The most influential scripts ever put on film in my humble opinion. These are films where everything worked out perfectly in the right place with great acting, directing, editing and everything else. Yet all of these films have some of the most influential dialogue and narrative structures ever put on celluloid. It was hard to narrow down the best scripts and some casualties that just missed the top ten will probably upset many readers. It killed me that Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich is not on here, a true American original masterpiece, and I know many will scoff when they see Casablanca is not on my list.
Here are the 10 best and most influential screenplays of all time:
10. Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
Quentin Tarantino has such a way with words in all of his pictures but this was the script that made him known to the world as an auteur to be reckoned with. It was not the first film to tell a story out of order but it was the first film to take characters that were criminals, drug dealers and hit men and make them talk like normal people. Gregarious, normal people with interesting things to say about pop culture, relationships and philosophy. It was no doubt the most influential screenplay from the 1990’s. Even though it is not my personal favorite Tarantino film, this is the one where his influence and style were established and where Tarantino knock off’s, some good (Out of Sight) and some bad (Snatch) drew their inspiration. Watch the scene below which, I felt should have garnered Samuel L. Jackson a best supporting actor Oscar. It is a simple scene with a hit man talking to a robber but because of the great script it becomes so much deeper. Even with less talented actors this script was gold and won Tarantino his first best original screenplay Academy Award.
9. Some Like it Hot by Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan
Often considered the funniest movie of all time and undeniably one of the greatest comedies ever made, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot gave Marilyn Monroe the best acting role of her career and great performances from the legendary Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. It turned the chase movie upside down and inside out and played with gender roles comically and intellectually more than any other movie. Its influence can be felt in any “wrong man”, or in this case “wrong man disguised as a woman”, plot where characters are on the run from the authorities and the antagonists. Few movie screenplays were successful at being simultaneously intelligent and humorous and as carefree this film. If you have not seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch this and laugh for two hours. Its ending remains a classic moment in cinema, just watch the clip below and you’ll get the idea.
8. Annie Hall by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Woody Allen and his sometimes collaborator Marshall Brickman would create with Annie Hall the quintessential romantic comedy. Every romantic film since 1977 has copied from this script in one form or another. It covers the awkwardness of when they meet, share their first date, first kiss, grow on each other and influence their personalities, finally dealing with the break up and being friends after the fact. It deals with love, sex, friendships, meeting the partners family, reflecting on their exes, trying to see other people, and all with Woody’s signature dialogue and directorial style. It has just about everything from each stage of a romance and does it so masterfully with great dialogue and outstanding performances especially from Diane Keaton who won Best Actress for her performance as the title character. In an earlier editorial I previously had the clip where Woody brings Marshall McLuhan onto the screen and breaks the fourth wall in one of the films most iconic scenes. There are so many great moments to choose from that capture the brilliance of this screenplay here is one showing the cultural differences between a Jewish and gentile family. It’s relatable, hilarious and notice Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother Dwayne.
7. The Godfather by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Based on the novel by Mario Puzo, this is obviously one of the most iconic motion pictures in history with career best performances from many talented actors and expert direction from Francis Ford Coppola. This movie is so iconic because everything about it is masterfully done to perfection with great acting, directing, cinematography and music, the brilliance of the screenplay is sometimes lost in the discussion. They would team up two years later to create the equally impressive sequel but the influence of The Godfather starts with the original magnum opus. This film changed family dramas, social dramas and crime dramas and all of a sudden showed criminals in a new light. They showed them as normal people, in fact good people that sometimes killed in order to remain successful in their illegal business operations. I named Michael Corleone as one of the greatest movie villains of all time and people were upset that I even considered him a villain in the first place. I loved how the women would turn a blind eye to their men’s actions when it benefitted them and preserved their lifestyles. So many memorable lines of dialogue that have become part of normal conversations in the United States come from The Godfather it was hard to pick a single scene to illustrate the dynamic script so here is an early scene, the first time we see a close up of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone on the day of his daughter’s wedding.
6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz
A silent film from the German Expressionist movement is the sixth most influential screenplay of all time. If you have seen this 1920 horror classic you will understand exactly why. If you have not seen Robert Weine’s highly influential The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all serious film lovers should make the time to track it down and watch this picture. Besides the screenplay it also has some of the most influential set designs of all time. Without this film movies with distinctive production designs like Blade Runner, Batman, Dark City and The Matrix would not have been as visually stunning as they were. Even music videos like Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl” and Madonna’s “Bed Time Stories” have taken from it. But I digress, back to the script. In my opinion all movies that have any type of ambiguous ending where it is open for interpretation and up to the viewer to decide what they think really happened, owe their ending to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. End of story right there, it changed world cinema and opened up all new possibilities to make motion pictures a true art form and not just capturing images to tell a story in a narrative form. Some of the greatest movies of all time from Blade Runner to Inception owe a great deal to old Dr. Caligari. Click on the link below to watch the entire film, its short and more importantly unforgettable.
5. Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Shinobu Hashimoto
All courtroom dramas owe a lot to the screenplay for Rashomon. In fact, pretty much all motion pictures that deal with showing the audience various points of view can attribute some of their success to Rashomon. It is a title that has become synonymous with a type of storytelling known as the Rashomon effect where people hear different sides to the same story and then have to determine on their own, like a jury in a courtroom would, what really happened. Beyond just the groundbreaking screenplay, this Japanese drama features some of the most iconic cinematography and performances from Japanese legends director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune. It questions what we see, how we see it and what is a fact and what is fiction and by doing so helped improve cinema as an art form. Attached below legendary director Robert Altman explains why he feels Rashomon is one of the greatest and most influential motion pictures ever made.
4. Citizen Kane by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles
Once again Citizen Kane appears on a list as one of the greatest movies of all time. Well, it is, we just all have to deal with it. It is the definition of cinematic perfection and one of the main reasons is because it started with a fantastic script by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. The screenplay would be the only Academy Award this film would receive and the only one in Orson Welles’ prolific career other than an honorary Oscar in 1971. The script was controversial not only for its non-linear narrative structure that confused audiences seeing the main character die in the opening scene, but also its content dealing with Charles Foster Kane being so blatantly based on the life and career of newspaper magnate William Randolph Heart. The production was as tumultuous as they come and is now the stuff of legend itself. The film is a masterpiece in every way, the script is flawless and it will remain for years to come an influential milestone in motion picture history. Watch a great making of documentary below to learn how close the world came to never seeing this script make it to the screen.
3. All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
All About Eve written for the screen and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz would win a total of 6 Oscars including best picture of the year in 1950 and it deserved all of them, especially the one for best screenplay. This is without a doubt a triumphant film due to its script. Film historians, critics and scholars constantly name All About Eve as a landmark and great lesson in screenplay writing. Any film since that deals with the themes of stardom in show business, aging, jealousy, fame, fortune and loss all probably have to give credit to All About Eve. It features great performances from the entire cast especially Bette Davis as Margo the aging movie star about to be replaced by Anne Baxter as Eve, the up and coming next hot star for the big movie studios. This film really captures the competitive nature of women better than any other script ever written. It is touching, sad, funny, poignant and “a bumpy ride”, but a glorious ride from start to finish. All About Eve has remained a landmark in screenplay history. Click below to watch one of the best scenes.
2. Chinatown by Robert Towne
“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”, those iconic words by Robert Towne which earned him the best screenplay Oscar in 1974 will echo in your mind long after the end credits roll from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. A masterpiece of directing, acting, editing, costume and set design and most importantly screenwriting. I have thrown the word brilliant around a lot on this list and not even that word accurately describes how important and vital this script has been to cinema. One of the aspects of making this list that I tried to think about was to judge if a script would have been as successful with a lesser director or different actors. That would be an exercise in futility because we may never know what a film would or could have been since it is always a collaborative effort and one wrong ingredient could turn the perfectly brewed dish into something putrid. Chinatown is a success for many reasons but none more notable than its screenplay. Like All About Eve this is one script that scholars across the world turn to when asked what is the greatest screenplay ever written. Brilliantly executed to the most miniscule detail with lines about salt water and an imperfection in a woman’s eye, nothing is a throwaway. Every word in this script simultaneously develops its characters and carries the plot along the way to is devastating conclusion in Chinatown, which according to producer Robert Evans, both Polanski and Towne had to fight Paramount to keep the darker ending as originally conceived. Below is one of the most memorable scenes from the film.
1. Network by Paddy Chayefsky
Two years after Faye Dunaway starred in Chinatown she would win a best actress Academy Award for her role in Network in 1976. The reason she along with Beatrice Straight and the late Peter Finch would also win Oscars that year was because of Paddy Chayefsky’s unparalleled screenplay. Network, which was directed by master filmmaker Sidney Lumet is the best written film of all time. To me there is no substitute and I loved that when Aaron Sorkin won a much-deserved best screenplay Oscar for The Social Network he pointed out how special it was to be in the same company as Chayefsky. The film is a classic because of Lumet’s direction, however he has directed many classic films going all the way back to 12 Angry Men, yet none of his films have the prophetic impact with timeless dialogue as Network. It predicted reality TV and the decay of television programs in favor of improved ratings. It took the ratings war to dangerous places and now almost forty years later it is sad and scary to see that many of the ideas Chayefsky wrote in his script have come true. Television and our entire society have become hungry for instant gratification and obey a new national religion of image culture. What we see and when we can see it is all that matters. Content is a distant second to seeing the train wreck happen before our eyes. Most people do not really know or care what the politician is saying in his speech but the second he flubs a word or falls down some steps we all know his name and want to see him fall down those steps again and again. The screenplay for Network can best be described as a revelation. It is eerie how much of it has come true in the past fifteen years or so and even scarier when you think what could be the next step in pop culture if a ratings war goes too far. There are so many great moments and great lines one scene cannot do this script justice but the link below will allow you to watch Peter Finch scream as mad-dog anchorman Howard Beale in the films most iconic scene.