Top Ten Debut Screenplays of The 21st Century

By Travis Maiuro · March 31, 2017

How important are first impressions when it comes to your first produced script?

It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the script nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar – and also win said Oscar – like some of the scripts on this list. Of course, not everyone has the fortune to reach such heights with their debut, but some still manage leave a mark. (Of course, a strong debut doesn’t necessarily mean similar success will follow. And on the flip side, there are plenty of talented writers working today – respectable names among them – who’d prefer that their debut work be ignored.) 

A debut script that can book the writer another job would be the ideal goal – many of the scripts here have helped snag some fairly high profile writing gigs. A script that captures the cultural zeitgeist doesn’t hurt either, and many of these scripts did exactly that. So, without further delay, here’s a look at ten of the most engaging debut screenplays of the new millennium, all of which announced a new voice on the scene, ready to make waves. 

10. (500) Days of Summer (2009) by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

We could talk about the structure, but to be honest, the structure isn’t really all that unconventional. Sure, scenes are out of order, but the emotional structure still follows your basic rom-com rules. What really should be talked about when discussing Scott Neustatdter’s and Michael H. Weber’s debut script, is how the film was able to trick so many people into liking a relatively unlikable protagonist.  

Many of the scripts on this list have been partially recognized for the impact they had on the culture, and (500) Days is no exception. But what’s amazing is how beloved this movie became because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s protagonist. Many people fell in love with him, idealized him. Felt like, oh this guy gets my struggle, he speaks for me. (Granted, much credit goes to Gordon-Levitt’s charm for that.) But the character is incredibly selfish — and when you realize it, it changes the entire movie for you. But the fact that the script is able to make some people question his selfishness — and perhaps not even initially recognize it — is impressive. A key test is to see how the movie plays if you go in thinking Zooey Deschanel’s character is the one you should be rooting for — it still works (as it should). At the end of the day, the movie’s success is due to its somewhat fresh take on the romcom: bringing in a little cynicism.

9. Brick (2005) by Rian Johnson 

More so than his film Looper, I’d argue it was his debut script Brick that scored Rian Johnson the chance to take over the helm of the Star Wars saga. Sure, Looper proved Johnson had a handle on sophisticated sci-fi, but it was this script that really showcased his wit and cleverness as a writer. If anything, perhaps the script’s heavy stylization hampers it a bit — it’s almost too clever. But, at the same time, the stylization is also one of its strengths. 

The script still manages to be original, despite the hodgepodge of influences coursing through its veins — from Dashiell Hammett to David Lynch. Setting it in high school is, of course, what makes the script so inventive. But what’s key is that Johnson never makes it a gimmick — he plays it straight throughout, and you’re either on board, or you’re not. It’s a chance he’s willing to take. It’s a mystery movie, which can be complicated — so how does the script handle something that’s so easy to ruin? With grace. The story’s foundation is strong and the mystery is an actual mystery. The script hooks you in and doesn’t let go.

8. Fruitvale Station (2013) by Ryan Coogler

Ryan Coogler is currently busy making big budget superhero movies for Marvel at the moment, fresh off making probably the best Rocky movie since, well… Rocky. And it all started with an independent film called Fruitvale Station

The timeliness of Coogler’s script is hard to overstate. With the news seemingly reporting on police killings of unarmed black men every day, Coogler’s film could understandably be hard to watch because of it’s realism. But the excellence of Coogler’s script creates something that you can’t help but be glued to. It’s the intimacy of it. Not just the day-in-the-life structure, following Michael B. Jordan’s Oscar Grant, but also the incredible emotion of the script. You feel so connected to the characters by the end of it all, part of the family — and that makes the ending all that more heartbreaking and powerful.

It’s a testament to the script’s power that something so small — and perhaps controversial, depending on who you talk to — was able to catapult Coogler to such great heights. 

7. 28 Days Later… (2002) by Alex Garland

Quite possibly the film that brought about the zombie wave of the 2000’s. Maybe that’s up for debate, but what isn’t up for debate is the fact that this film completely changed the way we think about zombies. Suddenly, zombies seemed real. Visceral. And super-fast. No more moaning and stupefied shuffling around. 

Ironically, Alex Garland’s script was so influential on subsequent horror and sci-fi movies, that what made the story seem so breakthrough at the time now seems old hat — because so many movies took cues from this one. Post-apocalyptic worlds, pseudo-realistic killer viruses… this script brought it all to the forefront and still probably accomplishes it better than anything that came after it.

6. The Babadook (2014) by Jennifer Kent 

This is a hell of a script. It’s also one of the top 3 horror movies of the past ten years in my book. The genius of Jennifer Kent’s script lies in its reverence for the horror genre. Kent is fully aware of the primal opportunities horror provides and the script knows there are much more unsettling things than jump scares and gimmicks. It ventures deeper, to a Poe-level place of storytelling. 

What could have easily been another creepy-child-possessed movie is actually a complex exploration of grief and loss. It examines the grappling of loss from the perspective of child and mother. The dark cloud of grief and guilt manifests itself into the shape of The Babadook monster. And while the monster Babadook is pretty damn scary on its own, it is the script’s portrayal of the ways grief and loss haunt us that really drives the terror.

Kent also tackles the struggle and terror of being a parent, a single one at that — particularly during difficult times. Admittedly, as a non-parent, I can’t speak as much to this aspect of the film but the overwhelming critical response was that Kent’s script latched onto some parents’ darkest fears. Despite its incredibly strong critical reception, the film wasn’t as widely seen in theatres as it should have been. (Hopefully its time spent streaming on Netflix has helped spread the word.) But fan of the movie or not, one has to respect a story that William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist himself, called the most terrifying film he’d ever seen. 

5. Juno (2007) by Diablo Cody

Juno undoubtedly captured the zeitgeist when it was released. And rightfully so — it’s a truly great, solid piece of work. The dialogue really captured that zeitgeist, imprinting itself on many a conversation until saying things like “cheese to my macaroni” and “homeskillet” became kind of stale. Part of me actually feels like the dialogue ages the film a bit because of its cultural impact– it just feels so 2007. But hey, the movie was nominated for four Oscars with a Best Screenplay win for first-time writer Diablo Cody, so who cares about coming off dated.

Whether the dialogue ages the script or not, Juno MacGuff’s predicament is timeless. As quirky and offbeat as the overall tone may be, the core of the script is heavy, real drama. Seeing Juno gradually “getting pregnanter” and growing more “convex” (snippets from some great lines — which makes me realize the dialogue isn’t as detrimental as I thought; in fact it’s pretty clever) while stuck among her high school peers is powerful. 

Cody also provides a much-needed female perspective on high school life. And, as a dude, I won’t pretend like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to that perspective — I’d like to think I’m smart enough not to do that nor any kind of mansplaining of this script. But I do know when something is needed, and Cody’s voice welcomingly filled a void.

4. Elf (2003) by David Berenbaum

How can one ignore what is undoubtedly now a modern Holiday classic? Especially when it comes from a first-time writer? David Berenbaum’s premise is absurd but also kind of ingenious and makes for a script in which even the most humbuggy of Humbugs would find some delight. It’s not your typical take on the Christmas movie, nor is it your average coming-of-age story, but it’s a worthy addition to both genres. 

Imagine your debut script growing into something so big that it spawns a Broadway musical (and countless subsequent high school productions of said musical). Granted, much of the film’s success if thanks to Will Ferrell — it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role (sorry, stage-version Buddy’s). But without Berenbaum’s script, Ferrell, obviously, would have had nothing to work from. What makes Ferrell so perfect for the story is that the script taps into what he’s best at — over-exuberant manchild forced to interact with mature adults. But the script dives further than that, exploring the heart and innocence of the manchild in ways that a normal person can relate, while avoiding being too saccharine (except for perhaps the ending).

Somehow, what should simply be a Ferrell SNL skit manages to become a well-constructed feature film. Not an easy task, and why it finds itself on this list. Sure, it may not be as powerful as some of the other scripts on the list, and its cheesiness may prevent it from being taught in screenwriting classes. But there’s no denying it’s an overall smart and witty screenplay. And hey, its success speaks for itself.

3. Superbad (2007) by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg

If this movie’s greatness could be summed up by one scene, it would be the one toward the end of the movie. Our main characters of Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are snuggled on the floor together, booping each other on the tip of the nose with affection, after a wild night in which their friendship was almost destroyed by their own doing. Bromance at its most bromantic. And yes, you could totally argue that this scene and this movie spawned one too many bromance/high school sex comedies during the late 2000’s. But don’t all great movies inspire copycats? 

One could debate this film’s inclusion on this list as Seth Rogen did some writing on TV’s “Undeclared” and both Rogen and Evan Goldberg contributed to “Da Ali G Show” before Superbad, so it’s not as if these two came out of nowhere. In fact, Rogen had been under the tutelage of Judd Apatow for a while at that point, starting with “Freaks and Geeks” in 1999. But this was a script with a first draft that was written when the real life besties Rogen and Goldberg were thirteen years old. So, safe to say that this very much a debut script.

The script is Rogen and Goldberg at their best: bawdiness anchored with authentic sincerity. And that’s what the copycat raunchcoms lack. They miss the point that Superbad gets: it’s not about the sex gags or how many boobs you can throw in for horny teenage dudes. It’s about the fear of growing up, the fear of the unknown and what’s next. It’s about navigating that fear while still trying to get the girl, while still trying to hang on to the comforts of youth. 

2. Bridesmaids (2011) by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo

A script with a pooping-in-a-wedding-dress-in-public joke got nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Just think about that for a second. Kristen Wiig was six years into her SNL tenure and arguably the main draw of the show when her debut script Bridesmaids was released in May of 2011. (If anything, the release of the movie only made her an even bigger draw until she departed the cast in 2012.) But despite that, this was still a movie with no big-name stars that was able to gross over $169 million at the box office — just domestically. It also garnered a second Oscar nom for Melissa McCarthy’s beautifully belligerent breakthrough.

With Judd Apatow in the producer’s chair, the posters advertised it as coming from the mind behind Superbad, Knocked Up, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But this one was different. Wiig collaborated on the script with Annie Mumolo, providing a refreshingly distinct female voice to the raunchy rom-com genre. It featured a protagonist that Wiig and Mumolo weren’t afraid to present as unlikable at times. It was cleverly not about the bride – nor about the wedding – but about the bridesmaids and female friendship. Hell, the script even went deep enough to touch on the financial crisis. 

All of this is to say that this first-time script for Mumolo and Wiig is just incredibly smart. And its success is an example of that — not just a fluke. That box office haul was mainly attributed to strong word of mouth. (Sure, strong critical reception helped, too, but that’s not as powerful as a water cooler recommendation.) And why would audiences spread the word, encouraging others to go see it? They fell in love with the story. And that’s a kudo to Wiig and Mumolo. 

1. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) by Michael Arndt 

One could argue this movie is second only to The Royal Tenenbaums when it comes to films about dysfunctional families. Michael Arndt’s debut script was quirky and dark but it was also heartfelt while deftly avoiding any kind of sappiness.   

A combination of a road trip movie and underdog tale, but not your run-of-the-mill of either, the script is a masterclass in character development. Each member of this dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in their own way. They’re all running from their own demons. They all have clearly defined wants. And wisely, nobody actually gets what they want. However, they do indeed get what they need. (Cue Mick Jagger.) The family becomes a family by the end — flawed and discombobulated, sure, but still a family.

In all, the film was nominated for four Oscars with two wins — one nom for Abigail Breslin (10 years old at the time), one nom for Best Picture, and the wins: Alan Arkin for Supporting Actor and Arndt for his screenplay. The script helped Arndt book his next job, which was a doozy: Toy Story 3 (for which, incidentally, he received another Oscar nom). The fact that the Little Miss Sunshine script was able to catch the eye of Pixar before the film was even made (it took a few years to get the ball rolling) and released and garnered all the success that it did, says a lot. Pixar prides itself on telling stories in which character is key. As touched on above, in Little Miss Sunshine, character is everything.