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January 13, 2022

The 20 Best Original Screenplays of All Time

When we all start on the writing journey, we're told to read and learn from the greats. The problem is that so many movies have been made, and while some might be blockbusters, their screenplays aren't what makes them so good. So, where to begin? To help you, we've pulled together 20 of the best original screenplays of all time. The below films are listed in no particular order.

The 20 best original screenplays of all time:

Inside Out

If you're out to learn from the best, there's nothing better than the great minds at Pixar. Inside Out has a near-perfect screenplay in terms of structure. Time and time again, I rewatch this film to learn more about its structure and how its themes intimately relate to characterization. It doesn't matter if you're writing a horror movie or a kid's TV show, Inside Out has something to teach everyone about writing characters.

Shaun of the Dead

Edgar Wright's scripts are like Swiss watches. They're intricately made and refined to the nth degree. There are jokes layered so deep in the script that it takes multiple reads to find them. If you're writing a comedy, the lessons this script can teach are like nothing else.

Get Out

Even if you're one of the few who dislikes Get Out, it is undeniable in its ability to weave allegory into the story. Get Out teaches screenwriters how to incorporate a thematic argument into the script's genre, having a conversation with an audience on both the story and meta-level.

Django Unchained

Writing a historical story is a vexing problem for screenwriters. What duty do we have to the truth? How much of history should we look over in the interest of a good story? Should we even attempt to be truthful at all? Tarantino is a modern master of the screenplay form, and for my money, Django Unchained is one of his best.

12 Years a Slave

A neat counterpoint or enlightened double bill with Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave takes a parallel tract to Tarantino and stares history dead in the face, regardless of how ugly it was. The script asks us to consider the roots of our good fortune in modernity and wonder how much we've truly changed since the story's events.

Whiplash

And now into the modern character study nested in a thriller. Few films have captured obsession's feverish joy and despair like Chazelle's Whiplash. Whiplash has the makings of a Shakespearean drama where the protagonist, antagonist, theme, and dramatic action all coalesce into one of the most stunning finales ever put to screen.

In Bruges

From one master to another, Martin McDonagh is the master of voice, one which he has honed for decades in the theater and film. On the surface, the swearing and callousness of his characters might suggest a juvenile spirit. Still, each of his scripts (including In Bruges) reaches fundamental questions about the darkness inherent to being human and how we can reconcile it with living at all.

Before Sunset

The polar opposite to In Bruges, Before Sunset is one of the sweetest romantic movies ever made. No other movie quite captures the experience of falling in love like this. This is essential viewing for every screenwriter writing a romance or a romantic film.

Mad Max: Fury Road

It's debatable if Mad Max: Fury Road even had a screenplay at all!

George Miller used a massive amount of storyboards to create one of the greatest action movies of the 21st Century (so far). This movie teaches us that being verbose does not mean being intelligent and that the power of a carefully constructed image can provide a rush like no amount of words can.

Inception

Love him or hate him, Nolan is one of the most influential filmmakers of the 21st Century, and his mind-bending concepts have shaped an entire generation of screenwriters. Carefully melding a high-concept sci-fi idea with a heist movie, Inception demonstrates how a big action movie can still be ruthlessly clever and trust the audience to follow along.

Ex Machina

Alex Garland's script for Ex Machina is an underrated masterpiece. This script teaches the intrepid writer how to get the most out of a single powerful idea. It's almost more of a stage play than a screenplay; its limited location and characters allow for an intimate and disturbing look into what it means to be human.

Lady Bird

Speaking of modern masters, Greta Gerwig is a master of the craft. Few stories have gotten to the core of a mother/daughter relationship quite like Lady Bird. Gerwig gives the audience a lens to better understand their relationships with their parents through robust characterization and a distinctive voice.

Parasite

Want to craft a twist? Well, consult Parasite. Like Get Out, Parasite is a masterful manipulation of an audience's expectations of the genre they're watching that has one of the most stunning midpoint twists I can remember. To spoil it is to do a disservice to a new viewer, but any thriller writer needs to read this screenplay pronto.

The Social Network

It was only a matter of time until Aaron Sorkin showed up. Sorkin is known for his lengthy scripts with a musical sense of dialogue that let us into a character's head like no other. Unfortunately, these aren't wisecracks for the sake of wisecracks. With each quip and remark, the audience gets a deeper understanding of who these people are, and the story's themes suddenly come into sharp focus.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

No list like this can be complete without Charlie Kaufman making an appearance. Kaufman's scripts are deeply neurotic and idiosyncratic, but his unique voice gives us an equally unique perspective into fundamental questions on being human. Unfortunately, memory has never looked the same since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Arrival

While Ex Machina is sci-fi on a small scale, Arrival scales things up to the level of the human race and our perceptions of reality itself. Screenwriters deal in the business of language, so a script with language as one of its main points of concern is essential reading, not only for its relevant insights into how language functions but also for how playing with cinematic language can result in profound story moments.

There Will Be Blood

P.T. Anderson is yet another master of the form. In particular, There Will Be Blood cuts to the core of an entire nation's psychosis and reveals the demons underneath. Shakespearean in its construction of a moral tale, There Will Be Blood wields unforgettable characters in the pursuit of drawing an audience into a gritty world where violence and commerce are two sides of the same coin.

City of God

While plenty of Scorsese pictures are great examples of writing a crime epic, they rarely feel quite as human as City of God that suggests an element of real tragedy in the life of crime. Anyone writing a crime drama needs to read this script ASAP.

Hell or High Water

Taylor Sheridan has made a niche for himself in exploring the psychology and philosophy of masculinity and the cowboy spirit in the modern era. If that sounds like sickeningly "bro cinema," believe me when I say that Sheridan has a remarkably subtle touch that shouldn't be disregarded so easily. Gender studies have rarely appealed so broadly.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Movies can be loud and boisterous, but sometimes the quiet stories are those that get to the heart of things. For example, the Coen Brothers' screenplay for Inside Llewyn Davis shows how quiet contemplation and the power of music can say a lot more than a pre-prepared speech. In a medium where "saying" things are encouraged, scripts like Inside Llewyn Davis warn the writer that profundity exists in the silences.

Summing up

If you read all of these screenplays, you will be well on your way to building up your knowledge base. If you're new and unsure how screenplays are formatted, these scripts will be doubly important.

However, I don't feel like this is where the journey ends. There's a nearly endless amount of screenplays out there waiting to be discovered, and every single one has a lesson to teach.

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The 20 Best Original Screenplays of All Time
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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David Wain

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