It’s time for my best-written movies of the year list. Once again, it’s been a surprisingly good year. There was a time when I’d only have two or three locks to make my list, and I would have to fill out the other spots with decent-but-flawed choices. In 2012 things were different. Looking back, at least seven of the movies that made my 2012 list were really excellent screenplays. This year, I’m having a hard time limiting myself to only ten films! (I don’t know that I’ll feel the same way about these movies a year from now… we’ll see.)
One interesting thing I notice is that this year original screenplays were by far the strongest, with only a few quality adapted screenplays. And as usual, the director of many of these was involved in the writing – indicating, I believe, less the literary skills of directors than the value of having the writer in a position of power on set.
Now for 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 (the movie I haven’t seen yet that's most likely to have made this list this year is 12 Years a Slave). And remember, this is my list… if you don’t like it you can make your own!
1. Her (written by Spike Jonze) – Funny, moving and thought provoking. This is a great example of a film that entertains and says something interesting and important about our culture in the moment. It’s a romantic comedy and a sci-fi drama and a character study and a meditation on both the nature of love and the nature of personhood. And it is full of surprises. Stunning.
2. Before Midnight (written by Richard Linklater & Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke based on characters created by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan) – If you haven’t seen the “Before” trilogy, do yourself a favor and watch them all. This third one is the best of the bunch. The characters are so fully realized you almost can’t believe Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke aren’t a couple in real life. This is a film that lives completely on dialogue (there are literally only about six scenes) but is still very filmic. All by itself this is a great script, but in context of the trilogy it is an amazing examination of a complicated romantic relationship over two decades.
3. Enough Said (written by Nicole Holofcener) – Another winner from Holofcener. These characters feel like people you could know, assuming you know witty and interesting people. Funny, romantic, charming. The conflicts are the kind of real conflicts people have in relationships. Even the one slightly contrived plot point goes down easy with these characters.
4. Mud (written by Jeff Nichols) – This is a wonderfully entertaining movie with great characters and a strong narrative. Essentially a coming-of-age story wrapped in a small town adventure, it tells of a boy’s disillusionment about the purity of love. I really liked how they (mostly) kept it from the kids' perspective, so the conflicts between the adults are confusing and incomplete in a way that really captured the experience of childhood. Might have been number one, except I was annoyed at the few times they “cheated” by breaking away from the kids' point of view, and the ending gets just a bit over-the-top.
5. Frozen (story by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris, screenplay by Jennifer Lee) – This movie is pure entertainment. The screenplay is full of heart, the characters are as loveable as can be, and it’s packed with humor and emotion. And unlike many movies in this genre, "good guys" and "bad guys" are more shades of grey. It makes it look easy, but movies this enjoyable are never easy.
6. Saving Mr. Banks (written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) – I like this movie because it’s such a unique story – which makes it hard to categorize. It’s a drama, but one with lots of humor and music to go along with the heart. Great character work, too.
7. American Hustle (written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell) – I will admit to being a little disappointed when I watched this, but only because I was expecting so much. The characters are enormous fun and the story a wild snowball of craziness. It has a strong style and point-of-view. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.
8. Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron) – This was actually my favorite movie of the year, but it comes in at number eight because a lot of what made it so great was the beautiful imagery and the filmic suspense created through editing and sound. Still, that all starts with the screenplay – particularly in a case like this where everything had to be so meticulously planned. The plotting and character development are very well done. Occasionally, though, particularly early on, the dialogue becomes overly expository.
9. Dallas Buyers Club (screenplay by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack) – Just because a screenplay is based on real people doesn’t mean it’s easy to bring characters to such multi-dimensional life as this one does. Perhaps a little past social relevance because of the long struggle to get it made, this is still a very entertaining and touching film.
10. Labor Day (screenplay by Jason Reitman) – Relatable, flawed characters in an intensely dramatic situation. It has heart and is full of surprises.
As I mentioned, there were many other candidates for inclusion. I could give honorable mentions to the excellent craftsmanship of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, World War Z and 42. Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis both feature really good characters and dialogue in stories that are perhaps a bit too slight. Captain Phillips was slow to get started but finished with a bang. And This Is the End was wildly inventive and hilarious – it deserves credit for doing dumb comedy exceedingly well.
I had a fair number of candidates for worst screenplay – and I didn’t even see The Lone Ranger or After Earth. But for 2013’s Worst Screenplay of the Year, I will pick Man of Steel. The movie tried to reinvent Superman in a darker, grittier vein. I question that decision, but that’s not why the screenplay was so bad. The real flaws were the inconsistent characters, complete lack of any sense of humor, some cringe-worthy dialogue, and the soul-killing casualness toward death and destruction. And it all culminated in one of the most ill advised kisses in movie history between Superman and Lois Lane.
But there was so much good in theaters this year, I'd rather focus on the positive.