The 25 Best American Screenplays of the 21st Century, From ‘Eternal Sunshine’ to ‘Lady Bird’

From the Oscar-winning to the criminally underrated, it all starts on the page for these knockout scripts.

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)

American Psycho

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)

Finding Nemo

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)

“Lovely & Amazing”

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)

Creed, Stallone, Michael B Jordan

“Creed”

Warner Bros./REX/Shutterstock

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)

“The Kids Are All Right”

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

Focus Features’ Tackles ‘Trading In Starvation’ From Daniel Kunka For Smokehouse, ‘Spotlight’ Producers

EXCLUSIVE: It is a very real issue around the world but few realize how bad it is: the political commodity of water and food in third world countries and how a people either are fed or starve depending on what entity (gov’t./corporate) is in control. Now Focus Features is looking at this very issue: Written by Daniel Kunka and bought for Smokehouse and Spotlight producers Blye Pagon Faust and Nicole Rocklin, the drama is inspired by a number of different stories that…

EXCLUSIVE: It is a very real issue around the world but few realize how bad it is: the political commodity of water and food in third world countries and how a people either are fed or starve depending on what entity (gov’t./corporate) is in control. Now Focus Features is looking at this very issue: Written by Daniel Kunka and bought for Smokehouse and Spotlight producers Blye Pagon Faust and Nicole Rocklin, the drama is inspired by a number of different stories that…

‘Champion,’ Action/Thriller Spec, Acquired By Studio 8

EXCLUSIVE: Studio 8 just brought in another project. The company has acquired the action/thriller Champion about two American brothers, wrongly sentenced to prison in Thailand, who are then forced to compete in Thai boxing for a chance to win their freedom. The company is now out to directors.
This comes after Studio 8 recently acquired Graham Moore’s female strong, sci-fi thriller Naked is the Best Disguise, another sci-fi thriller from Robert Rodriguez and Max…

EXCLUSIVE: Studio 8 just brought in another project. The company has acquired the action/thriller Champion about two American brothers, wrongly sentenced to prison in Thailand, who are then forced to compete in Thai boxing for a chance to win their freedom. The company is now out to directors. This comes after Studio 8 recently acquired Graham Moore’s female strong, sci-fi thriller Naked is the Best Disguise, another sci-fi thriller from Robert Rodriguez and Max…

‘Highlander’ Reboot Gets Moving After ‘Colony’ Writer Ryan Condal Hands In Script

EXCLUSIVE: It’s been a long time in the works but the reboot of classic warrior franchise Highlander is moving forward. I hear that Colony writer Ryan Condal has delivered a script to Lionsgate and pre-production is set to start later this year.
The studio has been handed a script for the project, which has been in development for nearly ten years after Summit Entertainment acquired the rights in 2008. It is a new take on the feature, which was originally released in…

EXCLUSIVE: It's been a long time in the works but the reboot of classic warrior franchise Highlander is moving forward. I hear that Colony writer Ryan Condal has delivered a script to Lionsgate and pre-production is set to start later this year. The studio has been handed a script for the project, which has been in development for nearly ten years after Summit Entertainment acquired the rights in 2008. It is a new take on the feature, which was originally released in…

Aaron Sorkin Takes Slightly Off-Center Stage at WGA’s Beyond Words Panel

The year’s most acclaimed screenwriters gathered onstage tonight at the Writers Guild Theater for the WGA Foundation’s annual Beyond Words get together. Funny and informal – the only panelist wearing a tie was Aaron Sorkin – it had the feel of a reunion of old war buddies talking about life in the trenches. But here the battlefield was the process of writing movies.
The evening, toasting this year’s WGA-nominated screenplays, began with Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) recalling…

The year's most acclaimed screenwriters gathered onstage tonight at the Writers Guild Theater for the WGA Foundation's annual Beyond Words get together. Funny and informal – the only panelist wearing a tie was Aaron Sorkin – it had the feel of a reunion of old war buddies talking about life in the trenches. But here the battlefield was the process of writing movies. The evening, toasting this year's WGA-nominated screenplays, began with Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) recalling…

Film Independent Spirit Awards Nominees Get $150K In Cash Grants At Brunch

Five independent filmmakers received cash grants totaling $150,000 today from Film Independent, the nonprofit arts organization that produces the Spirit Awards and the LA Film Festival.
The recipients were announced at the annual Spirit Awards Nominee Brunch held at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood. John Cho (Star TrekColumbusSearch) and Alia Shawkat (Search PartyBlazeDuck Butter) co-hosted the event and handed out the honors.
“This year we are giving out $150,000…

Five independent filmmakers received cash grants totaling $150,000 today from Film Independent, the nonprofit arts organization that produces the Spirit Awards and the LA Film Festival. The recipients were announced at the annual Spirit Awards Nominee Brunch held at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood. John Cho (Star TrekColumbusSearch) and Alia Shawkat (Search PartyBlazeDuck Butter) co-hosted the event and handed out the honors. "This year we are giving out $150,000…

Who Reps The Black List 2017 Scripts: The Charts

CAA had the most clients on the 2017 Black List of the top unproduced screenplays in town, while Grandview took the same honor among management companies. The totals were tallied after The Black List organization released their annual rankings this morning.
The field seemed more spread out than usual this year, with four agencies scoring 10 or more mentions on the annual list, with UTA taking bragging rights to the voting leader, Matthew Firpo and Ryan Firpo’s Ruin. WME

CAA had the most clients on the 2017 Black List of the top unproduced screenplays in town, while Grandview took the same honor among management companies. The totals were tallied after The Black List organization released their annual rankings this morning. The field seemed more spread out than usual this year, with four agencies scoring 10 or more mentions on the annual list, with UTA taking bragging rights to the voting leader, Matthew Firpo and Ryan Firpo’s Ruin. WME