You say in your latest blog post that very few movies have got great scripts – the good ones rely mainly on spectacular sets/CGI, good (or good-looking) actors, action sequences, etc, and plot tends to get left until last. Which movies would you say have got great scripts? And what, in your opinion, makes a great movie script (as opposed to an OK one or a bad one)?
Good question, by which I mean a hard one. I’m going to just talk about some movies that I think do have great scripts, and then see if there’s anything I can generalize. I’ve included only films made in English, and I’ve leaned toward geeky movies, inasmuch as the original post talked about an English-speaking geeky movie and it seems unhelpful to just say “Oh, go watch Rashomon or Rules of the Game instead.” I’ve also included only one film per director.
(Also, it’s not intended as a top films list, so if a film isn’t listed don’t get upset.)
Casablanca. A lot of the old Bogart films are great, and they’re hard to separate from his likeable, low-key intensity. But this one has some great lines, it masterfully introduces and sets in motion a large cast, it gets a lot done in very few locations and with very little action per se, and it has heart (doomed romance, Nazi enemies, a main character who’s heroic but roguish enough that it’s not certain he’ll do the right thing).
(Writers: Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch)
Memento. A fantastic mind-fuck. It’s constructed with what may seem to be a gimmick– it’s told in 10-minute sections in reverse order– but there’s a reason for it: it puts us into the same mindset as the protagonist. I used to think it didn’t hold together quite as tightly as it was supposed to, but I think this is because I resisted the usual interpretation. The movie thus uses structure and plot to make maximum fictional use of the already mindblowing idea of anterograde amnesia. (Nolan’s Batman Begins is also the best of the Batman movies.)
(W: Christopher Nolan)
Being John Malkovich. Funny, weird, and often disturbing; you never quite know where it’s going to go. Though everyone remembers the main idea (entering Malkovich’s brain), it has other cute oddities as well, such as the inappropriate puppet show near the beginning (a nice metaphor for the main theme) and the Gilliamesque idea of a half-height floor in an office building.
(W: Charlie Kaufman)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Completely silly and low-tech, but that’s the point: the reason it’s memorable is precisely because of the scintillating writing. Sketch comedy doesn’t always translate well into 90-minute movies, but this has enough thematic unity to work. And besides, abandoning the plot 3/4 of the way through is itself a Pythonesque meta-joke.
(W: The Pythons)
Ghostbusters. A rather conventional action-movie structure, but more coherent than most. E.g. the final action sequence doesn’t come out of nowhere, but builds out of the earlier low-key confrontations with the Nasty Bureaucrat Guy. Lots of great lines, and they managed to nail the delicate balance between taking the story seriously and winking at the audience. (If you take shlock too seriously you get MST3K fodder, and if you don’t take it seriously enough you get camp.)
(W: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis)
A Clockwork Orange. Hard to isolate the plot, as it also has great visuals and great performances, plus the greatest future conlang on film. But it focuses on some of the deepest social and philosophical questions– free will, anarchy vs conformism, animality vs. morality, and it’s just brilliantly manipulative– it takes us on a roller coaster of emotional reactions to its antihero. Like Dr. Strangelove, it confronts us with some of the attractiveness of evil and destruction without blunting their horror.
(W: Stanley Kubrick)
Galaxy Quest. Hey, if David Mamet thinks it’s a perfect movie, it’s worth a close look. Non-heroes learn to act like heroes… this is the basic adventure story, but without the usual ironic barrier of archaizing convention (no orphaned farmboys here).
(W: David Howard, Robert Gordon)
Rear Window. Hitchcock could fill out this list all by himself. Though the cleverness of the idea is itself interesting– it’s all photographed from a single vantage point– the real brilliance is in how Hitchcock builds up his thrills. My go-to example for cerebral terror is the moment Grace Kelly is rifling through the murderer’s apartment– and we pan over to see the murderer himself coming to open the door. No monsters, no SFX, no guns, nothing but a man in an overcoat, but it’s chilling as hell because of what the director put in our heads.
(W: John Michael Hayes)
Annie Hall. Hey, remember when Woody Allen made fantastic films? If not, go get this one. The point of intersection between his “early funny films” and his later drive to be a ’50s European. Full of great lines, some great fourth-wall-breaking, and rueful self-awareness.
(W: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman)
Young Frankenstein. I think this is my wife’s favorite film. In other films Brooks tends to degenerate into vamping and chaos, but this film remains controlled and is all the funnier for it. Again, any number of great scenes, but it’s also a loving homage to the early horror film, and it actually has a coherent plot with character arcs and everything. (So I don’t list too many humor films, let me also list Airplane! whose gag-a-minute pace is wedded to a firm classic plot structure.)
(W: Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks)
Noises Off! An adaptation of a stage farce, with the neat idea that we first watch a rehearsal (of an imaginary play); then we see the backstage of an actual performance; and finally a production later in the run when everything is going wrong. And on top of that, the opportunity is taken to tell interlocking, satiric stories about the half dozen actors and the director.
(W: Marty Kaplan, after Michael Frayn)
What About Bob? Some very clever satire of self-help and the therapeutic situation, plus the age-old laff riot of the slow burn: take an uptight, arrogant, straitlaced dude and add an annoying, persistent, impossible-to-evade force of chaos. Almost all of the scenes can be placed somewhere along this slow line of unravelment, made all the more piquant by the fact that the force of chaos is a huge fan of the uptight guy and only wants him to succeed.
(W: Tom Schulman)
Sin City. Noir boiled down to its geekish, stylish essence. It’s nasty and brutal and over the top, and yet nothing is wasted, every scene and shot is planned. Sometimes you see a shlock movie and think “It would’ve been cool if they’d actually fixed the plot holes, wrote good lines, and honed the plot.” This is what you get if you do that: pulp film buffed till it shines.
(W: Frank Miller)
Do the Right Thing. I may be prejudiced since I read Lee’s diaries and production notes, so I can see how much thought he put into every detail. But I think it’s a great movie. Interesting characters, a slow-building plot, a confrontation with race which manages to be powerful without ever being unfair.
(W: Spike Lee)
Mulholland Drive. It doesn’t quite count because it was intended as a TV series, and its first half is expansive as only a longer form can be, and of course there was no time to develop all the plot strands. Lynch makes it into a single movie by an almost shamanistic act of will. Importantly, it’s not a good movie because it’s weird. There’s any number of films that just go weird in the middle, and usually it’s just a mess. This one is held together in part by Naomi Watts’s fantastic performance, but even that wouldn’t have helped if there wasn’t a story that made sense of it.
(W: David Lynch)
Serenity. As a movie, way too rushed, because it was trying to be the entire second season of a TV series. And arguably Whedon’s greatest skill is in managing complicated long-term ensemble series, so the compression really hurts.
(W: Joss Whedon)
You’ll notice some tricks or gimmicks in the list– obviously that sort of thing draws attention to the script. It’s of course possible to be tricksy and still fail.
I also put a high value on a movie that can do the unexpected without simply becoming bizarre. Hitchcock’s Psycho (W: Joseph Stefano) is the classic example: it’s quite a mindfuck to kill of the main character halfway through. Extra credit for unexpected directions that turn out to thematically resonate: e.g. the prison sequence of Clockwork Orange (W: Kubrick) certainly isn’t what we expected from the first half, but of course criminality and punishment go together.
Bonus points for themes deeper than “blowing up things and defeating the evil wizard”. I don’t demand that the story be tied to present-day life and morals– after all, if we can have a good story about anterograde amnesia, why not one about robots and free will? A film like Wall-E (W: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon) includes what would be a completely scathing satire of capitalism if it wasn’t disguised as a kid’s cartoon.
I’ve also left out a bunch of films whose plot might be described as straightforward. The original Star Wars (W: George Lucas) might fit this category. The writing is not great, and what makes the movie is its unprecedented set design. But the story hits all the right notes and just has a very satisfying feel to it.
If there’s any common thread, it’s probably coherence. Does the picture hold together as a unit, is the writing consistently good, do the decisions of the characters as well as the director reinforce what the movie’s trying to do? A poor script, by contrast, feels like it’s bolted together, the characters do things for no apparent reason, and the climax supplies only thrills rather than any higher satisfaction.
(Update: Alert reader GreenBowTie pointed out that I didn’t include the screenwriters’ names, so I added them. With adaptations this opens up a can of worms which I’m not going to disentangle here.)