Now it’s gettin’ good, right? This section of the list begins to get into the portion where “you’ve heard it before.” A number of the films below have been universally acclaimed for one reason or another, but the focus here is on the writing. Some are innovative, some are unexpected, and some completed changed the way films were written, creating a new style or sub-genre. After all, isn’t that what makes for good writing?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Joshua Gaul