It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time to reflect on the happiest moments of 2013. Like Kim Kardashian getting engaged again. And N’Sync reuniting on stage for all of 43 seconds. I still remember where I was during those moments. You?
Okay let’s be honest. I don’t pay attention to anything unless it has a .PDF extension at the end of it. If I’m not reading, I’m sleeping. So truthfully, I don’t know who Kim Kardashian is (although I was recently told she waxed her baby’s eyelashes, whatever that means).
During all that reading, I found ten scripts that I haven’t been able to forget. Whenever I do these lists, my ranking doesn’t always reflect my Top 25. That’s because some screenplays, just like some movies, improve with time – they dig into you like a tick and stay with you. So with that piece of knowledge, here are my 10 favorite scripts of the year. Afterwards, let me know your favorites!
(Note: The lack of review links is due to most of these scripts being reviewed in my newsletter. To get future reviews not posted on the site, make sure to sign up!)
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
Writer: Jack Paglen
Premise: An epic love story set in a time where a dying scientist is able to upload his consciousness into the internet and, facing its global implications, must fight against the forces who are actively working against the existence of a singularity.
Thoughts: Loved this because it felt like a good old fashioned blockbuster. It didn’t carry all the baggage your typical IP comic book or childhood toy does. The story and the mythology came solely from the writer, Paglen, and he knew how to have fun with it. This script taught me that once you have your high-concept idea, make sure to mine it for all it’s worth. Anything less and you’re cheating yourself (and your chance for a sale!).
Title: Marshal of Revelation
Writer: Jon Favreau
Premise: The story of a deceitful town marshal who saved the town of Revelation, Wyoming with the help of a mysterious Jewish gunman.
Thoughts: Wow, what a surprise this was. Here’s the thing about Westerns. Despite having one big advantage over their present-day counterparts (the lawlessness, which creates tons of drama), they’re potentially boring as hell. Because the world was so slow back then, Western screenplays can move at a glacial pace, which is where most wanna-be Westerns go to die. How do you prevent this? Character character character character, then character again. Just like its distant screenplay cousin, Django Unchained, Marshal of Revelation has two unforgettable characters. We have the talkative car salesman-like Isaac, and the cool as a cucumber gunslinger, “The Jew.” Sometimes as a writer, you hit on two characters who complement each other so well (so as to provide the most conflict, drama, and entertainment) that the story actually takes a back seat to them. Favreau achieved that here.
Title: Shut In
Writer: Christina Hodson
Premise: A young woman who takes care of her comatose teenaged son at home begins to believe she’s being visited by the ghost of a young runaway boy.
Thoughts: This script was just spooky. No, it was more than that. It was uncomfortable. I think whenever you write a script, you’re trying to make the reader FEEL something. The problem is, readers read so many scripts, they become numb to feeling. So you have to hit on something so intense, the reader can do nothing BUT feel it. Hodson did that with this ongoing feeling of discomfort. When the mother is bathing her teenage son and he gets an erection, I got that icky chill all over. And while it may not have been a feeling I was thrilled to have, it was A FEELING nonetheless, and it kept happening again and again in this screenplay. If a writer can make me feel something that consistently, they’ve done their job.
Genre: Horror (found footage)
Writer: Barbara Marshall
Premise: A young suburban girl documents her family during the outbreak of a deadly virus that turns its hosts into monsters.
Thoughts: They say that the best horror scripts/films revolve around family (and that family trying to stave off a threat). There’s something about keeping the family unit in one piece that’s easy to root for. Peste proves how effective this approach can be when done well. There are a few truly terrifying scenes in this script, such as our family needing to steal food from the neighbors, who have already transformed into “pestes,” and also the sounds of a transformed daughter eating her mom behind closed doors. This script starts too slowly for its own good, but once it gets going, it really gets going. I don’t meant to be a pest, but read this if you can.
Writer: Jon Favreau
Premise: A talented chef loses his job after a bad online review, leading him to open a food truck.
Thoughts: Well shucks, Mr. Favreau. I wasn’t so sure about you after Cowboys and Aliens. But it turns out Favreau has a little self-awareness left in him. This upcoming writing-directing effort, while tackling a sell-out celebrity Chef who goes back to his roots and starts a food truck, is clearly an exploration of the mistakes Favreau’s made as a director. This is an incredibly talented writer we’re talking about here and what I really love about him is he doesn’t seem to follow the traditional three-act structure everybody else does. He’s got his own mysterious formula that steers each of his stories into an unfamiliar kalediscope of time and space where you don’t know which way is up or down or sideways. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But there’s something different about his stories that makes you feel like you’re always reading something fresh. For example, the food truck stuff here doesn’t happen until the final act! I don’t know many writers who would’ve made that choice as the food truck is the hook here! Why would you ignore it for 75% of your story? But Favreau does. And it works!
Title: Draft Day
Writers: Rajiv Joseph & Scott Rothman
Premise: A football GM finds his personal and professional life falling apart on the biggest day of the year, draft day.
Thoughts: I love love love when writers recognize that the genres they’re writing in are hard sells, and so curtail their screenplay in some way to negate that. If this would’ve been about a long drawn out season where the General Manager evaluates his life through his team, we would’ve gotten, no offense, Moneyball 2 (which, come on, in retrospect was pretty boring). But instead, they focus on a single day, one of the most important days for a football organization, the day they draft six players who will determine their future as a team. Because it all happens in a single day, there’s a sense of urgency that you’ve never seen in a sports movie before. This is such a great script!
Title: The Story Of Your Life
Writer: Eric Heisserer (based on a short story by Ted Chiang)
Premise: When alien crafts land around the world, a linguistics expert is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.
Thoughts: I love this idea so much that I’ve forgotten about the problematic climax. I guess you could say I’m looking at “Story of Your Life” through rose-colored glasses. But I just love what Heisserer did with this story. He took what could’ve potentially been a very slow script, with a linguist chatting with aliens, and turned it into an intense pressure-cooker (via a race between all nations to get a super-weapon from the visitors). No surprise that a Scriptshadow favorite term – ticking time bomb – is the key ingredient for making this and Draft Day so good. Whenever time’s running out for your characters, everything’s ramped up a level.
Title: Monster Problems
Writer: Brian Duffield
Premise: In a future where the world has been overrun by monsters, a young man risks his life to get to the woman he’s fallen in love with.
Thoughts: I don’t get star struck. But I would probably get star struck if I met Brian Duffield. As soon as one of this guy’s quirkier scripts hits the big screen, I think his voice is going to help define this generation of screenwriters. Monster Problems is the embodiment of that. It’s a John Hughes-like approach to a monster movie. I love how Duffield is so casually able to jump back and forth between personal dramatic moments and big huge actions scenes, never once losing control of his tone. Very few writers can pull that off. I just loved this script.
Title: Where Angels Die
Writer: Alex Felix (based on the novel “In the Place Where Angels Die” by Richard Seal)
Premise: A suspended inner city social worker tries to protect a young girl and her mother from the girl’s father, a psychotic killer who’s just been released from prison.
Thoughts: I’m not sure I can say anything more about Angels than I already have. But I will say that Alex and I recently discussed the difficulty of writing drama specs in today’s spec market, and how, knowing that, he emphasized the crime/thriller element of his story to give it a better shot. If you want to write a dramatic character piece, like Alex has, look to explore genre elements in your script, even if it’s only partially. This is the exact same approach Ben Affleck took with The Town. He wanted to write a love story, but knew nobody would see it if he did. So he emphasized the heist genre element to make it marketable. – Anyway, some great things are happening with Angels. If only I could tell you what’s happening behind the scenes, you’d be so excited! But I have to let the process play out.
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Premise: A Los Angeles drifter with big dreams finds himself drawn into the world of “nightcrawling,” a practice where independent videographers search out violent crimes and sell them to news shows.
Thoughts: This script has stayed with me more than any other script I read in 2013. Why? Put simply, it had the best character I’ve read all year. I think if there’s a lesson here, it might be that instead of always coming up with a story concept first and trying to infuse characters into that story, maybe you should come up with a great character first, then build a story around him. I know this is how Wes Anderson works, for example. I don’t know if that’s what happened here or not, but the protagonist is so amazing in Nightcrawler, he essentially becomes the concept anyway.