The category can be kind of iffy sometimes but this year we have a pretty good slate of nominees. As is usually the case in this category the field here is kind of dominated by writer/directors, which maybe says a lot about how hard it is to break into Hollywood with a spec-script, but good writing is good writing no matter who is doing the writing.
- Bridge of Spies: This is the only of the five nominees not to be written or co-written by the film’s eventual director but two of its writers were in fact directors. The screenplay was written by a guy named Mark Chapman and was then adjusted in later drafts by Joel and Ethan Coen, who were brought in to add some humor to the proceedings. I can’t say that the Coens’ influence is palpable in the film but it makes some sense in retrospect. The film very capably presents the sometimes complicated historical events of the story while also giving the film a very human protagonist and making his potentially dry diplomatic interactions interesting.
- Clouds of Sils Maria: Of the five films nominated this is the one that probably employs the most writerly trick by employing a fictional play within the film that seems to oddly mirror the film itself. This shows itself most late in the film when the actress protagonist is rehearsing her lines with her assistant and it becomes oddly difficult to tell if they’re still reading the play of if they’re simply talking to one another. It’s a clever bit of meta trickery shows just how carefully Olivier Assayas has written these characters up to this point.
- The Hateful Eight: Quentin Tarantino is sort of the master of the original screenplay and every one of his scripts has been audacious and interesting to say the least. His latest screenplay shows no sign of him changing his ways and settling into the usual patterns of Hollywood screenwriting. Here Tarantino opts to tell an elaborate parable that examines, in his own irreverent way, the state of racial and political strife in America both 100+ years ago and today, all while also making a very entertaining and typically witty Tarantino flick.
- Mistress America: I was supposed to be dead set against this movie. I can’t stand movies about hip young Brooklyn dwellers and given that the last Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig film, Frances Ha, seemed emblematic of everything I dislike about that genre this would seem to be a movie to be avoided and yet I liked it a lot. Here Baumbach/Gerwig avoid most of the pitfalls: they give their characters an actual story to work with, they write actual jokes into the screenplay, they craft dialogue instead of doing the mumblecore thing, and they craft characters who are actually interesting instead of merely trying to accurately depict random hipsters in all their boringness.
- Youth: Youth is the kind of original movie that’s so original that I’m not exactly sure where someone would start in writing it. That isn’t to say that this is some kind of bizarre avant garde experiment, but it’s such a thematic and not terribly plot driven movie that it only could have come from the mind of the auteur who would later direct the film. Indeed Paolo Sorrentino was this film’s author in more than one way and the film he’s crafted is both more amusing and more thematically rich than his debut film.