It’s time for my best written movies of the year list. Sorting through the choices, a couple of things stand out. First of all, this was really a pretty strong year for screenwriting – particularly when compared to last year. I think only The Descendents (screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) from last year would definitely have made my top ten this year.
Second, there don’t appear to be any movies that are candidates for classic status – films that will be lauded and referenced in years to come (possibly excepting The Avengers, but that would be because of its unique role in tying together Marvell’s multi-franchise film world approach. On it’s own terms it’s just an above-average team adventure movie).
However, the bench on quality is deep this year. Normally there’s a big drop from my number five to my number ten film, but this year the gap between five and fifteen is minimal. So lots of worthy entertainment for your ticket dollar, but not much that was genuinely life changing.
Anyway, on with the list! 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 (also feel free to comment but please be polite)!
1. Argo (written by Chris Terrio) – Tense, edge-of-your-seat suspense plus a healthy dose of humor and rich, efficiently drawn characters. A great ride that also feels moderately important.
2. Django Unchained (written by Quentin Tarantino) – Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction is also one of his most straightforward stories. It has a lot of the best of Tarantino – rich characters, witty dialogue, tense scenes, fun action and style – with very little of the worst – pointless digression and pacing problems. Its terrific fun from a filmmaker with a real voice.
3. Robot & Frank (written by Christopher D. Ford) – Great because of a complex, lovable main character and his complex, lovable robot. Also has some genuine twists and a powerful emotional message… not to mention quite a few laughs!
4. Looper (written by Rian Johnson) – Both a tight sci-fi thriller and thought provoking meditation on good and evil, aging, and the need for human connection. Plus some mind-bending ideas about time and time travel. Engages on the intellectual, emotional and visceral level.
5. Wreck It Ralph (story by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston & Jim Reardon, screenplay by Phil Johnston & Jennifer Lee) – Two of the most charming and tragic characters of the year in Ralph and Vanellope. Plus, tons of humor and sly nostalgic beats for the video game generation.
6. Life of Pi (screenplay by David Magee) – Thoroughly engaging despite a high degree of difficulty (the character is alone in a small space through most of the story). Probably the most spiritually thought provoking movie this year. A little difficult to rank because so much of its power comes from the visuals rather than the script, but there are no big flaws I can see in the writing.
7. Silver Linings Playbook (screenplay by David O. Russell) – A fairly standard romantic comedy structure enlivened by complex and original characters and a powerful thematic undercurrent about mental illness. Takes a little longer than it should to get going, but delivers a great, emotionally satisfying ending. And, it’s pretty funny.
8. Lincoln (screenplay by Tony Kushner) – Another thought provoking film with enough emotional content to keep us engaged. I love the intimate look we’re given of Lincoln the man. Bonus points for high degree of difficulty given the relatively dry nature of how the conflict unfolds.
9. Cloud Atlas (written for the screen by Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski) – This one may surprise some people. I would remind you this is a list of best written movies. The film stumbled from some unfortunate make-up and an unconvincing delivery of the pidgin language, but that was not the screenplay’s fault. The writing craft here is rock solid and thematically ambitious. Characters are well drawn and the action is tense and engaging. An interesting, flawed film, but a really good script.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Behn Zeitlin) – This choice is also a little problematic as I felt the story was stretched a bit to fit a feature running time. But it’s also one of the most distinctive and original films in a year that didn’t have enough that was distinctive and original. Makes the list for its voice and for capturing the specific world of a little girl in an unusual society.
As I mentioned, there were a lot of other very well written films this year that might make this list were I in a different mood when compiling it, so I’m going to list eight Honorable Mentions in no particular order: The Avengers (story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, screenplay by Joss Whedon), Ted (story by Seth MacFarlane, screenplay by Seth MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild), Zero Dark Thirty (written by Mark Boal), The Hunger Games (written by Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray), Skyfall (written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (screenplay by Stephen Chbosky), Celeste and Jesse Forever (screenplay by Rashida Jones & Will McCormack), and Flight (written by John Gatins)
And for my Worst Written Film of the Year: Prometheus (written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) – A bunch of logic holes, one-dimensional characters and pseudo-intellectual claptrap trying to pass itself off as profound.
Dishonorable mention: The Bourne Legacy (story by Tony Gilroy, screenplay by Tony Gilroy & Dan Gilroy) – elevated exposition above action and character in one of the least thrilling thrillers ever.