Gods and Monsters (winner)
Out of Sight
A Simple Plan
The Thin Red Line
I don’t do it often, but this is a case where I don’t object to the five movies we have. Whenever I do a screenplay award, I spend a great deal of time looking through various lists of releases from the given year. For 1998, every single film I examined that was released in 1998 that wasn’t on this list was written directly for the screen. Seriously, the best adapted screenplay I could find that wasn’t on this list was Blade. Let’s be honest: Blade is fun, but it’s not like it’s Oscar-worthy.
Weeding through the Nominees
5: Of the five nominations, Out of Sight feels most like the one that was included here to round out the field to five nominations. It’s not a bad movie, but it really doesn’t feel like one that belongs in the heady company of “Oscar nominee.” Its biggest problem is that it’s not sure what it wants to be. Is it a crime comedy with a romance thrown in? Is it a dark movie with crime elements, murders, and attempted rape? It’s kind of both, and so ultimately it’s neither of these things. It tries, but it just doesn’t get there. I’m not sure I’d replace it, but it’s clearly the film that belongs in the bottom position.
4. Primary Colors is a film that I like and with a cast that I like very much. It’s also a very smart screenplay, one that doesn’t assume that the audience needs to be spoonfed everything that happens. In fact, I think the only real failing of Primary Colors is that for those who have no interest in the reality of the American political system, the film is an immediate dose of soporific. It’s well-written, if a bit broad in places, but it’s a nomination I like quite a bit. It’s worth watching, especially in an election year.
3. With a little thought, it isn’t surprising that Gods and Monsters won. This is a well-written movie about a piece of the movie industry’s past, after all, and the Academy loves awarding things that are about themselves. I do like the film, much of that being the sensitive performance of Ian McKellen. There are a few awkward spots in the film, though, and these come directly from the screenplay. That’s not the sort of thing that should prevent the film from being nominated, but in the presence of two screenplays with fewer problems, it is the sort of thing that should keep it from winning.
2. It may be that I’ll get the most grief here for putting The Thin Red Line in second place, since this tends to be a film that is beloved by a great number of people. I’m not going to protest that. This is (I think) a great film. The screenplay is its biggest liability. There are too many times when The Thin Red Line wanders off in search of answers inside its own navel and inside the interior monologues of its characters. I thought about putting it in the top position, but I have to end up rewarding a screenplay that has just as many strengths and fewer weaknesses.
1: I’m going with A Simple Plan. While much of the movie’s success comes from the performances, particularly those of Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton, it’s the screenplay that makes the entire thing work as well as it does. It’s a tight story that is perfectly paced to give us just enough information to stay with the characters as they descend into a hell of their own making with their eyes completely open. The strength of the screenplay is that we’re with them every step until we realize at the same time they do that every decision along the way has been the wrong one. It’s masterful, and it should have been awarded.