What makes a brilliant script? Is it quotable lines? Is it nuanced dialogue? Or is it just the ability to move the story along and not get in the way? When looking back through the history of screenwriting, there are plenty of iconic films based on previous work; the Writer’s Guild of America voted Casablanca the greatest screenplay of all time, but it’s adapted. So, what is the most important piece of film writing ever written directly for the screen? This list will shift from American to international, conventional to unconventional. Most importantly, these are the scripts that demonstrate how “screenwriting from scratch” is done.
50. Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Empty salons. Corridors. Salons. Doors. Doors. Salons. Empty chairs, deep armchairs, thick carpets. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other. Glass objects, objects still intact, empty glasses. A glass that falls, three, two, one, zero. Glass partition, letters.
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Might as well start as complicated as we can get, right? Alain Resnais was never a conventional director, as seen in his previous film (and most celebrated work) Hiroshima Mon Amour. In 1961, he collaborated with novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet to create a film so vague and mysterious that none of the characters have names: a woman called “A,” a man called “X,” and another man called “M,” who may be the woman’s husband. The film floats through time and space, never clearly identifying where or when anything is happening. Further than that, Robbe-Grillet’s extremely detailed script included everything from the limited dialogue to defining the architecture and space relations of this epic château. Robbe-Grillet was never on set, but felt he and Resnais had a very clear vision of what this place would be and how this film would work. What results is a film so dependent on the screenplay’s divisive style that, without it, the film is nothing; even less of something than it already is, which is difficult to decipher. Most scripts are bent on helping you understand the film. Perhaps not this one.
49. Primer (2004)
Written by Shane Carruth
Aaron, I can imagine no way in which this thing could be considered anywhere remotely close to safe. All I know is I spent six hours in there and I’m still alive… You still want to do it?
From a film with very limited dialogue to one that may push the limit for 77 minutes of screen time. The first film from writer/director/actor Shane Carruth is a mind-bending trip down one of science fiction’s most played-out themes: time travel. In Primer, instead of the special effects, Carruth piles on scientific jargon, moving at the speed of light through obtuse concepts. Unlike sci-fi films written for the average viewer, Carruth has no interest in making sure you understand what his characters are talking about. More importantly, he wants the language to define the characters in a way that hovers above the words. After accidentally discovering time travel, friends Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) find themselves slowly developing a mistrust of each other when they begin to abuse the power it brings. Carruth’s ability to navigate the dangerous waters of heavily dialogue without including much exposition seems like it should be crutch, but it creates a veil of mystery in this paradoxical indie.
48. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Written by Callie Khouri
You shoot off a guy’s head with his pants down, believe me, Texas ain’t the place you want to get caught.
Callie Khouri won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for this story of women’s lib, diagramming a world where two best friends go on the run after killing a man and the audience roots for them the entire time. Khouri’s story dances on the line between feminism and revenge fantasy, but, above all, defines two different, very developed characters as they travel together. The title characters play off of each other despite their inherent differences – Thelma (Geena Davis) as the reserved housewife; Louise (Susan Sarandon) as the overbearing individual. They road trip together, only to find themselves in trouble at a cowboy bar. What results becomes the turning point in the film, setting the moral discussion on its head. Khouri’s characters are clearly sketched out, as they encounter more people on their journey, only delaying the inevitable. With Ridley Scott helming the film, the screenplay is fully realized by the brilliant visuals and cinematography, which only gives more weight to the landscapes described on paper.
47. The Grand Illusion (1937)
Written by Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir
Love, as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins.
Military movies tend to be light on the script, but in 1937, Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak created a war movie focused on the individuals behind the weapons. Le Grande Illusion became the first foreign-language film nominated for Best Picture, as it told the story of two French officers captured and taken to prison. The two are dramatically different in class – one an aristocrat from high society, the other a simple mechanic. When taken to prison, they meet many others from various walks of life, creating an amalgam of various people all looking for a similar end game: escape. The film is a series of foiled attempts to escape the prison, every time bringing these men closer together, forming relationships greater than the war they are fighting. These relationships are what define Le Grande Illusion, one of the earliest examples of what brotherhood in battle means and how POWs may work together to escape captivity, but will always maintain the inability to escape each others memories.
46. Boogie Nights (1997)
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson
I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s film debut came in 1996, a minor critical success titled Hard Eight (go see it now, if you can). In 1997, he shifted to a sweeping epic about the porn industry with Boogie Nights, the story of the rise and fall of a young man named Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), who goes from high school dropout to superstar named Dirk Diggler thanks to a chance meeting. Though characterized more by Anderson’s moving camera and set decoration, what gets lost is how detailed and organized the screenplay is. Anderson works in dozens of characters (mostly played by A-list actors, mind you) into a story that makes sense, however muddled it sometimes seems in retrospect. What Boogie Nights did was take an industry that had never really been taken seriously in the mainstream and created a seedy success story that felt authentic. The character development could’ve been overshadowed by the glamour, the sex, and the set design. Instead, the most memorable moments are the conversations between some of the most gifted actors of our generation.
45. Rushmore (1998)
Written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne. My safety’s Harvard.
His craft has been cleaned up a bit and his characters have shifted from understated to unrestrained, but Wes Anderson’s first memorable writing effort came in this independent gem from his early career. Working with actor/writer Owen Wilson, Anderson’s Rushmore became a new cult classic, thanks to its stellar performances and brilliant screenplay. Rushmore is the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), an overachiever (of sorts) at the title boarding school who organizes or belongs to every school club imaginable, if only to keep his insecurities and secret failures hidden. When he falls for a new teacher (Olivia Williams), he finds himself in competition with Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a local business man and his pseudo-mentor. While films have come and gone since and plenty with such deliberate style were there before this one, there was something about Anderson and Wilson’s technique here that jumped off the screen. It was perfected with 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, but here is where they really began to get a feel of how to make a script stand out among all the other ones sitting just outside the middle. It’s an unconventional story with a relatively different anti-hero as the protagonist, the man we call Max Fischer, the king of Rushmore.
44. Toy Story (1995)
Written by John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow
One minute you’re defending the whole galaxy, and, suddenly, you find yourself sucking down darjeeling with Marie Antoinette… and her little sister.
Animated films never had to appeal to a demographic above ages K-8, thanks to Walt Disney. Since the beginning of animated films, plenty were enjoyable for adults and children alike, but never to the point that a thirtysomething man would make sense seeing an animated film in the theater that wasn’t “adult themed.” Along came Pixar, an innovator in both animation and the way animated films were written and directed. The first feature film from the Disney acquisition was Toy Story, a clever take on what toys do when you aren’t around. Filled with recognizable characters who are all (for the most part) self-aware that they are, in fact, toys, the laundry list of writers (which includes, among Pixar regulars, the great Joss Whedon) managed to get their audience to identify with them as they struggle with their place in the world of their child owner. Pixar would unleash even better scripts as the years went on (including two Toy Story sequels), but this one started it all.
43. American Beauty (1999)
Written by Alan Ball
It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself.
It may have lost a bit of the critical appeal it had upon its original release, but the suburban psychological dystopia that is American Beauty still hits a nerve as you read through Alan Ball’s brilliant screenplay. Ball, a TV writer, had only written episodes of Grace Under Fire and Cybil before penning this Oscar winner, starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Spacey and Bening are the Burnhams, a seemingly normal suburban couple with a teenage daughter who begin to hit a rough patch. Carolyn (Bening) is advancing her real estate career, while Lester (Spacey) is growing disenfranchised with his office job. When Lester decides to quit his job by blackmailing his boss, it sets off a firestorm of selfishness and self-discovery from all parties, eventually including the new neighbors, a rival real estate agent, and their daughter’s new boyfriend. The web weaves into unexpected territory and, despite some heavy-handed dialogue from some of the least expected characters, American Beauty still finds a way to tilt the viewers’ ears a little closer to the screen, just to hear a few words of wisdom they never considered.
42. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Written by Woody Allen
How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!
We could put 60% of Woody Allen’s scripts on this list, but let’s spread the wealth a bit, shall we? Of all his stellar screenplays, Hannah and Her Sisters stands out because of its demonstration of Allen’s ability to write multiple characters and story arcs. His best films tend to sharply focus on one or two protagonists (e.g. Annie Hall, Manhattan) and one main lot, with no delineations. Here, he details a family dynamic between two Thanksgivings, both hosted by Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her husband Elliot (Michael Caine in an Oscar-winning role). While Hannah is the tissue that connects the three story arcs, she almost sits in the back seat for most of the film. Lee (Barbara Hershey) is one sister, having an affair with Elliot. Holly (Dianne Wiest) is another sister, stuck in a professional and personal rut, competing for attention in all facets, leading to a drug addiction. The stories intertwine and weave together and apart, making for fascinating side plots and minor arcs throughout. Without a doubt, this has become one of Allen’s most celebrated and more interesting scripts, relying less on pithy dialogue and more on relationship building and deconstructing.
41. Broadcast News (1987)
Written by James L. Brooks
And if things had gone differently for me tonight then I probably wouldn’t be saying any of this. I grant you everything. But give me this: he personifies everything that you’ve been fighting against. And I’m in love with you. How do you like that? I buried the lead.
It’s about news, but it isn’t. James L. Brooks’ excellent screenplay gives us Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a news producer who falls for the pretty face delivering the news, Tom (William Hurt). All the while, Aaron (Albert Brooks), another talented, much plainer reporter, holds an undying love for her. What the screenplay manages to do is balance the insecurities of each of these characters in a world where those flaws cannot be put on display. Aaron is a brilliant writer, but can’t seem to get out from behind his physical appearance and mannerisms. Tom understands he is rising to the top based solely on his looks; he understands his “mental” limitations. Jane is a borderline basket case, prone to mental breakdowns, mostly due to her incredible high standards and perfectionist nature. While it is technically a romantic comedy, the television station setting adds a level of satire that isn’t typically seen in simple rom-coms, as the characters are written and realized so well that most of us would rather watch the behind the scenes soap opera than find out the local weather.
40. Spirited Away (2001)
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
That’s a good start! Once you’ve met someone, you never really forget them. It just takes a while for your memories to return.
No writer/director on this list may be more fantastical than the great Hayao Miyazaki, who could have 5-10 films included for their sheer dreaminess alone. Of his screenplays, his 2001 Oscar winner for Best Animated Film Spirited Away is the most daring and engaging. A sharp contrast to his beloved 1988 masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away is so intricate and detailed in plot that it’s mind-blowing. When a little girl wanders into the woods at her family’s new home, she is whisked away to a world where people become animals, witches and monsters are a regular occurrence, and a bathhouse in the middle of town is a place of refuge for these creatures. Chihiro begins to work at the bathhouse to earn her way home, only to become more engulfed in this unbelievable world. Miyazaki’s films take child-like emotions and build elaborate worlds out of them almost as therapy for the children involved, but even the least plot-heavy films have more impact than the standard Disney fare. And, of all his films, Spirited Away may be the most unreal, but enlightening offering.
39. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Written by M. Night Shyamalan
And the tiny hairs on your arm, you know when they stand up? That’s them. When they get mad… it gets cold.
Talk about peaking too early. M. Night Shyamalan wrote and directed two forgettable films before blowing the world away with his suspense thriller The Sixth Sense. Starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, in an Oscar-nominated role, the film centers on a psychologist who befriends a young boy who claims to communicate with the dead. In retrospect, the film’s over-publicized twist ending feels too easy to figure out, especially when explained by the filmmaker in detail. But if you look closely, what feels like simplistic cues here and there are extremely difficult to spot upon first viewing. What Shyamalan did was re-energize the ghost story to prepare it for the 21st century. We have since shifted into the found-footage ghost stories a bit too much and, while some really intelligent horror films have come since, The Sixth Sense was a well-thought-out suspense thriller that came out of nowhere to blitz audiences, thanks to its script and the performance of its young star.
38. Children of Paradise (1945)
Written by Jacques Prévert
The mere thought of them killing each other, over a woman, because of me, comforts me.
One of the rare foreign screenplay nominees for Best Original Screenplay without grabbing any other nominations, Jacques Prévert’s sweeping love story centers on Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a mime, and his love affair with Claire (Arletty), who goes by the name of Garance. Meanwhile, Garance is also loved by a group of other men: a snooty actor, a criminal, and a count. In addition to that, another actress is in love with Baptiste. The 3+-hour epic centers on the weaving webs of these characters, each having to depend on the others at various moments, with those favors leading to romantic complications going forward. The film shifts ahead in time, further emphasizing the separation between Baptiste and Garance, becoming one of the great film stories of love, dedication, and, in turn, misery. Director Marcel Carné never made another film that had the impact Children of Paradise did, mostly thanks to Prévert’s unbelievably heartbreaking script of love and loss.
37. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
Finally, if you think about it, the only solution to starvation and poverty is in the hands of the army. You’ll realize it in Miranda, when you have to open your pretty thighs to an infantry battalion.
In a world of simple narrative and overly complicated attempts at originality, Luis Buñuel somehow managed to make surrealism in cinema look extremely easy. Buñuel shifted from genre to genre, making somewhat commonplace films and surrealist ones, but this is the only film he directed and wrote that won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. And it’s probably the strangest feature length film he made. The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a basically plotless satire about six middle-class people in France who can’t ever seem to meet for dinner. It intertwines four dreams of the main characters with moments set in their current time, each resulting in no one ever eating together, despite their best efforts. Always the political and religious activist, Buñuel made Bourgeoisie (and plenty of other films) as a sharp criticism of the upper class and their unending pretentiousness. Of all Buñuel’s brilliant satires, Bourgeoisie feels the most cutting, ending with the six protagonists lost and wandering down an empty road, still unable to eat together. It’s fascinating image: six well-dressed people at their wits’ end. A great Buñuel companion piece is 1962’s The Exterminating Angel, in which the group of an upper-class dinner party learn they are unable to leave.
36.Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Carlos Cuarón
Truth is cool but unattainable… the truth is totally amazing, but you can’t ever reach it.
Twelve years before Alfonso Cuarón took us into the silence of outer space, he was adept at writing and directing personal and family dramas. His best came in 2001, with Y Tu Mamá También, a Mexican road trip movie. The film follows two teenage friends – Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) – as they grow more disconcerted with their impending adulthood, especially since their girlfriends are spending the summer in Europe. The two young men meet an older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) and convince her to come with them on a road trip to an invented location. The trip is eventful, to say the least. Cuarón’s somewhat broken narrative includes what can only be described as footnotes – occasional breaks from action to allow a narrator to describe unrelated things about characters, places, and things in the film. In a world full of coming-of-age films, Cuarón’s quiet masterpiece stands out as a look at these boys as they begin to see the world around them; the poverty of Mexico, and the troubles and transgressions they never discussed during their long friendship. When we see the light at the end of tunnel that is adulthood shackled with heavy responsibility, the bets thing we can do is look at those around us who made us who we are. While Y Tu Mamá También is a testament to how different your world could be if looked at it through a new lens, it’s also a lesson in how moments of sheer passion and emotion can either strengthen or destroy everything you’ve made up to that point.
35. The Red Balloon (1956)
Written by Albert Lamorisse
Could you hold my balloon while I’m in school?
A Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner that is only 34 minutes long and has almost no dialogue at all. And the main character is a balloon. The film surrounds Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse) on his way to school when he finds a beautiful red balloon. He discovers, as he plays with his new toy, that it seems to have a mind of its own, following him everywhere he goes around Paris. What results is a simple, but magical trip through areas of Paris as Pascal draws funny looks, punishment at school, and attacks from bullies, all because of his new balloon. A true example of how a screenplay without words can function in a world of thick dialogue, The Red Balloon is an almost Christ-like parable about faith in humanity, in your home, and in the world eventually becoming a better place. The closing cluster balloon journey is one of the most beautiful images in film history, and has influenced plenty of work since then, being remade into a feature film and, of course, Pixar’s Up.
34. The Producers (1967)
Written by Mel Brooks
Not many people know it, but the Fuhrer was a terrific dancer.
Mel Brooks is the undisputed king of movie parody, doing it better than most other filmmakers ever have. But, despite a career filled with intelligent spoofs, his best writing effort may have come in a purely original story about a struggling theatrical producer and his accountant. The Producers follows Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) having trouble finding funding for his theater projects, resorting to romancing older wealthy women. When his accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) tells him how bad he is doing financially, they decide the only way to make money is to produce a musical that is sure to flop, overcharge investors, and flee the country. The show will be “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eve at Berchtesgaden,” a play written sincerely as a tribute to the dictator by an ex-Nazi. To ensure the flop occurs, they hire a bad director, awful actors, and find every possible way to sabotage the production. We follow the entire process, as sure as the protagonists that this show will never succeed. But stranger things have happened. Brooks won an Oscar for the screenplay, and the movie was made into an acclaimed Broadway show that gave birth to a second movie (nowhere near as good) based on the musical. It also inspired one of the best episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” guest-starring Brooks, which played on the same concepts as the movie.
33. The Apartment (1960)
Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.
One of the greatest romantic comedies conceived, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is a wonderful mixture of the workplace comedy and the romantic drama. Starring Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, the film centers on his attempts to move up in his insurance agency by lending his apartment to managers for them to have their extramarital affairs. Unfortunately, he falls for his supervisor Sheldrake’s (Fred MacMurray) latest fling, an elevator girl in the building named Fran (Shirley MacLaine). She, blind to Sheldrake’s other transgressions, holds onto his promise that he will leave his wife for her, while C.C. can’t fathom her attraction to him. What makes this fairly simple story so endearing is the quick-witted dialogue put on paper, delivered by some of the greatest actors of their time. Wilder’s screenplays are typically sharp, but The Apartment rise to the top. Wilder’s America is the happier one – the one where the good guy always wins, the bad guys are always made to look the fools, and common decency always wins out. But of all his films, The Apartment feels like the most realistic portrayal of the world we live in and the struggles we go through, even if the happy ending predictably arrives.
32. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Written by Melissa Mathison
You must be dead, because I don’t know how to feel. I can’t feel anything anymore.
It goes without saying that Steven Spielberg has directed plenty of memorable films. But there was something about his 1982 science-fiction family film that jumped off the screen. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is every child’s story – when a world that you feel doesn’t understand you begins to fall apart, you always need someone to lean on. For most of us, it’s a sibling. Or a friend. For Elliott (Henry Thomas), it’s an alien. Written by Melissa Mathison (although based on an imaginary friend Spielberg created as a child when his parents were going through a divorce), E.T. takes the common alien invader theme and turns it around: we, the humans, may very well be the enemy. At the heart of the drama is a little boy looking for some kind of faith in something or someone and finding it (and a subconscious, almost telepathic connection) in a visitor from another world. It’s been over 30 years since E.T. was the blockbuster it became, but it still stands as one of the best science-fiction films of all time and one of the best coming of age stories in a decade overstuffed with “growing up” movies.
31. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Written by Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah, and Roy N. Sicker
We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.
After the studio system began to dissolve a little, the Western became a sort of go-to genre for filmmakers, especially in a world filled with war and conflict. America needed likable heroes on screen. The Western gave us the blue-collar hero – the man who would stand up for what is right, whatever the cost. Then came Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch. Unlike the good-guy Westerns that came before it, The Wild Bunch focused on a group of outlaws and their leader Pike (William Holden), as they try to rob a railroad office and enter into “retirement.” When it goes awry, the group flees to Mexico and holds up in member Angel’s (Jaime Sánchez) hometown, only to find it run by a Mexican army man named Mapache (Emilio Fernández). What results from all of this is a constant need for these men to survive, whatever means necessary. That means killing innocent people – citizens, women, etc. Among all the bloodshed, Peckinpah and writers Walon Green and Roy N. Sicker clearly defined who each member of the bunch was. The Wild Bunch changed the Western into something that could be much more complicated than just a man and his gun and his honor. It showed that, despite the desolate terrain and farming lifestyles, the people of the Old West can make for complicated stories of betrayal, violence, and more blood than 1969 audience’s were prepared for.
30. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
I don’t wanna kill anybody. But if I gotta get out that door, and you’re standing in my way, one way or the other, you’re gettin’ outta my way.
Before he was one of the more recognizable directors in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino was a screenwriter just trying to make enough money to get the films he wanted to make off the ground. After selling another brilliant script (True Romance), he pushed his way into the movie business, writing the screenplay for Reservoir Dogs in 3 1/2 weeks. After actor Harvey Keitel read it, he also contributed to the funding and starred in the film. Tarantino signed on to direct and created one of most memorable modern heist films ever conceived. Functioning like a bottle TV episode, the majority of the film takes place in a warehouse where the criminals are holding a police officer hostage. From there, it’s a battle of wits, violence, and pithy dialogue as the group turns against each other, fearing betrayal at every turn. Imagine the reaction of the investors: a heist film that never even shows the heist. Tarantino clearly defined his lack of narrative structure and his talent for writing conversation here. Truth be told, Tarantino could be called extremely unoriginal, as most of his filmmaking style is taken from dozens of other places. But one thing is for sure: when he’s on his game, he knows how to take all those influences and blend them together into something truly fascinating.
29. Rocky (1976)
Written by Sylvester Stallone
I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts – I’m dumb, you’re shy, whaddaya think, huh?
It’s not quite as wordy as a Quentin Tarantino script; nowhere near as engaging in terms of discussion. But in some way, eventual action star Sylvester Stallone penned a heartwarming story of a down-on-his-luck boxer in Philadelphia who wants nothing more than a shot. Rocky tells the story of Rocky Balboa (Stallone), an amateur boxer who, because of an injury to the champ’s planned opponent, gets to step in an fight the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), mostly because Creed liked his nickname (“The Italian Stallion”). Balboa doesn’t have enough time train to even give Creed a fight, but goes to work anyway with former boxer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and friend Paulie (Burt Young) in his corner. Meanwhile, he begins to form a romantic bond with Paulie’s sister Adrian (Talia Shire), who begins to come out of her shell as she and Rocky are courting. Rocky is the American dream in a sports movie before that storyline even existed. A man with the odds against him puts in the work and finds success, even landing the girl in the end. It’s simple. It’s a little melodramatic. But it’s also one of the greatest sports movies of all time, if not the best.
28. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Written by Charlie Kaufman
I know how to do it now. There are nearly thirteen million people in the world. None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.
It’s an existential chore of a film, but it’s incredibly ripe with dialogue and story structure that may very well be the densest work on this list. After years of writing innovative and original screenplays for other directors (stay tuned), Charlie Kaufman decided to write and direct his own film in 2008, the story of a director creating his life’s work in Synecdoche, New York. Starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche takes place mostly in a life-size replica of New York City housed in a Schenectady, NY warehouse, created with money won from a genius grant. Hoffman is theater director Caden Cotard, the architect of this world, casting dozens, then hundreds of cast members, all playing people he knows or, even better, doesn’t know. His personal and professional relationships strain as he struggles to turn reality into his play, and vice versa. Fewer films have the level of complicated narrative and internal chaos than this one, as the protagonist deals with his own mortality, the mortality of his loved ones, and the mortality of his play which, in turn, becomes his world. Kaufman’s screenplay takes reality at face value, allowing his audience to fill in the gaps and take from it what they want. Or need.
27. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Written by George Lucas, Philip Kaufman, and Lawrence Kasdan
You want to talk to God? Let’s go see him together, I’ve got nothing better to do.
It began a beloved franchise that further proved Harrision Ford was the go-to “man’s” movie hero. It’s littered with striking images and exciting action/adventure sequences. But buried beneath Steven Spielberg’s iconic direction was a brilliant screenplay that defined one of the greatest American cinematic heroes. Archaeologist Indiana Jones is sent by the United States government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. That’s the story. Yet, that simple idea turned into an epic journey across the world, rife with funny and interesting dialogue and a solid underlying love story with Karen Allen. Written by Lawrence Kasdan from a story by Philip Kaufman and none other than George Lucas, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the gold standard for how an adventure film should be made. Sure, you need the special effects. You need the handsome lead and the pretty girl. And, of course, the villains you love to hate. But, above all, you need a good story, snappy dialogue, and a plot that coheres, despite all the crazy things that may or may not happen to your protagonist.
26. La Dolce Vita (1960)
Written by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Uncredited)
Don’t be like me. Salvation doesn’t lie within four walls. I’m too serious to be a dilettante and too much a dabbler to be a professional. Even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in an organized society where everything is calculated and perfected.
Federico Fellini always had a way to make fame and wealth look beautiful on the surface, while serving as a succubus of life and soul. La Dolce Vita certainly isn’t the most cynical of his offerings, but its aimless and meandering screenplay does wear the audience down. With Fellini’s dependable acting partner Marcello Mastroiani in tow as his lead, La Dolce Vita details a series of events in Rome centering around Marcello Rubini, a journalist who not only cannot be faithful to his girlfriend, but can’t be faithful to his mistress(es). All in all, the film is about Marcello’s struggle between domestic happiness offered by his girlfriend and the excitement of Rome and its alluring night life and people (women, to be more specific). At the same time, he struggles to become a much more respected writer, tiring of his simplistic fame-focused work. It’s a script of Biblical proportions, stretching Marcello out over many other characters and places, but all coming back to the preternatural need to find happiness, even if it means sacrificing a piece of yourself and your pride.
25. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Written by Christopher McQuarrie
After that, my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.
Much like The Sixth Sense, most of us are well aware of the brilliant twist at the end of The Usual Suspects. But, unlike The Sixth Sense, the screenplay to The Usual Suspects is so detailed with character development and dialogue that a second or third viewing will only add to its mystique. Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Suspects’ main plot is a discussion between a detective (Chazz Palminteri) and the lone survivor of a boat explosion, a crippled man named Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). Verbal’s story is convoluted, at best. He weaves webs in and out, explaining who his fellow criminals are, each of which was brought in originally for a truck hijacking, each having a vendetta against the police. Eventually, it all boils down to the involvement of a brilliant mastermind named Keyser Söze, the man responsible for the boat explosion. Every story Verbal tells is played out on screen in flashback, managing to add weight to the story, but never answering every question. By the end, when the ball drops and the biggest answer of all is revealed, even recounting the stories in your head will never allow you to wrap your head around what just transpired. But, somehow, it all makes sense. That’s how to write a crime film.
24. North by Northwest (1959)
Written by Ernest Lehman
Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself “slightly” killed.
Despite the prowess of Alfred Hitchcock’s work over the years, he often worked with adapted scripts. One of his few original screenplay sources was 1959’s North by Northwest, a spy thriller written by Ernest Lehman, who planned on writing “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” (mind you, this came a year before Psycho; still admirable). Starring Cary Grant, the film is probably the best example of a “mistaken identity” story, when Roger Thornhill (Grant) is kidnapped, his kidnappers believing he is a man named George Kaplan. As the story moves forward, Thornhill finds himself tracking the real George Kaplan to clear his name, after a second misunderstanding puts him in further trouble. Lehman’s screenplay is an ingenious web of thrills and discovery, penning a script that could have very well turned into another It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Instead, it’s held together by a strong lead character and turns a story that could have gone off the rails into a brilliant cat-and-mouse game. He gets some help from one of Grant’s best performances, but without the character fleshed out on paper first, the performance would suffer.
23. Being John Malkovich (1999)
Written by Charlie Kaufman
There is truth, and there are lies, and art always tells the truth. Even when it’s lying.
Charlie Kaufman again, but this time writing a film for equally original director Spike Jonze. Kaufman’s first feature film writing credit after years of writing for television, it may be the script he is judged on for the rest of his life, despite his equally brilliant offerings since. Being John Malkovich is the story of Craig (John Cusack), a puppeteer who becomes a file clerk on the 7 1/2 floor of an office building with incredibly low ceilings. Unsatisfied with his marriage, Craig finds himself attracted to his co-worker Maxine (Oscar nominee Catherine Keener), who refuses to reciprocate. When Craig finds a small doorway in his office, upon entry, he is teleported into the mind of actor John Malkovich (playing himself) for 15 minutes, then is spit out of a New Jersey turnpike. He shares it with Maxine and the two begin charging others $200 to use it. Further complications ensue when Craig’s wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz in her best work) finds out about the portal and uses it to begin an awkward sexual relationship with Maxine as John Malkovich. The brilliance of how the film moves and continues to surprise viewers at every turn is only helped by the brilliant performances, first and foremost that of Malkovich himself. However twisted and insane it is, Being John Malkovich stills stands as one of the most ingenious, most original screenplays of all time.
22. Back to the Future (1985)
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Oh. One other thing. If you guys ever have kids, and one of them, when he’s eight years old, accidentally sets fire to the living room rug… go easy on him.
Back to time travel. It may be a tad incestuous and oedipal, but Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale struck a nostalgic chord with 1985’s Back to the Future, a sci-fi comedy about a young man traveling back in time to meet his parents before they were married. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is accidentally sent back in time to 1955, where he mistakenly attracts his own mother’s romantic gaze after preventing her from ever meeting his father, jeopardizing his future. As a result, Marty must find a way to set things right and pair his parents back up, then find a way to get back to 1985. Gale’s idea sprouted from his curiosity about his own father in high school and approached Zemeckis with the concept. The script was written by 1981, but was rejected over and over, eventually getting backing from Steven Spielberg and Universal Pictures, after Zemeckis found success with Romancing the Stone. In retrospect, however creepy it may be, the idea of a mother as a teenager possibly falling for her own teenage son is, at the very least, incredibly interesting. Your personality is partly shaped by your parents, why wouldn’t you attract one of them? Regardless, it spawned two (lesser) sequels and a host of merchandising. But, when all is said and done, the Oscar nominated script is the true revelation from the landmark film.
21. Star Wars (1977)
Written by George Lucas
Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
Speaking of landmark films…and sci-fi…and franchises….There isn’t much to be said about Star Wars (later re-titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) that isn’t already known. But underneath all the aliens and Wookiees and everything else is an engaging screenplay that reads more like a Western. After George Lucas finished American Graffiti, he began work on the script, with a plot outline similar to Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Basically, a galactic civil war is taking place and word gets to a desert planet called Tatooine that the rebel forces need help. The message is uncovered by young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). So begins the journey of a young farmer to becoming the last refuge of the dying rebel forces against the Empire’s all encompassing goal of galactic domination. At this point in film history, it’s difficult to separate what exactly happened in Episode IV vs. Episodes V & VI, but what the original did was introduce us to the important characters, build their backstories, and set the stage for greater storytelling going forward. It’s difficult for the original Star Wars to stand alone among the others (The Empire Strikes Back may be the better movie, but not the better script, since it depends so heavily on Star Wars). Its impact has also been dulled because of the decision-making of Lucas since, but a quick read in a vacuum only strengthens the respect you should have for this original story and idea from a once well-respected filmmaking and screenwriter.
20. Easy Rider (1969)
Written by Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern
They’ll talk to ya and talk to ya and talk to ya about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.
This portion’s “anybody can write a film” segment comes from 1969, with a landmark film that truly doesn’t have much weight. A road movie if there ever was one, Easy Rider follows Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) as they ride their motorcycles across the country to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker, a lawyer (and town drunk) named George (Jack Nicholson) who, despite being a “square,” gets pulled into and fascinated by their lifestyle. The counter-culture hadn’t been so clearly depicted on screen as it was in this independent film, a smattering of philosophical discussion about what it means to be “free” and a cynical outlook on the American way, as it were in the 1960s. Somewhere within this relatively lightweight screenplay was truth for the American citizen: a look at a way of life that most weren’t familiar with and the fallout when you judge men by their look and belief system. Sure, it encourages drug use as a way to open the mind, but that was never the point. What Easy Rider stood for was a need for the freedom to live as you choose, even if it means upsetting the status quo. All that from two men who would go on to star in Super Mario Bros. (Hopper) and Ghost Rider (Fonda).
19. Annie Hall (1977)
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.
It may not be Woody Allen’s best screenplay, but it’s certainly the one that brought him the most acclaim, setting the stage for the rest of his active career. 1977’s Annie Hall still stands as one of the greatest romantic comedies ever put on screen, mostly thanks to Allen’s witty dialogue and how he characterizes his two leads. The title character, played by Diane Keaton, is an early example of what has become the “manic pixie dream girl” in today’s cinema: a seemingly unattainable women who lives in a separate world of quirks and eccentricity, only adding to her allure. Keaton’s work is phenomenal, but it’s how Allen writes her and how his other characters play off her that makes the film such a success. As in many other Allen films, New York City becomes another character. In Annie Hall, we not only meet one of the most iconic original screen characters ever conceived, but one of the better portrayals of the Big Apple ever put on screen as a romantic world equally filled with happiness and despair.
18. Before Sunrise (1995)
Written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizen
If there’s any kind of magic in this world… it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know it’s almost impossible to succeed… but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.
Relationships on film never feel realistic. Everything always bundles up into a nice little bow, whether good or bad. In 1995, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise changed the game. Never before had a film about a romance felt so organic. Moments don’t feel staged. Discussion doesn’t feel forced. In the beautiful city of Vienna, two complete strangers – Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) – depart from a train and spend one night together, walking the streets and revealing themselves to one another in a way that some couples married for decades don’t. The simplest plot outline on this list – two people just walking around talking – may be the most fascinatingly honest portrayal of two lead characters ever shown on film. Not only that, but it managed to leave the door open for sequels, while standing on its own easily. The film has been followed by two of them, but only in name. They are the same two characters, but begin and end years later, only building on the original in a way that makes this offering a beautiful place to return. Before Jesse and Celine became what they are in Before Midnight, they had to build backstory. Before Sunrise does that and more.
17. Groundhog Day (1993)
Written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis
You want a prediction about the weather, you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.
It’s a comedy that’s more about mortality than it is about laughs. 1993’s Groundhog Day takes places in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of the renowned Punxsutawney Phil, as his February 2nd prediction is being covered by self-centered Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray), his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). Phil wakes up on February 2nd and does his work in his typically cynical fashion. When they can’t leave due to a snowstorm, he wakes up the next morning in Punxsutawney again, once again on February 2nd. And so on. The specific passage of time is never clarified, but Phil relives Groundhog Day dozens and possibly hundreds of times, going through various existential crises. Is he God? Is this Hell? Eventually, the arrogance and disdain for the town and his go-nowhere life gives way to personal growth and the importance of becoming a better man, despite your surroundings. Danny Rubin and the late, great Harold Ramis wrote a script that has become one of the greatest parables of self-actualization and philosophical reasoning…and it took place on the most arbitrary of holidays.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I grew up about 50 miles north of Punxsutawney. It’s even more barren than the Illinois town used for the film. I did tend to play well against them in basketball, though.
16. The 400 Blows (1959)
Written by François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
Now, Doinel, go get some water and erase those insanities, or I’ll make you lick the wall, my friend.
François Truffaut’s defining French New Wave film is easily one of the most beautiful coming-of-age dramas to see the screen, following its main character Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as he navigates a negative home life, an insufferably strict school life, and a world of misunderstanding to try to break free of his perceived chains. The 400 Blows has become a landmark film in terms of its semi-autobiographical feel and was one of the first to show the mistreatment French juvenile offenders went through at the time of the film’s release. Technically, while the title translates directly to English as The 400 Blows, American audiences were never familiar with the French phrase “faire les quatre cents coups,” which is basically slang for “raising Hell.” And that’s what Truffaut and Moussy were conveying with their misrepresented protagonist: a young boy who, despite his persona, is a good kid trying to succeed in a world that feels like it’s working against him. He isn’t the one raising Hell, despite how his superiors view him. He’s trying to escape the Hell he is going through. For him, Hell is the control his parents, the school, and his classmates have over him. Freedom is not far away, and Truffaut’s young protagonist will get there, to the unseen beach where his happiness resides. But where does he go from there? The character would appear in later films, but Antonie’s first journey is the stand out.
15. The Sting (1973)
Written by David S. Ward
Luther said I could learn something from you. I already know how to drink.
Technically, Ward based the screenplay on real-life con men Fred and Charley Gondorff, which was documented in the book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, written by David Maurer (it wasn’t directly adapted from the book, though, so it’s still “original”). Set during the Great Depression, The Sting follows Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) as he cons a victim out of cash, only to see one of his partners retire from “the game.” He is suggested to seek out an old friend named Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to learn about how to pull off “the big con.” When it turns out the original con victim was a courier for a crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Hooker has no choice but to flee to Chicago, where he meets Gondorff, whom he asks for help to take down Lonnegan. The film twists and turns with excitement, betrayals, and cons that beget other cons. The film won Best Picture (sandwiched between The Godfather films) and Best Original Screenplay for Ward, responsible for the first great American con artist picture. American Hustle could learn a thing or two from this brilliant script. Even Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven owes a debt of gratitude to The Sting.
14. Fargo (1996)
Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?
The behemoth that is the Coen brothers began in the 1980’s with Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. But they exploded with 1996’s modern noir Fargo, starring Best Actress winner Frances McDormand. In 2006, it became one of only five films to be inducted into the United States Film Registry for preservation in its first year of eligibility. The Coen brothers were always the masters of meshing comedy and drama and Fargo is their best offering to date (arguments invited). The film follows pregnant police chief Marge (McDormand) investigating some homicides near Brainerd, Minnesota, finding her way to a car salesman’s plan to blackmail his father-in-law by having his wife kidnapped. The way the Cohen brothers draw their characters makes it feel like a foreign film, but with a protagonist you could relate to. Not only is this crime drama subtly injected with comedy, but it gave us one of the most important and memorable characters in the last 30 years, if not film history. It took home Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress, but lost out on the big prize to The English Patient. One of the major Oscar travesties in recent history, for sure.
13. 8 1/2 (1963)
Written by Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Federico Fellini, and Brunello Rondi
The truth is: I do not know… I seek… I have not yet found. Only with this in mind can I feel alive and look at you without shame.
If you thought La Dolce Vita was a cutting look at fame and insecurity, Fellini dials it up here even further here. Again starring Marcello Mastroianni as Guido, 8 1/2 is a parable about a film writer/director struggling with his fading interest in his craft, stemming from artistic difficulties and problems with his marriage. Guido finds himself going through the motions, flashing to various past successes and failures in his life, floating between reality and dreams. Meant as a dark comedy, the film’s lack of narrative structure turns the audience on its head, becoming both seamless and incredibly disjointed at the same time, reflecting the subconscious struggle our protagonist has with his sometimes thankless artistic endeavors. It’s probably Fellini’s most personal film, providing a window into his dreams and his somewhat distorted memories, giving further insight into a man who was much more sentimental than he typically gets credit for. And that closing scene…
12. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Written by Frank Pierson
You handled yourself real well, Sonny. A lot of men would’ve choked, and we might have had a death or a multiple death on our hands. But you handled it. I respect that. Now don’t you try to take Sal. We’ll handle him. Just sit tight and you won’t get hurt.
So, despite the fact that Sidney Lumet’s brilliant hostage film won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Dog Day Afternoon is still technically based on a newspaper article written by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore, though the larger script and screenplay was fictitious. Either way, the film that gave us what is still Al Pacino’s greatest performance (again, arguments invited) is a standard of how to write a claustrophobic crime-gone-wrong film. When Sonny (Pacino) enlists two of his friends to help him rob a bank, one loses his nerve, leaving Sonny and Sal (John Cazale) to take the whole operation on themselves, only to find that the bank is nearly cash-less. Being first-time criminals, Sonny and Sal make mistake after mistake, drawing authorities to the scene, only to create what becomes the definition of a media circus, with the crowd of spectators showing allegiance to the would-be convicts. It’s not easy to keep a story moving that never leaves one place – Pierson does it brilliantly, assisted by his talented cast and director. Audiences will always remember the reveal of Sonny’s reason for the crime and his “Attica!” outburst, but what really gives the film life is the script – a fire-breathing indictment of the media’s relationship to crime and the people – both victims and perpetrators – involved.
11. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Written by William Goldman
I couldn’t do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who are those guys?
The studio system made Westerns that drummed up confidence in the “man’s man:” a sheriff who does good, no matter the cost and villains who always wore the black hat. That began to change in the 50’s and 60’s, when the Western morphed into a grey area of ethics, thanks to films like The Wild Bunch and this 1969 gem. Written by William Goldman and directed by George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the story of the title pair’s return to their Hole-in-the-Wall gang hideout, only to learn that Butch (Paul Newman) has been replaced as the leader. After a cleverly handled knife fight, Butch and Sundance (Robert Redford) set out to rob a Union Pacific train, followed by another, with the end goal to retire to Bolivia. Unfortunately, the local sheriff has assembled a gang to track the two down, instructed to catch and kill them. The film is really a character study and a bromance before they existed, analyzing the male relationship, while also serving as a Western/road movie/buddy flick. Newman and Redford give the film the life and personality it needs, but without Goldman’s iconic script, it’s just another forgotten dramedy.
10. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Written by David Newman, Robert Benton, and Robert Towne (uncredited)
You’re just like your brother. Ignorant, uneducated hillbilly, except the only special thing about you is your peculiar ideas about love-making, which is no love-making at all.
Nothing spices up a movie theater better than a little sex and violence; Arthur Penn’s 1967 film broke new ground on that front. Fictionalizing the partnership of famous gangsters Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the film starred Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the title criminals, while screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton (with uncredited help from Robert Towne) added a subplot to humanize the lead couple. Rather than picturing them as a ruthless pair, Clyde is personified as a surprisingly flawed, insecure character, more at the mercy of Bonnie than the other way around. Throw in constant in-fighting between Bonnie and Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche (Estelle Parsons) and you see a gang of misfits that don’t necessarily have it as together as their victims may think. Part road trip movie, part romance, part crime film, Bonnie and Clyde helped usher in a new generation of films by changing the way heroes (or anti-heroes) are written.
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Written by Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth
Sometimes I don’t think people realize how lonely it is to be a kid. Like… you don’t matter.
It’s Charlie Kaufman one more time, with his most affecting work. While the complexity of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and his other work is extremely innovative, Eternal Sunshine brought a layer of emotion and true metaphysical attachment. Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine is a dramatic and comedic look at the value of memory and how even the bad ones may be worth preserving. After Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet) break up, he learns she has removed the memories of him from her psyche using a new scientific process. Enraged, he decides to return the favor, only to reconsider partway through the process. Toss in a subplot involving the staff of the medical clinic offering this service (Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood), and the film could get bogged down in detail. Instead, the film is trip through Joel’s mind, self-aware that nothing is real, while he and Clementine run through Joel’s memories, trying to preserve the moments that defined their doomed courtship. It’s a beautiful meditation on the necessity of pain, love, and loss, with top-of-their-game performances from the two leads. Most relationships end in pain. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t happen. Without them, the successful ones would have nothing to be compared to.
8. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Written by Spike Lee
One day you’re gonna be nice to me. We may both be dead and buried, but you’re gonna be nice – at least civil.
He’s done better work from the director’s chair. He’s written more deeper, engaging, more intelligent scripts. But Spike Lee’s magnum opus was and will probably always be Do the Right Thing, a visceral story of race relations in Brooklyn, New York. Starring an epic list of talented performers, the film is essentially a black neighborhood’s rebellion against an Italian-American pizzeria owner’s racist belief structure in a hotbed of ethnicity. The entire film takes place over one day, as Mookie (Lee) interacts with dozens of interesting characters, none of which creates more tension than Sal (Danny Aiello), the pizzeria owner. Slowly, on the hottest August day on record, it all boils over, resulting in extreme violence. Most of the side characters are relatively two-dimensional, but the core group enacts a powerful parable about hatred and injustice in the world of late 80’s/early 90’s New York City. Spike Lee has never been subtle; in Do the Right Thing, he finds the most success by throwing subtlety out the window, shining a light on the plight of those who have been marginalized by society and the media.
7. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
If my answers frighten you, then you should cease asking scary questions.
After winning over Sundance audiences with Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino stepped up his writing with the definitive film of the 90’s, 1994’s Pulp Fiction. An anthology film told with broken narrative, the film juxtaposes a bevy of colorful characters in the Los Angeles area, from John Travolta’s Vincent to Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules to Bruce Willis’ Butch. They weave in and out of situations, from an accidental shooting to a story of a priceless watch to a boss’ girlfriend overdosing. Too many characters, moments, and talented actors to list, Tarantino delivered one of his finest works as a director and, by extension, a writer. With this storm of witty dialogue, expletives, and violence, Quentin Tarantino paved a course for the next 20-30 years of film, giving birth to a litter of imitators and forever forcing his subsequent works to be shouldered with their comparisons to this masterful piece of screenwriting. He has done fine work since (e.g. Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown), but it always comes back to this one.
6. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Written by Preston Sturges
Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.
Before Tropic Thunder criticized Hollywood’s narcissism, before The Player discussed rejection in the studios; even before Singin’ in the Rain took you behind the curtain, Preston Sturges handed the world the first real satire about the machine that is Hollywood. Sullivan’s Travels was written and directed by Sturges, a comedy about a director named John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) who strives to make a meaningful drama after years of success in comedy. After a falling out with his studio boss, Sullivan sets out to learn what it really takes to feel the pain of a social existence by posing as a homeless man and going on a road trip. But, despite his best efforts, he always ends up back in Hollywood, only finding success when running into The Girl (Veronica Lake), who becomes his friend on the road. Unlike any other studio film of the era, Sullivan’s Travels takes a hard look at the system and the way it suffocates the artists at its core. Even after all that, it still finds a way back to happy ending, demonstrating how important even those flighty comedies can be to the world (perhaps it’s not as cynical as it pretends to be). Struges’ clever premise and McCrea’s delivery create an under-appreciated gem of the 40’s that is criminally underseen.
5. Taxi Driver (1976)
Written by Paul Schrader
Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.
While Tarantino found a way to mix dry comedy and stylized violence, Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese used the darkness of New York City to create the template for the gritty hero/villain amalgam with 1976’s Taxi Driver. “Comedic” and “stylized” certainly are not fitting adjectives for this script. Starring Robert De Niro as disaffected veteran taxi driver Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver is an early example of the vigilante justice film turned on its head. While today’s action heroes “take the law into their own hands” and have justifiable reasons, their style-centered films don’t approach the true questions behind such reckless actions. Travis Bickle is disgusted with his world – a place and city that has all but abandoned him, which child prostitutes walk the streets, pimps and twisted politicians have the power, and nobody bats an eye. In Bickle’s mind, the heroes are those who work against the establishment. Unfortunately, his decisions stem from a place much darker than the people he is trying to rescue, motivated less by seeing the good in people and more by erasing the bad, by whatever means necessary. Schrader’s script may have given the world the iconic “You talkin’ to me?” speech, but Taxi Driver is more than big talk into a mirror – it’s about our broken society and the impossible steps we take to try to fix it.
4. Network (1976)
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Well Max, here we are: Middle-aged man reaffirming his middle-aged manhood, and a terrified young woman with a father complex. What sort of script do you think we can make out of this?
If Sullivan’s Travels is cynical in its view of Hollywood, Network is an atomic bomb of negativity toward television news. A satire of the most aggressive variety, Paddy Chayefsky’s story of a fictional network called UBS is an eye-opening saga of insanity. After Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is told he will be fired from the evening news for poor ratings, he tells his viewing audience he will commit suicide on the following week’s show. After Beale is fired, division president Max (William Holden) steps in to save his job, preventing his suicide, only to have him burst into an on-air tirade the following week. After the incident, network programming head Diana (Faye Dunaway) manages to get Beale’s program moved into the entertainment division, allowing her to control the delivery of the show, as she watches Beale continuously break down on screen, topping out in the ratings. This is what television journalism has become: sensationalist reports overreaching and drumming up as much drama as possible to pull in the viewer. Before there was 24-hour news networks, a World Wide Web of meaningless “news” stories, and the TMZs of the world, there was UBS, Howard Beale, and Paddy Chayefsky’s gripping, almost psychic Oscar-winning screenplay.
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman Jr.
Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.
Two satires about the media in the top ten; now we’re adding a film noir that could play a little like a satire. The master of the happy American film, Billy Wilder shifted gears in 1950 with Sunset Boulevard, a story told by its protagonist postmortem – the film is told completely in flashback by Joe Gillis (William Holden) as he floats, dead in a pool. Joe was a failing screenwriter who, after blowing a tire, pulls into the driveway of a huge mansion that looks deserted. He hides the car in the garage, only to find that the house is inhabited by silent film legend Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). When she learns he is a writer, she hires him as a script doctor on a screenplay she has written which she claims will revitalize her career. From there, it warps into a story of a frustrated woman who believes the world owes her something, reveling with her youthful, handsome new toy in her mammoth home. Brackett, Wilder, and Marshman’s screenplay is a gripping trip into the human psyche, cleverly peeling layers of Norma’s hysterical personality away as Joe watches, powerless to stop it (in his mind). If Sullivan’s Travels is a somewhat lighthearted story of what Hollywood can do to a person, Sunset Boulevard is a dark, paranoid nightmare of how Hollywood can destroy you and the people around you.
2. Citizen Kane (1941)
Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, John Houseman (uncredited), Roger Q. Denny (uncredited), and Mollie Kent (uncredited)
You can’t buy a bag of peanuts in this town without someone writing a song about you.
The film as a whole speaks for itself, solidified for years as the best thing American cinema has given the world. That’s up for debate, but it can’t be argued how much impact Citizen Kane made in the middle of the studio era. Told entirely in flashback, Orson Welles’ masterpiece is a veiled biography of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, replaced with the iconic Charles Foster Kane, portrayed by Welles. While Citizen Kane is universally praised for its innovative camerawork, music, and lighting, the script also blazed a trail for future films by defining a new approach to narrative structure. Rather than tell a linear story, Welles and Mankiewicz break the film into moments, jumping to important points in Kane’s life through the eyes of reporters and witnesses as they try to find out what Kane’s final words meant. It’s Welles’ tour-de-force – a character study of the most intricate variety, slowly revealing the jigsaw puzzle that was Kane’s life. There have been hundreds of films made since that borrow this story structure, all paying tribute in one way or another to this American cinematic institute. It’s the definitive story of absolute power corrupting absolutely, a man so obsessed with having it all that he loses everything, forever longing for the memories that brought him his greatest joy.
1. Chinatown (1974)
Written by Robert Towne
He passed away two weeks ago and one week ago he bought the land. That’s unusual.
Speaking of power and corruption, we’ve reached the apex of screenwriting – a film noir/psychological drama with a script that is a testament to quality writing. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was nominated for 11 Oscars but only won one: Original Screenplay for Robert Towne for his legendary script (it was up against The Godfather Part II in most categories). The film follows Jack Nicholson (who Towne had in mind when writing it) as private detective Jake Gittes through seedy Los Angeles, originally hired to do surveillance work on the chief engineer of water and power. This leads to his discovery of a web of conspiracy and murder involving a local reservoir, all surrounding the chief engineer’s wife Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) and her husband’s former business partner Noah Cross (John Huston). To detail the rest of the plot would be a disservice to this masterpiece – never has a script so quickly moved from place to place and defined characters so realistically in a noir. Most films simply have moments that stick your memory; Chinatown has moments beyond moments and the connective tissue to match them. Towne was originally asked to write an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but didn’t think he could write a script that improved upon the book. In exchange, he asked for about 15% of what he was offered to instead write his own screenplay, which became Chinatown. Originally planned as a trilogy, Towne did write the sequel (The Two Jakes – directed by Nicholson) that was met with middling reviews in 1990, but has yet to write a third film. It’s influenced basically every crime film ever since and, while plenty are admirable, none have approached the brilliance of this one. Forget it…it’s Chinatown.