Yesterday, I suggested ?collecting? writers, as opposed to actors or directors, as a good method for deciding which films to see. We started with five; here is the remainder of the top ten.
Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel
Geniuses at comedy which still manages to tug the proverbial heart strings. Occasionally farcical, melancholy but never maudlin, these guys are true masters of their craft. If Wilde was right, that dying is easy but comedy’s hard, than they may be the hardest working duo in filmdom.
They hit the big time with their first feature out of the gate
Billy Crystal was a four-time lead in their movies; he starred in City Slickers and he also them co-write City Slickers II, Mr. Saturday Night and the rom-com Forget Paris, with Debra Winger.
More recently, they wrote EdTV, Where the Heart Is and Fever Pitch; the last being a singular achievement in that it is the only movie in which Jimmy Fallon has ever been funny.
Ganz and Mandel are, about as mainstream as it gets. You say you like your writing a little more edgy, a little bit out there?
I’d say Charlie Kaufman is your man. The film that lift him out of the obscure world of episodic television was Being John Malkovich, followed by the Michel Gondry-directed Human Nature.
Then came Adaptation, in which he wrote about a fictional version of himself and his twin-brother trying to overcome the problems inherent in adapting Susan Orleans “The Orchid Thief” which then morphs into the screenplay for the film audiences watch. He and his brother are co-credited with the screenplay, for which they both won Academy Awards. Kaufman does not have a twin-brother, let alone any brother. It was a bit heady for some, but for others it was the sort of quirky meta-storytelling that felt so right in so many ways. An adaptation and a satire of Hollywood all rolled into one.
Next, for George Clooney’s directorial debut, Kaufman adapted the autobiography of Chuck Barris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The masterpiece, of sorts, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind needs no introduction since it has become practically everyone’s favorite movie is you’re between the ages of 25-30.
His current project, in post-production, which will also mark Kaufman’s directorial debut is Synechdoche, New York, which if you look up the word synechdoche, you get a definition what makes you think, huh? And you weren’t even close to pronouncing it right. If you can figure out the plot then you’ll be our best friend.
John Milius isn’t quite so big on metaphor and linguistic twists and turns. He wrote the serious bombs, Red Dawn and 1941. But, he did write the equally ridiculous?but much more entertaining?Conan the Barbarian. And, don’t forget that 1941 had a crapload of talented people attached including Belushi, Zemeckis and director Steven Spielberg; so, it may be unfair to lay the blame at Milius’s feet.
He is considered the man’s man writer, because he wrote the iconic first two Dirty Harry movies. He is capable of subtlety, however, as in the top-notch The Wind and the Lion and Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now.
Thematically, he has written about war and combat numerous times, but the reason he makes my list is for a movie about a man who has had enough of war, just about enough of humans in general, and decides to go be a mountain man. One of my top five films of all time, the flawless Jeremiah Johnson. I can’t imagine that there is anyone who has not seen it, but if not, PLEASE do yourself a favor and go rent this movie. I won’t waste words and ruin the pleasure of it for you.
Paul Haggis is a fascinating case, a man who is a multiple Oscar winner for screenplays with complex, interweaving stories, whose early career showed none of that potential. He started out as co-creator and writer on Walker: Texas Ranger. Yeah, okay, it’s not like the show was completely unwatchable, but I don’t think William Goldman was losing any sleep at night thinking about Paul Haggis. Several trite sitcoms later – Different Strokes, Facts of Life and Who’s the Boss all appear on his resume, although he also had episodes of L.A. Law and the criminally underwatched Due South.
And then, all of a sudden in 2004, Clint Eastwood directs Million Dollar Baby from Paul’s first draft of the screenplay; it wins for Oscars including Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Next year, same story with Crash, except he is also the director. He has gone on to write Flags of Our Fathers, co-wrote Letters From Iwo Jima with first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita, and co-wrote Casino Royale, which has revitalized the Bond franchise. He wrote and directed the recent In the Valley of Elah, and has the new Bond film currently in production. Let’s hear it for late bloomers!!
When the phrase ?prestigious screenwriter? is used, Steve Zaillian is often the guy in question. He had already written the heartbreaking Awakenings (Robin Williams’ best on-screen work until the creepyOne Hour Photo), The Falcon and the Snowman and the little seen for no known reason, Searching for Bobby Fischer. The movie about a young chess prodigy also pushed actor Chaz Palmentieri into some of the best work of his career and that’s saying something. When Steven Spielberg fingered him to adapt Thomas Keneally’s book, Schindler’s List the two of them produced, arguably, one of the finest benchmarks in cinema history. He worked with Milius on Clear and Present Danger and wrote the first Mission Impossible.
We then have the perfectly adequate A Civil Action and Hannibal, followed by the more ambitious Gangs of New York under the hand of Scorsese. In many respects, that movie not helped reestablish Scorsese into a period of creativity that has yet to cease, but it also shepherded Leo DiCaprio into the second phase of his career by allowing him to portray a conflicted young man. 2005 produced the underrated The Interpreter and this year, the excellent American Gangster. He doesn’t escape the unwritten rule that sometimes the best writers produce the biggest bombs. In his case: the horrible mess that was 2006’s All the King’s Men remake.