It’s time for my list of the ten best written movies of 2014! This year feels like a bit of a down year. There were plenty of fine movies, but nothing that really seems like it’s going to become a classic. It was not hard to come up with ten well-written movies, but it was difficult to order them. In other words, the distance between #1 and #10 was not great.
Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. Sometimes a film with a mediocre script will achieve greatness through the contributions of other artists. For example, Whiplash, though it made my list at #10 for the writing, was probably higher over all because of the amazing performance of J.K. Simons and the excellent music. And I probably enjoyed Lucy more than some of these movies on the list, though there were some script problems that kept it out of the top 10.
My usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. I haven’t yet seen Birdman, though I’m anxious to correct that oversight. I also haven’t yet watched American Sniper, which was nominated for a Writers Guild Award so there’s a fair chance it has a good screenplay. I may in the future discover other movies from 2014 that would bump some of my selections off the list.
Also, some movies age better than others, and because many of these are awards season movies, I’ve seen most of them pretty recently. My opinions could cool over time (though looking back at last year’s selections, they all held up pretty well.) And though I’m happy to hear your opinions in the comments, this is my list. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to make your own!
So without further ado, the 10 Best Written Movies of 2014:
1. The Theory of Everything (screenplay by Anthony McCarten) – This was an excellent, moving screenplay about a compelling subject that was tricky for several reasons: we know what happens, it would be easy to wallow in the tragedy of Hawking’s disease, and it would have been easy to lose the audience with the complexity of Hawking’s scientific ideas. The screenplay avoided all these traps. Neither character was overly idealized, I was caught up in the emotion and challenges of the relationship, and Hawking’s brilliance was portrayed in a way that made it accessible without reducing his ideas.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guiness, screenplay by Wes Anderson) – I am not really a fan of Wes Anderson’s writing, but he nailed it here. His characters, as always, were original and indelible. But unlike most of his movies, this one also has a solid plot and real stakes. And the emotions were complex, the happy mixing with the sad in a way that ends up being truly profound – while at the same time ample humor and romance make the film very entertaining to watch.
3. Of Horses and Men (written by Benedikt Erlingsson) – You probably haven’t seen this movie. It’s from Iceland and I only saw it because it was in the LA Film Festival. Arguably it’s not even a 2014 movie – it was released in 2013 in Iceland and hasn’t yet been commercially released in the U.S. But I want to include it because it’s a wonderful movie, full of charm and rich drama, which gives us an insight into a very specific community. It also achieves most of its storytelling visually, with little dialogue. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t tightly scripted. It’s just that this script makes masterful use of the visual aspects of film.
4. The Imitation Game (screenplay by Graham Moore) – This is an excellent story and the writer does a great job drawing these characters and, like with Theory of Everything, dramatizing what is largely a mental process. Kudos, too, for not softening Turing’s rough edges yet making us care about him. The stakes here are huge, both on a personal and global level, and several scenes pack powerful emotional punches. It is only marred by a few clichéd moments.
5. Nightcrawler (written by Dan Gilroy) – This screenplay impresses on many levels. The characters are original and have distinctive voices. The plot is tense with several fantastic twists. And it explores cultural themes in a powerful way without being heavy handed.
6. Edge of Tomorrow (screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth) – Though it’s hard not to think of it as a science fiction Groundhog Day, this is really an excellent movie. It’s tight and taught, and has rich, dimensional, flawed characters. At the beginning of the story Tom Cruise’s character is a coward and Emily Blunt’s character is mean and heartless. And both change believably due to the events of the story. This and the brisk, clever storytelling leavened with just enough humor elevate it way above the average summer blockbuster – and makes it all the more tragic that it didn’t do well at the box office.
7. The Lego Movie (story by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman and Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller) – Pure fun. This is a great example of making the most out of a movie designed to entertain. It felt fresh and original, contained just enough emotional heft, and was thoroughly enjoyable. Oh, and it was very funny.
8. Inherent Vice (screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson) – I’ll admit I couldn’t follow the mystery, but that doesn’t really matter. This feels like Chinatown mixed with The Big Sleep and then filtered through Quentin Tarantino and the seventies hippie culture. The world of the story and the characters are fascinating and richly drawn. Dialogue is snappy and poetic if not exactly realistic. The plot is twisty and suspenseful. And it happens to contain one of the most erotic scenes ever put on film.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) – Some people think big summer popcorn movies don’t require skilled scripting, but writing these things is incredibly challenging (just compare this movie to the ponderous Amazing Spider-Man 2). Guardians is fun, fast paced, charming and heartfelt – everything you could want out of a movie like this.
10. Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) – This is an intense, well-observed movie with two great characters and lots to say about excellence and mentorship. The scenes and dialogue crackle with tension. And it brings us into a fascinating world most of us are unlikely to be familiar with.
(Edited to Add:)
10B. A Most Violent Year (written by J.C. Chandor) – I had forgotten about this one when I made this list, so I'm adding it in a tie for tenth place. (As I said, the distinction between the 10 films - now 11 – is slim.) This is an excellent thriller set in a very grounded world with regular people. The characters are three dimensional, and it's interesting how the story explores the dangers and temptations of violence as a way to solve problems. It is set in 1981, and oddly it feels like it could have been made then. It may not be exactly groundbreaking, but J.C. Chandor is quickly becoming one of our best screenwriters.
There were also some honorable mentions, candidates I considered for this list: Big Hero 6, Snowpiercer, Lucy, and X-Men Days of Future Past all had writing worth noting for one reason or another. (I also thought my former student Rebecca Cremona did an excellent job with Simshar, though I’ll recuse myself from that one since I helped her develop it!)
Normally I also include a worst written movie of the year here, but I can’t really think of one I want to single out. Not that I liked everything I saw in 2014, but I try to reserve this slot for a movie with a truly misguided screenplay that could have been easily fixed, a film that makes you wonder how they ever green lit it. B-movies with low ambitions don’t really count, nor do merely pedestrian screenplays. And there were plenty of ambitious but flawed screenplays (Gone Girl, Interstellar, Foxcatcher), but it feels wrong to harp on someone who took a big swing and missed their target.
So that’s it for 2014… I’m looking forward to more great writing in 2015!