The Best Screenplays of 2019
The 2019 film year may have started off soft, followed by an underwhelming summer season, but from autumn on, it rallied. More and more critics are making “Top 20 Best Lists” this month, and the Academy shouldn’t have to struggle to come up with seven to ten worthy Best Picture nominees for February’s Oscar ceremony. Picking the best-filmed screenplays of the year here at Creative Screenwriting magazine is an assignment chock full of a similar embarrassment of riches. Still, there are some that shine brighter than others, even though all-in-all, it’s been one stellar film year.
The freshest coming-of-age film to hit cineplexes this year was Booksmart. Written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, it felt like an instant cult classic. The heroines of the story, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), are best friends and two smart cookies trying to live one night on the wild side before graduation. It’s out of character for them, of course, and they get into all kinds of shenanigans, but amongst the film’s many pleasures are the way it remains female in its aesthetic. The girls aren’t defined by relationships with boys, their adventures are not frat boy hijinks, and throughout their journey together, they remain besties. It’s a very mature comedy, as wise in its way as Lady Bird in 2017, with some Superbad rancor from 2007 thrown in to make it genuinely hilarious. Kudos to Olivia Wilde for bringing the sharp script to life with equally shrewd and savvy directorial skills.
Murder mysteries are tricky to make unique, what with all the procedurals glutting the big and small screens, but Rian Johnson wrote a devilishly clever one in Knives Out, his riff on the tropes of Agatha Christie whodunnits. A fan of the genre, Johnson honored it, as well as reorganized, the well-known cliches. The movie was full of surprises with payoffs that not only made sense, but earned each gasp and giggle. Daniel Craig had a field day playing the southern private eye working the case, and Ana de Armas did her best screen work with a nuanced performance, both humorous and heartfelt. Every celeb in the cast made the most of their time onscreen as Christopher Plummer’s deceitful family, especially the 90-year-old actor himself whose 15 minutes of screen time knocked your socks off. Let’s hope Johnson returns with more mysteries and Craig in the very near future. (Also, it would be wise for Kenneth Branagh to took copious notes for his upcoming remake of Christie’s Death on the Nile.)
Another deceitful family was on display in Lulu Wang’s autobiographical comedy The Farewell. Greed didn’t drive them, however, love for their grandmother did. They’re a Chinese family trying to shield her from the knowledge that she only has a short time to live. Their plan? Concoct a fake wedding to bring everyone together for one last party to celebrate their unsuspecting matriarch. The craziness gets thicker and sillier, as everyone tries to improvise their way through the embarrassing reception, fake toasts, and a host of near-misses with Grandma. Few films juxtapose laughs against tears so skillfully, and in doing so, Lula Wang, directing from her own script, made it the feel-good film of 2019.
Dolemite Is My Name was another comedy equally adept at tugging at our heartstrings as tickling our ribs. The Eddie Murphy vehicle, directed by Craig Brewer, showcased a story about Hollywood and fame, full of outrageous characters, salty language, and surprising pathos. The story of an aging African-American comic Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy in an Oscar-worthy turn) trying to make it in show biz proved once again that its screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski know the pain and the glory of it all. They really know how to nail the City of Angels as they also did in Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and The People vs.O.J. Simpson. These two superb scribes laugh at the town but laugh with its citizenry.
Pedro Almodóvar knows Pain and Glory too, and that’s what he entitled his semi-autobiographical story about an aging filmmaker coming to terms with his jaded past and uncertain future. There are many hallmarks of the Spanish filmmaker’s style evident throughout, from the bright colors to the twisting plot to the presence of his constant muse Penelope Cruz. Still, this film is gentler, sweeter, and more forgiving than most of his works. Antonio Banderas gives the best performance of his career as the director who wants desperately to be in control but learns to live and let go. It’s one of the best character arcs in film this year.
A couple of other films with autobiographical shadings stood out too in the adapted screenplay category. Anthony McCarten translated his play to the screen for director Fernando Meirelles in The Two Popes, chronicling the transition of Vatican power between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). The script crackled with character and tension like few duels since Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth in 1972. Greta Gerwig wrote and directed a new version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, turning it into a modern anthem of empowerment not just for lead Jo (Saoirse Ronan), but all of her sisters too. And Steve Zaillian translated Charles Brandt’s book into one of the most lauded films of the year – The Irishman directed by Martin Scorsese. It took 3.5 hours to tell the story of hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro, in a sly and introspective performance) and used all that time to tell a thoroughly searing character study about a bad man coming to terms with all the destruction he’s left in his wake.
For my money though, the two best scripts of the year were wholly original. Noah Baumbach brought his signature character development, crackerjack ear for dialogue, and black comedy leanings to Marriage Story. However, this chronicle of a married couple’s painful divorce was both a searing drama and a hopeful life lesson as well. Both parties (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) became better versions of themselves through the trials and tribulations of their breakup. They needed to leave each other to truly mature, as Baumbach illustrates throughout. For a world where one out of every two marriages will likely lead to divorce within five years, it’s a testament for our times.
The best script, and my pick for best film of the year too, was Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. At first, the film plays like a darkly clever comedy of manners, with a poor South Korean family ingratiating themselves into the lives of a rich one through deceit and con artistry. The two families of four match up in clever ways, jockeying for power within the household. But as the film goes on, through vicious twists and startling revelations, the story becomes a domestic horror show. By the end, secrets and lies will erupt, as will violence, and no one will walk away unscathed. It’s as singular a filmgoing experience as any this year, one best to not know too much about before taking it all in.
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