Best Original Writing in Movies – Classic Edition

Over the next couple of months, I thought it would be fun to write a few articles centered on great writing in pop culture. In the grand tradition of the modern era, I’m going to document it as a Top Ten List. Unless, of course, I can’t come up with ten, and then it’ll just be a Best Of list. Nevertheless, the format will be simple. Each week I’ll focus on a different categories in pop culture. Movies, TV, and Video Games will be the main ones, as I do not feel like I’m an authority on writing about books or comic books. Secondly, I can only write what I know, so the lists may have glaring omissions, since I haven’t experienced them myself.

To kick it off, today’s article will be on Best Original Screenplay. So that means Godfather, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the like, will not be on the list. Also, in preparing the list, I have just a few rules. In order to be on the list, they must have been nominated for an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, etc, unless I can outright remember one that was snubbed. Also, in preparing the list, I discovered there were far too many to choose from, so I’m breaking it up into three sections, Classics (pre-1990 – I know… it pains me to say it, too), The Nineties, and The Millenium.

The most important thing to remember, as well, is that this is just my opinion, and that I fail at seeing movies as frequently as I was once accustomed to doing. The Nineties will be the hardest, as I believe it was the years that great writing was prominent the most. Nevertheless, without further ado… My list of the Best Original Screenplay from 1940 onwards (because that was the first year the Oscars started recognizing best originals).

10. The Sting

Easily the most light-hearted of my list. The Sting won out over Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. While both starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman, the edge was overtaken by The Sting, because of its dialogue. Butch & Sundance certainly had wit and charm, but Hooker and Gondorff add intelligence into the mix, as grifters require a bit of all of the above to complete their cons. The tale is fun, and though in parts unbelievable, leaves you wanting to go back to pick up on all the things missed in the first viewing. It’s a smart movie, only made better with the Newman/Redford dynamic.

9. Rocky

Before the movie was ruined with multiple entries, Rocky was a seminal film with a story that drew you in. It was the ultimate underdog movie, before that was an actual genre. Released at a time when Hollywood was becoming self-aware, it heralded a new era in cinema where heroes were not necessarily the winners. While some of the characters have been made into caricatures over the years, in this first installment, they were flawed and believable. Apollo’s hubris and Rocky’s determination are at the forefront of the movie, but it shines mostly with the romance of Rocky and Adrian that is both understated and realistic.

8. Dead Poets Society

One of the most quotable movies to be released, Dead Poets Society is in parts heartwarming, and in other parts, gut-wrenching. It’s a true representation of many schools even now, I believe, and the fact that the movie doesn’t age just shows how great the writing is. I think at some point, almost everyone had a teacher like Mr Keating. One that challenged our perception of the world and taught us our own self-worth. “Seize the day,” he says in his first class, and the theme is prevalent through the entire movie. It is also one of the first movies that features so much incredible writing in Whitman and Thoreau. “O, Captain! My Captain!” indeed.

7. Sunset Boulevard

An actual classic has finally made the list, but it won’t be the last, either. Sunset Boulevard was one of the first black comedies I had seen when I was young, though the director never wanted it to be called as such. The movie has stuck with me for years, because it not only shows the dark side of Hollywood for the stars it also does for the writers. In fact, the dry humour in it was an answer to Hollywood productions and how thankless the writers’ efforts were (as most scripts were written by multiple people). One of the lines that has always stuck with me was Joe’s sarcastic line about his most recent script, “Last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You’d never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.”

6. North by Northwest

A Hitchcock movie would have to make the list to be an actual list of any worth. Given that many of his best work were actual adaptations, it was surprising to see that North by Northwest was actual an original script. I’m super glad it was, though, as it is my favourite of all of his. Powered by the charisma of Cary Grant, this is the true definition of a suspense/thriller. There are twists and turns at every corner, but even with multiple viewings, it seems so solid and believable. This could be due to the acting, but I think the writing helps with that as well.

5. Chariots of Fire

I’m not going to lie. The next five movies were the hardest to break down into order. They are all among my favourites of all-time. This one was for its writing, the next for its themes, and the final three due to cultural significance. I wish I could have found ten movies in the 80s that were original so this one could be number one, but I couldn’t.

This movie has probably some of the best writing I have ever seen. It is a movie about faith and strength of will and character. Easily the best dialogue comes from Eric Liddell, the missionary who just happens to be the fastest man alive. He shows strength of will to refuse a race on the Sabbath and spits in the face of his country’s leaders by telling them what he thinks. In the strongest scene of the film, after he is called impertinent for refusing the race, he doesn’t even bat an eyelash when he says, “The impertinence lies, sir, with those who seek to influence a man to deny his beliefs!” After leaving, the Duke of Sutherland admits, [Liddell] “is a true man of principles and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to sever his running from himself….. No sake is worth that, least of all a guilty national pride.” The film is intelligent in its writing and has to be as more than half the cast are studying in Cambridge or leaders within their faith. I may love it because of its Christian influences, but I also love it for its sportsmanship.

4. Say Anything

I have to admit something here. I’m not generally into romance movies. I watch the odd one, but I rarely love them. In this slot it was a bit difficult to decide if Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass or Say Anything deserved the spot more. The unfortunate thing about Splendor is that the last half is not as strong as the first half. Teen angst is something everyone goes through. Some more than others, and where Splendor in the Grass gets it right about the conservative 30s, Say Anything gets it right for the modern era. Not to mention, the entire movie has a level of plausibility and realism to it. The second half is just as important as the first. I was a bit surprised to see that this movie was never nominated for any awards, despite being the best of the Cameron Crowe repertoire (though Almost Famous is another dear to my heart). The thing that makes this one have great writing is that the love story is never crammed down your throat. There isn’t a specific moment where we are convinced Diane is deeply in love with Lloyd. It’s understated, and best of all, it’s original. In a genre that works on conventions of forced dialogue to drive the romance home, we see it more in the actions the characters take. I think all women would like to have a Lloyd Dobler in their life. Just saying…

3. Citizen Kane

There was no way this wouldn’t be on the list. Citizen Kane is generally top on the list of greatest movies of all-time. The direction Welles took with the screenplay is definitely a reason for this. By starting the movie with the death of the protagonist of the story, we are taken along on a ride to figure out what “Rosebud” is. Though the subject is brought up and the reason for the movie, it is only the audience that finds out what it was. Instead, we are told the story through various interviews. It’s no surprise that wealth corrupts, but seeing it shown through individual stories drives the story home. The interviewees and their stories show us how his life began and ended for Charles Foster Kane, and with each anecdote, our perception of the man changed. The ultimate question of lost innocence and happiness is paramount through the movie. Though it was meant to be a mockery of William Randolph Hearst, it has become more famous than he is now. Aren’t we all glad it did see the light of day? 😉

2. Network

I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!

My last two entries were the easiest choices to make. Network is easily one of the most important movies ever made. It was a black comedy, but now I’m convinced it was prophetic. I am always telling people that the need to watch it. It’s about 20 years ahead of its time, and the themes in it of TV ratings, reality shows, and a generation glued to their screens have never been truer than now. There are breakout performances all around, with William Holden making a comeback on the list some 3 decades after Sunset Boulevard. The standout is Peter Finch as a newscaster who suddenly just tells it how it is. There are too many quotes to write into this article, but you can see them all here. Every one of them as great as the next.

Before I move onto the final movie on the list, here are a few honourable mentions:

The Deer Hunter, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Taxi Driver, and Back to the Future.

And without further ado….

1. Chinatown

No matter what, Chinatown would remain number one on any list I make for best written screenplays. At most major universities, Chinatown is carefully studied as the example of a perfect script. It is hard to discount its importance to modern cinema. It tells a rich story that does not lag or confuse. The characters are believable and carefully developed. And the plot is as tight as they come. Every line, every look has significance. It was structured and modest, showing restraint where so many other movies don’t. And best of all, it never once insults the audience’s intelligence by explaining why a certain course of action was taken. The writer of the screenplay, Robert Towne, never meant it to be the “perfect script,” and instead just wanted to make sure everything made sense in the end. Well, he succeeded, and film students the world over thank him still. 🙂

Photo Credits: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1


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