“Nobody knows anything,” opined screenwriter William Goldman in his classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade, referring to the inability of Hollywood to distinguish between a good idea and a bad one. The annual Black List of “most liked” screenplays (surveyed from top execs and “high level assistants”) therefore provides a fascinating window on what Hollywood insiders consider good. Film executive Franklin Leonard first published the list in 2005, naming it both in reference to his African-American heritage and the McCarthyist blacklisting of screenwriters in the 1950s. The Black List website states it has the intention of shining light “on extraordinary screenwriting, some of which may have been overlooked more broadly.”
There’s no doubt the list has drawn attention to some less mainstream scripts over the years. However, there’s also plenty by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin, who really don’t need the exposure. Nevertheless, The Black List has a roll call of great films that went into production, including some modern classics. Here’s a rundown of the 15 best produced films from the list since 2005. In some cases, the gap between inclusion on the list and year of release is an indication of just how long it takes to get a good film made.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
An adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film tells of a relentless oil prospector, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), who comes into conflict with a preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). “I have a competition in me,” states Plainview, making clear the film’s theme of toxic capitalism. The rivalry between the main characters, representing opposing business and religious interests, is soon revealed as a fight between two equally venal forces. Day-Lewis has never used his method acting to better effect, inhabiting the madness of a man for whom acts of creation and destruction are inextricably linked. It’s one of modern cinema’s greatest epics, culminating with the promised bloodletting and a perfect line to sum up Plainview’s capitalism run amok: “I drink your milkshake!”
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
If Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Death Proof didn’t quite match the brilliance of his ‘90s output, then Inglourious Basterds was a rip-roaring return to form. The director started writing the script in 1998, taking a decade to get it into shape. It’s a WWII story in the mold of The Dirty Dozen, but the style is all Tarantino, with the action divided into scenes of tension and verbal dexterity. Inglourious Basterds manages to be a satisfying action movie whilst maintaining the meta-textual play – a war film that knowingly plays with the conventions (most brilliantly in an early scene where Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa agrees to speak in English with a French farmer by way of avoiding subtitles). The final coup de cinema is a moment of wish-fulfillment that abandons all pretense at historical realism, something that Tarantino would return to in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Ten years in the writing, Inglourious Basterds was worth the wait.
Based on the real-life murders and written by James Vanderbilt, Zodiac initially seems a muted experience compared to the gothic splendor of David Fincher’s previous serial killer thriller, Seven. However, with the matter-of-fact violence perpetrated by the Zodiac, it’s a more insidiously chilling film. Unlike fictions such as Silence of the Lambs where a chain of inquiry leads to the apprehension of a killer, Zodiac embraces the murky facts of the case and lack of resolution. From the coded clues to the debatable source material – protagonist Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) books – Vanderbilt and Fincher make a virtue of the unreliable narrative. At the crest of a wave of true-crime podcasts and documentaries in the streaming age, Zodiac was prescient in highlighting the moral conundrums of such entertainment.
The Prestige (2006)
Between Batmans, Christopher Nolan directed one of his best films, a characteristic exploration of duality and artifice. Nolan wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, based on Christopher Priest’s cult novel. It tones down the mystical elements of the book to focus on the rivalry between 19th Century magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Far from a stuffy period piece, the film’s themes of corrosive ambition and technology gone awry feel resolutely modern. The Prestige is as finely structured as a great magic trick, only revealing its secrets at the very end – the implications of which linger in the mind.