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The 25 Best American Screenplays of the 21st Century, From ‘Eternal Sunshine’ to ‘Lady Bird’

From the Oscar-winning to the criminally underrated, it all starts on the page for these knockout scripts.

Best Screenplays eternal sunshine

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20. “Punch Drunk Love” (2002)

"Punch Drunk Love"

“Punch-Drunk Love”

The Criterion Collection

Paul Thomas Anderon’s brilliant meditation on the angry, repressed men Adam Sandler has played a zillion times transforms that archetype into a wondrous vision. The depressed loner Barry Egan struggles to find the words to deal with a world that tosses him around without end, but his panacea arrives like a revelation in romantic companionship (that would be Emily Watson). You could dissect the gender politics of this movie to death, but PTA’s script manages the brilliant gamble of remaining in the confines of Barry’s head so no matter what really goes down in those closing moments it’s clear he’s found some peace. “I’ve got love in my life,” he declares, “and that makes me more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Indeed, this may be the closest Anderson comes to making a superhero movie through his own loopy, surreal narrative logic. It’s also a fanciful meditation on the inanity of testosterone-fueled rage. “That’s that, mattress man” should be everyone’s mantra. —Eric Kohn

19. “Carol” (2015)

One of the most beautiful aspects of “Carol” is how much weight and emotion is held in a single glance between Carol and Therese, especially at a time when words could only be weighted with carefully veiled emotion. The attraction between Carol and Therese is undeniable and it upends everything Therese thought she knew about herself, sending her on her own journey of self-discovery both intertwined and apart from Carol. Today, in the shadow of films like “Moonlight” and “Call Me By Your Name,” “Carol” almost feels like a relic, a film that cannot fully celebrate gay love without throwing in damning consequences. Nevertheless, Phyllis Nagy’s Oscar-nominated screenplay remains a vital reminder of both the beauty of queerness, and the lengths we have come (and still need to go) in terms of acceptance.

When the two women finally give into their passion, the result is a beautiful display of eroticism tinged with heartache — Carol knows that finally giving in also means the end. Their passion imploded both Carol’s marriage and their own relationship, and when they finally see each other after some time, their roles have been permanently reversed. Therese is different, more secure and sure of who she is, thanks in part to Carol. And it is Carol who now seems insecure, having lost the comforts of her former life, her marriage and child, and the one true love she had found in Therese. —Jamie Righetti

18. “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)

Inglourious Basterds - Melanie Laurent

“Inglorious Basterds”

François Duhamel / The Weinstein Company / Universal Pictures

Never one to shy away from burnishing his own myth, Quentin Tarantino has publicly declared that the opening scene of “Inglourious Basterds” is his favorite thing he’s ever written. And while artists aren’t always the best arbiters of their own work, Tarantino is the rare filmmaker who’s as famous for his taste in movies as he is for making them. Sure enough, he’s got this one just right.

Mining incredible suspense from a mega-dose of exposition, Hans Landa’s conversation with a suspiciously tense French dairy farmer not only makes for one of the great villain introductions of all time, it also takes a familiar trope of Holocaust cinema — cutting between a calm Nazi and the petrified Jews hiding from him just a few feet away — and explodes it into a colorful world that’s less informed by World War II than it is the movies that have been made about it. The sequence’s terrifying climax, mashing “The Searchers” into “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in order to arrive at something completely new, sets the stage for Tarantino’s greatest film, the one that best makes the case that “pastiche” is only a dirty word if you don’t know how to pronounce it properly. A dazzling work of revisionist history that layers one unforgettable set piece on top of another, “Inglourious Basterds” somehow churns a small handful of self-contained scenes into a deliriously satisfying epic full of great characters, quotable moments, and a profound love for the movies themselves. —David Ehrlich

17. “You Can Count on Me” (2000)

“You Can Count on Me”

At the end of Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed debut, wayward younger brother (Mark Ruffalo) is about to board a bus toward an unclear future. He repeats to his sister (Laura Linney), “Remember what we use to say.” The characters never say what that is, but the audience instinctively knows it’s the film’s title: You can count on me. It’s a pure Kenneth Lonergan moment, with the audience filling in the blanks of his damaged characters in such a way that our understanding of them is both deeper and more emotional. In the acclaimed playwright’s first feature, the brother and sister’s bond was clearly shaped by the tragic events of their childhood, but it’s a past we are given a full picture of without having ever seen. Instead, the writer lays it all out through implications and trusts his performers — as well as the audience — to take the leap. —Chris O’Falt

16. “Moonlight” (2016)

“Moonlight”

Because “Moonlight” is so viscerally engaging, the unconventional and non-American qualities of the storytelling in this Oscar-winning screenplay often go ignored. In a film that spans decades of its protagonist’s life, screenwriters Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney dig deep into three brief moments and ask the audience to make connections that reveal big truths about the man Chiron becomes. From the disappearance of Juan (Mahershala Ali) in the second chapter – leaving us disorientated and having to piece the story together what happened, not unlike an abandoned child – to the film’s heartbreaking final 20 minutes, the bold and risky choices of the ”Moonlight” screenplay pay off in ways that make this masterpiece only improve with time and repeat viewings. —CO

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