Putting together last week's list of my favorite screenplays of the 2000's was relatively easy. I came up with about ten worthy candidates and narrowed from there. When I started putting together this week's list -- my favorite screenplays of the 1990's -- things got a lot more complicated. I had a much larger list of worthy candidates to choose from. It made me realize that a) the 90's, particularly the late 90's, was a genuinely incredible time for film, and b) I was going to have to split my list into two halves: 1995 -- 1999 and 1990 -- 1994.
So, in support of all the great screenwriters currently on strike, what follows is my favorite screenplays produced between 1995 and 1999. Read that last sentence carefully! If you've got movies you'd add to or subtract from my list, I would love to hear them, but make sure your choice fits the criteria. On my 2000's list, I was getting comments like "How DARE you not include Citizen Kane, you freaking idiot?"
Now then, with all apologies to the scripts it killed me to leave off (Office Space, A Simple Plan, As Good As it Gets, Chasing Amy, Lone Star, Three Kings, Swingers, Jackie Brown, Kingpin, I could go on and on), here is my alphabetical list:
Being John Malkovich by Charlie Kaufman
I vividly remember heading into the premiere of this film. Charlie Kaufman wasn't yet The Charlie Kaufman, and the lobby was full of people rolling their eyes at what would surely be a one-joke movie. They were handing out Malkovich masks, for crying out loud! And then the film started. People stopped the eye-rolling real quick. There has truly never been a movie like Being John Malkovich. That such an insane screenplay got produced is frankly amazing. That it managed to be so dark and deep and meaningful while featuring a Charlie Sheen cameo is something of a miracle.
The Big Lebowski by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
I love Fargo just as much as The Big Lebowski, but without the snowy landscapes and that amazing cast and those "Oh yah?" accents, Fargo loses a little crackle on the page. Lebowski is working on a different level. You almost need to read the screenplay to follow the intricate web of dialogue spilling over the edges of each scene. Like the Coens' Raising Arizona, Lebowski is a comedy in which practically every line is hilarious and quotable. It's not the brothers'' tightest work, but it is a complete original, and it gave us some of the most memorable characters in recent film: The Dude. Walter Sobchak. Donny. Jesus Quintana. Come on.
Heat by Michael Mann
An epic in every sense of the word, Michael Mann's screenplay for Heat pushes the whole cops and robbers thing into mythic territory. Vincent Hannah (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) are on opposite sides of the law, but are they really so different? An old story, sure, but rarely told this effectively. Plus, the numerous side stories are all terrific and it's got one of the sweetest shoot-outs in the movies. It's a kick to watch two of the best actors in the business square off in a diner, but what makes the scene an all-time great is that the writing was more than up to the event.
L.A. Confidential by Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson
Helgeland and Hanson's brilliant adaptation of James Ellroy's novel doesn't just re-create the feel of those old Hollywood noir classics, it earns a place alongside them. L.A. Confidential is a mind-bendingly complicated script, but it never cheats and it's told so cleanly that paying close attention delivers payoff after payoff. This is my generation's Chinatown.
Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson
It's a big arguing point for Paul Thomas Anderson fans -- is Boogie Nights or Magnolia the better film? I would say Boogie Nights is a more entertaining piece of filmmaking, but its debts to directors like Martin Scorsese might be a bit too obvious. Magnolia is on its own planet. Sure, there's a heavy Robert Altman influence, but Magnolia is better than anything Altman ever did. Anderson intertwines several sharply drawn characters and stories, each so good that you don't want to go on to the next. When the desperate characters do all come crashing together, in that Biblical finale, it's a moment so completely unexpected, so jaw-dropping, so completely brave that all you can do is shake your head in disbelief. This is screenwriting on the very edge, writing so raw it's almost uncomfortable.
Se7en by Andrew Kevin Walker
Se7en deeply affected me. I can remember thinking to myself as I walked out of the theater, drained: "Who is the sick bastard that came up with this stuff?" Andrew Kevin Walker, that's who. Director David Fincher gets most of the credit, but all the graphic detail was right there on the page. Thank goodness such an ingenious premise (the seven deadly sins "gimmick") was handled so brilliantly and not flushed into some crappy B-movie. Se7en is relentlessly bleak, but on a first viewing you figure everything will be okay in the end. My God, is everything not okay in the end! And it is a real credit to everyone involved that the ending was kept in tact. It's mighty rare to get a climax that shocking, disturbing, and downbeat in a Hollywood film. Walker wrote the best serial killer movie ever made, as far as I'm concerned.
Sling Blade by Billy Bob Thornton
Billy Bob Thornton's "Karl" voice is what most people remember, but this movie is so much more than "Mmmhmm" and "french-fried potaters." Sling Blade is the first screenplay I purchased, and I used to study that sucker. From the stunning opening monologue, you know you're in for something wonderfully weird and special. These are characters I hadn't seen before. Thornton's Karl Childers is a modern day Boo Radley, and one of the most moral, lovable murderers in the movies. The portrait of Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter), a homosexual man living in a tiny town, is worthy of its own film. And Doyle Hargraves (a phenomenal Dwight Yoakam) is the most hissable screen villain of the nineties, effective because he is so disturbingly real. You know how some of the nastiest bullies are the ones who follow every insult up with "I'm just kidding?" Thornton does, and it's those little character touches that make Sling Blade a modern classic.