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The mystery of the Oscars: How do you really vote for a script?

There are no real ethical guidelines in the judging process. But maybe you don't need anything stronger than your gut.

To state the obvious: Good writing is in a movie's bones. You don't always need to read something to know it's there. A great one is its own work of literature.

This is a story about the screenwriting Oscars and who'll probably lose them. But in order to tell it, let's go back to the 1983 Oscars, when the five original screenplay nominees were Diner, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Gandhi, An Officer And A Gentleman and Tootsie.

Even with no Personal Best, Smash Palace or Shoot the Moon: a good year! Although, I'd have no problem boiling the five down to E.T. and Tootsie, and I'm not going to choose between them, because I don't have to. (OK, fine. Tootsie.) And yet, John Briley won for "Gandhi." But how did anybody know thatwas the best screenplay? Who read it?

This is the central vexation of the original and adapted screenplay categories - along with the general moral confusion of the Oscars. (How does a person - a good person - vote for the script about the thing from outer space instead of the love letter to one of John Lennon's heroes?)

But it's also a real evaluative mystery. How do you know good writing that, as a moviegoer, you can't see and, as Academy voters, you're not obligated to read? (Consenting members can receive eligible screenplays and watch as they turn into furniture.)

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A scrupulous, perhaps even conscientious, nonvoter might track down copies of the options. (Now, the Internet makes that a cinch.) And then what would you have? The pages used to shoot the movie? Or a final version based on the movie everybody saw? Given what all happens to a film between a draft and a premiere, the shooting script (dialogue, descriptions of action, spaces, clothes, shots) might better be appreciated as a wish list - or a memoir. And the published thing based on the finished, edited, marketed movie? That's really a transcript.

An Oscar voter in 2020, choosing among the movies of 2019, needs to be discerning in some other way, probably in the most predictable way. Basically, we have in the judging process no real ethical guidelines. And yet maybe you don't need anything stronger than your gut.

To state the obvious: Good writing is in a movie's bones. You don't always need to read something to know it's there. A great one is its own work of literature. But movies win for all kinds of reasons besides great writing: consolation, sheer verbiage, momentum.

So: How well written does the movie feel? In that sense, Parasite feels perfect. It's a con-artist film - poor family connives its way into jobs serving a younger, wealthy quartet - and the con rides an elevator from comically to tragically desperate. This is writing that has to work mechanically enough to earn the "trap" in "contraption". The family also needs to seem trapped not only as impostors but, more crucially, as indigents. Acting can get this done.

But the writing - by director Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han - knows that being a great contraption isn't enough. The minute the kids figure out how to get their dad on the payroll, you know the writing wants to do the impossible. I kept laughing at the nerve in this script. Parasite is so obvious, so literal and, yet, to quote more than one of its characters, "so metaphorical" that nobody else, not even Luis Buñuel, has flung class-divide moviemaking this far past farce and disaster into heartbroken reality check. Some contraption-minded scripts would have been happy to argue that life is a game. This one is sadder than that. It argues for life as life.

Does anyone remember that The Nightingale by Jennifer Kent came out this year? Only a few months ago! It's as well directed as any movie currently drowning in prizes - more brutal than The Irishman, angrier than Parasite, filthier than the doings at the Spahn Ranch in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.

But Kent's sense of cinema here springs from the literary rage of her screenwriting. A godawful rape and murder put a young Irish convict on a revenge odyssey through the Australian wilderness. What could have been a revisionist slog opens into a more ambitiously ambivalent buddy movie. The film's protagonist all but kidnaps a young, dark-skinned, indigenous man to guide her and becomes too dependent on his skill for her racism to deter their trip. The story keeps these two mad people on a parallel track with her maniac attacker, a British soldier, until they all wind up, armed, in the same town - a sour, revisionist Western.

Blunt realism

I don't need to feel as though I'm reading while watching a movie. But Kent is a writer whose movies feel sprung from grim page-turners. The Babadook is hers, too. This is a bigger, less metaphorical achievement. The monsters are real. So is the history. But it doesn't flatter anybody, so it's more convenient, I suppose, to ignore. Hers is the kind of blunt historical realism that scares an Oscar voter into more Gandhi and more Green Book.

Folks love original screenplays in which the characters do a lot of good talking. And good talking is how you can tell somebody wrote something. Marriage Story doesn't have the plot wrinkles and hard left turns of some of Noah Baumbach's last few movies. But it's also got some of the best cross-talking anybody's done, movie-wise, in years - between the divorcing couple, sure, but especially among their attorneys, who understand in their competing way that ugly is the only way to win. Anytime the wife's lawyer (Laura Dern) speaks, in humblebrags and an electric feminist rant, I think she should actually thank the Academy on Baumbach's behalf.

Quentin Tarantino actually has thanked it. Twice. People love the paragraphs of dialogue he puts in characters' mouths. The writing in Once Upon a Time... has paragraphs of all sorts - digression, voice-over, description. But they're shorter, purposeful. The script re-creates a particular style of so-so entertainment that enters the memory raw and, over time, scabs into nostalgia. I love his fidelity to the fairy tale of the title. It lets him situate the outrageousness of the finale somewhere between four-alarm and false alarm. The high point, of course, is the dialogue between a child actor (Julia Butters) and her man-child co-star (Leonardo DiCaprio) that's about writing, reading and recitation, about the intoxicants of pulp storytelling. In other words, about the pungent pleasure of the Tarantino experience.

Good original scripts are piled pretty high this year. With Us, Jordan Peele boldly didn't go for the same social satire of Get Out; this movie is stranger and more oblique, and its gothic-horror ambiguities probably read less like The Twilight Zone and more like Edgar Allan Poe. Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir - speaking of gothic, here's a sneaky piece of writing, about a film student and her seemingly posh older boyfriend, that's elliptical, almost diaristic. A single question, tossed off at a dinner, shatters the romantic mystery into tragic bits.

Trey Edward Shults' Waves is another tragedy where the writing feels remembered; it's full of regular teenagers whose speech is neither too truculent nor exalted but vividly common; people speak less in the second half and Shults' powers of descriptive observation take over. The script for Booksmart is credited to four people - Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman - and bravo to whoever decided to stage the big fight between its two bestie protagonists at a public event where the surrounding party people only gradually realise the fight's for real.

Can we go back to the 1983 Academy Awards and the other writing category for a minute? The adapted screenplay Oscar went to Missing, a based-on-true-events script by Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart about an American couple trying to find their son who disappeared during the US-backed overthrow of the Chilean government in 1973. It's not a political thriller so much as a tense drama about how American foreign policy wrecked a family - and helped wreck Chile. This is a shrewd screenplay - it uses tragedy to retroactively indict political systems. It knows what it wanted from the book it's based on - a book most people hadn't read.

In other words, an adapted screenplay is even tougher to judge because you're not just "reading", you're reading comparatively, in theory anyway, holding a movie against its source material and subtracting what seems similar from what's different.

In truth, a good adapted script is practically original. Officially, Greta Gerwig's Little Women is the sixth movie of Louisa May Alcott's novel and the best written. Gerwig has conflated the book's two halves in a way that honours the permeable boundary between adolescence and adulthood as a series of impressionistic joys and crises. The Civil War's climes are more explicitly ambient here than in other versions where they're all but nonexistent. And there are images that you can see wafting up from Gerwig's pages, like that breathtaking opening shot of Jo standing in a publisher's door, preparing herself to make a convincing first impression.

What Alcott's novel needed, as a movie, is a filmmaker with her own sensibility (Gerwig is fond of throwaway profundities, wildness, physicality and human strangeness) - somebody who hasn't adapted a beloved book just because it's beloved but because she's found in it something to say.

That, of course, is the thing about Gandhi. It wants to be taken seriously. It wants to be lauded. In Little Women, the whole point is how little the movie needs from us, that it's passionate and bracingly empathetic (to Amy, no less!) but also exhilaratingly independent. That said: It's a perfect, perfectly idiosyncratic screenplay, and the Academy should say so. NYTIMES