Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten favorite screenplays

with 10 comments

Any list of favorite movies—much less one of favorite screenplays, where the writer’s contribution can be so hard to separate from that of the director and editor—ends up being more about the compiler than anything else. My own list betrays a personal fondness for dense, complicated stories over quiet simplicity, which is arguably the harder of the two to pull off. All in all, though, I’ll stand by these choices—though I’m somewhat surprised to see that one of my top films stars Kevin Spacey, another stars Gabriel Byrne, and another, perhaps inevitably, stars both:

1. Seven Samurai. As far as I’m concerned, this the greatest screen story of all time—a massively detailed film of more than three hours that establishes its central conflict in the first minute, involves us in the lives of more than a dozen important characters, and treats us to the immense satisfaction of seeing epic action foreshadowed, spelled out, and unforgettably delivered. Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni.

2. L.A. Confidential. A script so good that it forever fooled me into thinking that there was a place in Hollywood for layered, complicated stories, saturated with ideas and atmosphere, with three central characters but no obvious hero. Well, there isn’t. But watching this movie makes you almost believe otherwise. Writers: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, based on a novel by James Ellroy.

3. The Red Shoes. All of Powell and Pressburger’s screenplays are amazing, but this is the one that fills me with the most awe. Like L.A. Confidential, it effortlessly establishes three major characters—and many minor ones—while ushering us into a world that seems both strange and familiar, with a range of tones that spans realism, surrealism, melodrama, and, in the end, merciless tragedy. Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

4. The Usual Suspects. The closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect clockwork screenplay, layered with small visual and verbal delights in every scene, all leading up to that famous closing surprise (which makes increasingly less sense to me as time goes on). To quote theater critic Walter Kerr, The Usual Suspects is a watch that laughs—and there’s a hell of a cuckoo inside. Writer: Christopher McQuarrie (though many of the best moments, including the closing montage of dialogue, were created in the editing room).

5. Casablanca. The first forty minutes, in particular, are the best I’ve seen in any movie, in terms of serenely establishing character, location, and conflict in a way that seems as natural as wandering into Rick’s Place out of the hot desert night. The second act has a few narrative lumps—I’m not a fan of flashbacks in general, even when they feature Bogart and Bergman in Paris—but as for the finale, well, nothing more needs to be said. Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

6. Miller’s Crossing. It took me years to warm up to this movie, but now that I know it inside and out, I can only marvel at how beautifully all the pieces fit, even if the writers evidently made it up as they went along. (They wrote Barton Fink, on a break, while trying to figure out how to resolve the plot.) It’s still the last of the great color noirs. Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen.

7. The Last Temptation of Christ. I was going to put Taxi Driver here, but this is really Schrader’s—and Scorsese’s—masterpiece: marvelously structured, moving, and more intelligent than so deeply religious a movie has any right to be. The last half hour rarely fails to bring me to tears, though never at the same place twice. Writer: Paul Schrader, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.

8. The Third Man. The perfect blend of plot, location, and atmosphere, sinister yet romantic, with grotesque supporting characters lurking in the ruins like gargoyles. It all builds to that heartbreaking final image—the greatest closing shot in the history of movies—which wasn’t in the original script at all. Writer: Graham Greene (though Orson Welles wrote his own speech about the cuckoo clocks).

9. Psycho. Yes, yes, the closing psychiatrist’s speech is terrible. But up until that final moment, it’s perfectly structured and paced, with the greatest narrative fake-out of all time—one that works so well that I’m still faintly shocked, whenever I first see the Bates Motel sign, at remembering which movie I’m really watching. Writer: Joseph Stefano, based on a novel by Robert Bloch.

10. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Pauline Kael called it “endlessly inventive,” and it is, cobbling together a plot, as I’ve described elsewhere, from six different screenplay drafts and a random handful of science fiction elements, and having it all seem relaxed, witty, and inevitable. Writers: Credited to Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards, but really Nicholas Meyer.

Honorable mention: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blue Velvet, A Hard Day’s Night, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and many others on the definitive Writer’s Guild list.

10 Responses

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  1. Hrm… I don’t know about Seven Samurai. Not even sure it makes my top five Kurosawa films, or Mifune flicks. The best part of this movie is Toshiro’s speech about the peasants. The rest I have barely any desire to rewatch. But then again, I’ve never read the screenplay.


    January 28, 2011 at 2:12 am

  2. Have you seen the uncut version recently? In my experience, the longer the cut, the better (and faster) it is. Personally, I can’t think of any other original screen story with more classic moments and scenes.


    January 28, 2011 at 11:41 am

  3. I probably saw the uncut version, this was at the Kurosawafest a year ago at the film forum. I have two of the Criterion Collection discs–what’s that? It just, weighted for screen-time, is actually only about three samurai… It just doesn’t come together for me, somehow, and is not on heavy rotation as background at home. Maybe it’s worth another shot.


    January 29, 2011 at 2:35 am

  4. I’d say give it another try. It didn’t make my list of top ten movies until I’d seen it maybe three or four times. (And yes, the Criterion Collection discs are the uncut version, or at least the closest we’re going to get.)


    January 29, 2011 at 11:22 am

  5. The Last Temptation of Christ
    “The last half hour rarely fails to bring me to tears”



    January 30, 2011 at 11:34 pm

  6. Have you seen it? The moment varies, but these days, I usually get a little teary at the scene with the line: “Maybe you’ll find this hard to believe, but sometimes we angels look down on men and envy you. Really envy you.”


    January 31, 2011 at 8:14 am

  7. Yep, I did see it and loved it. It was absolutely beautiful.

    I’m going to watch it again and I was curious what made you sad.

    I’m the type who would cry in parts no one else would and clap my hands together when everyone else is crying — like Jesus on the cross. I would think “Good — the sucker’s finally out of here”. Thank God!

    But I would cry at betrayal. As much for the person betrayed as the betrayer.

    I wonder if Jesus really did die on the cross or if it was a metaphorical one.

    In esoteric astrology, there are 3 crosses according to the level of soul. The first cross is a vibration to matter. The second to both matter and soul (matter reaching to soul) and the third just soul realized which is soul reaching to matter.

    I’ve never thought that lust was a sin. And among the various temptations that Jesus was subjected to in “LTOC” there was doubt, and self loathing. The greatest sins of all.

    Matter and soul are friends.


    January 31, 2011 at 1:38 pm

  8. For some reason, I’m always moved when a film shows a young man growing old in the space of a single cut. It’s true of Last Temptation, and also of Saving Private Ryan and Ballets Russes, which are still the only two movies I’ve seen in a theater where I’ve really lost it.


    February 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm

  9. I read that the Red Shoes was your favorite film, and finally got around to watching it last night with my wife. I was spellbound – I kept asking myself, “Why have I never seen this before?!”

    Afterward we watched an interview with Thelma Schoonmaker about the restoration process, her work relationship with Martin Scorsese, and her role as an editor.

    Last Temptation of Christ is next on my list….


    July 16, 2013 at 4:59 am

  10. That’s really awesome—I’m so glad to hear it! And Thelma Schoonmaker is one of my favorite people.

    I hope you’ll be inspired to check out the rest of the Archers’ films, if you haven’t done so already. A Canterbury Tale and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp are my other favorites.


    July 16, 2013 at 7:10 pm

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