Best (and worst) of 2017
Updated: Feb 18, 2018
What screenwriting lessons can we learn from the stand-out films and TV of the year?
As the clock ticks down the new year, I figure it's time to don black tie, pop some champers and look back over the best and worst films and television show of 2017.
My day job as a film critic skews towards sci-fi, fantasy and action blockbusters, but you don't need me to tell you how good Logan, Thor: Ragnarok, Get Out, or Wonder Woman were. And I didn't get a chance to see Call Me By Your Name or Good Time, so you'll just have to take every other film critic in the world's word about them.
So I'm going to do something a bit different.
This isn't a straight-up list of the best and worst films and TV of 2017. Instead it's a loose collection of thoughts about what we can learn about screenwriting from some of this year's best (and worst).
War for the Planet of the Apes
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves / Directed by Matt Reeves
Caesar, the protagonist of War/Planet/Apes, is an absolute masterclass in character. He has a clear goal - to protect his tribe - faced with the worst thing that can happen - the loss of his family - that leads to a new false goal - revenge. Will he save his tribe or lose his soul to vengeance?
Combined with a great performance from Andy Serkis and jaw-dropping visual effects to bring the noble ape to life, Caesar isn't just a great character - he could well be the best CGI character of the year, if not ever.
Except maybe Paddington.
Blade Runner 2049
Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green / Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Penned by Michael Green (who also co-wrote this year's excellent Logan and American Gods) with the original film's writer Hampton Fancher, this long-awaited sequel did a fine job of updating the classic sci-fi story. It's thrillingly slow-burning, dense with allusions, rich with visual and metaphorical imagery, and simply stunning to behold.
Like many critics, I was concerned at the way women were sidelined, although Lucy V Hay of Bang2Write argues the film successfully portrays a world in which women are marginalised and oppressed as a bleak warning about our future. However you read it, it's fascinating to see a film that's so open to analysis and interpretation, refusing easy answers.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Speaking of ambitious, ambiguous sci-fi, The Last Jedi was a cosmic treat. Wrong-footing audiences from the very first, writer and director Rian Johnson created a visually dazzling, audaciously unpredictable and frequently bonkers episode in the galactic saga.
Like JJ Abrams The Force Awakens, Johnson remixes Star Wars 'moments', but then goes a step further and develops the saga in heart-wrenching new directions, challenging the characters - and the fans - by taking them to their darkest places. Screenwriting guru and Star Wars super-fan Carson Reeves of Scriptshadow argues that Johnson privileged theme over entertainment, and he might have a point that Star Wars isn't the place for such wilfully gnomic smartarsery. But I loved how Last Jedi refused to be literal or to serve up crowd-pleasing spectacle.
Written and directed by David Freyne
One of my highlights from the London Film Festival, this intimate and intelligent zombie movie shows there's life in the brain-munching genre yet. A street-level character piece driven by tantalising hints of gory horror, The Cured feels like an episode of Black Mirror. It's a great example of using something fantastical (on a tight budget) to symbolise and evoke real-world issues and universal emotions - see also Get Out.
Created by Ben Edlund
There's so much telly around in these days of 'peak TV' that it can be overwhelming trying to keep up with all the 'must-watch' shows. So for the purposes of this article I want to single out Amazon's excellent new version of superhero spoof The Tick. The main reason being, quite frankly, it's short.
Every time a torturous new Marvel superhero show appears on Netflix I look at it and think Oh god, I have to give up fourteen hours of my life for this. The Tick, by contrast, is six half-hour episodes. I bashed it out in a morning.
The lesson here is that even in the golden age of television, where every prestige TV series wants to tell a sprawling story and investigate every frown and every sigh, sometimes less is more. Honestly, life's too short.
Mindhunter had one episode that was only 34 minutes long instead of the usual hour. Brilliant. Don't hang around - get in, tell the story, get out.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Staggering out of this taut, electrifying ordeal, I was keen to read the script. You'd expect it to be about thirty pages long, so minimalist is the dialogue and story.
And to be honest, the lack of backstory for the characters prevented me from making an emotional connection to the film.
Yes, it's a superlative technical achievement, a masterpiece of visceral cinematic technique that horrifyingly immerses the audience within a moment and make us feel the terror of the nightmarish situation in our nerves and our bones.
But once that formal experiment was over, the effect didn't linger.
For writers, Dunkirk is a triumph of economy, showing that you can nail an audience to their seat with barely a lick of backstory or exposition. The question is how such a pared-down story connects with the audience - for me, Dunkirk was exhilarating in the moment, but ultimately left me cold.
Incidentally, another tip for writers is the music of Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049, both soundtracks created by Hans Zimmer with Benjamin Wallfisch. Dramatic, unsettling and immersive, they're great for listening while you work.
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper, from a story by Michael Green and Jack Paglen / Directed by Ridley Scott
Alien: Covenant is too stop-start. An alien threatens the crew. They kill it. Then they have a breather. Then another alien wanders in, they kill it, and so on.
Compare that with Scott's original Alien and James Cameron's sequel Aliens. Those films are driven by the relentless threat of the alien/aliens, giving our crew no time to relax, regroup or even scream. In Covenant, the ongoing drama is sustained only by Michael Fassbender's eerie android, who's kinda creepy but frankly isn't as fascinating as Ridley Scott seems to think he is.
This problem is summed in a sequence in which one character, Maggie, locks her crewmate Karine in a room with an alien to prevent its escape. It's a brilliant dramatic scenario, echoing the scene in the original Alien in which Ripley tried to lock out her crewmates to prevent infection. That decision drove a wedge between Ripley and her shipmates for the rest of the movie, which is a great dramatic choice. In Covenant, it would have been really compelling if Maggie's fateful decision had also hung over her for the rest of the film - especially when she later encounters Karine's husband.
Instead, Covenant kills Maggie off straight away, abandoning that interesting dramatic choice and starting over with some nonsense about flutes.
The lesson: if you come up with a compelling conflict, make the most of it. Don't throw it away too soon when you can wring every nail-biting, heart-wrenching drop of tension and drama out of it.
Blade of the Immortal
Written by Tetsuya Oishi, based on the manga by Hiroaki Samura / Directed by Takashi Miike
From a writing point of view, both Blade of the Immortal and Alien: Covenant have a similar problem: they set up some cool stuff, but then pay off too quickly. Neither film manages to sustain tension or drama throughout the whole movie.
Blade of the Immortal follows a deathless swordsman feuding with a gang of evil warriors, a sort of Seven Samurai-style line-up each equipped with different skills and weapons and personalities. But almost straight after we meet them, the immortal swordsman fights and kills most of them. From then on, he keeps meeting entirely new adversaries - and usually dispatches them straight away too.
By the time we get to the climactic showdown, most of the characters involved are people who wandered in halfway through the story rather than those who were there at the beginning. It's a bit like Trigger's Broom - is it the same broom if the handle and the head have both been replaced? It's hard to be invested in the climax when these people haven't come on the full journey.
The lesson from Blade of the Immortal and Alien: Covenant is to 'nest' your conflicts within each other, like a Russian doll. The biggest and most compelling conflict arc runs from beginning to end, because viewers invest most in the characters we meet early on and expect them to be around to resolve the conflict at the end. There are exceptions to this rule - Psycho and To Live And Die In LA spring to mind - but they're deliberately designed to unsettle and shock audiences.
Subordinate to the main story, you keep audiences on their toes by setting up and paying off smaller conflicts that act as steps along the way. In Blade of the Immortal these are the fights with the lesser characters.
Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets
Written and directed by Luc Besson
Before Valerian came out, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luc Besson and his regular co-writer Robert Mark Kamen about their first collaboration The Fifth Element. It was clear from that conversation that Kamen's role in the partnership is to give Besson's wild visual sense the narrative focus required to make a satisfying film. Sadly, without a collaborator to ground Besson's aesthetics, Valerian ended up as a gorgeous but rambling mess.
And that's why you always need another pair of eyes on your writing - which seems like a good time to mention I offer script notes and coverage reports - see the Contact page to drop me a line.
Another thing to take away from Valerian is that you need to deliver on what Save the Cat author Blake Snyder calls "the promise of the premise". In other words, if you promise a mind-expanding space opera, you have to deliver. It's a bit weird that Valerian spends its time confined to the characters' home base instead of sending them out to explore the stars.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on characters created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons / Directed by Matthew Vaughan
Where the first Kingsman film was irreverent and entertaining, the second is lewd and baggy. There are too many characters, allowing some of them to essentially disappear for most of the movie - you could easily combine Channing Tatum and Pedro Pascal's characters, for example, and hand off any left-over plot points to other characters.
The lesson here is to weed out repetition and pare back your script until it's as tight and economical as possible. This is obvious advice for a fast-moving thriller, but it's true of stories that seem more sprawling or relaxed too - every word should count.
Aaaand that's a wrap for 2017. In 2018, I'm looking forward to Black Panther, Annihilation, Backseat, Han Solo, Widows, Mute, High Life, How To Talk To Girls At Parties, Gemini, Sicario 2: Soldado, Damsel, Early Man... and probably loads more. If 2018 is the year you want to get your screenplay out there or you're looking for fresh insightful coverage, drop me a line for script notes or story analysis on the email below or see the Contact page.
Happy New Year!