Favorite screenplays

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Heads up, people: when I get done analyzing the screenplays of Steven Spielberg’s movies (hey, I’ve only got nine more to go!) I plan to move on to general analysis of some of my favorite screenplays. Some of these screenplays are universally acknowledged as masterworks of the form, others are simply my personal favorites, screenplays that, for one reason or another, changed my understanding of what a screenplay is, or could be. There are many, many screenplays I admire that are not on this list, primarily because when I think of those movies, I think of the movie first and the screenplay second. A movie like, say, 8 1/2, I think of first as a triumph of filmmaking and secondarily as a work of screenwriting. A movie like Alien has a very strong script and is a wonderful motion picture, but didn’t open my eyes the way that its sequel did. A movie like Seven has a solid script and a phenomenally talented director who really elevated it into another realm. These movies, for me anyway, are more successes of interpretation than of writing, whereas the movies on my list below I think would have been excellent, or at least watchable, no matter who was directing them. A few of them I admire in spite of, or because of, their flaws. All of them are movies I keep coming back to in order to steal things draw inspiration.

In the order their DVDs happen to be in on my shelf:

Annie Hall
Hannah and Her Sisters
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Husbands and Wives
Deconstructing Harry
All the President’s Men
Boogie Nights
Winter Light
Le Femme Nikita
Raising Arizona
Barton Fink
The Big Lebowski
The Man Who Wasn’t There
No Country for Old Men
Die Hard
Die Hard with a Vengeance
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Fatal Attraction
The Fugitive
The Godfather
The Godfather Part II
Groundhog Day
It’s a Wonderful Life
Jacob’s Ladder
Down by Law
Mystery Train
2001: A Space Odyssey
Barry Lyndon
The Shining
Seven Samurai
The Hidden Fortress
High and Low
The Bourne Identity
Dog Day Afternoon
The Untouchables
Things Change
The Edge
The Mask of Zorro
The Matrix
Mona Lisa
Ocean’s 11
One Hour Photo
Floating Weeds
The Poseidon Adventure
Rosemary’s Baby
Run Lola Run
Taxi Driver
The King of Comedy
Cape Fear
The Silence of the Lambs
A Simple Plan
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back
The Sting
Terminator 2
The Thomas Crown Affair
Three Kings
Sunset Blvd
Some Like it Hot
The Apartment
Beauty and the Beast
The Lion King
Toy Story
Finding Nemo

And I’m sure there are more that are escaping my mind at the moment. Some of these I’ve already discussed in detail — specifically, the Coens and the Spielbergs — and I invite interested parties to seek out those entries in the index to your left. As always, I invite my readers to goad my imagination with their suggestions.


63 Responses to “Favorite screenplays”
  1. 55seddel says:

    But will you also be doing a selection of the worst screenplays ever?

  2. pirateman says:

    Interesting at the number of sequels on there.

    This might be an unfair question, but I’ll ask it anyway – do you think that it’s harder or easier to write a sequel?

    • Todd says:

      I don’t think it’s an unfair question, but I don’t think I know the answer — I’ve never had the chance to write one.

      As to why there are a number of sequels (and remakes) on my list, part of it is probably when I came of age — the age of sequels and remakes — and part of it is that sometimes a sequel genuinely surprises me and is more than I expect it to be.

    • stormwyvern says:

      I’m not any kind of a filmmaker and have certainly never had the chance to write a sequel to anything, but my observation as a movie watcher is that a good sequel kind of has to be better than the original. It’s not just because a good sequel should up the ante and show audiences something new and even more exciting or engaging or fun than the original. When you’re making a sequel to a successful film, you can reasonably assume that most of the audience has seen the original, so you don’t have to spend time establishing the setting and the characters and the concept. There’s no need to re-explain to audiences that there are aliens that kill people or that Andy’s favorite toys are Woody and Buzz, or that Darth Vader is a bad guy because they already know that. All you need to do is touch on the idea enough so that you can be sure everyone remembers. Aside from that, you’re free to dive right in to telling a new story. If the film’s creators just decide to rehash the original and sacrifice progression of story in favor of giving viewers exactly what they enjoyed from the first film (as in “Ghostbusters 2”), they’re wasting an opportunity.

      I am a little surprised that “Toy Story 2” didn’t make the list, as I think it’s one of the best sequels to anything that I’ve ever seen.

  3. marcochacon says:

    I’d be interested in what you have to say about James Cammeron.


    • Todd says:

      James Cameron understands the staging of action better than any director I know of, except perhaps Spielberg. He also has made a career out of movies — action movies! — with strong female protagonists, and that cannot be ignored. Although, in today’s marketplace, it generally is.

  4. Anonymous says:

    To your long and well-chosen list of Scorsese films, I’d add Goodfellas, which offers the best voice-over narration I can think of.

  5. I never hear people lauding the third Die Hard, which I must have watched a dozen times in my adolescence (and love), so I’ll be looking forward to that.

    • Also: I guess I should just add all of the films I haven’t seen from this list to my netflix queue right now and avoid the rush.

    • Todd says:

      Die Hard with a Vengeance has one flaw, which the director openly acknowledges, but otherwise I think it is equal to, and in many ways improves upon, the original.

      • What’s the flaw? My votes are for:

        1. Relationship with ex-wife ball completely and cavalierly dropped.
        2. Resolution of a totally New York movie takes place at a Canadian motel.
        3. Worst line of the movie: McClane determines that the robbery is a hoax because “he knows the family.”
        4. Supervillain leaves the hero tied to a bomb instead of blowing his head off.

        So which of these did the director cite? Or is there another?

        • Todd says:

          The flaw McT cites is the late-movie addition of a betrayal within the bad-guy camp, that Jeremy Irons and Sam Phillips are screwing over their own guys. He says they were going for “one twist too many,” and that it affects the whole last act of the movie. Which is true.

          The “leaving the protagonists tied to a giant bomb” was bad enough, but then having them survive the explosion because they jump in the water as the freighter next to them is vaporized pushes the narrative into science fiction. And, consequently, it doesn’t bug me when Harrison Ford survives a nuclear explosion because he’s inside a refrigerator.

          • rennameeks says:

            Thank you for commenting on the refrigerator gag. When I saw that scene in The Crystal Skull, my bullshit detector went off. The refrigerator’s lining was made of LEAD. Aside from the question of whether a lead-lined refrigerator could protect him from a nuclear blast, it bothered me that a refrigerator would be made of lead at all, since lead is, y’know, TOXIC.

            Needless to say, it did bother me and pretty much killed my suspension of disbelief for the remainder of the film. But hey, I’m nitpicky. 🙂

          • chrispiers says:

            I would have thought you’d come down hard on the dual motivations the villain has. This guy wants to steal a bunch of money, but he also wants to kill John McClane. If he hadn’t bothered to involve John, he might have done just fine with his theft.

            • Todd says:

              Ah, but he doesn’t want to kill McClane — that’s his ruse. He doesn’t care one way or the other about McClane, his whole plan is about distracting the police department into looking the other way while he robs the Federal Reserve. It’s brilliant.

  6. stormwyvern says:

    I’m really looking forward to a lot of these, especially the animated films since that happens to be the kind of film I have the greatest interest in.

    I can see some of the method to your DVD shelf arrangement. It looks like a combination of alphabetical by title and alphabetical by director’s last name, but there are a few I can’t figure out. My shelves are mostly divided into animation and live action and then alphabetical by title with a few categories separated out, such as Disney, Jim Henson, Miyazaki films, Tarantino movies, and stuff with Bill Murray in it.

    Nine more Spielbergs? Well, it’s not like they aren’t enjoyable reads too.

    • Todd says:

      You win an internet: my DVDs are shelved alphabetically by title, except when I have more than one title by a director, and the children’s DVDs are shelved separately — so the children know where to find them.

      Bambi is not yet on the children’s shelf.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Yay! My very own an internet!

        I’m guessing your kids are a bit too young to handle Bambi just yet, or has the DVD just not had the opportunity to migrate down there?

        • Todd says:

          I’m biding my time with Bambi. When the moment is just right and it is guaranteed to scar my kids’ psyches forever, I shall strike.

          • stormwyvern says:

            Now, now. Showing them Watership Down when they’re too young for it is a far more effective way to scar children’s psyches. (I swear I didn’t sleep for a week.)

            • Todd says:

              My daughter was traumatized by The Last Mimzy because the plot involves a girl whose stuffed animal gets taken away. She ain’t ready for Bambi.

            • schwa242 says:

              I was seven when I saw that. At home sick with chicken pox and my mom says, “Here’s a cartoon movie with bunnies!” Haven’t watched it since.

              But probably not as scarring as when an absent-minded babysitter let me see “The Blue Lagoon” at around the same age.

              • stormwyvern says:

                I actually made my peace with the film in college. The movie isn’t bad in and of itself. It also helped me to know what I was getting myself into when I saw “The Plague Dogs” later on for a class. (It’s probably a good thing that film is more obscure as I imagine it would have utterly destroyed me had I seen it as a child.) The box art and copy on the current DVD release seem to be steering away from advertising it as a bunny film for your kids and most of the Amazon reviews point this ou explicitly. But anyone who does try to market that movie as fun for the whole family has serious problems.

  7. chrispiers says:

    I eagerly await these analyses, especially 2001.

    There’s not much noir in there. Any chance you’ll mix in a Chinatown or something?

    • Todd says:

      I’m a big fan of noir, but for whatever reason I haven’t really connected with one on a script level, in spite of the many excellent noir scripts: Chinatown, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, etc.

      You can read some of my thoughts on 2001 here, and some thoughts on Chinatown here.

  8. craigjclark says:

    Having recently re-watched High and Low, I was happy to see the picture of Toshiro Mifune contemplating a row of women’s shoes. I know a lot of people think Ikiru is the bee’s knees, but for my money High and Low is Kurosawa’s modern-day masterpiece.

    • Todd says:

      I love Ikiru, but High and Low blew my socks off.

      • craigjclark says:

        I think some people go with Ikiru for sentimental reasons — and there is no doubt in my mind that it contains Takashi Shimura’s career best performance — but nothing in it matches the startling moment when the plume of pink smoke is seen wafting over the city in High and Low.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I love Kurosawa, and I thought High and Low was marvelously compelling stuff. But I’d be interested to see why it makes your list of great screenplays, since to me, it seemed like a patchwork of vastly different narratives strung together. Since Akira Kurosawa was directing, and Toshiro Mifune was in some of those narratives, all of them were very good, but they didn’t all seem to belong in the same movie.

    For fantastic Kurosawa crime (assuming you haven’t already seen it), I’d recommend Stray Dog, which has a gripping motivation for the protagonist, steadily escalating stakes, at least one suspense sequence worthy of Hitchcock, and a largely unseen antagonist who’s both frightening and sympathetic.

    No argument on Sanjuro, though.

    — N.A.

    • craigjclark says:

      Well, the brilliant thing about High and Low is it sets you up to think that Mifune is the lead character, but over the course of the first hour of the film (which stays almost entirely inside one room of his house) he keeps getting progressively marginalized while the detectives gain prominence in the frame. That makes for a smooth transition to the police procedural of the second half — at least to me.

      And I agree that Stray Dog is a great film.

    • Todd says:

      It is precisely those elements you speak of in High and Low that make it such a compelling screenplay to me. Just when you think it’s going to be one thing, it suddenly turns into another thing. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out stylistically, it suddenly shifts to another genre. And the links between sections are philosophical and conceptual, not narrative, so it forces you to think about story in a new way.

  10. dougo says:

    What about Antz?

  11. “I am a little surprised that “Toy Story 2” didn’t make the list, as I think it’s one of the best sequels to anything that I’ve ever seen.

    I’m surprised it’s not on the list as well. Recently I was listing all of the Pixar films I’d seen and discovered that it finished as my favorite just over The Incredibles & the original Toy Story.

    • Todd says:

      This list is not a statement of quality, only a list of screenplays that affected my understanding of the form. Toy Story was a bolt from the blue, Toy Story 2 is an excellent screenplay that holds up well against its predecessor, but did not reinvent the wheel the way the original did.

  12. mr_noy says:

    I’ve got no arguments with your list. There’s a lot of good stuff on it. I don’t know if any film by a director of international reknown which is readily available as a Criterion release can be described as a “forgotten” or “overlooked” gem but High and Low is one of my absolute favorites along with Stray Dog. Those are Kurosawa at his pulpiest, film noir best. Plus, I’m a sucker for procedural films. I knew Kurosawa primarily through his samurai films so last year I made it a goal to watch as many of his contemporary films as I could get my hands on and I was surprised to discover that I prefer them to his epic period films. I’d also put Ikiru on just about any best of list; partly for Takashi Shimura’s performance but also because of it’s unconventional screenplay. I assume you’ve seen it but preferred the cleaner narrative structure of your other choices. I’m also glad to see It’s a Wonderful Life on your list. Sure, it’s become a cloying, overly familiar piece of holiday fare but for a movie that jumps back and forth in time and between different realities its screenplay it’s constructed with Swiss-watch precision without ever feeling like an intellectual exercise.

    Personally, I would add the screenplays for Les Enfant Du Paradis by Jacques Prévert and Memories of Murder by Joon Ho Bong (and others). Also, kudos for not listing Chinatown. Yes, it’s a great movie but Robert Towne’s screenplay is always touted as though it were the best thing ever writtten.

    • Todd says:

      The year I discovered Kurosawa was one of the most exciting of my creative life. I’ve seen everything he’s got available on DVD and some that haven’t made it yet, like The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail and Sanshiro Sugata. Ikiru is everything you say and I think it’s smashing. As to why it’s not on the list, well, I could have put ten other Woody Allen screenplays on the list too, I had to draw the line somewhere.

  13. gazblow says:

    What about Tootsie? If you owned the DVD, would it make it to the list? I was thinking about it in relation to the discussion on prologues. Tootsie opens with approx. 5-7 mins of montage of Michael Dorsey: Difficult Actor followed by Michael’s surprise birthday party. This establishes the protagonist’s problem – he can’t get an acting job. As a pair of setpieces prior to the inciting incident (e.g Sandy asks Michael to help with her audition for the soap), they do relatively little to propel the action and are there to set the scene and the mood.

  14. rennameeks says:

    Gotta grin at how many of those are on my own shelves, so parts of this list look VERY familiar (even down to the order in some cases, as I stash ’em alphabetically, except for sequels, which line up after the original regardless of actual title).

    I am slightly surprised to see the omission of Rashomon from the Kurosawa section, although seeing what you DO have there, I can understand it.

    My Billy Wilder section is identical(!), with only the addition of Irma la Douce, more out of sentiment than awe of its structure.

    Always happy to see Groundhog Day! 🙂 And I agree with your take on Alien vs. Aliens…there are parts of the original that just drag instead of being suspenseful. -_-

    Good Disney and Pixar picks. There are other good ones, but for reasons other than solid story structure. Thoughts on Ratatouille?

    • Todd says:

      Rashomon, for some reason, puzzles instead of enthralls me. I can’t account for this.

      Ratatouille is wonderful, but I expect that from Pixar these days.

      • mimitabu says:

        rashomon is more of a psychology experiment than a movie. everyone who knows of it probably knows that its “become” a synonym for “different perspectives on reality”, but i don’t think it was ever anything else. vague characters, not much action, okay performances, relativism = that’s rashomon.

        of course, it’s a classic movie lauded by a million people who have made much more and better art than i have, but that’s my opinion.

        that said, as a philosophy/psychology experiment, it’s actually pretty awesome. put 5-10 people in a room, show them rashomon, they all see that it’s explicitly and almost heavyhandedly philosophical, and they all think it means something different. i do like it, but i think it’s a pretty blah movie. not sure why people rewatch it so often.

  15. I’d like to add Magnolia, Citizen Kane, Trainspotting, Zodiac, Munich, The Man Who Would Be King, and Rear Window to the list. Though I could see where they’d all fall under your “interpretation” category…but I think they’re all strong, unique and imaginative scripts to begin with.

    • Todd says:

      You get no argument from me.

    • rennameeks says:

      Amen to Rear Window, one of my favorites from the master of suspense (and might I add that one of the reasons I fell deeply in love with VB in general was the Lisa Carol Fremont bit from season 1). I was going to note earlier that there’s a severe lack of Hitchcock on that list, but chalked it up to personal taste. He put together quite a few films with unique structures, but I’m not sure if I’d lump them into the same group with Rear Window. Like Rope is certainly an interesting study, but it lacks the charm of the former.

      • Todd says:

        For some reason relating to my education, I’m just beginning to come to terms with Hitchcock’s screenplays, to really take them apart and analyze them. Analyzing The Birds really showed me something, I’m guessing there are other surprises awaiting me there.

    • chronoso says:

      when one of the main creative voices of my favorite cartoon tosses down a handful of movies like that, i cant help but feel that the in-depth analysis of each episode is 100% deserved

      • Todd says:

        I only wish my analysis was as in-depth as the scripts deserve. My recurring feeling is only that I’m missing something.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I was glad you included Down By Law and Mystery Train. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about them…

  17. teamwak says:

    I’ve read a few screenplays in my time. I thought James Camerons Aliens was amazing, but one of the best screenplays I ever read was Shakespeare in Love. I thought it was clever and witty. Respectful of The Bards original work in Romeo & Juliet, yet thoroughly modern in its take on the Entertainment industry.

    I know its not a popular film sometimes, due to winning Oscars that some feel it shouldnt have (was it Pulp Fiction it beat?), but I think its gong for Screenplay was very well deserved.

    Also, the screenplay for Adaptation is permanently on hand as a guide on How To Write lol. I love that one too!

    • Todd says:

      Shakespeare in Love did not beat Pulp FictionPulp Fiction actually won. What Shakespeare in Love beat was Saving Private Ryan. Now, I think Saving Private Ryan is the better movie, but the script of Shakespeare in Love is probably better.

  18. I’d love to read you thoughts on the efforts of Shamylan, Hitchcock, and Jodorowsky (a decade plus later, Santa Sangre continues to haunt me).

    And since you began as a playwright, your take on plays and/or musicals (adapted for the screen or not) would be fascinating.

  19. chrispiers says:

    Do you have any plans to publish your film analyses?

  20. Anonymous says:


    Todd, I’m actually surprised of how little of your list would make it into mine, screenplay-wise. We had this discussion before but I happen to disagree with you about Unforgiven. Not that the script isn’t great. On the contrary. But for many reasons (in my mind anyway) I think that no one else than Eastwood would’ve made this masterpiece. Anyway, I’m very curious as to what will you have to say about this film in depth.
    Oh, and I also disagree about Se7en. Fincher is a genius, granted, but Mr. Walker’s script is probably the best I’ve ever read. EVERYTHING that made the movie so great is in it. Well, probably except for the constant rain …