The Best Screenplays of All Time

On Sunday February 22nd at the Oscars, Martin McDonagh will be competing for the Best Original Screenplay for In Bruges.  For me, this was one of the most brilliant scripts in years–darkly comic, heartfelt and compelling, expertly paced and chock full of quotable lines.  Sadly I don’t think it will win–oh, please prove me wrong, Academy–but it made think of all the great scripts from Hollywood’s past.   What films were memorable not just for their imagery, but for the writing as well?  What films contained amazing performances that were great because of the material the performers were given and the dialogue they spoke?

What screenplays are deserving of being considered the best of all time?

Well, here’s this writer’s list: 

The Top Ten:

1.  Network (1976) by Paddy Chayefsky:  I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more! often overshadows some of the greatest speeches and soliloquies ever written for the big screen.  From William Holden’s condemnation of Faye Dunaway’s epitomizing of the TV generation to Beatrice Straight’s decry of the dissolution of her marriage to Ned Beatty’s diatribe on corporate cosmology, Network‘s brilliance was not only in its prescient satire, but also in Chayefsky’s Shakespearian treatment of the English language in a modern context.  Every time I watch the film, the words spoken give me goose-bumps.  I can’t imagine anyone toppling Chayefsky’s unshakable work of unfathomable genius.

2.  The Third Man (1949) by Graham Greene.  Everyone knows Greene is my favorite writer of all time, and this original screenplay (one of the few not adapted from his own novels) is the perfect example of how literary film can be, and Greene probably did this on a lark.  Carol Reed’s stylized noir imagery was matched scene for scene by Greene’s substantial writing and clever plotting, and the result was the perfect marriage of style and substance.  One does not have to be sacrificed for another.  Though Orson Welles is often credited with some rewrites (mostly for his own character’s dialogue), any fan of the cynical British novelist can attest that the screenplay bleeds Greene, and he deserves all the credit in the world for its success.

3.  Casablanca (1942) by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Howard Koch from the play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.  Well, it seems as if this screenplay by committee produced the most quotable dialogue of all time:  Play it again, Sam; Here’s looking at you, kid; and my all time favorite, I’d like to think you killed a man, it’s the romantic in me.  It’s also a pretty clever story that doesn’t place love on a pedestal but instead sticks it down deep in the murky unsettling waters of war and political intrigue.  It’s as cynical and as romantic as can be.

4.  Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder from the novel by James M. Cain.  This is the ultimate example of how film could not only be visually stylized but verbally stylized as well.  The script for this one contains so many zingers, double entendres, rat-a-tat-tats, brush-offs and give-and-takes between the performers spewing the dialogue that you can watch it a dozen times and still not catch it all.  Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson are sublime in their line readings.  Oh, yeah, and supose it’s also one of the finest examples of 1st-person voice-over narration in film and supose it’s a perfectly sinister little noir caper.  Now get outta here before I slap you.

5. Annie Hall (1977) by Woody Allen.  Love or hate the Woodster, you can’t deny he’s always had a keen ear for dialogue and is a master of the throw-away-line.  Here he was in his prime and at his most appealing–neurotic, charming, observant, honest and hilarious.  This ultra-clever script deconstructed the romantic comedy genre and broke every rule in the book (who speaks to the audience in the middle of a scene?) while writing some of its own (never underestimate the audience’s intelligence).  Let’s face it, since this one Woody has only been trying to repeat himself.

6.  Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) by Stanley Kubrick from the novel by Peter George.  You can’t fight in here!  This is the War Room!  Satire is the hardest genre to pull off as you instantly run the risk of being dated, condescending or tone deaf.  The fact that they pulled this one off for big laughs at the height of the Cold War attests to the level of genius at play.

7.  Paris, Texas (1984) by L. M. Kit Carson from a story by Sam Shepard.  An estranged father telling his little boy some family history, ex-lovers bearing their souls from opposite sides of the glass in a peep-show booth, small moments of loss and loneliness…this is a script lovingly built on conversations and stories slowly weaving a tapestry of achingly beautiful cinema.  A film about a wandering man in love with “an idea of her” made for wandering viewers in love with “the idea of movies”–none of it would’ve spoken to us chosen few so well without all those wonderfully written conversations.

8.  Chinatown (1974) by Robert Towne.  Towne’s crackling 1930’s based mid-1970’s retread of 1940’s film noir will leave you (and Jack Nicholson) with a broken nose.  If you can’t appreciate the writing here, then as Nicholson’s Gettis said to the police officer, “Nevermind, you’re dumber than you think I thought you were.”

9.  Goodfellas (1990) by Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi from Pileggi’s book.  You think it’s funny that I’m including this on the list?  Like funny ha ha?  Please tell me how I’m being funny.  Explain to me why I’m so….eh, fughedaboutit

10.  Fargo (1996) by the Coen Brothers.  Dontcha know those accents were so gosh darn funny because of the screenplay?  And that Marge Gunderson was such a swell lady because of how she was written?  Well, you better believe it!

Honorable Mentions:

There Will Be Blood (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson from the novel by Upton Sinclair.  I think once more time has passed and people stop thinking of this as “that milkshake movie” they’ll realize this contains the greatest long-winded spells of dialogue and linguistically dancing diatribes since Chayefsky’s Network.

Pulp Fiction (1993) by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary.  I am not a fan of Pulp Fiction.  I think it’s an overrated soulless piece of cinema.  Yet even I find myself quoting it inadvertently because it has so permeated our pop culture since its release.  All that talk of “royales with cheese” and the interwoven, overlapping time-lines and stories, well, I hate to admit it’s all very well written and a wee bit clever–probably too clever by half.  And while I’ll debate anyone of the de-merits of Tarantino’s overripe directorial style, I gotta hand the guy props for his writing, even though it really hasn’t been any good since Jackie Brown.  At least he tries.

Which brings us to David Mamet, who as a writer and director deserves a special nod for his overall body of work, for his scholarly use of the f-bomb and his knack for writing some of the densest, most convoluted dialogue in some of the densest, most inaccessible of films.  Does anyone really understand what exactly happened in Glengarry Glen Ross or The Spanish Prisoner?  When Mamet slums it with The Edge, Heist, or that dubiously hilarious script for Hannibal…I love it.

Other Notables:

Sunset Blvd (1950) by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

Atlantic City (1980) by John Guare

Short Cuts (1993) by Robert Altman from the writings of Raymond Carver

The Sweet Hereafter (1997) by Atom Egoyan from the novel by Russell Banks

Being John Malkovich (1999) by Charlie Kaufman

Fight Club (1999) by John Uhls from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan from a story by Jonathan Nolan

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) by Charlie Kaufman

Sideways (2004) by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from the novel by Rex Pickett

The Painted Veil (2006) by Ron Nyswaner from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham

In Bruges (2008 ) by Martin McDonagh


Written by David H. Schleicher


So what’s your favorite screenplay of all time?  What films spoke to you most through the dialogue or the way in which the story was written?  Share your thoughts and choices in the comment form below!


  1. That’s a good list. Forget not that “There Will Be Blood” is based on Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” Paul Thomas Anderson is clearly talented, but it’s hard to build a fire without first having something to burn.

    I’d like to nominate Wes Anderson’s “Royal Tennenbaums” and “Bottle Rocket” for the contemporary side of the list.

    Erin, great catch! Consider the correction made…poor Upton, how could I forget him?

    The Royal Tennenbaums was very good…well written and visually inventive, though I think Wes Anderson’s style has not aged well over his recent films. –DHS

  2. Great list. When I first read the e-mail that stated you did this “Casablanca” and “Pulp Fiction” immediately popped into my mind.

    I would also nominated Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” I know it seems like an odd choice next to classics like “Dr. Strangelove” and “Sunset Boulevard,” but I think he has a fantastic writing voice that speaks to his generation.

    Forrest, I love Clerks and its sequel! Great choice. –DHS

  3. David, this is a fine, broadly-selected collection, although I might quibble with a script or two here. I’m only just now coming around to Mamet, but I still don’t quite grasp the appeal of Chayefsky — I realize how prescient his social satire was, but watching it now you find yourself asking “What’s the big deal? And who are these insurgents? What the hell do they have to do with network television?” (I’m being facetious, of course, but my generation is sadly far too complacent to view the “mad as hell” thing as anything but hamfisted parody. It’s my fault, not the film’s). Also, I admit I winced during that monologue towards the end where William Holden uses the word “cocksmanship” in a retort to Dunaway’s icy vituperation.

    CHINATOWN, FARGO, and PARIS, TEXAS are all simply aces, however. And were you aware that ANNIE HALL in its present state was mostly compiled in the editing room rather than on the page? I guess it was written initially as a murder mystery. My personal favorite Allen script was always HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, a beautifully-wrought cinematic Chekov appropriation (with Bobby Short!). But to each his own.

    A few other nominations (there’s so many!): Whit Stillman’s films seem at times like spoken text, but I love them all dearly, and with text this good it’s hard to argue (METROPOLITAN and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO especially). ALL ABOUT EVE (Joseph Mankiewicz) is still like a funny and smarting slug in the jaw. Billy Wilder has ups and downs, but the ups are magnificently cynical (ACE IN THE HOLE, SOME LIKE IT HOT). Jacques Prevert’s work for Marcel Carne’s CHILDREN OF PARADISE was transcendental…I always liked the script for FORBIDDEN GAMES, too, even though I don’t know who wrote it or whether or not it was based on anything else. Anything by Ben Hecht is typically pretty stellar, particularly UNDERWORLD and HIS GIRL FRIDAY. And no screenplay discussion would be complete without genuflecting to the master of comedy and pathos, Preston Sturges. THE GREAT MCCGINTY and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK should be taught in script seminars…if they aren’t already. I don’t recall either Syd Field or William Goldman mentioning him…

    Jon, it was very difficult to pick just one Woody Allen film. Manhattan is actually my favorite film from Allen (so beautifully shot in addition to being well written), and Hannah and Her Sisters is superb, but I felt Annie Hall was his breakthrough and the one that did it all first.

    And what ever happened to Whit Stillman? Does he even make films anymore? I recall him being the aristrocrat to Richard Linklater’s slacker in terms of “talkie insightful relationship” movies. –DHS

  4. It’s an absolute sin that I’ve never seen “Network.” I can never find it on TV nor can I find a copy for rent. I should just break down and purchase it but I’m low on funds.

    Despite what you wrote, I would definitely rank “Pulp Fiction” number 1 for me. I really can’t go into why the movie affected me so much when I saw it, but it redefined for me what a movie could do and how a story could be told. I actually found it to be full of soul, just very unexpectedly and in ways that I never thought it could come. No worries, though—I’ve dealt with a number of people who didn’t fall under “Pulp’s” spell (one of whom demanded I repay him the ticket money or he’d kick my ass—this was obviously back in high school). I bought the screenplay book and that started my nearly decade-long desire to be a screenwriter. Didn’t work out, but it taught me many things about writing in general.

    Here are some of my other favorites:

    DOGMA—I love the movie but the screenplay is a great read all by itself.
    DAZED AND CONFUSED—Quotable lines, lovable characters, all realistically portrayed.
    THE TRUMAN SHOW—it’s amazing how prophetic that movie was.
    DOG DAY AFTERNOON—tense, taut, terrific.
    SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN—I still remember seeing this in 8th grade history when we were doing the 1920s time period. Not only a fun and funny musical, but a great homage to Hollywood of yesteryear.
    THE COMMITMENTS—rarely do movies with that many characters and allow them all to grow at the same rate. Excellent music, too.

    I could go on, but that’s all I’ll say for now. Your list was pretty great, though I refuse to show my wife DOUBLE INDEMNITY. No need to give her ideas.

    Chris, I am totally there with you on Dog Day Afternoon and The Truman Show. Surely they would’ve made an expanded list. The Commitments was great, too—wasn’t there a trilogy from that writer about the same Irish neighborhood? With all the great music in that, one sometimes overlooks the great dialogue and characters. –DHS

  5. Short Circuit 2
    Heart Beeps
    Benji the Hunted

    Horsie, didn’t I hear Wall-E being described somewhere as Short Circuit 2 meets Benji the Hunted? And what in blue blazes is Heart Beeps? HA HA HA! –DHS

  6. I would include the original Back to the Future and Shaun of the Dead, as structurally, both of those films are practically airtight. Every scene and plot element either sets up something later, or is a payoff of an earlier set-up, and both manage to be extremely entertaining at the same time.

    Nicholas, sometimes it is the structure of a screenplay (being “airtight” as you say) that makes it great. Nice observation. –DHS

  7. Dave,
    Heartbeeps was an Andy Kaufman scifi-esq poopfest. I actually think that was the tagline if I’m not mistaken. Kaufman actually went on Letterman to apologize and offer anyone who saw it their money back.
    I have to agree with your honorable mentions of Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the… as they were the first movies to pop into my head. Network was also a great choice in my opinion.
    I would like to see you make a list of movies with great cinematography or even editing. Memento could make the editing list.
    Be well,

    Boz, LMAO. I went to look up Heartbeeps on the IMDB and when I saw the images, a tidal wave of bad childhood memories came back as I suddenly remembered watching that dreck about two robots in love. And to think—it was nominated for an Oscar for best make-up in 1981!!!!! Too bad Andy is dead and I can’t get my money back now!

    I shall have to ruminate on the cinematography and editing lists…great ideas! –DHS

  8. Dave, I probably don’t even watch 10% of the amount of films you do. So, when I do watch something my writer’s brain is tunred off and I simply indulge in my mere existence as an entertainee. Meaning: I don’t analyse. I rather judge the level of which the film was able to rip me away from reality.
    May I be simply poisened by the thriller stigma and forget about literacy alltogether? If so count me in with the Bourne Trilogy.

    Rebecca, perhaps the book-based Bourne Trilogy is literary? The suspension of disbelief created by the scripts is very noteworthy. The writing for those films is definitely taut–all that globe-hopping and plotting is like a tight-rope act. –DHS

  9. A quick PS: Whit Stillman is sadly still MIA, living in Paris, and has reportedly been working on the same script for the last 10 years.

    Interesting point about Whit and Linklater as a ying/yang. To tell you the truth, I was never hot on the latter (or ‘later); there’s few directors able to build their career on such gimmicky exercises. Of course, I talk to friends who hate Stillman and they describe his films as style-less vacuums where over-educated fusspots one-up each other endlessly (Eric Rohmer, anybody?). Still, I find it depressing that Kevin Smith monologues are passing for bon mots these days (no offense to lovers of CLERKS or DOGMA, both of which I admit I enjoy to a point).

    Jon, that’s a shame about Whit. I was too young to appreciate his two earlier movies (Metropolitan and Barcelona) when they first came around, but I would surely place my confidence with any director who would cast Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny in a film where all they do is talk and dance–I was totally entranced by the look and sound of The Last Days of Disco though I don’t really remember much about the film other than the “idea” of it. –DHS

  10. Love your list of screenplays and agree with every one. However, how does someone separate great movies from from great screenplays. My all time favorite movie is Bergman’s Persona, because the director is wrestling with his demons through the film and we are the jury. Those dynamics, rather than intriquite plot or clever lines, make it more than something written or filmed. John (

    John, great point. This would go towards the discussion of the auteur theory of film–where the director is the author of the movie. Persona is a prime example, where Bergman wonderfully wrote his story (and wrestled his demons) in the language of film, the language of images and sounds and editing. To discuss a “screenplay” in reference to that film would serve little purpose as that film is almost entirely hung on what is transmitted through the moving pictures–though there were a few interesting “discussions” between the nurse and the actress. Many would argue that the greatest films come from true auteurs, and many of my favorite directors usually serve as the “author” by being both the director and the screenwriter. Often the two can not be separated. –DHS

  11. I only thought of this later and, if I could, I’d like to throw in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Rarely does a film combine western myth with western fact in such a manner. It also inspired my first book, “Under the Bridge.” One of John Ford’s finest films. I’d say it’s even superior (by a hair) to “The Searchers.”

    Chris, I’m ashamed to say I have never seen it. I reckon I’ll have to remedy that. –DHS

  12. Great post Dave,

    Although I would probably draw a line between great dialogue and great screenplay.

    Love your selection, though, especially Network, Fargo, Goodfellas. Glengarry Glen Ross should have taken more than an honourable mention.

    I like Pulp Fiction more than you do, but recognize that Tarantino’s dialogues are incredibly contrived, even if funny and imaginative. It’s been downhill ever since of course.

    May I add to that list some films packed with quotable lines:
    The Breakfast Club (a guilty pleasure, this, but the only film I can near recite from start to finish)
    Big Lebowski
    This is Spinal Tap

    Let me know if you need any clarification here,


    James, good point about the dialogue vs. the structural nature of the screenplay. I tried to factor both into my analysis and ultimate choices though obviously those with the flashier dialogue often screamed louder and made more indelible impressions. I’ll have to rewatch Glengarry Glen Ross one of these days. It’s been a long time since I saw it and I recall being confused most of the time. Sideways was one of my notables on the list. –DHS

  13. Ah, this is a loaded question, David! Do I answer from the perspective of a screenwriter or simply a fan of movies?

    “Million Dollar Baby” — tight, economical, not a wasted word or image

    “Lawrence of Arabia” — not much dialogue but what’s there is absolutely necessary. The last of the truly great epics.

    “To Kill a Mockingbird” — excellent adaptation of a powerful story that appeals to children as much as adults. I first saw this movie when I was 8 years old and wanted to BE Scout.

    “The Usual Suspects” — an excellent example of playing fair with an unreliable narrator.

    “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — this was a massive undertaking with really impressive, stunning results.

    I’ll stop there. My “Battlestar Galactica” DVDs arrived in the mail today and I can’t wait to immerse myself in that world….


    Cinda, nice additions! To Kill A Mockingbird would definitely make a list of Best Adaptations from a Novel. -DHS

  14. A great list of movies. Good to see the movie “Memento” is also listed out. For a story like Memento.. Screenplay is very much important, The film’s events unfold in two separate, alternating narratives—one in color, and the other in black and white. I feel this is one of the best movie to be voted for best Screenplay.


    Tania, the structures of the narratives and timelines were superbly done in Memento. –DHS

  15. David, this is surely a magisterial list of screenplays, few of which I could really contest on such a definitive list. Many would have CITIZEN KANE at the top, but it’s all semantics. THE THIRD MAN and NETWORK, by any barometer of measurement are amongst the greatest screenplays ever, and the remainder of the Top 10 contains all masterpieces of writing.

    What else could be considered here? Well several of Preston Sturges’s comedies from the 40’s, Welles and Mankiewitz’s CITIZEN KANE screenplay, the Dudley Nichols’ screenplay of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, a host of foreign-language choices that I won’t even broach here,(aside to say Ingmar Bergman would be quite prominent) and perhaps a few Woody Allen films and surely Mel Brooks’s screenplay to THE PRODUCERS, the latter one actually would be in my Top 10, and would a few of the others I mentioned. But who could argue with what you have choesn here. It’s a superlative list.

    Sam, The Producers—what a great pick! I fear the subsequent Broadway musical and recent film adaptation might overshadow the original film, which was fantastic. One can’t argue with your suggestions of Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath, which is another that would surely make the list of Best Adaptations from a Novel. –DHS

  16. Two from David Webb Peoples, Bladerunner and Unforgiven. Everyone knows the famous death scene for Roy Batty in BR “I’ve…seen things you people wouldn’t believe…” so I’ll go with Gaff’s “It’s too bad she won’t live; but then again, who does?” From Unforgiven:

    Will Munny: Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.

    The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well I guess he had it comin’…

    Will Munny: We all got it comin’, kid.

    And later.

    Little Bill Daggett: I don’t deserve this…to die like this. I was building a house.

    Will Munny: ‘Deserve”s got nothin’ to do with it. [aims gun]

    Little Bill Daggett: I’ll see you in hell, William Munny.

    Will Munny: Yeah. [fires]

    And finally, the incomparable Samuel Fuller from his classic Pickup on South Street:

    “You’ll always be a two bit cannon. And when they pick you up in the gutter dead, your hand’ll be in a drunk’s pocket.”

    Frank, nice addition to the discussion…and those certainly are some memorable lines! –DHS

  17. Great selection! I’m only 23 years old but I’ve seen ALL those movies and I absolutely love them because of the screenplay. I would like to add that the screenplay for the The Thin Red Line is pretty awesome as well!

    Irina…hmmmm…interesting choice with Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Thanks for stopping by and joining the discussion. –DHS

  18. Memento was a good pick. I would go so far as to say that any of the Nolan brothers’ movies should be included in the list (or at least as an honorable mention). Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight… all wonderfully written and directed. I’m amazed that Chris and Jon could keep TRACK of all of the balls that they had in the air in each of these fine films.

    Jess, I agree. One of these days I see them sharing a screenplay Oscar and C. Nolan getting a best director statue…one of these days. –DHS

    • Yeah, I hope so. I was very disappointed to see The Dark Knight be snubbed for both Best Picture AND Best Screenplay during the 2009 Oscars. I didn’t expect it to win, but at LEAST a nomination in at LEAST one of the categories was deserved. The win for Best Supporting Actor was a dead giveaway from the start, but not only was Ledger’s part acted well, it was WRITTEN well, as well as excellently DIRECTED.

      I agree. Nolan was robbed for best director, too — he should’ve at least been nominated. I think it will be awhile before the Academy recognizes him ala Spielberg and Scorsese. –DHS

      • I think you’re right. However, with Nolan’s latest coming out, Inception, the Academy may take notice, being that this is not a superhero movie. I don’t know, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Do you think Inception has a chance?

        Jess, I think the previews for the film look fantastic. It’s at the top of my must see list for this year. We shall have to wait and see…but hopefully you are right. I think it has the potential to blow people away. –DHS

  19. Three of my personal favorites- The Man Who Would Be King, Barry Lyndon, and my choice for best screenplay ever- A Man For All Seasons

    Barry Lyndon is a great one – exellent use of voice-over narration in that. –DHS

  20. Very good list. I would have added The Apartment (1960) by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond.Perfect script. Every single thing about it is perfect.

  21. I like Your list. One problem about such rankings ist, that many movies don’t come to one’s mind, because we just don’t know them. (eg. I’m Austrian, so I know THE WHITE RIBBON by Haneke well, but I guess, not too many people overseas will and they won’t (can’t) agree with me, that it’s one of the best screenplays of all time).

    Another thing that puzzles me: there should be far more comedies on the list (which, I know is always way too short). Comedies must be perfectly crafed (rhythm, story, dialogue).

    Please don’t mind my English 😉

    And my nick could give a hint towards one of my favourite movies (and screenplay).

    • Yossarian – This list is from a few years back…I believe I made this before I saw The White Ribbon – which I agree is a great film with a very strong screenplay.

      You make some interesting points about comedy – and in some ways it’s harder to pull off good comedy than it is good drama.

  22. This is a fantastic list. Annie Hall is a favorite of mine, but I think Crimes and Misdemeanors is deeper and better written.

    I would add The Graduate and Amadeus.

    Question, though: When you say screenplay, are you talking about the actual script? Are these screenplays you have read, or are you judging the quality of the screenplay based on the quality of the finished film?

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