It’s time for my annual list of the ten best-written movies of the last year! Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies.
My usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. For example, I haven’t yet seen Moana or Jackie, though I’m anxious to correct those oversights. I may in the future discover other movies from 2016 that would bump some of my selections off the list. Last year, Room probably would have made the list if I’d seen it earlier.
Also, some movies age better than others, and because many of the films on my list 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 the order would change – Sicario would be lower and The Martian higher today, for example. 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 10 Best Written Movies of 2016:
1. Arrival (screenplay by Eric Heisserer) – This was a smart, absorbing, and emotional screenplay with a high degree of difficulty. Heisserer did a great job making linguistic analysis edge-of-your-seat tense. Less heralded, he played with audience expectations to deliver some clever twists that gave the story wrenching thematic depth. Both entertaining and thought provoking, this was a movie unlike anything I've seen before. (Full disclosure: I know Eric socially.)
2. Deadpool (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick) – This screenplay deserves a lot of credit simply for bringing a fresh spin to the saturated superhero market. But on top of that, it is witty and clever, and delivers raunchy humor that is smart rather than degrading. The action and suspense are also good, and the characters are more complex than in most movies of this genre.
3. 10 Cloverfield Lane (story by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken, screenplay by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle) – This is an intense suspense thriller with great characters, tight plotting, and well-designed set pieces. It builds its twists and turns well to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. Plus, it felt fresh and original for the genre.
4. Hidden Figures (screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi) – The story is fairly straightforward – you know what you’re going to get going in. But it stays engaging by putting three well-drawn characters at the center of things – characters not just defined by their race or their job. Those characters each have distinct voices and enough personal stakes to engage the viewer emotionally. This carries us through the predictability and makes this the best feel good movie of the year.
5. Manchester by the Sea (written by Kenneth Lonergan) – This was a hard movie to watch at times, but it is undeniably well crafted and affecting. It has incredibly complex and believable characters and a good sense of place. The dialogue is naturalistic and distinctive for each character. The flashback scenes are well placed to unveil the story without seeming manipulative. And though it is extremely sad, it has enough hope, humor, and human connection to keep from drowning in its subject matter.
6. Hell or High Water (written by Taylor Sheridan) – This is another well-crafted screenplay with distinctive characters and a strong sense of place, plus it had a lot on its mind thematically, yet is never heavy-handed.
7. Moonlight (story by Tarell McCraney, screenplay by Barry Jenkins) – And yet another screenplay that takes us into a very specific world through well defined characters. This one has the added benefit of a fresh point of view. There are strong tensions within the scenes, but the story meanders at times and I did think it was a touch predictable. But there are characters here that defy expectations in glorious ways.
8. La La Land (written by Damien Chazelle) – This is the second-best feel good movie of the year. As a movie, it would be ranked higher on this list, but many of its better qualities (charming performances, wondrous visuals) do not come from the writing. It’s a bit uneven – it drags in the second half of act two, and it could use more original songs considering it’s a musical – but it gains points for reinventing a classic genre in a fresh way.
9. Captain America: Civil War (screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) – It’s easy to write off these big popcorn movies, but they are not easy to execute well, and this one was especially difficult given the huge number of characters that needed to be serviced. The movie is tight and enjoyable (with enough momentum to paper over a few logic holes) and each character is given a distinctive personality and voice. As a result, this is hands-down the best tentpole movie of the year (I’m not counting Deadpool as it was more of a lower budget B-movie than a tentpole).
10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) – Again, these movies are more difficult to pull off than they appear (witness Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones). This one was a lot of fun with well-drawn characters and some unexpectedly deep thematic elements. It gave good fan service without becoming weighted down with the franchise mythology. It did drag a bit at points, but overall this was an excellent script.
Looking at my list as a whole, this was a year with a lot of competent screenwriting but only Arrival, Deadpool, and La La Land felt necessary and memorable. The other films on my list are all well written, with a mix of intensely personal stories and well-executed entertainment. That actually made it rather hard to order them, so after one and two, I would almost call it an eight-way tie.
I also typically pick a “worst written” movie of the year – though I actually mean a movie that had no business being as badly written as it was. I’m less inclined to do that these days, but for tradition’s sake I’ll call out Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer). The movie was just a mess, with vague characterization, confusing motivation, wild coincidences, and plot holes you could drive a batmobile through. And I realize I’m hardly the first to point any of this out.
And now I’m off to the theater to see what 2017 has to offer!
The Three Stages of Screenwriting
"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review
The Hollywood Pitching Bible
“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")