101 greatest screenplays of the 21st century

The 101 Greatest Screenplays of the 21st Century Have Been Named

Behind a number of iconic films are some of the world’s best screenplays, which put everything in motion before the cameras even start to roll. More than a mere blueprint, the greatest screenplays provide an early version of the film’s template and tone alike. Talented actors and visionary directors turn those words into flesh and bring the story to life by way of gripping performances and deft visuals. Without all of these components (and so much more), cinema simply wouldn’t work.

In honour of this timeless craft, the WGA recently voted on the best scripts of the 21st century. It should come as a surprise to no one that many of these greatest screenplays laid the foundations for some of the century’s finest films. What is slightly surprising is the number of best original screenplays (as opposed to adaptations) that made the top 10. Perhaps it will give all the naysayers—who insist that Hollywood is utterly devoid of creativity—something to chew on.

Who Picks the List?

It was up to the members of the Writers Guilds West and East—which makes up the Writers Guild of America (WGA for short)—to vote on the best screenplays of the 21st century. A joint effort between two US labor unions, the WGA generally represents TV and film writers. Established in 1954, it currently has approximately 20,000 members. As with most unions, it charges dues and tries to ensure that members are paid fairly for their work (amongst other things).

What Makes a Great Screenplay?

In 2013, TV writer John Yorke penned an article for The Guardian on what makes for a great screenplay. To summarise, you need a well-defined protagonist (or protagonists) who must overcome a problem of sorts, battling against various odds along the way. There should also be an antagonist or at the very least a tangible obstacle blocking the hero from completing their journey. All of these characters should have a palpable sense of desire, which compels them to act from one scene to the next. Sharp dialogue, an underlying theme, a clear voice, and strong writing also help, as do a host of other tenets. For more pointers, you’ll just have to pick up one of those screenwriting books.

10 Greatest Screenplays Of The 21st Century

The WGA voted on the 101 Greatest Screenplays of the 21st Century (so far) in total. Here are the top 10.

1. Get Out (2017)

Jordan Peele’s directorial feature is one of the most impressive debuts in cinematic history. Part sci-fi thriller and part social satire, it follows a young Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) into the heart of white-as-white-bread suburbia. Early scenes examine the subtle racism lying just beneath the veneer of upper-crust society before the film’s second half cracks everything wide open. Balancing terror and comedy can be tough to pull off, but Peele and his brilliant cast make it seem effortless. This is the best script of the 21st century (so far), as determined by the WGA.

Year of release: 2017
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Director: Jordan Peele

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

No one blends surrealism and romance quite like Charlie Kaufman, the acclaimed writer behind films such as “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” This time around, he and director Michel Gondry inject a story of heartbreak with a clever sci-fi twist. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play tormented ex-lovers, who undergo an extreme medical procedure in order to erase their respective memories of one another. It’s easily one of the best original screenplays of the 21st century, with an emphasis on the word “original.”

Year of release: 2004
Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman
Director: Michel Gondry

3. The Social Network (2010)

No list of greatest screenplays is complete without the name Aaron Sorkin, who delivers witty dialogue at a breakneck pace. He teamed up with director David Fincher for this downright gripping journey through the origins of Facebook. Follow Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) as he goes from misogynistic misfit to the foremost ruler of online interaction. Taking more than a handful of creative liberties, Sorkin dials up the irony to lend the work its most compelling theme: that anti-social behaviour is at the very heart of our planet’s most ubiquitous social network.

Year of release: 2010
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Director: David Fincher

4. Parasite (2019)

The first non-English-language film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece offers plenty of theme and no shortage of shocking twists. When a poor family sneaks their way into a wealthy household, it creates a chain reaction with horrific consequences. Whilst always entertaining, the film is not subtle in its exploration of the class divide. But who needs subtlety when the screenwriting, acting, and direction are this strong?

Year of release: 2019
Screenwriter: Bong Joon-ho
Director: Bong Joon-ho

5. No Country for Old Men (2007)

Synonymous with some of the best original screenplays (and movies) of all time, siblings Joel and Ethan Coen brought their unique sensibilities to this heralded adaptation. Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, it depicts the deadly game of cat and mouse between a small-town Texan (Josh Brolin) and a ruthless hitman (Javier Bardem). One of the best scripts of the 21st century indeed, but this film simply wouldn’t be the same in the hands of different directors or actors. It’s also the perfect rewatchable.

Year of release: 2007
Screenwriter: The Coen Brothers
Director: The Coen Brothers

6. Moonlight (2016)

The feature-length debut from filmmaker Barry Jenkins spans three chapters in the life of a young Black man, who comes of age against brutal odds. Firing on all cylinders, its terrific screenplay inspires seminal performances from the cast, including Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali. The city of Miami has never been captured as it is here, with vivid colours that nearly pour off the screen. Those are but a few amongst countless reasons to catch this modern masterpiece.

Year of release: 2016
Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins
Director: Barry Jenkins

7. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson took audiences by surprise when he unleashed this mature historical drama, loosely inspired by a 1920s novel. Daniel Day-Lewis turns in a landmark performance as oil baron Daniel Plainview, who pursues great personal fortune at any cost. Whilst technically an adaptation (it was nominated for an Oscar in that category), this still feels like one of the best original screenplays of the modern era.

Year of release: 2007
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

8. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

It’s WWII as only Quentin Tarantino can imagine it—or reimagine it, that is—in this blockbuster action drama. Featuring top-notch performances all around, the story follows assorted Jewish characters on their violent quests for revenge. As with nearly all his films, Tarantino matches unmistakable dialogue with thrilling visuals to create a tapestry that’s quite unlike any other (in spite of its many influences). That the WGA dubbed this as one of the best screenplays of the 21st century is something pretty much everyone saw coming.

Year of release: 2009
Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Director: Quentin Tarantino

9. Almost Famous (2000)

Few screenplays of the modern era are as endlessly quotable and expertly realised as “Jerry Maguire” from filmmaker Cameron Crowe. Unfortunately, that movie was released in 1996 and so it didn’t qualify for inclusion. Here we have Crowe’s beloved follow-up instead, which draws from the director’s own personal experience as a teenage journalist working for Rolling Stone. Viewers are taken on an occasionally hilarious tour through 1970s rock and roll, complete with an adjoining soundtrack of killer tunes. Just like “Jerry Maguire,” this film comes fully loaded with both classic characters and incredible dialogue. Is it one of the best scripts of the 21st century? You bet it is!

Year of release: 2000
Screenwriter: Cameron Crowe
Director: Cameron Crowe

10. Memento (2000)

This mind-bending thriller burst onto screens and turned Christopher Nolan into a household name. Adapted from a short story by brother Jonathan, it’s the kind of film that would never get off the ground without a really tight screenplay. Witness the fascinating journey of a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce), who must find his wife’s killer despite his short-term memory loss. Oh, and did we mention that the narrative goes both backward and forward (depending on the scene)? In other words: it’s a Christopher Nolan film. It also rounds out the top 10 greatest screenplays of the 21st century, according to the WGA.

Year of release: 2000
Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Director: Christopher Nolan

The Best of the Rest (11-101)

Aside from the shining light that was the top 10, the WGA also outlined 91 other films of note. Here is the best of the rest in order, ranking from 11-101:

11. Adaptation. (2002)
12. Bridesmaids (2011)
13. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
14. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
15. Sideways (2004)
16. Lady Bird (2017)
17. Her (2013)
18. Children of Men (2006)
19. Lost in Translation (2003)
20. Michael Clayton (2007)
21. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
22. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
23. Promising Young Woman (2020)
24. Juno (2007)
25. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
26. The Dark Knight (2008)
27. Arrival (2016)
28. Jojo Rabbit (2019)
29. Inside Out (2015)
30. The Departed (2006)
31. Spotlight (2015)
32. Whiplash (2014)
33. Up (2009)
34. Mean Girls (2004)
35. WALL-E (2008)
36. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
37. Inception (2010)
38. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
39. Before Sunset (2004)
40. In Bruges (2008)
41. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
42. A Serious Man (2009)
43. Amélie (2001)
44. Toy Story 3 (2010)
45. The Favourite (2018)
46. Zodiac (2007)
47. Gladiator (2000)
48. The Incredibles (2004)
49. Knives Out (2019)
50. Ex Machina (2015)
51. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
52. The Lives of Others (2006)
53. Nightcrawler (2014)
54. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
55. The Big Short (2015)
56. Moneyball (2011)
57. Black Panther (2018)
58. You Can Count on Me (2000)
59. Boyhood (2014)
60. Finding Nemo (2003)
61. The Hurt Locker (2009)
62. Roma (2018)
63. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
64. Hell or High Water (2016)
65. Manchester by the Sea (2016)
66. A Separation (2011)
67. Spirited Away (2001)
68. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
69. Booksmart (2019)
70. City of God (2002)
71. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
72. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
73. The King’s Speech (2010)
74. Django Unchained (2012)
75. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
76. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
77. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
78. Erin Brockovich (2000)
79. Call Me by Your Name (2017)
80. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
81. The Lobster (2015)
82. The Prestige (2006)
83. Midnight in Paris (2011)
84. The Master (2012)
85. Argo (2012)
86. Y tu mamá también (2001)
87. Phantom Thread (2017)
88. Superbad (2007)
89. Little Women (2019)
90. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
91. The Farewell (2019)
92. La La Land (2016)
93. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
94. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
95. Ratatouille (2007)
96. Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
97. Nomadland (2020)
98. Winter’s Bone (2010)
99. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
100. Legally Blonde (2001)
101. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

General FAQ

What is the best screenplay of all time?

As voted by the WGA, 'Casablanca' is the greatest screenplay of all time, followed by 'The Godfather' and 'Chinatown.'

What is the best horror screenplay of all time?

Based on WGA votes, 'Psycho' and 'Get Out' are two of the best horror screenplays of all time.

What is a screenplay?

A screenplay is a written work that provides the dialogue and actions for a film or TV show.

STAFF WRITER

Jacob Osborn

Jacob Osborn is an accomplished author and journalist with over 10 years of experience in the media industry. Jacob holds a Bachelor's degree in English and Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin--Madison and has previously written for Stacker alongside co-authoring a Young Adult novel through Simon & Schuster. Now based in Portland, Oregon, Jacob specialises in entertainment, technology and alcohol reporting. You might find him crate-digging at the nearest record store or sampling whisky at the nearest bar. He daydreams of travelling around the world, but for now, the world will have to come to him by way of lifestyle products, gear, gadgetry, and entertainment. Let's call it a happy compromise while he saves up for the next big trip.