Oscars 2013: Richard Corliss’ Picks – Best Original Screenplay

TIME critic Richard Corliss reveals his pick for Best Original Screenplay. Share your pick!

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Columbia Pictures


Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
John Gatins, Flight
Michael Haneke, Amour
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

With these five excellent films, it’s easiest to say which screenplays won’t win: Moonrise Kingdom, the year’s top-grossing American indie film, whose complex comic glow has faded since its release last May, and Flight, a mainstream drama from Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis with a modest budget ($30 million) and an impressive show at the box office ($93.8 million) but no traction during the awards season. That leaves three movies that offer compelling arguments for, and against.

Amour: The first movie in Oscar history to be nominated for Best Picture, Foreign-Language Film, Director, Actress and Screenplay in the same year (The Emigrants was shortlisted in the same categories, but the Foreign-Language nomination came a year before the other four), Michael Haneke’s late-life love story is a bold original, all right. Academy voters who revere the film — thinking that it won’t win Best Picture, Director or Actress, and that a Foreign-Language statuette alone doesn’t do Amour justice — might slip it an Oscar here. But of the dozens of critics’ societies and international awards cartels that showered love on Amour, only the London Critics Circle thought to cite it for Best Screenplay; and that group was clearly besotted by the film, giving it seven prizes. The performances, the direction and the claustrophobic tension are the essentials here, not the script.

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Django Unchained: As Mary Corliss notes, Quentin Tarantino’s chatty Southern Western certainly has a lot of words, but too many of them may begin with n or f to suit the tastes of Oscar members. A three-time nominee for Original Screenplay, QT has won only for Pulp Fiction (shared with Roger Avary) 18 years ago. Genre pastiche appeals to critics and fanboys more than to Academy voters; and a mashup of ’60s Spaghetti Western and ’70s Blaxploitation lacks the pedigree that wins Oscars. If there were a category for Original Imitation, Django would be a lock.

(Watch: Oscars 2013: Great Performances)

Zero Dark Thirty: The winner of more critics’ prizes than any other original script, Mark Boal’s alchemizing of investigative journalism into taut, teeming movie drama also took the Writers Guild award — though, because of the WGA’s peculiar restrictions, Django and Amour were deemed ineligible. More important to Oscar voters than the praise of reviewers and movie scribes may be the pans of two Democratic Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, who, with Republican John McCain, sent a letter of protest to Sony Pictures late last year, describing ZDT as “grossly inaccurate and misleading” for its waterboarding scenes and the movie’s suggestion — or, perhaps, the Senators’ inference — that torture led to information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. If that condemnation lingers in the minds of liberal Academy voters, which is to say nearly all of them, Boal won’t win.

So what are we saying? None of the above? That’s not an option. So we’ll guess that admiration for the power and density of Boal’s screenplay will trump left-wing queasiness — and that the sense of the Academy will be that ZDT deserves at least one Oscar, and this will be it.