2016 Oscars: Writing

Continuing my series of 2016 Oscars posts, which will run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the three weeks leading up to the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 28.

NOMINEES FOR ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton

Who Will Win: Spotlight
Who Could Win: Inside Out
Who Should Win: Ex Machina
Who Should Be Here: Pawn Sacrifice

I used to separate out the two screenplay awards, but I often felt that I talked about the nominees cross-category, and it’s always hard to pick a winner out of context from the other award, so this year, I combined them into a single posting.

NOMINEES FOR ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Big Short
Brooklyn
Carol
The Martian
Room

Who Will Win: The Big Short
Who Could Win: Room
Who Should Win: The Big Short
Who Should Be Here: Steve Jobs

Another common refrain you’re going to hear from me this year: This was a very good year for movies. There were lots of great choices, lots of great art, lots of great entertainment. That said: There is no one blow-away, classic instant masterpiece film in the bunch. That’s why you’ll hear a lot about this being such a wide-open race – there’s no single film that dominates the landscape. But – lots of good.

Also, et me get this out of the way too: Spotlight is a well-acted film with a compelling story. But it has significant narrative flaws. (Trying to be spoiler free here) Entire subplots are brought up and disregarded with little to no development. A major character is severely underutilized. The motives behind the principal characters aren’t fully explored and developed. Good film? Yes. Fantastic story? You betcha. Great film? No.

The best writing job this year – in either category – has got to be The Big Short. The writers of that film did such an amazing job taking something that’s so complicated that the people who lived through it and practiced it day to day couldn’t even explain it to you, and made it understandable. The great narration by Ryan Gosling, coupled by the random celebrity cameos to explain the really tough stuff in plain language (Margot Robbie in a bubblebath? Who thought of that?!) helped drive the film through what would otherwise be boring, murky stuff.

The next best written film of the year, to me, is Ex Machina. Alex Garland – long a favorite of mine both for novels (The Beach is in my Top 10 books of all time) and films (Sunshine, 28 Days Later). The existential questions the film poses alone are more than worth your two hours, but the characters are compelling, the story and tension build throughout and the ending is dark but satisfying.

What makes a movie like Inside Out work at all levels – both for kids and adults alike – is subtle, layered writing, and this film has it in spades. Watching it, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much in there that kids wouldn’t get, yet there’s still enough to keep them satisfied throughout. It really is one of the best coming of age stories ever put on celluloid.

What I don’t get at all is how little play Steve Jobs got. Aaron Sorkin took the standard bio-pic and morphed it into something far more interesting and compelling than what’s been done. He put the life of Jobs in the context of three of his biggest product launches, comparing and contrasting his successes and failures as the boss of Apple with his failures and successes as a father and a man. He kept terrific and taut tension all the way through; the film was nothing short of brilliant. Just don’t understand the lack of love for it.

In short, there isn’t a dog in the whole bunch here – and I’ll be talking more about all of these films as we work our way through the Oscar films the next couple of weeks. But what I’ll point out is this: for all the love Max Max: Fury Road has gotten – note that it didn’t receive a nomination for writing, which gets 10 total slots. Interesting, huh?