The Cynic’s Oscars: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard for Most Original Screenplay

By  · Published on October 21st, 2012

The Cynic’s Oscars: Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard for Most Original Screenplay

“In a perfect world, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ would be a lock for a Best Original Screenplay nomination.” – Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

It must be frustrating to write for an awards blog (aka an Oscar blog, since the Academy Awards are always the main focus of these sites), and know that the best films of the year are not necessarily the ones that will be nominated. Magidson’s comment above, from his April review of The Cabin in the Woods, sort of sums that up. But at the same time I don’t know if the movie truly deserves the statement. Something to consider, semantically speaking, is that the Academy’s award is not for “Most Original Screenplay” but “Best Original Screenplay.” This isn’t to say that the script, by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, isn’t well-written, and you’re welcome to argue its case for a nomination. Is it the best-written original screenplay of the year, though?

All my time as a movie lover and watcher of the Oscars, including the past few years of hate-watching, the original screenplay category is one I’ve constantly been excited about. It’s the place where you could find some of the more clever and creative efforts, including a number of films that might not get other nominations. You could find a good number of interesting foreign films outside of the foreign-language award ghetto (such as Bunuel’s two nominations for writing), as well as an interesting showing of mainstream and blockbuster fare, especially in the ’80s (remember when blockbusters were original?) with nods going to Beverly Hills Cop, Back to the Future, Splash, “Crocodile” Dundee, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Fame, WarGames and Big, mixed in with less-populist original genre works like Brazil.

The category is a great spot to showcase films that are talky or quirky or totally mind-scrambling and deep, where you’ll find the Woody Allens and the Wes Andersons and the Charlie Kaufmans. Also, because of a recognition of freshness, it’s where you’ll find people like Diablo Cody, Nia Vardalos, M. Night Shyamalan and Paul Hogan. Sometimes there’s a real kinship between this award and the Academy’s horrible knack for nominating children in major acting categories. Occasionally in recent years there are also nominations for scripts that are obvious acknowledgments of clever ideas where the actual meat of the writing isn’t worthy enough – best examples being The Artist and Inception. If we are to honor original screenplays just for the concept, then we’d also have to honor adapted screenplays based on the source material.

Even when voters are as mistaken as I once was, considering the award intended for most original screenplay, this still just means the most original major release. Otherwise, truly experimental and avant-garde films would make the cut. This year’s attempts at being savvy to fantastical creativity will likely honor Beasts of the Southern Wild in the adapted category (most original adapted screenplay?) and Moonrise Kingdom and maybe even Looper in the original category. But could there be room for The Cabin in the Woods? Or is it not popular enough to pull out of the horror gutter the way The Sixth Sense, Pan’s Labyrinth and a greater number of adapted screenplays have?

And is it even really that original? To an extent, the film is an adaptation of numerous other horror films, without which it wouldn’t be able to exist. Can a deconstruction or parody ever be independently original? I haven’t yet seen Holy Motors, but I hear that it too works best if you’re familiar with certain films of reference. This doesn’t make the content unoriginal, necessarily, but where would you draw the line? Should a measure of originality be in what it’s about, how it’s about, whether it’s the best film that could play to a person who was found in the depths of the Amazon and has never read a book or seen any form of visual media before?

Chronicle is a film that I wouldn’t exactly say has an original story or even an original style, yet I still consider it one of the more original Hollywood releases of the year. The same goes for both Ted and Looper, which are each happily derivative and steeped in literal reference or allusion and at the same time quite clever and thematically very well-scripted. Sound of My Voice also isn’t too clever but it is one of the most satisfying sci-fi films written directly for the screen in a while. Other films that might count in some way as most original, but which I still can’t vouch for, include Beyond the Black Rainbow, Safety Not Guaranteed and Django Unchained.

As far as the Cynic’s Oscars are concerned, this is a perfect world, one where we can nominate anything we want, regardless of how political or populist the voting goes with the Academy, for any sort of category we want, so let’s look at the most original films of the year. For now, I can list those that I’ve seen that I consider the most original – if not also the best original – screenplays of 2012. And because adaptations can be done in an original way, I’m making that a category as well. Add to these nominees if you think I’ve forgotten or not seen something deserving of recognition.

Most Original Original Screenplays of the year: The Cabin in the Woods; Ted; Looper; Chronicle; Seven Psychopaths; Sound of My Voice; Take This Waltz; Robot & Frank; Moonrise Kingdom; Ruby Sparks

Most Original Adapted Screenplays of the year: Savages; The Bourne Legacy; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Prometheus; Snow White and the Huntsman; The Avengers; 21 Jump Street

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.