Let's stop trying to find the "best" screenplays and start talking about the "most original" screenplays.
I stopped watching the Oscars several years ago because rarely are the winners the best movies, but rather the best campaigners. So while I admire and love most of the films that get nominated, particularly those in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, I've come to appreciate films with truly original stories more than anything else.
These are 10 of the most original screenplays of 2016, in no particular order.
Full disclosure: this list is severely limited by the volume of films I was able to watch this year, which was not nearly enough.
1. Arrival — An unadaptable short story becomes the year's sci-fi
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer has said that after he read the short story Story of Your Life, he carried it around for years, pitching it to producers—all of whom thought the story was unadaptable. In fact, the story's author Ted Chiang thought it was unadaptable, too.
But that never stopped Heisserer. As a result of this screenwriter's tenacity, Arrival isn't just a story about figuring out how to communicate with an alien species that mysteriously appears in 12 locations around the planet; it's also a nuanced story about love, loss, and choices. Arrival takes the complex linguistic challenges presented in Chiang's short story and makes it visually beautiful, poignantly symbolic, and deeply meaningful. What's more, the story works on an extremely personal level and scales to a global level simultaneously. Arrival keeps pulling you back to look at the story anew.
2. Loving — A Supreme Court case story avoids the courtroom
Loving may be the perfect story for writer/director Jeff Nichols, who excels at subtle filmmaking. Mildred and Richard Loving were a quiet couple, living their lives in rural Virginia, falling in love, getting married, and having a family together. It just so happened that Richard was white and Mildred was a mix of African American and Native American; the state of Virginia deemed their marriage illegal on the grounds that it violated the state's anti-miscegenation laws. Many Americans have forgotten about the story of the Lovings, and those that do remember it probably only think about the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, in which the court declared that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional, thus paving the way for interracial marriages in the US.
But Nichols assiduously avoids the courtroom in his film. In fact, only one scene ever so briefly shows the two attorneys representing the Lovings making their arguments to the Supreme Court. Instead, Nichols focuses on how the Lovings stayed together even when they were exiled from Virginia for nine years; they were forced to live in Washington, DC, and then snuck back into Virginia to visit family, only to get arrested again. The Lovings don't even attend their own Supreme Court case. That's because the story was never about the courtroom; it's about being able to choose who you love, no matter what other people think—and not letting anyone take that away.
3. Moonlight — A tender story in a hostile world
Whenever I try to talk or write about Moonlight, I struggle to find the words. This movie needs to be seen. More importantly, this movie needs to be felt— Moonlight taps into an emotional truth that a viewer needs to feel to understand its power. In the first two chapters, the main character—first as Little, then as Chiron, and finally as Black—is desperate to find love when all he gets at home is neglect. Each time he thinks he finds love, he is disillusioned by betrayal. By the third chapter, Chiron has defied all expectations, only to reveal a startling truth about who he really is and always has been to the person who has mattered the most to him his whole life. The film's final image still won't let me go.
4. Swiss Army Man — A flatulent corpse becomes a castaway's salvation
Swiss Army Man is by one of the most original stories I saw on screen this year. My mind was blown simply by the initial premise of the story: a flatulent corpse washes up on the shore of a deserted island just before a stranded man commits suicide; suddenly, this castaway is riding said flatulent corpse as a jet ski to salvation. How the hell did writers/directors DANIELS ever come up with that idea?
But what really made this film special for me was that it was unpredictable. I never had a clue how the story was going to unfold between these unlikeliest of friends. The film feels like it was made entirely with found objects, all of which serve the story perfectly. And the performances of Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe constantly delight. I remember reading how people walked out of the film's initial screenings at Sundance, offended by the constant farting. That's a shame because they missed out on a truly heartfelt story about a man trying to make his way back to the woman of his dreams, but instead finding the friend and companion he so vitally needs.
5. The Lobster — Revealing the absurdities of romantic love
One of the pleasures of watching The Lobster is seeing a camel or a flamingo walk through the background of a shot in a forest, knowing this makes complete sense to the characters in the scene (who, of course, ignore the animals' presence).
The conceit of The Lobster is that any adult who is not matched up with a romantic partner must stay at an authoritarian hotel until he or she finds a suitable match. If they don't find a match before their prescribed stay is over, they will be turned into the animal of their choosing. To eschew romantic partnership altogether is to become a Loner, an outlaw of sorts living in the forest. The Lobster embraces an absurdist tone to reveal the ridiculous nature of our human need for romantic love and the lengths we'll go when we find the real thing—or, more appropriately, when the real thing finds us.
6. Don't Think Twice — Improv requires a lot of screenwriting
Writer/director Mike Birbiglia spent two years on 13 drafts of Don't Think Twice, his heartbreaking comedy about a longstanding New York improv troupe on the verge of losing its theater space and coming to terms with what comes next for each of the cast members. To get the script just right, Birbiglia hosted several read-throughs in his apartment with fellow writers and actors with the promise of great pizza in exchange for their honest feedback. After casting the film, Birbiglia took his fellow actors on an improv tour to build relationships among the characters of his fictional improv group, The Commune, and fine-tune the script. The final result is a film with a tightly structured story that feels completely natural and full of unscripted moments that are, in reality, extremely scripted.
7. The Invitation — When you can't trust the protagonist
The Invitation unspools as a descent into one man's personal hell when he returns to a house that is the source of his worst emotional trauma. Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and directed by Karyn Kusama, the film parses out bits of insight into the past of the main character Will and his ex-wife Eden, who is hosting a dinner party for all of their old friends after she returns from a mysterious two-year trip. Will is damaged psychologically, and his fragile state causes the audience to feel for him and to question his judgment. At each moment when we want to believe Will's suspicions, we learn that he is grossly mistaken, and we wonder how he (and we) could be so wrong. Playing with both the characters' trust and our own, The Invitation keeps us second guessing in this emotionally fraught, tightly scripted film.
8. The Fits — A non-conformist story about conformity
In The Fits, the first 10 minutes of the film plays with essentially no dialogue. We follow Toni, an 11-year-old tomboy who trains in the community center boxing gym with her teenage brother but is drawn to the award-winning dance troupe rehearsing in the gym. The only words Toni utters during this opening may be her count as she does sit-ups in the opening shot. Somehow, we are completely sucked into Toni's world and her inner thoughts without a single conversation.
As Toni tries to fit in with the dance troupe, girls suddenly start to suffer from unexplained seizures and fainting spells. In most stories, these "fits" would be a cause for alarm for the characters, and they are in The Fits at first; soon, though, the fits become a source of intrigue, a rite of passage. Curiously, each girl's experience with the fits manifests in a different way, making the cause difficult to pin down. Writer/director Anna Rose Holmer lets the audience make its own discoveries along the way, just as Toni does—then delivers an ending that is surprising to both the characters and the audience.
9. Morris from America — Your own embarrassing adolescence, coming to a theater near you
In the course of promoting his film Morris from America, writer/director Chad Hartigan has admitted that the most awkward moments in the film are straight out of his own adolescence. Thinking he was getting his first kiss from a girl he liked, Hartigan instead got soaked in the crotch with a water gun. Humping a pillow in his bedroom? That happened to Hartigan, too. These moments are so painfully funny because they ring true; most of us have suffered some sort of public embarrassment as an adolescent, and we all probably hate to admit the things we did in private as we tried to figure out what the hell was going on during puberty. Hartigan takes all of these insecurities and exacerbates them by putting his hero, 13-year-old Morris, in a small town in Germany where he still struggles with the language, not to mention the girls.
Morris' father Curtis faces his own challenges as a newly single parent, trying to make a life for himself and his son after the death of his wife. Hartigan ties Morris and Curtis together in emotionally true yet funny ways, especially through their shared love of rap. One of the best sequences is when Curtis confronts Morris about his misogynistic rap lyrics. Those rhymes that get Morris into trouble? Hartigan wrote those as a teenager and got busted for them, too.
10. Hell or High Water — Bank heist or family drama?
Heading into Hell or High Water, I expected a straight-up bank heist movie about two brothers knocking off banks in West Texas with a Texas Ranger hot on their tails. What I did not expect is an emotionally charged story about the lengths two brothers will go to right the wrongs done to their family—and provide a future for their offspring before it is stolen from them.
Hell or High Water does an excellent job of giving us just enough information to keep us intrigued before revealing midway through the story why the brothers are robbing banks—and not just any banks, but branches of a very specific bank, casting a whole new light on the first half of the film. Even better is the quiet tension of the final scene of the film after the action-packed climax of the main plot. Add to that specifically drawn characters with spot-on dialogue, and you have one of the most original, well-paced scripts of the year.