And it has to do with the writing. Sometimes I watch movies and think that the writer is some sort of evil genius because they seem to be inside my head, writing exactly what I want to hear, even though I don't know I wanted to hear it. The first season of Dexter did that. Mad Men does that.
Then there's the other kind of movie. The kind that has half-formed characters reciting ridiculousness that has you rolling your eyes so often you think you might have seen your brain at one point. Transformers gave me lots of glances at my own grey matter. So did Avatar.
Most stuff lies right in the middle. The stuff at the ends is easier to spot. But the thing about writing is that it's not what is written that is genius. It's the stuff that isn't written. The stuff that characters say without talking: the subtext. Good subtext makes a move great. It can also be very difficult to write, because oftentimes, people write their own lines in those pregnant pauses, and that's not always that the original writer intended. But in a way, that's okay. If someone is willing to invest enough in a character to imagine what's going on in their head, then the writer has accomplished something.
And yet, it's not all about the writer. What's written isn't always what you see. As writing guru Robert McKee says, "Don't mistake words for writing..." (see video here) Actors take what writers write, then make it real. Good actors make it better than it was before. So in the end, what you see on the screen is really just the essence of what was written.
Lastly, writing screenplays is now turning a corner that doesn't really bode well for some. As with most industries, the powers that be are always looking for 'the sure thing' (no one told them that doesn't really exist). In order to find that sure thing, many in Hollywood have turned to fancy analysts, who comb through scripts (at a mighty hefty price, I might add) and suggest changes to the story that will make it more marketable, popular, or whatever it is that makes it the most money possible.
So, you can listen to the analysts, but there are also numerous gurus and experts that have about a bazillion tips and tricks for writing the best script possible. I'm guessing that the real thing is having a great idea, but being able to express it and tell a great story definitely has to happen. Here's guru John Truby with lots to say.
What is the best writing you remember in a movie? How about the worst?