Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Almost as if we were ready for the pandemic to hit, 2019 proved to be a very interesting year for movies. It’s a year that provided gonzo films like Guns Akimbo and dark, strange re-imaginings like The Banana Splits Movie. It was also a fantastic year for original screenplays. Oscar is always going to ignore science fiction films like Ad Astra unless forced to recognize them. The same is true of horror movies like Midsommar and horror-adjacent titles like The Lighthouse and Swallow. Parasite is already on the list here, and a double-up on foreign language is rare, leaving out Monos, Pain and Glory, and the tragically overlooked Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Foreign language issues and Oscar’s inherent racism is going to keep The Farewell off the docket.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. I have a feeling there aren’t going to be surprises here from regular readers. Of these movies, Marriage Story was absolutely my least favorite. I dislike the characters and I dislike the way that they act and interact. Go ahead and blame whatever you like, but a collection of genuinely dislikable, smug, awful people starts and ends with the screenplay that creates them. I don’t like these characters, and I don’t like them because the story they exist in and the actions they take make them dislikable. This would not get a nomination from me.
4. So what about Quentin Tarantino? Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is purely his creation, and that’s obvious early on. A big, big part of that is just how self-indulgent it is and how much is on the screen because it would be cool to put there instead of because it actually impacts the characters or plot. This is a movie that needs a pair of garden shears taken to it. It runs 162 minutes and could have told its story in 110 at the longest. That extra 52 minutes is just watching Tarantino jerk off on his script.
3. A movie like 1917 is hard to judge when it comes to screenplay. Many will look at this and see large chunks of movie with no dialogue and wonder what it’s doing here, but of course screenplay is much more than just that. It’s an interesting nomination, one that I probably wouldn’t nominate were I to come up with a list of five, but it would at least be in the conversation for me. It’s a movie that does a lot right, and it did win the Oscars—especially cinematography—that it should have. It just doesn’t really belong here.
2. In a different year, Knives Out is an easy winner. This is a very clever movie, a smart mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, and smart enough to not speak down to its audience. It feels rare that a movie like this treats its audience like they might actually figure out the plot before we get to the end. Better, rather than just being a series of sit-down interviews with possible murders, things happen in this. I like this movie for a lot of reasons, but it starts with the smart and intricate (and fun!) plot. In an open field, this one still makes my list.
1. There were some great movies in 2019, and some (like Portrait of a Lady on Fire) that might give it a run for Best Picture, but not for screenplay. Parasite works because it gets us involved in the lives of the people we see on the screen and because real changes happen that fit with the film but that we don’t expect. If I’m coming up with a list of five nominees, I’m making a lot of changes to Oscar’s list, but it’s Parasite that has everything I want in a film story. It’s smart, it doesn’t talk down to me, it has unexpected events, and everything happens for character-driven reasons rather than plot reasons. It was the right choice.