It’s been said that you can’t make a good movie out of a bad screenplay. There are plenty of bad movies made from great screenplays, or great source material.
A great screenplay moves. It doesn’t rely too much on dialogue, but what dialogue does exist must be great. One of the best adaptations I can think of is No Country for Old Men, where the Coen brothers — great writers in their own right _ faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s already brilliant novel. They brought the novel to life but didn’t depart very much from the source material. They are smart enough to know that their best option was to interpret greatness, not to override it. In this case, there is very little dialogue in No Country. Most of it is action. Storyboarding. Visual storytelling by the Coens is the best storytelling, though this isn’t a slight towards their scripts that are just plain brilliant from a dialogue perspective, like Fargo and The Big Lebowski — two of the most quotable films of all time.
Screenplays written by directors have been a current trend, and since the overall vision is credited to one person, it’s sometimes harder to really see the great writing in a film that works overall. Bradley Cooper and John Krasinski are following in the tradition of actors who direct and co-write the projects they also star in. It’s less common for women to take on all three, at least not without being seen as some kind of crazed egomaniac. Even Greta Gerwig didn’t star in Lady Bird. But men get a pass because of course they do. Whether it works overall is another story. Many of the most famous actors turned directors did not also write or co-write their screenplays. Some do, some don’t.
A screenplay not written by the director does tend to have its own singularly great writing that stands apart from the directing. When that happens, it’s much easier to say “that was great writing.” I’m thinking of The Social Network, for instance, where a director’s strong visual language works in harmony with the writer’s rapid fire dialogue. If the director is also the writer, the success or failure is something they completely own. During the old days of the Oscar race, for decades up until the era of the auteur began to dominate, the director and the writer were very clearly delineated talents. The idea of an actor/writer/director happened (Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles), but it was rare. Oscar voters of old tended to appreciate the separate crafts, which is why there are separate craft branches.
In adapted works, it’s much more rare to see an actor/director/writer, and in fact, with few exceptions the best writing often comes from scripts that were not written by their directors, and especially not when the actor starring in it also wrote the screenplay (Woody Allen being one clear exception). The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, Call Me By Your Name, Lincoln, Brokeback Mountain — these are all scripts that stand on their own as great works and didn’t need their director to bring them to greatness. But when a director knows what a great screenplay they have and do their best to honor it, you’re often looking at some of the best films ever made.
Here are the screenplays that stood out to me as great writing this year, where the writing speaks for itself without needing the director to make the story better than it is already. I judge writing on how it sounds, what the story structure is, what the conflict is, and how it’s all resolved or not. Critics tend to like writing the way they like acting. They prefer when very little happens and you are just watching naturalized storytelling, like Support the Girls or The Florida Project. Plots are usually not appreciated by critics, for whatever reason, where audiences will always prefer plots any day of the week.
Here are my top ten scripts — I’m not dividing them into categories:
1. First Reformed — Paul Schrader’s screenplay for First Reformed reminds me a bit of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea in that it is so dense, so richly drawn, its meaning so deep that it almost feels like an adaptation of a novel. When a screenwriter has source material, they can pick and choose, but the depth usually remains. With original screenplays, especially those written by their director (like First Reformed), the depth must be in the writing. Schrader’s characters, even the smaller parts, are clearly drawn. But the film’s theme pulsates through every line of dialogue and every scene until it builds to its conclusion.
Paul Schrader is, without a doubt, one of the greatest living screenwriters not just of this generation but any generation. This is the guy who wrote Taxi Driver. He’s experimented with many different forms of writing and genres, which has given him a muscularity with writing beginners simply don’t have. It is a thrill to sit down and watch a film written by such a master of the form. Here we have a familiar theme with Schrader — the meaning of life, or the meaning of one’s purpose in life at the brink of the apocalypse.
2. Eighth Grade — Bo Burnham has been writing his own stuff long enough to know what he wants to say. Eighth Grade is good for so many reasons, Elsie Fisher’s acting at the top of that list, but the writing is what makes this movie so meaningful and memorable. It’s an original story that somehow manages to be universal at the same time. Eighth Grade would work if you set it in any neighborhood, almost in any country. He kept it mostly to the world he knew. When you put it all together you have easily one of the best films of the year, but how you know it’s authentic is that Bo Burnham knows the world of teenagers and how they interface with their online selves vs. their real selves. It would not be half as memorable without the great writing.
3. First Man — Josh Singer has already won an Oscar for Spotlight. We’ve also seen two films by Damien Chazelle that he also wrote. This is his first film not written by him. I have found that I love great directors making films by different writers, like Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (which I still think is his best). A director like Chazelle working with a different writer challenged him in ways he probably didn’t expect. First Man is very much like Spotlight — it’s a spare, documentary style film with the most brilliant final act of any film this year. Singer is a great writer, one who does endless research to get things exactly right. And, as with Ryan Gosling’s performance, the more you know about the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the more you’ll appreciate Singer’s deep and thorough research. Funnily enough, it seems that Chazelle fans prefer his own screenplays, but to me, the collaboration of these two is what great filmmaking is all about.
4. BlacKkKlansman — what I love about this adaptation is that, even though Spike Lee co-wrote this screenplay, his thumbprint is all over the dialogue. Lee is one of those writer/directors who influences every aspect of his films but especially how the characters speak. There are three unforgettable beats in BlacKkKlansman that make it more than just a funny movie about Ron Stallworth (though it’s partly that too). The speech by the black activist, the speech by Harry Belafonte, and the last part, the Charlottesville rally and Heather Heyer’s death. These moments really do seem very Spike Lee, when you remember that often in all of his films there will be the moment for soliloquy. The breezy style of the dialogue keeps the film moving along at an entertaining pace, but ever so often, he’ll hit you with one of these hardcore moments of intensity. That is great writing.
5. If Beale Street Could Talk — Barry Jenkins is, to me, a writerly director. His writing is what stands out and that is especially true with his loving adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. What is remarkable about this screenplay is how clearly Baldwin’s voice comes through. Jenkins, who clearly came at the material with humility and respect, has made a film that honors every bit of Baldwin’s influence, visually and with the adaptation. Beale Street, to that end, might be among the best adaptations of Baldwin’s work or any great work of literature that exists. He does this without sacrificing his own visual thumbprint, which by now, after two major films, is clearly defined.
6. Can You Ever Forgive Me — Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay is so funny, and at times deeply moving, that it gives Marielle Heller much to work with in honoring it. Here, the actors also help bring the great writing to life, as only someone as funny as Melissa McCarthy could hit the notes so right on. There aren’t many female forces behind the Oscar movies this year but one of them is definitely this film, which is co-written by, directed by, and starring women. I loved the dark humor here, the spot on self-deprecating jokes. It is, after all, a movie about great writers, and thus, it had to be brilliant. And it is.
7. Widows — Gillian Flynn (and Steve McQueen as co-writer/director) is her own brand by now. Though this is clearly a collaboration, there is enough of Flynn to hear her voice throughout. Her writing stands apart in its willingness to confront, most especially, complex female protagonists. The main problem with Widows is that the male characters drag the film down a bit, while the female characters, especially Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki, soar. Flynn’s crackling dialogue in the scenes with the women figuring out their lives apart from the men is just flat out great writing. If you missed it the first time, go back and watch it again and this time listen to what the women are saying.
8. Roma — the writing in Roma, like the writing in every Cuaron movie, really exists to serve the director’s vision. He writes the movie he knows he’s going to film. All the same, there are reasons that Roma’s writing stands out as maybe one of his best screenplays. While it’s true that we don’t know much about Cleo’s life, we have to remember that we’re watching a movie through a lens of a grown man looking back on his childhood: what he saw, what he remembers, what stands out. He remembers big details, like the father’s infidelity and abandonment. He remembers small things, like dog shit in the driveway. It is so vivid and memorable we can see the deeper story behind the dazzling visuals.
9. Black Panther — Ryan Coogler’s writing is why Black Panther is one of the better “comic book movies.” While it’s true that all Marvel films are full of funny one-liners throughout and the usual Hero’s journey, the depth in Black Panther is so much more than what we’re used to. From Michael Jordan’s story arc, to how Lupita Nyong’o’s character wants to bring Wakanda to the inner cities, there is so much going on in the film it does surpass what we’ve been conditioned to expect from these kinds of films.
10. Tully — the year shouldn’t end without a hat tip to Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning writer of Juno. Sure, it didn’t catch the attention of the critics. She wasn’t the flavor of the month this time, but that’s only because the Oscar race is a popularity contest that really is less about rewarding the best and more about rewarding the fashionable pick. Tully is such an interesting, original film about motherhood and post-partum depression. I especially appreciated how the main character confronts who she used to be versus whom she must become now. As usual, it’s as funny as Cody can be, but beyond it being funny, it’s sad and ultimately inspiring. It’s too bad it’s been mostly forgotten.
A few more:
The Favourite — Crackling dialogue doesn’t get much better than this. It’s a film that Yorgos Lanthimos did not also write, but that makes it a writer-heavy in addition to being strong on visuals.
Hereditary — Ari Aster’s film, that he wrote and directed, is a promising debut, no doubt, and one of the most formidable horror films to come along in a while. Here is a great example of how to build tension without relying on a lot of visual effects. He uses actors so well, too, trusting them to do much of the heavy lifting, but the script had to be well plotted out to work and it is. The diabolical endgame is well-disguised and revealed only during the unforgettably horrific conclusion, although Aster cleverly drops quite a few hints leading up to it that can be picked up on with repeat viewings.
Vice — Adam McKay is a brilliant writer. He deserved the Oscar win for the Big Short. Vice is, for all of its snags, still great writing, at least from a dialogue perspective. It’s hard not to notice that good of writing, free of rules, fueled by pure passion and rage.
Green Book — this is definitely one of those stories that kicked around before anyone took it on to direct. It is also the work of collaborative writers, with Peter Farrelly on as co-writer. That makes every line of dialogue crackle. While it was a harder sell this year, amidst ongoing mass hysteria and outrage culture, the dialogue is endlessly great. It doesn’t adhere to the left’s utopian vision of itself, but if you are talking about good writing, this is good writing.