5 (or 6) Smartly Written Films I Think You Should Watch

I do watch a lot of movies. Much more than television shows, because of a combination of not having cable and not being a big fan of American television. Since I live in America, this limits my options. Besides, I don’t have time to watch both TV and movies too, what with the having a medium-sized child, a burgeoning writing career, my own (nascent and very much needing my attention) publishing company, and a pressing need to sleep once in a while. Though I sometimes enjoy some mindless fun, I prefer movies with great writing to those with great big explosions. I love documentaries! I like British movies and indie movies and old movies where the dialogue was what carried the film along. I like movies which are quotable and memorable and evocative and witty. In no particular order, the five* most well-written movies I can think of at the moment:

1. Network –

Network is a 1976 American satirical film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer about a fictional television network, Union Broadcasting System (UBS), and its struggle with poor ratings. The film was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It stars Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall and features Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight. – From Wikipedia

I first saw this when I was teenager, and I loved the dialogue. The conversations were intelligent, dry, yet still funny in many places, and I remember thinking that this is what grown-ups should sound like when they talk. Sadly, I grew up to find that not everyone was so quick with the witty reply, but it still stuck with me. It also made me look critically at every aspect of television,  and was the first point where I remember that I realized that even the news was a product, for sale:

Nelson Chaney: All I know is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting.

Frank Hackett: We’re not a respectable network. We’re a whorehouse network, and we have to take whatever we can get.

Nelson Chaney: Well, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t fancy myself the president of a whorehouse.

Frank Hackett: That’s very commendable of you, Nelson. Now sit down. Your indignation is duly noted; you can always resign tomorrow.

2. People Will Talk –

I found this movie about 15 years ago and have re-watched it several times since. Out in 1951, it stars Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain. From Wiki-

People Will Talk describes an episode in the life of Dr. Noah Praetorius (Grant), a physician who teaches in a medical school and founded a clinic dedicated to treating patients humanely and holistically. The plot contains two parallel story lines: a professional-misconduct challenge brought against Praetorius by his more conventional colleague Dr. Rodney Elwell (Cronyn), who dislikes Praetorius’s unorthodox but effective methods; and the struggle of a distressed young woman named Deborah Higgins (Crain), who falls in love with Praetorius while dealing with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The film also highlights Praetorius’s close friend and confidant, physics professor Lyonel Barker (Slezak), who plays bass viol in the student/faculty orchestra conducted by Praetorius.

There’s more going on than just that tho – this movie, even though it was produced at the beginning of the 1950’s, doesn’t make the woman into the bad guy, even though she’s clearly had premarital sex. She isn’t a floozy, she isn’t whoring around, she’s just a woman who did something natural with someone she loved and who ended up pregnant, and alone. The script allows her to be beautiful, smart, charming, and challenging anyway. Grant, as charming as ever with his sly smile and his tailored suits (and who doesn’t love a man in a good suit?), falls in love with her, and even though she’s pregnant, and it’s not his child, marries her anyway, content to raise another man’s baby. He makes other strong choices as well, defending his friends and loved ones and just generally doing the right thing, no matter what happens.

All the while, the characters move through the film in a quickstep of dialogue that’s fun and fast and exciting to keep up with. One of my favorite lines:

Doctor Noah Praetorius: Professor Elwell, you are the only man I know who can say ‘malignant’ the way other people say ‘Bingo!’.

3. Withnail and I –

I saw this British movie about a year ago. Loved it! Written by Bruce Robinson and based on his life, it’s dark and hysterically funny in places and is, essentially, a brilliantly twisty conversation between two friends. They change locations, other people enter into the conversation and leave it again, but for the bulk of the movie it’s Withnail and Marwood (the “I” from the title), drunk or high or desperate for one reason or another, talking to each other. It stars Richard E. Grant (who, among many other roles, also played in the Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death charity spoof (1999) as The Conceited Doctor) and Paul McGann (who played the 8th Doctor in the 1996 television movie).

Withnail: You’ve had an audition. Why can’t I have an audition? It’s ridiculous. I’ve been to drama school. I’m good-looking. I tell you, I’ve a fuck sight more talent than half the rubbish that gets on television. Why can’t I get on television?

Marwood: Well, I don’t know. It’ll happen.

Withnail: Will it? That’s what you say. The only programme I’m likely to get on is the fucking news.

4. Stranger than Fiction –

Normally, I don’t care for Will Farrell. I am not a big fan of lowest-common-denominator humor. I adored this movie, and actually thought that he did a fine job acting in it. It’s essentially the story of a man who wakes up one day able to hear the narrator of his story, the one that he is still living in. It’s got math jokes and writer jokes and is self-referential and has one of the sweetest romantic moments I’ve ever seen in a film (having fallen in love with a baker, Harold Crick brings the woman a box of specialty milled flour, in individual, carefully labeled bags, so that he can have brought her “flours”). While it isn’t the kind of movie that I can put on mindlessly in the background while I clean the kitchen (I have some favorites in that department too) it is probably my favorite film right now. Plus, did I mention the writer jokes?

Penny Escher: Sitting in the rain isn’t going to write a book.

Karen Eiffel: That illustrates exactly how much you know about writing books.

5. Glengarry Glen Ross –

Adapted from the stage play, it brings into the film the best parts of any play – the words. Oh, the words! Yes, there is a lot of foul language in this movie but if you can get past that (and you should), this is a damn good film. It’s about real estate salesmen. No, really, it’s quite good anyway. It’s dark and bitter and vicious and cutthroat and all about the tie between the aggressive salesmanship and virility of men. It’s a strong movie, with forceful characters and because it’s largely set in the office, it relies on its dialogue to make the movie. The desperation of Jack Lemmon’s character, Shelley Levene, is palpable and at times hard to take. It’s a movie that stirs up such an emotional reaction, and even though the events in the film are largely negative, it’s nice to watch a movie that actually inspires you to care about the characters in it.

Blake: You’re talking about what.You’re talking about… Bitching about that sale you shot, some sonofabitch who don’t wanna buy land, some broad you’re trying to screw, so forth. Let’s talk about something important. They all here?

Williamson: All but one.

Blake: I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important. Put. That coffee. Down. Coffee’s for closers only. You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from Mitch and Murray. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Levine? You call yourself a salesman you son of a bitch?

Dave Moss: I don’t gotta sit here and listen to this shit.

Blake: You certainly don’t pal, ’cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is – you’ve got, all of you’ve got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight. Starting with tonight’s sit. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. “Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.

* And because it turned out that there was no way I could simply leave this list at 5, I will also say: go watch Primer.

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