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Grouching Week continues with our discussion of a category that we all feel is depressingly sub-par: Best Screenplay Written Originally for the Screen. First, your nominees:

  • The Hurt Locker” Screenplay by Mark Boal
  • Inglourious Basterds” Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
  • The Messenger” Screenplay by Allesandro Camon and Oren Moverman
  • A Serious Man” Screenplay by Ethan and Joel Coen
  • Up” Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter and Thomas McCarthy

Jared kicks us off again, with some wishful thinking this time:

    As with the adapted screenplays, four of the five films nominated for Original Screenplay also garnered Best Picture nominations. I have the feeling the others Grouches are going to disagree with me here, [Ed. note — WRONG] but I think this category is extremely weak. Granted, it wasn’t a particularly strong year for Oscar-contending original screenplays, it is just unfortunate the Academy lacked imagination when deciding these nominees.

    As much as Adam might be upset about The Messenger getting a nomination, I wonder if he’d be more upset if I made him watch it for no reason at all. I honestly have no idea what other people see in this film. Military deaths are horrific things, and I cannot possibly imagine the toll it takes on their families or what it must be like to be the one who delivers the news. Everyone involved in this horrible scenario absolutely deserves to have their story told. But told well, which I don’t believe is happening here. I would have believed this film was a Lifetime channel original. The story has no cohesiveness, the dialogue doesn’t lead to any memorable scenes, and frankly, nothing really happens.

    I really think Quentin Tarantino needs a writing partner, as his self-indulgence reaches all sorts of new heights in Inglourious Basterds. I’m fairly certain every scene ran at least two minutes too long. And where the use of disparate storylines was an effective storytelling device in most of his prior work, here it serves no real purpose other than imprinting the film with his watermark, along with his homages and in-jokes and lots of other things which may add up to his distinctive style, but obscure the actual film.

    The support for A Serious Man is completely baffling to me. Mostly because I don’t really think it is exists at all. I clearly don’t connect with the Coens the way other people seem to do so. And while I didn’t find this film nearly as frustrating as some of their other works, I don’t really see the genius behind it. Sure, I’ll give them some credit for a relatively novel main character. But otherwise, seems like middling stuff with a few unnecessary arthouse tricks.

    As I mentioned before, I found The Hurt Locker’s screenplay to be relatively weak. I think Bigelow, her cast and her crew put forth a yeoman’s effort to rescue Mark Boal’s script. To be fair, I’m positive some of the action scenes were delicately and exquisitively scripted. But there’s probably a legit argument that while the interactions between the bomb squad (and between the squad and the bombs) were pretty strong, everything else could have used some sharpening.

    So almost by default, I’m going with Up, and not just due to residual bitterness over WALL-E‘s loss. Sure, the opening montage was better than just about anything else in movies this year. But the rest of the film was also consistently strong. It managed to run the gamut of comedy, drama, action, and adventure while never really seeming hokey, no small feat if you consider the specifics of the story. And if you think about it, the characters weren’t especially likable, at least not at first. The script may not have been hard-hitting, uber-dramatic, or even trendsetting. But to me, it was undeniably entertaining throughout, and ultimately, isn’t that what a film should be?

    If I were choosing, I’d have gotten rid of four of these nominees, so I imagine I feel there are many snubs. The most obvious one, of course, is (500) Days of Summer. A huge miss by the Academy, in my opinion.

John is surprisingly succinct in his dismissal of this category:

    I agree with Jared that this is a fairly weak slate. Which isn’t to say any of them are poor efforts, but they don’t really jump out at me as clearly outstanding.

    Three of them suffer from the same problem: they create several great scenes that don’t really add up to a terrific whole. Inglourious Basterds doesn’t even really try to add up to a whole as it’s a series of vignettes. I’d argue the film succeeds more on its performances and visual style anyway. Some of the scenes in The Messenger are absolutely gut-wrenching, but the narrative around those scenes sort of falters. And I’d say the same is true with The Hurt Locker though it works better.

    It’s a tough call for me on the last two. I’m still puzzled by A Serious Man, but it sure is fascinating to ponder. It’s thoughtful, interesting, funny, and clever. But my winner is Up. One thing I had sort of forgotten about it until I watched it again recently is how ridiculously funny it is- one of the funniest of the year in fact. It has all you could ask for in an animated film: intriguing premise, developed and interesting characters, clever and funny dialogue, and a compelling story full of intelligence and heart. Pixar certainly makes films that look great, but they really shine because the writing is always so terrific.

Here are Adam’s thoughts, and I’m just thankful I wrote mine after his:

    Will Win: ?. I’m actually not sure who will win this one (or I do, and I just don’t want to key the other Grouches in on it). This has to be the closest race in the top 8 categories. I think it definitely will come down to The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, though.

    I Want to Win: Inglourious Basterds. As stated above, Quentin Tarantino’s fantastic script is in the running for the award and I couldn’t be happier. In my mind, this was the best script of the year (followed by In the Loop). I can’t believe that people are unsure whether to pick this over The Hurt Locker.

    Dark Horse: The Messenger. And thank god it IS a long shot. In the case of this script, I fully agree with Jared’s assessment.

    Ranking:
    1. Inglourious Basterds
    2. The Hurt Locker
    3. Up
    4. A Serious Man
    5. The Messenger


    Grouches Critiques:
    As of the writing of this, I have only seen Jared and John’s write-ups. While I agree with them that this is a weak slate of movies as well as their comments on The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, and The Messenger (especially Jared’s), both of their takes on Inglourious Basterds are way off the mark. The only thing I can think of is they went into the wrong movie. Otherwise, I have to get used to the fact that John’s horrible taste in movies is starting to rub off on Jared. Also, Up is not as great as they both seem to think it is. I actually am a big fan of a lot of Pixar’s work, but it’s last two movies…while good…were not the darlings that everyone seems to think they are. Wall-E was funnier, and Up had a less annoying plot/message, but they were no Incredibles or Finding Nemo.

    Random Notes: Wow. What a weak slate of movies.

And here are the correct opinions, written by Brian:

    Even though I liked all five of these films more than you, Jared, I still think this is a weak group, but I don’t think that (500) Days of Summer would have saved it. This category was pretty much screwed from the beginning — unless of course they included Zombieland, though we all know that would never have happened.

    Having just watched The Messenger last night, I was at first a little befuddled by Jared’s comments. I thought Luc Besson’s directing was pretty good and Mila Jovovich was outstanding. But then I watched the correct movie, the one with Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, and I understood. But I don’t entirely agree — the first hour was riveting — each time they knocked on a door I tensed up — fearful of the next death announcement. But once the focus shifted from their duty to Foster’s personal life and attachment to Samantha Morton, it sort of went off the rails. There was a good movie in there — somewhere — maybe a great live-action short, but the script failed halfway through the film.

    I’m still trying to understand what the hell happened in A Serious Man, and while Slate published a pretty good analysis today, I still don’t think that bodes well for the screenplay. I appreciated a lot of what the Coen brothers did with the script — and the schlubby portrait of the titular character Larry Gopnik was quite good — but no script should be this obtuse and senseless. Maybe if they made a pop-up video version of the movie it could have been more successful.

    The Hurt Locker was a tremendous piece of filmmaking — but the script wasn’t a contributor to it. Jeremy Renner’s side-trip into the streets of Baghdad was unneccessary, and the mystery of the body-bomb kid was too transparent. The film will get deservedly recognized elsewhere — it doesn’t belong in this category.

    Gah, am I really going to agree AGAIN with Jared and John? Inglorious Basterds was brilliant in its own way. I was hoping that Adam would go into greater depth on why he loved it — but maybe he’s holding his fire for the Best Picture category. As for why I liked it, well, its Jews killing Nazis. What’s not to like? Beyond the strength of the plot, I thought that Tarantino’s willingness to throw historical accuracy out the window was refreshing — and his whimsical take on the sober subject of World War II captivated me.

    It’s a very very close race for me, but Up takes my vote. Its such an imaginative script, and the characters are incredibly developed considering how long we get to know them. And it has a TALKING DOG!

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We’re not just tackling the big categories this year, but the smaller ones as well. Some of them, at least. Not all of these categories are worthy of the intense and brilliant consideration we give things here at Golden Grouches, now are they?

Today I’m looking at two visual technical categories.

Cinematography

Nominees: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Inglourious Basterds, White Ribbon

This feels hard to call because so much of Avatar is visual effects and the traditional relationship between how the director of photography films and what the audience experiences is altered. And so it’s something different from what we see in the other nominees. (Here’s a little about it.) The camerawork in The Hurt Locker does a great deal to insert the viewer into the action and is instrumental in creating the film’s thrills. But I’ll lean towards Avatar and its trailblazing 3-D shooting.

Film Editing

Nominees: Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious

I think it’s impressive how Avatar has such a huge scope but the action never gets muddled. I don’t recall ever getting lost in a scene due to confusing shots- and this film is full of epic battles in 3-D. For both Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker, the editing is part of what makes the tension so palpable. The way the intense scenes of The Hurt Locker are artfully constructed is what pushes it over the top.

Today we’re taking on the Best Director race and declaring who we think should win.

The nominees:

  • Avatar: James Cameron
  • The Hurt Locker: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino
  • Precious: Lee Daniels
  • Up in the Air: Jason Reitman

John says:

    This is another terrific lineup of nominees and again I feel like I’m nitpicking some to narrow it down to my favorite. Any of these five would make a great winner. So what am I looking for in Best Director besides who made the best movie? I’d say overall vision, style, tone, pacing, and coherence. Does that sound about right? Of course, these are all things I look for in a movie anyway.

    Tarantino strikes me as all flash with minimal substance. He made Basterds a thrilling ride, but I don’t think I really shared his vision. No doubt a fascinating and stylish film, however. The weighty material in Precious requires a deft hand to prevent it from slipping into absurd melodrama or emotional manipulation. Daniels cast the right actors and extracted pitch-perfect performances out of them. His visions for Precious’s dream sequences hit the right tone to balance the more intense scenes.

    I give Bigelow lots of credit for finely honing the tension in The Hurt Locker, making it one of the best war thrillers I’ve seen. And Reitman does a great job with the tone and atmosphere in Up in the Air. The film sort of settled in my gut and that feeling was the largest takeaway for me, even more than any scene or performance.

    But James Cameron is my choice. The man had a big vision for Avatar and he completely delivers. We may quibble about the writing, but he shepherds the story through the long running time without ever letting it drag and always keeps it entirely coherent. In lesser hands, Avatar could be a mess of visual effects and thematic missteps; Cameron makes his technological breakthroughs enhance and complement all the other components of the film without taking away from any. I just love the world he creates and the way he uses all the tools at his disposal to realize it.

    Snubs: I don’t mean to overdo my love for The Informant!, but it’s absolutely a triumph in tone, editing, and style and for that Steven Soderbergh should have received some love.

Jared replies:

    Like John mentioned, I’m not sure anyone has a good idea how to judge a director (i.e. where the direction starts and the writing/acting/editing/cinematography, etc. starts), and so I’m a little less comfortable here than with the other categories.

    I didn’t really like Inglourious Basterds, and I think part of the reason for that was that no segment of the film really felt complete. Tarantino’s mishmashing style may have worked elsewhere, but I found it pointless here.

    Maybe Jason Reitman’s direction just seemed effortless. And it isn’t like I could point to a single thing non-script thing I’d do differently with the film. But I also can’t really think of a memorable thing about the film I’d attribute to Reitman.

    Hopefully this time will be the last I have to say that the key to Precious was Mo’Nique, Sidibe, and the basic story construct, almost everything else is besides the point. I fall somewhere between John and Brian on the dream sequences, but I’ll give credit to Daniels for how he handled the stairwell shots.

    Like many people, it seems, I had a hard time making the final decision here. My problems with Avatar stem almost exclusively from the script. Cameron obviously has a nearly unparalleled ability to do big, splashy sequences while working them into something bigger. But ultimately, I guess I’ll shift a little bit of the blame for the slow parts onto his direction.

    Enough, at least, to anoint the ex-Mrs. Cameron the winner. We’ll get to it, but I think Kathryn Bigelow was working from a relatively weak script. The film was tremendously tense. And sure, it helps when a bomb is involved. But really, not that much happens in the film. So I’m going to assign a good chunk of the credit to Ms. Bigelow for creating a really taut film with neat action scenes.

Brian adds:

    Fantastic. Let the Avatar bashing begin! But first, the two near-contenders for my pick for the Oscar. I know Adam will follow up with a full-throated defense of Inglourious Basterds, but Tarantino is my runner-up choice. Everything that made the movie great, the episodic chapters, the white-knuckled tense scenes at the prologue and in the bar, the fantastic conclusion — can be ascribed to Tarantino’s direction. It was truly a great marriage of material with cinematography, and the way that he brought together a melange of actors and stories is definitely to his credit. For a guy who dislikes “message” movies, I’m surprised by how much Jared disliked Basterds.

    Up in the Air was also a great display of directing — which I tend to think of an award for “how well does everything come together.” Reitman got great performances out of Kendrick and Clooney — and I thought the bumpers he used between cities, the plane’s eye view, was a nice touch. But this year — not enough to compete with the big guns.

    Going by the definition above, I blame Cameron’s ego for disqualifying him for an Avatar win. He let Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang chew the scenery to pieces and failed to recognize the shallowness of his own script. The final third took forever to come, even though the final battle was inevitable. His vision of a technical masterpiece came true, but I just can’t give a director award to a half-good film.

    And I definitely can’t fathom giving it to Precious, which as Jared has said, is only being considered for anything because of Mo’Nique and Sidibe. The fantasy sequences that John and Jared refer to are pointless, distracting, and overdone. Daniels’ penchant for shakycam when in the social worker scenes with Mariah Carey infuriated me — I was so engrossed by the performances only to be drawn out by an unnecessary zoom.

    But, Bigelow. There’s your winner. Many of the setpieces from the film will stay in my memory, including the UN car bomb scene and the final shot back in Iraq. From start to finish, Hurt Locker keeps you on your toes, never truly sure what’s going to happen. A less competent director (*cough* Paul Haggis) would have found a way to insert their own ideologies and politics into what may end up being one of the best Iraq war movies ever, but Bigelow is smart enough to let her work speak for itself.

Adam proclaims:

    Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow

    While I may have had more love this year for other movies, the reason this movie wasn’t in my top 5 had nothing to do with the directing. Given a better script, this movie had the potential to be near the very top of my list of movies this year. I have to agree with both Jared and John that the tension she was able to create, as well as the very well done action scenes, make for a very strong nominee. I have no problem with her winning this category (especially if it is over Cameron).

    I Want to Win: Quentin Tarantino

    I am a huge Tarantino fan, so maybe my opinion is somewhat biased, but I don’t think that really matters. I’m biased because I believe Tarantino is one of the (if not THE) best writer/director/producers out there, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception – despite Jared’s felonious assertions. I’d LOVE to see this movie sweep all categories…but I’m not naïve enough to believe it will happen.

    Dark Horse: Lee Daniels (and no, I’m not being racist. He’s the longest shot)

    He’s last in the rankings (both mine and others’ predictions) and there is a reason…he didn’t do that great of a job. I hate to admit it, but I agree with John – Soderbergh is a MUCH stronger candidate for the slot.

    Ranking:

    1. Quentin Tarantino
    2. Kathryn Bigelow
    3. Jason Reitman
    4. James Cameron
    5. Lee Daniels

    Grouches Critiques:

    I find it almost unfathomable that Brian of all people is the only one to really give adequate credit to Inglourious Basterds – shame on you Jared and John. I will have plenty of time to bash John’s love of Avatar and James Cameron in the next couple of days. All I can say now is…really? Really, John? Nothing else really jumps out at me about the rest, though. We were pretty close with our critiques on these movies with 3 of 4 picking Bigelow. Precious wasn’t great and the direction was one of the weakest parts, and the strongest part of Up in the Air was not the directing.

    Random Notes:

    As much as I think Avatar is over-hyped, the direction wasn’t horrible (second best thing about the film next to the visuals – which has something to do with the direction). That said, I actually like more of the picks here than in Adapted Screenplay. And, like Adapted Screenplay, my top two are close enough that I’m not going to be pissed at the Academy if they go with Bigelow. She did a terrific job with the little she was given.

    God I hope James Cameron doesn’t win.

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