The 40 Greatest Screenplays Ever Written: Part I

By November 25, 2014Top 10 Lists

It would have been easier (for which read “saner”) simply to have called this piece, Forty Great Screenplays, because in researching and writing it I was reminded of at least treble that number of great screenplays I have read or seen.

What I can say without doubt is that each of these screenplays is truly a great testament to the power of screenwriting, which has now arguably surpassed prose (and its principal form, the novel) as not only the most popular form of writing of our time, but the most powerful.

40.  SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998) (BY MARC NORMAN AND TOM STOPPARD)

Shakespeare In Love is a genuinely fantastic fantasia, based on an idea that screenwriter Marc Norman’s son had about a young Shakespeare suffering from writer’s block, and only unblocking himself with the help of a beautiful young aristocrat’s daughter who longed to act at a time when women were banned from appearing on stage.  Tom Stoppard may have added many superb Shakespearean in-jokes (such as Shakespeare repeatedly practising his signature and a water-taxi driver saying that he had once had Christopher Marlowe in the back of his boat), but it was the sheer genius of the story – utterly inauthentic as it may have been – that was the basis of a great screenplay.

38.  IL CONFORMISTA (THE CONFORMIST) (1970) (BY BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI, ADAPTED FROM THE NOVEL BY ALBERTO MORAVIA)

Il Conformista (The Conformist) is perhaps cinema’s most compelling portrait of an assassin, in this case an Italian Fascist dispatched to pre-war Paris to kill his former university professor. Bertolucci brilliantly and insidiously shows how an apparently ordinary man can be seduced by an appalling ideology, simply because he is so desperate to comply with the supposed norms of society after being abused as a child. This anti-hero is indeed the ultimate conformist, forgoing his Fascist leanings to throw himself in with the Partisans as Mussolini’s time comes to an end, in the process seeking vengeance on his childhood abuser.

37.  WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… (1989) (BY NORA EPHRON)

Dismissed by some as Woody Allen-lite, Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally… is arguably the last great Hollywood romantic comedy. “Rom-coms” depend on the couple in question facing an apparently insurmountable obstacle, but in our increasingly tolerant society (which is a fact, whatever the right-wingers and would-be jihadis say) it is difficult for a writer to come up with a sufficiently convincing obstacle for a couple to overcome.  In When Harry Met Sally… the obstacle is their own desire to preserve their friendship, even at the expense of something greater (i.e. love). And of course, there is the marvelous fake orgasm scene – much-imitated, never-bettered – which educated a generation of men in the realities of female sexual duplicity.

36.  THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966) (BY GILLO PONTECORVO & FRANCO SOLINAS)

The Battle of Algiers is a film (and script) that becomes ever more prescient, seemingly anticipating the great battle of the 21st century, between secularism and fundamentalism, through a forensic examination of the Algerian war of independence. Its contemporary relevance and resonance only increases with time, not least in its analysis of the the futility of mass surveillance, wisely informing us (especially our politicians) that the one person whose papers you can guarantee will be in order are the terrorist’s.

35.  SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) (BY BETTY COMDEN & ADOLPH GREEN)

Amid all the singing and dancing (in the rain and otherwise), it’s easy to overlook the fact that Singin’ In The Rain has probably the single best script of any musical, effortlessly celebrating and satirising the great transition in Hollywood from silent movies to talkies (as does its direct Gallic descendant, The Artist). It is both whimsical and whip-smart, an unusual combination that perhaps only the movies, of all art forms, can pull off.

33.  12 MONKEYS  (1995) (BY DAVID PEOPLES AND JANET PEOPLES, INSPIRED BY CHRIS MARKER’S 1962 SHORT FILM, LA JETÉE)

Terry Gilliam, the director of 12 Monkeys, and David and Janet Peoples, its writers, openly acknowledge its debt to Chris Marker’s miniature masterpiece, La Jetée, which, at less than 30 minutes, is arguably the greatest short film ever made, and it is tempting to include La Jetée itself in this list; in fact, consider this inclusion by association.  Both 12 Monkeys and La Jetée explore the contradiction in terms that is time travel, showing how a man can potentially witness his own death as a child. Of all the narrative art forms, it is cinema that can do this most successfully, because cinema itself is a form of time travel, allowing us (on screen and then in our own imagination) to replay the past endlessly and then imagine a multiplicity of possible futures.

32.  THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006) (BY FLORIAN HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK)

Something else that cinema does more successfully than any other art forms is to show the true nature of surveillance: someone watching someone else, even as we, the audience, watch them. The Lives Of Others is the exemplar of this cinematic truth, showing how an ideologically devoted, but essentially lonely Stasi agent becomes inextricably involved in the life of the dissident playwright he is spying on, in the end intervening to save him at the expense of his own career (and effectively his own life).

31.  SWINGERS (1996)  (BY JON FAVREAU)

Or “The American Withnail” as I call it. If not as dark as Withnail, it is almost as hilarious, as a group of self-styled “Swingers” (in reality, largely unemployed actors and comedians) attempt to recreate the antics of Frank’s Rat Pack on a virtually non-existent budget. Swingers is almost the ultimate indie movie (and certainly the ultimate indie comedy), as it is the strength of the perfectly observed script (drawn from Favreau’s own experience as a struggling actor) that makes it a million times funnier than most multi-million dollar Hollywood comedies.

30.  HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) (BY CHARLES LEDERER, BASED ON THE PLAY, THE FRONT PAGE, BY BEN HECHT AND CHARLES MACARTHUR)

The screwiest screwball movie of ‘em all, as befits a script based on a play co-written by the legendary Ben Hecht, who rejoices in the glorious nickname of “The Shakespeare of Hollywood,” for having contributed (credited or uncredited) to everything from Scarface to Gone With The WindHis Girl Friday is the perfect demonstration of the machine-gun “rat-a-tat-tat” dialogue that he himself helped to invent, which guaranteed the triumph of the talkies over the glorious, but mute, silent movies.

29.  THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) (BY ERNEST LEHMAN (NOVELETTE) AND CLIFFORD ODETS)

Two great writers – Lehman (screenwriter of Hitchock’s North by Northwest, among many other classic movies) and Odets (a successful playwright seduced and ultimately spat out by Hollywood, and thus allegedly the inspiration for the Coens’ Barton Fink) – combined to produce a seedy, almost combustible script about the desperate struggle for survival (never mind success) in the world of the media. One line, “Match me, Sidney”, sums up, for me, the whole art of screenwriting.  With it, Burt Lancaster’s all-powerful newspaper columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (a name that surely echoes the all-seeing optician, T.J. Eckleburg, of The Great Gatsby), seemingly orders Tony Curtis’s hapless press agent merely to light his cigarette, but in reality invites him to join him in his descent into depravity.

28.  THE RED SHOES (1948) (BY MICHAEL POWELL AND EMERIC PRESSBURGER, BASED ON THE FAIRY TALE BY HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN)

Based on a fairy tale, The Red Shoes is itself the ultimate cinematic fairy tale, as a ballerina is driven to self-destruction by becoming the focal point of a love triangle between her mentor and the young composer he hires. The Technicolor, almost hallucinogenic dance sequences are extraordinary, but they are always rooted in the harsh reality of romance by Powell and Pressburger’s superb and unsentimental screenplay.

27.  DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) (BY FRANK PIERSON, BASED ON A LIFE MAGAZINE ARTICLE, “THE BOYS IN THE BANK”  BY P. F. KLUGE)

I include Dog Day Afternoon as probably the best example of a screenplay that is a “BOATS” – “based on a true story.” Two gay men (played by Al Pacino and John Cazale) rob a bank so they can raise the money for a sex change operation? It could only be a true story, or at least based on a true story. As the heist inevitably goes wrong, because of the pair’s amateurism, and turns into a hostage situation, the story is utterly suspenseful, as a gun can go off at literally any time. And at the end, tragically and pathetically, a gun does go off…

26.  LA STRADA (THE ROAD) (1954) BY FEDERICO FELLINI, TULLIO PINELLI AND ENNIO FLAIANO)

This is mine, and many people’s, favourite Fellini, because it is the most human Fellini, though characteristically still colourful and bizarre: the tragic love story of an embittered circus strongman and a naïve young female clown. Fellini made many other great movies (not for nothing is he, along with Ingmar Bergman, one of Woody Allen’s twin pole stars of cinema) from the cynical, jaded to the openly autobiographical Amarcord, but La Strada is simply the most moving movie he ever made.

25.  AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) (BY ALAN BALL)

It steals a narrative trick from Sunset Boulevard, but in every other respect American Beauty is a true original. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey in a performance so good that he seemed to give up trying to match it on screen and turned to theatre instead) is a man who, like so many of us, simply, slowly but completely loses his way in life, until he is so estranged from his family that he almost embarks on a near-paedophiliac affair with his teenage daughter’s friend. Tragically, even as he pulls himself back from the brink, a disastrous-but-believable chain of events leads to his demise. It is not the cascade of roses, but the dancing plastic bag that is the defining image of a script and film that celebrate the often unnoticed magic of everyday life.

24.  THE EXORCIST (1973) (BY WILLIAM PETER BLATTY, ADAPTED FROM HIS NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME)

While I’m no horror movie fan, even I will concede the genuine sense of horror that The Exorcist evokes, largely because it deals with the baddest dude of all, the devil, as he apparently takes over the body of a young girl, thus attracting the interest of the titular exorcist. The film is all the more scary because it is based on a supposed ‘real’ exorcism in America in the 1940’s. And just as the devil has all the best tunes, he also has all the best insults, none more so than, ‘Your mother sucks cocks in hell.’

23.  SIDEWAYS (2004) (BY ALEXANDER PAYNE AND JIM TAYLOR, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY REX PICKETT)

Jean Renoir famously said that directors always make the same film, and that is perhaps truest of Alexander Payne, who, his debut Election apart, always seems to make odd, off-centre road movies, featuring men ‘in search of themselves,’ as the tagline for Sideways put it. But Sideways is the best by far, and arguably the best screenplay of the 21st century so far. High praise, but justified praise, as it tells the story of two unlikely buddies – a failing writer and a successful but sell-out actor – as they tour California’s wine country before the actor supposedly settles down to marry. It is familiar territory for many stories, including many movies, but Payne specialises in making the familiar wonderfully unfamiliar. For example, there are not many American movies where you see the characters having to walk (indeed, stumble) home late at night along a highway, because they are stuck in the middle of nowhere and too drunk to drive.

22.  CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994) (BY WONG KAR-WAI)

A personal story of true-life tragedy and movie-loving triumph inspired this choice. I screwed up millennium eve, supposedly the best night of my life, and slumped down on new year’s day 2000 to weep. But then I found myself watching Wong Kar-Wai’s miraculous Chungking Express, in particular the second of the two stories it tells, in which a waitress hides herself in the apartment (and life) of the policeman she is in love with and slowly makes him fall in love with her. Suddenly, all (or at least the awful millennium eve that I had endured) was forgotten and forgiven… Chungking Express may only be half a great screenplay and movie (the first story is merely GNG – good, not great), but it was still more than enough to make me believe again in the possibilities of life, cinema and the new century ahead.

21. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949) (BY ROBERT HAMER & JOHN DIGHTON, ADAPTING THE NOVEL, ISRAEL RANK: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CRIMINAL,  BY ROY HORNIMAN)

Kind Hearts and Coronets may be the most cynical script ever written, taking us (via voiceover) into the mind of Louis Mazzini, who sets about killing off his distant aristocratic relatives so that he can (in his own mind, rightfully) claim the family fortune his mother had forfeited by marrying an Italian opera singer. It is the perfect black comedy, making us accomplices to Mazzini’s crimes, indeed making us revel in them as he does, because they seem so legitimate, given the horrendous crime of snobbery committed against his parents. And the final twist is one of the all-time greats, coming at the end of a veritable corkscrew of earlier twists…

Stay Tuned

And that’s it for now. Next week is Part II – The Top 20, and if some of the above seem contentious choices (especially the more personal ones), I am confident that the screenplays I will examine next week are unarguably extraordinary, as each one of them rewrote the art of screenwriting.