Best of 2011: 20 Screenplays

3 Feb

A whole month after 2011 ended I have wrapped up my yearly rankings, having seen 256 films released in 2011, granting 13 perfect A+ scores and a really superb 76 scores in the A range. To remember the year that was I thought I should start a feature that will hopefully become a yearly thing for me and do a few Best of 2011 posts, choosing my Top 20 films, directing efforts, screenplays, and performances (separated by lead male, lead female, supporting male and supporting female) and doing a post honoring them with a brief paragraph explaining what made each of those 20 options so remarkable and memorable and thus made 2011 a great year for films. The second entry will be my Top 20 Screenplays of 2011:

20. TAKE SHELTER written by Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols wrote and directed the magnificent Take Shelter, and he shows such a great confidence as a filmmaker that it’s just astonishing, and this film in particular is one of those that the second it finishes you’ll be wanting to see again. And even though the performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, as well as Mr. Nichols’ direction, take a lot of credit for this film being so good, so too does its screenplay. You never once really know where this film is headed, and what’s best is that it’s created such a great sense of tension that you get a bit scared about where it’ll end up. I thought it was a brilliant script that took its time to create a slowburn effect and gradually reveal its many intricate layers.

19. THE TREE OF LIFE written by Terrence Malick

This film held the 6th spot on my Top 20 Films of 2011, and its screenplay gets a mention in this ranking as well. What’s so impressive about this screenplay is that it could easily also be released as a novel, it’s just so extremely descriptive, going into lengths about those many little details Terrence Malick is know to be a perfectionist over, describing exactly how he wanted the many breathtakingly gorgeous images in his film to look. It’s so immensely rich, full of some really fascinating ideas that demonstrate just how complex and ambitious this film was, good thing for us that they translated to perfection on screen.

18. THE IDES OF MARCH written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on the play by Beau Willimon

Another film that also cracked my Top 20 Films ranking (at 18th) and that gets that same spot in my Screenplay rankings. The script, which got an Oscar nod, shows why the film was an entertaining, dialogue-driven film. It starts off setting the stage really well, delivering great dialogue and pacing, giving us a great inside look at how political campaigns are ran. The Ides of March is a movie made for actors, certainly, with just quite a lot of character development and more than a few scenes that are all about snappy banter that the film has a hugely talented ensemble deliver. The one thing that’s a bit off and why I didn’t rank it higher is that, for the same reason and the fact that it’s based on a play, it actually feels sometimes like a piece that belongs in a stage. But still, this is a pretty damn good screenplay.

17. A SEPARATION written by Asghar Farhadi

The film that was 15th on my Film rankings gets a mention in the Screenplay one as well, thanks to a seriously powerful script that managed to snag an Oscar nomination, which is rare for a foreign language film. And it’s honestly a terrific screenplay, one that brings forth a lot of seriously powerful ethical questions to be asked by both characters and audiences alike, and that in the domestic drama that it presents it’s tremendously structured to create a really tense environment. So far all 4 of my mentions in this ranking have been written or co-written by the film’s director, which shows how great the writer-director’s visions were in 2011.

16. DRIVE written by Hossein Amini, based on the book by James Sallis

The script for Drive, my fourth favorite film of the year, is great as it is, but what actually elevates it to a category of greatness is what director Nicolas Winding Refn does with it, he kind of strips it down, leaving pretty much just the naked essence of it for us to see. What we then get is a pretty quiet film, in which the imagery says more than words ever could, but in which the words that are actually used just phenomenal. Not to mention that, by not having long explanatory scenes or huge displays of dialogue, the film actually manages to get in quite a lot of plot into its 100 minute running time, which was tremendously well done.

15. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO written by Steve Zaillian, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson

My #3 film of the year had a script by Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian (he won for Schindler’s List), who had the tough task to not only adapt a hugely popular book that was in everyone’s hands not that long ago, but also one that had already been successfully adapted into a great film just a bit over a year ago. Thankfully, the fact that this was being made for big bucks, by a studio, to be consumed by a wider audience, didn’t mean the screenplay was like a sanitized version of the novel, this was as gritty as you could imagine, and the tough scenes are tremendously brought to life by director David Fincher and a hugely talented cast.

14. SHAME written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan

Shame is my second favorite film of the year, and Michael Fassbender said that he read the script over 300 times in order to really get immersed in his character, so you can be sure the script dealt a lot with its characters. Written by director Steve McQueen with Abi Morgan the script is much more straightforward narratively than Mr. McQueen’s previous film, which was the excellent Hunger, and much more plot-driven too. Which is good, but still, it’s a tough script to get through because of its very graphic nature and harsh look at addiction, but just how perfectly it delves into the day-to-day routine of Brandon, the lead character, and the inner hell he goes through because of his sex addiction, is incredible.

13. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE written by Sean Durkin

Yet another film written by its director, and another script from a film that was in my personal Top 20 (it landed at number 10). The script is sensationally well-structured, the back-and-forth technique it uses to go between the memories of Martha about her time in a cult to the present day is impeccable done, because it gets to the point in which, much like the character herself does, the line between past and present gets a bit blurry, which helps us get to feel her mental state. The film had great performances and direction, but a lot of it came from the script too, that scene in which John Hawkes’ character sings a song at the cult’s ceremony is incredible in how much narrative momentum it achieves. Just an impeccable debut, both writing and directing-wise, from Sean Durkin.

12. THE ARTIST written by Michel Hazanavicius

Yes, it’s a screenplay for a silent film, with title cards to indicate dialogue, with actors moving their lips even though nothing is coming out of them. And yet it’s so magical and enchanting and fresh and unique and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before; it’s a screenplay that pays homage to a great era of Hollywood by creating some really memorable scenarios and characters that don’t really need words to come alive and for us to connect with them. Michel Hazanavicius also directed the film, so he knew exactly what he wanted to get; and boy did he get it, I ranked the film as the 8th best of 2011.

11. HUGO written by John Logan, based on the book by Brian Selznick

Yes this was my favorite film of the year and the screenplay for it doesn’t even crack the Top 10. Which is not to say it’s bad, not at all, and it deservedly got an Oscar nod for John Logan, but it just wasn’t as masterful as the film itself. Still, how it managed to get George Méliés’ story within the frame of Hugo’s actually made this a much more emotional film than if it had been a straightforward biopic of Méliés. I loved this, I loved how great a love letter to cinema it was and how great an innocent a kids movie it was at the same time.

10. WIN WIN written by Thomas McCarthy, story by Thomas McCarthy and Joe Tiboni

Win Win is a beautiful little film, one that just makes you want to experience it again after you finish it, and it all comes from the fact that Tom McCarthy is the kind of writer-director that is genius at portraying real people and real emotions. The tone throughout the entire film is so firmly grounded in its screenplay, one that tells a story that’s actually quite easy for you to read and guess where it’s going next, which is good because it enables you to get a glimpse at all the perfectly nuanced aspects of the film. Funny, low-key and, most importantly, terrifically honest, Win Win is a brilliant example of screenwriting.

9. MARGIN CALL written by J.C. Chandor

One of the biggest and most welcome surprises on Nomination morning was to sound of J.C. Chandor’s name being called out when they nominated this screenplay, his debut feature as both a writer and director. It’s the first script that actually knows how to tackle the subject of our most recent economic depression, a script about the power of money and greedy men. It starts off tremendously strong and follows through with a huge array of characters and situations that are really tightly written by a guy that certainly knows a lot about the stuff he’s writing about. Subject matter aside, this is a script done by a writer who knows that good characters in high stakes situations are exactly what makes for good drama, and he gave us the timeliest and most high stake situation of recent times. Just a job really well done.

8. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré

I’ve said that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may just have been the smartest film of all 2011, it has a lot of moving pieces and it works like a puzzle full of paranoia, just so intricately plotted. The fact that the script got an Oscar nomination is just really well deserved, because balancing all the facts and events and characters is not easy at all, and you’ll have to pay close attention while you see the film to really get it, but it successfully manages to balance it all out, just a seriously fantastic adaptation of a classic of espionage literature. And yes, Gary Oldman as Smiley is the shit.

7. THE DESCENDANTS written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Alexander Payne already has an Oscar for writing Sideways, a hugely deserved one, and he may be getting another one soon for the adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel he did alongside Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, which became the fifth best film I saw all of last year. What’s so amazing about how this script works is that it takes all the time it needs to slowly, and beautifully, unfold. From the very get-go there’s something about these characters that feels incredibly human, and when the people, the places and the emotions on-screen feel real it’s just incredibly easy to lose yourself in them. How the screenplay manages to so perfectly mix comedy and drama is truly outstanding, achieving a balance that makes every laugh and every tear feel earned.

6. 50/50 written by Will Reiser

I think this script is terrific; I think the tone it achieves, the structure of it, the characters it crafts, everything I thought was just sensationally achieved. Will Reiser of course wrote this basing it on his own experience with cancer, and I guess it takes a person who has actually gone through something like to be able to achieve this mix between the funny and the serious, to walk such a fine tightrope and come out so successfully. This was just a seriously smart screenplay that never once went for the sort of clichés you might think fitting for this kind of story, it never once wanted to leave you crying, and it’s because of that, because it wasn’t manipulating, that it earns your tears, just as greatly as it earns your laughs.

5. BEGINNERS written by Mike Mills

I saw Beginners for the first time back in June, and I’ve seen it I think three extra times since then, and every single one of those times I feel like it’s this extremely awesome kind of surprise. Even though I’ve seen it before and know exactly what’s coming next, it manages to surprise me, it manages to put a smile on my face. And that all starts with the impressive script by Mike Mills, who makes even familiar moments feel truly fresh, and he achieves that because every feeling on screen from his characters, every exchange, feels spectacularly honest. From the great structure, going from the past to the present, to the great voiceover, to the subtitled musings of the adorable Jack Russell terrier, Beginners is a treat. And if you haven’t done so yet, I urge you to experience it.

4. MONEYBALL written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, with story by Stan Chervin, based on the book by Michael Lewis

In 2010 Aaron Sorkin adapted a book about Facebook into the masterpiece that was The Social Network and rightfully won an Oscar for his work, it was by far the best script of that year. Now he had the task to yet again adapt a book that would seem unadaptable, one about baseball statistics, collaborating on a screenplay by Steve Zaillian (who also wrote the #15 on this list), and penning out one that would result in the film that I named the seventh best of last year. The screenplay is just so tightly-written, and it’s typical Sorkin, where people just really intelligently talk really fast and about fascinating stuff. I love the fact that films this smart are being made, ones that rely just on solid words and actors being pitch-perfect at delivering them.

3. YOUNG ADULT written by Diablo Cody

Diablo Cody wrote one of my favorite screenplays of the past decade with the one she did for Juno, the name of this blog “artfully bedraggled” even comes from a description she makes at the beginning of it, so you can say that I’m a bit of sucker for her style of writing. Though I still prefer Juno to this one, I do believe that this may be her most mature effort to date, a story that’s really funny, but that’s also considerably dark and more than a little bit messed up. Mavis Gary is an unlikable character and Cody never once feels compelled to make us sympathetic towards her, but instead never once lets her off the hook, and crafts a really piercing character study. This woman is one of my favorite screenwriters right now, I now she has her detractors, and so be it, I just think she has a knack for this, and this new effort of hers shows she’s moving forward in all the right directions.

2. BRIDESMAIDS written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo

In a year when The Hangover Part II was expected by everyone to be the most hilarious film in the world, a week before it I got to see Bridesmaids, which was being seen by some as the female equivalent to it. Well, we know how The Hangover Part II turned out, and we know how it was Bridesmaids that had everyone roaring with laughter. With a script by SNL MVP Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, which got them an Oscar nod, this was just an expert mix of hilarious raunchy comedy, one that was actually done the right way, with a lot of heart at the same time, a film that at its heart is all about friendship. I loved this film from beginning to end, and even though the cast had a lot to do with it, it would have been nowhere as great without this screenplay.

1. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS written by Woody Allen

My favorite screenplay of the year belongs to my 14th favorite film of the year. It’s the one that saw the return of Woody Allen, writing a film reminiscent of his classic films from decades ago, and one that will, if there’s any justice in this world, earn him his fourth Oscar (his third for writing). Woody Allen is the kind of writer-director that you don’t want to see experimenting and veering off in different directions, because he’s already the best at what he does, and he’s been the best at what he does for four decades now, and Midnight in Paris shows that he’s not slowing down, even though his detractors of late had been suggesting as much. Out of my Top 20 Screenplays, 13 are originals and 7 are adapted. But the real interesting thing, I thought, was that 12 out of the 20 were either written or co-written by the film’s director, showing how great the writer-director vision is nowadays. And my Top 20 included all 10 of the Oscar nominees.


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