This year’s feature on the best movie dialogue is unusually heavy on monologues. I wish I knew what that meant. I do still enjoy transcribing some of the tastiest speeches I heard at the movies over the past year. As always, the dialogue here is taken from the finished film, and the stage directions are mine. As usual, WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE AHEAD.
I once played Lt. Schrank in a production of West Side Story, so I know his big speech well. The movie places his speech at the beginning of the film to establish early on why the white kids don’t view the cops as their friends. This version rewritten by Tony Kushner could have used a bit more of the original’s seething hate, but it’s subtler and more needling.
SCHRANK (looking at the Puerto Ricans): We’re outnumbered, boys. Thousands more are on their way. Once they’re here, they pop out kids like crazy, am I right? Tell me which one of them nailed Baby John’s ear, and I’ll put him out of circulation. Work with me, fellas, or they’re gonna drive you off your turf.
RIFF: You said it was the slum clearance committee that was drivin’ us off. Now it’s the PRs? You gotta get your story straight, Lieutenant Schrank. We’re very impressionable.
SCHRANK: Most of the white guys who grew up in this slum climbed their way out of it. Irish, Eye-talian, Jews. Nowadays, their descendants live in nice houses, drive nice cars, and date nice girls you’d want to marry. Your dads or your granddads stayed put, drinkin’ and knockin’ up some local piece who gave birth to you, the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians. What’s a gang without its terrain, its turf? You’re a month or two away from finding out, one step ahead of the wrecking ball. And in this uncertain world, the only thing you can count on is me. I’m here to keep the civil peace until the last building falls, and if you boys make trouble on my turf, Riff, hand to heart, you’re headed to an upstate prison cell for a very long time. By the time you get out, this will be a shiny new neighborhood of rich people living in beautiful apartments with Puerto Rican doormen to chase trash like you away.
(He starts to leave.)
RIFF: Wait. I got a question for you, Lieutenant. How tall did you used to be before you, y’know, shrank?
Meltdowns are so compelling, aren’t they? And a restaurant kitchen is a place for them. Here’s one from the British drama Boiling Point, in which sous chef Carly is trying to handle the dinner rush when she finally spills all her issues with restaurant manager Beth, while head chef Andy tries and fails to defuse the situation. It is a rough day for Beth, who discovers that all her co-workers think she’s an idiot. (She kind of is, actually.) The script is by Philip Barantini and James Cummings.
CARLY (ringing the bell): Service on Table Four!
ANDREA (laying plate down on the pass): Chef? Table Seven said the lamb is undercooked.
CARLY (taking the plate): What?
ANDREA: They want it to be cooked again.
CARLY (inspecting the cut chop): No, that’s fine. It’s pink. It’s supposed to be pink.
ANDREA: I did try and explain that to them.
FREEMAN: What’s the problem?
CARLY: Did you explain it to them?
ANDREA: I did!
FREEMAN: What’s the problem?
CARLY: What table?
CARLY: Well, they don’t have to be well-done.
FREEMAN (to Andrea): That’s lamb, darling. That’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be pink!
ANDREA: I know. I did explain that to them, and still they didn’t listen to me.
FREEMAN (putting down the plates): Okay. What table was it?
FREEMAN (heading for the dining room): Let me go and find them.
ANDY (physically restraining him) Leave it, leave it, leave it. Just go and fry the shit out of it.
FREEMAN (furious): That’s how it’s supposed to be cooked!
ANDY: Turn it into fucking charcoal and lower your voice!
CARLY (to Andrea): Explain next time, please.
ANDREA (leaving): Yes, yes. I will.
CARLY: Fuck’s sake.
BETH (arriving at the pass): Why was that plate sent back?
CARLY: It’s fine, it’s sorted.
BETH: Well, what’s the problem?
CARLY: There is no problem.
BETH: What’s the problem? Why has it been sent back? I’m asking you what the problem was.
CARLY: They said it was too pink.
BETH: My customers are unhappy. That’s what the problem was.
CARLY: No, no, the problem wasn’t that. The problem is your staff isn’t explaining what happens in the kitchen.
BETH: The problem is that. They sent the plate back because they’re not happy with the food. It’s that simple.
CARLY: The lamb is supposed to be pink. Do you understand that the lamb is supposed to be pink?
BETH: It’s not my staff’s issues.
CARLY: Do you understand that lamb is supposed to be pink?
BETH: I’m saying the customer’s always right.
CARLY: Do you understand that lamb is supposed to be pink?
BETH: The customer’s always right.
CARLY: Do you know how to do this job?
ANDY (trying to intervene): Girls, girls, girls.
CARLY (to Beth): Do you know how the dish is supposed to be cooked? Do you? Because what keeps happening is, plates keep getting sent back because you’re not fucking training your staff properly.
BETH: That’s not my job.
CARLY: Yes, it is! We are working our fucking asses off here! Do you know what, Andy? (to Beth) I am sick to the back teeth of your fuck-ups being blamed on us. Look how hard everyone is working here! Look how hard they’re working to earn you money! But you keep, you just haven’t got a fucking clue. We work our asses off here because you’ve overbooked, and you’re so stupid you don’t even know you’ve done it, do you?
CARLY: Do you realize you’ve overbooked? No, no. And on top of that, she’s asking us to go off-menu to cook fucking steaks for some bullshit influencers and never put the allergies on the system so we have to read your scrawny handwritten notes. Do you know how much pressure we’re under? You know, maybe, maybe, maybe if you spent half as much time learning how to run a restaurant instead of whoring your ass on social media like some fucking Kardashian, we wouldn’t be in the shit that we are now. You talk to us all like we’re the dirt on the bottom of your fucking shoe. Well, I’m telling you some of us have had enough of it. I don’t fucking like you, they don’t like you, nobody likes you, and this job is not worth it. I do not get paid enough to deal with this shit. Even with the wage increase, I do not get paid enough, do you hear me?
BETH: What wage increase?
Dodie Smith’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians is credited as source material for Cruella, but writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara make up the backstory out of whole cloth. This speech comes after Cruella a.k.a. Estella discovers that the woman she thought was her mother actually adopted her, and that her biological mother is Baroness von Hellman, who tried to have her killed at birth and then tried again. The realization shatters our heroine, who goes back to the place where she used to speak to her mother’s spirit and vows to dispense with Ms. Nice Girl.
CRUELLA: So, this is a confusing day. My nemesis is my real mother, and she killed my other mother. I guess you were always scared, weren’t you, that I’d be a psycho like my real mum. That explains all the tone-it-down, try-and-fit-in stuff. Love me into shape, I suppose, was the plan. (pause) I tried. I really, because I loved you. But the thing is, I’m not sweet Estella, try as I might. I never was. I’m Cruella, born brilliant, born bad, and a little bit mad. I’m not like her. I’m better. Anyway, must dash. Much to avenge, revenge, and destroy. But I do love you, always.
Whatever Candyman’s strengths and failings as a horror movie, you will admit that writers Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta wrangled this monster into a powerful metaphor for the scars of racism. This conversation between the protagonist Anthony and the old man of the hood whom he seeks for advice seems like the crux of the movie.
ANTHONY: What is he?
WILLIAM: The first one, where it all began, was in the 1890s. The story of Daniel Robitaille. He made a good living touring the country painting portraits for wealthy families. But you know how it goes: They love what we make, not us. Robitaille committed the ultimate sin of his time. They fell in love, they had an affair, she got pregnant. The girl tells her father, y’know. He hires some men to hunt Robitaille down. Told ’em to get creative. Chased him through here in the middle of the day. He collapses from exhaustion right where the old towering chestnut used to be. They beat him, tortured him, cut off his arm and jammed a meat hook in the stump. They smeared honeycomb from the nearby hives on his chest and let the bees sting him. A crowd started to form to watch the show. The big finale: They set him on fire. And he finally dies. But a story like that, a pain like that lasts forever. That’s Candyman.
ANTHONY: So he’s real?
WILLIAM: That was real! Samuel, Sherman, Daniel Robitaille, they’re all real. Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happened! That they’re still happening!
If you know how food-obsessed Wes Anderson’s films have been, you can appreciate how much of himself he’s revealing in this scene from The French Dispatch. A TV host conducts an interview with Roebuck Wright about his varied journalistic career, and as well as showcasing Anderson’s baroque dialogue, it shows what drives the filmmaker’s obsession.
HOST: May I interrupt with a question? Please forgive me.
ROEBUCK: Just permit me to dog-ear the page mentally.
HOST: I beg your pardon. You’ve written about the American Negro, the French intellectual, the Southern romantic.
ROEBUCK: And the anti-Negro.
HOST: The anti-Negro, scripture, mythology, folklore, true crime, false crime, the ghost story, the picaresque, the Bildungsroman. But more than anything over all these years, you’ve written about food. Why?
ROEBUCK: Who? What? Where? When? How? Valid questions, but I learned as a cub stringer: Never, under any circumstance, if it is remotely within your power to resist the impulse, never ask a man why. It tightens a fellow up.
HOST: I apologize, but I’m gonna hold you to it.
HOST: If you agree.
ROEBUCK: Self-reflection is a vice best conducted in private or not at all. Well, I’ll answer your question out of sheer weariness, but I truly don’t know what I’m about to say. (pause) There is a particular sad beauty well-known to the companionless foreigner as he walks the streets of his adopted, preferably moonlit city, in my case, Ennui, France. I have so often… (restarts) I have so often shared the day’s glittering discoveries with no one at all. But always, somewhere along the avenue or the boulevard, there was a table set for me. A cook, a waiter, a bottle, a glass, a fire. I chose this life. It is the solitary feast that has been very much like a comrade, my great comfort and fortification.
In my review of No Time to Die, I identified this scene with James Bond visiting (and unwittingly murdering) Blofeld in prison as the one bearing the marks of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing. Nevertheless, she is listed as co-writer with Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Cary Joji Fukunaga. One hallmark of the Bond movies lately is that they’ve had much better writing than before.
BLOFELD: My sweet James, what do you want?
BOND: Your enemies are closing in, Blofeld, and the biggest twist here is that if you tell me who they are, I could save your life.
BLOFELD: Mmm, my avenging angel. My chaser of lost causes. Now you even chase mine. But you’re asking the wrong question. Yes, Cuba was a disappointment, but we all cry on our birthday. You need to ask yourself, “Why are we here?” You keep coming back to me. I thought I’d never see you again, but fate brought us back together. Now your enemy’s my enemy. How did that happen?
BOND: Well, you live long enough…
BLOFELD (chuckling): Look at us. Two old men in a hole trying to figure out who’s playing tricks on us. (pause) She still loves you, did you know that? And you broke her heart when she betrayed you.
BOND: She’s irrelevant.
BLOFELD: Mmmm, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss. You said it yourself, she’s very good at hiding things, and when her secret finds its way out, and it will, it will be the death of you.
BOND: Just give me a name.
BOND: Oh, please, just please. No games.
BLOFELD: Madeleine. But you know what? The two of you should come see me. A little couples therapy. I simply have to see your face when she tells you the truth.
BOND: Just tell me who they are, Blofeld. And then I’ll leave. I’ll leave you on your own.
BLOFELD: I don’t want you to leave. We’re just getting reacquainted. (pause) All right, come. You were unusually patient, so I have to give you something so you didn’t make all this way for nothing. Come. Come.
(Bond approaches the cage.)
BLOFELD: It was me.
BOND: You destroyed SPECTRE?
BLOFELD: No. Vesper’s grave. Madeleine didn’t do a thing. It was all me. I knew you’d come visit it. I just needed to wait for the bon moment. She led you straight there, through the goodness of her heart. And then you left her for me.
BOND: It doesn’t matter.
BLOFELD: Oh, but it does. She still does, doesn’t she? My poor little cuckoo. You were always so very, very sensitive.
BOND (to Bill, who is observing): This isn’t working.
BLOFELD: All this wasted time. The life you could have had. And the reason all this is so beautiful, so exquisitely beautiful, is that you come to me looking for answers. Whereas the one person who knows it all is she. It’s Madeleine. She holds the secrets you need, all of them. I didn’t need to kill you. I’d already broken you. I’d already given you an empty world, like the one you gave me. It’s enough to almost make me regret it. Almost.
BOND (leaning in close): Die.
BOND: Die, Blofeld.
(He starts strangling the prisoner.)
In a stroke of humility, Paul Schrader named his own The Card Counter as the best movie of 2021. I disagree, but I do admire what the film does, like this scene in a restaurant after Cirk has revealed his plan to Till to kidnap and torture Maj. John Gordo, the retired officer who let both Till and Cirk’s father take the fall for his and the U.S. military’s misdeeds at Abu Ghraib. Sentence fragments can be so much more powerful than sentences in a script.
TILL: So, this plan you have about Major John Gordo. You given it more thought? He’s all nails. You’re not. He’s right out of fucking Call of Duty. How you gonna do that?
CIRK (looking around): Well, there would need to be a tranquilizer. Ketamine combined with telazol. It can be administered by a dart pistol.
TILL (smiling): Where’d you find out about this?
CIRK: The internet.
TILL: And you have it?
CIRK: Just the ketamine. But it’s amazing how easy the stuff is to get. I mean, I ordered it on a lark. Three days later, it arrived.
TILL (gravely): This isn’t very well thought-out.
CIRK: And that’s why I need a partner. Somebody with experience, somebody with expertise and motive. A strong guy. A guy like you.
TILL (slowly): Let’s roll back your scenario for a moment. You’ve located John Gordo. You shot him with a dart, he’s gaga. What next?
CIRK (deliberately): Strip him naked. Put a hood over his head. One of those green military sandbags. You can find them on eBay. Handcuff him, hang him from the ceiling, keep him from sleeping, make him try to jerk off while I hit him in the legs.
TILL: Did your father tell you about this?
CIRK: No, he never talked about it. He kept it all inside.
TILL: He beat you.
CIRK: That’s in the past.
TILL: The body remembers. It stores it all. Do you want to hear about it? Would that interest you?
TILL: You know what. You’re dying to hear.
(Cirk nods his head.)
TILL: The noise. The smell: feces, urine, oil, explosives, bleach, sweat, smoke. All day, every day. Sand spiders, camel spiders, ants as big as cockroaches. The heat, the fear, the adrenaline jack, mortars. The sheer noise of it, and blood. And the only way to survive was to rise above. Rise and laugh, surf the craziness. To see a grown man shit and piss on himself. Sing the song, man. The noise, the fucking noise, the noise. We were all just trapped in there in the same shit, shit, shit, shithole, them and us. And am I trying to justify what we did? (shakes his head) No. Nothing, nothing can justify what we did. Your father understood that. If you were there, you could understand. Otherwise, there’s no understanding.
This year’s feature has so many scenes in restaurants. Vanessa Block and Michael Sarnoski display a handle for the jargon of molecular gastronomy in Pig, but that’s not the subject of the scene here. Here, the bloodied and disheveled main character Robin and his truffle buyer Amir sit down at a fancy restaurant to confront Derek Finway, the head chef who once worked for Rob. Rob’s mainly there to see what Finway knows about his kidnapped truffle pig, but he takes time out to destroy the man’s pretensions.
FINWAY: You probably don’t remember me, but I actually worked at Hestia.
ROB (immediately, unimpressed): You were a prep cook for two months.
FINWAY: Was it two months?
ROB: I fired you because you always overcooked the pasta.
FINWAY (laughing, pointing at the wine bottle brought over by the waitress): Ah, now this is excellent. This is a 2012 pinot from just 20 miles away.
AMIR (to Finway): So, do you know about the pig?
FINWAY (to Rob): Why do you want a pig?
ROB: It’s my pig.
FINWAY: Oh, okay. That, that’s a great business. It’s an expanding industry. It’s, it’s…
ROB: Someone stole it.
FINWAY: I really, I respect you, Chef. I always have. But I have a business here, and people have expectations. Uh, critics, investors, so forth, and truffles are a key part of the whole, uh, concept of the winter menu. And they need to be the top of the line. So, you understand. I have the utmost respect for you, utmost.
ROB: What is the concept here?
FINWAY: Um, well, we’re interested in taking local ingredients native to this region and just deconstructing them, y’know, making the familiar feel foreign, thereby giving us a greater appreciation of food as a whole.
ROB: This is the kind of cooking you like?
FINWAY: It’s cutting-edge. It’s very exciting.
FINWAY: I mean, everybody loves it.
ROB: You like cooking it?
FINWAY (weakly): Absolutely.
ROB: Derek, what was it you always used to talk about opening? Wasn’t it a pub?
FINWAY (defensive): Everyone loves it here. It’s a huge success.
ROB: Why didn’t you open your pub?
FINWAY (stammering): I, I, I don’t know what I really wanted. It was such a long time ago.
ROB: When I fired you, I asked you what you wanted to do. You said you’d have a few rooms upstairs, a real English pub.
FINWAY: Did I say that?
FINWAY: Nobody wants pubs around here. It’s just a terrible investment.
ROB: What was going to be your signature dish?
FINWAY (immediately): Liver Scotch eggs with a honey curry mustard.
(He laughs hysterically.)
ROB: They’re not real. You get that, right? None of it is real. The critics aren’t real, the customers aren’t real, because this isn’t real. You’re not real.
FINWAY (still laughing): Okay.
ROB: Derek, why do you care about these people? These people, they don’t care about you. None of ’em. They don’t even know you, because you haven’t shown them. Every day you’ll wake up, and there’ll be less of you. You live your life for them, and they don’t even see you. You don’t even see yourself. We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.
(Rob sits back and sips his wine. Chef Finway drains his glass in one gulp.)
ROB: Derek, who has my pig?
FINWAY (about to cry): He’s not somebody you want to make angry.
I try to avoid adaptations in this feature if they’re too close to the original thing, but Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan’s script for Nightmare Alley differs considerably from both William Lindsay Gresham’s novel and the 1947 film. Here we see Stanton Carlisle first flash the charm that will make him a star, as he encounters a marshal trying to shut down the carnival where he works.
MARSHAL: You are carryin’ around an illegal performance emphasizin’ cruelty to both animal and man. (to Molly) And you, young lady, we have got wives and daughters in this town. You are under arrest for indecency. Get her down.
STANTON (running over): Stop! Stop! The wheel’s turnin’. The electrical current’s gotta go somewhere. Major, please. Just a minute, sir.
(The Major pulls the lever, causing bolts of electricity to snake over Molly’s body.)
STANTON: Keep calm! Everybody back up!
(The Major pushes the lever back, stopping the current.)
STANTON (to marshal): That’s why she’s forced to wear the briefs, sir. She purges the current. Molly. Molly, you okay?
(Molly is perfectly all right, but fakes being drained by the current. He winks at her.)
STANTON (to marshal): She just saved your deputy’s life.
BRUNO (faking concern): Molly, Molly.
MARSHAL (to Stanton): I am closin’ you down. I ain’t none of your thievin’ Southern police kissin’ a priest’s hole on Sundays and rakin’ in graft six days a week.
STANTON (putting on his mind-reading act): Is your name Jeremiah? (turning over the name) Jeremiah, Jeremiah, Jer, Jed, Jed, Jedediah Judd.
MARSHAL (taken aback): Yeah.
STANTON (faking gravity): A matter of the utmost importance has arisen, sir. If I could just have a minute of your time. A message has come through, and I think you’re gonna wanna hear, but not in front of these kind folks. Please, sir.
MARSHAL (looking around): Nobody leaves.
STANTON: Thank you, sir. Thank you.
(They go off to one side while the other carnies watch them.)
STANTON: My name is Stanton Carlisle, Marshal Judd. My family was gifted with what the old folks used to call “second sight.” Now, it’s clear to me, for example, that you are a man who is generally distrustful but also fiercely loyal.
MARSHAL: I’d say that’s a fair description.
STANTON: And this is none of my business, because I’d say you are capable of handlin’ your own affairs and anything else liable to come along, but I do sense a childhood marred in disease, and that makes you feel hemmed in by, trapped, even in this day. And I sense a curio of some kind, an amulet, a memento you carry on your person. You’ve had it for a long time. (shuts his eyes) It was Mary. A saintly woman.
MARSHAL (amazed): My mother!
STANTON: May I see it? May I see it, sir?
(The marshal pulls out the medallion he keeps on a chain around his neck.)
STANTON (holding it reverentially): Yes. She wants you to know that your ailment has not shunned you from greatness. Quite the contrary, your community loves you, feels protected by you, sir. And yes, you couldn’t serve your country on foreign soil, but you protect us here at home. And this medal, this medal should be a reminder of her love for you. (putting it back under the marshal’s shirt) As long as you keep it here close to your heart where our Lord Jesus Christ resides, God will protect you in the future. And she wants you to know this, sir: It’s only by bein’ merciful to others that a man has true power.
I saved the best monologue for last, from The Beta Test. Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe draw this compelling portrait of a Hollywood agent as he comes undone, having been set up for an anonymous sexual encounter in a hotel room by a computer hacker who wants to blackmail him. After spending the entire film frantically trying to cover his ass and assaulting the hacker (who is, weirdly, a massive Andrew Lloyd Webber fan), he tries to burn the evidence in the parking garage under his home when his fiancée catches him. Decades of denial break down, and his confessions include the fact that he and all his fellow agents still want to be Harvey Weinstein. Consider this the cri de coeur of the embattled white male middle-aged professional.
JORDAN: Hey, there she is! (lying) I was in the car, and I… (subdued) So, I guess I have to talk about this. (pacing) About a month ago, I got a letter inviting me to an exclusive meeting in a hotel room, and when I got there, there was a naked… (suddenly) No, that’s a lie. I knew she was gonna be there. Fuck! Okay, let’s do it! Goddammit! Let’s be honest, right? Fuck you, let’s be honest. Okay! Honesty, honesty! (to himself) Let’s be honest. Just be honest. (to Caroline) I’m drinking again. I’m addicted to nicotine. I know nobody outside of my building. I spend all day trying to impress people on my floor. The WGA fight is just the beginning. Once the other unions get involved, we’re fucked. Because they’re never gonna let us take all the money. Why do we think they’ll let us take all the money? P.J. explained it to me, we’re all becoming travel agents. Raymond grabbed my dick at that party and nobody did anything about it. I kept working for the guy. Why do we keep working for these guys? ’Cause nobody knows what’s going on and everybody still wants to be Harvey! We dress nice! We want to shout at subordinates and fuck people and get away with it! I can’t wait to start grabbing dicks! (screams) I don’t know what’s happening to me. Honesty! I can see it now. Everything you said at the lake. I just want to be cool and happy and come across like I’m wealthy and successful, and I just look fucking cheesy! (lying down on the pavement and weeping) I don’t wanna do this anymore! I fucking hate the internet! I just want it to be the early 2000s! I want to be young again! (screams some more, gets back up) I impersonated a federal officer a couple times. A man down the street murdered his wife, and I’m the only person who knows about it. Her name was Louise Rafferty. My teeth are fucked. I was disrespectful to my assistant. She might leak my emails tomorrow. I think I committed mail fraud. I went down the stairs behind the bookshelf, I met the Phantom of the Opera, and I beat him with a fucking hammer. But no, I didn’t look at the place card settings email, which is what you’re thinking, I can fucking tell. Because deep down, I am somebody who just cannot give a shit. I don’t own the Tesla, I’ve been leasing it this whole time. I think the world’s about to become a horrifying fucking place. I think I just watched it happen. It’s someplace I would never have any control over. You fell in love with me because I was powerful. What am I gonna be now?