For screenplay Oscars, auteurs have the advantage. Academy voters give creators extra points for controlling their visions.
Getting a boost during the pandemic is any film that debuted to real, live audiences at a film festival in 2020, like Sundance. That’s where prize-winner Eliza Hittman‘s third film, abortion odyssey “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (April 3, Focus Features), scored praise (before winning the Silver Bear in Berlin), as well as writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance jury and audience award-winner “Minari” (A24), a semi-autobiographical drama starring Steven Yeun as a Korean immigrant farmer trying to support his young family.
Never-nominated auteur Emerald Fennell nabbed raves at Sundance 2020 for “Promising Young Woman” (Focus Features), starring Carey Mulligan as a woman who acts out her grievances against unsuspecting men, as well as Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara for “Palm Springs” (Hulu), an hilarious revisit of the “Groundhog Day” concept starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. And writer-director-star Radha Blank earned kudos for her auto-fiction “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Netflix).
After winning Adapted Screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee was supposed to head the jury at Cannes 2020 and premiere his intense Vietnam drama “Da 5 Bloods” out of competition. Instead the movie, which follows four Big Red One infantrymen (led by Lee alumnae Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters) who return to Saigon to dig up buried gold, went straight to Netflix and scored high marks from critics (81 Metascore). Written by Lee and fellow-“BlacKkKlansman” Oscar-winner Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the action-packed movie references “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Scarface,” and “Apocalypse Now,” among others.
We may not think of animators as auteurs, but we should when it comes to Oscar-winner Pete Docter (Best Animated Feature, “Inside Out,” “Up”). Of his eight nominations, four were for original screenplays (shared with other members of the Pixar brain trust). On Cannes-invited “Soul” (December 25, Disney+) about a musician (Jamie Foxx) who loses his mojo and is transported out of his body, the director shares writing credit with Mike Jones and “One Night in Miami” scribe Kemp Powers, who’s having a good year.
Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) wrote and directed timely history lesson “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which moved from Paramount to Netflix during the pandemic in order to reach audiences before the November election. The film brings back to life the dramatic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as protesters outside the International Amphitheatre clashed with police and the National Guard as the world watched. Sorkin also follows the later conspiracy trial of the Chicago 7, from protest leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to their charismatic attorney, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).
Late-entry 1968 biopic “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.) also features Black Panther Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya); the script comes from Will Berson and director Shaka King from a story by Keith and Kenny Lucas.
After diving into several Netflix series, David Fincher returned to movie mode for the first time since 2014’s “Gone Girl” with sprawling slice-of-Hollywood-life “Mank” (Netflix). Written by Fincher’s late father Jack, “Mank” stars Oscar-winner Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who co-wrote Orson Welles’ 1941 classic “Citizen Kane,” and “The Souvenir” breakout Tom Burke as Welles. (The debate over who wrote the screenplay credited to Mankiewicz and Welles still rages on.)
The contenders are listed in alphabetical order; no film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers (“Soul”)
Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”)
Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”)
Jack Fincher (“Mank”)
Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Will Berson and Shaka King (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
Abraham Marder & Darius Marder (“Sound of Metal”)
Andy Siara (“Palm Springs”)
Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus (“The King of Staten Island”)
Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”)
Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo (“Da 5 Bloods”)
Christopher Nolan (“Tenet”)