Some years it seems every critically touted film is a literary adaptation. This year has not been one of them. So many year-end top-ten lists boast original screenplays that it seems Hollywood is finally trusting its writers. What we’ve lacked in volume, however, we’ve made up for in creativity, playing witness to a host of hidden gems, sly winks, unlikely translations, and flat-out jaw-droppers. It’s also been an especially women-focused year – both behind and in front of the lens. All in all, while assembling her annual list of the year’s best adaptations, this lady critic has realized she’s got zero complaints.
The Holocaust is hardly a new topic in cinema, but Holocaust denial had never been tackled before Mick Jackson’s able adaptation about Holocaust denier David Irving’s 1990s libel lawsuit against American academic Deborah Lipstadt, played by Rachel Weisz in an orange perm, pantsuit, and braying New York Jewish accent. (Irving is played with feral glee by the great Timothy Spall.) Channeling a lively fortitude that challenges legal and moral relativism, this is an eminently satisfying procedural thriller about that rare moment when the system actually worked for David rather than Goliath.
Read: Denial: Holocaust History on Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt
9) Tie: “Fatima” and “Neruda”
It may be a cop-out to tie two films on a top-ten list, but I claim special dispensation since these two cover so much of the same territory. Both are foreign-language imports that highlight the power of poetry with an urgency that is not only admirable but infectious: Pablo Larraín’s biopic about the exile of Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) offers a long look at authorship itself; “Fatima,” based on poems by a North African woman who emigrated to France and supported her family as a cleaning woman, upholds the possibility of change for those who refuse to abandon the people they love.
Read: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
8) “A Man Called Ove”
It’s a good thing that “A Man Called Ove,” writer/director Hannes Holm’s Swedish-language adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s eponymous international bestseller, wasn’t made in America. If it were, its account of an aging widower who finds new reasons to live likely would be the worst kind of tearjerker. Instead, this foreign-language film, submitted for consideration to the Academy Awards, is a brisk, bemused, and deeply loving ode to the human condition. You don’t get more Swedish than that.
Read: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Because Philip Roth’s insights are so richly interior, his books can be challenging to translate onscreen. Yet this adaptation of the author’s eponymous 2008 novel is wholly successful – partly because it’s an unusually lean, plot-driven effort for Roth, and partly because this is the first directorial effort by James Schamus, who as a screenwriter and studio exec already had developed an unusual degree of precision and compassion. About a Jewish student on scholarship at a fictional Midwestern college, this examination of post-World War II American anti-Semitism and the thin line between madness and passion honors its heady source material without sacrificing an iota of carefully curated tension.
Read: Indignation by Philip Roth
6) “Queen of Katwe”
I’d worried that this adaptation of ESPN reporter Tim Crothers’s nonfiction book might reduce Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) to the “inspirational people of color” clichés that even now Hollywood hasn’t learned to sidestep. I needn’t have bothered. Though this Mira Nair-helmed Lupita Nyong’o vehicle (she plays the champion’s mum) dips heavily into the inspirational sports playbook, it offers a depth and earned joy that makes Ugandan women its subject rather than its object. Chalk it up to the fact that, though it hails from historically conservative Disney, this absolutely ravishing biopic is one of the most female-forward and people of color-led major studio productions ever to come down the pike.
Read: The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion by Tim Crothers
5) “The Handmaiden”
Its cruelly sensual flourishes may not be for everyone, but South Korean revenge thriller director Chan-wook Park’s Korean- and Japanese-language take on Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’s Victorian-set romantic thriller Fingersmith is the most innovative and lavishly rendered adaptation of the year. Set in 1930s Korea at the height of Japanese colonialism, it follows Waters’s triptych narrative structure as well as her basic premise about an orphan girl enlisted in the seduction of an heiress by a professional con artist. Throw in the voluptuousness of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers, and this whole film shimmers as a glistening homage to – rather than objectification of – female sexuality.
Read: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
4) “Love & Friendship”
Leave it to waggish writer/director Whit Stillman to find the Oscar Wilde in Jane Austen. In “Love & Friendship,” he’s transformed Lady Susan, the eighteenth-century author’s first and least beloved effort, into a silver-fanged comedy about the titular society siren (Kate Beckinsale) who unrepentantly pits all kinds of younger men against each other. Set afloat in a froth of beautiful costumes and cinematography, this period film looks better than many with ten times its budget, and it restores the Austen edges that history – and her own later efforts – have largely erased. Not for nothing, but hundreds of years later, the unapologetically self-possessed Susan is the type of middle-aged woman who is still lamentably absent in cinema and literature.
Read: Lady Susan by Jane Austen
It figures that one of the best adaptations of this confounding year focuses on the profound limitations of human language. It also figures that it’s directed by Quebec-born Denis Villeneuve, who, in films as far-ranging and multilingual as the very fine “Incendies” and “Sicario,” depicts the struggle to find intimacy and coherence in violent voids. In this adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life, Amy Adams plays – wait for it – a linguistics professor who is enlisted to make meaningful contact with recently landed aliens. With massive grace, this sci-fi stunner slows down our expectations as well as our heartbeats as it investigates how people answer questions that require new levels of compassion and knowledge to even comprehend.
Read: Arrival (Stories of Your Life) by Ted Chiang
2) “Hidden Figures”
Some may call Theodore Melfi’s adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book about three black women who helped put the first American men into orbit too “on the nose.” I say it’s not on the nose so much as in our faces – and in the very best of ways. Powerhouses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe play Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson respectively, three “computers” (women were used to calculate NASA equations before IBM took over) who not only broke the space barrier but the color barrier as well. With snapdragon dialogue, well-structured tension, and finely hewn righteousness, this is that rare prestige film that preaches to more than the choir.
Read: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
In a gorgeous return to the female-centric fare that is his forte, Pedro Almodovar tackles no less than three short stories by that imitable Canadian author Alice Munroe. (This was meant to be the Spanish director’s first English-language effort but he teleported the subject matter to Spain instead.) With nods to Hitchcock and the helmer’s younger Gaudi-inflected gaudiness, two actresses (Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte) play one bombshell blond at different stages of her life in this sad-eyed, impeccably appointed symphony about love found, lost, and lost again.
Read: Runaway by Alice Munro