Drama and comedy split spotlight in writing category.
Hell or High Water
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Heist thriller, modern Western, social commentary — Sheridan’s tart, observant script, which first drew industry attention as a 2012 Black List title, about a pair of bank robbers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) with a personal score to settle and the savvy Texas Ranger (Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges) on their trail draws elements from all three genre types to both inform and deepen its central, character-driven storyline. The result is at once a crowd-pleasing crime picture and a pensive study of people struggling to maintain their dignity in a landscape in which honesty and respect fail to take root. The crisp, often wry dialogue, rich with Southwestern lingo and delivered with relish by the solid cast (especially in the salty exchanges between Bridges and partner Gil Birmingham and the brittle closing talk between Bridges and Pine), adds grit to a thriller where the central crimes carry less heat than the long-simmering motivations behind them.
La La Land
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Chazelle’s retro-glamorous and gloriously stylish “La La Land” has hit the highest of Oscar notes with 14 nominations, including a coveted nom for Chazelle for original screenplay. Tied with “Titanic” and the classic 1950 Bette Davis starrer “All About Eve” for the most nominations, Chazelle’s big-screen musical with soaring song-and-dance numbers and a bittersweet ending has drawn comparisons to “Singin’ in the Rain.” Critics have hailed Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as the updated versions of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. Having already won the Golden Globe for screenplay and up for a Writers Guild Award, “La La Land,” with its snappy dialogue and clever lyrics, could stand to make a clean sweep come Oscar night, including another writing prize for Chazelle.
Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
The absurdist film imagines a future where singles have 45 days to couple up at The Hotel or face being turned into an animal of their choice. Colin Farrell sells the role as a mousy man marching toward an unavoidable fate, although an early scene has him memorably reacting to the news by the matter-of-fact hotel hostess that even if turned into an animal, he might still find a mate in the animal kingdom. He opts to try a love connection with a heartless woman who kills his brother/dog, an act that finally elicits strong emotion and homicidal tendencies from him. An escape allows him to perhaps find love with an equally desperate single. The “Sopranos”-like ending leaves us all wondering, haunted by the unanswered question regarding the man’s ultimate decision. “The Lobster” represents the dark horse in a field of strong contenders, with a slim chance at grabbing the gold.
Manchester by the Sea
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
This brooding drama makes history as Amazon becomes the first streaming-video company to earn a best picture nomination. The critically acclaimed film also snagged noms in almost every major category, making it a major contender for a screenplay win. The melancholy film shows a very subtle change in the morose main character Lee (Casey Affleck), who manages a bit of humor to help douse his unrelenting depression. Fine acting helps the script, especially in the scenes between former couple Lee and Randi (Michelle Williams), who suffer an unimaginable personal tragedy. Randi has moved on with a new family, but her ex-husband cannot. She tries to talk to him after a chance encounter on the street, and the pain is palatable as he tries to shrink away from any absolution. Lee’s scenes with his late brother’s teen son range from slightly amusing to heartbreaking, each a small portrait that breathes life into this tortured soul.
20th Century Women
Writer: Mike Mills
The catalyst for this engaging film is Jamie, a teenage boy, fumbling through his emerging sexuality. But the emphasis is on the three women in his life — his mother (Annette Bening) and the two intriguing young women who essentially live with them (Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig). Using narration, archival footage, and special effects, the movie has a distinct look that separates it from this talented field. But it is the carefully crafted writing that stands out, allowing the characters to breath. In one scene, Jamie tries to connect with his mother by reading a book passage about older women and sexuality, and she pointedly asks him if that’s how he sees her. It’s awkward for both — a telling moment when a child tries connecting on an adult level with his parent. This film evokes all the emotions of being a woman, particularly a woman in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it’s a theme that resonates loudly in a nation where millions of women took to the streets after President Trump’s inauguration. That might count for something when the ballots are marked.