Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Twilight Zone. As long as almost anyone can recall, the Adapted Screenplay category has been more far more competitive than the original script slot. In general, more Academy friendly films tend to have been adapted from novels, non-fiction books, plays, articles, or from other material, with the competition for original fare proving thinner. As a result, the Original Screenplay category has quietly been one of our favorites, allowing foreign-language films, tiny indies or genre fare to pick up nominations where they’d otherwise have difficulty.
But here in 2013, we’re suddenly through the looking glass, because for once, the screenplay Oscar races are weighted the other way. It’s not that the Adapted category is thin—there’ll be a fairly tough fight to the five nominations—it’s that there are more viable Original screenplays than in any year we can remember since the 1970s. So for all the naysaying about Hollywood, we have a little proof that the days of the original picture aren’t yet done.
So how does each category shape up? Adapted Screenplay does have the more obvious front-runner: John Ridley—who penned “Undercover Brother,” lest we forget—was behind the screenplay of “12 Years A Slave,” and seems like a good bet here, and it’s an impressive adaptation job by anyone’s standard. It’s the only solid lock here in the category at this point, and the likely winner.
Otherwise, with the departure of “Monuments Men” from the race, we’re left with five serious contenders for the other four slots (and a few other dark horses, though none look especially promising). While the film was tepidly reviewed, “August: Osage County” isn’t all that different from the Pulitzer and Tony-lauded play that it’s based on, so one can probably assume that Tracy Letts will pick up a nomination and could beat Ridley if it goes his way. Then again, Billy Ray is a well-liked industry veteran who’s never been nominated before, and while some will murmur about its relation to reality, he’ll be in the mix for “Captain Phillips.”
With “The Wolf Of Wall Street” now firmly back in the race, “Boardwalk Empire” scribe Terence Winter is a strong possibility (William Monahan won for Scorsese’s “The Departed” back in 2007) unless the film doesn’t work, but he certainly gets the benefit of the doubt. Which leaves two serious contenders for the last slot: “Philomena” and “Before Midnight.” The former has the Best Screenplay prize for Venice under its belt, and Weinstein might behind it, the latter has the precedent of a nomination for “Before Sunset” nine years ago, while Sony Pictures Classics have a good track record at getting smaller films nominated for their scripts. Our gut says “Philomena” at this point, but it’s likely to go down to the wire.
Most of the other possibilities are quite a way behind the rest of the pack. “Blue Is The Warmest Colour” is viable, but we can’t really see the film getting traction with the Academy, while “Labor Day” and “Mandela” have weak reviews to fight against. Pixar has a good track record in screenplay nominations, but it’s hard to see “Monsters University” making headway here, while regardless of whether “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” cracks into the Best Picture race, the script by Steve Conrad seems like a longer shot. We’ll see at AFI if “Lone Survivor” is Oscar material, but it’ll have to be exceptional to break in here, given that it’s not really the kind of film that’s prized for its script. Lastly while we liked “Short Term 12,” its screenwriting-manual script is its weakest link, even if the film was likely to make more of an impression with the Academy, which it probably won’t.
As for the original screenplays, there’s some stiffer competition, with a good ten or so films that could all be viable nominees. Heading the pack are previous winners in the category, with Woody Allen for “Blue Jasmine” (his last victory was two years ago for “Midnight In Paris“) and Joel and Ethan Coen, for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” It’s still a long journey, but both feel fairly likely.
As for other Best Picture front-runners, “Gravity” is a tight, spare piece of writing from Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón, but this kind of 3D extravaganza tends to not get much screenplay credit from the Academy (see “Life Of Pi” last year, or “Avatar” further back). This has a better chance than either, but it’s still rather on the bubble. Likely a better bet is “American Hustle,” given the nominations for David O. Russell‘s last two films, and with the original script by Eric Singer having been on the Black List a few years ago. “Saving Mr Banks” is a another Black List veteran, and Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith stand a decent shot too as there’s some very impressive writing in there.
But also very possible is Bob Nelson‘s script for “Nebraska“—three of Alexander Payne‘s five films were screenplay nominees (with the last two as winners), and though we didn’t much like the film, it’s the kind of thing that the Academy eat up. They might not be as keen on Spike Jonze‘s “Her” given its technological bent, but the film stands a better chance at nomination here than it might in other categories.
Similarly, Jeff Nichols‘ “Mud” could sneak in here as a consolation prize for being ignored elsewhere, while if “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” or “Fruitvale Station” pick up momentum, Danny Strong and Ryan Coogler could end up nominees. Nicole Holofcener‘s “Enough Said” is the kind of film this category is often kind to, while Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack‘s script for “Dallas Buyers Club” could follow the momentum of the rest of the film. “Out Of The Furnace” could yet be a player, while Asghar Farhadi is a previous nominee, so “The Past” could crop up this time, and we’d love Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig to be nominated for “Frances Ha.” Less likely but still in the conversation are “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Prisoners,” “Rush” and “The Way Way Back.”
Our pick for the likely nominees below (and to clarify, because some of you seem to be struggling with the concept, they’re presented in alphabetical order), along with this week’s Best Picture chart.
Best Adapted Screenplay Predictions – October 23rd
Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope – “Philomena”
Tracy Letts – “August: Osage County”
Billy Ray – “Captain Phillips”
John Ridley – “12 Years A Slave”
Terence Winter – “The Wolf Of Wall Street”
Best Original Screenplay Predictions – October 23rd
Woody Allen – “Blue Jasmine”
Joel & Ethan Coen – “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith – “Saving Mr. Banks”
Bob Nelson – “Nebraska”
David O. Russell & Eric Singer – “American Hustle”
Best Picture Chart – October 23rd (positions from last chart in brackets)
1. “Gravity” (=)
Continuing to be a genuine box-office phenomenon, and dominating the conversation still, it’s mostly avoided a backlash to date, the plausibility question having failed to sway many. But as the first of the major players to arrive, can it keep its momentum up for the long haul?
2. “12 Years A Slave” (3)
It’s more than deserving and it’s hard to imagine people voting for anything else, as strong as the competition might be. But then, never underestimate the Academy’s capacity to pick the crowd-pleaser over more nourishing fare. There are signs that voters are shying away from watching the film, but we hope quality will win out.
3. “Saving Mr. Banks” (4)
The film’s been unveiled, and while critics aren’t doing backflips, it seems to be well-liked. More crucially, it’s right in the Academy’s sweet-spot, as a movie about the importance of movies. Given the success of “Argo” and “The Artist,” it’s a definite threat.
4. “American Hustle” (2)
With “Monuments Men” out of the race, this suggests in part that Sony thought they had too many contenders on their hands, which bodes well for this. Could be a strong compromise candidate—substantial but entertaining, important but not harrowing. And again, Russell’s due at this point. But that recent trailer was pretty iffy in selling what the movie’s actually about. Will audiences and voters show up?
5. “Captain Phillips” (4)
Performing strongly at the box office, it’s Tom Hanks‘ biggest hit in years, and the buzz on his “Saving Mr. Banks” performance can only help. But while it’s well-liked, this feels like a second or third choice picture when compared to some of the competition, so probably not challenging for the win. Certainly a nominee, though.
6. “The Wolf Of Wall Street” (19)
Confirmed to be in the race, with a Christmas Day release, it will be one the last films to arrive in front of voters, which is always useful. We do wonder if the rumored flirting-with-NC-17 subject matter may put voters off, but don’t doubt Scorsese. His oeuvre is well known at this point.
7. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (9)
We can’t see how this doesn’t end up a nominee—surely voters will identify with the struggling-artist theme? But with the field so tight elsewhere, it may not pick up many other nominations. If that’s the case, will it be hurt by that?
8. “Nebraska” (7)
So far, the only film in contention that I really dislike, but I can totally see voters going for it. But with Paramount looking after “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” will this become second priority?
9. “Philomena” (12)
It’s almost unthinkable to imagine The Weinstein Company not having a film in the field, and we maintain this is their best bet. But the buzz remains quiet: they need to start screening this soon if it’s going to pick up momentum.
10. “August: Osage County” (13)
Or it could be this one, which has tepid reviews but prestigious material and actors coming out of its eyeballs. Logic has it that the film will appeal to the actors branch, but are their votes likely to go to the starry and impressive ensembles of “12 Years A Slave” or “American Hustle” instead?
11. “Blue Jasmine” (15)
We’re still not entirely convinced this’ll make it in, but every time a contender drops out, this gets closer, and it’s still lingering in the conversation, despite a summer release. If the Weinsteins can’t get their stuff together, and if ‘Hustle’ or ‘Wolf’ don’t live up to expectations, this makes it through.
12. “Her” (16)
This picked up great reviews at NYFF, and one shouldn’t forget that Spike Jonze was a nominee for “Being John Malkovich.” But none of his films made the Best Picture field, and this film may fly over the heads of older Academy voters (i.e. most of them). But then, “The Social Network” appealed enough to pick up plentiful nominations, if not the win.
13. “All Is Lost” (8)
Absolutely terrific, and thoroughly deserving, but got off to a mediocre start at the box office—it likely would have benefited from more distance between it and “Gravity.” Still possible, but it’ll need a real fight from Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions to make it happen.
14. “Dallas Buyers Club” (10)
Gone pretty quiet at this stage, so losing heat for anything except Matthew McConaughey (who no longer seems like the home-run Best Actor winner either). But could always pick up nearer release.
15. “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” (11)
Middlingly received at NYFF, and almost vanished from the conversation since. It still feels likely that it’ll appeal to Academy voters, but Fox would be well-advised to get in front of them long before the film’s Christmas release.
16. “Lone Survivor” (-)
Added to the AFI line-up, which makes us wonder if there might be something to it. “Black Hawk Down” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are probably the models, and this seems like it could be more emotionally-driven than either. But it’ll need to be really excellent to make it pay off.
17. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (14)
Even the prognosticators who were sticking to their guns on this one seem to be dropping off gradually, though it still has its supporters. Maybe Harvey will decide to push all his weight behind it, but we’re still very skeptical for this.
18. “Rush” (17)
Almost vanished from theaters and memory, but Academy screenings went well, so it could get a second wind. Probably on the way out, though.
19. “Mud” (-)
Was the first screener to hit doormats, which has served other films well in the past. But with McConaughey toplining “Dallas Buyers Club” and appearing in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” it might still slink into the background.
20. “Enough Said” (18)
Still proving to be a sleeper hit, but Best Picture still feels like a stretch—a nomination for James Gandolfini still feels like the prize here.
Bubbling Under: “Prisoners,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Out Of The Furnace,” “Labor Day,” “Before Midnight,” “The Past,” “The Book Thief”
“Monuments Men” – Pushed to the spring of 2014, seemingly because it wouldn’t be ready in time (though Sony’s strong slate, which includes “Captain Phillips,” “American Hustle” and, through the Classics, “Blue Jasmine,” probably didn’t help).
“The Counselor” – As most suspected by how close to the chest it was being held, it’s not Oscar material (and, most seem to agree, not very good). Any nominations at all seem very unlikely.