It was an exceptionally strong year for movies, which is also to say it’s been an exceptionally strong year for screenwriting, and even though the Oscars are over and the official winners have been chosen, we’re not over it yet. The Oscar-nominated scripts from 2017 are some of the best in recent history, and there were still a dozen more strong candidates which could’ve made the cut. The Best Original Screenplay race alone was the most open it’s been in years, so much so that it was almost impossible to predict who would ultimately be the victor. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Best Adapted Screenplay went to James Ivory for Call Me By Your Name and Best Original Screenplay went to Jordan Peele for Get Out.
All the nominated scripts are masterful stories, written by men and women who’ve spent years honing their craft. Beyond what the Academy says, here is a breakdown of all the nominees, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses.
The Big Sick (Best Original)
Written By: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon
It’s hard to write an original romantic comedy. It’s even harder to write an original romantic comedy that’s hilarious, heartbreaking, and based on a true events. Yet that’s exactly what Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon did with this remarkable retelling of their real life love story. The Big Sick is modern, original, and daring in ways which romantic comedies, or movies in general for that matter usually aren’t. In every possible way, this felt like the love story for 2017. The fact that Nanjiani and Gordon mined their own history to tell it makes it even more impressive.
Call Me By Your Name (Best Adapted)
Written By: James Ivory
Call Me By Your Name is a bit like The Shape of Water in that it’s such a lush, gorgeous film, it’s hard to think of it outside the visual experience. But it was also adapted by James Ivory, someone with more than a little credibility as a writer. Working from a novel by André Aciman, Ivory helps make Call Me By Your Name into a classic love story not unlike the sweeping yet complicated romances he tackled in films like A Room with a View and Howard’s End. Director Luca Guadagnino gives the movie its loose, freewheeling feel, focusing less on story than on mood and emotion. But it’s Ivory’s characterization that helps make Elio and Oliver’s bond so strong. Not to mention Michael Stuhlbarg’s speech at the end, a piece of writing so wonderous that it cemented Call Me By Your Name as the best screenplay in the adapted category. The combination of the directing, acting, and writing here makes this one a perfect movie experience.
The Disaster Artist (Best Adapted)
Written By: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Though it’s an odd bird which stood no chance of winning, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s The Disaster Artist is about as airtight as screenplays get. A comedic yet serious account of how Tommy Wiseau brought the world the cult hit, The Room, and the friendship with Sestero that led him to making the movie, Neustadter and Weber manage to make what should be niche subject matter into a relatable story about the creative process and all its frustrations. One has to imagine their original draft was longer, but at an hour and forty four minutes, what the writers do give us is lean in the most impressive kind of way. Not a single scene is wasted. Every funny, sad, silly moment is important for the characters and the story, keeping things in forward motion from one moment to the next. If the script has one fault, it’s that some real life events get condensed into compact, digestible biopic form. But when the overall effect is so strong, it’s hard to complain too much. Neustadter and Weber deserved an Oscar nomination all the way back for (500) Days of Summer, and they more than earned the one they got here.
Logan (Best Adapted)
Written By: James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green
The characterization of the central character here is so strong, the combination of the writing and the performance makes for one of the most unique portraits of a superhero in recent memory. To even use that word, “superhero,” in this context, feels odd, as way the story plays with genre makes it feel more like a western. The Logan we get on screen here is a shadow of the Wolverine we got in past movies, but he is wonderfully refreshing. Perhaps that’s why, with the exception of the equally wonderful Professor Xavier, the rest of the characters around him pale in comparison. One could partially blame it on the performances, but the villians in this movie are hardly memorable. Logan’s relationship with Laura, meanwhile, the mysterious little girl who enters his life, is often touching but occasionally feels like a plot device more than anything else. It all comes together in the end, but more than anything, Logan works best as a character study. This is a case where the lead character really is the movie.
Molly’s Game (Best Adapted)
Written By: Aaron Sorkin
You know it’s a strong year when an Aaron Sorkin script doesn’t win. At two hours and twenty minutes, Molly’s Game still feels like a breeze. Another sharp character study about a fascinating real-life figure, Sorkin’s classically zippy dialog whizzes past you and keeps the movie rolling from start to finish. Where the film does slow down is in the scenes which take you away from Molly’s central story. The world of high stakes poker Sorkin is exploring is so interesting that the framing device he puts around it always feels like a bummer to come back to, despite featuring some very good moments with Idris Elba. Semi-spoilert alert: That surprise appearance from Kevin Costner at the end is also very touching or ludicrously hokey depending on how much of a sentimentalist you are.
Mudbound (Best Adapted)
Written By: Dee Rees and Virgil Williams
Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, Mudbound is a wrenching film about race, gender, and class in post-war America. Rees and Williams do a great job of creating a sense of time and place, and imbuing each one of the characters with an identifiable inner life. The only problem is their frequent reliance on voiceover (always a controversial device) to do so. To be fair, they’re clearly going for a novelistic approach, pulling bits and pieces from Jordan’s original work and plunking them right into the script. And to give credit where credit’s due, they own this approach as well, going full Terrence Malick, shifting perspectives and putting us in a different character’s head from moment to moment. Mudbound is already a strong enough film, it’s hard not to feel like the movie would work just as well or even better if you took most of it out. Voiceover or not, however, Mudbound does have many beautiful moments, including one of the most moving endings of any film from last year.
Get Out (Best Original)
Written By: Jordan Peele
No film last year even came close to being as creatively daring as Get Out. A racial satire coated in a horror-comedy, it was the movie of 2017 in almost every way that mattered. Another master of tone and genre, Peele manages to swing back and forth between moments of sheer terror and utter hilarity and make it look easy. The set pieces he created, such as “the sunken place” have already entered the pop culture lexicon in a way which feels permanent. Rarely movies this entertaining are also equally important. In the end, Get Out’s thrilling, dizzying highs are only matched by its lofty ideas.
Lady Bird (Best Original)
Written By: Greta Gerwig
Lady Bird is a perfect screenplay, just like it is a perfect movie. Structurally, it is a marvel, coming in at an hour and a half but bearing more emotional weight than most movies can sustain over the course of two hours. The characters are real and raw and flawed in a way that can only come from a writer who is a keen observer of their and other people’s experiences. And the dialogue, my God, the dialogue. Line after line like “I wish I could live through something” and “The only interesting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome” are tossed off like it’s nothing (and both of those are just from the first few minutes!) There is a cadence and a rhythm to Lady Bird which is remarkably self-assured, especially coming from a first time writer/director like Greta Gerwig. No movie last year was as apt to make you either laugh or cry from scene to scene as this one, and although emotional response isn’t the ultimate test of technically proficient screenwriting, it’s pretty important if your movie is going to work. Lady Bird shows that to write a great screenplay, you don’t need excessive flash or style, you just need your heart and the courage to tell a story that’s near to it.
The Shape of Water (Best Original)
Written By: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Given that this is a romance between a woman and a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like fish monster (or “River God,” as del Toro has called him,) it’s safe to say that The Shape of Water is pretty original. And with 13 nominations and four total wins, including Best Picture, it’s also safe to say that the Academy likes it quite a lot. And why shouldn’t they? The acting, the music, the cinematography, the costume and production design; everything about this movie is lovely. Guillermo del Toro has once again proven himself a master director with an understanding of cinema possessed by few others. Perhaps that’s why, because the movie is so cinematic, the screenplay fades into the background a bit. The characters, the dialogue, the story all work, but The Shape of Water is less an experience about what’s on the page. To del Toro, a screenplay is more of a map for what he’s ultimately going to put on screen.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Best Original)
Written By: Martin McDonagh
Despite all the controversy surrounding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s hard to deny that the screenplay is rather amazing. Yes, the film’s black characters end up in the background, and yes, the women outside of Frances McDormand are pretty one-dimensional, and yes, it makes no sense that Woody Harrelson has a young, Australian wife who for some reason has ended up in rural Missouri. But regardless of how you feel about Three Billboards, you have to admit that Martin McDonagh has a voice like no other writer in Hollywood today. His dialogue is as sharp as a razor, with each acid-tongued remark out of his character’s mouths more deliciously nasty than the next. The way he balances melancholy and black comedy is nothing short of a high-wire act, effortlessly shifting tones two or even three times within the same scene. And despite the movie’s faults, you have to admit that it does feel like a sign of the times, capturing something powerful and true about the angry world we live in.
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance writer from Milwaukee who studied cinema at DePaul University in Chicago. When he’s not watching movies, he’s writing them or writing about them. He’s especially partial to romantic comedies and crime films. He currently lives in Los Angeles.