Saturday, September 28, 2013


Burdened with a craft that's essentially uncinematic, writers in the movies are perennially blocked, broke, and insane, simultaneously romanticized and ridiculed for their excesses-- from the wise-cracking drunks of "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" to the sticky sweetness of "Shakespeare in Love," the self-regarding self-reflexivity of "Adaptation," and the homicidal madness of "The Shining." Here are ten films that have something real to say about what it means to write.

1. The Singing Detective

Stories that make us sick, stories that cure us: in the groundbreaking 1986 BBC mini-series, Michael Gambon plays a hospitalized pulp author with a nasty skin disease who wrestles with his demons, past, present, real, and imagined. Rarely have the processes of memory and creation been made visible with such playfulness: goons, dames, Nazi spies, and "Dem Bones" are all part of the brilliantly layered script by Dennis Potter. Caution: avoid the 2003 Robert Downey Jr. remake like the plague.

2. Barton Fink

More wrestling, this time literally: in the Coen Brothers' 1991 Cannes winner, John Turturro sells out to Hollywood, drinks with William Faulkner's alter ego, befriends John Goodman, and watches the wallpaper peel off in the shabby hotel where he is desperately trying to toss off his screenplay. Does it give you "that Barton Fink feeling?" You bet it does. Just for once, the world around Fink is crazier and more absurd than the writer.

3. Wonder Boys

Michael Douglas is endearingly ridiculous in his pink bathrobe, working on a second novel that's over a thousand pages long with no end in sight. Based on Michael Chabon's book and featuring appealing young actors Katie Holmes (pre-Tom) and Tobey Maguire (pre-Spidey), "Wonder Boys" tells tales from the inside a graduate writing program that are too wacky not to be true.

4. Deconstructing Harry

Not every writer has to justify their work to an angry Judy Davis armed with a revolver; deep down, however, they're all afraid their friends and family will confront them about their thinly veiled characters. One of Woody Allen's last great films, "Deconstructing Harry" is a poignant and hilarious cover version of Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries."

5. Factotum

Matt Dillon gives a wonderful performance as Charles Bukowski's alter-ego in Brent Hamer's adaptation/biopic about the hard-drinking, hard-living writer and poet. Outlandish scenes tumble into each other, buoyed by Bukowski's drunken wit and saved from precocious romanticism by his direct, unglamorous honesty.

6. Naked Lunch

It's a Kafka high: typewriters turn into bugs and extraterrestrial agents dispense strange drugs in David Cronenberg's adaptation of William S. Burroughs' most famous novel.

7. Capote

Most of the talk about Bennett Millers' film has centered on Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning performance -- it is easier to praise his outstanding mimicry than to dissect the complexities of the script. Capote tackles tough issues about manipulation, ambition, and the real-life cost of creating art.

8. My Brilliant Career

In Gillian Armstrong's 1979 classic, Judy Davis has yet to display her talent for caustic sarcasm and biting humor. She plays impetuous, young Sybylla Melvyn, a budding author who chooses her fiction over love.

9. I Capture The Castle

Like father, like daughter: marvelous Bill Nighy and heartbreakingly earnest Romola Garai struggle with their craft, doubt their talent, and persevere. Set in a crumbling castle, Tim Fywell's tender, funny adaptation of Dodie Smith's 1949 novel captures the essence of the writing life.
10. Morvern Callar
Lynne Ramsey's 2002 film might seems like an odd choice for this list--the film's actual writer is dead at the outset. His partying girlfriend picks up his manuscript and sells it under her own name. "Movern Callar" isn't about the pain of creating, it's all about the pay-off: in the title role, Samantha Morton gets the supreme pleasure of having written without ever having touched pen or keyboard.

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