Ladies and gentlemen, the weirdest week of the Oscar campaign season has begun. Yesterday, balloting for the Academy Award nominations ended; next Thursday morning, we’ll know the results. For Oscar voters, there’s little left to do but sift through the pile of screeners and feel vaguely guilty about that night they spent watching the season premiere of Downton Abbey when they should have sucked it up and put on Mr. Turner. And for prospective nominees, there’s nothing to do for the next seven days but wait and, on Sunday, get dressed up so they can sit at the Golden Globe Awards dinner for several hours, drinking and eating their feelings while trying their best to pretend that a Golden Globe is an end in itself.
Can you blame them for being tired? It’s a long haul of glad-handing and doing earnest interviews and explaining your “journey” and posing on step stools with your competitors for four hours while trying to look happy to be there and trudging around collecting Lucite and crystal and brushed-metal things that all scream “I am merely the seat-filler for the object you actually want!” Richard Linklater did not spend 12 years making Boyhood so that he could schlep out to Palm Springs and accept something called “the Sonny Bono Visionary Award,” or so that someone could dismiss his film as “Oscar bait” or gripe that it’s “boring” to have one movie win so many awards. But the miasma of ill feeling in which the nomination season has drawn to a close now seems to be a semipermanent feature of the landscape: historians complaining that historical fiction contains fiction as well as history, film critics wearily caviling that the Oscars shouldn’t “matter” (which never really translates to more than “Listen to me instead”), and a whole lot of blahblahblah about how there’s way too much blahblahblah and not nearly enough blahblahblah.
Agreed! So let’s get to something far more important: guessing who’ll be nominated. Starting today and wrapping up next Wednesday, I’ll be predicting the top eight categories; next Thursday, I’ll be back to see how I did and fill up and pour out beakers of my own humiliation. Since in my Oscar cosmology the last (in industry esteem) shall be first, I’ll start today with the writers.
Best Original Screenplay
This is the “good” category in this year’s contest, although it got less good when, as I discovered on Monday, the Academy decided to boot Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, classifying it as adapted instead.1 This decision, though correct by the letter of the law, is dunderheaded, since what Whiplash is purportedly adapted from is Chazelle’s short film Whiplash, which was in turn adapted from the same full-length feature script for Whiplash that resulted in the movie that is being considered. (The preceding sentence, and the logic behind it, was brought to you by Möbius.) The distinction between originals and adaptations in the screenplay categories exists because of a widespread and fair presumption among writers that the challenge of working from preexisting material and/or characters stands apart from the challenge of creating a story from scratch. Whiplash was created from scratch; even the Writers Guild of America, which gets a lot wrong, recognized that, which is why on Wednesday it nominated the film as an original screenplay.
The Academy apparently made its decision sometime before balloting began on December 29, but never conveyed it to Sony Pictures Classics, which had campaigned Whiplash as an original screenplay. The decision went unnoticed by Sony until January 5, when I saw the electronic ballot and tweeted about it; at roughly the same time, writers’ branch member John Gatins (nominated two years ago for Flight) made the same discovery while voting and contacted Deadline.com’s Pete Hammond. It is technically impossible for online voters to mistakenly vote for Whiplash in the “wrong” category, but members who still vote by paper ballot and are inattentive to the eligibility lists the Academy provides could conceivably get it wrong and have their votes discounted.
But even without Whiplash, this field is strong. So strong, in fact, that you could make a pretty creditable lineup out of the hard-punching theological meditation Calvary, the devastating foreign-language film contender Ida, the sharp, meta-frisky cartoon The Lego Movie, the precise and heartbreaking autumnal-gay–New York drama Love Is Strange, and, I don’t know, throw in a Chris — Nolan, for Interstellar, or Rock, for Top Five. And yet none of those films is likely to finish in the money; in this category, they’re the B team.
The five nominees are, instead, likely to be drawn from a pool of eight contenders. Boyhood, still the closest thing we have to an overall front-runner, is not going to get a ton of nominations — its shaggy, homespun aesthetic means it’s almost surely out of the running for things like costumes, production design, and sound. But writers seem very likely to honor Richard Linklater (who received screenplay nominations for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight) for coming up with a script that, against long odds, manages to feel both free-flowing and structured. And the Academy’s fondness for movies about showbiz should allow Birdman to score here. Its writers, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, constitute a larger roster than the branch usually likes to nominate, but that won’t matter; when you vote, all you see is the movie’s title, not its authors. (Which is weird and not true for directors, but that’s a kvetch for another day.)
The writers’ branch seems to like Wes Anderson more than the directors (who have never nominated him) do; his scripts for The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom were both recognized, and The Grand Budapest Hotel (which he wrote from a story he conceived with Hugo Guinness) is the biggest hit of his career. After that, it gets murky. Foxcatcher was, in the last week, the victim of a massive, hotheaded, all-caps Twitter fit by Mark Schultz (the wrestler Channing Tatum plays), who, after supporting the movie for months, vowed to destroy director Bennett Miller for making a film that might make some viewers think he had a sexual relationship with John du Pont; eventually, he backed about halfway down. He didn’t aim his wrath at credited writers E. Max Frye and Daniel Futterman (who worked on the script during different phases of its creation), but the brouhaha didn’t help the chances of the already polarizing movie, which will need plenty of champions in the branch to make the cut. A Most Violent Year won admiring reviews for its writer/director J.C. Chandor, and its small distributor, A24, did a good job of getting screeners in the mail, but opening a little film on the very last day of Oscar eligibility (December 31) is probably a tactical mistake, especially for a film that can only benefit as the conversation about it builds. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, another late-December opener, may also have trouble gaining traction here. But writers admire Leigh tremendously — he’s a five-time nominee in this category, most recently for Another Year (which opened just as late), and he cannot be counted out.
That’s already six, and I haven’t even gotten to two very big complicating factors. The first is Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir black-comedy thriller Nightcrawler, which has bootstrapped its way into the contest by sheer word-of-mouth enthusiasm. I think the term “Oscar bait” is glib, meaningless, and not in sync with how or why movies are made, but I get what people mean when they use it as shorthand, and what they mean is the opposite of Nightcrawler. I wouldn’t be shocked to see it end up with three or four major nominations next Thursday (it has already been recognized by the WGA, the Producers Guild, and SAG) — or with none. And then there’s Ava DuVernay’s Selma. A couple of weeks ago, I would have said the civil-rights drama was a sure bet in this category. But, beginning with an irate op-ed in the Washington Post, it has come in for severe criticism for perceived inaccuracies in its depiction of Lyndon Johnson. (More on this next week.) One of the disadvantages of a late-December opening is that it leaves very little time for a movie to outlive a controversy, and it hasn’t helped that the film’s credited screenwriter, Paul Webb, has not offered a response. Perhaps he’s miffed at the public suggestion that he insisted on sole credit for a movie that DuVernay largely rewrote, a flap that also doesn’t help the film’s chances in this branch.
The Lego Movie
Love Is Strange
Right on the Edge
A Most Violent Year
Foxcatcher [holding on for dear life]
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Twentieth Century Fox
Best Adapted Screenplay
When news broke that, to the surprise of everyone, including Sony Pictures Classics, Whiplash had ended up in this category, many of the film’s partisans said, great — it’s got much better odds in this much weaker field. They aren’t wrong. Best Adapted Screenplay is largely undistinguished terrain this year. So undistinguished that the WGA had to reach all the way out to American Sniper (a script that dodges and avoids many of the troubling complexities of Chris Kyle’s story) and Guardians of the Galaxy, a deft and funny piece of genre work that, in a typical year, wouldn’t have stood a chance. (If writers were wandering into left field, I wish they had wandered toward the provocative and well-written Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or to the biting, unpredictable, mournful Western The Homesman, a movie that deserved much more attention, from both audiences and awarders, than it got this fall.)
For the Oscars, those choices are likely to remain long shots (although the Sniper script, by Jason Hall, is coming on fast). Let’s start by assuming a few almost-sure things: Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for Gone Girl may not have pleased every reader of the book, but it’s no easy feat to take a novel so widely read that half of America seemed to know the big twist and turn it into a big, buzzy movie that ignites the conversation all over again. She’s in, and so, I imagine, are two midrange British prestige dramas that have managed to autopilot their way through the entire season, The Imitation Game (by Graham Moore) and The Theory of Everything (by Anthony McCarten).
Let me pause here to introduce a theme that will recur several times over the next week as these movies keep coming up (and they will keep coming up): I don’t get it. I mean, I really do not get it. Both films are very nice performance pieces for their leading men. But The Imitation Game manages to cocoon a potentially fascinating story in layers of sanctimony about how sometimes special people are insufficiently appreciated in their own time; say what you will about Selma, but it’s a movie that uses the past to force its audience to engage with present realities, not to keep viewers at a smug distance from anything that might ruffle them by telling them what to feel at every turn. As for The Theory of Everything, if you think the two most interesting things about Stephen Hawking are that he has a terrible disease and an eye for the ladies, it’s all yours. In any case, nobody’s complaints about these two films have added up to a pebble in their paths, so … moving on.
That leaves one open slot — or two, if category glitchiness costs Whiplash a well-deserved nomination. A pair of big recent moneymakers, Into the Woods and Unbroken, have shots here. But Into the Woods’s James Lapine is fighting half a century of bad Oscar history (no writer has been nominated for adapting the book of his own Broadway musical since Alan Jay Lerner for My Fair Lady in 1964). And although the credits of the too-many-cooks screenplay for Unbroken seem to cover half the writers’ branch — Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson all have their names on it — the results feel like so much less than the sum of their particular talents that it would take more overall awards momentum than this movie has to power through to a nomination in this category.
That leaves a very limited number of viable options. One of them, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Alzheimer’s drama/Julianne Moore showpiece Still Alice, definitely got watched by the actors’ branch, but it’s not clear if the DVD made it to the top of the pile for writers. But two strong candidates remain: Nick Hornby’s adroit and thoughtful adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (writers may especially appreciate how elegantly Hornby found a way to capture the book’s seamless voyage through memories, flashbacks, meditations, brief encounters, and scenes of endurance), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice. Finding a way to bring Pynchon’s voice to the screen is a massive accomplishment, and writers like PTA (they’ve nominated him three times). But considering they left him out for The Master, a nomination for this lighter, spoofier work may be a reach.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Into the Woods
Right on the Edge
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything