This was kind of a down year for movie dialogue, but I was still able to find some good examples from this year’s films. I’m glad to have some new names in this year’s list rather than the usual retreads. As always, I don’t have access to the shooting scripts, and I’m merely transcribing what is said in the finished film. The stage directions are mine. And WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE AHEAD.
And hello, Greta Gerwig! Lady Bird turned out to be tough to excerpt for this post because most of its scenes are short, but this conversation at the beginning of the film sets the tone pretty well. This takes place in the car as Lady Bird and her mother are driving home from a trip to look at state colleges. Not enough filmmakers use overlapping dialogue like this, even though it’s, like, how people tend to talk in real life. Howard Hawks and Robert Altman’s films featured it. If Gerwig is their heir, I’m all for it.
AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: You have been listening to The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
LADY BIRD (putting the last cassette back in the case): Our college trip took twenty-one hours and five minutes.
(They both laugh, even though they are in tears. Lady Bird moves to put another cassette in the tape deck.)
MARION: Wait, let’s just sit with what we heard.
LADY BIRD: Are you serious?
MARION: We don’t have to be constantly inundating ourselves.
LADY BIRD: I wish I could live through something.
MARION: Aren’t you?
LADY BIRD: Nope. The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome.
MARION: Okay, fine. Well, yours is the worst life of all, so you win.
LADY BIRD: Oh, so now you’re mad?
MARION: No, it’s just you’re being ridiculous because you have a great life.
LADY BIRD (overlapping): Because I want my life to be interesting? I’m sorry I’m not perfect.
MARION: No one’s asking you to be perfect. Just considerate would do.
LADY BIRD: I don’t even want to go to school in this state, anyway. I hate California. I want to go to the East Coast.
MARION: Your dad and I will barely be able to afford in-state tuition.
LADY BIRD: There are loans, scholarships.
MARION (overlapping): Your brother, your very smart brother, he can’t even find a job.
LADY BIRD: He and Shelley work! They have jobs!
MARION: They bag at the grocery store. That is not a career, and they went to Berkeley. Your father’s company is laying people off right and left, did you even know that? No, of course you don’t, because you don’t think of anybody but yourself. (pause) And Immaculate Heart is already a luxury.
LADY BIRD: Immaculate fart, you wanted that, not me.
MARION: Miguel saw someone knifed in front of him at Sac High. Is that what you want? So you’re telling me that you want to see somebody knifed right in front of you? Right in front of you?
LADY BIRD (overlapping): He barely saw that! I want to go where culture is. Like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.
MARION (overlapping): How did I raise such a snob? You couldn’t get into those schools anyway.
LADY BIRD: Mom!
MARION: You can’t even pass your driver’s test.
LADY BIRD: Because you wouldn’t let me practice.
MARION: The way that you work, or the way that you don’t work, you’re not even worth state tuition, Christine.
LADY BIRD: My name is Lady Bird.
MARION: Well, actually it’s not, and it’s ridiculous. Your name is Christine.
LADY BIRD (overlapping): Call me Lady Bird, like you said.
MARION: You know what? You should just go to city college, you know? With your work ethic, just go to city college, and then to jail, and then back to city college, and then you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do every god…
(Lady Bird unbuckles her seat belt, opens the passenger door, and jumps out of the moving car. Marion screams.)
First-time screenwriter Liz Hannah came up with the idea for The Post, and together with Oscar-winner Josh Singer, they fashioned a script packed with information without getting bogged down in talkiness. In this scene, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee shows up to publisher Katharine Graham’s glitzy birthday party to reveal to her that he’s about to get a copy of the Pentagon Papers. The Nixon administration has already shut down the New York Times for trying to publish them, and the Post is in a precarious financial position, so she has to make a hard decision whether to back down or print and risk the paper’s future.
BEN: So, can I ask you a hypothetical question?
KATHARINE: Oh dear, I don’t like hypothetical questions.
BEN: Well, I don’t think you’re gonna like the real one, either.
KATHARINE: Do you have the papers?
BEN (meaningfully): Not yet.
KATHARINE (agitated): Oh, gosh. Oh, gosh. Because you know the, the position that would put me in. You know, we have language in the prospectus…
BEN (interjecting): Yeah, I know, I know. Investors can change their minds. I know what is at stake. You know, the only couple I knew who both Kennedy and LBJ wanted to socialize with was you and your husband, and you owned the damn paper. ’Cause that’s the way things worked. Politicians and the press, they trusted each other so they could go to the same dinner parties and drink cocktails and tell jokes while there was a war raging in Vietnam.
KATHARINE (talking over him): I don’t know what we’re talking about. I’m not protecting Lyndon.
BEN: No, but you’ve got his former secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, the man who commissioned this study, with a few dozen party guests out on your patio.
KATHARINE (still talking over him): I’m not protecting him, either. I’m protecting the paper.
BEN: Yeah, well, I was a stooge for Jack Kennedy. (He crosses the room and sits on her sofa.) The night he was assassinated, Tony and I went down to the Naval Hospital so we could meet Jackie when she landed, and she was bringing Jack’s body back on the plane from Dallas, and she walked in the room. She was still wearing that pink suit with Jack’s blood all over it. She fell into Tony’s arms and they held each other for quite a long time. And then Jackie looked at me and said, “None of this, none of what you see, none of what I say, is ever going to be in your paper.” And it just about broke my heart. I never thought of Jack as a source, I thought of him as a friend. And that was my mistake. And it was something that Jack knew all along. We can’t be both. We have to choose, and that’s the point. The days of smokin’ cigars together down on Pennsylvania Avenue are over. Your friend McNamara’s study proves that. The way they lied, the way they lied, those days have to be over. (He gets up.) We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, I mean, my God, who will?
KATHARINE: Well, I’ve never smoked a cigar, and I have no problem holding Jack or Lyndon or Bob or any of them accountable. We can’t hold them accountable if we don’t have a newspaper.
(She opens the door to let him out.)
BEN: When I get my hands on that study, what are you going to do, Mrs. Graham? (He turns to leave.) Oh, happy birthday, by the way.
Veteran screenwriter Marti Noxon makes this list on the strength of her anorexia drama To the Bone. Here, 20-year-old patient Ellen has an initial meeting with her new doctor, Beckham, as well as her family members: younger sister Kelly, stepmother Susan, biological mother Judy, and Judy’s lesbian partner Olive. Ellen has already predicted disaster for this meeting, but it goes beyond even her expectations.
BECKHAM: No Dad?
SUSAN: Sorry. Work. (pause) Well, he has to support his family and pay alimony, still, and medical bills, and all this…
BECKHAM: I’m just sorry.
ELLEN: Bet you didn’t expect this much gyn energy today.
BECKHAM: I do think this is a record number of mothers for one patient. Okay, I want everybody to understand that nobody’s on trial here. I just want to get a sense of the family.
JUDY: Well, until recently, Ellen lived with us.
OLIVE: She moved in with her father 18 months ago. We thought it might be good for her to heal that relationship. He’s shown very little interest in who Ellen really is. He’s only interested in who he wants her to be.
JUDY: Ellen is an artist. She’s extremely bright and sensitive, and she was never going to go into Chinese or computers or what have you.
BECKHAM (to Ellen): Is that what you think your dad wants for you?
ELLEN: I don’t know. I guess he just wants me to be able to make a living.
SUSAN: Exactly! Is that a crime?
BECKHAM: No crimes, remember?
JUDY: The point is, Ellen’s father never saw who she was. He left when she was very young…
SUSAN (cutting her off and pointing to Olive): Yes, but that’s because you were sleeping with your best friend over there.
JUDY: No, that’s not why the marriage ended.
SUSAN: Oh, really? There’s a better reason?
OLIVE: We are not here to defend our relationship.
JUDY: When are you going to come up with a different narrative, Susan?
SUSAN: What narrative? This is the truth!
JUDY: Jack didn’t want to have sex.
SUSAN: He likes it with me just fine. Twice a week like clockwork.
KELLY (under her breath): Oh my God.
SUSAN: Besides, he’s not the one who abandoned her.
JUDY: We did not abandon Ellen! We moved to Phoenix!
SUSAN (to Beckham): They threw her out! They put her bags on the street!
OLIVE: Because we’d been dealing with Ellen’s illness alone for years.
JUDY (in tears): I didn’t abandon my daughter. I love her more than life. It’s just I didn’t know what to do, and she’s dying right in front of us.
BECKHAM (to Ellen): What’s going on with you right now?
ELLEN (quietly): I’m sorry that I’m not a person anymore. I’m a problem, and it’s all my fault.
BECKHAM: Fault? No fault! Fault and blame have no place here. Only how you want to live moving forward. Who you want to be. (pause) How about you, Kelly? What do you think of all this?
KELLY: Um, I, uh, feel kind of angry, I guess. I just, I just don’t really get it, y’know? Just eat. I mean, it’s not just her life she’s changing, it’s my life, too, y’know? I don’t get to have a sister. You know, I look at pictures of my prom and stuff, and all I think of is like, “Oh, that’s when Ellen was in the hospital,” or “That’s when she fainted on the bus.”
KELLY: And all my friends, they think she’s some kind of freak. Like, a freak who killed a girl.
BECKHAM: Because of the blog.
ELLEN (to herself): Tumblr.
KELLY: That’s bad enough, but now people want to be like her and look like her and go through what she’s going through, and…
BECKHAM (gently): Nobody died because of Ellen’s artwork, okay? There’s plenty of stuff out there for people to fetishize.
We’ve had a lot of mother-daughter stuff in this list, so here’s a father-son moment from Call Me by Your Name, which is adapted by James Ivory from a novel by André Aciman. I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I was on the fence about whether it was great or not until this beautiful speech came up late. This is shortly after young Elio Perlman’s affair with a handsome graduate student named Oliver has ended, with Oliver going back to America. A crushed Elio comes home and finds out that his father understands way more about what he’s been going through than he has let on.
MR. PERLMAN: So, welcome home.
MR. PERLMAN: Oliver enjoy the trip?
ELIO: Yeah, I think he did.
MR. PERLMAN: You two had a nice friendship.
MR. PERLMAN: You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special what you two had was.
ELIO: Oliver was Oliver.
MR. PERLMAN (quoting Montaigne): “Parce que c’était lui; parce que c’était moi.”
ELIO: Oliver may be very intelligent, but…
MR. PERLMAN: No, no, no. What you two had had everything and nothing to do with intelligence. He was good. You were both lucky to have found each other because you, too, are good.
ELIO (exhaling): I think he was better than me.
(He lies down on the couch.)
MR. PERLMAN: I’m sure he’d say the same thing about you.
ELIO (sitting back up): Yeah, he’d say the same thing.
MR. PERLMAN: Which flatters you both. And when you least expect it, Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot. Just remember I’m here. (pause) Right now, you may not want to feel anything. Maybe you never wanted to feel anything. And maybe it’s not to me you want to speak about these things, but feel something you obviously did. Look, you had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, pray that their sons land on their feet. I am not such a parent. We’ve ripped out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything? What a waste. (pause) Have I spoken out of turn? (pause) Then I’ll say one more thing. It’ll clear the air. I may have come close, but I never had what you two have. Something always held me back or stood in the way. How you live your life is your business. Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once, and before you know it, your heart’s worn out. And as for your body, there comes a point where no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it. And with it, the joy you felt.
I named Columbus as one of the year’s best movies, and this exchange here gives you a sense of Kogonada’s meticulous craftsmanship, which extends to his writing as well as his visual sense. Earlier, a Korean-American man named Jin and a Columbus native named Cassandra (a.k.a. Casey) bonded over their shared knowledge of architecture and the buildings in the Indiana town. Now, a bored Casey takes Jin to a drive-through branch of the First Financial Bank, her third-favorite building in town, and opens up.
CASEY: It’s number three on my list.
JIN: Number three, really?
CASEY: Mostly because it was the beginning for me, y’know?
JIN: This one here?
JIN: And you didn’t know anything about it?
CASEY: Nothing. Just saw it from over there. I’d probably seen it a thousand times before, but this one night, I was getting in my car, and I looked up, and (pause) saw it. So I jumped back in my car and pulled up here, same spot, and just stared at it for a really long time.
JIN: What was it?
CASEY: Not sure.
JIN: Had to have been something.
CASEY: Well, it was a pretty miserable time in my life. When you mentioned the whole healing thing, it sort of made me think of that moment.
JIN: I don’t know if I believe that, y’know? That architecture has the power to heal. I think that’s a fantasy that architects like to tell themselves. Or people like my father, who are invested in architecture, y’know?
CASEY: I wasn’t claiming to be healed.
JIN: I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to be dismissive. (pause) You were telling me it was a miserable time in your life. What was going on?
CASEY (sighs): I don’t really want to talk about it. I just wanted you to see this building.
JIN: Please tell me.
CASEY (getting out of the car): I need a cigarette.
(He gets out while she lights up.)
JIN: Can you pass me those?
(She passes him the pack.)
(He lights up.)
CASEY: You know, meth is a big thing here. Meth and modernism.
JIN: Meth is big everywhere. Even North Korea.
JIN: Yeah. China, everywhere. (pause) So, were you addicted to meth?
JIN (gently): Your mother, does she do meth?
(Casey suppresses a laugh.)
CASEY: I’m sorry. It just sounds funny.
JIN: Funny how?
CASEY: “Your mother, did she do meth?” You don’t hear it?
JIN: Hear what?
CASEY: “Your mother, did she do meth?”
Anyone who’s been following these posts of mine has probably figured out that I have a taste for the extravagant, the florid, the heavily stylized, and of course, the funny. Yet movie dialogue doesn’t have to be any of those things to be effective. A prime example comes in Colossal. Oscar is a frustrated bar owner who hates the small town where he’s trapped but wants to move in on his childhood friend Gloria. When she brings her ex-boyfriend Tim into his bar, Oscar gets territorial. Nacho Vigalondo is not a native English speaker, which maybe explains his simple language, which he uses to quite frightening effect.
OSCAR (gesturing to a table): Shall we? What brings you into town, Tim?
TIM: Um, well…
OSCAR (sits down): Work? Good. (to Tim) I’m sorry, do you want anything to drink?
TIM (sitting down): Um, I’ll take a beer.
OSCAR: Great. (to Gloria, who has just sat down) Make it two.
(Gloria gets back up to serve them.)
OSCAR: It’s good having her back in town. And she’s been a real help around here.
TIM: It’s just a surprise, that’s all.
OSCAR: Why? You don’t think she’s capable of doing a job like this?
TIM: Well, of course she’s capable.
OSCAR: Anybody can do this, right?
TIM: No, it’s as worthy a job as anything else.
OSCAR: I’m glad you find it to be worthy.
TIM: No, it’s just, she’s never done anything like this before.
GLORIA (coming back with the beers): Hey, can you guys stop talking about me like I’m not here?
JOE: Hey Oscar, can I have another cup of coffee?
(Oscar looks at Gloria. She gets up to serve him.)
OSCAR (stopping her): Actually, don’t go. One second, Joe. (to Gloria) Please sit. Tim, what would you say would be the most irresponsible thing to do in this bar? What do you think that is? (pause) For example, imagine I were to stand up right here and show you my ass. That’d be pretty rude, and yet it’s not the first time something like that has happened. Not this early, of course, but it has happened. Right, Joe?
JOE: Yes. Now can I get some more coffee, please?
OSCAR: One sec. I could take a piss over there in that corner booth, break one of those windows. You and me, we could get in a big ol’ fistfight right here in front of her. Those would all be irresponsible things to do, but none of them are the most irresponsible thing. (He gets up and goes toward a back room.) One second, Joe, I’ll be right with you.
(There is a delay of some seconds, as sounds from the back indicate Oscar is rummaging through things. He comes out with a firework the size of an espresso machine.)
OSCAR: This has been sitting back there for (thinking) almost 10 years now. Wow. Everybody thinks there’s a bottle of fancy bourbon or something like that here, but they’d be wrong. Nope, nope, nope. This is actually the most illegal thing in this bar. Our pal Garth and another buddy of mine gave it to me for my birthday a while back now. (He starts pushing chairs out of the way.) Yeah, they got it down in Me-ji-co when they were there on vacation. Still can’t believe they made it through customs with it. (A couple in the bar senses trouble and flees.) Oh, thanks for coming in, folks! Have a good day. Watch out. Up until recently, the boys and I, we’d hop in the pickup, we’d get a big bag of fireworks, and then we’d drive out to the suburbs. We’d light ‘em all up, you know, scare the shit out of the locals, but this, this firecracker, the biggest one we ever had, never made the trip. Not that we were afraid to use it. On the contrary, we just thought it was so big, we wanted to save it for a special occasion. So we left it behind every time. Then we reached a point where we just grew up. Stopped screwing around like that at night. And our friend here found its way to the shelf back there, and it waited year after year for its big moment. Joe, you might want to get out of the way.
(He lights the fuse.)
JOE (running for his life): Oh no, no, no, no!
GLORIA: Oscar? Oscar?
TIM: What are you doing? What’s he doing? What are you doing?
GLORIA: No, no, no! Oh, God! (to Tim) Fuck, go!
(Tim and Gloria duck behind some chairs as the firework explodes, shooting flares everywhere, destroying furniture and barware, and setting parts of the bar on fire.)
TIM: Let’s get out of here!
OSCAR (friendly): How about that, huh?
Other people think The Big Sick is one of the year’s best movies. I don’t, but I did like the film, especially the way Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon treated their own real-life story, and this post seems like the place to honor it. This exchange takes place early in their fictional alter egos’ courtship, when the two of them are at a wine tasting.
EMILY: I’m getting, like, a lot of bright fruit. It’s very fruit-forward.
KUMAIL: It tastes like grape juice that’s gone bad. Like, why do you know so much about wine?
EMILY: Um, because, uh, I was pretty unhappy in my first marriage, and I drank a lot, and one way to cover drinking a lot is just, like, know a lot about wine.
KUMAIL: Wait, I’m sorry. What did you just say?
EMILY: That knowing a lot about wine really covers for drinking a lot.
KUMAIL: No, I mean the huge piece of information that you’re trying to blow right past.
EMILY: Yeah. Yeah, I was married.
KUMAIL: You were married?
EMILY: I was. I was married. Do you want to talk about something else? Or..
KUMAIL (fake nonchalance): Yeah, I don’t really have any other questions, other than: When did you get married? When did you get divorced? What’s his name? How tall is he? Did you love him? I guess I have a couple of questions.
EMILY: Um, his name was, is, Ryan. We met in college. Everyone I knew was getting married super-young, so we did. And one day, I was in a restaurant and I saw this couple making out, and I thought, “Huh. I don’t think about my husband like that, but that’s okay.” And then another part of my brain was like, “No, that’s not okay, this is your life.” I feel like this is freaking you out. Is this freaking you out?
KUMAIL: It’s not freaking me out.
EMILY: I don’t want to put pressure on you, and I know it’s only been a few months, but I just wanted to tell you I am overwhelmed by you. It’s the last thing I was expecting.
KUMAIL: This is also the last thing I was expecting, and I also feel completely overwhelmed by you.
EMILY: That’s a weird thing to say.
KUMAIL: Why? I just said what you said. Exactly what you said.
EMILY: It wasn’t weird when I said it.
The more I think about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the more I think the suicide notes written by the terminal cancer patient sheriff are the best thing about it. This is the one that he writes to the murdered girl’s mother who criticized him in his last days via the billboards she took out. If you’re familiar with Martin McDonagh’s stage plays, you’ll readily recognize the lyricism mixed with black humor here.
BILL: Dear Mildred, Dead Man Willoughby here. Firstly, I wanted to apologize for dying without catching your daughter’s killer. It’s a source of great pain to me. It would break my heart to think you thought I didn’t care. ’Cause I did care. There are just some cases where you never catch a break, then five years down the line, some guy hears some other guy braggin’ about it in a barroom or a jail cell, and the whole thing is wrapped up through sheer stupidity. I hope that might be true for Angela, I really do. Second, I gotta admit, Mildred, the billboards were a great fuckin’ idea. They were like a chess move, and although they had absolutely nothin’ to do with my dyin’, I’m sure that everyone in town will assume that they did. Which is why, for Willoughby’s countermove, I decided to pay the next month’s rent on them. I thought it’d be funny, you havin’ to defend them a whole ’nother month after they stuck me in the ground. The joke is on you, Mildred. Ha ha, and I hope they do not kill you. So good luck with that, and good luck with everything else, too. I hope and I pray that you get him.
I try to mention only the screenwriters’ names in this post, but it’s impossible to ignore that Harry Dean Stanton died shortly before Lucky was released. He plays the title character, a 90-year-old atheist, and near the end of the film, his attempt to light up a cigarette in the town bar leads to a meditation on mortality with bartender Elaine and the other regular patrons. The script is by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, and as an epitaph for Stanton, it’s deeply moving.
ELAINE: Hey, what? The rules don’t apply to you? Since when did you think you could smoke in here?
LUCKY: Well, you could in ’68.
ELAINE: Well, it ain’t ’68 anymore, sweetheart.
LUCKY (getting up): One of these days I’m just gonna light up.
ELAINE: My place, my rules.
LUCKY: Ownership is a fallacy.
ELAINE: Why can’t you just live by the rules?
LUCKY: Authority is arbitrary and subjective.
ELAINE: It’s the same kind of attitude that got you 86’ed from Eve’s.
LUCKY: What do you know about it?
ELAINE: I know you lit up.
LUCKY: That’s what you think happened.
ELAINE: If you didn’t light up, why’d they kick you out?
LUCKY: They didn’t kick me out. I walked out.
ELAINE: That’s a good story.
HOWARD: I like that story.
LUCKY: It’s not a story.
ELAINE: Then what is it?
LUCKY: It’s the truth.
ELAINE: The truth is, you lit up.
LUCKY: It’s not about the cigarettes. It’s about what I know happened and what you think.
PAULIE: I wish I’d been there.
LUCKY: You could’ve been there and still have missed it.
ELAINE: You broke the rules, you got busted and banned. That’s the truth.
PAULIE: How about if we all agree to disagree?
LUCKY: No. I know the truth, and the truth matters.
VINCENT: It’s a thing, right?
LUCKY: Yes, truth is a thing. It’s the truth of who we are and what we do, and you have to face that and accept it, because the truth of the universe is waiting.
ELAINE: I’m lost.
LUCKY: The truth of what is for all of us.
PAULIE: Which is?
LUCKY: That it’s all going to go away. You, you, you, you, me, this cigarette, everything. Into blackness. The void. And nobody’s in charge. And you’re left with ungatz.
LUCKY: Nothing. That’s all there is.
ELAINE: What do we do with that?
HOWARD: What do we do with that?
LUCKY: You smile.