One of the most difficult things for a screenwriter is to master the art of dialogue. If you suppress much of the information, things might be unexplained in the story, and if you put too much information in the dialogue, it will be seen as exaggerated or the audience may think you’re delivering to them everything on a silver platter.
With many great movies in cinema history that made dialogue the main focus to approach the narrative in question, though not forgetting to work on complex levels of acting and the visual of the films, here is a selection of 10 amazingly written movies that are based almost strictly on dialogue.
Many aspects interfere in the choice of the films on this list, but the most important – as always – are memory and personal preferences. Therefore, if you think of any great film based on dialogue that is not on this list, please share the name on the comments section below.
So, here are 10 amazing movies almost strictly based on dialogue.
10. Carnage (2011), written by Yasmina Reza and directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, “Carnage” is directed by Roman Polanski and written by Yasmina Reza, adapted from her own acclaimed play “God of Carnage” from 2006.
The story follows the meeting of the parents of Ethan Longstreet and Zachary Cowan after their kids had an argument that ended up with Zachary assaulting Ethan with a stick. When Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) receive Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) in their apartment, the conversation begins smoothly, but becomes more and more tense as time passes by.
Set almost entirely in a single location, Penelope and Michael’s apartment, this film is a great lesson on how to write dialogue for film. Line after line we learn more from each one of those four characters as tension begins to accumulate in that environment.
With great writing from Reza, and amazing performances by Winslet, Foster, Reilly and Waltz, “Carnage” is a great dramatic comedy that should be watched by any film fan.
9. A Pure Formality (1994), written by Giuseppe Tornatore and Pascal Quignard and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski, this great Giuseppe Tornatore film, written in collaboration with Pascal Quignard, is a masterpiece that really does not get the recognition it deserves.
Following the story of the interrogation of Onoff (Depardieu), a famous writer who has not published anything in a long time, after he is found by police walking through the woods without recent memory and no identification, “A Pure Formality” is set almost entirely with the inspector (Polanski) interrogating the writer at a police station.
Playing with the memories that are lost by Onoff and, as he recovers these memories, the implications of his acts, “A Pure Formality” has some of the greatest dialogue of the 90s. As the inspector is suspicious by what is being told by Onoff, we see how he plays with the writer to find the truth that will eventually surface.
Having great performances from Polanski and Depardieu with the strong directing of Tornatore that makes those lines occupy every inch of the police station they’re at, “A Pure Formality” is a great written film that deserves a place on this list.
8. Secret & Lies (1996), written and directed by Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh’s Palme d’Or winner “Secret & Lies” is probably the best film in his career. Following the story of Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a successful woman who was adopted as a child and now is in search of her birth mother, “Secret & Lies” is one of the greatest dramas from the 90s.
This picture works on so many levels that, when the projection ends – and as we catch our breath – it is incredible to see how much information Leigh was able to put into this film. With dialogue after dialogue, “Secret & Lies” reaches a higher level of complexity.
Writers normally like to say that there is a rule called “show don’t tell,” but the way you write for a character, the use of silence and – in film – even the position of the camera can make a dialogue sound entirely different, and that is something used masterfully by Leigh in this picture.
With great performances by Jean-Baptiste, Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall, “Secret & Lies” is a mandatory and beautifully written film from one of England’s best writers/directors.
7. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Mike Nichols
Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George, a middle-aged couple dependent on each other, whose relationship is full of verbal battles, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, being the first feature film in Mike Nichols’s career, is one of the best debuts in cinema history.
With George being a history professor at a university that has Martha’s father as president, one Saturday she invites Nick (George Segal), a new biology professor, and Honey (Sandy Dennis), his wife, for a nightcap. Among many drinks and in the presence of Nick and Honey, the couple start their battles as usual until secrets start to unveil.
Winning five Oscars at the 39th Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis, respectively, this movie, based on the play written by Edward Albee, is truly a masterpiece with amazing dialogue that should definitely be watched by any cinephile.
6. Annie Hall (1977), written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman and directed by Woody Allen
It’s a dialogue list, so of course it’s going to have a Woody Allen film on it. “Annie Hall”, the Oscar winner and probably the most acclaimed movie in Allen’s career, is certainly among the best comedies in cinema history.
The film follows the story of Alvy Singer (Allen), a neurotic twice-divorced 40-year-old New York comedian, who reflects on his relationship with Annie Hall, an aspiring nightclub singer. Their meeting and the many situations they lived through together are part of this story that has some of the greatest and funniest dialogues of all time.
Many times acclaimed as Allen’s masterpiece and with a great performance from Diane Keaton, “Annie Hall” is a must-see comedy from the 70s that influenced countless films that came after it, making it a mandatory movie for anyone who loves cinema.
5. The Breakfast Club (1985), written and directed by John Hughes
The best film in John Hughes career, “The Breakfast Club” is a classic from the 80s starring Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall and Judd Nelson as five teenagers who meet at Saturday detention at school. They are all very different from each other, but as they spend the day together, they start to notice having much more in common that they thought.
Consisting basically of what the teenagers were talking about that day – but with great setting and soundtrack – “The Breakfast Club” is a youth-defining film about one of the most magical and most complicated periods of life: being a teenager.
Being without a doubt an 80’s classic, “The Breakfast Club” is a pop culture icon with humanistic themes and amazing dialogue and characters that can be understood by anyone who has experienced teenagehood.
4. The Decline of the American Empire (1986), written and directed by Denys Arcand
One of the greatest canadian films from the 80s, “The Decline of the American Empire” is written and directed by Denys Arcand, best known from the Oscar-winning sequel of this film, “The Barbarian Invasions” (2003).
It follows four university teachers at a country house preparing dinner while they talk about love, life, lust and sex. Meanwhile, their four female guests are at a health gym and talking basically about the same thing hours before meeting the men for dinner. This film has great existential dialogue about adulthood and about the expectations we have in life.
With reflections about – you guessed it – love, life, lust and sex, and many great philosophical moments, “The Decline of the American Empire” is great for studying how dialogue can carry out a picture basically by itself.
3. Locke (2013), written and directed by Steven Knight
Starring Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a construction manager who, while leaving the construction site of a big project he is handling, receives a message that makes him drive two hours to London, “Locke” is a movie that explores the most of its lead character. From that message on we got a movie that takes place entirely inside the car with Locke speaking on the phone to many people, including work, family, and a mysterious woman.
This amazingly shot film is strong especially because of this concept. It would be a normal story if it was shot in another way. With phone call after phone call, we learn the reasons why Locke is traveling and the implications of his past mistakes on his work and on the people he loves.
With one of the best performances in Hardy’s career and amazingly written by Steven Knight, “Locke” is further proof that you don’t need a gigantic budget to make an amazing film, but with the right setting and a well-written story, you can make a brilliant film with just a man in his car talking on the phone.
2. My Dinner with Andre (1981), written by Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn and directed by Louis Malle
Two guys and one dinner table. Starring Wallace Shawn as Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory as Andre Gregory, “My Dinner with Andre” follows a dinner between these two acquaintances on one night in Manhattan.
Andre Gregory, a theater director, talks about his many spiritual experiences and his travels around the globe, while Shawn notices how differently they look at the world. This philosophical and oratorical ‘battle’ between them delivers many great arguments.
With great performances from Gregory and Shawn that hold together this film based on their discussions, “My Dinner with Andre” is an amazing movie to understand how many things in film can work just by being told in a conversation, and how far a picture can go in deepening the understanding of two characters by making them talk to each other nonstop.
1. Before Sunrise (1995), written by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan and directed by Richard Linklater;
Before Sunset (2004), written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Kim Krizan and directed by Richard Linklater; Before Midnight (2013), written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke and directed by Richard Linklater;
This critically acclaimed trilogy that follows 20 years in the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), two people who met on a train in Europe and spent one night in Vienna, than met again in France nine years later and, in the last part of the trilogy, are facing the troubles of marriage, is definitely among the movies with the most amazing dialogue in history.
From their meeting in Vienna to the many arguments they have in Greece almost 20 years later, this film shows many of the most complex nuances that is being in a relationship. From the first night to the reencounter many years later (the dialogue scene in the cab in “Before Sunset” is superb), and finally as their marriage is in crisis mode and they’re simply trying to figure things out in the middle of the pressure from work and the pressure of taking care of a family.
Beautifully performed by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, with the many moving moments in their relationship that the audience is able to follow since the first night, Céline and Jesse deserve their names among the greatest couples in fiction.
Author bio: Vítor Guima is a filmmaker, writer and musician from São Paulo, Brazil. Every day he watches a movie, reads a few pages from a book, listens to an album and freaks out with the feeling of not having enough time to see everything. You can follow him on Instagram on @ovitorguima.