It’s been 15 years since Avatar started its epic journey to the bigscreen, and the result marks the latest pinnacle of Cameron’s career. The Oscar-winning filmmaker has created a new world (Pandora), a new language (Na’vi) and, most importantly, a new canvas for filmmakers to use thanks to advancements in 3D technology pioneered by Cameron himself.
Why It’ll Win: Both classic (in a Joseph Campbell/”The Hero’s Journey” sort of way) and forward-thinking (Cameron conceived a story cinema wasn’t yet capable of telling), “Avatar” embodies the Hollywood ideal.
Maybe Not: The Academy nominated virtually everything about Cameron’s “Titanic” except the script in 1997.
The explicit references here to “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” remind auds of the Spanish auteur’s roots, with overripe melodrama and playful parallel threads wrapped in a self-reflexive valentine to the art of cinema. Almodovar pulled off the rare feat among foreign writers of winning an Oscar, for 2002’s “Talk to Her”; he could repeat here.
Why It’ll Win: The script’s narrative intricacy and commitment to storytelling for its own sake are easy to admire, especially if you’re a writer.
Maybe Not: Some see this as a regression to Almodovar’s sudsy pre-“Talk to Her” work — not necessarily in a good way.
500 DAYS OF SUMMER
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Already nommed for a Film Independent Spirit Award, Neustadter and Weber earned their first feature credit with this quirky she’s-just-not-that-into-you tale that dared to challenge romantic comedy conventions, including the traditional happy ending, with a refreshingly atypical story structure that served to spotlight the highs and lows of a relationship.
Why It’ll Win: The category loves to reward relative newcomers, and a surprise landing on the NBR’s top 10 list ensures that “Summer” will remain in the awards conversation this winter.
Maybe Not: Despite its critical success, the story might just be too hip for its own good.
Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
The shaggy dog tale about a bachelor party gone horribly awry proved to be a comic gold mine for unpredictable shocks, unlikely heroes and memorably eccentric supporting players. Cleverly unfolding in half-remembered moments, as three friends piece together the night before to find the missing groom-to-be, the screenplay largely avoids cheap flashbacks and taps into the collective fantasy of “What happens in Vegas” debauchery.
Why It’ll Win: Earning more than $277 million, “The Hangover” is the raunchy boys’ answer to Oscar-nominated “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Maybe Not: It’s still a movie about guys getting drunk and blacking out
THE HURT LOCKER
Boal (“In the Valley of Elah”) based his screenplay on his own experience as a journalist embedded with an elite bomb disposal unit in Baghdad, lending the pic an uninsistent yet persuasive combat-zone realism. His high-tension script examines character through action and mise-en-scene rather than exposition and avoids easy political statements in favor of a complex engagement with the allure and the horrors of war.
Why It’ll Win: It provides a firm foundation for one of the year’s most acclaimed films.
Maybe Not: Locker” is considered primarily a triumph of direction, and the script’s episodic structure and lack of easy character hooks may challenge voters.
Though inspired by Enzo G. Castellari’s macaroni combat movie of the same name (but different spelling), the “Pulp Fiction” auteur’s audaciously original WWII epic presents a revisionist scenario in which Hitler is hunted by a bloodthirsty posse of Jewish Nazi-scalpers. Sharply structured in five self-contained chapters, the script is bolstered less by explosive action than Tarantino’s chewy, epic-length conversations. Most memorable is the silver-tongued villain SS Colonel Hans Landa, a meaty role that earned actor Christoph Waltz international acclaim.
Why It’ll Win: It breaks all war-movie formulas, and nobody can punch up a monologue like Tarantino.
Maybe Not: Rewriting WWII so sadistically may prove too controversial.
A SERIOUS MAN
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
The Coen brothers marked their 14th feature screenplay with this black comedy. Set in 1967 Minneapolis, “Man” centers on Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor whose life begins to seriously unravel as his wife decides to leave him for a family friend. Largely inspired by the Coens’ youth, the film has been widely considered their most personal and mature story yet.
Why It’ll Win: The Academy has been receptive to the Coens’ work in the recent past, awarding “No Country for Old Men” in 2008.
Maybe Not: Though it potentially appeals to the “Jewish vote,” some critics have branded the film anti-Semitic.
Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Thomas McCarthy (story), Peterson and Docter (screenplay)
With “The Visitor’s” McCarthy aiding Pixar vets Docter and Peterson, this CG adventure follows a grumpy old man and an overeager Boy Scout who, airlifted by thousands of balloons, end up steering a floating house to South America. Despite a premise atypical of a blockbuster, “Up” became Pixar’s highest domestic grosser, due in large part to its all-ages appeal.
Why It’ll Win: After five nominations and just as many losses, Pixar is due for recognition in this category.
Maybe Not: The studio’s runner-up track record in this category suggests a bias against animation.
IN THE MIX
Many of the year’s top earners featured original screenplays, though it might surprise you to learn others are technically adaptations of earlier work (such as South African alien-apartheid allegory “District 9,” based on the short “Alive in Joberg”).
That could open the door for a number of critically acclaimed but otherwise underseen films to earn a nom. Though James Gray’s emotionally insightful “Two Lovers” builds on the same mismatched-love premise of Dostoevsky’s “White Nights,” Gray spun his literary inspiration into a well-reviewed original work, while Jane Campion waxed poetic for her John Keats biopic “Bright Star” (as seen through the eyes of Fanny Brawne).
Real-life literary couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida poignantly explore the anxieties of parenthood in “Away We Go,” while Nancy Meyers tackles life and love after divorce in “It’s Complicated.” (But nothing is as complicated as the relationship of Julia Roberts’ and Clive Owen’s characters in Tony Gilroy’s highbrow corporate con-man thriller “Duplicity.”)
The Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman-written Iraq War drama “The Messenger” addresses the impact of casualties on family members back home.