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.
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.
— Joshua Gaul