The absence of the two most-nominated films from the screenplay categories means two things. First, Cahiers du Cinéma has finally defeated Oscar’s longstanding defense of the American equivalent of “Tradition of Quality” filmmaking and a director’s force of personality can override such bourgeois concerns as plot construction, character development, and dialogue. Second, these categories got a whole lot easier to predict— and best picture that much more difficult, since outside of the perfect storm that lifted Titanic to its record-tying haul, it’s been 50 years since a film won the top award without a screenplay nomination. But mercifully we get to kick that can for another couple of weeks. In the meantime, four other best picture nominees and one unexpectedly snubbed also-ran would seem to make for a close race, though it doesn’t take much effort to isolate the weak links.
Or, in the case of Phyllis Nagy’s script for Carol, the “too classy for the room” links. To the disengaged Oscar voter dutifully flipping through screener DVDs to bone up on the field, Nagy’s screenplay might seem like a tasteful but unadventurous pirouette into the outmoded world of women’s pictures, enlivened only by its lesbian wrinkle. But Nagy is canny enough to know that amid each genteel “of course” spoken by Carol or Therese lies hundreds of unspoken words. And when they are spoken, they feel liberating, no more so than when Carol observes Therese unclothed and wonders, “I never looked like this”—one of the most insightful lines about same-sex attraction ever spoken in a mainstream LGBT film. It’s out (of the race), but proud.
With a surprise director nomination and a front-running candidate in best actress, Room feels like it’s got at least Brooklyn’s number, but Nick Hornby’s script for the latter feels a lot more writerly and classically structured than Emma Donoghue’s work, as the contrast between Room’s fragmented first half and its mannered second half feels more like the work of Lenny Abrahamson.
Both can’t help but feel pretty staid next to The Martian and The Big Short, though, as the evenly matched debate surrounding both being classified by the Golden Globes as comedies only points up. Drew Goddard was working with pretty solid “I fucking love science” material to begin with, but it’s entirely to his credit (well, his and whoever mentored him during his time writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that he coaxed an uncharacteristically breezy movie from the heavy hands of Ridley Scott.
Some might regard it a bit too soon to give the award to someone whose most significant screenwriting effort prior to this was The Cabin in the Woods, but Goddard’s bigger problem is that his quips (which aren’t exactly on the level of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond or anything) are no match for The Big Short’s pile-driving tsunami of fiduciary white noise, which intends to dazzle and horrify audiences when it’s not talking directly down to them. Adam McKay and Charles Randolph’s script wrestles conspicuously with the magnitude of its subject, and its sweat stains will earn plenty of points, but it probably had the award in the bag the moment they wrote “Int. Casino. Selena Gomez’s blackjack table.”
Will Win: The Big Short
Could Win: The Martian
Should Win: Carol