The Three Things All of 2023’s Best Screenplays Have in Common

The Three Things All of 2023’s Best Screenplays Have in Common

You know what the best screenplays from 2023 films all have in common?

They’re distinguished by three things. All of the scripts avoid clichés, they don’t readily fit into the typical tropes of their genre, and each zigs when most such stories would zag.

Take the year’s biggest hit—Barbie. One might expect a movie about a plastic doll to have a lead character who was two-dimensional, but that’s not true here at all. Barbie (Margot Robbie) was a smart, savvy young woman who wanted more out of life and was brave enough to go get it. Of course, the film based upon Mattel’s best-selling toy line was a comedy, but it was a decidedly dark one. Indeed, at almost every turn in the story, screenwriters Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach shunned the obvious and went for something far more mature, intellectual, and unexpected. Even political.

And audiences ate it up.

In another example of a film defying expectations, the logline for The Holdovers could have easily gone something like this: "Three lonely people at an East Coast prep school get left behind over Christmas break in 1970 become friends and learn wise lessons from each other." In actuality, the way David Hemingson wrote his acerbic script, the tagline would have to be far tangier. More likely? "Three lonely people left behind at a 1970 Eastern prep school over Christmas break share tough and humiliating experiences that toughen them up while teaching them to get out of their self-pitying heads."

While this character-driven comedy was heartfelt and hilarious, it avoided any treacly Hallmark-card moments that would have made it insufferable. Yes, characters change, but no one turns from Scrooge into to a born-again Christmas fanatic.

The film was better for it, and so were we.

So many of the best scripts in 2023 connected wholeheartedly with audiences while avoiding spoon-fed schmaltz, schtick or bullshit. Even the better romances, a genre you’d expect to traffic in maudlin tears and gooey climaxes, did their best to avoid any such low-hanging fruit.

Celine Song’s Past Lives focused onthe reunion of two South Korean childhood sweethearts (Greta Lee, Teo Yoo), now grown and curious about each other, but it never fell into pathos or fantasy. Song was disciplined in her storytelling and forbade the duo from ending up in the sack together. Heck, they didn’t even kiss or hold hands during their entire reunion in America, during the third act. And even at the end, Song kept her characters apart; even their goodbye was from a distance of 10 feet or so. Song showed that the gulf remained between them even then.

No last-minute clinches, no swelling orchestra, no baloney. Wow.

Some of the best films zigged when the film could’ve succeeded just fine by zagging. In screenwriter/director Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, which he adapted from Percival Everett’s book Erasure, an erudite, African American professor (Jeffrey Wright) writes a parody of inner-city black prose because he’s fed up with such books becoming bestsellers as they stereotype urban culture. The book ends up becoming a huge hit and the film probably would’ve been just fine if it only concerned itself with the prof’s struggle to not be exposed for his fakery.

Instead, the film becomes a story about all the ‘roles’ he must play as he must take care of his ill mother, reconcile with his gay brother, and work on a relationship with his new girlfriend. Those plot points made for a much deeper film about black identity in today’s world.  

Tony McNamara isn’t getting as much of the spotlight for his adaptation of author Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things as the vaulted director Yorgos Lanthimos is, but he should. He took Gray’s pungent Frankenstein riff about a troubled woman (Emma Stone) being brought back to life and turned her tale into an unforgettable meditation on sexual politics. The film has outlandish production design, costuming, and scoring, and yet none of its weirdness would be so vivid if McNamara’s script didn’t exude it first.

His achievement proves that screenwriters don’t just pen strong characters and pithy dialogue, but they write all the action slugs and physical descriptions, too. With great aplomb. Feminist tales don’t get much stronger or imaginative as this one.  

Anatomy of a Fall just won the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Golden Globes for director Justine Triet and her screenwriting partner Arthur Harari. The exceedingly imaginative murder mystery/courtroom thriller/family drama revolved around a successful author (Sandra Hüller) on trial for the suspected murder of her husband.

It is a shining example of how a film can be distinguished just as much by what its script doesn’t reveal as what it does.

Case in point? When a secret audio tape reveals how awful Sandra’s marriage was to her jealous hubby, the script showcases their vicious argument via a vivid flashback. However, when their fighting turns violent, the script cuts back to the courtroom, and we’re left as blind as the audience in that room to what really happened.

That puts the onus on us to determine Sandra’s guilt without all of the evidence.

It makes for a much more involving film experience as we must work harder to fill in those blanks proving that sometimes the best narratives embrace ambiguity to spur audience members to think more for themselves.

Finally, and in many ways, the most remarkable achievement of the 2023 season is the screenplay Christopher Nolan wrote for Oppenheimer. The story of nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer spearheading the development of the atomic bomb to help America win WWII could have written as a stately, stoic historical epic. Instead, Nolan wrote it as a nail-biting thriller about America’s greatest scientists in a race to save the world from Hitler.

Despite its three-hour plus running time, the film crackled and terrified like a horror film. It made for not only an impactful history lesson but one that proved biopics don’t have to be stuffy, hermetically-sealed affairs. Nolan’s script felt immediate, even though its events took place 80 years ago.

A lengthy film biography making a billion dollars worldwide seems impossible, but then again, Nolan wrote it far from the expectations of such a genre.  

A great film defies the norms, and it starts with a screenplay that avoid clichés, resists easy categorization, and zigs versus zagging. How splendid that it turns out people love such a thing, be they critics, Academy members, or Cineplex audiences.

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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