The 10 Best Screenplays of 2012

With the Oscar nominations announced this morning, and the Golden Globe Awards being handed out this weekend, we decided to recognize some of the most outstanding screenplays of 2012. These screenplays are noteworthy for their vision, ambition, and ability to craft those engaging stories that made 2012 a great year for film. You, too, can discover how to lead audiences through wild adventures and heartwarming moments by enrolling in our upcoming Substance and Sale workshop!

10. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED by Derek Connolly

This underrated sci-fi comedy combines quirkiness and heartfelt sincerity into its stew of geeky high jinks. Screenwriter Connolly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting at the Sundance Film Festival for this subtle and endearing screenplay about a lonely man who posts an ad in a newspaper seeking a time-traveling companion. This is comedy at its most nuanced; each joke arrives from an act of conceit or observation, like listening in on a conversation between two Trekkies at Comic-Con.

Memorable line: ARNAU: Storm troopers don’t know anything about lasers or time travel. They’re blue-collar workers.

9. LOOPER by Rian Johnson

Science fiction had a good run at the movies in 2012 with such offerings as The Avengers, The Hunger Games, and Prometheus. But the most original and visionary sci-fi movie of 2012 was the less commercially successful film Looper. Director Johnson directed this film from his own script, and his commitment to crafting a fully realized dystopian future shows with each detail in dialogue and setting. Like most sci-fi films, Looper comments on broader social issues, like class and government policing, but it never preaches. Johnson paces the action and dialogue so that both storytelling elements work together to create the film’s suspenseful and kinetic rhythm.

Memorable line: OLDER JOE: I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

8. KEEP THE LIGHTS ON by Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias

Sometimes collaborations between writers yield the best results. Sachs and Zacharias’ powerful and moving drama about two men who share a complex relationship plagued by drug and sexual addiction never takes pity on its characters. This screenplay aches with human emotion and does not sentimentalize its material. Sachs and Zacharias seem to understand the turbulence in relationships as they explore the lives of these two men who struggle to love and feel loved.

Memorable line: ERIK: You’re no worse than anybody else. I’m sure that there’s someone down the hall doing exactly the same thing.

7. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD by Luci Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, adapted from the one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, by Luci Alibar  

This screenplay shines like the fistful of sparklers that the young heroine Hushpuppy waves through the dark forests in the film. The story takes place in an isolated community in post-Katrina Louisiana known as “the Bathtub.” The protagonist, Hushpuppy, is a six-year old girl who faces the coming “end of days” with a courage that transcends her miniature stature. “Beasts” is imaginative storytelling at its most original and fearless.

Memorable line: HUSHPUPPY: I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.

6. MOONRISE KINGDOM by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola

It’s a fairytale as told by the often-eccentric writer/director of such offbeat comedies as The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. Two children fall in love and flee their New England town, causing a search party to go after them. The charming pastel scenery and nervous chatter between kids suggests a preference for a young audience, but adults are welcome to the experience. It’s so much about the risks children and grown-ups take to discover their place in the world and the people they bring along to help them find it.

Memorable line: LAURA BISHOP: He does watercolors. Mostly landscapes but a few nudes.

5. ZERO DARK THIRTY by Mark Boal

After riding on the success of their film The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and Oscar-winning scribe Mark Boal teamed up for a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. When bin Laden was found and killed by a team of Navy seals in 2011, Boal rewrote the third act of the film and the result is the now hotly debated Zero Dark Thirty. Just like he did with The Hurt Locker, Boal combines narrative journalism and heart-stopping action to deliver a thriller about the morally ambiguous nature of warfare.

Memorable line: MAYA: I’m the motherf***er that found this place, Sir.

4. DJANGO UNCHAINED by Quentin Tarantino

The guy who inspired an army of film school hopefuls in the ‘90s continues adding to his canon of genre-remixing films with Django Unchained. While most cinephiles flock to Tarantino’s films for their outlandish blend of violence and comedy, his dialogue is the benchmark of his work. It’s as if Tarantino’s dialogue is a result of someone recording a Harold Pinter monologue over a ’70s funk cassette tape and then playing it on high volume during a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Memorable line: DR. SCHULTZ: It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere.

3. LINCOLN by Tony Kushner, based in part on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln could easily be a stage play. The film depicts the debates in the Colfax-led Congress of the 1860s regarding the emancipation of slaves, which is fertile ground for monologues and long speeches. In the wrong hands, these dialogue-driven moments may have seemed like a classroom history lesson, but Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Kushner lets the words function as action. Each combative speech and rhetorical remark offered during the scenes in Congress linger in the ear and guide the story along as a nation waits to unshackle itself from the burden of slavery.

Memorable line: LINCOLN: I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I’m too lazy to stop.

2. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK by David O. Russell, adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick 

Silver Linings Playbook is not a standard romantic comedy… and that’s a good thing. It’s like a His Girl Friday for the 21st century. The conversations between Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) are as wonderfully neurotic and tense as the two oddball protagonists. No issue is left untouched: sex, family, drugs, self-identity, and even sports fanaticism. Writer/director O. Russell finds comedy in all the wrong places, if only to make the romantic moments in his screenplay feel surprising in spite of the craziness surrounding the characters.

Memorable line: TIFFANY: I have a problem? You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.

1. ARGO by Chris Terrio, based on The Master of Disguise by Anthony J. Mendez and The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman

It takes a great writer to take real life events and fit them into a narrative structure that entertains and informs. Terrio, whose script for Argo finished high on the Black List in 2010, finds the right balance between historical veracity and Hollywood excitement. His screenplay stays faithful to the source material and also manages to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. For those writers struggling to create an interesting story, Terrio proves that some of the best stories are waiting in the annals of history, waiting to be told.

Memorable line: LESTER SIEGEL: Argo f*** yourself.

Want to be on this list next year? Sign up for our Substance and Sale with Warren Etheredge and John Jacobsen. For a fraction of the cost of one day’s shoot, you can share your work with two industry professionals who know how best to hone screenplays for greenlights and great rewards. Every movie starts with a great script. Have you done everything you can to ensure your material is ready?

What was your favorite screenplay of 2012? Let us know in the comments section below.

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