50 Best Movie Screenplays

Sizzling scripts that leapt from page to screen

Alien (1979)

The Screenplay: Inspired by 1950s B-movies like It! The Terror From Beyond Space , Dan O'Bannon and Roland Shusett set out to make " Jaws in space," with the final screenplay credited to O'Bannon with uncredited work by producers Walter Hill and David Giler.

Why It's So Impressive: This could easily have been just a space-set slasher movie, but O'Bannon brought unusual realism to interplanetary travel by depicting the crew/victims as blue-collar space-truckers, while subverting expectations by making Ripley the heroine. Better still, the shock subplot involving rogue android Ash provided acres of world-building that future sequels, spin-offs and prequels would expand.

Most Quotable Line: "You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."

The Sting (1973)

The Screenplay: David S. Ward made his name with his original screenplay, although later settled out-of-court after David Maurer realised it was based on his non-fiction account of 1930s con men, The Big Con .

Why It's So Impressive: Ward managed to lure audiences in with the easy-going charm of the characters and the gentle humour of the story, all the better to hide in plain sight the seeds for one of cinema's great twist endings.

Most Quotable Line: "Tough luck, Lonnehan. But that's what you get for playing with your head up your ass!"

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

The Screenplay: David Mamet was already an established screenwriting force when he belatedly got around to adapting his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about deadbeat real estate salesmen.

Why It's So Impressive: Mamet could easily have coasted on this project, merely replicating the play's acidic dialogue. Instead, he added a pivotal new scene for a character not in the original, Blake, that raised the story's stakes even further.

Most Quotable Line: "A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing."

Four Lions (2010)

The Screenplay: Renowned TV satirist Chris Morris spent three years researching his comedy about Islamic suicide bombers, before working with Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell on the script.

Why It's So Impressive: With his reputation for controversy, many assumed this would be wall-to-wall bad taste, but Morris drew belly laughs from the near-realism of the situation to make a film that is more uncomfortable for seeking to understand the terrorists' motivation.

Most Quotable Line: "Rubber dinghy rapids, bro!"

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Screenplay: George Lucas' story, obviously but he left the words to an unlikely but brilliant team. Veteran screenwriter Leigh Bracket died after completing her draft, leaving newcomer Lawrence Kasdan to shape the final version.

Why It's So Impressive: Bracket wrote extensively for Howard Hughes, and her influence lives in the Hawksian screwball romance and the theme of heroes risking all to help their friends. Kasdan added the wry, sardonic wisecracks. The result is, by several miles, the best Star Wars screenplay.

Most Quotable Line: "Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!"

Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)

The Screenplay: Three sisters and their extended family fall in and out of love over a two-year period in Woody Allen's homage to Ibsen and Ingmar Bergman.

Why It's So Impressive: Anyone who only thinks of Woody as a funny guy should be pointed towards this bittersweet, serio-comic gem, whose rippling moods and delicately balanced subplots show his flair as a dramatist.

Most Quotable Line: "Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts."

North By Northwest (1959)

The Screenplay: Screenwriter Ernest Lehmann had one stated aim in his film for Alfred Hitchcock - to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures".

Why It's So Impressive: Lehmann nailed the feel of the Master of Suspense's work, from the bonkers Macguffin (a fictional spy) to the iconic set-pieces. Yet the film endures for its satirical subtext about an amoral, Mad Men -style ad man hounded into giving a shit.

Most Quotable Line: "In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration."

American Beauty (1999)

The Screenplay: Sick of an unnourishing career as a TV writer, Alan Ball poured his passion and sarcasm into a spec script about a mid-life crisis, and found himself at the centre of a bidding war.

Why It's So Impressive: Ball intended this to be a calling card rather than something he'd actually sell, and the result showcases such range that the tone refused to be pigeonholed, combining elements of comedy and tragedy.

Most Quotable Line: "I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

Adaptation (2002)

The Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman (and his brother Donald) joined forces to write an account about how Charlie (and Donald) were asked to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief . We should also mention that Donald doesn't really exist.

Why It's So Impressive: It's a screenplay about screenwriting, in which Kaufman conflates the artistic urge towards realism, with the commercial imperatives of mindless entertainment, to produce a deliberate parody of a three-act movie.

Most Quotable Line: "To begin... To begin... How to start? I'm hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think."

Die Hard (1988)

The Screenplay: Action movie veteran Steven E. de Souza and newcomer Jeb Stuart were entrusted with turning Roderick Thorp's novel Nothing Lasts Forever into a vehicle for TV star-turned-movie hero Bruce Willis.

Why It's So Impressive: Taking the best of the novel but adding topical flourishes to add a satire of 1980s yuppie culture, this is the high point of modern action cinema - perfectly structured (one night, one building) and endlessly quotable.

Most Quotable Line: "Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!"

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