This wasn’t a horrible year for film, but it wasn’t particularly stellar, either. Nothing this year approached the delicate perfection of my favorite script last year: Lars and the Real Girl. And when you consider 2007 also had such interesting and unique screenplays as Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Savages, Juno, and Into the Wild; as well as a few excellent genre films like The Bourne Ultimatum and Knocked Up, this looks like a pretty mild year in comparison.
Note that what follows are not necessarily my favorite films of 2008, although there is a lot of overlap. These are the movies I think are best written. Sometimes the final film doesn’t quite live up to the screenplay and sometimes bravura filmmaking can overcome a flawed script. Also keep in mind that although I see a lot of movies I’m not a professional critic so I don’t see every major release. The candidates are obviously limited to what I’ve seen.
1) Slumdog Millionaire (screenplay by Simon Beaufoy) – a fantastic movie that started with a fantastic script. The premise is an unlikely one for a great movie which just shows how amazing the writing really is. Noteworthy particularly for how it incorporates very dark themes and still manages to feel uplifting. It doesn’t shy away from the reality of life on the streets for kids in India but is far more hopeful than disheartening – which gives this script a high degree of difficulty. The framing structure is also handled well which is not nearly as easy as it looks.
2) Iron Man (screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway) – big summer popcorn movies must be filled with excitement and spectacle and this script certainly delivered on that count. It also had well drawn characters (even the minor characters) and some of the wittiest dialogue in any movie this year. I had a small quibble with the ending (SPOILER: I felt the final fight should have ended after the “icing problem” line but they dragged it on into a fairly clichéd brawl), but otherwise a really excellent script.
3) Milk (written by Dustin Lance Black) – the true story is inherently dramatic and compelling and the treatment was relatively straightforward so this might seem like a low degree of difficulty. But compressing ten years of someone’s life is never easy and the script deftly integrated Milk’s sometimes messy personal life into the main storyline without getting sidetracked. And sometimes the best writing is just quality, straightforward dramatization.
4) The Dark Knight (story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan) (SPOILER) – I loved this movie but the plot is a bit of a mess. The script loses tension two thirds of the way through when they’ve captured the Joker and we don’t yet know about the kidnapping of Harvey Dent and Rachel. It’s held together by spectacular performances and amazing scenes. But though Heath Ledger gets justifiable credit for his amazing performance, remember that his character and dialogue was written. And this is a superhero movie that’s about big, complex ideas of chaos, law, justice, and human nature and morality. As scattershot as it sometimes is, it’s a tremendously compelling screenplay.
5) Zach and Miri Make a Porno (written by Kevin Smith) – Kevin Smith remains a frustrating director but a fantastic screenwriter. Here he doesn’t shy away from the raunchy humor virtually demanded by his premise, but he manages to still make a sweet romantic comedy because he clearly loves his characters despite their many flaws…and so do we. And there are genuine laugh out loud jokes. Also interesting, this was a movie that feels up-to-the-minute in terms of the characters’ use of culture, technology and language. You really sense that Smith is basing his writing on observations of people in the real world rather than other movies. Surprisingly, given the outrageousness of the story, Zach and Miri may be the most authentic contemporary characters of the year.
6) The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) – I liked this movie and the screenplay is well structured and subtle with rich, real characters and genuine emotion. It also has important stuff to say and some really touching romantic elements. Something left me a little cold though and I can’t quite figure out what it was.
7) Cloverfield (written by Drew Goddard) – Though it drags a bit in the beginning, this is a tight, scary screenplay that milks the central conceit for all it’s worth. The characterizations and dialogue are also quite strong. The shaky camerawork means the movie won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but the script is interesting and well crafted.
8) The Wrestler (written by Robert D. Siegel) – Again Mickey Rourke deserves his kudos, but we must remember this compelling character started in the screenplay. Unfortunately, too much else about the script is cliché. Really, did the love interest have to be a stripper? And the estranged daughter storyline is well trod ground. The movie ends up being very good, though the script benefits a lot from the filmmaking and performances.
9) Forgetting Sarah Marshall (written by Jason Segel) – This may be a sign of what kind of year it’s been when this movie makes my list. Not that it’s bad, it’s just not that spectacular. But it’s tightly plotted, funny, and has enough interesting things in it to rise above the typical romantic comedy.
10) The Reader (screenplay by David Hare) – It takes a while to get to the point and the filmmaking is a little pretentious for my taste (not the screenwriter's fault), but this is a movie about complex, challenging ideas and characters that you don't see on screen very often. A worthy if flawed script.
Near Miss: Changeling (written by J. Michael Straczynski). The story definitely haunted me and the writing is mostly quite good. The big problem for me was the ending. In an attempt to stay true to the chronology, the film gets muddled at the end. I think they would have been better served to reorganize events to end the movie with the trial/council hearing scenes which would have had a better sense of finality while not violating any of the bigger truths of the history.
For whatever it’s worth: Number of my top 10 with one credited screenwriter: 8. Number written by the film’s director: 3 (Dark Knight is co-written by Nolan)
And for Worst Movie of 2008: Jumper
Now, I didn’t see a lot of the allegedly spectacularly bad 2008 movies like 10,000 BC and The Love Guru, but Jumper was definitely a big mess. It’s a solid potential premise but the movie just makes no sense and has a spectacularly anti-climactic ending for a supposed action movie.
And a special award for “Questionable Plot Device in an Otherwise Watchable Movie”: The magic loom in Wanted. A magic loom. Really?
Here's looking forward to 2009!