Quentin Tarantino may have the upper hand in the Best Original Screenplay race, considering the upbeat reception for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” However, the first strong original screenplays of the year emerged before Tarantino’s opus premiered at Cannes, with the highlights of the Sundance Film Festival.
Writer-director Lulu Wang’s true family dramedy “The Farewell,” starring Awkwafina, scored rave reviews, a coveted A24 deal, and became a rare summer box office hit that stayed in theaters through the fall. Somehow, writer-turned-director Scott Z. Burns managed to turn a 6,700-page Senate CIA investigation into “The Report,” a feat of dramatic writing for smart audiences that imparts reams of info about CIA interrogation techniques, along the lines of post-Watergate journalism drama “All the President’s Men,” which won four Oscars.
This spring, Jordan Peele followed up his Oscar-contender “Get Out” with another original smart horror hit, “Us” ($255 million worldwide), starring Lupita Nyong’o in a riveting dual role as a young woman with a nasty doppleganger. Even with high expectations, the movie scored with critics and audiences. Universal is already launching an awards campaign.
At Cannes, Tarantino unveiled his ninth feature opus, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a Charles Manson-inflected 1969 Los Angeles fable starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The auteur hit yet another original creation out of the park, with both strong reviews and global box office ($329.4 million). This could earn Tarantino his sixth Oscar nomination and second Original Screenplay win (after “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained”).
The writers branch often rewards international auteurs like Pedro Almodóvar, who returned to Cannes with “Pain and Glory,” a personal story about an aging filmmaker (Antonio Banderas) who is dealing with both old lovers and memories (Penelope Cruz plays his mother). Almodóvar has notched two Oscar nominations and one win, for Original Screenplay for “Talk to Her.”
Bong Joon Ho could score his first Oscar nominations for the Cannes Palme d’Or-winner “Parasite” (Neon), a brilliantly comedic look at a lower-depths family of con artists who one by one infiltrate a rich family’s stunning hillside modern home. Inevitably, all hell breaks loose. The timely movie could not only mark the first Korean film to be nominated for the Oscar, but could score other nominations like Director, Picture and Original Screenplay.
Emerging with raves from SXSW, Olivia Wilde’s hilarious and poignant high school girlfriend comedy “Booksmart” (Annapurna) was written by a team of gifted writers: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. They deserve a nod.
So do Jack Barth and Richard Curtis. UK TV writer Barth came up with the concept for Working Title’s “Yesterday” (Universal). A struggling songwriter (Himesh Patel) wakes up from hitting his head to find that the world has collectively forgotten the Beatles: as he recreates their iconic songs, he becomes a global pop star. Oscar-nominated Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) took over the idea and crafted the script that Danny Boyle directed. It resonated worldwide ($142 million).
New York auteur Noah Baumbach, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for writing “The Squid and the Whale,” is back with another semi-autobiographical film that broke out at the fall festivals, “Marriage Story.” His most accessible movie to date stars frequent collaborator Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a stage director and an actress undergoing a fractious breakup. The show business movie is funny and moving, a winning combination.
Also earning applause at the fall festivals was writer-director James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” a tight, taut, percussive, and emotional commercial entertainment that puts audiences inside the real-life drama behind race car driver-turned-designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and gifted, tightly wound driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they build a radical, tough and fast race car (the GT40) for Henry Ford II, all in order to beat Enzo Ferrari’s racers at the brutal 24-hour Le Mans race in 1966. Mangold, who shared (with Scott Frank and Michael Green) a 2018 Adapted Screenplay nomination for “X-Men” Wolverine finale “Logan,” worked on the script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller.
During a stint in rehab, actor Shia LaBeouf dug into his turbulent life as the child of an alcoholic to write an autobiographical script, “Honey Boy” (Amazon), that weaves his life as a child actor with his troubled adult self. Israeli documentary director Alma Har’el cast LaBeouf as his father, Noah Jupe as the young actor and Lucas Hedges as adult LaBeouf.
Also framed by rehab is Paramount’s “Rocketman,” Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biographical musical written by Oscar-nominated Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”). Taron Egerton stars as the global pop star, with Jamie Bell as his songwriter partner Bernie Taupin.
Writer-director Rian Johnson loves playing with genres, from noir “Brick” to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and this time upended the Agatha Christie whodunit with finesse with sprawling ensemble comedy “Knives Out.” Writers will appreciate the homage.
So do veteran screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose latest dig into past American culture is Netflix comedy “Dolemite Is My Name,” about 70s comedian/musician/blaxploitation director Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy). Shockingly, they’ve never been Oscar-nominated, although two of their movies have: “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Ed Wood.”
Rising filmmaker Trey Edward Shults broke out at fall film festivals with family drama “Waves” (A24), about the impact of a tragic mistake by a gifted high school athlete (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) driven hard by his tough-loving father (Sterling K. Brown).
Coming up at Christmas is Jay Roach’s “Bombshell,” written by Oscar-winner Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”), which is focused on the women who confronted the toxic male culture of Fox News. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional Fox News associate producer, take on a formidable adversary: Fox News czar Ailes himself (John Lithgow).
World War I movie “1917,” co-written by director Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is partly based on a story that Mendes heard from his grandfather that never left his mind. The ticking time line follows two young British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) across enemy lines to deliver an urgent message that could save a battalion of 1600 men from an imminent ambush.
As ever, contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
“Ford v Ferrari”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
“Pain & Glory”
“Dolemite Is My Name”