2014 Oscar Race: Best Adapted Screenplay

It’s February, and that means its Oscar time around this blog. This is the second of nine blog pieces set to roll out between now and the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, all of which will be breaking down (what I consider) the eight major races – Picture, Director, both writing and all four acting categories. 

Like with most things on this blog, this will be a mix of fact, popular opinion and my opinion – the three of which don’t often intersect. Then I’ll post my Oscar scorecard right before the show as best I can – I’ve seen each of the films in the eight categories I’m covering, but not across the board.

On to today’s posting: Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Nominees
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)
Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)
12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)

What Will Win: 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
What Could Win: Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)
What Should Win: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
What Should Be Here: August: Osage County (Tracy Letts)

If you read my post on Monday, February 3 regarding the Original Screenplay category, you’ll understand that the Oscar voters are looking to spread the love among three highly nominated films this year: American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Only the latter has been nominated in this category, so we’ll start there.

12 Years a Slave is a film that is destined to go down as one of or perhaps the definitive slavery film in the history of Hollywood. It’s brutal, it’s honest and chock full of terrific performances. Director Steve McQueen managed the high wire act of brutality and honesty will highly enviable skill.

All of that said, Before Midnight far and away the best written film in this category this year. If you’ve seen any of the “Before” series – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight – (and judging by their box office receipts, you haven’t), you’ll understand why. The entire story for each of these three terrific films takes place fully within their dialogue. Let me emphasize this again: these characters’ on-screen relationship takes place Fully. Within. Their. Dialogue. And it works. And it’s compelling. And it fully functions as a story. These films are cinematic achievements – with Before Midnight reaching the pinnacle – and there’s no question it should take home the Oscar.

But it won’t. The film came out during the summer, it’s not a box office success and a lot of people don’t really get them. It’s not even in second place after 12 Years. That honor currently belongs to Philomena, which has been fast rising the ranks. Philomena is a good story that is made great by the performance of Judi Dench. As much as I enjoyed the story, I feel like without Dench, the Oscars take a pass here altogether.

The Wolf of Wall Street is another of my seven four-star films from 2013, but it’s highly polarizing. It’s a dense story with a lot of twists and turns, comedy and surprises. But a lot of people feel it highly glorifies the lifestyle of Jordan Belfort who essentially was a highly successful thief and spent time in prison for it (though not, you know, a lot). Some critics of the film didn’t like how it focused on the comedy and the ride, without really covering on the consequences of his actions.

Rounding out the category was Captain Phillips. Tom Hanks was a surprise snub in the Best Actor category (more on this later), which took a lot of wind out of the film’s sails. Though nominated for Best Picture, it’s very possible that Captain Phillips will be completely shut out of the Oscar race, with its best chance coming in the Best Supporting Actor category (again – more on this later).

I didn’t feel as strongly about Captain Phillips as others did (quality movie to be sure, but great?), but there weren’t any particular snubs that irked me in this category, either. The closest was August: Osage County, written by Tracy Letts and based on her play. This is a film where writing and acting had to all be top notch for it to work, and Letts delivered in spades. Ultimately, the film is very good but even with two Oscar nods (Actress and Supporting Actress), it flew slightly under the radar of the mainstream, which probably nudged Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) just ahead of Letts here.

Though I didn’t think it deserved Oscar recognition, I would like to quickly note the incredible job done by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt on the Hunger Games: Catching Fire script. The first film was bland and dull in large part because of the too faithful adaptation which was poorly paced and badly balanced. New to the franchise, Beaufoy and Arndt hit one out of the park, delivering a script which much more emphasis on character and the broader themes of the story. If the Oscars had a Most Improved Franchise Film category, the Hunger Games: Catching Fire would win in a walk.