The Best Screenplays, Directors, and Films of 2014

Gone Girl

How do you split up screenplays and genres of film? Best original and adapted screenplay? The lines bleed into each other. Inception was nominated for Best Original Screenplay a few years ago despite being based on an unpublished short story. How do you judge something like Foxcatcher, which was based on real events. Certainly, it’s more adapted from existing material than, say, Birdman.

And what about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the film that spurred this entire conversation among us. Sure, it’s derived from Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, but does a franchise in its second reboot and third adaptation really have much to do with the original novel anymore? Or is it adapted from the first film franchise? Or Tim Burton’s second (let’s hope not). The point is, while Pierre Boulle certainly deserves credit, is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that particularly adapted from source material, or is it more part of a franchise that chucks as much of the previous Apes baggage overboard in an effort to tell a new story?

So let’s throw adapted and original screenplay out the window.

As for splitting up films, how do we judge these? The Golden Globes split films into drama and musical/comedy categories. This results in some incredible cognitive dissonance, such as In Bruges competing with Mamma Mia! or the entire 2013 slate (American Hustle, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street) having as much claim to dramatic status as they do comedy. Too often, the category is used for films that don’t make the cut of 5 to be considered drama, as if musical/comedy is an extended second class of dramatic film.

I’m not one to complain, either. My comedy of the year for 2014 would be Nightcrawler, the most disturbing and unsettling film I saw. It follows the structure of a rags-to-riches comedy almost to the letter, and it creates audacious moments of black humor – these are key to helping you understand the attraction of its main character’s sociopathy. Nevermind that much of the substance inside the film is dramatic – if we use the old Greek definitions, Nightcrawler is a comedy through and through.

The Oscars don’t bother with categories, but this usually results in less serious films being completely tossed to the side.

So let’s throw drama and comedy categories out the window, too.

What we decided on is budget. Screenplays are written and rewritten for specific budgets, and it’s the primary factor directors must use in shaping their film. How else are we supposed to compare Interstellar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to, say, Nightcrawler and Birdman?

The demarcation between Best Low Budget Film and Best Big Budget Film is a tricky one. For now, we’re going with $25 million, and our numbers are cobbled together from Box Office Mojo, The-Numbers, and Google Reports. Could someone be lying about their budget? Sure, that happens often, but no one claims a $50 million movie only cost $25 million. It’s not that egregious.

In the future, we may expand this. Right now, a $30 million film like The Grand Budapest Hotel is above the cutoff, and so is in the same category as Interstellar. That’s a little unfair. Maybe we’ll have low, mid, and big budget categories. For now, we’re just sticking to low and big, and it’s a way of recognizing and pushing smaller films while also not discounting films that have more resources and support behind them. To us, it’s a fairer way of doing things than splitting movies up along increasingly fuzzy genre lines or declarations of what is or isn’t adapted. Here we go:

BEST SCREENPLAY, LOW BUDGET

SL: Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo)
Eden: Selma (Paul Webb)
Cleopatra: I Origins (Mike Cahill)
Amanda: Selma (Paul Webb)
Rachel: The Double (Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine)
Vanessa: Selma (Paul Webb)
Gabe: Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

WINNER
Paul Webb, Selma

Birdman is a marvel of timing, and that begins with the script. I Origins is the hidden gem of 2014, a microbudget thriller that boasts two of the most beautifully break-you-down moments in film I’ve ever witnessed. The Double is based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. I’ve discussed Nightcrawler above – its plot and language are a gift to its actors, filled with high tension scenes and commentary on how we produce and watch news today.

Selma wins, though. Technically, the screenplay’s by Webb alone, but both he and director Ava DuVernay have been open about the fact that she rewrote much of it on the fly. The result is undeniable – a film that considers the place of social activism in a modern world by peeling back the strategy that made it work 50 years ago. Its toughest obstacle was not having the rights to any of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches – Steven Spielberg has those locked up for a film that has yet to come to fruition. This meant that they had to recreate King’s speeches without being able to quote them. In the end, they turn this into a strength of the film, allowing Webb and DuVernay to create commentary that acknowledges many of the struggles African-Americans face today, while still dealing with the plot taking place in 1965.

BEST SCREENPLAY, BIG BUDGET

SL: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Eden: Interstellar (Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan)
Cleopatra: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver)
Amanda: Noah (Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel)
Rachel: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Vanessa: Fury (David Ayer)
Gabe: Fury (David Ayer)

WINNERS
David Ayer, Fury
& Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

I don’t think we can pretend there’s any agreement here, but that’s OK. This exercise isn’t about agreement, but rather seeing where our choices converge and where they don’t. I have problems with Interstellar‘s script at points, but there’s no questioning what it achieves in the end – an audaciously philosophical journey with some of the tensest adventure scenes in recent memory. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes boasts one of the most underrated screenplays of the year. Noah is a mad creation that has moments of pure transcendence – when it works, it works like a fever dream.

Gone Girl and Fury are the only two that come away with more than one vote. Gone Girl is such a precise creation, it’s difficult not to marvel at just how well constructed it all is – as a thriller, as a put on, as a takedown of marriage. It’s a beautiful film, and it boggles the mind that it only received one Oscar nomination. Fury, on the other hand, is a singular conceit that uses war to define how men are broken down and retrained in a patriarchal image. It recalls films like Full Metal Jacket not in style, but in how completely it breaks down how men are taught to hate and possess.

BEST DIRECTOR, LOW BUDGET

SL: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Eden: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Cleopatra: Mike Cahill, I Origins
Amanda: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Rachel: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Vanessa: Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
Gabe: Ava DuVernay, Selma

WINNER
Ava DuVernay, Selma

I’m glad to see Cleopatra sticking up for I Origins. It really is something special, and if we had a microbudget category, I’m pretty sure it would walk away with everything we could give it. Jonathan Glazer was winning this for me most of the year – he lets his artists and performers loose inside the structure of Under the Skin, allowing them each to create elements of it from their own perspective, and then he manages to marry it all together so that those unique perspectives remain intact inside the larger, fused film.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu almost takes this for Birdman, which is an incredible vision, but I think Ava DuVernay simply cannot be denied this year – unless it’s by, you know, the Academy. Her framing, the Edmund Pettus bridge sequence, and how she uses one early moment to completely define the lens through which she wants the viewer to inhabit the rest of the film…there’s as sure a hand to Selma as in any film this year.

BEST DIRECTOR, BIG BUDGET

SL: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Eden: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Cleopatra: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Amanda: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Rachel: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Vanessa: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Gabe: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar

WINNERS
David Fincher, Gone Girl
& Christopher Nolan, Interstellar

Well I guess that’s it. David Fincher and Christopher Nolan in a death match. Sorry Wes Anderson. In contrast to our low budget directors, Fincher and Nolan are two very tightly controlling personalities. Fincher, especially, has a reputation for obsessing over every small detail in each scene. This carries over into his films – they each boast a suffocating atmosphere that seems half-intentional, half-artistic byproduct.

Our low budget directors – DuVernay and Glazer, especially – seem to create out of a sort of organized chaos. There’s less opportunity for control when you have less money, and there’s more room to let a day go because things aren’t absolutely perfect when the budget can afford it.

For the next two awards – Best Film for low and big budget – I asked everyone to name their top 3 of the year.

BEST THREE FILMS, LOW BUDGET

SL: Birdman, I Origins, Whiplash
Eden: Under the Skin, The Raid 2, Birdman
Cleopatra: I Origins, Under the Skin, Selma
Amanda: Selma, Only Lovers Left Alive, Belle
Rachel: Selma, Nightcrawler, A Most Violent Year
Vanessa: Under the Skin, Selma, The Raid 2
Gabe: Under the Skin, Selma, I Origins

WINNERS
Selma (5)
Under the Skin (4)
I Origins (3)

Surreal comedy Birdman and Indonesian martial arts epic The Raid 2 both get 2 mentions. Old-fashioned crime epic A Most Violent Year, period drama Belle, Nightcrawler, vampire rock meditation Only Lovers Left Alive, and Black Swan-for-drummers Whiplash also get a mention apiece. I’m surprised there’s nothing her for Foxcatcher.

I’m happy to see that I Origins is being remembered by others, too. It knocked The Raid 2 and The Rover out of that third and fourth place for me, and I Origins makes me lose it (i.e. cry) as much as any film since Requiem for a Dream – albeit for very different reasons.

Under the Skin is a unique experience. It’s been compared to the work of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, but it’s very different from each, and it’s not “art house” either, no matter how many people like to abuse the term. It has more to do with Scotland’s visual arts movement than any of those other comparisons. It gets three first places where Selma gets two, but Selma gets more mentions, so take that however you like. They’re both must-see films if you’re anything of a cinephile. Selma feels like it speaks directly to this moment in U.S. history by offering us a defining look at another.

BEST THREE FILMS, BIG BUDGET

SL: Gone Girl, Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Eden: Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Cleopatra: Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Amanda: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Interstellar
Rachel: Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Unbroken
Vanessa: Gone Girl, Interstellar, Fury
Gabe: Interstellar, Fury, Gone Girl

WINNERS
Interstellar (6)
Gone Girl (4)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (3)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes both get two mentions, which goes to show you just how far our comic book and action movies have come in reflecting harder messages (Captain America‘s real assault is against the relationship the military, private contractors, and government hold with each other, while Dawn creates a commentary on the wars of race and hate we can’t seem to escape right now). Fury also gets two mentions, and I really do think it’s the military movie for our time. Hmm, there seems to be an awful lot of commentary on how our military is misused these days.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a beautiful animated movie, and Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s big budget directorial debut about a World War II POW also get a mention. Not many have seen Kaguya, and Unbroken‘s interesting in that critics were repulsed by it and audiences loved it. Go figure.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, the kind of time-hopping, deeply personal confection of a frame story only Wes Anderson could create, gets three votes, and deservedly so.

Gone Girl and Interstellar both get three first places, although Interstellar is on 6 of our lists while Gone Girl only on 4. Again, interpret how you will and, again, both are musts if you’re a cinephile.

Gone Girl is the tightest thriller of the year and suffers mostly because of its intentionally cold exterior. It’s a film that tricks and misleads you the way the best thrillers do, but that values its meta commentary more than the plot and couldn’t care less. Few masterpieces are built around so willfully and unabashedly manipulating their audience.

Interstellar, on the other hand, wears its heart on its sleeve and, if you still don’t see it, will have Matthew McConaughey weep until you do. It’s a brilliantly felt movie, complex and elusive at times, but simple and accessible when you need it to be. Few masterpieces are this honestly emotional without being cloying. Like Under the Skin and Selma, Gone Girl and Interstellar are about as opposite as movie experiences can be.

We hope this is useful to you. It’s not meant to necessarily declare “the best” in something as it is to introduce films you may not have heard, and to remind you of some of the films we liked that were overlooked by awards ceremonies this year.

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2 thoughts on “The Best Screenplays, Directors, and Films of 2014”

  1. I love the way you guys do criticism. Even eschewing the objective analysis of quality vs. person experience angle, I love that you do this kind of thing in groups. It makes it feel much more useful to me in deciding whether to actually see these movies, because it removes the chance that some tiny element was blown out of proportion by one person’s psychological makeup.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, I really appreciate it. I figure I get to write all the time, too, anyone following knows what I think, and I like to hear from some of the folks who don’t write as often since what they think is equally important in my life.

      Like

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