Best Charlie Kaufman Movies - Featured - StudioBinder

No one plunges into the specifics of their own psyche quite like screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman. And the praise for his work, from audiences and critics alike, ranges from overwhelmingly positive to downright life-changing. But what makes his movies so great? When thinking about some of the best screenplays, it seems the more specific a writer gets, the more universal the story becomes — and no one proves this theory more than Kaufman. Here is our list of the best Charlie Kaufman movies, ranked for their screenplays

Early Charlie Kaufman Movies

7. Human Nature (2001)

Scene from Charlie Kaufman’s and Michel Gondry’s Human Nature

While Human Nature sits at the bottom of this list, the writing is still exceptionally clever. And the story is rich and inspired enough. A kind of absurd farce on society’s zoic, animalistic tendencies and our desire to subdue them. A look into what it means to be “civilized.”

The protagonist(s), Nathan and Lila, meet a man in the woods on a hike. Nathan is a scientist, and decides to take this man on as his next subject. “Puff,” as he his named, struggles with his animalistic sexual desires, tamed only by Nathan’s electric collar. 

The first half of the film is Puff learning how to control his sexual impulses, learn English, and even drink fine wine. And Kaufman gives us his endearingly strange comedic voice.

Nathan is a shallow, callous man, who has no concept of himself and how his actions affect others. The irony of who what civilized looks like. 

One of my favorite lines in the script, when Nathan says to Puff: “Remember, when in doubt: Don't ever do what you really want to do.”

Read the rest of the scene below.

Read Human Nature in its entirety

The rest of the scene is soaked with irony as Nathan speaks of mature, adult decisions. We know Nathan by now ⏤ a do-whatever-he-wants, no-regard-for-the-consequences kind of guy. 

The concept that civilization mimics a jungle, or that the jungle can be nurturing as much as it is dangerous, is fascinating, though perhaps a bit underdeveloped. The satirical nature of the point, may be stretched slightly too thin for an hour and a half.

But Charlie Kaufman is such a great writer, that even so, if you read any comment thread about it, it’s a fan favorite.

IN CONCLUSION

Human Nature

  • Quick Trivia: This was director Michel Gondry’s first feature. Not bad for a debut and he redeemed himself  only three years later with Eternal Sunshine. 
  • Tomatometer: 49%
  • Watch Now →

Charlie Kaufman Films

6. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

The birth of the Gong Show

Kaufman has an uncanny ability to make anyone relatable. Anyone. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) is based on true events from game show host, and apparent CIA assassin, Chuck Barris. It’s actually based off of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography,” by Barris, which has questionable truths.

But either way, Kaufman seems like the perfect writer for this kind of story — a repugnant character in a weird story world, that everyone wants to watch. 

Charlie Kaufman lets us know on the first page that the script isn’t the complete truth, but actually a “reenactment…”

Re-enacting a story of questionable truth

Sam Rockwell is by far the best part. George Clooney directed the film, but he and Kaufman didn’t get along so well. It's unfortunate that their working relationship didn't work out but the finished film is certainly a high-water mark for both writer and director.

IN CONCLUSION

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

  • Kaufman, on working with Clooney: “I was upset by the fact that Clooney took the movie from me and then cut me out after that. I’m unhappy with the end result. And I’m unhappy with George Clooney. I had a movie that I wrote and that isn’t it.”
  • Tomatometer: 79%
  • Watch Now →

Best Screenplays of Charlie Kaufman

5. Synecdoche, New York (2008)

"I won't settle for anything less than the brutal truth."

Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, is sadly wonderful, or wonderfully sad. It’s not my favorite of his films, but the script, the meaning, and most of the lines are nearly magic.

Theater director, Caden Cotard leaves his home in Schenectady, New York and moves to Manhattan. He gets together a group of actors and makes them live their lives within the constructs of his fake city.

The clip above is written out below. It’s always helpful for me to see how a scene was written vs how it was shot. 

'Brutality' on the page

IN CONCLUSION

Synecdoche, New York

  • Quick Trivia: Kaufman once described this as a horror movie. Just instead of monsters, it’s your greatest fears.
  • Tomatometer: 68%
  • Watch Now →

Best Charlie Kaufman Movies

4. Anomalisa (2015)

"You're being a little controlling, don't you think?"

This dark, stop-motion animated film, Anomalisa, didn’t get the success as much as Kaufman's other films. But overall, it is pretty wonderful and deeply moving. The scenes are rich with yearning and the animation is so realistic, it’s almost a little uncomfortable. A movie only Charlie Kaufman could’ve made.

Watch the scene above and how it was written below:

Anomalisa, the full script

IN CONCLUSION

Anomalisa

  • Quick Trivia: Though it didn’t do too hot at the box office, Empire reviewed it as “The best hotel-set love story since Lost In Translation.
  • Tomatometer: 92%
  • Watch Now →

Charlie Kaufman Movies

3. Being John Malkovich (1999)

Welcome to J.M. Inc.

This could easily get the second place spot, but I’m leaving it here for now because at this level of greatness, it almost becomes subjective. Being John Malkovich kicked off Kaufman’s career. It’s one of the most innovative scripts ever and the performances, directing, and cinematography are just as good as the writing. 

Above, you can watch the scene where John Malkovich discovers people are lining up to get inside his head. Or you can read it below.

Exquisite absurdity

IN CONCLUSION

Being John Malkovich

  • Quick Trivia: Francis Ford Coppola helped get the script to Malkovich. At the time, Copolla was Spike Jonze’s father-in-law, and had reached out to Malkovich on Jonze’s behalf. 
  • Tomatometer: 93%
  • Watch Now →

Best Screenplays by Charlie Kaufman

2. Adaptation (2002)

"It was mine, that love. I owned it."

The uniqueness of this script is born out of the uniqueness of its origin story. In real life, Charlie Kaufman was wrestling with adapting Susan Orlean’s, “The Orchid Thief.” Adaptation is a fictionalized representation of this sparring match.

Kaufman writes himself into the script as a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to adapt the book. Nicholas Cage gives one of my favorite performances, and the writing is nothing short of incredible. But it’s really the entire concept that is genius. 

Read the entire script for Adaptation.

IN CONCLUSION

Adaptation

  • Quick Trivia: Initially, Susan Orlean wasn’t onboard with Kaufman’s script. She didn’t want to be portrayed in a negative light. Later, when it turned into a more fictionalized story, she agreed. 
  • Tomatometer: 91%
  • Watch Now →

Charlie Kaufman’s Best Screenplay

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Caption goes here...

Oh boy, I get so giddy before I’m about to write about this film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). This is one of those movies that nailed it in every way imaginable.

The writing, directing, cinematography, and casting was as close to flawless as the definition allows. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) are terribly perfect for each other. I wish I could watch them forever if it wasn’t for the threat of a sequel ruining what they have. 

But the brilliance of the script isn’t just in character development or heart-provoking lines. The structure of the script and how Kaufman delivers us information is where he exposes his genius. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in full.

The film follows a couple non-linearly, as they undergo a process that has the other person erased from their memory. It’s layered with nuance and robust enough to watch multiple times before you realize you may want to watch it again.

And at the same time, it’s so simple — if you erase the pain, you erase the love. Known as one of the greatest scripts of all time, it’s no surprise it took home the Academy Award.

IN CONCLUSION

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

  • Quick Trivia: Towards the end of the film, Carrey and Winslet are watching elephants go by in a parade. That wasn’t planned, they stumbled upon that by accident, and what you see are the two actors with real reactions.
  • Tomatometer: 93%
  • Watch Now →

We haven’t had a Kaufman hit in some time, but I’m crossing my fingers for 2020. At the start of the year, we will see a new Charlie Kaufman movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on the novel by Iain Reid. He’ll be writing and directing it — the only question is where it will eventually land on this list.

UP NEXT

6 Successful Kickstarter Film Projects

We've covered Kaufman's creative works, so now let's take a look at some indie Kickstarter film projects. Did you know that Kaufman's movie, Anomalisa, was once a Kickstarter project? Feel free to read more about it and be inspired.

Up Next: 6 Successful Kickstarter Film Projects →
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