Although my field, it is still a careful thought process that is often required to recognize good screenwriting. We’re not necessarily talking how a movie is made, more the actual story or where it came from. Nor or we talking about the delivery of lines, we are talking about the lines themselves. A movie starts with the words on paper, long before any actors attend auditions. Whether an original story from scratch, or translating another medium to film, screenplays are the blueprint of a motion picture, and ought to be judged so.
In the screenplay categories, I suspect voters of awards take into account how much they liked the film’s slick dialogue, or how much like the book it was. I also, unfortunately, feel many judge a screenplay by the avalanching success of the movie, the weight of it’s subject matter, that it simply made them laugh, and so on – regardless perhaps of the quality of the writing. Those factors may contribute. They may not. The quality of the writing.
Standard of writing was, in my view and many others, somehow not taken into consideration when the Oscar nominations were announced in the Adapted Screenplay category a couple of weeks ago. Possibly the favorite to win the category was Gillian Flynn’s inventive film revamp of her super-popular book Gone Girl. But she was not nominated. It is not proven that her slot was taken by Jason Hall for his flat, lacking in chemistry or flowing format screenplay for American Sniper. My opinion on this doesn’t make me disrespecting of a soldier’s story any more than it makes me fully supportive of twisted, murdering wives.
Pushing aside awards eligibility and viewing coverage (including the incredible Gone Girl which ought not to be anywhere near contention for my alternative choices), here are ten screenplays I, a non-professional, have managed to read or see on the screen from 2014. I could have picked twenty. Screenplays of high quality, and more than worthy of greater mentions than they got. The fact most of them are original works is purely accidental. I think.
Chris Miller & Phil Lord (The Lego Movie)
The cover page of the screenplay reads “The Piece of Resistance by Chris Miller & Phil Lord – Based on the Awesome Toys by The LEGO Corporation”. And I suspect, too, the movie was written in blocks. But all jokes asides, in fact, no, the jokes are what make this a screenplay work. Sure it is an animation about toys, but they have scripts too. This ties in an adventure story for kids and adults, with plenty of references to Lego blocks, satisfying to any of us that have (or still do) played with it ourselves.
Steven Knight (Locke)
Sustaining the audience attention for 90 minutes is one thing, but doing it with only one visible character in view is something else. The writing simply had to work here. And it does. The contrast and natural flow of dialogue between Locke and those he speaks to on the phone while driving (angry work colleagues and concerned family members) is captivating. Each spoken word is as crucial as the next in moving forward the narrative we are already invested in.
Oleg Negin & Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan)
With a strong echo of the religious irony that God sees the truth in us, the screenplay by Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintev brings this to the surface gradually. And how it affects, in varying degrees, a small town man, and his troubled wife and son. Bleak this is then, but the story is raw, and in the end carries you to a thoughtful climax that makes your heart sink. Stories end, but not always the way you hoped for. Leviathan won the screenplay award at Cannes last May.
Justin Lader (The One I Love)
Going into this movie believing you are going to see how a couple can salvage their marriage by going on a weekend retreat, was enough to be engrossed in. Justin Lader’s first feature script sets this up, and then turns things on their heads. When Sophie and Ethan start seeing each other how they ultimately would like to be (like preparing Ethan bacon though Sophie hates him eating it), they soon become suspicious. From there the narrative takes them deeper, to shine the light right back on themselves as individuals.
John Michael McDonagh (Calvary)
Without any pretense or manipulation, John Michael McDonagh’s script shows us how a small town priest, Father James, begins to accept the consequences and dilemmas of religion and faith following a threat on his own life. Interactions with his depressed daughter, and villagers of varying problems, are all scripted in a down to Earth manner. The finale is not over the top, but it is shocking, and you just have to accept it, as Father James does.
Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child)
Gillian Robespierre’s screenplay, based on her short film co-written by Karen Maine and Anna Bean, gets a story credit too by Elisabeth Holm. That’s four women writers. And what is this film about? A woman. And what a film, a blink-and-you-will-miss-it comedy that is over way too soon. It is short to say the least with less than 90 minutes running time, but crammed with clever, extremely funny dialogue (often hilariously ‘too much information’). In the center of the story is a young woman having to deal with the very serious issue of abortion. Not for a single second does the riveting writing get shadowed or even lost amidst the contrasts of wise-cracking wit and the very real personal dilemmas.
Justin Simien (Dear White People)
Immediately evident from the title, Dear White People (written and directed by Justin Simien) satirically shines on issues and stereotypes (or assumptions and fears) of race among a bunch of Ivy League students. And it is not particularly shy or withdrawn about it. The writing is quick-fire, intelligent, and funny – I literally laughed out loud more than once while reading it. I think sometimes we laugh though in a way of bemusement, that these matters are still current. A similar way I laughed perhaps when Selma was almost absent from recent award events. An important and refreshing script indeed.
J.C.Chandor (A Most Violent Year)
J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is a grounded, sedated, and not-quite-gangster movie. It is not about crime lords or unmerciful killings as such. There is money corruption and threats to family, sure. This has many of the components of a good old fashioned crime thriller here: the volatile wife; the temptation of the protagonist to get involved, maybe kill; the lure of money. But this narrative tones things down, because Abel, our protagonist, does not really want any trouble, his ruthlessness comes from his cautious outlook, his excellent business sense. This makes for intelligent story-telling.
Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip)
The case of watching a movie were characters talk like they are in a book is very apt here. And that appears to be Alex Perry’s intention. The whole movie is structured like a novel, with it’s chapters and voice-over narrator. Pretentious writer Philip is the protagonist, delivering, and being on the receiving end of, some really intelligent, sharp dialogue. His girlfriend Ashley and the audience play similar roles in that when Philip leaves to stay with an older, more successful writer, neither she, nor us, can seem to shake him off. Attempts to challenge him seem to only feed his ego, and it is compelling all the same.
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night)
Although large chunks of the narrative are brief conversations of the same nature (Sandra asking for help essentially), the screenplay is airtight, and builds a kind of suspense to how each of these interactions might go. You try and keep tally of the yes votes and the no votes, and tension or hope somehow builds when Sandra does not get an answer right away. The Dardennes spent years and years going back to this script, to perfect it, to make sure every piece of dialogue and action worked. And it wonderfully shows on screen.