As far as the Oscars are concerned, the best way to get a handle on the year's best films is to look at the Best Screenplay nominees. The writers who vote for the ten films nominated in the Original and Adapted categories are the closest things to outsiders the movie community has. They're generally smarter and lower paid than anyone else, and they tend not to work on movie sets, hobnobbing with famous directors and movie stars. And so they have a more objective outlook on what's good and what's not.
The screenplay category has historically shown more foresight and flexibility than its fellows. After all, some of the past winners include filmmakers William A. Wellman, Orson Welles, Preston Sturges, Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, none of which ever had a shot as Best Director. Other nominees include Budd Boetticher, Andre de Toth, Nicholas Ray, Jacques Tati and Jacques Demy. Certain filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and Bill Condon won Screenplay Oscars long before their careers as directors took off. And even some genuinely legendary writers have heard their name called: William Saroyan, James Agee, Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Paddy Chayefsky, Vladimir Nabokov and Arthur Miller.
Some great movies appear only in the screenplay category and stand the test of time far better than most of the Best Picture nominees. Two classics, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, were nominated in 1989; the year that Driving Miss Daisy scored Best Picture. Likewise, Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes' Ghost World received a 2001 nomination and lost to the vastly inferior Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind. And last year, David Cronenberg's A History of Violence landed its single nomination in the Screenplay category. The list goes on.
Sometimes, a key picture will be left out of the screenwriting category, which is as telling as when it gets nominated. James Cameron's Titanic, for all its other 14 nominations, failed to land one in the screenplay category. The same happened this year for the over-hyped Dreamgirls (400+ screens). The screenwriters can smell it when something just doesn't click.
This year's nominees were an overall good batch. Let's start with the best: Alfonso Cuarón and Timothy Sexton's Children of Men (154 screens); there were three other guys credited and nominated, but they were apparently only the authors of a very bad first draft, which was completely discarded by Cuarón and Sexton. Based on a book by P.D. James, this script was a model of stripped-down storytelling. It's a visual script, with very little explanation and exposition. It trusts the audience to fill in the blanks.
I'd place Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer and Todd Phillips's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (70 screens), which received its only nomination in this category, close behind. It's definitely a movie for the moment, but like Dr. Strangelove and This Is Spinal Tap, it's clever enough on numerous levels that I suspect it will also be a comedy for the ages. One of my favorite moments of the Oscar broadcast was hearing Helen Mirren read out all the names, and then the long title of this nominee, which probably took a whole sixty seconds. More than that, it cracked me up to hear Todd Phillips -- the maker of Hated: G.G. Allin and the Murder Junkies, Road Trip and Old School -- being read as an Oscar nominee. This truly is the land of opportunity.
I suspect that Guillermo Arriaga's Babel (289 screens) probably reads better on the page than it looks on the screen; Arriaga has already proven himself a great writer away from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and it would have been interesting to see what a more talented, less pretentious director could have done with it. William Monahan's The Departed (274 screens) offered up some great scenery chewing for some great actors; it was worth the price of admission alone to hear Jack Nicholson say the word "haberdashery." Too bad Monahan didn't know when to stop; the movie had too many endings, even when its inspiration Infernal Affairs showed exactly what to do. (Note to the Academy: the original film is from Hong Kong, not Japan.)
Michael Arndt's Little Miss Sunshine (31 screens) was a fancy version of a National Lampoon's Vacation movie made to work mainly because of its cast. Picture the movie without Alan Arkin, and it becomes an impenetrable stress ball that would be no fun for anyone. Todd Field and Tom Perrotta's Little Children (61 screens) is perhaps the least interesting of the scripts, relying too much on needless narration and having very little idea of what it wants to get across. But it also reminded us of how much better an adaptation of a Perrotta novel can actually be; Alexander Payne's Election received its only nomination in this category back in 1999.
And Patrick Marber's Notes on a Scandal (322 screens) sidestepped sticky sexual issues between its main characters Sheba and Barbara, but still managed a kind of sleazy tabloid quality -- combined with a literary loftiness -- that made it appealing. More than likely it was the stuffy director Richard Eyre (Iris, Stage Beauty) that stifled the sex, and not Marber.
In the 400+ screens category, we have the remaining three nominees, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, Peter Morgan's The Queen and Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis's Letters from Iwo Jima, which we will save for future columns.