Screenplays are different from the actual films they precipitate. Quite often the screenplay ends up being my favourite of a film. It all begins with the screenplay really – here are the ones that I remember most clearly from the last decade.
Runners Up: (Alpha): Big Fish* – adapted (2003); Bright Star* – original (2009); Brokeback Mountain – adapted (2005); The Constant Gardener – adapted (2005); Corpse Bride* – original (2005); The Fantastic Mr. Fox – adapted (2009); In the Loop – adapted (2009); Little Miss Sunshine – original (2006); Mean Girls* – adapted (2004); (2009); The Others* – original (2001)
#15: A History of Violence (2005), adaptation by Josh Olson
Richie Cusack: “So you like that farm life? Milking cows and shit?”Visceral is not a word I find myself using often, but it’s the one that comes to mind immediately when I think of A History of Violence. It approaches an issue – a character with two sensibilities – in a manner that’s unorthodox and also quite sanguine. Its aim is not to shock, at least not unwarrantedly. In approaching the concept with such smoothness Tom Stall becomes a symbol for any man.
Tom Stall: “I don't have a farm.”
Richie Cusack: [chuckling] “No? Fogarty thought you lived on some kind of farm. Said you could smell pig. How that old fart would know what a pig smells like, I don't know, but that's what he said.”
#14: Chicago (2002), adaptation by Bill Condon
Marshall is not credited, though a significant amount of the idea emanates from him. Still, Condon does excellent here. He doesn’t get overwhelmed by Ebb and Kander’s standards and forget to make sure they’re resting on a dependable set of words. He raises the standard ensuring that the every scene exists as it should and the spoken scenes succeed as much as the musical ones.
#13: You Can Count on Me (2000), originated by Kenneth Lonergan
Terry: “Where are we going?”A bitingly realistic and poignant look at filial love, it’s easy to forget and just see the excellent work being done by Ruffalo and Linney. Longergan crafts his screenplay with a surprising lack of pretentiousness, and even when we might hope for something a little more “movie-like” she’s careful to ensure that her characters are acting in keeping with the world he’s created for them.
Sammy: “To pick up Rudy.”
Terry: “What, do you not even want me to come visit now?”
Sammy: “Of course I want you to visit, you idiot! I've been looking forward to seeing you from the moment I got your letter, I told everyone in town that you were coming home, I cleaned the whole fucking house just so it would look nice for you! I had no idea you were just broke again! I wish you'd just send me an invoice!”
#12: Babel (2006), originated by Guillermo Arriaga
Yussef: “I killed the American, I was the only one who shot at you. They did nothing... nothing. Kill me, but save my brother, he did nothing... nothing. Save my brother... he did nothing. ”It’s simple to ignore because of Crash, which it’s mistakenly seen as a derivative of. It does tend to get a little bit too heavy-handed when delving into its symbolism but I forgive a few of its occasional missteps because in the greater realm of things I do treasure its ultimate result. The balancing between the three narratives is handled gracefully; and the message though obvious is not less profound for it.
#11: Traffic (2000), adapted by Stephen Gaghan
Caroline: “On the good days, I feel like I get it, like it all makes sense. I can stay in the moment, I don't have to control everything in the future, and I believe everything is gonna work out fine. On the bad days I just want to grab the phone and start dialing numbers. I want to pull my hair and run through the streets screaming. But thanks to the people I've met in these rooms, like Margaret and Jim and Sarah, I'm pretty sure I'm gonna make it through today.”Another massive ensemble drama, Traffic depends significantly on its screenplay. It's riveting and it flies by, but it's also incredibly smart. Gaghan has an ear for dialogue, especially topical dialogue, and the script serves as an excellent appraisal of current affairs.
#10: Erin Brockovich (2000), originated by Susannah Grant
Erin: “I've been working, that is all I have been doing, what am I supposed to do check in with you every two seconds?”This is another one that’s often overlooked. Grant takes a concept that’s almost pedestrian – the hardworking heroine against the world – and creates a screenplay that’s uncluttered and not at all condescending. We forget at times that at the end of the day this film is ultimately a legal drama, because Grant is willing to touch on more than just a single issue in her script.
Brenda: “Yes, it's called accountability and...”
Erin: “I'm not talking to you, bitch!”
Brenda: “Excuse me?”
Erin: “Get out of my face!”
#9: An Education (2009), adaptation by Nick Hornby
Helen: We should go shopping together one day, if you want.Hornby has the admirable ability to push a host of ideas into a particularly short screenplay. Moreover, though it ostensibly focuses on something as singular as a girl’s “coming-of-age” each character, regardless of their relative importance, speaks words that are completely their own.
Jenny: That would be nice. But South Ken, C'est beaucoup trop cher pour moi.
Jenny: I just said...It was too expensive for me.
Helen: No you didn't. You said something completely different.
#8: Match Point (2005), originated by Woody Allen
On the surface it’s just Woody Allen’s perverse take on a classic tale, but underneath it’s a thoroughly original and almost subversive take on people in the world. It stings as much as it amuses and when you think it’s a trifle there’s always something deeper lurking below – if you’re willing to look closer.
#7: The Departed (2006), adaptation by William Monahan
Uncle Ed: “Are you trying to prove something to the family?”Monahan’s adaptation of the Asian drama is a beast of its own. Complete with little character idiosyncrasies that are all his Monahan’s piece is completely original – adaptation or not. The world he creates is probably fabricated but everything that occurs is rendered believable simply because of the sameness throughout the narrative.
Billy Costigan: “When you say "the family," who do mean exactly? You?”
Uncle Ed: “You always have to question everything, don't you?”
Billy Costigan: “Maybe it would have done you some good to have some *questions* from time to time, you know? Am I an asshole? Are my kids a mess? Is my wife a money-grubbing whore? I mean, those are questions, right? Have I ever been good to my dying sister or am I just now pretending to be?”
#6: Burn After Reading* (2008), originated by Ethan and Joel Coen
Osbourne: “And you're my wife's lover?”This remains as one of the most inventive comedies of the decade, and the script is one of the decade’s best. The entire thing is permeated with a glorious amount of irreverence that doesn’t stop the harsh truths in the screenplay from being seen. It’s the very fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously though, not caring to sentimentalise any of its characters.
Ted: [shaking his head] “No.”
Osbourne: “Then what are you doing here? [pause] I know you. You're the guy from the gym.”
Ted: “I'm not here representing HardBodies.”
Osbourne: “Oh, yes. I know very well what you represent. [pause] You represent the idiocy of today. ”
#5: Atonement (2007), adaptation by Christopher Hampton
Robbie: “Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume. The one I had been planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once crossed the surrey park at dusk, in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life. The man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume. I will return. Find you, love you, marry you and live without shame.”Not as piercing as his work on Dangerous Liaisons, but done with the same amount of astonishing brevity. Like any such adaptation the script is littered with bits of symbolism here and there, and it must have been a task creating a screenplay from McEwan’s impressive novel. He doesn’t quake at the challenge, though, and the story works well on its own.
#4: The Hours (2003), adaptation by David Hare
I’ve not read Cunningham’s novel, though I’ve read extensive biographies on Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway. The screenplay exists seamlessly; there are three women but it is one story. Oddly, it never becomes too “talky”, the dialogue is never obtrusive. Instead everything flows together in beautiful subtlety.
#3: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead* (2007), originated by Kelly Masterson
Gina: “When are you going to grow up, Hank? We have a really good thing going, and you should just enjoy it. We have a really good time in bed. I don't ask for anything.”Masterson’s script is discordant, but that's the beauty of it. Such a tale could easily have become a message film, instea she turns it into a nuanced character study giving every character their pivotal moment – and ensuring that plot points that occur are readdressed. She refuses to conform to the norm creating a world that is completely hers.
Hank: “I love you. I want more.”
Gina: “So does Oliver Twist.”
#2: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), originated Charlie Kauffman with Michael Gondry
Joel: “I can't see anything that I don't like about you.”It’s an obvious choice, but deservedly so. It is a work that’s strikingly original even though the issues are ones we know all too well. Ostensibly it seems to be science fiction, but that solitary plot point is just that, and the issues addressed are done so with some of the most perceptive and smart comedic writing.
Clementine: “But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I'll get bored with you and feel trapped because that's what happens with me.”
Clementine: [pauses] “Okay. ”
#1: Gosford Park (2001), originated by Julian Fellowes with Robert Altman
So subtle and yet so intense, addressing serious issues and yet so hilarious it’s a choice that comes easily – almost too easily. The ensemble drama gives the writer much ground to cover, and Fellowes does it with aplomb. He travels upstairs, downstairs and back again – but never tries too hard. Character development is vivid, but sometimes subtle we need to look (and listen) carefully…and just when you think you can put it in a box, he’s waiting to add something to new. Perfect.
Aunt Constance: “Has anyone checked her outfit? She's probably in black velvet with a feather in her hair.”
Lavinia: “She's in the morning room looking perfectly normal. Don't be such a snob aunt Constance.”
Aunt Constance: “Me? I haven't a snobish bone in my body.”
Twelve originals and thirteen adaptations make up my twenty favourite screenplays. The ones with asterisks (seven) were, unfortunately, ignored by the Academy.
Which screenplay from the last decade would you want to take credit for?