It’s time for my list of the twelve best-written movies of last year! Yes, normally I do ten, but I was having a really hard time narrowing down my top twelve, so I decided to just include them all.
Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. This year provides a great example of this principle: Mad Max: Fury Road (written by George Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris), which was one of my top three favorite movies of the year but didn’t make this list.
It’s not that Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t “written” as some of the press has suggested. It may not have had a traditionally formatted screenplay, but there was a plot, dialogue, and distinct scenes that were written down in some form. And those elements were all competently done. However, they were not the reason the movie was such a wonderful experience. This was not a movie driven by the screenplay.
My other usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. I haven’t yet seen The Revenant or Room, though I very much want to and expect them to be good. And I may in the future discover other movies from 2015 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. Looking back at last year’s list, all the movies hold up pretty well, though I would probably move Whiplash higher on the list. 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, here is my list of the 12 Best Written Movies of 2015:
1. Ex Machina (written by Alex Garland) – This is an amazing achievement. A tense, entertaining and thought provoking thriller with only four characters and a single house as a location. The writing is incredibly smart with great twists. The characters are particularly complex and interesting. This is easily the best-written movie of the year in my opinion.
2. Sicario (written by Taylor Sheridan) – Impressive on several fronts. First, the plot is genuinely unpredictable, creating tremendous tension. The characters are interesting and dimensional. The dialogue crackles with voice and subtext. There’s great scene work and masterful suspense. And it’s all elevated by the thematic depth and complexity of the story.
3. Spotlight (written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy) – The movie and the screenplay aren’t flashy, but they’re so absorbing I felt like I didn’t want the film to end. The characters and characterizations are particularly strong. And parts of the story were challenging to dramatize – much of the investigation involved research in books and files. Kudos to the writers for finding ways to keep things tense and compelling.
4. The Hateful Eight (written by Quentin Tarantino) – He may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s hard to argue that Tarantino isn’t one of the most original writers working today. This film has his usual vivid dialogue and interesting characters, and also avoids some of the traps he tends to fall into by sticking with a fairly straightforward plot. And it feels like a movie event, something you don’t get to see every day, something worth leaving the house to go to the theater.
5. Bridge of Spies (written by Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen) – This is an excellently crafted screenplay. The characters are well drawn; the scenes are interesting; the plot is tense. The writers find great opportunities for humor and thematic pondering without slowing down the action. Plus, the bifurcated nature of the story made this screenplay a challenge – one the writers overcame quite nicely. My only quibble is that it felt just a bit too long.
6. Shaun the Sheep Movie (written by Mark Burton &
Richard Starzak from characters created by Nick Park) – This movie is a
pure delight. There’s so much warmth and clever humor here, and with very
little dialogue. They make it look easy… it’s not.
7. Trainwreck (written by Amy Schumer) – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone use the tropes and clichés of a genre so effectively to tell a specific, personal story. It achieves a difficult balance between humor (sometimes to the point of silliness) and grief, loss and love. The characters feel like real people and that makes all the clichés emotionally effective.
8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt based on character created by George Lucas) – This is a tough one for me to rank because Star Wars has such an outsized importance in my life and the franchise carries such enormous baggage for the writers to deal with. I think they did an admirable job capturing the spirit of Star Wars and managed to tell an entertaining story with some new great characters. Yes, it may be a little derivative of earlier Star Wars movies, but that was probably the only way to successfully restart the film series. Could it have been better? Probably. Was it a great time at the theater? Absolutely.
9. Steve Jobs (screenplay by Aaron Sorkin) – I will admit I didn’t expect to like the film. Not only had I heard negative reviews, I had ethical qualms about the liberties taken with the facts of Steve Jobs’ life. But as it turned out, this screenplay is pretty great. Sorkin writes excellent dialogue for smart people, and all of these characters are very smart. He also managed to give all the characters in this screenplay unique voices, something Sorkin is not usually known for. And he does a fantastic job here, as always, finding ways to dramatize internal thought processes and character perspectives. The movie packs surprising tension and a solid emotional punch.
10. The Big Short (screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay) – I didn’t love this movie quite as much as the critics, but it is a surprisingly entertaining film about a pretty boring (but important) subject. The writers achieved this by creating interesting and unusual characters and with some clever breaking of the fourth wall. An impressive achievement considering the degree of difficulty.
11. The Martian (screenplay by Drew Goddard) – This is an excellent screenplay from challenging material. Not only is much of the story about a single character by himself, the conflict is of a scientific/intellectual nature. Goddard found a way to make this all visual, and also managed to capture much of the humor from the book. My complaints were mostly related to the ending, which strained the hard-won scientific credibility of the rest of the movie.
12. Straight Outta Compton (story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff, screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) – There were probably three movies worth of material in this screenplay, which is an impressive feat but also resulted in a film that felt a little overstuffed and overlong. Still, it was very entertaining with well-drawn characters and an interesting and well-dramatized social commentary aspect. Not your typical music biopic – and that's a good thing.
I also want to give honorable mentions to Spy (written by Paul Feig) and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (story by Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie) as two movies that were much better than expected thanks to some excellent scripting. Both were strong candidates for this list.
I also typically pick a movie as worst-written every year. I don't actually mean the worst screenplay, but rather a movie that should have been much better written than it was. This year the (dis)honor goes to San Andreas (story by Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore, screenplay by Carlton Cuse). The movie is rife with implausible, cardboard characters, ridiculously clichéd dialogue, and wildly unbelievable plotting. There is some enjoyment to be had from the visual effects spectacle and attractive casting, but none of that comes from the screenplay.
It's coming soon... my book on screenwriting, The Three Stages of Screenwriting.