The Alternative Awards is a weekly column that highlights actors, actresses and films that are flying way under the awards radar, but still deserve a second glance. It will run on Tuesdays throughout awards season.
The Screenplay categories are among the most fun to watch for a variety of reasons. It is the one category where one of our personal favorites have the strength of getting in on the pure merit of its writing, with no interference of the chances of its other contributors. On the flip side it is one to keep an eye on as far as Best Picture is concerned. Only twice since 1965 ('The Sound of Music' & 'Titanic') has the big winner not been nominated for its writing. And in those 45 years, the Best Film's script also won an Oscar 33 times (10 Originals, 23 Adaptations).
The film that was originally going to make this article's list of alternatives, Chris Sparling's 'Buried', actually got a boost from the National Board of Review last week. In a welcome head-scratcher of a victory, the group actually recognized this clever script as the year's best. And since introducing this category into their ranks, five of their seven choices have received a nomination. Not terrible odds for a film that Lions Gate seems to have forgotten about after its first week of platform.
I would like to also include James L. Brooks' 'How Do You Know' as a potential competitor here. Three of the man's five directorial efforts have also been nominated for screenplay. But seeing as how Sony is dragging its heels on showing it to people and response from the junket crowd over the weekend has been less than enthusiastic, it is hard to take seriously at this point. Even if it has potential to be the best romantic comedy of 2010. What a sad year.
And that's only half of the potential nominees. The beautiful thing about the Oscars that so many critic groups have yet to adopt is that there is a difference between an original piece of work and something cherry-picked and expanded upon from another medium. This year's adapted frontrunners include 'The Social Network' (by Aaron Sorkin), 'Toy Story 3' (by Michael Arndt) and 'True Grit' (by Joel & Ethan Coen). And if we had to look at seven more to round out a list of five, we would have to go with '127 Hours' (by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy), 'How to Train Your Dragon' (by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders), 'Rabbit Hole' (by David Lindsay-Abaire), 'Shutter Island' (by Laeta Kalogridis), 'The Town' (by Ben Affleck, Peter Craig & Aaron Stockard), 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' (by Allan Loeb & Stephen Schiff) and 'Winter's Bone' (by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini).
Since many of the precursors still only have room for one Screenplay category, we will still only choose five great scripts likely to be overlooked by all of them. And as much as I admire some of the year's adaptations (including 'The American' and 'Never Let Me Go'), the list is still full of original works. Imagine that, in a rather lackluster year for originality and good films in general there are still more writers in the discussion for starting from scratch and worthy of being in that discussion for award consideration.
'Fish Tank' (by Andrea Arnold) - A film that got a lot of festival play in 2009 seems to be the film everyone has forgotten about in 2010. Probably because it opened in early January and isn't going to make its DVD debut in the states until February 2011. Perhaps Criterion knew they had something special and wanted to take their time. Hell, it took them 24 years to do 'Broadcast News'. Fish Tank is special though, a coming-of-age story in the sticks of the UK about breaking free and cautionary sexuality.
Sure, you're thinking, name me a coming-of-age film that isn't. There's a wonderful fluidity to Arnold's tale though, peppered by one of the year's very best performances by newcomer Katie Jarvis and an increased reminder that we need to see Michael Fassbender in more roles like this and 'Inglourious Basterds' and less in ones like 'Jonah Hex' and 'Centurion'. Andrea Arnold never oversells her metaphors (like 'Black Swan') and never rushes any of the key relationships into false moments just to move the plot along. It is a shame IFC did not include this amongst their award screeners to critic groups and a huge shame on the voters of the Independent Spirit Awards for failing to give this film a single nomination in either 2009 or 2010. Huge shame.
'Four Lions' (by Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain & Chris Morris) - Suicide bombers are idiots. Do you disagree or are you afraid by admitting as much you might be next? Hopefully the ones with a target on your back are as incompetent as the ones in this brilliantly funny film, another example of wicked satire from one of the co-writers of last year's Oscar-nominated, 'In The Loop'.
More than just a one-joke movie as our anti-hero foursome head down a path into becoming the dogs from 'A Fish Called Wanda', Four Lions takes pointed jabs at the imbecility of racism and religious indignation. But it also finds room for the incompetence of our security agencies and enough time to make these characters human enough to make their unshaped fanaticism all the more frightening. They cannot even muster a respectable argument as to why they're doing it and the discussions had to justify their behavior is about as perfect as comic writing got all year.
'Lovely, Still' (by Nicholas Fackler) - Toronto fest in 2008. Chicago fest in 2009. Finally, a very small release this September just before hitting DVD in November. Nicholas Fackler's writing/directing debut seemed like just a simple late-bloomer romance between lonely Martin Landau and new neighbor/widower, Ellen Burstyn. And it's a beautiful one at that which only gains poignancy for telling a story we normally associate with young outsiders unable to find the girl of their dream.
But there is so much more to this story, handled delicately and respectfully by Fackler to greater effect as to what can be seen in this year's Toronto fest Oscar bait pickup, Barney's Version. You will likely not see the title mentioned during awards season other than here, but do yourself a solid and pick this one up to watch with your significant other, or even better, your parents. For all the jokes we make about Oscar voters forgetting nine months of movies, being completely out of touch or in retirement homes, here is a film you figure might be right up their alley.
'Monsters' (by Gareth Edwards) - Described as "Mumblefield" (a cross between 'Cloverfield' and Mumblecore) by our own Scott Weinberg at this year's SXSW Film Festival, I thought I knew what I was in for with Gareth Edwards' micro-budget debut. Audiences might think it's just another 'District 9' by the look of the trailer. And we were all wrong. Edwards' film certainly has elements of both those descriptions. What you might not be thinking walking in is how successful the film will be as a love story and as a social statement about our response to terrorism and xenophobia.
Sure you get a couple of big monsters and suspense sequences, but also well-written moments between the lead characters, a freelance photographer trying to make his buck on the alien outbreak and the rich, engaged girl he must escort to safer plains. This is the archetype of 'It Happened One Night' if Gable and Colbert had to dodge giant squids along the way. And it works because Edwards treats these two as humans with motivations we understand rather than those very archetypes. Coupled with a nifty ending that will have you wanting to start the film all over again, Monsters was one of the great surprises of the year and before there's a budget, there's a script.
'The Square' (by Joel Edgerton & Matthew Dabner) - This Australian export does not deserve comparison to films like 'Blood Simple' and 'Bound' because it follows the spirit of its adulterous schemers looking to make a quick buck. It is because the Brothers Edgerton (director Nash & co-writer Joel) deserve to join the ranks of sibling filmmakers making a smashing debut using the oldest breakthrough genre in the business. Full of dark violence and even darker humor, this was an old school pleasure through and through that nevertheless felt brand new.
Like 'Monsters', the archetypes are in place but the Edgertons and co-writer Matthew Dabner keep pulling audibles with characters involved in theft, arson, blackmail and murder. Unlike so many attempts at twisty crime thrillers, The Square cleverly avoids becoming TV's 'Community''s take on double-crossing conspiracies ("You're not conspiring anymore. You're just doing a bunch of random crap.") Nothing about The Square's script is random. It is a carefully thought out piece of film noir that cinephiles love sinking their teeth into. Let's hope voters can get a second helping themselves.