it. The Ides of March is even more pleased with itself than Moneyball and has even less reason to be. That's a bad nomination. I think the way Hugo fruitfully personalizes its source material is probably more a function of director Martin Scorsese than the script. And that leaves me with The Descendants and Tinker Tailor, both solid options.

Tinker Tailor is, I'm sure, a terribly impressive distillation of its complicated source material. You've testified to that already and I'm sure you will again. I was impressed by it but also, like a lot of people coming to the material cold, a little confused at times. Where The Descendants wobbles, I think, is in its direction. I think the mix of marital issues, real estate concerns, parenthood, and sense of place are all assembled very well and I can actually imagine this being an even better film in the hands of another filmmaker. So my vote's going there.

Got Robbed: I'll make A Dangerous Method an honorable mention here, but my real choice is going to be an unpopular one: The Help. Having spent some time with Kathryn Stockett's best-seller, I can say that director Tate Taylor's screenplay improves on the source material. The Help was justly criticized for not fully breaking from the "white crusader" dynamic typically deployed in Hollywood films about Southern racism. But it wasn't given enough credit for the interesting and instructive ways it tweaks that formula. I thought much of the negative critique it got felt pre-conceived, and these dismissals and attacks tended to bother me because I recognized myself in them. They're what I assumed I'd be writing before I actually saw it. One piece I saw derided the film as something like "a feel-good movie for white people." I'd say it became a feel-good movie for a lot of critics and social media snarkaholics who were able to use it to make themselves feel superior without really dealing with the film or what it's doing in any substantial way. The Help is an imperfect film, but one that wrestles with its issues with more complication and less comfort than most of its detractors recognized.

Greg Akers: Right now you might be expecting me to trot out some more Oscarmetrics (TM) about Adapted Screenplay, but I'm not going to do it. I'm saving it for Original Screenplay. Actually, I will note that Tinker Tailor won the Herrington-household favorite, the BAFTA. But I suspect it won that because it's British, and the BAFTAs are about honoring the most British rather than the best things.

I agree that The Descendants Will Win. The Academy likes Alexander Payne (won this category for Sideways), and the film has probably the third-most general Oscar good vibes, after The Artist and The Help. I agree that Moneyball or Hugo could sneak in, especially Moneyball, since this category is its best chance to win something.

Should Win: I read the heavily illustrated Hugo a few weeks ago, and much of the movie is there in the book. But the film actually does a good job of adapting that for the screen in the truest sense of the phrase. Instead of stills of Harold Lloyd and Georges Méliès films, we get film clips effortless weaved into the film. That's a function of the editing in addition the screenplay, of course. The script also condenses a few characters, expands upon a few others, especially the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and film professor (Michael Stuhlbarg), and adds whole cloth new ones, such as the everyday denizens of the station. It also smooths out some annoyances in the relationship between Hugo and Isabelle and, most of all, gives Méliès a much bigger stage.

Moneyball disgusts me because it's so intellectually dishonest. There's a real story there to be told, but it would rather tell a middle-brow rousing crowd-pleaser. Similar to what you said, it's a movie that's dumb about baseball that's dressed up as being the smartest guy in the room about baseball. A couple players who I would have liked it to mention: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Billy Koch, Miguel Tejada, and Eric Chavez. You know, the really freaking good players on that team who are the real reason why they won. It had so much less to do with Scott Hatteberg. And how about noting the Red Sox budget was ginormous, and yet they "won on the principles made popular by Billy Beane"? This is balling on a budget, the supposed point of the whole movie?

You were right to suspect that I was about to go HAM with love on the script of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, my choice as the best of the nominations. I really hate that I have to say things like this, but I do because they're true: I think Tinker Tailor has the best adapted screenplay since 1997's L.A. Confidential. You use "distillation," and that's a good word for the action verb that happened from John Le Carré's book to script. The immensely dense novel becomes an slightly less immensely dense film. Tinker Tailor and L.A. Confidential each distill their book into a tricky film that simplifies matters a bit but is faithful to the complex aesthetic. They also each are extensively period-specific but make an effort to keep it a setting rather than an end of the film in and of itself.

Got Robbed: Maligned by some but I think The Adventures of Tintin is actually a wonderful adaptation of several of Hergé's plots into one film. And even though I'm not giving it my top accolade, I will mention the screenplay for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It's disappointing in light of David Fincher's involvement, but I'd still argue that it's the best version of the material so far, superior to the Swedish film and even more superior to the novel, which is wayyyy overrated. I didn't read The Help.

Herrington:Are you only commenting about the adapted screenplays in situations where you've read the source material? How very "Books I Read, 2011" of you. What, you didn't get around to The Descendants? Slacker. Is there not a comic book version? I wish I'd gotten around to seeing Tintin so I could argue with you about it. The previews look tedious to me but I can't fully confirm the expected tedium.

Akers: Ha! So I got a little worried about word-count fatigue, and I'll have you know, sir, that I've never read Moneyball and don't have to to know the movie stinks. You want me to comment on the others? Fine. Ides of March? Sucked. The Descendants? Above average with a real sense of place in the script (not just in the scenery the camera captured).

Best Original Screenplay
The Artist, Bridesmaids, Margin Call, Midnight in Paris, A Separation

We think the American movie set in France will beat out the French movie set in America for Best Original Screenplay.
  • We think the American movie set in France will beat out the French movie set in America for Best Original Screenplay.

Before I trot out my Oscarmetrics (TM) on this category, I'm going to have to retire my use of Oscarmetrics. As it turns out, Grantland uses that same word as a subject heading for their Academy Awards coverage. As someone who publicly hates Grantland (mostly just Bill Simmons), this is humiliating. So instead I'm introducing the statistic VORN — Value Over Replacement Nominee (TM, suck it Grantland).

The tendency with Original Screenplay this year might be to pick The Artist to win, as it's the presumptive frontrunner for Best Picture. It didn't win the Writers Guild Award, but then again it wasn't nominated for technical reasons. I think the wise play though will be to avoid The Artist for once this Oscar night. It's going to lose to Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen's film won the Golden Globes for Best Screenplay. The Golden Globes, strangely, only have one screenplay award combining adapted and original screenplays. Since 1996, only three original screenplays (Lost in Translation, American Beauty, and Good Will Hunting have won the Golden Globes. All three won the Oscar as well. Midnight in Paris did win the Writers Guild Award, and the Academy loves Woody. It takes it home. Midnight in Paris' VORN (TM) is sky-high, like 114, even. The Artist's VORN is relatively paltry. A mere 85.

Should Win: In the second biggest embarrassment for me after the Grantland debacle, I've only seen two of these films as of this writing. I'm going to decline saying who should win. But I can haughtily weigh in on Got Robbed. The most moving film of the year, Of Gods and Men, worked in large part because of how quiet it was, in the silences of men performing religious rituals or, in one of the best scenes of the year, while they contemplate their fates and each other while listening to Swan Lake. I'm not sure how much of the quiet was scripted or the product of the director, but it made for a great film.

The three most robbed scripts all approached pandemic calamity obliquely, leaving typical disaster movie cliches off screen. Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter made a vision of end times into a gripping family drama. Melancholia was fantastic, especially in how it introduced the temptingly ridiculous notion of a new planet in our solar system and, in a tense sequence, proved that it was getting closer to earth. Amateur astronomy has never been so terrifying. But the best script was by Scott Z. Burns for Contagion, providing something new under the sun, a dispassionate procedural horror.

Herrington: A nomination itself is a victory for Margin Call and especially A Separation. I would love it if Bridesmaids won this, and I wouldn't totally rule it out, but also can't really see it happening. So I think this comes down to the two lightly charming but generally overrated French-connected films. I fear a win for The Artist here, which would be be wrong not because it's a silent film but because it's such an unimaginative, slapped-together compendium of earlier, better backlot/backstage movies (A Star is Born, Singin' in the Rain, and Sunset Blvd, in particular). But I'm going to stick to my first hunch — and your research makes me feel better about this — and agree with you that Will Win: Midnight in Paris. I thought Allen would win in this category a few years back for Vicki Cristina Barcelona and that didn't happen. But I'll say he comes back for it here.

Should Win: Midnight in Paris is more "clever" than clever. Margin Call is a surprisingly deft piece of work. I'm glad it got some recognition here. I'm tempted to vote Bridesmaids, but would actually second-guess a few decisions that were made on the film, wishing for a little less scatology and sexual grossout humor and a little more low-key Kristin Wiig/Maya Rudolph one-on-one time. So the vote here has to go to the draining Iranian family drama A Separation, which is set to open in Memphis on March 2nd. I've still got to write a full review on this, so I'm going to keep my powder dry on it for now.

Got Robbed: I'll second your citation of Take Shelter. It's a strong honorable mention for me. And I'll again mention my fave 2011 film, Certified Copy, which is built on a provocative premise. But I think turning that premise into such a pleasurably confounding film is the result of some heavy lifting from director Abbas Kiarostami and star Juliette Binoche. Instead, I come down to a coin flip between two of 2011's most under-recognized films with Oscar pedigrees: Writer-director Thomas McCarthy shared a writing nomination a couple of years ago for his work on the Pixar smash Up and got his lead — Richard Jenkins — a Best Actor nomination with his last film, The Visitor. But McCarthy's Win Win, this year's winner for Best Low-Key Indie Comedy/Drama About Recognizable Human Beings (last year's winner: Nicole Holofcener's Please Give), has been far, far too ignored in year-end festivities — and not just at the Oscars.

But still, I'm going with Young Adult. Diablo Cody won this category a few years ago for Juno, a film I liked with some reservations, mostly related to Cody's too-antic slanginess. (If that wasn't a word before, it is now.) Cody reunited with Juno director Jason Reitman here, and the script she gives him is fascinatingly nervy, prickly, and self-implicating. It's like Bad Santa with higher stakes and realer characters; a dark comedy a lot of people — including most Academy voters, apparently — didn't know how to handle. I wasn't sure myself for awhile.

Akers: In the rush to watch SO many Oscar-nominated films, I've been forced to neglect those that didn't get any nominations. I very much look forward to seeing the films you've named. They better be good. This is on your head, Herrington.

Herrington: And therein lies one of the problems with the Oscars: It's taken so seriously by casual filmgoers that it narrows the conversation. It would be one thing if there were a strong correlation between "Oscar movies" and what's actually good and interesting in film, but I'm not sure there is. It's a drag that there are people going out of their way to see Albert Nobbs or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because of Oscar nominations while bypassing the likes of Take Shelter and Win Win. Expanding this conversation beyond the awards to highlight movies not nominated is what makes it worth doing to me.


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