Like any good writer, I'm driven mainly by one thing: jealousy! Okay, okay, so that's not entirely true - there's also a bit of resentment, for good measure. In the spirit of ruing the success of others (especially the success of encapsulating so perfectly something that feels wrested from your very heart and soul), here are the screenplays that I most wish I could take credit for. These are scripts that I feel tap into some fundamental truth of my being so effectively, that I feel a sense of almost spiritual co-authorship of them, which in due time the Writer's Guild and IMDB will be forced to recognize (I'll take all the help I can get).
This is by no means meant to serve as a "Best Screenplays of All Time List" or any such presumptuous nonsense, though most if not all of these would certainly rank. It's most of all about personal relevance, which is why, even though there can be little doubt that Network and Chinatown are amongst the ten greatest scripts ever written, they just miss the cut here. These are merely the ones which, for whatever reasons, loom largest over my shoulder whenever I open Final Draft; whose influence I am constantly attempting to both heed and escape from. Feel free to offer your own in the comments below.
Annie Hall, Woody Allen
An easy, obvious enough choice to start with - and I'm sure that some of my hipper, more independent-minded readers are rolling their eyes and clicking away as I type - but sometimes there is a reason that things become cliche, and while it is certainly cliche to say that Woody Allen's influential romantic comedy (if it can even be classified as such - yes, it's both romantic and a comedy, but I still think it may be too distinct to really fit neatly within that categorization) is the great love story of our time, it's no less true. Not just because it sees both the sweet, dizzying highs and also the harsh, bitter lows of love, but also because it does so in such a fun, loose way that is no less emotionally effective. People sometimes rip on Allen by saying that his work isn't cinematic enough, but this is a work of pure cinema, embracing just about every element of the form that you could possibly think to use.
Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman
This really could have gone any of three ways, with either this, Adaptation, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind being the one chosen, but in the end there's something about the overall thematic statement made by Kaufman's breakthrough script that justifies the vein of bitter self-loathing that permeates and obviously hits home to someone like me. A movie about the morally corrosive effects of self-loathing that also manages to find the tender heart beneath our shallow, fame-obsessed culture and ultimately tell a story about two women completely rediscovering themselves. Like all Kaufman this is euphorically, maddeningly brilliant. Oh, and again - funny.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere
A series of surreal, hilarious sequences strung together by no plot to speak of works because of the solid thematic core to which Bunuel and Carriere anchor their flights of fancy. No one has ever made repetition so continuously fresh and engaging. A thrilling monument to the capabilities of the human imagination, this also serves as one of the most effective demonstrations of why Bunuel works as well as he does - like all great satirists, he always implicates himself. As loathsome as they act, Bunuel's bourgeois grotesques are palatable because we can relate to them; their hypocrisies are our own. Bunuel's satire is viciously incisive, but it's done with just as much good humor as anger.
Dog Day Afternoon, Frank Pierson
A perfect study in escalation, Pierson's script begins as a chronicle of a bank robbery continuously beset by obstacles which slowly and by very incremental, believable turns grows into a national incident. This is the great "decent guy doing a stupid, stupid thing" movie, and the increasing pressure put upon Sonny to react as his mistake spirals so badly out of control dovetails perfectly with the slow reveal of his true motivations. The writing is just as sharp on a character-by-character basis - every soul trapped inside the bank and congregating outside watching feels fully fleshed-out and distinct (possibly a credit to Sidney Lumet's improvisational directing style, but who's counting?).
Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino
Because, let's face it, everybody wishes they had written this fucker.
Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson
Another instance in which I could have just about chosen any one of the writer's scripts, Punch Drunk gets the nod this time because it was one of the most potent instances I can remember in which I sat in a movie theater and experienced that strange convergence of pain and elation at the feeling that someone had stolen my brain and threw it across a screen. I identified so intensely, so personally, with Barry Egan that I think people started to worry about me. I still feel a little too close to it to be able to effectively write about it without sounding like a complete gushing buffoon.
A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers' modern-day take on Job, and one of the great spiritual explorations of our times, this film was the culmination of the trilogy of meaninglessness that began with No Country For Old Men and continued through Burn After Reading. Larry Gopnick is the perfect Coenian everyman, lovable but kind of a schmuck, a timid physics professor just trying to get by in a world that seems continuously out to ruin his life for no good reason. From the opening scene, a disconnected tone-setter that puts you in the exact frame of mind to digest what follows, the Coen's reaffirm themselves as master's of their craft. They've written over a dozen brilliant scripts, but this is the one that feels the most personal and thematically resonant.
Something Wild, E. Max Frye
Starts with a very simple set-up - a young woman catches a nebbishy man skipping out on a restaurant tab and forces him to either get into her car or come clean - and builds into a cross-country odyssey of sex, violence, and self-rediscovery. Basically, this film depicts what every nerd wants to have happen to them some day, and yet it somehow is able to do so without resorting to cheap wish-fulfillment fantasy. A movie equal parts about getting over your own past while rescuing someone else from theirs, its ultimately a film about two lost souls who decide to take the risk of healing each other, while all along satisfying as a propulsive narrative.
Talk to Her, Pedro Almodovar
A perfect balance of some of Almodovar's enfant terrible sensibilities combined with his later-career warmth. A moving story about one man teaching another the true meaning of love and communication that also happens to include a silent-film-within-a-film involving a tiny man crawling inside of a giant vagina. The delicate balance with which Almodovar the writer handles Benigno, the disturbed yet benign (I swear I didn't see the connection there until I typed it out) male nurse who commits an unspeakable act yet never feels dangerous because we believe so fully that he has truly acted out of love and selflessness - at least in his own eyes - with such a genuine and generous empathy that he never threatens to lose his humanity or become some sort of vile cautionary tale or - worse yet - a martyr.
Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader
Few people have so successfully sounded the murky depths of the human soul as Paul Schrader, and while he usually gets lost under the combined shadow of Scorsese and DeNiro, he's arguably the one most responsible for the emotional and spiritual identity of this troubling masterpiece. The emotional progression of Travis Bickle, a damaged loner desperate yet unable to make a connection, and the way that social impotence festers inside of him until finally unleashing itself in a burst of misdirected violence, is the ultimate expression of the ugly, desperate emotional darkness inside of us all.