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By Preston Garrett · June 9, 2010
Beginning screenwriters learn by example; in fact, it's really one of the best ways to master the art of screenwriting. The problem is, there are so many iconic and cult classic films that end up sending the novice down a road to ruin before they ever learn to write a simple plot. The following list should not be considered a list of bad films – far from it. But it is a list of films that break rules with such skill and acumen, it's best to steer clear before you get any bright ideas that you're ready to do the same.
15. Troll 2 (1990)
Alright, so this is the only one on the list that's technically a "bad" film (kind of arbitrarily put on here to piss off Leroy James King, per Preston.) That said, this movie is totally enjoyable, albeit super kitschy and poorly executed. It's not like one of Tarantino or Rodriguez's Grindhouse films that are trying to be terrible. So watch out film school nerds – enjoy this at your own risk.
14. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
You know the old adage "Voice over is a tool of the lazy." MDB uses VO to frame mood and genre, but even this movie at times feels like Eastwood might have been like, "Oh shit! We've got Morgan Freeman – let's add VO just because he has the voice of God." Prove that you can describe by showing, before you fall into the lazy trap of VO.
13. Buffalo '66 (1998)
Vincent Gallo's trippy, weird, sometimes sexually awkward film about a confused dude on a road trip with his platinum blonde hitchhiker sidekick (Christina Ricci). For the record, Preston thinks Gallo is an incredibly pompous dude (definitely the most polite way to put it), but this film is really original, especially when it comes to its crazy camera techniques (the family dinner scene in particular). This film also has a number of crazy scenes scored with classic Yes songs; definitely the best parts of the film. Film schoolers are always trying to rip off these kinds of musical homages all the time – careful! This technique is rarely used correctly.
12. Apocalypse Now (1979)
One of the most troubled productions of all time, this film somehow ended up being one of the seminal films of the 1970s, closing out the decade with a napalm laden bang. It does do something that we consistently advise against – we don't meet the antagonist (Brando's ominous Colonel Kurtz) until the last half hour of the film. It works really well for this film, but it's one of those things that's really specific to this story. Not something easily (or effectively) emulated.
11. Fight Club (1999)
Really and truly one of the best book adaptations of all time. Jim Uhls (screenwriter) is about 95% completely loyal to Chuck Palahniuk's novel… and actually makes it understandable. One huge thing though – it's one of the few movies that's ever had 2 different guys portraying the same character (Brad Pitt and Edward Norton). According to fanboy land, Pitt and Norton were both in the running for Oscar nods, but the Academy didn't know how to handle it because of the "same character" conundrum.
10. Crash (2004)
Mastering the art of telling a single through-line plot with sub-plot is hard enough. Haggis does an exceptional job weaving several stories through with a common theme… but he's already a master. When you're penning your first epic, bogging down the story with a seemingly unrelated ensemble can put you in a black hole.
9. Goodfellas (1990)
One day in film school you'll get the itch to write a mobster flick. The problem is, more than likely everything you know about the mob you learned from Scorsese, Coppola, or Tony Soprano. When they say, "Write what you know," they weren't fooling. Unless you grew in north Jersey, are heir to a sanitation empire, or have Nicholas Pileggi on your speed dial, steer clear. A particular aspect of this film that film schoolers need to know – there's no real "plot" to this movie until the final act. Scorsese simply knows how to make a hell of a movie and keep you from caring about the plot. This can't really be said for any other filmmaker.
8. Being John Malkovich (1999)
This is one of those cases where all the perfect stars aligned in total serendipity. Spike Jonze's first feature had virtually no studio intervention, never really being overseen by an Executive Producer – in short, this never happens. "Luckily," Universal was in total disarray while this film was being made, so Jonze had total free reign from pre- to post. If things had been different, it's hard to imagine that this film would have turned out anywhere close to the same.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Kind of the second cousin to Malkovich. This film is beautiful, taking place mostly in the subconscious of Jim Carrey's Joel. But it's all over the place, bouncing between reality and the mind, with both forwards and backwards chronology. Michel Gondry makes it work without ever disorienting his audience, but if you look at the script you'll see that this film is a beast.
6. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The power of misdirection is a very subtle art. To piece together the fabric of a suspenseful story with the answer hiding in plain sight for all to see is a skill that will take years to master.
5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Tarantino is an impresario of dialogue. Truth is, when most people try to write dialogue like him they fail… miserably. Don't think you're the exception – at least not yet. This is also another case of the dangers of non-chronology – it's what makes this film work, but it's a device that can rarely be leaned on with much success.
4. The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone's insane love letter to the Doors (alright, it's really straight to Jim Morrison.) Yes, reviews on this film are mixed, but it's such a beautiful visual story. The danger: this film drifts in and out of sense based on Jim's waxing and waning of alcoholism and hallucinogenic drug use. What really makes the film work is Kilmer's performance – without it, it's tough to think that this film would have made any sense at all.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Some films are great simply because of their place in history. Kubrick creates a lush, detailed, realistic sci-fi psychological thriller, before we'd even stepped foot on the moon. You can't get that moment back, don't try. The main thing with this film – there's practically no dialogue. Kubrick definitely knew what the hell he was doing when it came to creating visuals that would keep an audience engaged for 2 and a half hours.
2. Blue Velvet (1986)
David Lynch's (likely) most critically acclaimed film. It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, but whatever. He's a guy who creates such nuanced characters that his films can stand on themselves without a coherent plot – most of the time. Lynch is one of the only guys that can do this, and as Leroy has said in his blog, film schoolers constantly attempt to cheaply rip him off. Unless you want to get an "F" on your thesis film, opt for some more accessible fare.
1. Memento (2000)
A film's structure is what keeps the viewer in their seat, and what ultimately leaves them happy (or pissed off). Ironically, Christopher Nolan's classic follows a standard eight sequence plot – just in a very unorthodox way. It's best to master telling a story in order before you throw it in the blender.