Thursday, January 5, 2012

Best Written Films of 2011

It’s time for my annual “Best Written Movies” top 10 list. If you ask a group of screenwriters in any given year, they’ll generally say it was the worst year for movies in history. Screenwriters seem to love to be hypercritical. Of course, years later they may look back on that same year as a high water mark.

I try not to fall into that trap. That said, this seemed to be a pretty weak year for screenwriting. There are a bunch of movies that were enjoyable, but few that really wowed me. For the most part it seemed like we had to choose between interesting stories or quality craft – rarely were both found in the same film. Looking back at last year’s list, probably only two or three of this year’s movies would have cracked it. Still, I was able to come up with ten movies with reasonably good writing.

I have to give my usual disclaimers: This is the list of what I think are the best written movies, which is not the same as the movies I liked the best. Also, though I watch a lot of movies, I haven’t seen everything. So obviously if I didn’t see something it’s not on this list. And remember, this is my list… if you don’t like it you can make your own!

1. The Descendents (screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) – Alexander Payne has the amazing ability to take subject matter that sounds dreary and bring out the humor and joy of life. His strength is charming, complex characters who feel completely real. The Descendents was an excellent, emotionally moving, thoroughly enjoyable movie.

2. The Adventures of Tintin (screenplay by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish) – The one word review of this film: fun. It’s the most fun movie of the year and Spielberg’s most fun since Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not flawless – Tintin is pretty one dimensional, though Snowy and Captain Haddock compensate (in fact, it’s really more Haddock’s story than Tintin’s). And the set-up over relies on coincidences. But you’ll barely notice those problems because the imaginative set pieces and humor are so much fun.

3. Crazy, Stupid, Love (written by Dan Fogelman) – This is a surprisingly smart romantic comedy with complex characters, really funny character based humor, and great dialogue. And, it has the courage to be true to where the story wants to go. For example, the movie sticks with one subplot scene for an unusually long time because the interplay between the characters is interesting and important to the overall story. I wonder how many executives gave notes to shorten that scene? Both lighthearted and grown up – a rare combination.

4. The Help (screenplay by Tate Taylor) – I have to admit, this is a kind of movie I generally don’t like. But it really is fantastically executed. Again, dimensional characters help a lot. And they wisely found the subtle complexity hiding in the obvious social message. Southern racists are easy villains… much more interesting to show the shades of grey, the occasionally fine line between right and wrong, and the frailty that motivates prejudice. The characters, plot, dialogue and scenes are all top notch. And it also has a lot of humor – the spoonful of sugar to help the message go down.

5. Hugo (written by John Logan) – This movie is charming and imaginative. It is perhaps a little bloated, but most of what it’s bloated with is stuff I love, so I have a hard time complaining. There’s an extended pitch for film preservation, for example, that I can imagine might bore people who are not that into film history. And there is one chase scene that feels tacked on simply because we hadn’t had much action for a while. Overall, though, it’s a well-crafted story with lots of original scenes and a fair amount of emotional oomph.

6. Super 8 (written by J.J. Abrams) – Best first half of a movie of the year. Unfortunately the second half is a bit of a letdown. The strength is the young characters, who are both likeable and complex. And the concept is fantastic, especially the part about the kids making a zombie movie. I got the sense this was not just inspired by early Spielberg, as Abrams has said, but also from his own childhood. Unfortunately when it shifts into action/monster movie gear, it feels much less original and alive.

7. Midnight in Paris (written by Woody Allen) – Look, Woody can write witty dialogue. We know that by now. And his plots always make sense. Some of his movies sparkle, some less so. This one sparkles. But it’s also pretty lightweight (and a bit smug sometimes). Enjoyable but not vital.

8. Captain America (screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) – The best superhero movie of the year, and not exactly an easy character to pull off in this day and age. But Markus and McFeely overcome the challenges. There’s enough going on emotionally and thematically to make us care and the set pieces are well done. The biggest problems are that the Red Skull is not a very interesting villain and the climatic battle is the least exciting in the film. But it’s still a solid summer popcorn pic.

9. Drive (written by Hossein Amini) – The story is not particularly original, but it stands above the average indie thriller by avoiding many of the usual clichés, especially with the minor characters, and by giving the action scenes a strong sense of reality.

10. Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) – This one troubles me. It would have been much higher if I’d just seen it in the theater where I found it fresh and funny. But I watched it again on DVD and (having already heard the jokes) noticed that the plot logic is shaky and some of the characters are rather thin. It points up a truth about comedy: laughter can hide many sins. It also reminds me that the experience of watching a movie – in a crowded theater or on TV at home – affects your perception. So is it a great script? No, not really. But it is fresh and there’s something interesting and a little dangerous about the Annie character that I admire. So it makes the list, barely. (I also want to note that I certainly appreciate the impact the movie has had on the business by proving that women can do R rated comedy. And I really hope that Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo write a lot more movies. I just hope all of them are better than Bridesmaids.)

Honorable Mention: The Future (written by Miranda July) – this is the most original movie I saw this year. And it’s funny and charming and interesting. It’s also unevenly paced and some of the scenes fall painfully flat. With Miranda July, you get her unique mind spilled out on screen and you have to take the good with the bad. So in a way this might be the best script of the year, but in another way it doesn’t crack my top ten. What are you gonna do… we’re talking about art.

And finally, my Worst Written Movie of the Year: Bad Teacher (written by Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg) – Bad on every level. First of all, nothing the characters do makes any sense. From the trailer you might think Cameron Diaz’s Elizabeth wants a boob job because she thinks it will get her Justin Timberlake’s Scott. But in fact she decides she wants the boob job before she even meets him because her fiancée dumps her. His reason for dumping her? She’s a gold-digger. So how is getting a boob job going to solve that problem? And she actually succeeds in seducing Scott half way through the movie yet still wants the boob job for reasons never explained. It’s all just horribly contrived because, well, I guess boobs are supposed to be funny.

But it gets worse. Virtually every scene fails to live up to its promise. When Elizabeth agrees to go to a students’ house for Christmas dinner (why?) we expect a hilarious comic set piece. Instead we get a tedious scene free of jokes that leaves us wondering why it’s even in the movie. What’s really tragic is there’s a great movie lurking in here somewhere. The premise is fantastic and Diaz is perfectly cast. Unfortunately none of that matters when the writing is so bad.

So there you have it… let’s hope for a better year in 2012.

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