There’s an old truism among Oscar observers that, in any given year, one can look at one of the winners of the Screenplay awards and spot the true best picture of the year, regardless of what the voters actually elected to the top spot. Sometimes that seems accurate enough (going all the way back to the win for Citizen Kane, which lost Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley), but just as often, you’ll find Screenplay picks that are just as boneheaded as any other Oscar win. Never forget that Crash also captured this award.

People often seem to confuse a movie’s screenplay with its dialogue, and cite the films with the most verbiage or witty repartee as the “best written.” This is a fallacy. The screenplay is everything. It’s the film’s story, its characters, its pacing, its everything. Most of these elements involve other aspects of film production, but it all starts with the script. The writing is everything.

Here are the five films nominated for Best Original Screenplay (apparently, “original” even if they’re based on true events, which I’ll never understand). With one exception, it’s an exceptional crop this year.

Amour
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What it’s about: An elderly French couple who succumb to despair when the wife suffers a stroke and slowly loses control of her body.

Who’s nominated: Director Michael Haneke, who’s also nominated for the directing statue this year. This is the first year he’s gotten Academy attention, though he’s been lauded in European circles for decades for his work.

Why it might win: Well, since most of the Academy voters are old and white, and like to appear sophisticated, a great many things about this movie probably appeal to them. It also helps that it actually has the best script.

 

Django Unchained

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What it’s about: A slave who gets freed by a bounty hunter and subsequently goes on an adventure to rescue his wife. Many people die terrible deaths and many witticisms are spoken, because this movie was written by…

Who’s nominated: Quentin Tarantino, who of course previously won this award for 1994’s Pulp Fiction, and was also nominated for Inglourious Basterds in 2009.

Why it might win: It won’t. The movie was good enough that it could secure a nomination through sheer force of will (and likely Weinstein strongarming), but there’s way too much touchy racial stuff here for the voters to be courageous enough to choose it.

 

Flight

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What it’s about: A pilot who struggles with his alcoholism after he comes under public scrutiny in the wake of his miraculously crash-landing a damaged plane.

Who’s nominated: John Gatins, in his first Oscar nom. Pretty impressive, considering that his previous work was all extremely low-profile.

Why it might win: Because it takes on a Big Issue like alcoholism in an utterly safe way, and thus the Academy may feel “edgy” for rewarding it.

 

Moonrise Kingdom

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What it’s about: Two preteens who run away together, throwing their small island community into utter chaos.

Who’s nominated: Wes Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola. Anderson has previously been nominated in this category for 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, as well as for Best Animated Feature for 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Coppola has never before been nommed.

Why it might win: It won’t. Focus was able to lobby it into the nominees circle, but it’s way too quirky for the Academy to lend it legitimacy. Which is a shame.

 

Zero Dark Thirty

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What it’s about: The CIA’s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden after 9/11.

Who’s nominated: Mark Boal, who won this award for his previous collaboration with director Katherine Bigelow: 2009’s The Hurt Locker.

Why it might win: Because it’s a really great script. But it’s also come under fire for its alleged support of torture, which has probably killed its chances.

 

Who will win?

Going by the “the best actual movie wins,” the frontrunner appears to be Amour. But foreign language films very rarely take home this prize. Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained would be too controversial, and Moonrise Kingdom is too unusual. That leaves Flight, which has by far the worst screenplay of the bunch, but again, it’s a safe pick. Flight is also the most likely of these films to go for a sweep, which betters its chances. It would be a pretty poor choice, but it seems the most promising bet at this stage.

 
Road to the Oscars Series

January 14: Best Visual Effects – Ian Murphy

January 16: Best Sound Editing – Ian Murphy

January 18: Best Sound Mixing – Michael Benedict

January 21: Best Cinematography – Scott Youngbauer

January 23: Best Costume Design – Ian Murphy

January 25: Best Makeup and Hairstyling – Rebecca Susmarski

January 28: Best Film Editing – Dan Schindel

January 30: Best Production Design – Scott Youngbauer

February 1: Best Animated Feature – Carlos Aguilar

February 4: Best Documentary Feature – Dan Schindel

February 7: Best Documentary Short Subject – Dan Schindel

February 8: Best Live Action Short – Carlos Aguilar

February 9: Best Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 10: Best Foreign Language Film – Carlos Aguilar

February 11: Best Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 12: Best Original Song – Adam Spunberg

February 13: Best Original Screenplay – Dan Schindel

February 14: Best Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Best Supporting Actor – Angela Stern

February 17: Best Supporting Actress – Hiko Mitsuzuka

February 18: Best Actress – Andrew Payne

February 19: Best Actor – Kit Bowen

February 20: Best Director – Andrew Payne

February 21: Best Picture – Kit Bowen

February 24: 85th Annual Academy Awards