“Fasten your seatbelts… It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
A screenplay is the skeleton of a movie. It's the story base on which the rest of the motion picture is built. You don't need a great script to necessarily make a great movie, but it can give you a major head start in the production process.
There are countless movies with great scripts, but a select few of them stand out as being known for having truly brilliant characters and storylines. Not all of these movies won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, but that doesn't mean that they aren't some of the greatest screenplays of all time. Along with Casablanca (which many agree is the closest thing to a perfect script ever written), these rank among cinema's all-time essentials.
Robert Towne's script for Chinatown is regularly thought of as the greatest script of all time. It's complex, and it combines the tone of classic film noir with a modern sensibility to create a film that feels like both an homage to the past and something that could only come out of the 1970s.
The film takes a lot of inspiration from the private investigator sub-genre of film noir that was popular in the early 1900s. It follows Jake Gittes, P.I. (Jack Nicholson), as he uncovers a conspiracy involving murder, wealth, and the California water supply. The script brilliantly lays out the mystery in a way that feels compelling and never confusing for the audience. With an ending you'll never forget, and dialogue that's ingrained into the minds of film fans worldwide, Chinatown is truly an immortal classic of Hollywood screenwriting.
The Silence of the Lambs is so beloved and iconic, you may not even know it's based on a novel. That's thanks to the power of its screenplay by Ted Tally. Even with the cult following of Bryan Fuller's television take on Hannibal, this is still the version most people think of when they think of Hannibal Lecter.
The brilliance of the screenplay is how it blends Clarice Starling's personal journey through her trauma with her hunt for the killer known as Buffalo Bill. All that, mixed in with the brilliant direction of Jonathan Demme and incredible performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins make the movie one of the all-time great crime thrillers, and one of the few movies to sweep the Academy Awards, and it all started with the screenplay.
Bong Joon-ho's Parasite has cemented its place in film history as the South Korean movie that has shattered boundaries for international cinema in the American film industry, becoming the first non-English language movie to win Best Picture.
What makes the movie so powerfully accessible is the universal themes of its script. It's about class, and the lengths people are willing to go to for a better life. No matter where you live, you've probably had a time when you've seen someone with more money than you and thought about what it would be like to be them. That's what Parasite is all about. As the poor Kim family work their way into the life of the wealthy Parks, greed and violence combine in incredibly entertaining and frightening ways.
Joel and Ethan Coen are known for their unique and beloved style of Americana writing. They capture the American cultural experience better than pretty much anyone else. Their 1996 crime comedy Fargo is often considered their masterpiece.
The film follows two primary protagonists: Jerry Lundegaard, a man who has arranged the kidnapping of his own wife in order to get a ransom from his father-in-law, and Marge, the detective who has to investigate when Jerry's plan all goes horribly wrong. The script is hilarious in true Coen fashion, but finds a way to really make you care for the characters when the story calls for it. The Coens have a way of making a comedy feel grounded, no matter how absurd it gets, and Fargo is one of their best.
No one makes a movie like Wes Anderson. His movies are so specifically designed, it's hard to imagine what they would be like on the page. The power of his writing is his specificity. His humor and character work can only come out of his mind. The best example of his style is his 2001 comedy The Royal Tenenbaums, which he co-wrote with Owen Wilson.
The film follows the various members of the dysfunctional Tenenbaum family as they gather together for the first time in a long time. What makes the script so good is how the comedy comes from the dramatic perspective of the story. It's not an inherently comedic concept, the characters are going through some very serious stuff, but because of the specificity of details that Anderson and Wilson utilize, you can't help but find comedy in the heart of the film.
Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather is so good, it's had an entire TV show (The Offer) made about the making of the film. Few movies have had the cultural impact of The Godfather, and even fewer ever will. The incredible resonance of the story starts with the script.
Puzo and Coppola collaborated on the screenplay which follows Michael Corleone as he gets dragged back into the dark world of his family and the Corleone crime family. It's a complex story that uses the mafia as a metaphor for family, complete with betrayal, death, loyalties, and a plot that weaves a tale that has stood the test of time as a true epic for a generation of film.
If there's one thing Hollywood loves, it's stories about the entertainment industry. Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve is one of the most beloved, as it's a story that will always be relevant. As time passes, one generation of actors and creatives has to give way to the next one, whether they like it or not.
The story of All About Eve follows Margo, an iconic Broadway actress who feels like she's old news when Eve, a young ingénue begins to steal the spotlight in her personal and professional lives. It's a story about jealousy and the ruthless nature of being an artist in the entertainment industry. With witty dialogue and a plot that will keep you engulfed in the drama, All About Eve is a true Hollywood classic.
Quentin Tarantino is often hailed as one of the greatest screenwriters of all time. His stylish and bold scripts have influenced an entire generation of film buffs to wear their inspirations on their sleeves and translate their love of pulpy b-movies into high cinematic art. Out of a career of incredible scripts, Pulp Fiction is considered his masterpiece.
One of the most iconic movies of the 1990s, Pulp Fiction blew audiences away with its storytelling that purposefully placed scenes out of chronological order for artistic effect. The movie follows various people whose lives intertwine in dangerous and hardboiled ways. Tarantino's dialogue is sharp and establishes the perfect tone for the film, really selling the name Pulp Fiction.
Sometimes the best way to convey something real and human, is to disguise it with something fictional and absurd. That's what Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind does to spectacular effect. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is one of the best at creating a crazy scenario that somehow makes you feel stronger emotions than most straight dramas.
In Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Joel (Jim Carrey) undergoes a radical medical procedure to wipe his memory of Clementine (Kate Winslet), his ex-girlfriend, after he learns she had the same procedure. As a part of the process, Joel sees all the happy moments of their relationship fade away, and he begins to regret wiping his memory. It's a beautiful screenplay about taking the good with the bad and the bittersweet importance of being sad.
Citizen Kane has long been held up as the greatest movie ever made. Part of this is due to the revolutionary direction and performance by cinematic icon Orson Welles, but a large part of the film's success is due to the script by Herman J. Mankiewicz, which was revised and worked on by Welles. Few movies have had a movie about how they were written, but Citizen Kane is one of them with David Fincher's 2021 Netflix movie, Mank.
Mankiewicz took a lot of risks with this script, crafting a pretty direct and brutal critique of real-life media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was so offended he tried to silence the marketing for Citizen Kane through his media empire. Even outside of the real world implications, the script is revolutionary, thanks to its unique, framing device and bold decision to focus on the life of a morally ambiguous protagonist. Famously, Citizen Kane only won a single Oscar, for its incredible screenplay.
Next: Every Best Original Screenplay Oscar Winner of the 21st Century, Ranked
Chance Morgan made a decision at a young age to forego having friends and a social life in order to prepare for a career writing about movies and TV. He stuck to that decision whether he wanted to or not. Now, after graduating from the prestigious University of Alabama, Chance spends most of his time putting that training to use. When he is not watching and/or writing about movies and TV, you can probably catch Chance listening to countless podcasts about movies and TV.