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Before the Gold: Best Adapted Screenplay

This month we’re taking a look at this year’s Oscar nominees and digging into their past work to find hidden gems that you may have overlooked, or specific credits that may have influenced their Oscar-nominated work this year.

The nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay run the gamut from indie filmmakers graduating to mainstream exposure, to comedy teams attempting to reinvent a classic character, to playwrights adapting their own work for the screen. Only 5 of the 13 writers listed in this year’s lineup have previous nominations, 4 of which are for the same film. As with many categories this year, the Academy showed a willingness to highlight new voices, which often makes for a far more interesting race than one comprised of familiar faces. We’ll look at one nominee (or group of nominees, if they’ve collaborated before) for each film:

Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer

Nominated for: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Previous Nominations: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006, shared with Todd Phillips)

Hidden gem: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006, story co-written by Todd Phillips)

Granted, it’s more than a little obvious to recommend the original when its sequel has been nominated, but it’s worth remembering just how groundbreaking the original Borat was when it premiered 15 years ago. The mockumentary/found footage subgenre was still a few years from wearing out its welcome, and the Borat character who originated in Da Ali G Show was obscure enough to not be immediately recognized as fictional (an issue the sequel then has to deal with), while maintaining a sweet, naïve innocence that allows all manner of racial slurs and politically incorrect statements to casually leak out, forcing the wide range of mostly real people to expose a bit about themselves when it comes to their reactions. The new film is not just a continuation of the story of this hapless Kazakhstani reporter, but a continuation of the story of America through the eyes of a foreigner, and going back to the original film, it’s both illuminating and horrifying to see how many seeds of today’s political turmoil were already growing.

Recommended viewing for other nominees from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm:

Dan Swimer, Lee Kern: Who Is America? (2018, 7 episodes)

Erica Rivinoja: The Last Man on Earth (2015-2017, 3 episodes)

Jena Friedman: Joy of Quarantine (2020)

Chloé Zhao

Nominated for: Nomadland

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: The Rider (2017)

In just a few short years, Chloé Zhao has gone from a respected name on the indie festival circuit, to a presumed Oscar frontrunner who’s already graduated to directing a new entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Eternals, which is currently set for release in November). That’s quite the meteoric rise, and while Nomadland is more than worthy of the praise it’s already seen from various critical and industry award groups, the DNA of that film’s success can be traced back to her previous film, a criminally underseen drama called The Rider. Both films are emotional tone poems exploring very particular niches of Americana, in this case the world of modern cowboys and rodeo riders. In both films, the focus is on someone who in many ways defines themselves and ground their identities in these subcultures, and what happens when that sense of identity is challenged or even shattered, as it is here. A beautiful slow burn of a character study that is well worth the investment.

Kemp Powers

Nominated for: One Night in Miami

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: Soul (2020, co-written by Pete Doctor and Mike Jones)

I know, I know. This gem is so hidden, it came out the same year and is nominated in several other categories. That’s what happens when the nominee in question is a playwright relatively early in their Hollywood career. That said, the authenticity and specificity on display in the screenplay for Pixar’s Soul cannot be understated, as it’s a big part of what gives the film its unique identity and prevents it from feeling like a rehash of the studio’s other recent hits (Inside Out and Coco both come to mind). While there’s plenty of fantastical elements that drive the story here, it’s the relatable exploration of what gives our lives meaning, as depicted through a music teacher who wants nothing more than to become a jazz pianist. That sense of passion and hunger for all the world has to offer is palpable throughout the film, and even if it’s not among Pixar’s best, it’s still a slice of emotionally mature storytelling that’s absolutely worth a look for viewers of all ages.

Christopher Hampton

Nominated for: The Father (shared with Florian Zeller)

Previous nominations: Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Winner), Atonement (2007)

Hidden gem: Atonement (2007)

In many ways, Atonement represents a pivotal turning point in the collective taste of the Academy. Had it been released just a few years earlier, this is the kind of film that would have absolutely dominated the awards race, and the 7 nominations it racked up (including one for Christopher Hampton’s screenplay) indicates that there was certainly some love for this classic doomed romance set against the backdrop of World War II. Yet the times, they were a-changing, and the film only went home with a single trophy for Best Original Score. A pity, because there’s a lot to admire about this love story told through the eyes of a precocious child who doesn’t realize the damage she causes her sister and an innocent man until years later. Top-tier performances from James McAvoy (before his own rise to stardom), a never-better Keira Knightley, and a very young Saoirse Ronan (who received her first of many nominations here) help elevate a sweeping epic that plays with storytelling conventions in ways both clever and devastating.

Recommended viewing for other nominees from The Father:

Florian Zeller: Do Not Disturb (2014)

Ramin Bahrani

Nominated for: The White Tiger

Previous nominations: None

Hidden gem: 99 Homes (2014, co-written by Amir Naderi, story co-written by Bahareh Azimi)

Ramin Bahrani has been working diligently in short films and smaller features for two decades now, and while The White Tiger may not be his strongest film, it has at least resulted in him receiving his first Oscar nomination. I could have easily gone with one of his indie gems, like Goodbye Solo or At Any Price, or even his somewhat divisive adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 for HBO. But my personal favorite of his works is the still-timely housing market drama 99 Homes. As will all of Bahrani’s work, the film is deeply rooted in character, and it tracks a man who reluctantly goes to work for a slimy realtor in a bid to support his family and stave off the foreclosure of their home. The moral quagmire is richly brought to life both in the script and in the performances of Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon, whose antagonistic chemistry fuels much of the film. Even if it doesn’t quite come together in the end, this is still a riveting piece of cinema from a creator that you would do well to keep an eye on.

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Written by Myles Hughes

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