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My Number 6 Favorite Screenplay of the Year: Challengers

Now that we’re halfway through the year, I thought this would be a good time to acknowledge the best of what we’ve seen so far. Traditionally, the first half of the year can be kind of a wasteland when it comes to good movies. We generally see Oscar-bait movies get their wide release after the limited releases of December made them Oscar-eligible. February and March generally bring out a cavalcade of forgettable movies that are worthy of being neither Oscar-bait nor summer blockbusters. Kids are in school, the weather across the country is terrible, and most people would rather stay home and watch TV or do something streaming. We sometimes get a gem in April to whet our appetites for the blockbuster season that is just around the corner and is finally delivered in May and June.

This year, April brought us Challengers, a movie with a budding superstar in Zendaya and two up-and-comers in Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor. My daughter and I recorded a podcast on it when it came out that can be found here.

What you might find interesting in listening to that podcast is that it might sound like I really didn’t like it. I fully recognize that I am not the target audience for Challengers, but I can also appreciate what they did with the screenplay, even if I wasn’t a fan of the overall film.

This was an unconventional script and an unconventional film.

While I was not a huge fan of the movie, I really liked what screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes did in crafting the story. The movie is about tennis players in a love triangle, and Kurtzkes structured the story in much the same way as the back-and-forth of a tennis match. Anyone who follows tennis knows that when two evenly matched players face off against each other, the momentum of the match can go back and forth. Kurtzkes’ screenplay matches that flow very well over the course of the script.

This was an interesting one for me. After walking out of the theater, my initial reaction was that I didn’t like it. Then, after reflecting on it for a while and discussing it with my daughter on our podcast, I saw more value in the screenplay than I previously had. Kurtzkes and director Luca Guadagnino were not spoon-feeding us the story. They required us to watch and to pay attention to interpret it in our own minds. It was a smartly written screenplay that required active viewing from the audience. You had to pay attention to what was going on to appreciate the symbolism of what Kurtzkes and Guadagnino were doing. If you missed the symbolism, the screenplay would be diminished. If you got the symbolism, the screenplay’s greatness would be revealed.

From a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, the script did what it needed to do. It dripped with conflict, it created a dramatic third act, and it challenged the characters to learn and grow. Some of the characters learned and grew more completely than others, which is what needed to happen. Kurtzkes wasn’t afraid to put his characters in uncomfortable and even painful situations, and the movie was better for it.

Now, this still isn’t my favorite movie of the year, and that’s fine. I’m not the target audience, and people who I’ve spoken with who are in the target audience all loved it. Ultimately, the screenplay did what it needed to do. It just did it in a very unconventional way.

Six! My Six favorite screenplays of the year so far!

We are essentially halfway through the year. In no particular order, my top 5 favorite screenplays of the year are:

Inside Out 2

Dune Part 2

Wicked Little Letters

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

The Fall Guy


Over the next few days, I will discuss each of these screenplays in detail. I will examine what the screenwriters did right, what they could have improved on, and why the screenplays were integral to the film’s success.

Inside Out 2: PIXAR Picks Up the Slack

I will admit that when I first heard that Inside Out 2 was on the slate, I was underwhelmed. While I liked the first movie, I never considered it to be one of PIXAR’s best efforts. Maybe it was a top-15 or even top-12 PIXAR film, but it wasn’t in my personal top-10, and I personally didn’t feel like it warranted a sequel. I thought it was a solid B, maybe B+ movie, but not quite at the upper echelons of PIXAR’s best films. I was also nervous because the only thing consistent about PIXAR’s movies over the last decade and a half has been their inconsistency. For every Soul, there was a Good Dinosaur. For every Coco, there was a Lightyear. And considering PIXAR’s track record for sequels outside of the Toy Story franchise, I anticipated another letdown.

As is often the case, I was wrong.

Inside Out 2 is a fantastic film and one of their best sequels. While lacking the overpowering emotion of its predecessor, it nevertheless delivers a thematically compelling story about having to accept all facets of who we are, the bitter and the sweet.

Picking up after the original, we see Riley and her best friends getting a special invitation to a prestigious hockey camp that could set them up well for high school. But Riley finds out on the way that her friends will be going to a different high school. Add to that that she’s just entering puberty, and we’re introduced to a new cast of emotions, Anxiety, Boredom, Embarrassment, and Envy, to go along with our familiar friends, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust.

Joy has been forcing bad memories to the back of the mind to create a sense of self for Riley that is overwhelmingly positive and altruistic. Feeling the old emotions are outdated and not up to the task of seeing Riley through this tumultuous time, Anxiety and the other new emotions banish Joy and the others so that they can create a new, more nuanced sense of self for Riley that Joy obviously feels is not who Riley really is.

To be honest, I thought the movie was fine through the middle of the second act. I wasn’t blown away, but I was enjoying it. Then the third act rolled around, and I think it needs to be said that no one, and I mean NO ONE, sticks the landing like PIXAR. When they’re on their game, the endings of their films are spot on. Many times, their outstanding endings have saved mediocre films. Nothing about Inside Out 2 is mediocre, but the ending absolutely took it to another emotional level.

What I liked about this film was that PIXAR’s filmmakers were able to keep the world we were familiar with and create new scenarios organically. Of course, a girl hitting puberty and getting ready for high school would have more complex emotions than she did before. It makes sense that these new emotions would turn the world inside Riley asunder until everyone could understand their place and their role. Inside Out 2 isn’t just a blatant money grab for new merch like Cars 2 and Cars 3. It isn’t a square peg being forced into a round hole trying to expand on stories that were totally fine as they were, like Monsters University and Finding Dory. This was an organic continuation of a story we all loved or at least really liked in which the stakes are raised, and new challenges await. You could conceivably see Inside Out 2 without having seen Inside Out and still enjoy it immensely.

It also should be pointed out that Inside 2 may very well salvage the summer movie season.

Inside Out 2 opened last weekend with a whopping $155 million, nearly twice what Dune 2 did in its opening weekend and the highest weekend debut since Barbie last July. To say that this summer has been disappointing at the box office would be a gross understatement. But has often happened, an animated feature has ridden to the rescue. With the latest installment of Despicable Me coming out in July, it’s reasonable to believe that animation could once again save the summer box office season.

My five favorite screenplays of the year so far

We are almost halfway through the year. In no particular order, my top 5 favorite screenplays of the year are:

Dune 2

Wicked Little Letters

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

The Fall Guy


Over the next few days, I will discuss each of these screenplays in detail. I will examine what the screenwriters did right, what they could have improved on, and why the screenplays were integral to the film’s success.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – Too Much and Not Enough

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga kicked off the Summer Blockbuster season with a whimper over Memorial Day weekend. Does it portend a down summer at the box office? Only time will tell, but Director George Miller, who has made a career of smashing cars in the desert presented us with a film that did not match the intensity of its predecessor. While it had moments of greatness, and is overall pretty likable, the overall film missed out on several opportunities while still being too long.

Furiosa was somehow too much while also being not enough.

It was too much on the one hand by being too long. Coming in at two and a half hours, this film wasted the first hour by getting too lost in the exposition. Certainly, there were things that we learned in that first hour that were important, and things were shown to us that affected moments later in the film. But the first hour was inefficient at best and unnecessary at worst. I was thinking about earlier incarnations of the series like The Road Warrior (an hour and a half running time) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (an hour and forty-five minutes), and I couldn’t help but think how this film would have been a lot more entertaining without all the back story and if it picked up when we first see Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) as an adult.

The first hour wasn’t without its entertainment value. Chris Hemsworth as Dementus is great with his obsession for wanting to know where the land of abundance is that Furiosa came from. Miller showed Dementus and his team as a band of pirates sailing along the desert instead of on the high seas. They plundered and tortured like a merry band of scallywags in a manner that would have brought pride to Blackbeard himself. We then see that he has eyes on bigger prizes like the Citadel and Gastown, and he’s willing to play the long game to acquire them.

Meanwhile, young Furiosa leaves his clutches to join Immortan Joe (Lachly Hulme) in the Citadel, but she unwittingly draws the eye of Joe’s horny son, Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones). This pushes her out of the inner circle and towards Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke), who teaches her how to drive the war rig so she can eventually try to find her way back home.

Lost in the exposition

This is all too much plot and not enough story. As I like to tell screenwriters when I evaluate their screenplays, the plot is what happens, and the story is why we care. We spent the first hour of this script getting detail after detail, but we never got any reason to care about what was happening. This is an inherent problem with prequels because we know that Furiosa isn’t ever going to find her home. However, we do know from Mad Max: Fury Road that she wants to steal the brides and bring them to safety. Other than the last shot of the movie, we never get any of what motivates her towards that in this film.

That’s my big takeaway from Furiosa. The plot is all about her and what she wants. She would have been a much more effective hero with that as her outer goal, but also the problem of seeing the mistreatment of the brides and wanting to rescue them. Giving her that more altruistic need would have made the audience care about her a lot more and would have made the film a lot stronger, especially in the first half.

Once we get to the second half of the film, and Miller gets into his sweet spot of blowing stuff up, the movie gets a lot more entertaining. It’s a ride movie and it’s a popcorn movie, and it’s worth seeing in the theater if you haven’t seen it yet. But don’t worry too much about getting there late.

Story Structure and the Hero

I have talked to many screenwriters over the years who lament the idea of the 3-act structure and the supposed restrictions it places on writers and the screenwriting process. This is a simplistic view of what story structure really is. There is a reason that the 3-act structure (really 4-act structure) has become the industry standard and why, with few exceptions, screenplays have been written this way for nearly a century.

I have read a lot of screenplays lately that are lacking tight story structure. It’s no coincidence that those scripts have another large issue. The hero on those screenplays often lacks a clear goal. Without a clear goal, we don’t know what the Hero is working towards, so it’s impossible to craft a tight story structure. That probably sounds like Screenwriting 101 to most screenwriters, but you would be surprised how often it comes up when I’m reading a screenplay.

Put it this way. The structure of the story marks the progress the Hero makes toward accomplishing her goal. The first act of your screenplay is the exposition. That’s when we learn who the Hero is, what she needs to accomplish, and who is trying to stop her. The first act ends with the Hero committing to the adventure in an attempt to achieve whatever that goal is.

Act II is the conflict. Whoever is trying to stop the Hero works hard in the second act to prevent the Hero from accomplishing her goal. At the midpoint of Act II, the stakes are often raised. Perhaps it looks like the Hero will get what she wants, and the antagonist needs to make an adjustment. Whatever it is, the story progresses based on how close the Hero is to getting what she wants. Then Act II ends with the all-is-lost moment. Despite earlier successes, it all comes crashing down and the Hero has lost everything, usually due to some flaw she was unable to overcome.

That moves us to Act III, the Resolution. Learning from her past mistakes and having found the strength to overcome whatever flaw or weakness was blocking her, the Hero makes that last push and finally accomplishes her goal by the end. Or she doesn’t, depending on the kind of story you’re telling. The point is that story structure and character development go hand-in-hand. The best characters have inner flaws to go along with their outer goals. The structure of the story shows their progress towards those goals, but the character’s weakness plays a part in how the structure plays out in the best screenplays.

You cannot have a tight story structure in your screenplay without a Hero who has depth. Conversely, without that solid story structure, there is no organic way to get your character to grow and experience a satisfying character arc. The two feed off of each other, and they need each other. That is the first step for a screenwriter to maximize the potential in their screenplay.

Are you writing a screenplay, and you’re struggling to find the structure of it or to determine what the hero’s true goal is? Monument scripts can help. Click here to see our coverage options and how we can help you improve your screenplay.

Civil War: A Cowardly Film

I was shocked by Civil War. I wasn’t shocked by a riveting story about a once-powerful nation torn asunder by internal strife that escalated into mass violence. I wasn’t shocked by a portrayal of a broken political system that led a once-content population to violently rise up and kill its leaders. I wasn’t shocked by the proposition of white supremacist militias gaining military power from foreign actors to turn our country into a real-life version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

I was shocked at how underwhelming this film was.

Director and screenwriter Alex Garland did an interesting and (somewhat) understandable thing. He removed a political point of view from the story. This is understandable because the current state of the country meant that if he portrayed one ideological side or the other as being responsible for starting a civil war, he would lose half the audience before anyone even saw it.

While I understand the reasoning, I personally feel like that’s a cowardly way to make a film.

It’s also no way to tell a story because there are no stakes. While there are hints as to why there’s an uprising against the government, we’re never given clear reasoning. We don’t know what the motivation was for the insurrection. We don’t know what they want or how they will govern when and if they take over. That leaves the audience with no side to root for and no drama or tension in any battle scene. On top of that, the main instigators of the war are an alliance between California and Texas, which, for reasons that should be obvious, is one of the most unrealistic premises I’ve ever come across.

All that leads to a straightforward question: Who cares?

The main thrust of the plot has us following Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a grizzled veteran war photographer who has photographed some of the most heinous atrocities in some of the most violent confrontations of the recent past, and her correspondent partner Joel (Wagner Moura), who want to get from New York City to Washington, D.C. so they can interview the president (Nick Offerman) before the insurrectionists take Washington, D.C. and kill him. Before leaving, Lee’s mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and super fan and aspiring photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) hitch a ride along with them. Along the way, they encounter advancing rebel forces, military atrocities, and people who want to pretend this isn’t happening before arriving in Washington, D.C., for the climactic battle outside and inside the White House.

Aside from the second act basically turning this into a road movie (click here to read why I’m not a fan of road movies), their goal is superficial and contrived. They hint at trying to get some important information out of him in the questions that Joel would ask the president, but those questions don’t provide any insight as to how we got here or where we could be going. Not only that, but it seems like they cut a significant scene along the way because things happen in the third act that either don’t make sense or don’t provide any emotional punch. We are given a surface-level telling of this story with no depth, drama, or actual conflict.

By the time we get to Washington, D.C., I’m asking the same question. Who cares?

This film required a brave director who could courageously make this film. A stance needed to be taken, and Garland, whether in his direction or his screenplay, needed to tell the story unapologetically from that point of view. If you think the current state of our government is leading us to a real civil war, make that case. If you believe there are specific leaders whose policies will accelerate that process, put it in the story. Would that have kept some people away from the theater? Probably. Would it have made the movie better and more compelling? Definitely.

A clear and definite point of view would have at least allowed the audience to care about what happened one way or the other. This film could portray a victory for some, and for others, it would be a tragedy. It should be a tragedy for everyone, but there needs to be emotional engagement for it to be a tragedy. Unfortunately, Civil War failed the one test it’s asking us all to pass.

It showed cowardice when it should have shown bravery.