Both because of an unprecedented amount of free time and the closure of movie theaters sending more titles to streaming, I was able to watch way more new movies in 2020 than I ever have before. Usually when Oscar time comes around I’ve probably seen between 60% and 70% of the major players. But I’ve seen over 100 movies that came out in 2020, and with a lot of preliminary Oscar pre-cursors and some buzz, I think I’m up over 90% this year. So I wanted to actually make my Oscar picks — not who I think will win but who would definitely win if I was the only person voting.
I thought there were a ton of great options for this category this year. In addition to my five picks, my preliminary list also included Cooper Raiff’s Shithouse, Darius and Abraham Marder’s Sound of Metal, and Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons’ Mangrove.
5. Most Pixar scripts are great; they are given the proper time to truly take their shape and incubate with the writers because the nature of animation means that they basically need the script locked before they start animating. The original screenplay by Pete Docter, Mike Jones, and Kemp Powers for Soul is another in this tradition. The casting of Tina Fey as an unborn soul who at one point inhabits the earthly body of a black man may raise some eyebrows, and justifiably so, but that is a meta-textual issue based on our own knowledge of who Fey is, not a diegetic fault of the movie, and certainly not present in the film’s screenplay. Soul is hyper-focused on its goal without ever really tipping its hand. Almost every single scene is pushing forward the larger themes of the movie, and while those themes (and even its surface subjects) do not seem accessible to Pixar’s usual age demographic, they hit me exactly as hard as they wanted to.
4. Rarely does comparing two movies directly make me change my mind about either of them, but watching Steve McQueen’s second Small Axe installment, Mangrove, after seeing Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 made me turn on the latter just a bit. The two films are about such similar stories — small groups of protest leaders on trial at the end of the 1960s who are treated unfairly by both law enforcement and the judicial system — but somehow find a way to be about different things at their core. Chicago 7 is about searching for the best ways to protest and the best approach to social change, something that Sorkin and the large majority of his characters, as white men, have somewhat of a luxury to debate. Mangrove is about oppression and survival. So why did I pick Sorkin’s screenplay over McQueen’s? Mangrove is a beautiful movie, but so much of it is about the visuals and the performances and while it’s incredibly well-written, it’s counterpart in this case is over-written, which appeals to me when it works. Chicago 7 has all kinds of Sorkinesque tap dance-style dialogue and a sort of unconventional structure. The writing is just so much more apparent when you’re watching it, which should be a negative, but in this case, just clicked for me.
3. If your time-loop movie isn’t well-written, it’s going to completely fail. Everything about these Groundhog Day-style scripts that have become even more popular in the last decade — Happy Death Day and it’s sequel, Before I Fall, Edge of Tomorrow — relies on the script to really sell the premise. There’s so much in what you decide to show and decide not to that can help tell the story, and if things don’t come together by the end, everything just truly falls apart. Andy Siara and Max Barbakow’s script for Palm Springs does all of those things. It smartly begins with one character already mid-loop, and by making it the true romcom that Groundhog Day was never meant to be, is able to find new ground within the genre.
2. The premise of Evan Morgan’s The Kid Detective is a fun idea on it’s own — an Encyclopedia Brown/Nancy Drew-type precocious child detective is struck by a suddenly very real and very adult crime that he can’t solve. Now, in his 30s, he’s both haunted by the case and stuck working the same small-time missing cat cases he was when he was 12. But The Kid Detective, thanks in large part to its taut script, turns its clever premise into a great movie. Every detail matters, nothing is left hanging, and the story completes itself satisfyingly on both a narrative level and an emotional level without ever feeling easy or pat.
1. Promising Young Woman, both written and directed by Emerald Fennell, takes a well-worn and very tricky genre — the rape revenge film — and makes it feel completely modern and completely essential. A huge part of that success is the script, which feels sharp while leaving room to also feel casual and charming when it needs to, as a former “promising young woman” floats through her early adult years affected by the trauma of something that happened while she was in college, exacting small acts of revenge and intimidation on predatory, self-proclaimed “nice guys” before finally decided to go for the big one and face her trauma headfirst. Given its place within an existing genre with a rather specific narrative structure, it’s also able to surprise throughout while staking out something new and specific to say.
This is always such an interesting category to me because as a movie’s audience, we are supposed to judge what’s in front of us and not the extraneous details of the movie’s production and meta-text. Without prior knowledge or research, we can watch a movie and not be able to tell whether a screenplay is original or adapted. And one step further, if we haven’t engaged with the original text, we have no idea how well-adapted a film is from that text. It can feel odd to praise a script that may have been largely copy-and-pasted, but I do prefer to take the route of thinking of this award as the best screenplay that’s been adapted from another work, rather than the one that did the best job adapting another work.
5. I’m pretty sure this is the only movie based on something that I have read before that came out this year (not counting sequels/remakes that are “based” on the originals), but it’s been over a decade since I’ve read Jane Austen’s Emma. [Edit: Oh, I also read the Artemis Fowl books as a child, which I guess that technically counts as a movie, too.] It’s no Clueless, but Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. with a script by Eleanor Catton is a lively movie drawing from something that’s already been adapted multiple times and needs to try and avoid simply re-doing those versions.
4. It’s easy to spot Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s origins as a stage production in George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation for Netflix. Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts from an original script by the legendary August Wilson and, I think, smartly makes the decision not to add too much of a cinematic flourish. They’re easy to spot because the movie makes no attempt to hide them. We are not forced to endure any unnecessary scenes added in just to take advantage of the things the new medium can do that the old one can’t. Everything is in its place, and when the movie does stray from the main locations, it works to supplement and deepen the story.
3. Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow once again finds her collaborating with author and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, this time adapting his novel The Half Life. While it can feel like the performances of John Magaro and Orion Lee and Reichardt’s direction are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, there’s a subtleness to the script that helps the film succeed without ever making itself front and center.
2. The most inaccessible movie of the year is I’m Thinking of Ending Things, adapted by director Charlie Kaufman from a novel by Iain Reid. That impenetrability is largely thanks to the script, which delves inside the mind of its lead, making thoughts and memories off-puttingly tactile. But the script is also making no effort to let the viewer in and remains compelling to watch anyway. There are so many ideas and little tics to grab onto, making the movie feel like it will reward multiple viewings. Compared to another 2020 script that doesn’t bother letting us in like Tenet, it feels successful at everything it’s trying to do, including making me feel like I had something to understand even when I might not have understood it.
1. Like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Regina King’s One Night in Miami, adapted by Kemp Powers from his own play, has no qualms about feeling like a stage-play. The story follows four of the most famous black men of their time — Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown — through a fictional night in Miami, as they get together to celebrate Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston and discuss politics, religion, and civil rights. While the idea of movies with very limited settings can feel exciting, oftentimes the actual execution proves why it’s so difficult to pull off. While One Night in Miami isn’t as purely bottled as other movies that use minimal locations as a gimmick, the strength of it’s writing is such that it almost feels like it could be.