I recently wrote a post listing creative writing books that I thought writers would do well to get their mitts on, and another one on a list of recent novels that sketch out where the leading edge of contemporary fiction is to be found.
Those lists have a highly provisional quality of course. Ask me the same question on a different day and I’d certainly adjust my answer. But now, to complete the trilogy – and to complete it in the same highly provisional way – here is a list of Essential Screenplays. The list does lean on certain other lists (eg: the Writers’ Guild of America’s list of 101 screenplays) but is nevertheless my own selection, not any one else’s.
Oh, and this is a list of screenplays, not films. If you are a budding screenwriter, then don’t for a moment think that you can just watch the film and learn screenwriting from it. You can’t! You must read the screenplay itself. Watch the film too if you will, but the screenplay is the thing. Read it. Learn the rhythms. Start to see films as scripts unfolding. I’ve noted a few places where you can get scripts online below, but the web is a rich resource. You can find most things if you poke around. Oh, and if you’re serious about becoming a screenwriter then you absolutely have to take one of our screenwriting courses and/or get our professional feedback on your draft screenplay.
So, my list for today is:
1. Some Like It Hot
Just a wonderful and deft blend of comedy and drama that you do care about. Given that there are two romances which matter, plus the little matter of whether our two ‘ladies’ are going to get executed by the Mob, there’s a lot of plot to deal with and it’s done with wonderful grace and wit. A wonderful film. (Read the script.)
Is this really as good as everyone says it is? Casablanca appears here because it tops most lists most of the time. But read the darn thing as a script and it feels nicely done, very clean, very satisfying – but little more than a piece of excellent craft. For me, the film is in the acting. The script itself plays little more than a supporting role. (Read the script.)
I’m not, however, similarly negative about Psycho, which fully deserves its reputation as a landmark in film-making – and scriptwriting. To kill the heroine midway is a terrifically bold and (still) shocking decision, yet one that does not derail the film. If you tried the same manoeuvre in a novel, you’d kill the novel. But here it works, and works wonderfully. (Read the script.)
Another familiar favourite from these Top 20 type lists, but Towne’s Chinatown is magnificently deft, packing a ceaselessly interesting plot and yet combining two stories of real human weight (a corruption tale, and an incest one.) Even decades after its making, the film packs real emotional clout. Oh, and though Chinatown is often held up as a perfect example of the three-act drama, I do question that. Isn’t it, in fact, a film that brings plot twists steadily and unexpectedly throughout the film? I mean, yes, the start sets things up a bit and the end resolves them, but the ‘three act structure’ is normally taken to be more than just that. But read the script and see what you think. (Read the script.)
6. The Godfather
A film whose power comes from the emotional force of seeing a decent man corrupted by his family and his circumstances. The gangstery stuff is all great, but the central story is that emotional destruction – and one which is handled so unflinchingly. The script also details the Italian-American mafia life in such rich texture that the feel of the film go well beyond simply its (stunning) visuals. (Read the script.)
7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
I just love the sunshine in this film: the wit, the friendship, the lightness of touch. It’s a film willing to linger in places where the plot isn’t being driven forward – a risky ploy in movie-making but one that, in this instance, goes to create a film that is far greater than a mere bank-heist Western. Oh – and the young Paul Newman? He looks kind of like me, no? I get told that all the time anyway … (Read the script.)
8. Bringing Up Baby
Rom-coms tend to come out of these lists (and the Oscars) rather poorly, as though gentle films about love can’t compete with bruising ones about violence. Well, hey ho, I like rom-coms and this one is a jewel. The mismatched lovers falling in love despite their apparent unsuitability have never been better handled than in this one. Yes, the acting is spot on, but forget about that. The script itself has a wonderfully light and attractive touch, and one that’s quite happy to get ever crazier as the long night draws on. And that final dinosaur scene? Lovely. (Read the script.)
9. American Beauty
A deeply impressive film at every level – but one which starts with an astonishing script. Each character is beautifully formed. They all have a convincing personality, even before the actor comes to fill it. That’s far too rare in movie scripts, but American Beauty shows how well it can be done. Plus, on top of that, the drama is wonderful, the twists are unexpected – and that paper bag in the wind scene is just amazingly bold and contemplative and beautiful for what is still very mainstream Hollywood. (Read the script.)
10. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind
And finally for my top ten, this jewel. Not sci-fi really, more a philosophical exploration of identity and love. It’s a fantastic demonstration of thought-provoking cinema that delivers fully on the entertainment front as well. Contrast this film with one of those depressing X-Men Transformers vs Batman Gozilla movies: this one entertains you as much and doesn’t just pour highly coloured sludge into your brain in doing so. (Read the script.)
And to complete the top thirty, hats off also to these, the next 20.
When Harry Met Sally
To Kill a Mocking Bird
The Usual Suspects
Shakespeare in Love
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Life of Brian
12 Angry Men
The French Connection
The Manchurian Candidate