Since 2000, the Script Pipeline staff has chosen some of the most influential movies in history to analyze, critique, and praise for their achievements in every element of filmmaking--from the directing, to the cinematography, to the innovation of the screenplay itself. Below lists some of our most recent favorites, with more to be added every month.
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The African Queen (1952)
Adapted by the film critic James Agee and the director John Huston from the novel by C.S. Forester, the story at its core is spoof, disguised for commercial purposes as wild adventure. Keeping this fantastical plot above caricature was the writers' great trick. Katherine Hepburn, as a prissy missionary, and Humphrey Bogart as a salty sea captain, play on the boat as if it were a see-saw; their stage the theater of opposites. The script is deliberately wordy as Bogart whittles down and Hepburn talks it up- a great comedic romance.
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen's original screenplay is seminal in that it is neither character driven or plot-based, but anecdotal-based. He uses split screens, subtitles, animation, and direct exchanges with the camera to convey his simplistic thematic premise- relationships fail and we're quite not sure why. The comedic sequences are original and much imitated, but after the vignettes and gags have faded, a sad love story remains- the timeless tale of the protagonist too in love with himself to be loved.
Barton Fink (1991)
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen. A period piece, set in the early 1940's. Black comedy? Satire? Of what? Hollywood? The writer's angst? The story details a humorless, passionate writer, who after a hit play on Broadway, makes a commitment to creating, "a living theater of, about, and for the Common Man." He goes to Hollywood with the intention of "making a difference." When he arrives in Hollywood, he is given an opportunity to make a difference with a B wrestling picture. This is the setup into a writer's dark descent into hell.
An adapted screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. It's known as the great nostalgic film largely because the lines are so quotable. When the Police question Rick about his motives, he informs them, "I came to Casablanca for the waters. "… "Waters? We're in the desert."… "I was misinformed." The pitch- a cynical loser who makes the mistake of falling in love- there may not be a more romantic protagonist that appeals to both men and women.
An original screenplay about water rights? Robert Towne's detective thriller would be a difficult sell in today's marketplace. Often called the last of the studio pictures in its collaboration- Evans, Polanski, and Towne, toiled over a difficult, uncompromising work which could have only come out of the seventies. The script is filled with double entendres and plot repetitions, every clue comes back to repeat itself in a tightly wound plot. Even the title comes back to repeat itself- the last scene an epic capper. The story was a new interpretation on the noir genre- adhering to the genre breed of existential loner- but creating a new breed of private eye. Towne's Jake Gittes, in a slick white suit and snappy shades, christened a new kind of private eye and a new kind of city, Los Angeles.
Citizen Kane (1941)
An original screenplay, written by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Story is a fictitious bio-pic of meglomaniac magnate Charles Foster Kane. Kane was based on the newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. At the time, it was considered career suicide to take on Hearst- today it would be like writing the Rupert Murdoch story for Rupert Murdoch's Fox. Louis B. Mayer, a friend of Hearst, offered to buy the movie print for $842,000 so he could destroy it. Due to negative publicity, the film was ultimately, a box office failure. Structurally, the Rosebud device has been mimicked to no end. Note the liberal fragmented narration.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Written by Woody Allen, is a dramatic comedy filled with moral ambiguities. The film interweaves two stories- one serious, one comedic. The former centers on a successful ophthalmologist whose afraid his lover will reveal their affair to his wife. Fearing that he could lose his marriage, his medical practice, and ultimately his social status for which he has worked so hard, he puts out a hit on his lover. In the comedic story, a down on his luck documentary filmmaker becomes enamored with the television producer of a tribute he has been hired to produce by the brother-in-law that he loathes. The filmmaker and the ophthalmologist don't meet until the final scene in a chilling conversation of ethics and morality.
A dialogue piece, written and directed by Barry Levinson, set in Baltimore over Christmas in 1959. The script romanticizes late night male bonding- staying up late, talking, debating, eating, ne'er a girl in sight. Despite the comfort and allegiance to the diner, it is women- the lack of understanding thereof, that leaves the guys befuddled and betwixt. Their earnest misogynistic misunderstandings are wonderfully exaggerated in Eddie's insistence that his wife pass a football trivia test before he will agree to marry her- the topper is that her father is the one making sure the test is graded fairly.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Based on the novel, "Red Alert" by Peter George, adapted by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and George. Wicked satire on nuclear war and military paranoia. Story begins on a frenzied pace as Strategic Air Command has accidentally ordered a nuclear attack- the plans cannot be recalled. It's a character-driven message movie, but the comedy and astute observations are so seamlessly wedded that the tone achieves a more cautionary gloom than any anti-nuclear documentary.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Based on the novel by James M. Cain, written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, script is full of calculated suspense. Can Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck kill a man for insurance money and get away with it? In a character twist, the most sympathetic character is ultimately the insurance investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who studiously investigates the suspects. Genre is classic pessimistic noir. Dialogue is witty- sexual tension restrained due to the Production Code of the day. Still a ripe storyline often remade and re-interpreted today.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
A pure children's story, possibly Spielberg's best script, written by Melissa Mathison. The story has the simplicity of a classic myth- a young boy, fatherless and lost because his parents have separated, finds a miraculous friend in an alien who has an inadvertently been left on earth by a visiting spaceship. From this compact logline, a great yarn is spun. Mathison has a great ear for children's dialogue- (the protagonist little boy is named "Eliot" begins with "e" ends with "t"). She lightens the sci-fi themes with slapstick and humor, which adds to the children's enlightenment and wonderment with the strange creature. She pulls off the great trick of making this most unlikely of friendships feel plausible.
Field of Dreams (1990)
Perhaps it speaks more to a generation than anything else--a generation growing up, not when the W.P. Kinsella book "Shoeless Joe" was written, but when the film version was finally produced and released: at the end of the Cold War and a time when Americans were looking for a little escapism. Phil Alden Robinson's screenplay isn't exactly devoid of melodrama ("Is there a heaven?", "Oh, yeah. . . . It's the place where dreams come true." Yeah, sure it is, buddy). But in terms of story structure, character development, and, frankly, everything else, Field of Dreams became an instant classic, its echoes of "realistic fantasy" still reverberating today, a testament to the skills of a largely underrated screenwriter/director.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Written by David Mamet from his Tony-award winning Broadway play. The story chronicles seven salesmen selling fraudulent real estate titles- Mamet skillfully juggles character arcs, as our sympathy goes out to the sleazeballs. The majority of the action takes place in the makeshift office and the Chinese restaurant across the street. Seamless adaptation from stage to screen, the story feels appropriately claustrophobic.
The Godfather Part II
Francis Ford Coppola's sequel based on the novel by Mario Puzo enlarges the scope and deepens the meaning of the original THE GODFATHER. The narrative is so encompassing that the viewer is conscious of two films at once. By deftly using the audience's emotional investment in the original, he is able to use a cerebral flashback structure that spans almost seventy years. The epiphanies reverberate- well over two hundred script pages; amazingly the script ultimately leaves the audience wanting more.
The Graduate (1967)
The first slacker film, written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (Henry plays the hotel clerk), crosses genres of comedy, melodrama, and soap opera. Benjamin Braddock is the rebel romantic representing all upper-middle class graduate students resenting all upper-middle parents. The story flails along as a romantic comedy love triangle, deftly juggling Benjamin's seduction of Mrs. Robinson and his courtship of her daughter. The boudoir scenes are particularly sharp. The script pokes fun at Benjamin's communication problem- he has nothing to communicate- which is just what makes him absurdly heroic.
Grand Canyon (1991)
Before there was Crash, there was Lawrence Kasdan's overlooked character study Grand Canyon, which is as much about race relations and the randomness of an urban society as it is a commentary on early 1990s Los Angeles, a year before the 1992 riots. Cheating husbands, lonely rich wives, gangs, racism. . . all the ingredients of what should be a preachy drama. But for the most part, Kasdan pulls it off, sans the soap box. The result: an Oscar nod. Sure, we could have probably done without (dream sequence alert!) Kevin Kline flying over Hollywood, but there's something quietly moving about this story, its cast, and the portrait of a city in turmoil. Crash is, ultimately, the better film in its writing and composition, but this noble forefather is worth the credit its due.
Harold and Maude (1971)
An original screenplay by Colin Higgins. This satirical romantic comedy was originally a twenty minute graduate thesis for UCLA student Higgins, who showed it to his landlord, the wife of a film producer, who passed it on to her husband. . . one of those stories. Classic Hollywood tale. And the film not only got made, but it became a cult classic. The script pairs a 20 year-old kid obsessed with suicide and an 80 year-old bon vivant obsessed with life. Of course (who wouldn't see it coming?), romance ensues. A novel and fresh perspective on the meaning of life through an unlikely relationship.
The Ice Storm (1997)
Adapted by James Schamus, based on the novel by Rick Moody, set in early 1970's, is one of the few period films capturing an era without pandering or satirizing. Schamus keeps the characters' motives at bay, which is part of the film's disturbing power. The script holds a particular empathy for women; Joan Allen's character conveys the sad dignity of a woman who can no longer ignore her husband's infidelity; her daughter, played by Christina Ricci, is a feisty malcontent in the age of new sexual mores. Funny, sad, poignant, and very American.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Based on the story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, adapted by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling. Familiar story of a guy with big dreams trapped in a small town. When a greedy old banker threatens to drive him into financial ruin, he contemplates suicide. A moralistic life-affirming fable, albeit overly-sentimental. Beneath the schmaltz is true heartbreak. The script is still worth a serious look for its morally determined tone and impeccable structure.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Adapted by Robert Hamer and John Digton based on the novel ISRAEL RANK by Roy Horniman, a black comedy about a young Englishman who is ninth in line to inherit the position of Duke. He sets out to eliminate the eight relatives. Alec Guinness plays all eight characters. Told with brimming wit and caustic class satire. Today, it would be developed as high-concept- a vehicle for a comic actor such as Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, or Robin Williams.
The Last Detail (1973)
Another screenplay that could have only come out of the seventies. The adapted screenplay from a novel by Darryl Poniscan, is conceived by Robert Towne as a three character beer-swilling chamber piece- a study of dishonor and male camaraderie in the military. Two navy veterans are assigned to bring a hapless young court-martialed recruit to prison. The dialogue is so natural (and profane), that the structure appears almost invisible- Towne drops the anchor in the opening scenes- this sweet dumb kid must go to prison. The audience must carry the impending sense of glumness, as the weekend fun must come to an end and the veterans will inevitably have to carry out their job.
Last Tango in Paris (1973)
Written in French by Bernardo Bertolucci and Franco Arcalli, based on a story by Mr. Bertolucci, is an intense love story. The plot is love, the dialogue is love, the motives are love, but no love is gained and no love is really lost. The story details an American man whose wife has committed suicide. He moves in with a young Parisian girl under the pretext that she tell him absolutely nothing about her, not even her name. He seeks only unadulterated passionate sex.
A film praised by critics and. . . well, audiences were split, if memory recalls. The initial reaction seemed to fall somewhere between horrible stack of confusing trash and a 20th century masterpiece, a fitting end to the first 100 years of filmmaking in the 1900s. We agree with the latter. Arguably PT Anderson's finest work in terms of screenwriting and directing. To be able to interweave so many characters while maintaining a gripping and lucid storyline (and giving us some solid themes to leave with) is its own miraculous feat. Add a beautifully edited and shot film, a multi-talented cast, and a gracefully-composed score, and you have a film that transcends generations. Magnolia is the perfect example of all things creative seemingly falling into place--and what can happen when a screenwriter strays from the norm to take one hell of a chance on storytelling for the mass audience.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Adapted by John Huston based on the novel by Dashiel Hammett, the novel was originally made ten years earlier, and remade in Huston's directorial debut. The story is in the pacing- quick-witted and always one step ahead of the audience. Tightly structured, a benchmark in private eye mysteries- the private eye, the mysterious dame, and the complex plot to gain possession of the fabled maltese falcon statuette.
Ring Lardner Jr.'s script showcases over-lapping dialogue at its giddiest. The comedy derives from the absurdity of war and the war-mongers that revel in it. The story has a broad canvas, but it's anchored by its two deadpan heroes- quick-witted cheerily cynical surgeons who are too good at their jobs to be kicked out despite their antics. They're untouchable- debonair clowns saving lives. At times the over-lapping banter seems like a throwaway, but it works atmospherically, capturing the madness of war.
Whit Stillman's screenplay is a low-key comedy manners amongst upper-east side New York socialites. Stillman's script is closer to the affluent romanticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald than any actual Fitzgerald script. The dialogue is urbanely dry- a talky, high-literate movie- the heroine references Jane Austen, and she plays out like a Jane Austen doomed romantic. Stillman is fond of the turned phrase- UHB'S (the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie), a character hurls the accusation- "You're a Fourierist?". What makes the high-falutent, pseudo-intellectual talk so endearing is that the characters are just kids, albeit rich kids, but all feeling the burden of being UHB'S.
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory based on a serious of discussions Shawn had taped and then transcribed into a script. Shawn and Gregory play not themselves exactly, but questioning, lost representative souls. Most of the action takes place over dinner- two hours of talk about Andre's worldly travels and Wally's sighs and nods, ultimately shifting to Wally's domestic problems. The contrast of Andre's open-soul searching and Wally's self-awareness makes the talk invigorating. What makes this unconventional script a film, and not a play, is the way the writers have written their emotional responses, via "beats", to take advantage of the film closeup.
Paddy Chayesfsky's satire on television and a ratings hungry news industry. The protagonist Howard Beale, a veteran newsman, is fired when his ratings slip. The story hangs on the hook of a suicide threat: Beale announces he will kill himself on national television and the ratings shoot through the roof. Chayesfsky's script rises above high-concept; the premise only a launching point for diatribe and soliloquy. The movie doesn't match the script--Beale's potential as a protean Christ figure (the television audience his congregation) is minimized to a ranting man sticking his head out of the window.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Written by James Agee, based on the novel by Davis Grubb. Set in the South in the 1930's, setting is Southern gothic mixed with Mark Twain innocence. The story is a creepy tale of religious fervor- the lines of morality blatantly tattooed on the knuckles of the psychopathic preacher (played by Robert Mitchum)- "LOVE" and "HATE". The suspense builds as the preacher hones in on two sweet-natured children. Full of humor, the suspense is often good fun when enhanced by the preacher's outlandish machinations- he emerges as one of those evil black hats you want to root for.
North by Northwest (1959)
An original screenplay by Ernest Lehman, a fast-paced yarn on the espionage thriller. Lehman wisely doesn't take the thriller genre too seriously, choosing not to cram the viewer with vague clues, allowing a frenetic pace filled with sophisticated charm and romance. The story involves a Madison Avenue executive who is mistaken for a Federal intelligence man by foreign agents and kidnapped before being caught in a web of bizarre, absurd, frightful, and humorous predicaments. The story climaxes on Mount Rushmore.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
Maybe it's the grainy infancy of its production, or the magic of its directing, or perhaps it's simply a Max Shreck thing (come on, the name alone screams disturbed old guy), but this early 1920s masterpiece, directed by the equally masterful F.W. Murnau, stands as one of the creepiest movies ever made. Nosferatu proves you don't need gory special effects, or even dialogue, to produce a genuinely unnerving film. Okay, so it might not have been necessarily by choice: pretty sure a fog machine or realistic-looking body parts weren't around 90 years ago. However, what we can learn from great horrors has little to do with unexpected flashes of monsters, or crescendos of music as a character opens a closet door, but with the basics of understated imagery. Until "pop out scary" (see: any Wes Craven flick) became the super-cool norm, the pioneers of filmmaking unwittingly had created the best, most timeless breed of terror from the start.
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Written by Lawrence Heuben and Bo Goldman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey and the play by Dale Wasserman. Excellent choices in the adaptation: opting to shift the novel's "pov" from the Chief's narration to the film first person "pov" of McMurphy. The writers chose to change the Nurse Ratched character from an obese monster to a slimmer, more sexually ambiguous antagonist, electing to draw out McMurphy's sexual frustrations. McMurphy has more flaws than most heroic protagonists- drinking, whoring, statutory rape, but his character garners more sympathy as the system of the State bears down on him. The writers also do an admirable job of giving the rest of the supporting cast its due. Ultimately, a hybrid character-driven/ensemble piece.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
An original screenplay by Randolph Wurlitzer. The story is about an old sheriff and his quest to gun down the outlaw Billy the Kid. The script conveys the raw individual battles of the old west, but it also highlights a seldom seen comedy of manners. Like a George Bernard Shaw cocktail party, the West has its own code of etiquette- the brothel scene where James Coburn gingerly walks downstairs after a satiating romp gives the audience a comedic view into the downtime of gunslinger- Wurlitzer has a great touch in portraying the day to day affairs of the wild west. Look for Bob Dylan as a mute sidekick.
The Player (1992)
Adapted by Michael Tolkin from his eponymous novel, the script is part suspense/satire, as a young studio exec becomes the chief suspect in a murder investigation. The story has as much to say about the sordid dealings of the film industry as it does about a man's crime and punishment guilt. Tolkin pulls a major coup in making this callous exec not only sympathetic, but almost heroic. He cleverly plays into the audience's innate desire for the criminal to get away with the crime. And the cast, an assemblage of which will never be seen again, only adds to the unique tone of the screenplay.
Raging Bull (1980)
Adapted by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin based on a book by Jake La Motta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, one of the few bio-pics that doesn't get bogged down in the truth. Exceedingly violent and poetic, the writers choose wisely not to explain La Motta in psychiatric or social terms. The story is told through flashbacks, covering a wide span of years from La Motta's first title fight to his fading career as a nightclub entertainer. Writers chose wisely to stay away from non-fiction conceits- not exactly a fight movie nor a film biography- closer to unsentimental fiction.
Rear Window (1954)
Written by John Michael Hayes, based on the short story, "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich, this is a movie really about one thing: curiosity. The story of a crippled man who witnesses a murder immediately entwines the audience, as the screenwriters have put us and the hero in the same boat: they've both witnessed the crime, now it's a race to find out the killer. The script incredibly never pulls away from the audience, keeping the murderer at bay until the unsuspecting neighbor is identified. Remarkable in its taut containment--for the most part, the story commits to just two locations, the adjacent apartment buildings. The action, however, does not feel contained. The audience wants more of the peep show, as the protagonist becomes more engrossed in his guilty voyeuristic pleasure masked as civic duty. Oh, and then there's that issue with the brilliant directing. . . Hitchcock at some of his finest.
Written by Krzystof Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz in French with English subtitles, is a story of coincidences, missed opportunities, and ultimately fate. Story is shaped around a forlorn model who runs over the dog of a grumpy former judge. The model is maligned in an ugly possessive relationship, the judge deeply involved in eavesdropping on the phone conversations of a law student and his lover. Though not a love story, the script is about love- its power and redemption. The old judge has loved and lost, the young model will love and lose, and eventually love again.
An original screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, (it won the Academy Award over Taxi Driver for Best Picture, denying Scorcese yet another Oscar). It purportedly took Sly only three weeks to write the screenplay, whether true or not, the fable of a dumb Philly palooka who gets his big chance to fight the champ is a classic underdog tale. The script is structured with Greek myth like simplicity (note the name Apollo Creed).
Short Cuts (1994)
Based on nine short stories and one poem (entitled "Lemonade") by Raymond Carver, adapted by Frank Barhydt and Robert Altman into a wide mosaic of Los Angeles. Barhydt broke the frames of the stories, allowing the characters to enter into each other's stories. Reverberating themes of alcoholism, infidelity, death, sexual exploitation and denial, these inter-woven stories never seem contrived, but rather complimentary, often colliding in unexpected confrontations. Dryly comical, the writers found irony by digging deep. The irony is earned.
An original screenplay by the novelist Paul Auster based on a Christmas story he wrote for the New York Times. The screenplay is more literary than cinematic- the story feels as if you were viewing a tapestry of chapters from a novel. It lacks any narrative artifice- the characters' wounds from the past surface to propel the story. Auster uses the smoke shop setting to remind us of all that is good in the mundane and idle- the talk fades away, but it will be there again tomorrow. Of special note- Harvey Keitel's ten minute Christmas story is a beautifully blend of voice over and the visual.
A food farce (specifically a noodle shop farce) written and directed by Juzo Itami. A sweetly earnest romance develops between a widow struggling to get her bequeathed noodle shop off the ground and a solemn old-western hero truck driver. The truck driver is part mentor, muse, and love interest. Eating and sex commingle, and the adventure begins. The first epicurean slapstick adventure romance. In the spoofy vein of NAKED GUN and AIRPLANE.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Paul Schrader's original screenplay of the alienated outsider. The story is a haunting portrait of a man's attempt to find his place in the world. The antagonist is the setting- New York city- the dirt and grime and smut validates the character's resentment. Plot comes out of character. Travis Bickle's introspection reaches such a boiling point that only a plot denouement of gunfire can the complete the character arc. The tone crosses genres- morphing from a love story of chagrin to a political assassination without a lapse in pace. Schrader's lonely psychopath has spawned dozens of imitators, but never has a man's raw helplessness been so visceral.
The Third Man (1949)
Written by Graham Greene, story has elements of melodrama, suspense, romance, ultimately a ghost story. Story concerns a manhunt in Vienna- audience never really sure if the man actually exists. Script is appropriately obscure and fleeting- but not too much so. What is most impressive is the flow of the script- story doesn't slow down for clues or romantic subplot. Rather, momentum builds as the nuances take shape.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
Adapted by Jean-Claude Carriere and Phillip Kaufman based on the novel by Milan Kundera, the story is an erotic and historical romp through Czechoslovakia at the time of the Russian invasion. The protagonist, the story's lightness of being, is a doctor who flits from woman to woman with reckless abandon. He meets a young waitress who falls deeply in love with him. Her undying faith ultimately weighs him down. An erotic epic love triangle.
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