Acting's for lightweights, anyway. The real creative process happens behind the scenes. These are the people that make the movie. These are the writers and directors.
Incidentally, these three categories are the most maddening of any (save the technical categories). Sometimes they take ugly turns: Jason Reitman's Best Director nomination for Juno despite the fact that he actually did very little for that movie, for example. Worse even is how glorified the directors' race has become compared to the undervalued, unappreciated screenplay races. (Yes, I'm biased, but I'd like to think my humanistic side would be offended at the uneven appreciation of work even if I was a director instead of a writer. Probably not.)
At any rate, the Best Director race is usually a strong indicator of the Best Picture race. Usually. With ten nominees, there's little chance that a Best Picture candidate's director won't also be nominated for Best Picture, so go ahead and throw that theory out the window. Also throw out all your predispositions that the Best Director field is only for stodgy old white men: this year is changing that (thank God). As I've mentioned, the Best Original Screenplay category is my Achilles' Heel, while I can usually get the Best Adapted Screenplay category right-on. All that said, let's take a look at the guys and gals vying for Academy voters' hearts from behind the scenes.
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Lee Daniels, Precious
Hit or Miss! Lone Scherfig, An Education
This is the newly-announced Directors' Guild of America lineup, and it looks like our lineup for the Oscars as well.
Bigelow is poised to become the fourth woman nominated for this honor and the first to win, and if there's any justice in this world, that's exactly what will happen. Her direction is what made The Hurt Locker the awards contender it is. Yes, the ensemble was impressive, and yes, the script was strong, but make no mistake: Bigelow's eagle eye for making less than fifty days on a bomb squad during the Iraq War a story for the ages is what really put it over the top.
Cameron, a former winner here for Titanic (and, ironically, ex-husband of Bigelow), is his former wife's greatest competition. He's surely an innovative and impressive filmmaker, and he has a talent for turning the idea of film on its head, but I have a serious problem with his directorial effort this time around: it's good, but not at the caliber it should have been. The writing was an absolute catastrophe, and there wasn't much plot actually needed. The whole thing reeked of "Hey, look, strange blue monkeys!"-style distraction. Don't you dare criticize the paper-thin plot, because his technological advances and directorial eye were incredible. Yes, indeed they were. But this film has been the product of 12 years worth of labor. He couldn't have gotten together better than a ramshackles for a script? This category may not directly be about writing, but he should've done better in that respect. If he had, who knows what all this movie could have won?
Boys and girls, I worry about Tarantino's health. Yes, he's an incredible director, but what kind of mind could come up with Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds? A sick one, that's what. He should ably score his second nomination in this category this year, but the man's so controversial a win would be even more upsetting than a loss.
I probably undervalue Reitman's shot at a nod: the Academy clearly loves him, after all (see: the aforementioned, arguably undeserved Juno nod). I just can't shake the feeling that Reitman just isn't a good guy (there IS a stack of evidence mounting against him), and being a jerk can really cost not only you but your film in this race. (Hi, David Fincher! How's life been since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tanked against Slumdog Millionaire?) He'll probably still scrape the nod, though he's probably as vulnerable as Daniels is to Clint Eastwood.
I've moved Daniels back onto the shortlist, but that's not saying much for how his chances have gotten better rather than how the others have as a group suffered, no more than Clint Eastwood. For some reason, his film Invictus just isn't setting the world on fire quite as it should have (seriously, could this thing have screamed "INSPIRATION" any louder if it tried?), and as a result, he's suffered. So Daniels is the beneficiary...for now. I still don't feel good about his chances.
What to make of Scherfig? Since Jane Campion's Bright Star fell out of favor with the precursors despite solid reviews, the former Best Director nominee (one of only three women ever) isn't likely to make it back into the big race, so Scherfig is really the only shot at another female in this race. I said long ago that there would be no more than two minority candidates in this race, so if Scherfig makes it in, it's bye-bye, Daniels. Still, he's got no worry from her. This is as hit-or-miss as Hit or Miss! gets, emphasis on the Miss!
Best Original Screenplay
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, (500) Days of Summer
Bob Peterson, Up
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Hit or Miss! Nancy Meyers, It's Complicated
Boal is set. His nomination is as guaranteed as some of the most secure wins. Probably Tarantino, too, but like I said up at director, the man worries me. Neustader and Weber have a very small movie, which could spell trouble, but critical sentiment is with them. If they lose out to anybody, it'll be to Hit and Miss! Meyers, because their movies are both romantic comedies. Peterson and the brothers Coen probably are safe here, but I have some serious concerns with both of their films being a little too niche for this branch. Then again, Pixar has never had problems getting nods in this category, and the Coens were basically born for this category (though their snub for Burn After Reading last year still stings), so we'll see if I'm right to have stayed with this lineup for so long. (Spoiler? District 9's intriguing script.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Damien Paul, Precious
Nick Hornby, An Education
Nora Ephron, Julie & Julia
Anthony Peckham, Invictus
Hit or Miss! Various Authors, In the Loop
The Hit or Miss! pick in this category was a ridiculously small movie (OUT ON DVD, HINT HINT) that had a great script, but I'm afraid the buzz is a little shallow. Otherwise, I feel really good about each of these picks. Reitman and Turner, Paul, Hornby, and Ephron shouldn't really have much trouble, but Peckham might be a victim of Invictus' recent downturn in popular support. We'll see how it turns out, and if I was right to be so confident. Maybe this year, Adapted will be my folly and Original will be my out-of-the-park home run. Anything could happen in these screwball categories.
So there's the new picks. Sorry about the brevity in the screenplay categories: nothing's really changed, and I don't know a lot about the writers, so I didn't have a lot of new perspective. What do you guys think? Any script I overlooked? Will we really see two minority directors in one year? Head to the comments!