23 Great Movies the Oscars Couldn’t Help but Recognize

Every year when the Oscar nominations are announced, I have fun keeping an eye out for a particularly rare phenomenon: the “lone screenplay” nominee—that is, a movie that’s recognized only in the category of Best Original Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay. While every member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets to vote on each of the winners, nominees are chosen by specific branches composed of industry professionals. AMPAS’ screenwriter group is often responsible for elevating riveting films that might otherwise have been ignored.

Typically, these films are small-scale works, and therefore unlikely to be nominated for Oscars in technical categories such as Best Production Design. Many of the 23 movies I’m highlighting today marked an exciting feature debut for a new filmmaker, or a long-awaited breakthrough for a more experimental type of storyteller. If you curated a film festival of “lone screenplay” nominees, you’d have a program filled with crowd-pleasers. Here are some of the best examples from this century’s Oscar nominations:

Ghost World (2001)

Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of the 1997 graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, a seminal Gen X text, retained the book’s wry, detached spirit, gave Scarlett Johansson one of her first significant film roles, and generated serious awards buzz for its stars Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi. In the end, the screenplay (by Zwigoff and Clowes) was nominated, a worthy acknowledgement for a tricky piece of storytelling. Ghost World’s narrative thrives on the detachment of its disaffected teen characters, who drift aimlessly from subplot to subplot; Zwigoff and Clowes’s screenplay channels that atmosphere without sacrificing any pathos.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Amazon Prime

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

To date, this Oscar nomination remains the only one of Owen Wilson’s career; he co-wrote the film with Wes Anderson (the pair also wrote Rushmore and Bottle Rocket), and it became a mainstream breakout for Anderson. The film is a somewhat shocking member of the “lone screenplay nomination” club, given that Gene Hackman’s lead performance is one of the best ever given by the multiple-award winner. The Royal Tenenbaums, an acrid comedy about a family of “geniuses” who have grown estranged and embittered, is impeccably designed, beautifully shot, and still one of Anderson’s greatest achievements. Between its pointed jabs are wallops of deep-seated emotion.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime and Apple TV

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

After emerging in the 1990s as the stylish but heartfelt director of Hollywood adaptations A Little Princess and Great Expectations, the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón returned to his homeland to make a sweaty, sexually explicit coming-of-age film that shockingly vaulted him into the stratosphere. Y Tu Mamá También feels as raw and smart as it did 20 years ago, charting the horny misadventures of two teenage boys (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) who embark on an impromptu road trip with a bored housewife (Maribel Verdú). Cuarón, who co-wrote the film with his brother Carlos, sprinkles a variety of observations about Mexico’s political instability on top of the lurid three-way romance that develops; the screenplay is surprising more for its subtlety than its outré sexuality.

Where to watch: AMC Plus and Apple TV

Nicholas Hoult in 'About a Boy'
Universal Studios via Everett
About a Boy (2002)

An insightful dramedy from the Weitz brothers, who were at the time best known for making the smash-hit teen sex comedy American Pie. Based on Nick Hornby’s novel, About a Boy follows an overgrown, over-sexed man-child (Hugh Grant) who forms a bond with an awkward boy (Nicholas Hoult) as part of a scheme to woo ladies. About a Boy is a pleasant, breezy watch, but it’s also unafraid to delve into its characters’ insecurities, depict the difficulties of battling clinical depression, and generally thrive on its tenderness. Its single nomination was a solid one, but Grant’s performance deserved similar attention.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Amazon Prime

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Under the Oscars’ present-day rules of awarding 10 Best Picture nominations, this cheerful family comedy probably would have snuck onto that shortlist along with the Best Original Screenplay nod it received. Not because My Big Fat Greek Wedding is that good—it’s a familiar comedy trading in gentle ethnic stereotypes (Greek moms are bossy, and they sure like to eat!) that ends with a nice happy wedding. But it was the kind of massive word-of-mouth phenomenon Hollywood hasn’t seen much of in the 21st century, making $241 million at the domestic box office on a $5 million budget. It’s still the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time, and Nia Vardalos (who wrote and starred in the film) got at least some of the Oscar recognition she deserved.

Where to watch: HBO Max and Apple TV

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Dirty Pretty Things earned a surprising early-career nomination for Steven Knight, a screenwriter who has now become an industry powerhouse as the creator of Peaky Blinders and the writer of excellent films such as Eastern Promises and Locke (along with bombs such as Serenity and Locked Down). Dirty Pretty Things is a robust London-set thriller about two immigrants (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou) who get drawn into the nasty world of black-market organ trading. Knight is fond of thickly underlining the metaphors at play in his scripts, but Dirty Pretty Things still delivers a powerful message about the lives of the modern British underclass. And Ejiofor’s performance is a star-making wonder.

Where to watch: HBO Max and Apple TV

American Splendor (2003)

Another terrific adaptation with a tricky task at hand—translating a comic book into cinema, specifically the independent, autobiographical American Splendor comics written by the famously irascible Harvey Pekar. Here, he’s played with the right level of bilious discomfort by Paul Giamatti, and the writing-directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini center him in a self-aware biopic, one that humorously wonders why such a resolute curmudgeon became a minor American celebrity in the 1980s. Giamatti and Hope Davis (playing Pekar’s wife and collaborator, Joyce Brabner) deserved Oscar attention themselves, but the Academy’s writers’ branch ended up providing the film’s only recognition.

Where to watch: HBO Max and Apple TV

Before Sunset (2004)

Nominating the screenplay of Before Sunset gave Oscar voters the unique chance to acknowledge every major creative player involved with the film: the writer Kim Krizan but also the director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who collaborated on the script. A surprise sequel to Linklater’s swooning 20-something romance, Before Sunrise (released in 1995), Before Sunset revisits Jesse and Céline, the lovers who met and walked through Vienna together for a night while traveling in Europe, checking in on their reunion nine years later. The movie is dazzling, mostly following, like its predecessor, their spontaneous conversations as they putter around Paris. This time, the drama is even more loaded with regret and sexual tension, revealing why the two remained apart in the intervening years. The film builds to an open-ended finale that’s one of the most tantalizing in the history of the medium.

Where to watch: Tubi, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime

Ryan Gosling sits next to a doll in 'Lars and the Real Girl'
MGM via Everett
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

An unconventional love story written by Nancy Oliver (bafflingly, it remains her only movie credit) and directed by Craig Gillespie, Lars and the Real Girl could so easily have come off as too cloying or too creepy, but it manages to find the right tonal balance. Along with Oliver’s script, the movie is helped by Ryan Gosling’s melancholy performance as Lars, a Wisconsin introvert who falls in love with a “Real Doll” named Bianca that he purchases online. The script carefully sifts through the family trauma that inspires Lars’s odd behavior, while also presenting a slow, soft romance between Lars and his co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner).

Where to watch: Apple TV and Cinemax

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

The British director Mike Leigh famously does not write scripts—his creative process involves gathering actors and building up basic character details and initial story lines together, but keeping them in the dark on other characters’ motivations or coming plot twists. He’s been nominated for seven Oscars, five of them for writing, but for every film he’s had to prepare a screenplay after the fact to present to the Academy. Happy-Go-Lucky was a “lone screenplay” nominee because the dynamic lead performance given by Sally Hawkins was bizarrely overlooked; she plays a schoolteacher with an unshakable glee for life in this fairly formless comedy. Her cheerful ways are challenged when she takes driving lessons from a resolutely enraged teacher (Eddie Marsan), and Leigh wrings fascinating drama from their interactions.

Where to watch: Cinemax

In Bruges (2008)

Though it was written and directed by an acclaimed, Tony-nominated playwright, and starred Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, and Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges had a slow build to Oscar success, debuting in February to good but not exceptional box-office sales. The anarchic crime comedy is indulgently bloody and follows two hit men trying to lie low in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges. It’s shot through with the mordant nihilism that created such a splash for Martin McDonagh as a playwright, but the weird mix of violence and humor made the film a tough initial sell. It built up enough buzz to win a Golden Globe for Farrell as the regretful killer Ray, and an eventual Oscar nomination for McDonagh a year after its release.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Amazon Prime

In the Loop (2009)

In a just world, In the Loop would have been recognized across the board by the Academy, because it’s still the best piece of cinematic political satire in decades, but 12 years ago, the film’s one nomination went to Armando Iannucci and his co-writers, Jesse Armstrong (who went on to create Succession), Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche. The film is a spiritual and geographic bridge between Iannucci’s two hit TV shows, The Thick of It (set in the world of British politics) and Veep (the American equivalent). It depicts the two countries’ slow buildup to a declaration of war in the Middle East as a bumbling farce. Peter Capaldi, playing the nervy director of communications Malcolm Tucker, is undoubtedly the film’s MVP, but James Gandolfini gives a great rare comic turn as a grumpy U.S. lieutenant general alongside a brilliant ensemble.

Where to watch: AMC Plus and Apple TV

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen embracing in a kitchen in 'Another Year'
Sony Pictures via Everett
Another Year (2010)

Mike Leigh’s most recent Oscar nomination came from writing this bittersweet drama, which displays his trademark humanism but with a more forbidding outlook than Happy-Go-Lucky (some of Leigh’s other great works worth checking out include Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, and Topsy-Turvy). Another Year tracks an older married couple (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) over a year as they manage various interpersonal dramas, particularly revolving around their friend Mary (Lesley Manville), a tempestuous, depressed middle-aged divorcée. Manville’s performance is the distasteful dynamo powering much of the film’s drama, but Leigh is always careful not to castigate or villainize, keeping the audience’s sympathies balanced through each character’s ups and downs.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Amazon Prime

Margin Call (2011)

One of the first great movies to try to grapple with the effects of the Great Recession, Margin Call is set over 24 hours at an unnamed Wall Street investment bank that is melting down during the initial stages of the crisis. The ensemble piece is focused on the cold-blooded tyrants who helped bring about the economic catastrophe. It succeeds by making its cast of villains remarkably compelling; a standout is a credit trader played with ruthless efficiency by Paul Bettany. The nomination went to the first-time writer and director J. C. Chandor, who has gone on to make All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year, and Triple Frontier.

Where to watch: Apple TV, Amazon Prime, and Peacock

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Another example of Anderson’s films only getting acknowledgment from the writers’ branch. Moonrise Kingdom came in between the director’s first foray into animation (Fantastic Mr. Fox) and his magnum opus (The Grand Budapest Hotel). It’s a personal favorite for many of his devotees, a gentle ballad of adolescent angst set on a New England island. Moonrise Kingdom features outstanding work from Bruce Willis, as well as the expected strong ensemble work from Anderson regulars such as Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray, but its real stars are the newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. They play the besotted 12-year-olds driving all of the action.

Where to watch: HBO Max and Apple TV

Before Midnight (2013)

Much like Before Sunset, the last entry in the Jesse and Céline saga got a single Oscar nomination for its collaborative writing. Before Midnight’s screenplay was credited to Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy, though the main characters’ dialogue is so natural and rambling that it’s hard to imagine that it was all committed to the page beforehand. Picking up, once again, nine years after the previous film, Before Midnight replaces Before Sunrise and Sunset’s dreamy romanticism with the more mundane realities of partnership. Still, no other cinema experience quite compares to watching Hawke and Delpy take on a European location (this time, the Peloponnese coast in Greece) while dissecting their partnership. Were a fourth Before film to arrive, it would theoretically be due this year—but Midnight is a perfect-enough ending to the journey.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Amazon Prime

Nightcrawler (2014)

This film was a “lone screenplay” nominee because Jake Gyllenhaal’s arresting, slinky lead performance was snubbed at the 2015 Oscars, a surprise given the physical transformation he underwent for the role (which is usually bait for awards voters). Gyllenhaal plays the hauntingly skinny and pale petty thief Lou Bloom, a sociopath who realizes he can make money by being the first to arrive at crime scenes, filming them, and then selling the footage to local news. His obsession then unfolds in unsettling ways, and the writer Dan Gilroy (also making his directorial debut) delivers a taut script designed to keep the viewer guessing until the last minute.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Amazon Prime

Four men in a recording studio in 'Straight Outta Compton'
Universal Studios via Everett
Straight Outta Compton (2015)

One of the most exciting films of 2015, F. Gary Gray’s epic rendering of the rise and fall of the rap group N.W.A. was tipped for broader Oscar success but ended up with only a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus. The film succeeds because of its earnest tone, treating the career of Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), and others with seriousness and care, especially in its depiction of Eazy-E’s death from AIDS. But its greatest passion is reserved for the group’s music; Gray sells the transformative cultural impact N.W.A. had in just a few years of existence.

Where to watch: FuboTV, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime

20th Century Women (2016)

Another film that was the victim of an unexpected acting snub. Annette Bening was ignored for this compassionate dramedy from Mike Mills, a director who specializes in naturalistic dialogue and warm character sketches. I am fond of all of his films (Beginners was an Oscar winner; this year’s C’mon C’mon is his most recent effort), but 20th Century Woman is his best work, an autobiographical tale, set in 1979, about a teen boy being raised by a commanding single mother (Bening), who runs a boarding house populated with offbeat characters. Mills has such a gift for making every interaction feel genuine, and 20th Century Women is suffused with love for its mixed-up, flawed ensemble.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Showtime

The Lobster (2016)

The Lobster was something of a breakout for the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who had already snagged a Best Foreign Film nomination for the unfiltered black comedy Dogtooth. Co-written with his frequent collaborator Efthimis Filippou, The Lobster is ingenious low-tech sci-fi, set in a world where single people have 45 days to find a partner or they are transformed into an animal of their choice. Colin Farrell plays David, an awkward lump of a man; Rachel Weisz is the “short-sighted woman” he eventually becomes obsessed with. The Lobster is a brutally bleak satire of how superficial and nonsensical our notions of “compatibility” are; like any Lanthimos film, it can cause you to gasp in horror at one moment and laugh with delight at the next.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Showtime

The Big Sick (2017)

Married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani were nominated for their writing in this charming romantic comedy based on their own dramatic courtship. Nanjiani even plays a version of himself on-screen: a Chicago comedian defying his Pakistani parents’ expectation that he enter an arranged marriage. Instead, he begins dating Emily (Zoe Kazan), whom he meets at his stand-up show. But just as their relationship starts to falter, she is hospitalized with a lung infection and induced into a coma, putting Kumail in the ill-timed position of spending days and nights at her bedside with her parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). The Big Sick has an idiosyncratic narrative structure that can come only from imitating real life.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime and Apple TV

First Reformed (2018)

This intense, introspective drama was an Oscar landmark in that it was the first nomination for the writer-director Paul Schrader, the frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator behind screenplays such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Like those movies (and many more that Schrader directed himself), First Reformed is a singular study of madness, following a disillusioned pastor in upstate New York (played by Ethan Hawke) struggling with his faith as he becomes convinced of an impending climate apocalypse. It’s a grim film, powered by Hawke’s unprecedented performance (he was sadly overlooked by the Academy) and a real sense of existential menace, building to a climax that feels both devastating and entirely earned.

Where to watch: Apple TV and Showtime

The White Tiger (2021)

The most recent “lone screenplay” nominee was Ramin Bahrani’s excellent, if sprawling, adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel. The White Tiger is a picaresque tale of an Indian man’s escape from poverty to business success, and of ambition being muddied by morality. Adarsh Gourav is an enigmatic lead as Balram Halwai, a boy haunted by his father’s debts; as an adult, Balram becomes a chauffeur to a local businessman, then uses that position to climb the ranks of power and influence, often through dubious bits of subterfuge. Writer-director Bahrani is a skilled social chronicler, and in The White Tiger he works on his biggest canvas yet.

Where to watch: Netflix