Hollywood is rarely in search of the new, so each year brings a longer list of adapted screenplays and a shorter list of originals.
Sundance launched American indie-in-Paris Whit Stillman’s witty adaptation of an early epistolary Jane Austen novella, “Love & Friendship,” which boasted rave reviews for Kate Beckinsale as a bitchy gold-digging mom, and long legs at the arthouse box office ($14 million).
Veteran indie distributor James Schamus returned to his first love, screenwriting, for his well-reviewed directorial debut “Indignation,” adapting the Philip Roth novel about college love, which performed modestly at domestic arthouses ($3.3 million). Lesser-known “Indignation” fared better with Roth than rookie director-star Ewan McGregor and writer John Romano’s film version of the better-known novel “American Pastoral.”
Writer-director Rebecca Miller’s sixth feature, sophisticated New York comedy of manners “Maggie’s Plan,” earned strong kudos at Toronto and Sundance but scored modestly on the specialty circuit ($3.5 million). Woody Allen aside, relationship comedies do not often compute with Academy voters, although Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg scored a nom for “The Kids Are All Right,” as did Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for “Bridesmaids.” (Indie Nicole Holofcener, on the other hand, has shockingly never landed an Oscar writing nod.)
Global juggernauts were two Disney movies that both seem animated, but only one will vie for Best Animated Feature. That’s Andrew Stanton’s Pixar sequel “Finding Dory,” an ingenious extension of the undersea universe he created back in 2003 with blockbuster “Finding Nemo.” Impossible to top one of the most beloved Pixar originals of all time? They almost did, relying on winsome Ellen DeGeneres’s voice and personality. This dunderheaded and memory-afflicted fish stayed lovable: we cared about her quest to find her parents. (Worldwide gross: $1 billion).
On the Disney live-action side of the equation is Justin Mark’s faithful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s children’s classic “The Jungle Book,” which retained some flavor from the 1967 animated Disney movie but was reinvented for a contemporary audience with help from director Jon Favreau. Somehow “The Jungle Book” expertly navigates the shoals of a movie starring a live-action child inside an animated world. Audiences of all ages ate it up ($963 million worldwide).
Debuting at Cannes was Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” starring Isabelle Huppert as an entrepreneur who refuses to be defined by her violent rape; David Birke adapted the French novel in English before Verhoeven took the project back to France, which eventually chose the film as its Oscar submission.
Premiering at Venice to strong response was Mel Gibson’s return to directing, “Hacksaw Ridge,” an effective World War II drama based on the true story of an heroic and Pacifist medic (Andrew Garfield), adapted by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Also at Venice was “Nocturnal Animals,” fashion designer Tom Ford’s follow-up to “A Single Man.” The gorgeous new movie reveals a winding story within a story about a stylish designer (Amy Adams) who regrets leaving her first husband, a hardboiled novelist (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Playing both Venice and Telluride was “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s brainy sci-fi encounter between an empathetic linguist (Amy Adams) and alien visitors whose intentions are unclear. Adapted by Eric Heisserer (“The Thing”) from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” the movie is accessible, smart, suspenseful and moving, that rare mix of brain-twister and intimate drama.
Also playing the Rocky Mountain fest was Clint Eastwood’s true story of an aviation miracle: Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s landing of a jumbo jet in the middle of the Hudson River, with every one of 155 passengers saved. We can all marvel at Eastwood’s ability to deliver one mainstream hit after another (this one scored $175 million worldwide) at a time when most studios and filmmakers find that a challenge. But the script was there, written by Todd Komarnicki. Playing Toronto was another heart-felt true story, Garth Davis’s “Lion,” adapted by Luke Davies from the book by Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel), who lost his family when he was five and found them 25 years later via Google Earth.
Getting points for degree of difficulty are “Snowden” writers Kieran Fitzgerald and director Oliver Stone, who traveled to Russia and did their own reporting on the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Critics were mixed and audiences were not interested, but the script is expertly executed.
Debuting at the New York Film Festival, Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” got mixed reviews for its innovative high frame rate technology. However, Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Jean-Christophe Castelli got higher marks for their adaptation of the Ben Fountain bestseller. (Of note: Castelli is Schamus and Lee’s longtime assistant and associate.)
Still to come are the late-breaking movies from Martin Scorsese, Denzel Washington and August Wilson, Ben Affleck and “Hidden Figures.”
As usual, I won’t deem a movie a frontrunner until I have seen it.
“Arrival” (Eric Heisserer)
“Finding Dory” (Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse)
“The Jungle Book” (Justin Marks)
“Love & Friendship” (Whit Stillman)
“Sully” (Todd Komarnicki)
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (Simon Beaufoy, Jean-Christophe Castelli)
“Elle” (David Birke)
“Fences” (August Wilson)
“Indignation” (James Schamus)
“Hacksaw Ridge” (Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan)
“Hidden Figures” (Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder)
“Live By Night” (Ben Affleck)
“Lion” (Luke Davies)
“Maggie’s Plan” (Rebecca Miller)
“Nocturnal Animals” (Tom Ford)
“Silence” (Jay Cocks)
“American Pastoral” (John Romano)
“A Bigger Splash” (David Kajganich)
“Denial” (David Hare)
“The Girl on the Train” (Paula Hawkins)
“Hello My Name is Doris” (Michael Showalter, Laura Terruso)
“Krisha” (Trey Edward Shults)
“Queen of Katwe” (William Wheeler)
“Snowden” (Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone)