You’ll often hear directors say that each movie is really three movies: The one on the page, the one you shoot, and the one you end up with in the final cut. That gives you three chances to get it right or mess it up even more, but nothing beats a solid foundation and well-crafted blueprint. At least with a great screenplay, you know it will be a lot harder to mess up the other two phases.
Any consideration of the best movies of the past 18 years takes on new context when considered exclusively in terms of their screenplays. There are some obvious masters of the form, such as Charlie Kaufman and Kenneth Lonergan, not to mention the clockwork-like precision of the Pixar story factory, which is why they all have two films on this list. Many of the films here were robbed of Oscar nominations, including from David Fincher’s “Zodiac” to Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” but that doesn’t take anything away from their merits.
In that spirit, here is IndieWire’s list of the best American screenplays of the last two decades. Share your own in the comments.
25. “American Psycho” (2000)
Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel “American Psycho” was shrouded in controversy surrounding its release, as it portrayed the brutally violent life of an alpha NYC yuppie who favored killing prostitutes and the homeless. So what would inspire two female cowriters, director Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, to adapt the story for film? The pair are much more interested in the mechanics that make Patrick Bateman tick, and building from that the satire that underlines the film’s best moments. From the obsessive one-upsmanship about business cards and restaurant seats, to the jarring ’80s pop songs underlining Bateman’s most brutal murders, the killer is deftly moved from glorification to case study. Wisely using the novel as a jumping-off point instead of a sacred text, Harron and Turner give their script plenty of texture and nuance that elevates this film from cult footnote to a masterclass of screenwriting. —William Earl
24. “Finding Nemo” (2003)
It’s hard to think of greater comedic character than Dory, the blue tang fish with short term memory loss and a heart of gold. As voiced by the incomparable Ellen Degeneres, Dory is at once maddening and irresistible. Playing off a stammering Albert Brooks as befuddled straight-fish Marlon (okay, technically he’s a clownfish), these two could hold their own against any classic comedy duo. Of course, it would take a kids’ movie about fish to pen the greatest non-romantic guy/gal buddy comedy. But what elevates “Finding Nemo” to greatest Pixar movie of all time status is its emotional core. Not only is “Finding Nemo” the kind of movie adults can laugh at, but Marlon’s quest for Nemo cuts right to the bone for any parent or child. Bob Peterson and David Reynolds assisted co-director Andrew Stanton on his original story, the same mind who dreamed up other top Pixar joints “Wall-E” and “Toy Story.” Moving, hilarious, and adorned with vibrant and fluid seascapes, “Finding Nemo” captures the greatest lesson any parent must learn; the art of letting go. —Jude Dry
23. “Lovely & Amazing” (2001)
More recently known for “Enough Said,” Nicole Holofcener writes the perfect kind of comedies: ones about deeply flawed characters that revel in the life’s inevitable messes. This nearly perfect film stars Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer as sisters, with the excellent Brenda Blethyn as their liposuction-seeking mother, and a scene-stealing Raven Goodwin as their adopted black sister. Each character is unlike any other woman you’ll see onscreen, equal parts self-deprecating and self-absorbed. Holofcener balances many elements, including a May-December affair with a young Jake Gyllenhaal, and using the young Goodwin as cheeky comedic fodder. It’s a bold choice that pays off. Wrongfully pegged a “smart chick-flick” by some, Holofcener is that rare double-whammy of an auteur whose genuine artistry is masked by sheer entertainment value. —Jude Dry
22. “Creed” (2015)
Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington’s “Creed” screenplay is the kind of crowd-pleasing knockout that seems to come along once in a blue moon. Not only does the script manage to tell an authentic origin story of the young and determined Apollo Creed, but it also finds an authentic way to revive Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and make him the emotional lynchpin of Apollo’s rise to champion boxer. Nothing in “Creed” feels shoehorned in to satisfy “Rocky” fans. The script fights hard to invest you in Appollo’s journey and earn its callbacks to Stallone’s classic. No wonder the moment when Creed runs through the streets of Philadelphia feels like such an invigorated triumph. The script is the very definition of satisfaction. —Zack Sharf
21. “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)
After making some challenging masterpieces, Lisa Cholodenko finally knocked it out of the park with a witty and artful take on contemporary family life. Bitingly clever and unafraid to take unexpected turns, Choldenko’s script was so good that it attracted the likes of Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and made stars out of young Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. Bening and Moore are kinetic as a controlling power lesbian and her free-spirited wife who has an affair with their sperm donor, played with quintessential laid-back brio by Mark Ruffalo. Wasikowska and Hutcherson bring a perfect blend of child-like innocence and willful precociousness as the titular kids. The film was a critical and box-office success, though some LGBT critics bristled at the “lesbian turns straight” trope. In our opinion, Cholodenko gets a pass as an out lesbian in Hollywood who makes great films — and it turns out all right in the end. —JD