Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Ten Best Written Films of 2019

It’s time once again for my selection of the ten best-written films of the year. I was shocked that 2019 turned out to be an exceptionally good year for movies. I had no shortage of films in contention for the list. More surprisingly, only one of the films on my list could be described as part of a franchise, and then only tangentially. This year bucked the trends of recent years. Of course, not all of the movies on my list were big hits, but many of them were. Is this just a blip, or is it a good sign for the industry? Time will tell.

Before I get to the list, a reminder of my usual caveats: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. For example, I still haven’t seen The Irishman, which is a significant awards contender. Also, this is a list of the best-written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. For example, I thought 1917 was an excellent film, but the script was fairly straightforward. Nothing wrong with the writing, certainly, and it laid the foundation for the excellence of the film, but the real success of the film derived more from the directing and cinematography than the screenplay.

One more thing: I, like much of the industry, have had to wrestle with what qualifies as a “movie” in this age of streaming. I’ve been limiting my annual lists to theatrical releases, but this year I considered any standalone, self-contained, continuous film story (i.e. no episodes) no matter how it was released. The downside is there are many, many, many movies on streaming and cable I will not have seen. In the end, every movie on my list got at least a token theatrical release.

So, without further ado, here are my picks for best written movies of 2019:

1. Jojo Rabbit (screenplay by Taika Watiti) – Hands down the best movie I saw this year – the best movie I’ve seen in a few years, really – was Jojo Rabbit. Every piece of this movie was exceptional, but none more than the screenplay. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking, a movie that will truly make you laugh and make you cry, and one that contains a powerful, relevant message about the insidious nature of propaganda. Not to mention, with its delicate subject matter, there was a high degree of difficulty to pull this story off. Taika Watiti succeeded and then some.

2. Knives Out (written by Rian Johnson) – This is the kind of quality cinema entertainment that almost everyone will enjoy. It has a tricky, twisty, mystery at its core, fantastic characters, a good dollop of humor, and a subtle satirical punch. This kind of movie absolutely depends on the screenplay (and the performances), and Rian Johnson nailed it.

3. Booksmart (written by Emily Halpern & Sarah Haskins and Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman) – This film got a lot of attention for making two female characters the leads of a raunchy teen comedy and presenting a lesbian lead without making a big deal about it. That’s all worthy of commendation, but don’t miss how funny the writing was and how complex the characters were. This was an excellent screenplay.

4. Luce (screenplay by J.C. Lee) – A star-studded but small independent film, this was a thought-provoking, complex story of race and issues of trust between parents and teenagers in America. It is also a powerful domestic drama with some of the most complicated characters on screen this year.

5. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (written by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue) – This one surprised me. It is ostensibly a story about Mr. Rogers, but it’s really about a reporter and how his assignment to interview Mr. Rogers changes his life. So many things could have gone wrong here, but the deft screenplay keeps it on track, and the result is a touching, thoughtful movie.

6. Parasite (story by Bong Joon Ho, screenplay by Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han) – The buzzy international film is a smart comedic satire and twisty gruesome thriller rolled up in one. The characters are well developed, although the plot goes borderline over-the-top by the end. Still, it’s a unique and thought-provoking film.

7. Joker (written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver) – I’ve gotta be honest, I was prepared to dislike this film. Turns out, it’s an excellent dark drama and character study that fits nicely into the more sophisticated versions of the Batman world. It may be a little derivative of King of Comedy, but I was won over by the smart screenplay nonetheless.

8. Ford vs. Ferrari (written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) – This may be the most conventional film on my list, but it deserves credit for a tightly crafted screenplay and well-developed characters.

9. Little Women (screenplay by Greta Gerwig) – It can be difficult to determine how much credit to give to an adaptation of strong source material. Gerwig’s screenplay teases out the most modern elements of the book – making a few changes and then justifying those changes within the narrative – while not losing the emotional melodrama that has made this a beloved novel for generations.

10. Dolemite is My Name (written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewki) – This is a worthy true story about a groundbreaking and often ridiculous Black artist striving to achieve fame in a world that doesn’t understand his culture. It’s a story that ought to be told and is told well here. It’s also very funny.

There were plenty of other enjoyable films with well-written screenplays this year, some of which could easily have found their way onto this list. My “honorable mentions” include strong genre entertainments like Captain Marvell, Toy Story 4, Spider Man: Far From Home, and Doctor Sleep, as well as excellent art house fare like Marriage Story, The Two Popes, The Farewell, Hustlers, and Richard Jewell. As I said, it was a surprisingly good year for movies!

I try not to denigrate movies on my list, but I do feel obligated to mention Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, particularly because it just won a Golden Globe for screenplay. I’m a Tarantino fan, but I did not like it very much, and I think the screenplay was one of the weakest aspects. So yes, I did see it, and no, it does not make my list. Still, even when Tarantino fails, his movies are more interesting than half of what’s in theaters.

That’s my list. If you don’t like it, make your own!


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