This year’s Oscar nominees in the category for Writing (Original Screenplay), is an eclectic bunch in more ways than one. The films are The Artist, Bridesmaids, Margin Call, Midnight In Paris, and A Separation. Two of these are foreign films, two are straight comedies (perhaps a third, but it’s debatable), two are straight dramas. Two are also nominated for Best Picture. Two are art-house films that became cross-over hits. One is a full-on blockbuster hit. One barely even made it into theaters. Oh, and one is silent. Much like the nominees for Adapted Screenplay, there may not be one clear winner in this group, but at least in this case narrowing the field down is considerably easier – especially if we look at them individually.

A Separation

Starting with one of the foreign films, A Separation is from Iran, written by Asghar Farhadi. The script is a heart-breaking story of one couple’s struggle to do what’s right by their family and the pitfalls of living under the law of religious fundamentalism. It starts with happily married couple Nadir and Simin filing for divorce so that Simin can emigrate to provide a better life for their daughter, while Nadir stays behind to care for is Alzheimer’s stricken father. This decision, born out of necessity and good intentions, spirals out of their control leading to Nader’s standing trial for manslaughter.  This is a truly original story and certainly deserves its place among the nominees. And it’s not completely unusual to see a foreign nominee – Ingmar Bergman was a five-time nominee in this category and Pedro Almodovar has won it. Still, I think it’s safe to say this falls under the old adage of “it’s just an honor to be nominated.” If nothing else, hopefully the nomination will continue to help shed light on the plight of Iranian filmmakers which has recently come to the foreground with the jailing of Jafar Panahi.

Another lucky-to-be-here nominee is Margin Call, written by J.C. Chandor.  It tells the story of a powerhouse Wall Street trading firm that suddenly finds itself in crisis. With a bunch of bad assets on the books, the company faces either going under or selling the toxic assets off to unsuspecting buyers. Sound familiar? The firm is clearly a stand-in for Goldman Sachs and the plot expertly explains how the housing market bum rush of 2009 went down. It’s heady stuff but the script pulls it off and – a la The Social Network – takes what you think would put you to sleep (guys at computers, complex math, technical jargon) and makes it riveting. It’s a long-shot, but it deserves to be here. Perhaps this is the Academy’s attempt to spotlight a film that was overlooked and that most people missed. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the nomination was the first time a vast majority of moviegoers ever heard of the film. In an unusual (but most likely prophetic) distribution deal, the film was released on demand the same day it hit theaters, so most theater chains simply didn’t carry it. Their loss.

Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo pictured above in Bridesmaids

The wild card in this group has to be Bridesmaids. Writers Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig have accomplished that rare feat of pleasing both critics and audiences. The one bonafide blockbuster in the group, Bridesmaids tells the story of a woman adrift in her thirties whose insecurities and frustrations come bubbling out in hilarious fashion when she’s asked to be the maid-of-honor at her best friend’s wedding. So much of today’s comedy is about men stuck in adolescence and in those movies it often takes a good woman to help them become the responsible, mature, and likeable. So it’s refreshing the script is from a woman’s point of view and highlights not only that women can be just as (and even more) funny, but that they are just as complicated as the men and have their own struggles and problems. What makes the script remarkable is that it’s got a heart as big as its laughs. And what makes it great is that both of those elements transcend gender. The issues that the main character Annie deals with are universal and ring true for all of us, which is why it became such a phenomenon.  This is a solid contender, but the only question is where Academy members will fall on the issue of improvisation. Most of the cast have strong improv backgrounds and it’s a good question as to how much of the final product matches what was on the page. It may matter to some and not to others and many may avoid the issue altogether by voting for something else.

The Artist

Something like, say, The Artist. The other foreign film, this time from France, was written by Michel Hazanavicius and tells the story of an aging silent film actor whose star falls thanks to the arrival of sound pictures, while the starlet he had a brief encounter with skyrockets to fame. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical as well as Best Picture at the British Academy Awards. It’s also winning over crowds everywhere, and while some reactions (including my own) have been lukewarm, there aren’t too many out and out detractors. More importantly, those that love it REALLY LOVE IT. For the Oscars it also has the added bonus of being a sweetly nostalgic ode to the history of film. All of which is enough to make it a strong contender. The only possible downfall is: did I mention it’s a silent film? I honestly have no idea where the professionals fall on this, but it’s possible that some may see the script as the easy part of this film – no real dialogue, after all. Still, it’s a good story told in a unique and unexpected way – “I wouldn’t know how to write a silent movie,” may be an argument some voters will use in its favor. For now, let’s just say that it’s got a better chance at winning than it does at losing.

Woody Allen wrote and directed Midnight in Paris

The last nominee is the other straight up comedy and, like The Artist, an art house film that became a cross-over hit. The film is Midnight In Paris written by Woody Allen. It’s the whimsical story of a nostalgic writer who, at the stroke of midnight on a Parisian street corner, gets magically transported to the Paris of the 1920s and is able to live out his dream of mingling with the famous group of artistic expatriates that once gathered in the city. Allen can often be esoteric, but he does so deftly here is inject the cerebral with a playfulness that’s often irresistible. And I think what people are responding to is there’s  a bit of that old Woody Allen at work here – that mischievousness and exuberance that we haven’t seen from him in a long time. His depictions of real-life figures such as Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds are cleverly skewered without becoming caricatures. Hell, he may have made them more interesting than they actually were.  Even those unfamiliar with the historical figures that are depicted will come away with the same wishful feelings as the film’s protagonist.  Now, you may want to sit down before I tell you that this is Allen’s twenty-third Oscar nomination (including other categories). TWENTY-THIRD. 23! And fifteen of those are for writing. It’s an astounding statistic. He’s only won twice – for Annie Hall and Hannah And Her Sisters – so winning is not a foregone conclusion. There may be some that begrudgingly refuse to vote for him based on his personal life or, even more pettily, on the knowledge that he most likely won’t show up to accept.  But this is also a rare box office hit for him, so the reception and buzz around this film suggests that he may be due for that third win.

For picking a winner, I think it comes down to The Artist and Midnight In Paris. If we look at previous awards, they’re pretty neck and neck: The Artist just picked up the British Academy award for screenplay. On the other hand, Midnight In Paris took home the Golden Globe, which is a more common Oscar prognosticator. Some may applaud the sheer audacity of The Artist, but that recognition I think will fall more towards Hazanavicius as director, rather than as writer. Bridesmaids could sneak in there – it’d be nice to see those ladies continue to crash the boys club. But my best guess is for Woody and Paris. Now, to make it perfect I say give it to Allen and, if he’s not there, let Kristen Wiig accept on his behalf. Because that’s an acceptance speech I want to see.

Road to the Oscars Series

January 27: Best Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 31: Best Animated Short – Savanna New

February 1: Best Documentary Short – Christa Youngpeter

February 2: Best Documentary – Dantzler Smith

February 3: Best Foreign Language Film – Steve Neumann

February 4: Best Visual Effects – Michael Benedict

February 5: Best Sound Editing – Michael Benedict

February 6: Best Sound Mixing – Joseph Doherty

February 7: Best Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 8: Best Costume Design – Jax Russo

February 9: Best Art Direction – Scott Youngbauer

February 10: Best Film Editing – Michael Benedict

February 11: Best Cinematography – Scott Youngbauer

February 12: Best Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 13: Best Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 14: Best Animated Feature Film – Steve Neumann

February 15: Best Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Best Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Best Supporting Actor – Joseph Doherty

February 18: Best Supporting Actress – Angela Stern

February 20: Best Actress – Andrew Payne

February 21: Best Actor – Kit Bowen

February 22: Best Director – Andrew Payne

February 23: Best Picture – Kit Bowen