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The Top 25 Best Original Screenplay Winners To Date

Welcome back ladies and gentlemen. Continuing on with a recurring weekly series I’m doing…we’re talking the top 25 Oscar winners in just about every single one of the Academy Award categories. Aside from the shorts and something like Best Sound Mixing like I mentioned previously, I’ll be hitting them all over the coming weeks and months, including of course the big eight categories.

For today, I’m going to knock off the first of those big ones, the ever interesting Best Original Screenplay category. Depending on the category in question, I may wind up discussing the individual winners I’m citing specifically or just giving more of a broad overview of the winners, but for now, I’ll still keeping it simple early on. Like I said last week though, in all honesty, you all mostly just want to see the list anyway, so I have no problem obliging you there in that particular regard. All you have to do is just be patient over the next few paragraphs…

Best Original Screenplay personally has always been one of my favorite Oscar categories, due to the absolute creativity that you can see on display here. Voters sometimes even go out of their comfort zone in honoring scripts written for projects that they’d never touch in the Best Picture category (though that’s begun to change a bit). I think you’ll be able to see a pattern emerging among my winners, as some of their more out there choices have been my favorites. Maybe that says more about me than it does about members of the Academy, but hey, we should all be thankful that some of these screenplays were able to win those Oscars, as they’ve inspired countless other writers in the years since.

This week, for this screenplay category, what I’m going to do is give you the list right now, with a few words about each of the top 25 victors that I’ve chosen. The big eight categories cater to this style nicely, so that’s likely how it’ll go for all of those. Here we go:

25. American Beauty (Alan Ball) – The film hasn’t aged well, but the script itself remains scathingly funny to me. A satire of middle class life and mid life crises, Alan Ball hit on something here, at least at the time. He hasn’t been able to get back to that level since then with his work, but man did he deserve the Oscar for this one, no question about that.

24. Pillow Talk (Clarence Greene, Maurice Richlin,Russell Rouse, and Stanley Shapiro) – A light flick, yes, but a really well written one regardless. The best of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies to me, it’s clever and bubbly in all the right ways. I highly recommend it to any of you who haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet.

23. Little Miss Sunshine (Michael Arndt) – The rare Sundance alum to not seem too quirky for the Academy, Michael Arndt’s script had just the right amount of heart and cleverness in order to woo voters. I don’t think people realize just how well written the movie is, even in spite of the occasional cliche.

22. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (William Goldman) – The buddy movie to many in the generation before mine, I’m also a big fan of this adventurous romp. It’s certainly stood the test of time, no doubt about that. It’s got a formula that many attempt to copy but few are successful in doing, for good reason too.

21. Dog Day Afternoon (Frank Pierson) – Crime dramas rarely have the subversive bent that this one has, and the ones that do owe it to Frank Pierson’s script. Everyone remembers the “Attica!” chant, but some do forget that the bank robbery is being done in order to pay for a sex change operation. That would be a bit of an edgy premise today, let alone back when the movie came out, so credit where credit is due.

20. The Hurt Locker (Mark Boal) – One of the best written war movies to date, Mark Boal is an amazingly talented writer who really should offer up his services more. He’s got a way of capturing the acts of the military in such a way that they seem completely realistic and also consistently enthralling as well.

19. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer) –

18. Hannah and her Sisters (Woody Allen) – Woody Allen will show up again here later, but this Oscar winner of his is deserving of tons of praise on its own. Perhaps the pinnacle of his skills in writing female characters, Allen consistently gives women top notch parts, and this flick was chock full of them. I prefer the other Allen script that I’ll be talking about shortly, but this one is excellent too.

17. Milk (Dustin Lance Black) – Politically poignant but still a perfectly done character study/biopic of slain politician Harvey Milk. Current events of the time only made the film more of the moment, but if you were to pop it in today, you’d still be able to appreciate how well done Dustin Lance Black’s writing is.

16. Chinatown (Robert Towne) – “Forget it Jake…it’s Chinatown”. Need I say more? That quote is in the lexicon forever, but this is also one of the very best film noirs ever made. If somehow you’ve never given this one a chance, you really need to correct that ASAP.

15. On the Waterfront (Budd Schulberg) – One of Marlon Brando’s best written roles, he really gets a chance to show off everything that he’s got in this one. Probably one of the more under seen winners on my list, I can’t recommend seeking this one out enough. He could have been a contender…

14. Dead Poets Society (Tom Schulman) – A lovely script that has seen one of its best speeches re-emerge in pop culture over the past few months due to Apple using it in a commercial that aired around the time of the Super Bowl. Hopefully it’s gotten people to revisit the movie itself, as it’s got lots more to offer than just that bit. Carpe diem.

13. Juno (Diablo Cody) – The stylized dialogue has become a punchline to many, but I still think this is top notch work by Diablo Cody, even more so when you realize that she was still learning her craft at the time. The script is so unique, it’s almost unparalleled in the way that it had its characters talk. That alone makes it an all time great in my eyes.

12. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) – Kenneth Lonergan has long been one of the best filmmakers in the industry…he just doesn’t work enough. He delivered his finest screenplay to date with this heartbreaking drama, which won Casey Affleck the Academy Award for Best Actor. Lonergan took home the Best Original Screenplay Oscar as well, and deservedly so. It’s a perceptive and stunningly moving script. In fact, it’s damn near a perfect one, as well.

11. Network (Paddy Chayefsky) – Shockingly precent about the future of television, everyone knows about the “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” line, but if that’s all you know…then boy oh boy are you missing out. It’s a bleak tale about the worst in our nature, but it hits on where television was going in a real big way. It’s a near masterpiece of writing.

10. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola) – Amazingly touching and showing a wiseness beyond her years, Sofia Coppola officially became more than her father’s daughter with this coming of age story. She also gave Bill Murray the dramatic role of his lifetime, and man did he run with it. She’s struggled to match this work since then, but that takes absolutely nothing away from how great this is.

9. The Apartment (I. A. L. Diamond and Billy Wilder) – Billy Wilder was at his best here with this dramedy. By Oscar winning standards, it’s a comedy, but it’s fairly dark, all things considered. There’s tons of hear there too though, so don’t think that this is only a bleak tale. It’s a love story in the end, just with some of Wilder’s trademark skills on display as well.

8. Good Will Hunting (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) – An incredible achievement for then up and coming actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, it’s the kind of first script that we rarely see anymore. I really wish that the two of them would get together on another screenplay soon, since it’s really an amazing bit of writing. Affleck has become an all around top notch talent and Damon demonstrated that he can still write with the recent film Promised Land, but together they could potentially turn in something on this incredible level if they hooked up again down the road.

7. Citizen Kane (Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles) – To many the greatest film ever made, it’s undoubtedly one of the best screenplays ever. The direction is even better, but that takes nothing away from how good the script is. Orson Welles was an absolute genius, and nowhere can that be more clearly seen than right here.

6. Her (Spike Jonze) – A modern classic already in my book, it’s just heartbreakingly beautiful. In the next few years, I sincerely feel like it’ll move up into the top five with repeat viewings, but right now it’s firmly in the top ten and that’s pretty impressive on its own. It’s outstanding in so many ways. Trust me, this isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this most recent winner. I’m just in love with it.

5. The Producers (Mel Brooks) – Perhaps the funniest screenplay ever to win the Oscar, I may prefer a few other Mel Brooks movies, but this is still absolutely hilarious and incredible to think about as an actual Academy Award winning screenplay. It’s a laugh riot and also challenges the viewer in some ways you might not expect. If you’ve only seen the Broadway show or the disappointing remake, make sure you see this original copy.

4. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe) – Achingly touching and a postcard of a certain kind of youth, Cameron Crowe’s love letter to rock and roll of sorts is one of my all time favorites and brilliantly written in all regards. Crowe is always a terrific writer, but he really outdid himself here. He weaves the story and character moments with music in just a really perfect way. It’s an all time great winner in my book.

3. Annie Hall (Woody Allen) – By far the best thing Woody Allen ever wrote, and that’s saying a lot. It’s the definitive romantic comedy to me, though of course it subverts the genre in some ways that people might not completely appreciate now. Allen is a genius, and he showed it off here with the first time he showed that he had more on his mind than just tickling the funny bone. It announced him as a true artist. It’s also worth noting that he’s got more than one winner here on this list, and one more in Midnight in Paris that I didn’t cite, so go him.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Pierre Bismuth, Michel Gondry, and Charlie Kaufman) – Literally one of the most original films ever written, I’m so glad that it managed to win, after Charlie Kaufman had come up short a few times before. It’s just incredibly dense, but never in a way that leads to confusion. By managing not do that, it spoke to the older voters and made it an easy choice. Beyond that though, it’s just a perfect screenplay, as we all know by now.

1. Pulp Fiction (Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino) – For my money, the best winner this category has ever seen, all things considered. Quentin Tarantino always repurposes old bits from films he loves and B movie history into something new, but we never knew just how amazing that could be until this script turned into the flick that it did. I could give you 1000 words more on this one (with the same going for most of the top ten too), but I’ll just re-iterate that I consider it the top winner of the Best Original Screenplay category ever. Oscar wise, it’s numero uno.

Honorable Mention: The Candidate (Jeremy Larner), Get Out (Jordan Peele), and The Usual Suspects (Christopher McQuarrie)

Next week, I’ll turn my attention to another category, so stay tuned!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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