Scribes pen their praise of the year's best screenplays
Playwrights, novelists, biographers and other scribes pen their praise of the year’s best screenplays.
Joan Schenkar on ‘The King’s Speech’
Writer: David Seidler
First of all, it’s obvious that it had been written first as a theater piece. I did a little research, and it turns out David Seidler had, in fact, written it as theater piece at the advice of his former wife and old writing partner in order to consolidate the relationship between Lionel Logue and the Duke of York. What you get is an intense and growing relationship between these two very disparate men. Overall, the writing is very consistent, and that’s something you don’t often see in screenplays these days, because they are usually written by three or four people. This one has one author and one clear voice. It’s a real movie-movie, which means it gives us old-fashioned satisfactions. We see a growing relationship, which is beautifully resolved. We see a likable man overcoming an enormous obstacle. And we see a lot along the way about his psychological deficiencies and his characteristic reticences. Also, this film provides as much suspense as any thriller. Every single sentence that the poor Duke of York has to say, you’re never sure if he’s going to get to the end of it or not. The excruciation as you’re waiting for him to stutter through every sentence is just as terrifying and suspenseful as any thriller movie. It’s a suspense-packed script. This is a film you listen to as well as watch, especially because of the duke’s impediments. It makes you pay attention in a way you usually don’t in a film.
Joan Schenkar’s most recent book is “The Talented Miss Highsmith.”
Donald Margulies on ‘Winter’s Bone’
Writers: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
“Winter’s Bone” is astonishing for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was made at all. Films of such raw, unpretty beauty are supposedly not made in America anymore and yet here it is, defying our negativity. Debra Granik has done something remarkable: she has directed and written, with Anne Rosellini (from a novel by Daniel Woodrell), in a wholly American vernacular, a modern Greek tragedy. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that its 17-year-old heroine, Ree Dolly, has much of the grandeur of an Antigone, or an Electra. Ree is also one of the best roles for an actress of any age the cinema has seen in a very long time and, in Jennifer Lawrence’s breathtakingly unaffected performance, is made unforgettable. The story of “Winter’s Bone” may sound bleak in synopsis (“teenaged girl searches through the brutal Ozarks for her dastardly, crystal-meth-dealing dad”) but the experience of watching it is nothing short of exhilarating.
Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Dinner with Friends,” returned to Broadway this season with “Time Stands Still.”
Michael Cunningham on ‘127 Hours’
Writers: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy
One of the mysteries of 2010: How did Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, in “127 Hours,” write a compelling movie about a guy with his arm pinned under a rock? I watched it in wonder. Why was I so engrossed? I even knew what was going to happen, as did most members of the audience. How did it hold our attention the way it did? Answer: Conviction. Boyle and Beaufoy told their story directly, without apology. Sure, there are flashbacks, but not a ton of them. For most of the movie, we stay with the James Franco character as he struggles to escape. We watch him try everything he possibly can. We watch day turn into night, and back into day again. We see him running out of water. And we know, with mounting dread, what the only solution is going to be.
There’s a simple lesson here, though it’s one that writers are too often reluctant to learn. Trust your story. Trust your audience. If the story is made up of minutiae, focus on the minutiae. Let the story fly on its own. No matter how outwardly small, no matter how claustrophobic, that story seems to be. Have faith.
Michael Cunningham, author of “By Nightfall,” won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Hours.”
Jim Cramer on ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’
Writers: Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff
Sometimes something happens that’s so difficult to comprehend, so complex and subtle yet horrific in its magnitude for people’s financial lives, that you figure it will never be exposed. That’s almost what happened with the near financial collapse of the United States in 2008. I say “almost” because “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” used the brilliant creative talents of Oliver Stone and a script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff to tell the story in a rapt and fascinating way. I can count on two fingers the movies that have gotten Wall Street right, “Wall Street” and “Money Never Sleeps.” The former had almost no redeeming characters. The latter actually suffused us with hope that its protagonist could combat the greed that almost brought us down, albeit in one small corner of the Street. But before we got the fictional hope we got the unvarnished truth that can only be told in fiction, that the greed that was “bad” in Wall Street to the few shareholders that were ripped off in a couple of takeovers by Gordon Gekko, was disastrous for not just Wall Street but Main Street. The gangsters had taken over the nations’ financial boardroom. When I watched “Money Never Sleeps,” I was so afraid that people wouldn’t understand the magnitude of what went on. I was wrong. My canvas of non-Wall Streeters had one chorus “Ah-ha, now I get what happened.” Not bad considering that the insiders I talk to almost unanimously felt they learned something too. Oh, and by the way, it’s a great love story, too!
Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s “Mad Money,” is author of “Jim Cramer’s Getting Back to Even.”
Doug Wright on ‘Rabbit Hole’
Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire
In adapting his play “Rabbit Hole” for the screen, David Lindsay-Abaire does what Art with a capital “A” should do; he finds meaning in the random chaos of our lives. He takes an unbearably sad subject — the death of a child — and creates a film that’s suffused with hope without resorting to easy sentiment or trickery. Instead he earns it honestly, with a nuanced script that chronicles the grief process in two very different parents: a mother whose only ballast is her caustic rage and a father desperate for more conventional comforts: a cherished photo, a favorite toy. As they struggle with their tragedy, so do we, until together audience and characters alike graduate to a consoling truth: that the scars we bear after losing a loved one don’t isolate us. On the contrary, they are testaments to our shared humanity. Given his illustrious career as a playwright, it’s no surprise that David Lindsay-Abaire writes virtuosic roles for actors, and the performances in “Rabbit Hole” are career milestones for its stars. But the real achievement is Lindsay-Abaire’s ability to accrue telling details — the broken stalk of a freshly planted flower, a finger smudge on a pane of glass — until they achieve the scope and the power of unique and exhilarating drama.
Doug Wright received the Pulitzer Prize for his play “I Am My Own Wife,” and his new musical, “Hands on a Hardbody,” opens next season at La Jolla Playhouse.
Danny Zuker on ‘Black Swan’
Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
If you only see only one Tchaikovsky-inspired, bipolar, lesbian ballerina horror film this year, make it ‘Black Swan.’ I’d heard people characterize the movie as an arthouse film, and I suppose there’s truth in that, but it owes just as much to the great exploitation films of the 1970s. It has all of the elements — the descent into madness, the horrifying mother, monsters and the whole lesbian thing. The thing that I loved about it from a screenwriting point of view is that it’s not a movie where you’re watching a crazy person. The script puts you completely in the mind of that crazy person played by the amazing Natalie Portman. Nina’s reality is our reality. Her fears are our fears. And at first those fears seem quite reasonable. When later we learn that these fears are the paranoid delusions of someone having a complete breakdown, it’s incredibly jarring. And really fun. Underneath the stunning visuals is a fairly brilliant story structure.
Darren Aronofsky was shooting a fairly classic story of the artist under pressure. I may have sprouted a few black feathers stressing over this paragraph myself. But he took this well-trod subject matter, turned it on its ear and by the end went for a straight-out slasher film. This unlikely movie mash-up entertained me from beginning to end. Imagine seeing a Merchant Ivory movie like “Remains of the Day” and one hour in, Emma Thompson grows claws and gores Anthony Hopkins to death. Wait, that’s a pretty good idea. I need to register that.
As co-executive producer of “Modern Family,” Danny Zuker has written six episodes of the ABC series.
Maureen Callahan on ‘Somewhere’
Writer: Sofia Coppola
It is no small irony that the lovely, affecting screenplay for “Somewhere” is so spare that dialogue isn’t spoken until at least 10 minutes in. The glorious visual debauchery of “Marie Antoinette” excepted, director-writer Sofia Coppola has always been a minimalist, composing and framing shots with a fashion editor’s eye. (One tableau is a direct reference to a Helmut Newton shot.) “Somewhere” is, narratively, modest: a love story between the bored, lonely, and very successful Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), herself on the verge of adolescence, both confused by and in awe of her father. As all good storytellers do, whether in text or on film, Coppola shows, not tells. One long shot of Dorff sitting on a couch at the Chateau Marmont, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, staring into space — that tells us more about his state of mind than 10 pages of dialogue could. The film, like most of her others, is a tone poem, and Coppola’s stylistic minimalism augments the emotional: There are, refreshingly, no hysterical outbursts, no daughterly recriminations, no pleas for parental attention. Instead, there is a raised eyebrow, a helium giggle, a head on a shoulder, nestling further and further in — subtle and elegant punctuation marks. As with “Lost in Translation,” no one says, “I love you,” which is exactly how the audience knows that these two people, so complicated and a little bit lost, actually really do love each other.
Maureen Callahan wrote the new bio “Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga.”
James Patterson on ‘The Town’
Writers: Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard
I grew up in Massachusetts, worked a couple of years in Charlestown, and the script is dead-on in capturing the sarcasm, the corrosive sense of irony, the pervading hopelessness and the cheery pissed-off attitude of the locals. And yeah, robbing banks got to be the thing back in the day. Director Ben Affleck gets it right here — just as he did in “Gone Baby Gone.” And that’s just the backdrop for this tale — which is a first-rate thriller. Which means that it thrills. It seems to me that Hollywood has pretty much forgotten how to make thrillers. “The Town” is a great example of how it ought to be done. You hook the audience early, then you keep surprising the hell out of them. You get the details right, do your homework about bank-robbing and such, work your research very naturally into the story. You create characters who you give a damn about, people you love, people you hate. You try to leave everybody who doesn’t fit into one of those two categories out of your story. You make every single scene count. If there’s a romance, you fill that with surprises too. And if you’re smart, you don’t end your story on a downer, because most folks don’t want that after a hard day’s work of robbing banks, or more likely, being robbed by them.
James Patterson’s most recent novel is “Cross Fire.”
Nancy Schoenberger on ‘The Ghost Writer’
Writers: Roman Polanski,Robert Harris
Roman Polanski and Robert Harris’ stylish, Hitchcockian screenplay is political intrigue with brooding menace, but it’s also a sly wink to writers — ghost and otherwise — in an era when manuscripts, and those who write them, seem a threatened species. It’s an elegant script, based on Harris’ bestselling novel “The Ghost,” sleek as the uber-modern beach house at the heart of the movie (if the movie has a heart), brilliant in its evocation of mood (escalating paranoia) and its depiction of a world in which no one, and nothing, is as it seems. One of the beautiful things about this screenplay is the fact that the manuscript is a character in the movie. The bulky manuscript is the ugly duckling at the fashion show — an impediment, a reproach, an eyesore. And yet it contains the answer to all the questions raised by the movie, cryptically embedded in its text. Not since Polanski’s 1999 thriller, “The Ninth Gate,” has a text wielded such power. But this is a subtler script — more restrained, more reasoned, more true-to-life, and therefore, somehow, more menacing. The screenplay’s real shocker is the brilliant ending: a murder (off camera!) and images of the manuscript’s pages blowing through the streets of London, their secret dispersed by the wind.
Nancy Schoenberger is co-author of the books “Hollywood Kryptonite” and “Furious Love.”
David Thomson on ‘The Way Back’
Writers: Keith R. Clarke, Peter Weir
The great film of the year for me — by a distance to stretch from Siberia to India — is Peter Weir’s “The Way Back.” The script, by Keith R. Clarke and Weir himself, is from a book by Slavomir Rawicz. A group of prisoners in a Siberian gulag, in the middle of the Second World War, decide to escape. They will not all survive, but the film carries them through the world’s landscapes (only jungle is missing, I think). An epic of survival? you may surmise. And if I tell you they pick up a girl along the way, then you may fear cliche. But this is an epic in which David Lean’s look is mixed in with Tarkovsky’s severity. Weir seldom makes plain or unambitious films. Still, this project has elevated him. The ending is very bold and may strike some as sentimental. But in its simplicity it says more about survival under the gravest stress than most films manage. On the bigscreen, this is an experience to rival whatever movie you value most.
David Thomson authored “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”
Thomas Cobb on ‘Fair Game’
Writers: Jez Butterworth,John Henry Butterworth
History is often seen as real events that happened to imaginary people. The problem that faces scriptwriters Jez Butterworth and John Henry Butterworth in “Fair Game” is twofold — to remind the audience of the events of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s outing by the Bush administration and to portray the individuals involved as real people. The first half of the movie lays out the complex threads of the political plot. The second half of the movie, concentrates on character, as pressure from the vice-president’s office begins to crack the lives and marriage of Plame and Joe Wilson. Here the script succeeds in creating a suspenseful, emotionally wracking story as Plame retreats, and Wilson attacks. The script doesn’t overreach, targeting only Scooter Libby within the Bush Administration. The pressures brought to bear on Ms. Plame and Mr. Wilson are palpable, and the script is as sympathetic and engaging as the characters of Ms. Plame and Mr. Wilson are.
Thomas Cobb is author of the novels “Crazy Heart” and “Shavetail.”
Eric Simonson on ‘The Fighter’
Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Let me first confess that I’m a sucker for sports films, dating all the way back to “Brian’s Song,” which I first saw as a kid, and up to and including “Million Dollar Baby.” “The Fighter,” like any good boxing movie, is exceptional in that it is not about boxing at all, but uses the sport as a backdrop to say something much larger about the human condition. It’s a tribute to the film that in it’s first hour and a half, there’s only one boxing sequence. I think the best thing a writer can do, is to give actors and a director material they can work with. The characters in “The Fighter” were real, flawed, courageous and never dull. The actors were wholly committed, making themselves unrecognizable from their celebrity selves. And I cared for them. I took sides; I switched sides a couple times, and I really wanted that Fighter to win. Ultimately, in the end, what makes “The Fighter” so memorable is that it accomplished that one little trick that most all good writers try to do: the writing was practically invisible, leaving only the characters and the story. So much so that when the credits rolled and the lights came up, I sat waiting, wanting more.
Eric Simonson wrote the play “Lombardi,” now on Broadway.
Rajiv Joseph on ‘Daybreakers’
Writers: Michael Spiereg, Peter Spiereg
There’s so much to love in this movie about a world taken over entirely by vampires. The nocturnal city bustles with the activity of commuters about their nightly business, and on CNN, talking heads debate over what to do with the few remaining humans on Earth (the conservatives want to harvest them; the liberals want to save them). This is fundamentally a movie about civilization facing an existential crisis due to a dwindling energy source. But what caught my eye was an almost playful vampire trope in the first 10 minutes: Ethan Hawke’s non-reflection in his side view mirror, his suit hovering without a body, as he parks. That vampires lack a reflection is something I’ve known since I pored over picture-books in grade school. Yet in the Spiereg brothers’ world, this simple fact takes on added significance. Hawke’s character, haunted by his immortal bloodsucking existence, plays a hematologist (genius!) searching desperately for a cure for vampirism. Without a reflection, he doesn’t exist, and this is the reason he can’t die. I find it a compelling idea, and one that occupies the periphery of this entire film, that our impulse to live forever might only be cured by chasing down life with the urgency of a man about to be turned to dust by the light of day.
Rajiv Joseph’s new play, “A Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” opens on Broadway this spring.
Michael Connelly on ‘Monsters’
Writer: Gareth Edwards
I admire “Monsters” because the script took precedence over all aspects of the film, which is in the shopworn genre of global invasion by alien monsters. We’ve only seen about a thousand of these. And from what I read, it was made on an absolutely shoestring budget. So what writer-director Gareth Edwards did that was so refreshing was that he relied on the relationship of the two protagonists, a photojournalist and a rich man’s daughter trying to make their way across the invaded territory. To do that, he needed a script that was 75% human interaction and dialogue and maybe 25% monsters. I think it succeeded quite well, and as I watched the film I became invested through the relationship. Not to knock a sci-fi event film like “Avatar,” but “Monsters” went the opposite way. So I found it refreshing, fun and found myself cheering for the movie.
Michael Connelly’s most recent novel is “The Reversal.”
Adam Rapp on ‘True Grit’
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
True Grit” follows the journey of 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a young woman of exceptional resolve who is seeking to avenge her father’s death. In its simplest terms, it’s a story of innocence forging out in an ugly world, of a self-possessed, honor-driven, precocious girl who is long on spirit but short on experience. Mattie and her hired man, the one-eyed U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), wheedle through a bleak and blighted landscape, in search of Mattie’s father’s killer, the long-hunted Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). They happen upon a hanged man whose eye is being pecked out by a vulture, a prolifically bearded wilderness dentist wearing a bear’s head, and are joined, abandoned, and rejoined by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who also has been tracking Chaney. In an ironic twist of fate, Mattie encounters her father’s killer tending to his horses in the same creek where she is going for water. In this backwoods world, there are certainly hundreds of ancient, hairy trees, but Mattie’s forest is made up of lost, beleaguered men, and she keeps bumping headfirst into the most terrifying, convoluted ones. The story of surrogate fathers and a sad, dislocated yearning for the lost people in our lives quietly overtakes the narrative and, though debilitated, Mattie and Cogburn attain a shared, wordless grace. The spellbinding final journey through the inky, snow-dusted night feels like the ending of a wise, delicate fable.
Adam Rapp is author of the play “Red Light Winter.”
Joe DiPietro on ‘The Kids Are All Right’
Writers: Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg
In Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg’s funny script for their aching human comedy, “The Kids Are All Right,” perhaps the most surprising moment occurs when the story’s central female couple sexually arouse themselves by watching, as their son calls it, “gay man porn.” Now, I have no idea if lesbians actually watch gay man porn, and as a guy who does watch gay man porn, I would only summon the nerve to watch lesbian porn if both my hands were firmly covering my eyes and I was forced to slowly separate my fingers. But their relationship is written with such detailed conviction that I totally accepted their porn-viewing habits as yet another striking character trait in a movie overflowing with striking character traits. Even better, the movie is shrewdly subversive (the gay-raised kids are far more adjusted than the straight-raised kids,) while being warmly conventional (the loving family unit survives all outside challenges). And to top it all off, “The Kids Are All Right” tosses off a final line that, in two simple words, not only sums up an awkward truth that no one in the movie seems to have considered before but also made me laugh out loud.
Joe DiPietro won Tonys last season for writing the book and lyrics for the musical “Memphis.”
John Guare on ‘The Social Network’
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
In spite of writing “Six Degrees of Separation,” I’ve never attempted tracking down everyone on the planet. Facebook changed that when an actor said to me, “I loved what you wrote yesterday on your Facebook page.” I said, “Huh? I’ve never opened Facebook.” The actor was shocked, “But I leave you messages all the time.” I asked that he put up an announcement saying I knew nothing about this site. He reported a posting that said wistfully, “You mean it’s not the real John Guare who’s been giving me advice for the last two years?” I loved having an alternate me who behaved more generously than I ever would. I went in this Luddite spirit to see “The Social Network” and was amazed by the ferocity of people needing to connect, betray, celebrate without the least concern for anything to do with reality. “The Social Network” captures today’s culture of competition, where the more people who connect to you, to whom you connect, gives you an authenticity you can live with, even if it’s entirely fictional. “The Social Network” became my favorite movie of the year not for its documentary, or lack of documentary, truth but for Aaron Sorkin’s quicksilver screenplay, which ruthlessly captures the spirit of today’s culture of competition, an alternate universe where the more people who connect to you on Facebook and watch you on YouTube gives you an identity you can live with, even if it’s an entirely fictional construct. Bravo Aaron Sorkin. Bravo “The Social Network.”
The 2010-11 Broadway season hosts two by John Guare, his new play “A Free Man of Color” and a revival of “The House of Blue Leaves.”
More from Eye on the Oscars: Writers’ Roundup:
• The scribes that bind