Even if you’re not an aspiring screenwriter and have general interest in extremely good screenplays, these are the basic films whose narrative construction, character development, solid yet mind-blowing plotlines, etc., make for terrific readings and life-changing experiences.
Any good screenwriter should keep in mind the work already done by masters of this craft throughout film history, taking notes of outstanding accomplishments in such works, underlining twists and turns and everything that makes these films so groundbreaking.
This list does exactly that with 15 mostly modern classics that have paved way for today’s market and what we can learn from them, while understanding in what particular aspects they mattered most and its relevance to film culture.
Links to the scripts are listed below each film commentary as an incentive to anyone who wishes to read the words behind some intriguingly brilliant films. Please note that these films are not ranked in any particular order, they are equally essential for those who want to learn something about great screenwriting.
1. Groundhog Day (wri. Danny Rubin & Harold Ramis)
Storyline: “A weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over again.” – IMDb
This genius comedy owes a lot to its clever screenplay. The character development makes them instantly memorable, and its groundbreaking structure paved way for films about people reliving days. It does much more than that. The intriguing part of the story, its concept alone, covers for an even more interesting conclusion and moral.
The one liners, visual gags, smart puns and body humor are brought to life with a great cast, but they don’t make it a pure comedy – they give it the charm and wittiness so inherent to Ramis’ films and underline greater issues. As Phil lives February 2nd again and again, restarting every day at 6am, he has to find a way to break the cycle.
It becomes as exhausting to the audience as it’s, apparently, to the character, but that’s where the film leaves room for constant surprises – because it’s the same day so many times, the outcome is a world of possibilities, what the character chooses to do and how he works through it is distinct almost without trying. Besides, this film is proof that a laugh-provoking comedy can be intelligent and appeal to a broader audience.
Here’s the script for Groundhog Day:
2. Casablanca (wri. Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch)
Storyline: “Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.” – IMDb
This love story is, without doubt, one of the most popular ever made. The screenplay was adapted from an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes To Rick’s”, and the writers just kept going with the original story, not really knowing where to end it.
The writers had the characters very well defined, so they mostly worked the plot around them. We see their viewpoints and their conflicts, how they choose to deal with them and their own memories, in a most brilliant manner that asks them to confront each other in the same place – Casablanca.
There are endless lessons to withdraw from what the characters say, the dialogue is fundamental and the sense of loss, of not knowing where to go, works as something that keeps the film fresh (the last line of the film was added three weeks after shooting ended). The fact that these flawed characters make us so attached to them, is on its own a spectacle. And even though “Play it again, Sam” is not a real quote from this film, you can read the actual script and learn just how good it is without that line.
Here’s the script for Casablanca:
3. Citizen Kane (wri. Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles)
Storyline: “Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.” – IMDb
Welle’s classic masterpiece follows the life of wealthy publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane. Known for its innovations in photography, editing and sound, its narrative techniques take over this perfect debut. The collaboration with Herman J. Mankiewicz and an uncredited John Houseman cause great controversy even before it premiered, for appearing to caricaturize people and actual events from the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
This first-time director and heavy drinker was, by that time, adored by the radio and stage, having been authorized by RKO Radio Pictures to make any picture he wished. The writing of the script evolved into what became an extremely complex structure that continuously gains depth, not caring about normal progression of time or ever allowing the audience to expect anything. Nevertheless, it is emotional and powerful and always notorious, with a script that is peculiar right until the end.
Here’s the script for Citizen Kane:
4. Annie Hall (wri. Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman)
Storyline: “Neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer falls in love with the ditsy Annie Hall.” – IMDb
The tone is established with Woody Allen’s neurotic, Jewish, intellectual main character, a stand-up comic and writer who contains wit and cultural references enough to get the attention of goofy Annie Hall. Originally, there was a murder mystery subplot, but that would mark the beginning of a completely different career (although he did other work before, it wasn’t as flashy).
What would seem like a reasonably simple story about dating and philosophy in the 70’s turned into a whirlwind of insecurities brought up by people constantly talking. This became so important in films to follow – how someone could just spend an entire film babbling and exasperating. A lot of other Woody Allen films involved similar onscreen girlfriends, who grew tired of him in different ways.
The perfection of his speeches are undeniable, brilliantly accomplished in one take and always aiming towards a joke or a revelation. It’s the basic and ultimate proof that lack of action doesn’t mean lack of story or apparent development.
Here’s the script for Annie Hall:
5. Pulp Fiction (wri. Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary)
Storyline: “The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.” – IMDb
This one may seem as obvious as it gets for modern screenwriters, but it is in fact very often disregarded by more experienced writers, as it defies established methods and doesn’t really follow the rules to make a “good screenplay.” What it counts here is not just the writing, but what is brought to life and how successfully it is done based on a very intense script.
The rythmic dialogue cues, the satirical comedy involving blood, guns, drugs, cars, it’s all constructed in a nonlinear way very similar to “Citizen Kane”, alternating between characters and stories and worlds that are all somehow connected. As usual in Tarantino films, a character doesn’t speak because there’s something happening around him or her: they speak for the sake of words, of storytelling, of debate.
Conversations seem so normal yet are always so exciting and rapid, one doesn’t even notice they’re just as part as the picture as the real action. It’s fun and iconic and there’s a lot to learn from its writing.
Here’s the script for Pulp Fiction:
6. The Godfather Parts I and II (wri. Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola)
Storyline: (part I) “The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.”
(part II) “The early life and career of Vito Corleone in 1920s New York is portrayed while his son, Michael, expands and tightens his grip on his crime syndicate stretching from Lake Tahoe, Nevada to pre-revolution 1958 Cuba.” – IMDb
Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel turned into the onscreen paradigm of a particular ethnic group of first-generation and second-generation Italian-Americans. In both films, Francis Ford Coppola’s depiction of family is a gem, playing with sentimental and brutal aspects of life mixed together with drug crime and revenge.
It teaches us the unpredictability of a character that is in one second being sweet to his wife and, in the next, shooting someone’s head off over nothing. Both are very compelling narratives (the third is anything but worth mentioning), and Brando, DeNiro and Pacino did terrific work portraying these characters and making them eternal.
Both films essentially show how the Mafia code and lifestyle becomes a part of them, specifically Michael. It’s havoc in crime organization and family, that one sacred and above-everything-in-life purpose that slowly becomes clouded by betrayal and stained by secrets. It exceeds every notion of entertainment and screen-hooked. Certainly two of the only pictures I dare prefer to the original book, much thanks to such a shockingly good adaptation.
Here’s the script for The Godfather:
Here’s the script for The Godfather Part II:
7. Taxi Driver (wri. Paul Schrader)
Storyline: “A mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran works as a night-time taxi driver in New York City where the perceived decadence and sleaze feeds his urge for violent action, attempting to save a preadolescent prostitute in the process.” – IMDb
Even though Scorsese gets a lot of credit for the groundbreaking experience that is “Taxi Driver”, screenwriter Paul Schrader turned this story about Travis into a complete character study, from his internal monologues to the meaning of his actions, with ambiguous morality that can’t quite define whether he’s good or evil or just messed up.
There’s the background presence of his past in the military, his violent outbursts and his even more violent plans for the future. There are layers to this character that don’t make it less subjective, but always more dense. This is a character so troubled he can’t sleep, so he drives a cab at night, which allows him to watch and criticize street culture and its obsession with sex and drugs.
It’s ironic, too, most of the times, and the angst he shows is almost nonsensical to the audience watching. This is even harder to do when he nearly doesn’t talk to anyone but himself – and how hard it is for a screenplay to work when there’s so much brutality going on around a character and it doesn’t talk much. It’s a film about injustice and overall hell on the streets, and one of the many masterpieces Paul Schrader created while collaborating with Scorsese.
Here’s the script for Taxi Driver: