The trend lately has been for directors at the top of the Oscar race to either write or co-write their own screenplays. The idea is for one person to have full control over the project, author the complete voice, to unify the overarching concept. But the truth of it is, in my opinion anyway, the best screenplays are actual old-school screenplays, written by writers who specialize in writing, not directors. Of course, there are obviously people who can do both extremely well — and many of our best directors started out as writers — but these hyphenates who excel at everything are rare. Most of the time, a filmmaker has one strength or another and it’s not really all that necessary in a collaborative art form for one person to wear too many hats in order to create the best films of all time. Sure, a co-writing credit is always a good thing and it’s a valid talent, especially if a director tinkers and adjusts and rewrites as they go along. But the truth is, you can’t make a good movie out of a bad script, or so George Clooney once said in Ann Hornaday’s fantastic must-read book, Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies. Read that book. It is essential.
The idea that genuine master directors must always write their own work has, I think, caused a little bit of stifling in recent Oscar races, the reason being, a Best Screenplay Oscar — adapted or original — is so often linked to a Best Picture victory, even more frequently than director. So, as I’ve pointed out in the past, voters will often simply give the award for Best Screenplay to an individual and not for Best Director because that way they can spread the wealth better in the era of the expanded ballot, as in:
The Artist wins Picture and Director, but screenplay goes to Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
12 Years a Slave – McQueen as co-writer, while Alfonso Cuaron wins Director
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy wins as co-writer, while Alejandro G. Inarritu wins Director
Moonlight – Barry Jenkins wins as co-writer, while Damien Chazelle wins as Director
The Shape of Water wins Picture, Director – but not Original Screenplay, which goes to Jordan Peele for Get Out
Green Book – Peter Farrelly wins as co-writer, where Alfonso Cuaron once again wins as Director
Only one writer-director auteur has won both awards since the Academy expanded the ballot — Alejandro G. Inarritu who won as co-writer, and director, and picture (as producer) – so it can happen but it’s rare. The films that have won Best Picture where there was a different writer than the director tend to more easily win all three, like The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, and Argo had Ben Affleck been nominated. This sort of sharing avoids the photos where a single man (or woman) poses with an armload of Oscars.
So in my opinion, the best screenplays are rarely those written by the film’s directors. While a singular vision can sometimes be interesting as a fully immersive experience, and those can stand out, as a rule, your better off with a mix of voices on your film. (Unless we’re Orson Welles, and let’s face it, we’re not.) For instance, Joel and Ethan Coen have made great movies throughout their careers that they wrote and directed but No Country for Old Men, which is one their very best and for which they won Best Picture, was a very faithful adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. For long stretches it was virtually word for word. So, adaptations by directors can be good too, obviously.
That said, here are my personal choices for the Best Scripts of the Year so far, knowing that there are a few more to come — like 1917, which is co-written by the director, Sam Mendes, and Richard Jewell, which is not.
The Best Scripts Not Written by the Directors
The best stand-alone screenplays of films this year that weren’t written by their directors have to start with Ford v Ferrari and Dolemite is My Name. The best scripts, in my opinion, that were written or co-written by their directors are Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Each of these films take care to pay attention to each of the characters in the story. The roles are distinct from one another, and each has their own trajectory of successes and disappointments. It is all there on the page.
Ford v Ferrari, written by Jason Keller, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. This is a film about the conflict between the love of the sport for sport’s sake and the corporate control over that sport. That’s the (ahem) driving theme behind the film, and though it’s specific to car racing it can easily be applied to anything: to art, to food, to drama and fiction writing. There are so many beautiful moments in FvF where the writing shines through – with the help, it must be said, of an intelligent director who gets the beats throughout and actors who are sensitive to the nuances of those beats. It takes a village, truly, but it starts with the script. The moment when we are taken inside the head of Matt Damon’s Carrol Shelby as he tries to explain what it’s like to be on the road, alone, driving a really fast car. With great dialogue throughout specifically written for each of the distinct characters, the story moves fast at times, but never rushes through the character driven scenes, like Ken Miles looking at the race car map his son drew. Like the glorious scene in the car when Matt Damon takes Tracy Letts for a ride and the scene goes from comical to sentimental in about five minutes. Yes, that’s great acting, no doubt, but it’s on the page too. The writers let us in to understand each of the characters at a given point in time, because we have to know where they’re coming from or else nothing works. Is it perfect? No, but few things are and no script this year is. But whatever weaknesses the script may have (like maybe Josh Lucas is a little too mean?) it’s made up for with the high-gloss directing. That is why these two forces can often make the best movies because they bring so much to the film – not just the mind of one person. One talented person can polish the rare rough spots of another. There isn’t a weak link in this film — note perfect from top to bottom — and it’s easily one of the best films of the year, certainly the most exciting, and I dare say, among the best writing we’re likely to see between now and Oscar night. Worth noting that none of these three writers has ever written a script this good, a sign that they elevated one another to each bring their A game.
Dolemite Is My Name, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Whenever people who love it talk about this movie they always talk about how funny it is. And it is funny. But it’s deeper than that, and to see that depth you have to listen to the range of the writing. Of course, as with Ford v Ferrari, the directing and acting support the themes, the dialogue and the movement of the piece. Like Eddie Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore spending time watching a movie made for white audiences, and looking up at the streaming light coming from the projector. He wants to be in that light. We see it, we hear it, we know it. We know why. The film has one of the rare friendships between a man and a woman that has nothing to do with the transactional relationships we often see where sex is involved. Here, Lady Reed — the brilliant Da’Vine Joy Randolph — becomes Moore’s support net and in turn, he supports her. But they don’t just put her in the movie as a kind of symbol and leave her there. No, good writing means they go deeper into her character than other lesser writers might have done. What do we know about her? She can’t pay the bills. She’s a single mother. She has a history of hooking up with shit men. She is happy to finally get work and she repays Moore’s encouragement and generosity by becoming closest friend, adviser, and confidant. One of the very best scenes in the film, among many, is when she tells him how grateful she is that he put her up on the screen because she had never before seen women like her up there. In that light. The light continues as a theme throughout the movie, which at times is deceptively slapstick. What do we know about Rudy Ray Moore? A lot. We know where he came from, we get the witness the genesis and evolution of his act, we know what he wants and we know what he does with that opportunity once he gets his shot. This is a carefully written, very exacting script that never gives any character the short shrift. Sometimes it’s just about being funny but other times, we have to look deeper to understand why this part of the story is being told at all. Why? Because it is the rare rags to riches story in the history of Hollywood where a black entrepreneur not only makes a movie for $100K and flips it to $12 million, but who inadvertently invents rap along the way. He’s a big deal, Rudy Ray Moore, for all his schlocky and hilarious endeavors, he carries it off with class. If you didn’t see what I see, watch it again. And listen.
The Irishman – Leave it to one of the best screenwriters alive, Steven Zaillian, to bring unexpected life and soul to the adaptation of a mobsters memoir, “I Heard you Paint Houses.” The film isn’t exactly a true story, since the unreliable narrator is one whose central premise cannot be proved – that Frank Sheeran killed Jimmy Hoffa. But historical veracity doesn’t matter when framed in mirror of personal reflection, and besides, mythmaking is a feature not a bug in a film and script this ethereal. Zaillian is handling many different threads and levels of perception all at once, as he overlays the legacy of Martin Scorsese and his own relationship to mob movies, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, atop the story of Jimmy Hoffa’s rise and disappearance. The much-discussed and sometimes jarring effect of watching these men age, and as it happens, de-age, in itself becomes a prism that splits our cognizance into sharp shards of clarity, while the lifetimes of these characters and the actors who play them unspool and rewind before our eyes. It is as great a script as ever could be written about this story and a perfect example of why having a writer’s words interpreted by a director’s vision can reaps results more successful than one man alone could achieve.
The Two Popes is Anthony McCarten’s fictional rumination on the transition of one pope to the next. This is a story of an imaginary friendship that has one foot in reality and the other in speculation. This is a film about two things. Atonement for the past and a plea for the future. Of course, only a great writer working with great actors at the hands of a very good director can pull off the unbearable lightness of this story and make it at once so entertaining and yet so meaningful. It’s an easy call to name this as one of the year’s best examples of great writing that stands on its own.
Queen and Slim by Lena Waithe is one facet of a team of badasses who made a movie together. A badass writer, a badass director, and a badass female lead. Probably there isn’t a better female character in this year’s films than the one we meet here, perhaps because Queen was written by not just any woman but one who, like the director, is not here to smooth out the rough edges but rather to sharpen them. The main character as played by Jodie Turner-Smith is complicated. How rare to have such a complex Jamaican woman leading a film when so much of the time there is pressure to portray all women, but women of color especially, in a positive way. It isn’t that she isn’t portrayed in a positive way but she has flaws. She is impetuous, she has a trigger temper and she is not comfortable being around people. She’s a high achieving woman who is a warrior ready for any fight that comes along, simply by dint of being a black woman in America. What a great character in a great story. I love the energy of this film. I love the writing especially, and how distinctly each of the characters were drawn throughout.
The Best Scripts Written or Co-Written by Their Directors
Parasite, written by Bong Joon-Ho and Jin Won Han. This film starts with the writing, obviously, because it is so well-constructed as a story — and it would have to be, because director Bong Joon-Ho needed to know exactly where it was going. Like the house the film surrounds, the story is multi-tiered. It starts out in one place, then takes you to a different level, and then another level and finally right down to the underneath. The house itself is constructed like the writing because there are areas that have been deliberately structured to reveal pre-determined secrets. Like under the teenage daughter’s bed, like the backyard tee-pee the son builds, like the basement, like underneath the coffee table, like the inside of the car. Each of these different partitions enables the imposter family to fool the unsuspecting residents. Parasite is so funny until it isn’t. Bong Joon-Ho works with symbols and references that keep diving you back into the story, like the mysterious stone the imposter son carries around with him that promises wealth. Like the smell of poverty. Like rain. Like urine pouring down like rain. It is such vivid storytelling both in what the characters say and don’t say, leading up to an ending that is so beautifully moving, its unforgettable. Is it even happening? At what point did it maybe shift into fantasy? What a story. And all of this before we even dig down to its autopsy of capitalism and class inequality.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, by Quentin Tarantino. While it could easily be written off as another pop-culture appreciation, this is a film that serves as the last installment of a revenge trilogy that started with Inglourious Basterds, then continued with Django Unchained, and now finishes off with another – a film that resides in the realm of magical realism where not only isn’t the story meant to be true, none of it is, but it parses through shades of truth that might also be untrue. Tarantino is great at exposing the gaps in preconceived notions that so many of us hold, the disconnects we feel but rarely express. He has never been as clear and as brilliant as he is here, with this story — and for a guy who has won Original Screenplay twice that’s saying a lot. It is perhaps surprising that some of his most effective scenes are those that have no dialogue at all but just follow Sharon Tate around as she barrels towards who would otherwise be her gruesome demise. In those scenes, Tarantino shows his love and respect for her memory and probes the question of why this ending had to happen that way at all. Hats off to Tarantino for such a dazzling career, such an inventive mind, and such a gift with storytelling.
Jojo Rabbit, written by Taika Waititi. You’d probably have to be a hardcore Holocaust obsessive to really get Jojo Rabbit. I mean, REALLY GET IT. Throwaway lines about appeasement and how Waititi as Hitler slips in and out of the ways that people always described Hitler. Half the time, he was jovial and even humorous, and is often seen this way in the home movies with he and Ava Braun. And the other half of the time he’s Der Fuhrer giving his angry speeches at podiums, terrifying the world, destroying millions of lives. But Jojo Rabbit wouldn’t be the great film it is if it only got Hitler half-right. What drives this film is the battle of learning to discern between good and evil that rages in the heart of a 10-year-old boy. Waititi is very specific in how he writes the female characters in this film and even gives them a scene together, which ends up being one of the best scenes in the movie where they talk about what they plan to do when the war ends. It’s such a lovely scene because we don’t yet know the fate of either of them. One could die, one could survive, both could die. It is reminiscent of the bright spirit that was Anne Frank who maintained her spirit being a teenager even while hiding in an attic to escape certain doom from the Nazis. How do we live even now with the knowledge than a significant faction of humanity could allowed such calamity to happen? Well, this is a film that steers the ship of our collective conscience in the right direction. We blast Bowie and we dance … because, at least for now, we are free.
Waves, written by Trey Edward Shults, is a highly structured film that relies heavily on the power of its editing and directing. But it wouldn’t be what it is unless it started with a great script. The story is divided into two parts and both are like waves themselves — one comes fast and destroys everything, one gently laps the shore. It’s darkness and light, it’s hopelessness and hope. To get to the second part, you have to get through the first part and it isn’t easy. Shults has constructed something that is meant to remind us of how quickly things can go wrong in the life of young man who is moving too fast, being pushed too hard, and can’t control his impulses. The second part of the film shows how to live in the aftermath of the crash. Waves is one of the most powerfully told stories of the year and that started with the writing.
Marriage Story – Noah Baumbauch, like Woody Allen, very much writes in his signature style in all of his films. You know you are stepping into that world and you recognize the language of the storytelling. The extreme emotional reactions, the glib outsiders, the angst, and the women who light up the room. Though advertised as a film that tells two sides of a story, this film, to me, told one side of the story more strongly – his side. We can’t know what her side of the story would really be because it’s still him telling her side of the story. That’s why the Adam Driver side comes through so vividly. It is exciting to watch a Baumbach film because you never know what is coming next. He is more concerned with the characters and their motivations than with plot, but Marriage Story seems to be more plot-heavy than most of his films. It is, perhaps more than any other movie this year, a film that people connect with emotionally. There is no way that happens without great writing. Each character is distinct from the other and stays with you long after you seen the movie.
Joker, written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Phillips had an idea of the kind of film he wanted to make — a superhero movie that wasn’t a superhero movie but rather about something a little more close to home: the isolation and alienation that outcasts feel in a bizarre culture where everyone else seems to have found a safe place. Joker is a disturbing film, without a doubt, but it does get close to the truth about life in America in 2019. Though I won’t go as far as Michael Moore, who believes it’s a direct indictment of Trump’s America, I do think it goes to the kind of hopelessness many in America and indeed the world are feeling right now. There is a reason that the Joker character resonates with so many people who feel left behind. He is a reluctant anti-hero, perhaps, as the film cleverly indicates, but the combination of the writing, the directing and most especially the performance of Joaquin Phoenix has delivered something you can’t look away from. It’s not a film that’s going to make anyone feel better about the state of our world, but it might be a film we all look back on someday and think, yeah, that movie told the truth about what life was like in 2019.
And honorable mentions:
Lulu Wang’s poignant and hilarious family drama The Farewell
Jordan Peele’s mind-bending Mobius-strip ode to horror, Us.
Greta Gerwig’s loving adaptation of one of her favorite authors, Little Women
Edward Norton’s adaptation of noir terrain vague, Motherless Brooklyn
Mindy Kaling’s funny, moving, and surprisingly relevant Late Night
Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman’s sweet and funny Booksmart
Charles Randolph’s witty and hard-hitting slam of Fox News’ Roger Ailes, Bombshell
Shia LaBeouf’s telling of his own horrific childhood and how he learned to forgive his father, Honey Boy
Scott Z Burn’s brilliant and damning examination of the torture memo in The Report
Lorene Scafaria’s sexy, meticulous and satisfying heist romp, Hustlers
Daniel Destin Cretton’s moving and important courtroom maze, Just Mercy