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Same Kind of Different as Me

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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If We Picked the Winners 2014: Best Original Screenplay

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Nell Minow makes the case for the best original screenplay of 2013: "Her" by Spike Jonze. Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choice for Best Picture on Friday. Click here for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor.

Most of the conversation about "Her" has focused on the way it grapples with the unprecedented shifts technology has brought to our most intimate relationships. It is set slightly in the future, with the skyline of present-day Shanghai standing in for future Los Angeles.


Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer who ghostwrites faked hand-written letters for family members and couples in love to exchange as a vestigial reminder of a form of communication that no longer exists. About to be divorced, Theodore’s loneliness is echoed in the chasm between the tender emotions he conveys for others and the absence of any connection in his own life. When an artificial intelligence operating system with the warm, inviting voice ofScarlett Johansson appears in his computer, introducing herself as Samantha, it–or is it "she"?–gives him the courage to open up to a relationship.

But Samantha is a transition object, not a romance. And this story is anchored in a long-established literary tradition, going back to the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with the statue he created. What is most captivating about the screenplay is less the way Jonze updates the setting than his perceptive and illuminating take on themes we have seen not just in George Bernard Shaw’s updated version (also called "Pygmalion") and its musical adaptation, "My Fair Lady," but also recent films like "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Ruby Sparks." In all of these, the initial, immature response is to love the un-real person who is literally created by the lead character. But Jonze makes it clear that Samantha is just a bridge to accepting the risks of true intimacy with a real, complicated, human being. Theodore will not be the sole focus of a real woman's interest and determiner of her characteristics. But relinquishing that control opens him up to allow himself to be loved by someone whose affections mean something because she has a choice. Jonze does not think or want us to think that there is real, mature love between a person and an operating system (even one which was, of course, programmed by people, whose personalities and even voice are reflected or filtered through Samantha). That is why it is so important and so satisfying that he reaches out to another human for the happy ending. Jonze leaves us with the possibility that the “Her” in the title just might refer to the flesh-and-blood character played by Amy Adams.  

Click here for our winner for Best Adapted Screenplay and come back tomorrow for Best Documentary and Best Director.

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