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OSCARS DEATH RACE: Surveying the races for Best Original and Adapted Screenplay

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by Sarah D. Bunting
February 26, 2012 5:07 AM
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"The Artist"
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The Oscars Death Race is almost over and Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is busting out her predictions for the Academy Awards 2012. She has very nearly watched every single film nominated for an Oscar this year. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]

Adapted Screenplay is an interesting case, at least to me: what's getting voted on, exactly? Is it the screenplay qua screenplay? Or is it the skill of the adaptation? I realize I shouldn't think too deeply on these criteria, but the category this year points up the distinction I've just mentioned, for two reasons: 1) the source material is quite varied (two novels, a play, a non-fiction book, etc.); and 2) two adaptations of wildly popular book series didn't get nominated. More on that in a sec; first, the nominees.

The Descendants has this locked up, I believe, though it's probably the only statue the film will receive. I wish it could get some other statue, like for Best Hawaiian Shirts or Best Bridges Imitation By Another Bridges…something that's not for writing.

Hugo is one I'm surprised to see nominated, but that's probably because the movie registers more visually; people who have read the book almost uniformly praise the film version. I really liked the way the writing's phrasings and tone reflected the fabulism of the plot, and I wouldn't mind a win for it, but it's not happening.

The Ides of March. The movie had pacing problems, but I don't know that that's the screenplay's fault. The first half is gripping and it does do some things extremely well (the scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the SUV is an example of how it elided things and expected us to keep up). But this isn't the nom I thought we'd get from TIoM -- George Clooney's acting and the way he's shot combined to make him, for the first time in a while, genuinely menacing and villainous onscreen; I also thought Ryan Gosling might get some attention. But it's this, and this came out too early. No shot.

Moneyball is, for my money, the best writing on offer here. It's Sorkin-y, but in the good ways; it lets the actors work, but isn't too indulgent of them; and it brought what I assumed was an unfilmable book to the screen. If I had a vote, I'd spend it on this.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does have an argument. My understanding is that it had its work cut out as far as trying to tame the sprawling John le Carré plots (the last time the material was attempted, it was a miniseries), and while I've heard it called murky and confusing, I didn't agree, or think that opacity was a bad thing in the second place. If the criterion is "how well did the screenplay address the challenges presented by the source," TTSS may have had the biggest distance to cover. But…again, I wonder why it's the script that gets the nod and not Tom Hardy, or the set design or cinematography. And it did win the BAFTA. Solid pick.

Anyone not belong here? I like Payne's other stuff, so I'm not that bent about it, but The Descendants is not good writing.

Anyone not here who should be? Dragon Tattoo, perhaps. I do think Jane Eyre should have gotten a nomination; that material is not for everyone, but Moira Buffini's version chops out the bulk of what alienates people about it, and gets to the good stuff.

Should win: Moneyball

Will win: The Descendants

Original Screenplay is a bit easier to assess in theory; in practice, the diversity of the nominations in 2012 make it tougher.

The Artist will win a lot of its categories, and it may win this one too -- but the narrative and its structure are rather conventional (or, if you're one of the film's detractors, "derivative"). The concept isn't the same thing as the scripting, but I don't know whether that's considered a relevant distinction. A solid bet.

Bridesmaids. I liked the movie, but I had some issues with the length, and with the frat pandering. The writing did shine in the less showy scenes, like the scene at the beginning with the two friends at brunch, but I don't think it should win, and it won't.

Margin Call. JC Chandor attempted to split the difference between McGuffin-y vagueness and arcane specifics; I get the reasoning, but it failed. I'm betting he has good writing in him; this wasn't it. It's not impossible that he wins, but it doesn't seem to have legs.

Midnight in Paris. The customary nom for Woody Allen, but it's minor work. No shot.

A Separation is the best work here by a good distance, and at the highest difficulty level. The overlapping dialogue, the order and timing of the reveals, get more impressive the more you think about them.

Anything here that shouldn't be? Margin Call.

Anything that should be here but isn't? Win Win, maybe? Or Melancholia.

Should win: A Separation

Will win: The Artist

Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.comFor more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.

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