Oscar Breakdown: Best Original and Adapted Screenplays

By  · Published on March 4th, 2010

It’s Academy Awards time again, and even though we all know the awards are basically an irrelevant exercise in mutual masturbation it’s still fun to watch. As someone who enjoys words my favorite part of the film-making process continues to be the screenplay. A solid script is the foundation for every great movie, just as a terrible one almost guarantees failure. This year sees a wide variety of films gain entry into Oscar history via nominations for Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted. Some deserve the honor, while others are based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire.

Best Original Screenplay

Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker

There’s no doubt that this is a fantastic film, and I fully support a Kathryn Bigelow win for Best Director… but the script is not the film’s primary strength. The best parts of the movie are Bigelow’s assured direction, an inordinate amount of tension and suspense, and the performances of Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and the rest of the cast. The script provides the obvious structure, but it’s these other elements that bring the film to life.

Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

*Should Win! Will Win!* That’s right, Tarantino’s latest is the best nominated script of the year. From its multi-layered format, to the way it brings together the disparate story threads, to the best dialogue of Tarantino’s career, to one of the ballsiest and most audacious final lines I’ve seen it quite some time… this is the screenplay to beat on Oscar night. I could go on and on about the maturity, creativity, playfulness, ingenuity, and pure brilliance of the script, but I already wrote a full review elsewhere on this site. It deserves to win Best Film, but sadly it will have to settle for a well-earned win in this category alone.

Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, The Messenger

This barely seen little movie is probably the most unexpected nomination here. It is beautifully written, but after watching it what stands out most are the performances over the script. Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi… the movie is filled with powerful performances. There’s an argument to be made that the best scripts shouldn’t draw attention to themselves (a la Inglourious Basterds), but this is not the year for that discussion.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man

At the risk of incurring the wrath of Coen brother apologists… this is not one of their best films. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but they’re trying too hard to make a “Coen Brothers movie.” The same way that Wes Anderson finally tipped too far over the line when he made The Darjeeling Limited, the Coens have moved closer to self parody than ever before. The movie is funny, some of the performances stand out, and it exposed me to more Judaism than any other movie this year, but the script is lacking an ending for Christ’s sake.

Peter Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy, Up

From upsetting the Coen Contingent to pissing off the Up Brigade… this screenplay does not belong here. Yes I cried in the opening ten minutes, yes I laughed several times throughout, and yes the movie is a tremendous achievement for animated films. I liked it quite a bit. It’s a really good movie. But it is so far removed from Best Screenplay material… from the talking dog, to the generic story about the importance of companionship, to the goofy villain… a really good kids movie, but not Pixar’s best, and not deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay (or Best Picture, but don’t get me started on that one).

Best Adapted Screenplay

Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9

It’s great to see genre films represented here, and I’m extremely pleased the Academy chose this over Avatar. I think the nomination is just enough recognition for a script that mixes science fiction, social and political commentary, and exploding space bugs. It’s greatest achievement though is in creating an unlikable character who only earns our sympathy in the final scenes.

Nick Hornby, An Education

I get it. Carey Mulligan is cute, bright, and appears to be a good actress. But the movie is instantly forgettable beyond her. The normally reliable Peter Sarsgaard fumbles a bit with the British accent and the tone of the film seems a bit unsteady between coming of age drama and comedy. Hornby’s script isn’t to blame for those two things, but it also doesn’t get credit for Mulligan… so what’s really left?

Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche, In the Loop

*Should Win!* Even allowing for some improvisation, this script features some of the sharpest, wittiest, and flat out funniest dialogue ever committed to celluloid. The fact that it also has time to work in some incredibly clever and scathing observations on the way our governments operate makes the whole thing even more appealing. This level of satire and intelligence is seldom seen these days, and it deserves to be rewarded.

Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious

People, people, people. This is not a good movie. It’s two emotionally overwhelming performances that can’t help but stand out from melodrama layered on thicker than a threesome with Mo’nique and Oprah Winfrey. It’s easy to create villains and victims, and it’s even easier to fill your film with ugly cliches and lame platitudes. What’s not so easy is creating a movie about real people dealing honestly with real issues and making it relevant, important, and worthwhile.

Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

*Will Win!* It’s become fashionable to hate on Reitman’s latest movie for some reason, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a smartly executed indictment of a flawed system and an equally flawed lifestyle. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record here, you walk away from the movie more impressed with the performances of George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga, then you do anything else. I for one love where the movie takes its lead character, but I credit the power of that journey as much with the actor as with the script.

So there you have it. The ten nominees for Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted. Who do you think will win? Who do you think should win?

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.