“Another Year”
Mike Leigh
Leigh’s latest ensemble piece offers another richly emotional and empathetic human tapestry, marked by a clean, four-season structure that focuses the picture’s themes without seeming overly schematic.
Why it might win: A four-time original screenplay nominee (for “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Vera Drake,” “Topsy-Turvy” and “Secrets and Lies”), Leigh is overdue for Academy recognition.
Maybe not: The writer-director’s signature extended workshopping method leads some to underestimate his achievement by wrongly assuming that his tightly scripted films are improvised.
— Justin Chang

“Black Swan”
Andres Heinz (story); Mark Heyman, Heinz, John McLaughlin (screenplay)
Fusing character study, psychological suspense and the nuts and bolts of a ballerina’s craft, the screenwriters worked at different times over the years to give director Darren Aronofsky a rich blend of paranoia, toil, jealousy and machinations from which he could bring to life a warped take on striving for perfection.
Why it might win: For all its visual dynamism, it’s a cracking good story, with sharp dialogue, biting humor and well-drawn characters.
Maybe not: The tale’s crazier elements might seem more like heightened melodrama to some in the Acad.
— Robert Abele

“Blue Valentine”
Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne
Along with co-writers Curtis and Delavigne, writer-director Cianfrance created a precise mosaic of the beginning and end of a relationship from innumerable small details. Atypical, time-jumping story structure simultaneously captures the rising feelings of an early courtship as well as the relationship’s rocky final days.
Why it might win: Pic was a fest circuit critical fave, and category is a fan of relative newcomers.
Maybe not: Could voters be distracted by the controversy (or the reasons for it) surrounding its NC-17 rating from the MPAA (since reduced to R)?
— Addie Morfoot

“The Fighter”
Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
A fact-based story leavened with boisterous doses of comedy, “Fighter” takes on the fraught relationship between boxing brothers Mickey Ward and Dickie Englund.
Why it might win: Avoids the usual pugilist drama cliches by lacing its tale with strong female characters, profane wit and a pointed take on the ties (neighborhood and familial) that bind.
Maybe not: Success could be perceived as more performance-driven.
— Robert Abele

“The Kids Are All Right”
Lisa Cholodenko
Sure, these are progressive times (in some respects, anyway), and the shock value of a film centered on two parents who happen to be lesbians, their children and their biological father is hopefully far behind us. That still left Cholodenko this challenge: How to craft a winning family drama in a film world that largely struggles to do so, gay or straight.
Why it might win: Mission accomplished. With verisimilitude, Cholodenko gives us a family of nuanced characters, mixed with sadness and happiness, lament and fulfillment.
Maybe not: Voters might not think “Kids” offers enough of a high-stakes story.
— Jon Weisman

“The King’s Speech”
David Seidler
A polished period-piece and a feel-good underdog saga rolled into one, “The King’s Speech” expands a fascinating historical footnote into the year’s classiest and most unlikely bromance.
Why it might win: The superb performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush owe much to the script’s droll Brit wit, and Seidler’s well-publicized account of his own childhood stutter is just the sort of sentimental backstory voters find irresistible.
Maybe not: Some may deem the piece too staid, as well as too flattering in its take on the British monarchy.
— Justin Chang

Sofia Coppola
In an even more minimalist variation on the hotel-stranded ennui of “Lost in Translation,” Coppola makes adroit use of silences and long takes to build a wistful, dryly funny and emotionally perceptive study of a bored Hollywood celebrity.
Why it might win: Favoring deadpan observation over robust narrative, “Somewhere” represents a refinement of Coppola’s unique brand of intimate portraiture.

Maybe not: Many voters are likely to find the film listless and frustrating, and the fact that Coppola already won a writing Oscar for “Lost in Translation” may hurt.
— Justin Chang

Christopher Nolan
Taking Nolan’s yen for structural gamesmanship to dizzying new levels, this ambitious and dazzlingly intricate conceptual thriller applies heist-movie tropes to the landscape of the subconscious mind.
Why it might win: A past nominee for “Memento,” Nolan has since carved out a reputation as the most cerebral yarn-spinner in Hollywood and will benefit from the perceived snub of 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” If the words “original screenplay” are taken literally, “Inception” is hard to beat.
Maybe not: For every viewer who hailed it as a visionary achievement, there was another who dismissed it as an outlandish folly too clever (and hard to follow) for its own good.
— Justin Chang

Blighty-set pics such as ‘Lions,’ ‘Dagenham,’ ‘Stranger’ figure heavily among contending blokes
“Four Lions” will prove a litmus test of sorts for the humorous treatment of touchy subject matter, as British satire impresario Chris Morris’ comedy about inept suicide bombers wends its way through an awards season typically unkind to laugh-filled movies to begin with. But the movie’s unapologetic attitude toward being funny — and its ultimately sober qualities — could bring Morris to the screenplay circle.
William Ivory’s script for “Made in Dagenham,” meanwhile, uses plenty of gender-conscious humor to liven a true-life social studies tale of a late ’60s strike by female Ford plant workers in England that led to an equal pay law.
Funnyman Woody Allen is no stranger to a screenplay nomination (or award — he has two). His “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” about love-addled Londoners in various stages of personal and professional upheaval, is another bittersweet offering that once again shows his gifts for writing parts that actors can knock out of the park.
Thrice nominated for screenplay honors (winning the 1983 Oscar for “Terms of Endearment,”) James L. Brooks will always be on the kudos radar — though “How Do You Know?” is only his second produced screenplay since 1997’s Oscar-nommed “As Good as It Gets.” For those susceptible to romantic comedy, it will merit a look.

Twice-nominated scribe Peter Morgan — typically associated with sharply observed, acerbic biopics — surprised everyone with “Hereafter,” a quieter, more melancholy examination of three characters dealing with death.
And while Luca Guadagnino earned plenty of praise for his sumptuous direction of “I Am Love,” the building blocks for his visuals were already there in his screenplay, written with Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo and Walter Fasano. Its telling of a passionate adulterous affair amid a wealthy Italian family’s business turmoil was reminiscent of a classic romance from an earlier era.
Not to be buried is Chris Sparling’s “Buried,” which began a run for recognition by taking original screenplay honors from the National Board of Review on the strength of its coffinated tale of entrapment, Pamela Gray’s fact-based drama “Conviction,” or “Get Low,” “Mother and Child,” and “Please Give.”

More from Eye on the Oscar: Screenplay
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Original screenplay contenders | Adapted screenplay contenders