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Last week, I began this year's round of First-Half FYC columns, wherein we aim to respectfully draw attention to worthy Oscar alternatives from the first six months of the U.S. release calendar -- a response to the annual domination of the awards by year-end prestige fare. With our supporting performance picks out of the way, we turn this week to the screenplay categories.
The writing branch of the Academy routinely select the most adventurous and considered nominees of the bunch, but they can be as vulnerable as any other to the attractions of newer, more loudly-hyped contenders, so I've combed through the list of January-to-June titles to find a few titles that have unjustly slipped from the conversation -- if, indeed, they were ever in it. Interestingly, for an industry so commercially dominated by existing properties, it was the Original Screenplay category which came far more quickly into focus: at least two of my picks are seriously in the Oscar hunt already (while one slam-dunk nominee, "Midnight in Paris," didn't make my own five).
Adapted Screenplay, however, proved far more troublesome: by the time I was reduced to considering the likes of "Limitless" and "The Adjustment Bureau," it became clear why, even with an extra six months of releases to choose from, this looks far the most flaccid of the major Oscar categories this year. Once again, many of my first choices in both categories -- including the likes of "Poetry," "Cold Weather," "How I Ended This Summer" and "The Arbor" -- had to be nixed because they don't appear in the official list of 256 Oscar-eligible titles. That some of the year's best films can't even be considered for inclusion, while "Dream House" can, is just one of the infinite injustices of this season.
With that, consider these five original screenplays:
"BEGINNERS," Mike Mills
A viable dark horse for an Oscar nod, Mike Mills's tearily wry second feature, an autumnal comng-out and coming-to-terms tale, was a shade too precious for my taste, but that's not to deny the elegant construction and emotional intelligence of its non-linear script, drawn extensively and affectingly from the director's own personal experience.
"BRIDESMAIDS," Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo
The laugh-heavy screenplay for the summer's breakout comedy hit looks an increasingly good bet for Oscar attention, and that's fine by me, even if I think they drops the ball in a protracted third act: it's the messiness of its frayed female characters that deserves celebration here. (Also, consider this a consolation prize for the Best Actress nomination Wiig deserves, but inevitably won't receive.)
"CERTIFIED COPY," Abbas Kiarostami
Forget the first half: Kiarostami's refracted reflection on what may or may not be the dissolution of what may or may not be a marriage could be the most searching, ingenious screenplay of the whole year, wrapping reams of sneakily cutting dialogue around the loose poetic logic of its premise.
"MEEK'S CUTOFF," Jonathan Raymond
So elemental is Raymond's word-light screenplay for Kelly Reichardt's morally inquisitive semi-western, so entrenched is it in deeply-grooved trails of American mythology, that I keep having to remind myself that it's an original work: this tale of distrust and disorientation on the Oregon Trail has the ring of long-accepted lore.
"RANGO," John Logan, Gore Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit
There appears to be an unwritten rule in recent Oscar-watching that animated films may only be considered for writing awards if they come with the pre-approved stamp of Pixar. Which is a shame, since Logan (twice nominated for live-action work) has fashioned something more extravagantly, enticingly strange with this loopy genre collage than many a Pixar nominee. (Or, indeed, Logan's own "Hugo.")
And over in the adapted category:
"EVERYTHING MUST GO," Dan Rush
Admittedly, Rush's low-key adaptation of Raymond Carver's story "Why Don't You Dance" scarcely attempts to scale the structural or philosophical heights of "Short Cuts" or "Jindabyne," but there's a shuffling, mournful charm to his update of this tale of middle-aged male disenfranchisement that fits smartly into the current economic climate.
"JANE EYRE," Moira Buffini
Well-received as Cary Fukunaga's fresh-yet-classical interpretation of the oft-filmed Brontë chestnut has been, not nearly enough of the praise has centered on Buffini's superbly economical adaptation, which takes more structural liberties with the novel than many may realize, subtly emphasizing its proto-feminist core without straining its motions toward contemporary resonance.
"THE LINCOLN LAWYER," John Romano
Okay, I'll admit that I'm reaching a little here: the first six months of 2011 didn't exactly offer a surfeit of quality adaptations to choose from. But there's something to be said for adapting glossy airport trash and remaining entertainingly loyal to its spirit: I'll take the hidden, efficient craft of an engrossing Michael Connelly potboiler over any number of embalmed prestige properties in the Oscar conversation.
"POTICHE," François Ozon
Ozon's adaptation of a dated French stage curio takes an unlikely route to success: it avoids mustiness precisely by embracing the creakiness of the source, suspending the whole silly bauble in a state of postmodern camp just tart enough not to outstay its welcome, and sincerely funny enough not to collapse under its own nudge-nudge cleverness.
"SUBMARINE," Richard Ayoade
Winner of the British Independent Film Award for Best Screenplay, Ayoade's adaptation of Joe Dunthorne's novel is heavily laced with the British comedian's own brand of zonked deadpan wit, but not so much that it overwhelms the sweetly wistful coming-of-age tale at its center: Wes Anderson comparisons are inevitable, but not undeserved.
There you go -- I won't pretend I'm advocating each and every one of these choices as award-worthy, but collectively, they're still an indication of the areas I'd like Academy members to investigate a little further. (Plus, I'd rather any one of them won an Oscar than "The Descendants.") Next week: Best Actor and Actress. Meanwhile, share your own thoughts and favorites below.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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