Back in October, Dissolve editorial director Keith Phipps called for 2017 to be the “year of new ideas”: the year the big studios take a break from sequels, reboots, remakes, and familiar adaptations, in favor of creating fresh stories with new characters. There’s a hefty dose of Swiftian facetiousness to his suggestion—he knows Hollywood isn’t going to kick the franchise habit anytime soon. There’s too much cash potential in a series that takes off and creates a loyal audience. And films that tie into something familiar—a previous film, or at least a TV show, comic book, memoir, novel, or even a beloved childhood toy—often have much better chances of box-office success. 2013 again proved the rule: Of the top 10 box-office earners for the year as of pre-holiday press time, all but Gravity were tied to pre-existing series. Six are sequels or prequels (Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Monsters University, Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkness), one is a film adaptation of a bestselling book (World War Z), and two more are quasi-reboots of long-established franchises (Oz The Great And Powerful, Man Of Steel). No wonder Hollywood loves familiar product, given the money involved.
But 2013 was still a solid year for films that would qualify under AMPAS’ Best Original Screenplays banner, films not adapted from any previous work, or tied to any former film. The year wasn’t necessarily remunerative for original films: Indies, small releases, and the kinds of foreign releases that make it to America are more likely to have original scripts and original stories, and they’re all less likely to get the massive studio support and merchandising that help make a film ubiquitous in culture and propel it to blockbuster status. But ignoring box-office receipts and seeing things from a filmgoer’s perspective instead of an accountant’s makes the year much more appealing in terms of original movies.
As far as The Dissolve is concerned, original scripts accounted for most of the best films of 2013: Only two of our collective 20 top movies for the year fall outside Keith’s “originality” rules. (Before Midnight is a sequel, and 12 Years A Slave adapts a previously adapted book.) The other 18 are first-time book adaptations, documentaries, or wholly original features. We’ve written about them several times, and there’s no point in repeating the praise for all of them at length. But it’s worth noting that many of these films are original not just in the sense that they don’t spring from books or TV shows, but in the sense that they present unusual, idiosyncratic, or personal visions that extend past familiar film scenarios and even visual language to tell new stories.
Four of our favorite films of the year particularly stand out. Our top collective pick, Her, is one of the year’s most unusual and inventive movies in terms of storytelling and direction. The core story—a man falling in love with a computer operating system designed to understand and appreciate him—isn’t new as science-fiction scenarios go, but writer-director Spike Jonze uses it in a particularly creative way, to explore technological dependency, modern isolation, and the intense lure of a seemingly personal experience. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color tells a story about metaphorical rape, grief, PTSD, and recovery that’s so symbolic and elusive, it may seem impenetrable if taken too much at face value. Its story elements, including corrosive, parasitical worms that make their hosts suggestible and psychic, are hard to grasp, but fascinatingly fresh and richly executed in a way that makes them stand out in an overly familiar film landscape. Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess can be similarly elusive, with its slightly fuzzy retro black-and-white visuals and picture-perfect approximation of a 1980s documentary about a computer-chess tournament, featuring competitive super-geek programmers pitting their creations against each other. Every aspect of the story feels creatively new, particularly the way Bujalski progresses his story from different angles, looking at different characters, and the way his camera simultaneously suggests fly-on-the-wall vérité and a crafted experience, jumping from awkward, faux-accidental mockumentary staging to carefully planned closeups. Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, scripted with Simon Pegg, turns a familiar scenario—the body-snatcher movie—into a bizarro adventure with a deliriously outré ending. Its outsized creativity reshapes the entire idea of the body-snatcher film, starting with the usual themes about conformity, and expanding them into an essay about friendship, growing up, and choice.
Looking at documentaries, Scott Tobias wrote an entire essay on how 2013’s best documentaries found new ways to play with the form, so it isn’t necessary to dive into the field in detail, but two particularly exceptional films deserve callouts. The Act Of Killing turns an investigative documentary about Indonesian death-squad members into an act of wild shared creativity, inviting the killers to colorfully explore their crimes in cinematic re-creations, which reveal far more about how they see themselves than about what the killings were actually like. The process disarms them so much that they inadvertently expose their real feelings to the camera; it’s like watching art therapy for adults turn into an exposé of authentic evil. Leviathan, meanwhile, goes in the exact opposite direction. While The Act Of Killing builds an amazingly complex hall of mirrors around its subjects, Leviathan looks at them straight-on, without framing or artifice. The documentary, an attempt to give viewers the unprocessed feeling of being on a commercial fishing ship, operates in dialogue-free long takes, simply taking it all in, artfully but directly.
Moving past our favorites, comedies were the big financial winners in original screenplays in 2013: We’re The Millers, Identity Thief, and The Heat were all among the top 20 earners for the year. Millers in particular was a surprise hit: The other two films star Melissa McCarthy, currently on the comedy hot list, and comedies are often sold based on their stars more than on their series status, but Millers looked like a standard sloppy take on the found-family comedy, until it started burning up the box office. That said, a hit comedy usually engenders a desperate flailing to recapture lightning in a bottle, and all three films are currently being rumored for sequels; McCarthy’s Heat co-star Sandra Bullock has already said she isn’t interested in The Heat 2, so reportedly Fox and director Paul Feig are considering a spin-off instead. All of which is to say, 2013’s original-script comedies may be engendering 2014 or 2015’s non-original comedies. Not likely to spark a sequel, due to its content: This Is The End, a self-indulgent but gloriously silly apocalyptic comedy written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and featuring many of their comedy buddies (Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson) joyously making asses of themselves. In an era overpacked with dystopias and apocalypses, This Is The End stood out for ultimately going to a place most stories don’t go—literally, given where the film ends up. It feels original not because of its stars’ willingness to be crude and ridiculous while playing “themselves,” but because it’s so determined to be unpredictable.
Originality is by no means a guarantee of quality. Some of our picks for the worst films of 2013 featured original screenplays, like The Internship, Upside Down, Movie 43, and Somebody Up There Likes Me. Sometimes a strong creative vision leads to fabulous places, and sometimes it results in an Upside Down or Movie 43, where original ideas can’t help if a script is weak, self-contradictory, or just dull. Also, just because a script stands alone without franchise or source-material help doesn’t mean it has the strength to stand up as a worthwhile project: The Internship did break exciting new ground in groveling product placement, serving more as a creatively extensive ass-kissing ode to Google than as a narrative film, but that isn’t exactly a draw for viewers. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is miles above these films in quality—at least according to some viewers. It was one of the year’s more polarizing films, with a number of vehement, high-profile pans and praises. Every viewer is going to have a different reaction to Korine’s hypnotic, druggy paean to youthful debauchery and “spring break foreverrrrrr” mentality, but at least those reactions are likely to be personal and emphatic, like the film itself.
It was a strange year for original, stand-alone science-fiction films: There were a surprising number of them, with a broad range of creative visual design and unfamiliar plots, but the actual execution tended to be less original than the ideas. Upside Down is awful. Oblivion is bland. Elysium feels like a watered-down remake of director Neill Blomkamp’s debut film, District 9, but is technically an original movie with its own broad take on the divide between the haves and have-nots. M. Night Shyamalan’s critically derided After Earth, which underperformed at the box office but pulled off more considerable overseas earnings, was yet another exercise in originality for the writer-director, who has only dabbled in derivative work with the disastrous The Last Airbender. But typically for Shyamalan, an overly portentous tone, stiff acting, and ridiculous plot twists hamstrung a beautifully shot original movie. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which channeled the idea of 1960s Japanese rubber-suit monsters into a new story, similarly underperformed at home and became a hit overseas; one thing that possibly held it back was the familiarity of the human characters, who aren’t nearly as original or memorable as del Toro’s sleek modern take on old monsters-vs.-robots battles. Richard Curtis’ About Time, meanwhile, is an appealingly bizarre and unusual take on the time-travel story. Its little philosophical conclusions and Pacific Rim’s bombast couldn’t be further apart—one of the appeals of original stories, which tend to roam further afield in topics and tones than franchise films.
Original scripts tend to crop up in dramas more than anywhere else, and 2013 had plenty of them, particularly in foreign imports and smaller, more personal films. Among the best of the American crop not already on our best-of lists: David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which tracks the complications of a romance poisoned by crime and capture, and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, also about a criminal romance and its intergenerational impact. Both films are swooningly romantic, yet bitter and emotionally intense, tracking grimly quiet men through their obsessions and the choices that put them on collision courses with the law. Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace occupies strikingly similar grim-men-making-do territory, although in this case, it’s the secondary character, not the protagonist, who’s breaking the law and paying the price. Jeff Nichols’ Mud features one more grim man making do: Matthew McConaughey as a murderer on the lam, seeking help from two 14-year-old boys who see him as a romantic outlaw. All four of these movies feel somewhat similar, in that they’re all about capturing and romanticizing a pained masculinity on the fringes of modern society. But all four of them find their own specifics of time and place, and use setting and situation to differentiate their remarkably similar strong-silent-type central characters.
Some of the best original import dramas not our our list feel even more original because they don’t have the same obsession with American outlaw chic. Haifaa Al-Mansour’s debut Wadjda centers on a young girl coming of age in Saudi Arabia, where societal expectations become abruptly stricter and more judgmental as she gets closer to womanhood. As the titular character watches her parents’ fraught relationship develop, she sees more and more what she doesn’t want to become. Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking follows the negotiations over a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates: Unlike in the similar Captain Phillips, there’s no trickery or heroism to be had, just a desperate wait to see whether the ship’s corporate owners or the pirates will blink first, and which will decide they have more to lose. Ron Morales’ gritty, gripping Graceland is an ugly crime drama that turns politics and prostitution in the Philippines into a personal odyssey for one desperate father trying to get his daughter back from kidnappers who demand his participation in a gross deception. War Witch spends time in the troubled, frequently drugged head of a young African girl abducted as a child soldier in an unnamed country, and finds it a beautiful place in spite of the ugliness around her. All four films sink into their respective milieus, finding authenticity in believable characters and specific situations that go beyond broad, familiar tropes.
And in the end, that’s what filmmakers and filmgoers should be looking for in original film—the kind of specificity and ambition that so rarely comes up in blockbuster-baiting studio series product. Judging by the box office alone, it’s all too easy to draw the conclusion that filmgoers primarily want the satisfying experience of returning to familiar worlds and characters, of getting the thrill of new material combined with the satisfaction of something already well-known and well-loved. But it’s also easy to lightly dismiss the field as insular and uncreative, only rewarding repetition and predictability. It isn’t 2017 yet, but plenty of original visions are still available at the theaters and for home viewing. It may take a little more looking—and a little more willingness to go out on a limb and trust an unknown filmmaker or an unfamiliar story—but it’s so often worth it for that experience of tumbling into the light after a film, blinking off cinematic hypnosis and thinking, “That was something I’d never experienced before.” All complaining about prequels, sequels, reboots, and remakes aside, that experience is still waiting in every city, every week. Original films may not be the biggest moneymakers, but they aren’t that hard to find, either.