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The Best Original Screenplay Oscar Winners of the 21st Century Ranked, From ‘Her’ to ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

Many great filmmakers have won for writing but not directing.

Best Original Screenplay Oscar Winners

Compare the movies that have won Best Picture at the Academy Awards to those that have taken home Best Original Screenplay and you’ll find that, as often as not, the latter is the more impressive list. Sometimes they overlap, but when they don’t —  “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump,” “Talk to Her” and “Chicago,” “Melvin and Howard” and “Ordinary People” — it almost feels like a tacit admission that the Academy is throwing a bone to the film that’ll be more fondly remembered than the ultimate winner.

It only makes sense, then, that any number of great filmmakers have been honored in this category without ever winning Best Director or Picture: Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze. These wordsmiths are worth celebrating, and these are the best — and worst — of them since 2000.

17. “Crash” (2005)


It likely comes as little surprise that Paul Haggis’ surprise Best Picture winner takes last place on this list, as it tends to whenever discussions of the least-worthy Oscar winners in recent memory come up. “Brokeback Mountain” was considered the favorite, with its surprise loss being interpreted by many as a sign that Hollywood was more willing to embrace a movie condemning prejudice than one celebrating gay romance. The cross-cutting narrative, which takes place over one very racist day in Los Angeles, is treacly and contrived, with almost every one of the overlapping stories designed to tug at the heartstrings while delivering a heavy-handed message that frequently defies logic; “Crash” is still effective on a visceral level in spite of (or because of) its silliness, however, and the committed ensemble cast (especially Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon) makes the most of the material. —Michael Nordine

16. “The King’s Speech” (2010)

Colin Firth The King's Speech

Tradition reigns in David Seidler’s 2011 winner, which cleverly treats King George (Colin Firth) and his stuttering affliction as the stuff of great drama — and, for George, it very much was — without falling into parody or melodrama. A two-hander that requires a pair of great actors to make every line tick by (even the ones that are understandably tough to get out), Seidler’s script — born partially of a years-long obsession with the bond between the king and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) — is both hugely entertaining and meticulously researched. It’s also the kind of inspirational story that can be derided as cheesy or crowd-pleasing, but what’s wrong with that? Seidler, a former stammerer himself, found something special in both the king’s desire to do better and the man that helped him do just that — a classic story with some very unique touches that should inspire everyone to speak out, in whichever way they can. —Kate Erbland

15. “Gosford Park” (2001)

Gosford Park

“Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes wrote this Robert Altman hit, and while the stacked ensemble cast (Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ryan Phillippe, etc.) was flashy enough to get the bulk of the attention, this dense, unpredictable script was the perfect way to move Fellowes’ career into the A-list. Tightly written with a clever balance of upstairs-downstairs dynamics, high-class humor, and great twists, this murder mystery juggles a vast ensemble and teases a fair number of clues along the way. The audience is dropped right into the middle of the titular estate; intrigue and insults come fast and furious. —William Earl

14. “Midnight in Paris” (2011)

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris

It’s possible that no one cared less about “Midnight in Paris” winning Best Original Screenplay than Woody Allen himself, who’d taken home the award twice before and never attends the ceremony, but it was a prize worth celebrating. The prolific writer-director’s most financially successful film, “Midnight” was also a comeback of sorts after a years-long drought in which “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Match Point” were outliers among the likes of “Anything Else” and “Cassandra’s Dream.” The film is instantly charming in the way that Allen’s best work always is, with Owen Wilson traveling back in time each night to meet such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí; going along on those journeys is both a trip and a treat. Whether visiting the ’20s or La Belle Époque, “Midnight in Paris” both indulges in and shows the folly of the Golden Age Fallacy. The past may not be as grand as we imagine it to be, but at least this movie is. —MN

13. “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine

It’s not every year a movie comes along that is so original, packing a double wallop of humor and heart, that it makes stars out of everyone involved. Such was the case with the joyous “Little Miss Sunshine,” which introduced Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano, announced Steve Carell as a serious actor, earned Alan Arkin his first Oscar, and launched the careers of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Michael Arndt. Proving there’s nothing audiences love more than a dysfunctional family in a vintage Volkswagen, what is most impressive about Arndt’s bittersweet ensemble comedy is the attention character. There isn’t a dud among the bunch, in terms of complexity. Each member of the family carry their own quirks and pain in equal measure; they’re so expertly drawn that it seems all Arndt had to was stick them in a van together and let them figure out the rest. Through the generations, Arndt sheds light on the wisdom of youth, the folly of old age, and the malaise of middle age. At the heart of it all: yearning — and a little bit of sunshine. —Jude Dry

12. “Milk” (2008)

Milk Sean Penn

Dustin Lance Black penned this biopic of gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk, and became a household name after winning an Oscar for his work. Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn brought auteur buzz and star power, respectively, to the project, but the foundation of the film was the emotional script, which covered Milk’s love life, public battles, behind-the-scenes political posturing, and much more in a fast-moving package. Black’s text does a fantastic job balancing the man and his movement, creating a rousing and inspirational film that stands proud even during the tragic end. —WE

11. “Juno” (2007)

Ellen Page Michael Cera Juno

Diablo Cody’s dialogue in “Juno” is so crack-of-the-whip sharp and delightfully idiosyncratic that it’s one of the rare indie films that had mainstream audiences quoting it for months. Cody crafted an indelible heroine in Ellen Page’s eponymous youngster, a motormouthed teenager who hides hear fears and anxieties under an exterior of alternative sass and snappy comebacks. A lot of what makes “Juno” such a charmer is the way the dialogue flows from character to character. It owes as much to the peculiarity of Wes Anderson as it does to the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare. —Zack Sharf

10. “Birdman” (2014)

Birdman Michael Keaton

“Birdman” is well regarded for its cinematography, but its screenplay is also something of a stunner in its ability to weave together an identity-crisis character study with a satirical takedown of the artistic ego. No wonder it took four people to crack the screenplay; director Alejandro G. Iñárritu shares script credit with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo. The script expertly gets inside the head of Michael Keaton’s fledgling actor Riggan Thomson to examine just how fragile a man must become to be taken “seriously” by his peers, his loved ones, and himself. But the reason the script succeeds is that it also skewers that very notion. Just when you think “Birdman” is about to become too self-serious, it finds a way to put Riggan in his place and make his plight seem ridiculously self-driven. It’s an extremely risky balancing act that succeeds every step of the way. —ZS

9. “Django Unchained” (2012)

Django Unchained Jamie Foxx

The “d” may be silent, but nothing else in Quentin Tarantino revenge drama is. One of the oft-controversial auteur’s most controversial outings, “Django Unchained” is, by several metrics, also his most successful: It made a killing at the box office to the tune of $425 million worldwide, received critical acclaim, and won QT his second Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That this remains the only category in which the referential wordsmith has won is a testament to his abilities as a scribe, one whose endlessly quotable dialogue has practically become a genre unto itself; here Tarantino reminds us once again that, though often imitated, he’s yet to be replicated. His liberal use of that word understandably remains a deal-breaker for some, and Tarantino isn’t exactly known for extending an olive branch to his critics. If that approach has resulted in some oversights along the way, however, it’s also helped him create a one-of-a-kind body of work in each each piece is as remarkable as the whole. —MN

8. “Spotlight” (2015)


Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s “Spotlight” screenplay is a testament to hardworking journalism that refuses to glorify its heroes or turn their search for the truth into a exploitative or manipulative emotional journey. The film recounts the efforts made by investigative journalists at The Boston Globe to uncover systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. Singer and McCarthy’s script is built step by step by the journalistic process and finds the escalating thrills in nitty gritty research and reporting. The more the reporters uncover, the more gripping “Spotlight” becomes. The screenwriters don’t hold any hands here. They aim to prove the power of face-to-face reporting in an age where print is dying and digital dominates. Mission accomplished. —ZS

7. “Almost Famous” (2000)

Almost Famous Kate Hudson

Cameron Crowe has built a career on putting his enviably fascinating life on screen, but none of his movies have been more personal than 2000’s “Almost Famous.” Fictionalizing his origins as a music reporter for Rolling Stone, Crowe brings an experienced eye to the story of his youth, without losing sight of the alchemical properties of teen idolization and first love. Baby-faced William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is an easily relatable narrator, intelligent and sweet enough that you wonder if all the excitement is worth his lost innocence. There isn’t a red-blooded moviegoer alive who wasn’t taken in by Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane, the very definition of unattainable it-girl cool. Crowe builds the world of ’70s rock and roll so precisely and lovingly, it’s one of those movies you wish you could live inside for awhile. It’s impossible not to fall in love, and one suspects Crowe had the same experience writing it. —JD

6. “Talk to Her” (2002)

Talk to Her

Pedro Almodóvar’s best film is hatched from his most ingenious screenplay, a twisty and tender piece of writing that throws a million different kinks into the kitchen sink and lets them soak together into a uniquely florid melodrama. Knotting together two perpendicular romances into a singular portrait of loneliness and obsession, Almodóvar uses all manner of artifice to involve us in a story that would be too heartbreaking to confront head-on. Told via flashbacks, highlighted by multiple comas, and punctuated by everything from matadors to Pina Bausch to a massive Papier-mâché vagina, “Talk to Her” has enough heightened absurdity to fill an entire season of a daytime soap opera. And yet, every one of the script’s eccentricities refocuses the big picture, until we have so much empathy for even the most dangerously infatuated of these characters that we can’t help but see the beauty in what brings them together and the tragedy in what keeps them apart. —David Ehrlich

5. “The Hurt Locker” (2008)

The Hurt Locker

One of the most memorable lines in “The Hurt Locker” is never spoken aloud: “War is a drug.” Mark Boal took that observation from Tara McKelvey as the epigraph to his screenplay, and from it he crafted what many others had tried and failed before him: an Iraq War movie that resonated with audiences. He also began a fruitful partnership with Kathryn Bigelow, resulting in the even-better “Zero Dark Thirty” and this year’s “Detroit”; the two are so in tune with one another that it’s now difficult to imagine one working without the other. Boal’s ground-level view of the conflict focuses on the bombs buried in the ground and the unlucky souls tasked with excavating them, namely Jeremy Renner’s William James; for all the white-knuckle tension, though, the film’s best scene takes place far from the battlefield. After returning home as a civilian, James talks to his young son about love. “The older you get, the fewer things you really love,” he says, “and by the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.” We know what he’s talking about, of course, and why he’ll never truly leave the war. —MN

4. “Lost in Translation” (2003)

Lost in Translation Bill Murray Scarlett Johansson

Don’t go looking to Sofia Coppola’s 2003 winner for any hints as to what those infamous final words are — Bill Murray leaning down to tell Scarlett Johansson a secret, and a secret it shall remain — as the filmmaker notoriously told her stars to improvise the end as they saw fit. The written version — a pair of exchanged “I’ll miss yous” — was fine enough, but that Coppola knew it was better, richer, and more real to let the pair figure it out on their own speaks to a writer unafraid to let her story tell, well, its own story. Both Johansson’s Charlotte and Murray’s Bob Harris (Coppola, always a stickler for details, even zeroed in on the fact that Bob Harris is very much one of those “always both names” kind of guys) are so cannily drawn by Coppola, that it seems as if they could improvise anything and it would seem appropriate. Coppola’s screenplay does similar work when it comes to the film’s prodigious comedy, neatly drawing on the awkwardness of being literally lost in translation — as well as everyday traumas already amusing on the page that come to life when put to screen. —KE

3. “Her” (2013)

Her Joaquin Phoenix

Words are at a special premium in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” which must both spin together an entire (brave new) world where technology touches every segment of life (more than it already does, but not by too much) while also relying heavily on the power of very good conversation. The quirky romance is obsessed with them — from the words that Teddy (Joaquin Phoenix) writes as part of his job penning love letters and thank you cards to the words that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) so beautifully says that Teddy can’t help but fall in love with her, even though she’s not a human. Jonze makes each one count. While “Her” builds out what happens to be a weirdly traditional love story — seriously, it doesn’t really matter that Samantha is just super-smart A.I., the issues she and Teddy face are startlingly relatable — the depth of feeling and sense of true world-building place it a cut above other heart-tuggers of its ilk. —KE

2. “Manchester by the Sea” (2016)

Manchester by the Sea Michelle Williams Casey Affleck

What’s often overlooked when discussing “Manchester by the Sea,” one of last year’s best films and certainly the most wrenching, is how damn funny it is. Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay balances almost every heartbreaking scene with a moment of levity, most of them courtesy of Lucas Hedges (two words: “basement business”); this proves crucial, as the movie might otherwise have simply been too sad for most people to get through. Every tear is earned here, whether it be from laughter or (more often) grief, with Lonergan showing time and again that “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret” were far from flukes. He’s aided greatly by his cast, especially Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, who in one devastating scene bring his words to life in a way that’s both difficult to endure and impossible to turn away from. That description applies to “Manchester” as a whole. —MN

1. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Kate Winslet Jim Carrey

It’s no coincidence that, by working together, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry made the most successful movie of either of their careers. Put two visionaries together, and they’re bound to bring out the best in each other. It’s too romantic a concept for Kaufman to have conceived on his own, which explains the shared story credit with Gondry and French conceptual artist Pierre Bismuth. Still, there’s no mistaking Jim Carrey’s Joel Barish for anything other than a Kaufman creation, with his hangdog look and hapless aura. We’ll have to forgive him for birthing the original manic pixie dream girl, and besides, Clementine has more chutzpah than her more cloying descendants. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but something is always lost in translation. There is something intangibly appealing about the high-concept romance, which blended Kaufman’s melancholic surrealism with Gondry’s whimsical warmth. It was a perfect marriage that neither artist ever replicated on their own. —JD

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