WGA Awards: Big Love

5:50 PM PST 02/05/2009 by Jay A. Fernandez, AP

Six scribes gush about their favorite WGA contenders

Saturday night, the tribulation will end for anxious competitors at the Writers Guild of America awards in Los Angeles and New York. We asked six writers who aren't in this year's fray to single out the film and TV writing they most admired in 2008.

David Benioff ("The Kite Runner")

Film: "The Visitor" was the one that really stuck with me. I thought Tom McCarthy did a brilliant job. There's a great patience to his writing, which takes a lot of confidence because you have to believe in the story and characters, so you don't need a bunch of flashy scenes. You can tell a story without all the pyrotechnics, and in the end it's going to be meaningful and have an emotional impact. When I heard what the story was about, I worried that it was going to be pedantic or really politically correct, and none of those fears were founded. He avoided all the pitfalls that come with a project like that, and it did not seem didactic at all. It didn't seem like he was preaching, and at the same time it was eminently real. Beyond all that, it's very tough to have a movie protagonist who is a quiet man, and he did it. That's obviously a combination of McCarthy's writing, his direction, and Richard Jenkins' performance.
TV: "Mad Men" is the one show I can't miss. I loved the first season. I think there's a natural fear that when something is so good the first season, they can't keep it going. I remember feeling that with "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" and here again, because even some of the stuff I really loved saw a marked drop-off in subsequent seasons. But "Mad Men" kept it up. Matthew Weiner and his team have managed to keep that story going, and it's never flagged. It's one of the shows I watch where I'm just like, "How the fuck did they do that?" Because they pull off things that I would not believe you could pull off -- scenes I think would be so ridiculous and melodramatic, and they don't seem that way at all. One of the most impressive things is there are probably 10 different characters I would be happy to watch (by themselves for) a whole hour. Even the very minor characters are incredibly compelling.

John Logan ("The Aviator")

Film: For my money, the best screenwriter alive is Eric Roth. "Benjamin Button" was a brilliant screenplay and my favorite of the year.

Thomas Lennon ("Night at the Museum")

Film: "The Wrestler" was beautiful. I don't think I've enjoyed myself more in a movie than when Randy "The Ram" is enjoying working at the deli. That was the most refreshing scene this year.
TV: I'm a die-hard "30 Rock" fan, and the "Cooter" episode made me laugh more wall-to-wall than anything I've seen this year. All the discussion of ballpoint pens, and Matthew Broderick trying to write with (a paper clip) because they don't have pens, was wonderfully funny and a great commentary on the end of the Bush administration. I also thought (Bush giving) him the nickname Burger because he'd seen Broderick eating a hamburger was wonderful -- and then they clarified that he was not actually eating a burger, that he was just eating a regular sandwich. That might have been the best piece of dialogue on television this year. "The Office's" "Crime Aid" (episode was) absolutely brilliant. I loved when Michael told Darryl that his favorite musician was Bruce Springsteen, but I believe all the songs he suggested were by Huey Lewis and the News. He loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn't apparently know any of his music.

John August ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory")

Film: "Slumdog Millionaire" impressed me because it manages to constantly surprise you. (Simon) Beaufoy's ability to send you down one path, turn a sharp corner and still keep you engaged was really impressive. The other shout-out is to Dustin Lance Black for "Milk." The idea of doing a Harvey Milk movie crossed my desk about three times, and I never had a way to do it or the faith that a movie could do him justice. For (Black) to come in with an outsider's perspective and not be so bound to the documentary and all the other expectations about what that movie had to be allowed it to be great.
TV: I watched "True Blood" because I was such a huge fan of "Six Feet Under." And like a lot of people who first came to that show, I was expecting "Six Feet Under," so it took a few episodes to get a feel for Alan Ball's world and how different but amazingly detailed it was. The show got better and better with every episode, and it was one of the only shows on the TiVo that I would stay up late to watch because I was always curious what was going to happen next. To me, it was their willingness to kill off characters, seemingly on a whim, who seemed like they were going to be tremendously important. The show had a very steady hand and consistency of a difficult tone to hit. Yes, it had great performances and was well cast, but the writing was really inventive and allowed you to sympathize with characters who are not particularly endearing on the surface. You could sense that, in the writers' room, it was always a challenge to one-up each other on how to humiliate (the Jason Stackhouse character).

Scott Alexander ("Ed Wood")

TV: I will go the mat for "Mad Men," which is stunningly impressive on all levels at all times. It's so layered, the way it ties in the mores of the era and plays true to the era while commenting on the era. The characters are so rich; I just love every minute of it.

Derek Haas ("Wanted")

Film: "The Dark Knight" was as good a summer movie as you can possibly get. The writing was really crisp and surprising. As far as end-of-year Oscar hopefuls, I thoroughly dug "Slumdog Millionaire." And I grew up in Dallas watching wrestling, so I just loved "The Wrestler." You could see that fate for these guys 20 years ago. It was a great character piece.
TV: The last season of "The Wire" was incredible. Usually when you know the season's going to end, you expect some sort of drop-off as the writers decide they're moving elsewhere. But that show just kept going up and up, and it was the perfect wrap for the season. If you watch those shows carefully, (you can tell) they probably thought they weren't coming back after the third season because they kind of wrapped everything up. But then to bring it back and make us care about all of these disparate characters -- I really enjoyed it.
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