Thanks to Mark Boal's second consecutive slam-dunk teaming with Kathryn Bigelow, the one certainty of this year's Original Screenplay field is a bit of 2010 déjà vu. Boal picked up a statuette that year for penning Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and he's poised to do the same for his work on Zero Dark Thirty, his collaborator's high-stakes, buzz-heavy follow-up. There are ample fine points to Boal's script that fall in his favor, like the shaping of a classic hoo-ra heroine and the refusal to shy away from divisive torture scenes, which have surely provided the most popular angle for journalists covering the film. But the greatest asset should prove to be the movie's all-access fascination, which only grows as this epic manhunt soldiers toward its killshot.
Next in line as a likely candidate is Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, a pint-sized love story beautifully suited to the offbeat auteur's whimsy, and his most well-scripted effort since The Royal Tenenbaums. Currently teetering as a will-it-or-won't-it Best Picture hopeful, Moonrise Kingdom has performed surprisingly well in the precursors, landing a Golden Globe nod for Best Picture—Comedy, getting shortlisted by the AFI, and clinching a heap of Indie Spirit nominations. If there's one achievement for which the film is primed to advance, it's Anderson's markedly humane, yet still characteristically ironic, screenplay.
Only a few select scripts seem capable of filling the remaining slots, as 2012's well for great original screenplays was, in general, rather dry. The most obvious third contender is Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, a script that will probably succeed wherever this movie happens to fail, untainted by the overall polarizing response and Joaquin Phoenix's possible self-sabotage. Then there's Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, which, despite being the cine-maniacal scribe's least impressive title (it's a hoot, but slow to start and only brilliant in spurts), has been reaping the benefits of a late-in-the-game release, and may just bewitch the same voters who nominated QT's last revisionist-revenge flick, Inglourious Basterds.
Which leaves Michael Haneke's Amour, John Gatins's script for Flight, Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere, and Rian Johnson's Looper, a sci-fi success whose screenplay has nabbed some largely unexpected trophies, from the Washington D.C. Film Critics, the Las Vegas Film Critics, and the National Board of Review. Historically, Middle of Nowhere is just the sort of player likely to benefit in this category, as it boasts the debut work of a budding talent backed by notable word of mouth. But it doesn't have the surge of, say, J.C. Chandor's Margin Call, which, this time last year, had netted far more early citations. For its transformative nature as an adventure-turned-legal-thriller-turned-character-study, and for its stance as a step in the right direction for big-studio dramas, Flight deserves to compete here, its wildly effective, if not wholly innovative, mix of elements a small triumph for Gatins. As for Amour, the Oscar season's biggest head-scratcher, it's very hard to imagine voters fawning over Haneke the same way critics have, as this morbid movie never lets one rise for air, and its ceaseless Oscar momentum seems puzzling and unfounded. Virtually every pundit has Amour penciled in for this lineup, but we're going to break trend and pass Haneke over, trangressing further still by plugging an FYC for Jonathan Lisecki's Gayby, a quip-happy romp that shows future gay-comedy makers how it's done.