To deliver a grand critically acclaimed movie or a blockbuster with a massive budget, the first thing that comes to the studio and the director’s mind is the script. Without a wonderful script, a movie would be a failure at the theatres.
Over the last 5 decades, filmmaking has changed a lot due to technology. And even with the emerging screenwriting software tools, the art of writing screenplays has remained almost the same, with each writer having his or her own style of writing.
Every successful writer has gone through rewrites countless times in his life. And has read innumerable screenplays to learn this art of screenwriting.
I find this quote by Alfred Hitchcock very true.
So without losing more time, let us discuss the 30 best screenplays since the 21st century started. This list includes the Best Original Screenplays and the Best Adapted Screenplays.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Based on the novel series Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, the King’s Return is the third installment in this series. Acclaimed director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh and co-writer Philippa Boyens won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2003.
The screenplay is wonderfully crafted for action, grandeur, suspense, which keeps audiences in their seats throughout the whole 3-hour movie. It is definitely a must-read for all the budding writers out there.
2. The Social Network
Aaron Sorkin won the award for the movie The Social Network in 2010. Based on how Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook along with his friends.
The screenplay, whether based on a true story or not, has been written for the audience to grasp the world of social media in a cautious way. It holds your breath while reading and turns the script’s pages automatically as the story unfolds.
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3. Toy Story 3
A computer-animated film by Pixar, Toy Story 3 is the 3rd installment in the Toy Story franchise. Andy, the owner of the toys Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Bullseye, and some more is leaving for college and decides to throw them in the dustbin, except Woody. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was nominated for the Academy Award in 2010.
The story tells the toys’ adventures through the neighborhood, while Woody, who is separated from them, plays with toys of another owner named Bonnie.
While watching the movie, you feel that even non-living objects have emotions, and Michael Arndt makes us believe it while reading the script. It’s as good as the first two Toy Story movies.
4. 12 Years a Slave
This script which won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay is a perfect depiction of slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is based on the book by the same name.
Screenwriter John Ridley has written a masterful, heartwrenching screenplay of an African-American man who is captured by two men and sold to into slavery. The script is true to the real story, and the scenes are as real as they can get.
Released in 2007 Zodiac is one of the most iconic films of the 21st century. The film is based on finding a notorious serial killer in the late ’60s and ’70s. Though it did not get nominated for an oscar and it is still critically acclaimed and regarded as David Fincher’s best.
Screenwriter James Vanderbilt has written one of the most accurate screenplays ever when it comes to crime thrillers. Yes, the scenes in the script really happened back in the ’70s, so if you are a crime writer or even a novelist, don’t forget to read Zodiac.
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6. The Shape of Water
Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, this is a romantic drama film. Set in the cold war, a girl who is mute falls in love with an amphibian man in a secret facility in Maryland, US. When the man is ordered to be killed silently, she tries to save him.
The story is so well written, like a fairytale, and simultaneously is also realistic. Fantastic to read and learn how to write drama.
7. The Dark Knight
Written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan, this script is so brilliant that you won’t be able to put it down once you start. Chris Nolan decided to make a 3 part series on Batman and The Dark Knight is the second of these 3 installments.
As you start reading, you’ll feel that Batman is a superhero, but he’s also human. Fantastic, brilliant, just like the direction. It should have won many Oscars, just like the critics have said.
Brilliant writings have resulted in brilliant visuals. Sometimes the scripts are also impoverished during the filming that results in greater visuals.
8. Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino writes the redemption movies as no one else does. He has his own style. And Django Unchained is one of his best. The story is of a slave who is freed by a german man, and later on, both of them start looking for Django’s wife who is held captive by a man named Calvin.
The script is long, more than 160 pages but still it captures you (if you are into reading stories about cruelty and violence). This film is not for the faint-hearted. Leonardo DiCaprio gives another stellar performance as Calvin.
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Released in 2004, this story has romance, drama, science fiction, and classic actors like Jim Carry and Kate Winslet. The story is of a couple who have erased their memories of a two-year relationship they had in the past. And then they meet again.
Charlie Kaufman won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for this one. The script is fantastic to read as you’ll feel tears rolling down your cheeks in the end. Acceptance of each other’s flaws in a relationship is what comes to mind while reading it.
Related: 15 Best Screenwriting Podcasts for Writers
One of the best-animated films of all time Up was released in 2009 by Pixar. The story is of an elderly widower named Carl, who ties hundreds of balloons to his house in order to see the wilds of South America. A boy named Russell is also with Carl on this adventure which is actually a promise he had made to his late wife.
The script was nominated for an Oscar and the plot has everything you need and more in an animated film. If fact it is as good a film with real actors. The initial montage scene itself tells that this story is worth reading. You can read a detailed script review here on Studio Binder.
11. The Departed
Martin Scorsese directs yet another wonderful crime drama film. The story follows an undercover agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) entering the crew of a gangster named Costello (Jack Nicholson) to find out more about him.
The first 15 pages of the script set the tone of the film which builds itself on the theme of corruption in the police department at the highest level with bad characters having absolutely no remorse.
Written by Steven Zillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball is based on how a baseball team manager of Oakland Athletics assembles a team of players, on a tight budget and wins the 2002 American League West title. It stars Brad Pitt as the manager Billy Beane.
The script has a cunning dialogue with drama and is a perfect read for any sports lover. Read and learn to write more scripts by taking a basic screenwriting course.
Shrek is an animated feature film released in 2001 by DreamWorks Animation. The story is of an Ogre named Shrek, who falls in love with a princess and tries to save the world of an evil man, who is banishing all the fairy tale creatures to the swamp. And the swamp is where Shrek lives.
The story is humorous and is actually not written like a fairytale. Shrek won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. You can read a detailed script review here on Studio Binder.
This paved the way for screenwriter and director Damien Chazelle into Hollywood’s elite. A young boy aspires to be a world-class drummer but has to go through his band conductor’s derogatory behaviour towards him.
He bleeds his hands while practicing, and is also fired from the school he’s learning from. The script works because it is only focused on the main character’s determination to fulfill his dream.
Written by Paul Haggis and released in 2004, Crash revolves around a number of characters with racial tensions between each other. The script is a good read shifting between scenes and letting you decide where each character is headed for next.
With many twists in the plot and characters colliding with each other, it makes you think that absolutely anything can happen in life. Crash is worth reading.
Most of the film looks like it was shot in one take. The film won 3 Oscars including Best Original Screenplay. Birdman stars Michael Keaton as a Hollywood actor who has played the role of “Birdman” the superhero and now wants to adapt it on broadway.
The script is humorous and a little bit confusing to understand. But still, I would say watch the film first and then read the script. It is unique from any other script in the same genre.
Read about more impactful films that have ruled the cinema world. The more you analyze film, the better screenwriter you can be.
Wall-E, again by Pixar is an animated film based on science fiction and tells a story of a robot who falls in love with another robot. Earth has no living creatures and WALL-E is left to clean the electronic trash.
The story has no dialogue in the first 20 minutes and still, it holds on to its essence till the end. A must-read for sci-fi lovers.
18. Get Out
Get Out is a film about love, hate, betrayal, and racism in the modern world. The theme of the script is set from the beginning itself when the main character who is black has doubts about his girlfriend’s family.
And she, being a white woman also hasn’t told her family about him yet. It’s a fantastic screenplay by Jordan Peele. You can also read the script breakdown here.
Written by Christopher Nolan, Inception is a sci-fi action thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, who is a professional thief. He infiltrates the mind of his targets and then steals vital information.
With a lot of twists and turns in the script, the idea of the film is controlling and entering a dream within a dream. The story is so captivating that you’ll read the script twice at least.
20. Minority Report
Though not nominated for an Oscar, Minority Report, a film Steven Spielberg is set in the year 2054. Police can determine when a crime is about to be committed and arrest that person beforehand.
The script has sci-fi action scenes and the story sizzles along like butter on a hot pan. This is a script to learn from if you decide to write a sci-fi action thriller.
21. Million Dollar Baby
Again written by Paul Haggis, this film revolves around an amateur female boxer wanting to become a world champion.
Her trainer helps her to win this title. The story has wonderful short dialogue for some scenes and gets the reader to understand that hard work without determination and patience is a waste of time.
Million Dollar Baby is directed by Clint Eastwood and also stars himself as the trainer. A must-watch and read for everyone. An excellent film to watch to understand minute aspects of storytelling.
22. La La Land
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle again, this is a romantic musical film starring. An aspiring actress (Emma Stone) falls in love with a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) while pursuing her dream in Los Angeles.
Reading the script it’s a mixture of Bollywood and Hollywood put together. There are some instances when you may feel that it’s not going anywhere but writing a musical is not easy. A very good script to read for all the musicians and aspiring filmmakers.
Her is a sci-fi romantic drama film in which a man falls in love with an artificially intelligent virtual assistant played by Scarlett Johansson.
The script is written by Spike Jonze and gives us a glimpse into the future of our world of AI. The essence of the story is that humans need some to reciprocate their feelings, in spite of the technology they build to make themselves happy.
24. The Grand Budapest Hotel
This film has comedy and drama where both go hand in hand perfectly. Written by Wes Anderson, the film tells a story of a famed concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who is framed for murder and after that, he, along with a boy escape to save their lives.
While reading the script you might feel that you are really in the luxurious hotel and then suddenly on a train. The smoothness in the storytelling is what provokes you to turn the pages till the end.
Written by August Wilson Fences is based on a black man’s (Denzel Washington) life in the late ’50s. The script journeys us through his flaws as a son, father, husband. But his love for his family is portrayed quite well despite his flaws, in this story.
26. Slumdog Millionaire
Written by Simon Beaufoy, this is a story of an 18-year-old boy from a slum in India who wins a million dollars by answering 13 questions in a contest. However, he is suspected of cheating and is arrested by the police.
The script is in flashbacks and has suspense throughout the story. The film won 8 Oscars including Best Adapted Screenplay.
27. Mystic River
It is a mystery drama film written by Brian Helgeland and directed by Clint Eastwood. The script tells the tale of 3 friends who turn on each other due to coincidences in their early life and their choices later on after 25 years.
The script in its initial pages gives you a clear picture of the theme of the story. Must read for all crime drama fans.
28. Children of Men
Based on the novel by the same name and written by 5 writers, this film takes place in 2027. The story is of a future where humans are on the brink of collapsing, due to infertility.
The story depicts a grim reality if humans start taking the gravest decisions with ease. The last scenes in the script will have you dumbfounded even more as you continue to read this sci-fi thriller.
29. Bridge of Spies
Written by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, this is a historical drama film based on a true story. The story is of a US lawyer in the cold war, entrusted with negotiating the release of a US Air Force pilot in the custody of the Soviet Union in exchange for a spy.
The script by the Coen brothers depicts the nature of the lawyer who believes in fair play. The script is wonderful to read and has very witty dialogues.
30. Lost in Translation
Written & directed by Sofia Coppola this film tells the story of a fading movie star who falls in love with an unlikely woman who is a lost soul in Tokyo.
The script had minor improvisations on set but has been written in simplicity. There are moments in the script where there’s just silence, and it has been used very effectively. The timing of the scenes and music is the key to the story here.
I know you might have watched some of these movies, but start reading and analyzing them now. That is the only way to become a good screenwriter. You can also take up a screenwriting course, but ultimately your devotion is what matters.
Happy Reading to you!