Generally one of the two screenplay categories will be noticeably stronger than the other in a given year for one reason or another. This has year the quality level has been much more evenly split than usual but I’d say the better of the two rosters is likely the original screenplay slate in so much as I can hardly imagine any of these five movies missing from the category even if I had to kind of bend a bit to move some of them out of adapted.
- 20th Century Women: I’ve long been a critic of screenwriters who write autobiographical coming of age stories out of a misguided belief that they need to “write what they know” but 20th Century Women shows that there is a right way to do this sort of thing. Of course the fact that writer/director Mike Mills seems to have had a slightly less clichéd adolescence helps, as does the fact that Mills (who is in his fifties) has more perspective on his youth than the young indie filmmakers who usually make these sort of things. Whatever made this one work so well there’s little doubt that this is a very warm screenplay that manages to create a whole lot of fascinating and fully fleshed characters who you enjoy hanging out with.
- Jackie: It probably would have been easy to write a Jackie Kennedy film that followed the traditional biopic formula but instead writer Noah Oppenheim (the only of these nominees who isn’t also a director) opted for something much more interesting and much smarter than that. Using a very well thought out non-linear format, the film manages to dig deep into Jackie Kennedy’s feelings following her husband’s assassination while also examining the extent to which she sort of built up the mythology surrounding JFK’s mystique for the rest of the 20th Century.
- Embrace of the Serpent: In the credits Embrace of the Serpent lists the film as having been based on the diaries of the two real life white explorers depicted in the film, but the film’s main character of Karamakate is fictional and the specific journey depicted in the film is also fictional and as such I’m inclined to view those diaries more as research material and to view the film as largely the original product of writers Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, and one hell of an original product at that. The film is both a thoughtful examination of the effects of colonialism as well as a trippy little examination of three interesting characters and it’s chronology is especially fascinating.
- Manchester by the Sea: Before he became a highly acclaimed film director Kenneth Lonergan was a Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright and while I wouldn’t call any of his film’s “stagey” you can still tell that that his passion is for telling very human stories rooted in dialogue and character and his best work yet is Manchester by the Sea. The film’s screenplay masterfully uses the in media res format to drop you into its protagonists shoes and beautifully reveals details of his history through flashbacks and just through little clues in his conversations. The resulting script is both painfully wrenching and yet oddly funny and watchable.
- The Witch: A title card at the end of The Witch lists it as having lifted a number of lines and ideas “directly from period journals, diaries, and court records” but it is still very much an original screenplay to its core despite all the research writer/director Robert Eggars seems to have done. The film is of course lush with insight into puritan society and period accurate dialect, but beneath all that is a tense family drama which builds in intensity until everything goes crazy in the film’s final act.