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The Top 10 Screenplays of the 80’s

By Martin Keady · November 6, 2014

The 1980’s may have been the decade of the blockbuster, but there were still films that didn’t rely on mindless action but on mindful storytelling. Here is an utterly personal list of the top 10 screenplays of the 1980’s, in descending order…


10. Das Boot

(1981, Screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen, adapted from the novel, Das Boot, by Lothar-Günther Buchheim)

The screenwriter (and director) of Das Boot was working from a golden source, Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s account of his experience as a war correspondent aboard a German U-boat. That sense of immediacy – of the writer having lived through what he is writing about – is absolutely palpable. And it is why Das Boot is arguably the single most tense film ever made. The scenes depicting genuine, unbearable tension in most movies last for seconds, or a minute or two at most; in Das Boot, there is a seemingly endless succession of sequences lasting 10 minutes or more, as the submariners cower at the bottom of the ocean, listening for danger from above.

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9. Bull Durham

(1988, Original Screenplay by Ron Shelton)

Forget Field of Dreams – Bull Durham is the baseball movie, and arguably the great sports movie. Where Field of Dreams (like so many other sports movies) deals in dreams, Bull Durham is rooted in reality: the hard, unromantic reality of an unspectacular sportsman trying to make one last pay-day. It’s all great, but the last line is one of the great last lines of movie. When asked by his lover what he wants, Kevin Costner’s battered but unbeaten Bull replies, “I just wanna be.”

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8. Sex, Lies, and Videotape

(1989, Original Screenplay by Steven Soderbergh)

I watched it again recently, for the first time in nearly 20 years, and was as stunned as I was the first time by its sheer cinematic quality. Truly, this is a story that, like all the best screenplays, could only be told on film, because ultimately it is about film (and all its variants, from videotape to DVD to the infinite screens that now fill our lives) and how we can be so seduced by it that we often end up preferring it to messy, uncinematic life. But as the remarkable conclusion (literally switching between events that are watched and events that are acted out) shows, ultimately – if we want to live – we have to be saved from that seduction.

7. Amadeus

(1984, Screenplay by Peter Shaffer, adapted from his play of the same name)

Milos Forman had already triumphantly filmed a supposedly unfilmable novel, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, when he triumphantly filmed a supposedly unfilmable play. Shaffer succeeded where so few writers in other media succeed in superbly adapting his own work for the screen, and the result is the kind of film that Mozart himself would have made: simultaneously symphonic and operatic, and utterly captivating.

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4. The King of Comedy 

(1983, Original Screenplay by Paul D. Zimmerman)

The King of Comedy may ostensibly be about a stand-up comic and his struggle to achieve success, but in reality it is about screenwriters and their struggle. Famously, Zimmerman struggled to sell The King of Comedy for years, until Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, after the ordeal of making Raging Bull together, decided to make a comedy as good as that gruelling drama – and succeeded. Again, its last line is a contender for “best last line in a movie ever” (or at least a contender for second place after the incontestable greatness of Some Like It Hot’s last line): “Better king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime!”

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3. Gregory’s Girl

(1981, Original Screenplay by Bill Forsyth)

Now we’re really entering rarefied territory – the top three – because so great are the three greatest screenwriters of the 80’s that they could all have been nominated for other screenplays they wrote in the decade. That is certainly true of the great Bill Forsyth, whose Local Hero is almost as superb as Gregory’s Girl. However, where Local Hero is utterly idiosyncratic, Gregory’s Girl is just utterly universal: the ultimate boy-meets-girl (via a succession of other girls, who are all helping out the original girl) story.  I cannot have been alone (or at least I hope I am not alone) in wearing a white jacket in my own teenage years in unconscious tribute to the gawky but great John Gordon Sinclair.

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2. Hannah and Her Sisters

(1986, Original Screenplay by Woody Allen)

I could have listed almost any screenplay that Woody wrote in the 1980’s, his real golden age. (Forget the “early, funny” films of the 70’s; the 80’s is the era of his mature – but still funny – masterpieces). Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanours, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days all cry out for inclusion, but ultimately I go for Hannah, if for no other reason than this: whereas most of his other masterpieces were nominated for Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Hannah actually won, which, as Woody himself might put it, is one of those rare examples of God proving his existence.

1. Withnail & I

(1986, Original Screenplay by Bruce Robinson)*

And the winner is…the Hamlet of Screenplays! And that’s not just because it ends with Withnail quoting Hamlet, but because – like Hamletevery single line is quotable (because it’s truthful/beautiful). Truly! Of all the screenplays ever written (a fair few of which I’ve read), only Casablanca comes close for its total quotability. For that reason, Withnail is not just the greatest screenplay of the 80’s, but a contender for the greatest screenplay ever written.

And if you don’t believe me, go read it again yourself!

*Robinson’s other great screenplay of the 80’s is The Killing Fields, based on Sydney Schanberg’s account of the Cambodian genocide, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1984.