20th Century Women
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea (winner)
2016 was a great movie year, and it’s a surprising great year for original screenplays. There are enough really good ones that films that would have been interesting choices in weak years, things like The Ghoul or The Founder, don’t really warrant a mention here. There are a number of other films like The Transfiguration, Colossal, Hush, and Sleight where the screenplay is the best or most interesting part of the film that would also make fun nominees. Horror movies are hard sells for Oscar nominations, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Personal Shopper, and I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House would be fascinating additions to the list. It’s even harder for foreign language horror movies to be recognized, which leaves out Under the Shadow and Train to Busan (which admittedly is pretty plot-thin). Oscar’s need to put up a weird film in the category was taken by The Lobster which leaves out Swiss Army Man and A Cure for Wellness. The last collection of longshots include the animated Kubo and the Two Strings and the action/comedy The Nice Guys, which leads to the serious question of when Shane Black is going to get any Academy love. With all of those out of the way, there are a solid quartet of films that could be legitimately nominated in this category. Jackie and Captain Fantastic earned other nominations and certainly could belong here. Toni Erdmann also got a nomination and is certainly something that could qualify here. Last but not least, I, Daniel Blake could easily be here as well.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. I realize that I’m in the minority on La La Land, but it would have been hard for me to be more disappointed in this movie. The biggest problem I have with it is the fact that it’s cinematic solipsism—the only time the characters successful at anything is when they are entirely self-absorbed. The fact that Ryan Gosling can’t dance or sing are problems, but those aren’t script problems. That everyone needs to be selfish and egocentric to do anything worthwhile absolutely is. I know people liked it; I just don’t know why.
4. 20th Century Women is a movie that commits one of the greatest sins I can think of: it’s boring. The characters we are presented with aren’t interesting and they have a series of problems through the movie that are equally uninteresting. It doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. It’s a coming-of-age story where no one really seems to come of age. It’s a big ol’ circle…and it’s ultimately the zero that that circle represents. It should probably be in last place except for just how completely disappointed I was in La La Land.
3. I think I was supposed to really like The Lobster a lot more than I did. It’s one of those movies that trades on its weirdness—it’s weird for the sake of being weird, though. Sometimes a movie can get away with that, and The Lobster isn’t that movie. This is like a hipster film that wants to be cool ironically, and I just don’t get it. I always want to like the movies I watch, but I’m not going to be forced into liking one just because it has a weird premise, evidently for the sake of having a weird premise.
2. There’s no other way to put it, the story is the best part of Manchester by the Sea, and it’s a pretty good movie overall. In fact, it shouldn’t really be that interesting of a movie, but it is. That it’s such an ordinary story in many ways but is significantly more compelling than The Lobster is a clue of just how damn good the story is and how well it is told. I understand why this won even if it’s not my choice. While I wouldn’t pick it, I can’t claim that I’m terribly disappointed in the win based on the nominees, even if it might barely scrape a nomination were I making the list.
1. My choice is Hell or High Water, which feels like a movie that picked up the mantle of No Country for Old Men and does not drop it. This feels like it was made in the same county, like the Marcus Hamilton of Jeff Bridges could have taken over after the retirement of Ed Tom Bell. There’s a feel to this movie of open spaces and suddenly chill winds, of rattlesnake rattles and tumbleweeds and dangerous men weaving plots. It’s a great movie, and one of the main reasons it is is that it has a tremendous screenplay. I would rewrite these nominations in a big way, but Hell or High Water is my winner.