Essays · Movies

2014 Oscar Prediction: Best Original Screenplay

By  · Published on February 25th, 2014

The Best Original Screenplay Oscar is one category that, despite all the issues with the Academy Awards, seems to make at least some gestures in terms of actually honoring the craft recognized: in this case, the artistry of character-building, dialogue, and storytelling. This is the award that beloved smaller films tend to win, while their more trumpeting competitors take home The Big One. These are the films that defy the screenplay’s almost uniform use as a blueprint, and treat film writing as a form of literature on its own.

It would seem at first glance that this year’s Best Original Screenplay award is a particularly competitive category. After all, it hosts quite a pedigree specific to this award, where movies by Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne, and Woody Allen have all enjoyed successful recognition before. But make no mistake: this is American Hustle’s to lose. An upset isn’t impossible, but this is perhaps one of the most locked categories this year.

But let’s take a look at how the five nominees shake out, with my surprise winner predicted in red…

David O. Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle

Why They Were Nominated

With its overflowing combination of colorful characters, overlapping voice-overs, revisited jokes about science ovens and ice fishing, and stated themes ruminating on art theft and universal hustling, Russell and Singer’s screenplay is recognized here as the framework for four competitive performances.

American Hustle is character-driven, dialogue heavy, and not without its fair share of memorable set pieces. The writing on display here also a nice return to a more manic David O. Russell after his prior two films, complete with a retro New Hollywood vibe.

Why They Will Win

Hollywood loves a comeback story, and there is no recent behind-the-camera comeback quite like David O. Russell’s, who has repeatedly and publicly described his much-awarded and widely seen The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook as his triumphant return from a dark place of divorce and leaked spats with Lily Tomlin (a territory that, artistically speaking, I wouldn’t mind seeing him return to at some point). While Russell has some serious competition in the Best Director and Picture categories, this will be his Hollywood christening, and the way the Academy cement their love from this multi-nominated film. And as Fargo showed, AMPAS digs untrue-true stories.

Why They Might Not Win

Scorsese reference fatigue combined with an unlikely upset from the likes of an upper Midwest road trip or a Siri-ous relationship dramedy.

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine

Why He Was Nominated

Blue Jasmine is Allen’s best film since Sweet and Lowdown. When so many movies have failed in their strained attempts to capture This Socio-Economic Moment, Allen’s film masterfully uses the selective memory, pathological denial, and blinding self-involvement of one complicated protagonist in order to diagnose a pervasive national self-delusion. His tone-deaf and careless portrayal of San Francisco “working class” life aside, Blue Jasmine is Allen’s attempt at Five Easy Pieces in reverse.

Why He Might Win

There is a 0% chance Woody Allen will win this award.

Why He Won’t Win

Nobody at the ceremony will say Allen’s name any more times than they have to. Let’s not forget, the resurrected controversy about Allen’s questionable private conduct began with the last major televised film-related awards show. While Cate Blanchett has a solid chance of taking home the gold, AMPAS isn’t going to risk getting their hands dirty for a filmmaker that’s already been nominated for writing more times than anyone in history, and not to mention never shows up to these things anyway.

Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club

Why They Were Nominated

Ron Woodruff’s biography is such an inevitably transfixing story that you might find yourself wondering why it hadn’t been made into a movie before now. Well, that’s because Borten and Wallack had been laboring on his story for nearly a decade, cyclically pitching it to a Hollywood still rarely comfortable with LGBTQ content. But now they’ve finally seen their devoted character study of a homophobic bull-rider whose body and heart changes reach the big screen, beloved performances in tow.

Why They Might Win

Another character-centric film, Dallas Buyers Club’s script (not unlike American Hustle) provides the groundwork for two much-lauded performances.

Why They Might Not Win

Dallas Buyer’s Club’s screenplay is hardly its strongest suit: the hyperbolic affection given to McConaughey and Leto’s performances often obscures what is really a paint-by-numbers social issue biopic, not to mention one that uses a straight hero to tell a story about an epidemic that disproportionately affected the gay community. But, then again, the Academy tends to love stuff like that. However, even this point was perhaps marred by the fact that Borten and Wallack’s work has received criticism for simplifying what was a far more interesting and complicated story. Did nobody learn from Argo that, to get awards, you need to make reality more compelling, not less?

Spike Jonze, Her

Why He Was Nominated

Jonze’s first wholly original feature screenplay marries a dedicated character study of a loner who finds unlikely love in an increasingly alienating future with a compelling vision of what fraught new relationships we might develop with technology. Where some have seen an uncomplicated praise of new possibilities or a predictable dystopia, I saw a movie that was remarkably ambivalent about futurism. Her shows how new possibilities can enrich and challenge a humanist understanding of being while also creating new avenues for heartbreak.

Why He Might Win

Her is exactly the type of movie the Academy loves to honor in this category: quiet movies that use unique settings to explore the interior lives of people, movies that track the development and dissolution of relationships, and movies that co-star Scarlett Johansson. Basically, Her is this year’s Lost in Translation, in more ways than one.

Why He Might Not Win

Her’s screenplay might get short shrift by past association, namely the fact that the writing here still pales in comparison to Charlie Kaufman’s work for Jonze’s first two features. AMPAS might also, like some of us, be getting a little sick of twee. But mainly American Hustle.

Bob Nelson, Nebraska

Why He Was Nominated

After making four road trip movies in a row, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is easily the Flyover Auteur’s most optimistic and authentic film in some time. And this is due in large part to Bob Nelson’s screenplay. Nelson’s work risks turning some characters into caricature, but the players that it does care about are richly developed. These may be “ordinary lives,” but they’re hardly interchangeable. And I can think of few other pitch-perfect endings from this year’s crop of Oscar favorites.

Why He Might Win

This is again the type of film that typically gets honored in this category: character-driven, small scale, with something to say about its place and time. Only in this category do we seem to occasionally give a shit about movies that depict rural American lives.

Why He Might Not Win

Some voters might be surprised to learn that the writing of this film isn’t credited to Payne in any way, especially considering that Nebraska is Payne’s home state and his distinctively personal work tends to be honored more often in the screenplay category. But then again, this is the first original screenplay Payne has directed in awhile. Either way, Bob Nelson doesn’t exactly exhibit a scribe’s voice all his own; Nebraska seems like somebody’s consummately rendered image of what a “Alexander Payne film” is.

Who Should Win: American Hustle

There were certainly better original screenplays this year (I’m looking at you, Llewyn Davis), but amongst the five nominated here, American Hustle is a worthy contender. While Her is easily the most original of these original screenplays, and while Russell’s execution of the film itself was occasionally too uneven (even for him), he and Roth’s use of actual events in order to invent a world of small-time cons and manic aspiration is too magnetic to ignore. Bigger is rarely better, but it’s often very memorable.