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15 Essential Films Every Aspiring Screenwriter Must Watch

16 September 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Alexandra Gandra

8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (wri. Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Storyline: “A couple undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour, but it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.” – IMDb

Another much needed choice is, of course, one of the many films written by Charlie Kaufman. And here’s a film often compared to one big labyrinth, where the plot is constantly being torn apart and put back together, ignoring a chronological order. The concept is so strong to begin with, everything else has to constantly keep up with it.

The main characters are literally losing their minds, living through memories or dreams or friction of imagination, a constant deja vu, which the audience has to go through as well. There are a lot of contradictory emotions, and Gondry is great when dealing with them and directing them, especially when it comes to romance and companionship written by Kaufman.

The subtleties present in the script often become clues to understanding what is going on, as what happens when Joel stutters on the word “remember.” It’s got all the trademarks of a Kaufman script, including the most important one: a socially awkward protagonist and the complexities of the mind.

Here’s the script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:


9. The Big Lebowski (wri. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)

the big lebowski

Storyline: “”Dude” Lebowski, mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski, seeks restitution for his ruined rug and enlists his bowling buddies to help get it.” – IMDb

The “Dude” was, as it is widely known, inspired by a real man named Jeff Dowd, a freelance publicist whose contribution mattered in the launching of the Coen brothers’ film debut “Blood Simple” (1984).

The plot is really as simple as the storyline says, and its details are not the film’s most interesting features. There’s an interesting quote that sums up “Dude”, which is: “He went to Woodstock and never left.” It’s about his lifestyle, his friends, how he lives his life under a bathrobe smoking pot, and his days spent in a bowling alley, when suddenly something different happens.

It’s great fun, with enough one-liners for this century, unforgettable comic characters and situations, making it one of the overall best written cult comedies ever and a must-see for anyone who enjoys smart, witty dialogues and filmmaking. And probably no one else could’ve written this plot and its lines but the Coen brothers.

Here’s the script for The Big Lebowki:,-The.html


10. Forrest Gump (wri. Eric Roth & Winston Groom)

Forrest Gump (1994)

Storyline: “Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.” – IMDb

With an IQ of 75, Forrest Gump is a decent and honest man, living according to his mother’s values, and who manages to become involved in every great event in American history between the 1950s and the 1980s. There’s a heartwarming innocence attached to him, but this is not what the film’s about.

It’s mostly that he sees the world for what it is, subconsciously judging the cynicism of modern societies, their need to complicate love and relationships in general. He’s forever connected to his beliefs, to reality and hard work and loyalty above everything. His love story seems insane, but he doesn’t give up on it and, meanwhile and eventually, he finds happiness.

It is so wonderfully constructed and so comically and emotionally well-put and driven, it’s impossible not to think of how anyone could’ve created this character and his entire life story. One other major thing is that every relationship portrayed matters and is ultimately emotional, either it’s his mother, his best friend, his lover or his captain. It just catches you off guard.

Here’s the script for Forrest Gump:


11. Lawrence of Arabia (wri. Robert Bolt & T.E. Lawrence)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Storyline: “A flamboyant and controversial British military figure and his conflicted loyalties during his World War I service in the Middle East.” – IMDb

Even though it contains both elements of biography and adventure, it is a film whose desert set is the main stage for a quirky character to grow. That said, it’s known that Lawrence – here listed as co-writer – was fundamental in enlisting desert tribes on the British side against the Turks between 1914-1917, but it appears to have had a more personal meaning to him than just the patriotic side of it.

The audience watches this man as he starts relating to a different and wilder society. There are not many plot details, but it’s always excellent when a film can be so dense for as long as 216 minutes without feeling like it’s wasting time. Lines are uncluttered, it is well-thought, clean and mostly frank, and its writing allows it to exist without doubt, making us believe the story as it is and never really leaving us.

Here’s the script for Lawrence of Arabia:


12. All About Eve (wri. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

All about Eve

Storyline: “An ingenue insinuates herself in to the company of an established but aging stage actress and her circle of theater friends.” – IMDb

First off, Mankiewicz came from a family of writers; his brother wrote the aforementioned “Citizen Kane.” He won Academy Awards and others for writing and directing films particularly between the 1940s and the 1950s. Usually, he’d combine ironic, sophisticated scripts with a precise mise en scène – at the beginning, there’s a narration by a writer, a manipulative bemused theater critic, much like in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Through a character, Mankiewicz represented his relationship and opinion of show business, while also mentioning the fear of losing power and fame throughout the years. Based on the short story and radio play “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr, this denigration of theatrical characters is beyond cinematic masterpieces and, surely, a lot of it is thanks to an intelligent script and true, relatable and believable characters.

Here’s the script for All About Eve:


13. Some Like It Hot (wri. Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond)


Storyline: “When two musicians witness a mob hit, they flee the state in an all female band disguised as women, but further complications set in.” – IMDb

Wilder brought us this comedy about sex and expected us to believe it was about crime. There’s obviously the illustrious performances of Marilyn and Tony Curtis, where one-liners are fed and insanely traded back and forth. The inherent cynicism takes over these characters’ lives, who actually think they want anything else but each other.

As a comedy, it’s a complete screwball, it certainly touches matters that one would not dare much write about in 1959. It’s well considered one of the best remakes – if not the best – in movie history: from finding the 1951 German comedy called “Fanfares of Love” (which had already been adapted from a 1935 French films written by the same people).

Wilder joined co-screenwriter and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, turning it into an effortless concept, a near-perfect film – near, because as the last line reads, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Here’s the script for Some Like It Hot:


14. Network (wri. Paddy Chayefsky)

Network (1976)

Storyline: “A television network cynically exploits a deranged former anchor’s ravings and revelations about the news media for its own profit.” – IMDb

This Oscar-winning screenwriter created in “Network” one of the best films known for its complex narrative and drama, and certainly one of the best of the ’70s. It’s often cited as one of the greatest screenplays and described as “outrageous satire” (Leonard Maltin), but it is the smooth passage between scenes – the so called gear shift – even when they move from revolutionary and chaotic to calm and tense.

The story centers around Diana Christiansen, the programming executive desperate for good ratings, and Max Schumacher, an old-fashioned middle-age news executive. Chayefsky shows a humorous and sad script, about important political, environmental and sociological events, from the date of the fall, rise and ultimate fall of Howard Beale and the general distaste and lunatic side of television.

Here’s the script for Network:


15. Chinatown (wri. Robert Towne)

Chinatown (1974)

Storyline: “A private detective hired to expose an adulterer finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder.” – IMDb

Living up to a reputation as one of the most accomplished screenplays in Hollywood history – as often cited by experts – this seemingly perfect document has become more famous than the film itself. It’s a 1940s film that wasn’t made in that era, but still endures the genre it’s in, and whose central mystery is only solved in the very end. There’s an immediate sense of triumph and enjoyment that is as easily captured on the page and onscreen.

Towne’s screenplay creates a web of mystery at the very start, which is essential to how the audience feels about watching the picture, caring about characters and wanting to know their fates. It’s got every necessary and extraordinary ingredient to make for a successful film, but it’s now cited as a creative inspiration for how Towne handles every sub plot, characters and symbolism while keeping its element of surprise.

Here’s the script for Chinatown:

Author Bio: Alexandra Gandra is a Portuguese writer and filmmaker. She currently finished a master’s degree in Digital Audiovisual at the University of Aveiro. She spends too much time in cafés people-watching and putting sentences together, some of which can be found at She’s also writing a book she hopes to finish some day..



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  • Chris

    So all great screenplays are from english speaking movies only?

    • chris

      Well seeing as this was made for english speaking and reading people. Often times subtitles and translated scripts lose substance when transfered to english.

  • F S

    There are only English-language screenplays that are essential?
    Some “foreign” suggestions are:
    Amour – Michael Haneke
    Andreij Rubljow – Andrei Tarkovsky
    Mirror – Andrei Tarkovsky
    Rashomon – Akira Kurosawa

  • Marco

    Well i guess a list can never be complete, there is always something missing and although i generally agree with this list (with the exception of Some Like it Hot, a great movie, awesome screenplay, but personally i think The Apartment and Sunset Blvd. are the superior screenplays) … i also tend to agree with F S and Chris … the lack of non English-language screenplays is a little bit “depressing”

    But to further complete this list (and the one from F S), some other examples:
    Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
    Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal and Persona – Ingmar Bergman
    8 1/2 – Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Federico Fellini, Brunello Rondi
    Delicatessen – Gilles Adrien, Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
    The 400 Blows – Marcel Moussy, Francois Truffaut

    • LH

      Well, good luck finding those and I guess you know how to read Japanese, Swedish, Italian and French, so everything’s cool.

    • Matthew Enriquez

      Once it gets translated into english, it loses its power, authenticity.. its soul unless you can precisely understand it word by word.

  • Ted Wolf

    Really great selection of screenplays. Yes, they are all English language, however they are all also superb.

  • TinaKumley

    I think that there is something interesting about the movie Everafter and how it approached the fictional aspect of Cinderella and the “real story” of Cinderella. It seems like Everafter started a type of movie that shows how a fictional character was a real person. I like the plot and we are all familiar with it, but it has really great character development , too. If someone asks me my favorite movie of all time, I say that movie. It is a movie I can literally watch and rewatch and it never disappoints for entertainment.

  • krone888

    Great list!

  • Allister Cooper

    Three movies I’ve seen on this list weren’t that great. One was boring, one was a mindfxxx, and one was just plain overrated. The titles shall remain anonymous here. Otherwise, an interesting list.

    • Klaus Dannick

      I am of the same opinion.

  • Masood HosAni

    so where are :Le Doulos 1962, Le Samourai 1967, Bob Le Flambeur 1955, The rules of the game 1939. the departed 2006,Interstellar 2014…??? in this list just pulp fiction and citizen kane were really good.

  • Deweb

    I’m missing the most important argument in the story by Groundhog day: The script prooves that you don’t need any explanation for something weird to make a good, gripping movie. For years I’m seeing movies that try to much tell us how and why. Yes, that’s needy in some case but not always. Sometimes it just makes a movie more complicated than it should/can be and so reveals more mistakes. While if you don’t do it, maybe nobody would care because it’s just the logic of the film. And like you see in Groundhog day, that also can end in a pretty good and moving picture.

  • fantail31

    Some truly amazing screenplays here. But film noir is essential to understand great screen writing. Out Of The Past and Double Indemnity are sublime. The great Ben Hecht from early Hollywood needs to be studied. I would also add: Crimes And Misdemeanors, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Tootsie, Bonnie And Clyde, The Unforgiven, Jaws ( classic 3 act structure) Midnight Express, The Graduate and some of the great British film from the 50’s/60’s. Billy Liar, This Sporting Life etc. Take your pick!

  • Anand dubey

    Very well observed actually. I had also made of my selection of 10 film scripts in history of cinema, and
    luckly 9 out of 10 are in this list, one other is “The Prestige” by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. Thank you.

  • Gab

    Great list! How about a list with “15 (or more) Essential Films Every Aspiring D.O.P. Must Watch”? I’d love to see some beautiful film selection from this perspective.

    • chris

      Just look at emmanuel lubezki, roger dekins and tarantinos dop. Lunezki has won three Oscars in a row and moat coen films are shot by dekins

  • Relf

    Pulp Fiction is a very mediocre movie and definitely not the cinema wonder some people think it is. This could have been written by a 16 year old. Obviously, PF’s success is because the audience is becoming dumber and dumber. If this was released during the quality years of cinema, people would see it as a B movie

    • chris

      It was a film that represented the culture it came from not every film should be set in the 50s and use the languge of that time most of these films are oberrated and dont holdup pulp fiction. Citizen kane is acclaimed but any film professor would say it was great for its time but nowadays would not hold up to films by the coens, charlie kaufman, david fincher, paul thomas Anderson and wes anderson basically there are great films there just mostly indies now. Like ex machina alex garland is fantastic

  • Eliezel

    Informative writing , Coincidentally , if your company want to merge PDF files , my secretary discovered a service here

  • David Valencia

    Good list! I do agree that more international screenplays can be included. Cinema is a universal language. Funnily enough the one I would add to the list is also in English: “The Usual Suspects”.

  • Ralph

    Bridge Over the River Kwai. Back to the Future. The Thing (John Carpenter). Breaker Morant. Patton. Sideways. Chasing Amy. The Wild Bunch.

  • Julio Segura

    Great list. I also think “Back to the future”, “Die hard” and “Aliens” are movies every screenwriter should watch.