Posted on November 6, 2012 - by writerman
There’s a great bit in Adaptation where a fictional version of the real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee interrupts Charlie Kaufman’s internal monologue with this line:
“…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”
For a long time, I never used VO in any of my scripts either. Until a couple of years ago when I was writing something new. As I worked my way through the first draft, I kept hearing this narrator’s voice in my head. And I kept ignoring it and ignoring it, and it kept getting louder and more insistent and I finally put it down on the page. Suddenly the story really started working and the script landed on just the tone I was hoping for. Sometimes, we just need someone to tell us a story.
10. The Big Lebowski (1998)
“Sometimes, there’s a man. I won’t say a hero. Cause, what’s a hee-ro? But, sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time ‘n place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.”
Thank you, Sam Elliott.
9. Pulp (1972)
Not a great movie, but a fantastic use of voice-over. Michael Caine’s detective novelist narrator Mickey King speaks in the clipped, hard-boiled tones we expect from the genre, while the action shows us the counter-point of the mundane truth. At one point, after being shot, King tells us that he “removed his shirt to use as a tourniquet,” while on screen we watch him pass out at the sight of his own blood.
Plus, you had to know Michael Caine would appear on this list somewhere.
8. Trainspotting (1996)
I’ll confess that I can’t remember a ton of Ewan McGregor’s narration from this one, but the opening monologue is so perfect, I had to include it on the list.
7. Double Indemnity (1944)
Damn, I love this movie. So much style. So much snappy dialogue. Such a great story. And, if you’re really paying attention, you’ll spot a short, uncredited cameo by the grandfather of hard-boiled fiction himself.
6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The first half of this film is so much depraved fun. This is one of those movies I can’t even imagine without voice-over. The novel is so quotable, we really needed someone to read it to us, even as we watch.
“The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon”
5. Goodfellas (1990)
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Ray Liotta’s voice carries us all the way through this crazy story and makes his mad, violent world seem almost enviable. Sure, it ends poorly, but who didn’t want to be a gangster after watching the scene at the Copacabana? I also have to give a shout out to the greatest cooking scene in movie history.
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The movie that, once and for all, established Morgan Freeman as the Voice Over Master. Case closed.
3. Amélie (2001)
Funny that a movie where I have to read the VO is in my top 3. But the narration is so good that it really makes the movie. Shit, someone liked it so much they even made an American adaptation.
“Nino is late. Amelie can only see two explanations. 1 – he didn’t get the photo. 2 – before he could assemble it, a gang of bank robbers took him hostage. The cops gave chase. They got away… but he caused a crash. When he came to, he’d lost his memory. An ex-con picked him up, mistook him for a fugitive, and shipped him to Istanbul. There he met some Afghan raiders who too him to steal some Russian warheads. But their truck hit a mine in Tajikistan. He survived, took to the hills, and became a Mujaheddin. Amelie refuses to get upset for a guy who’ll eat borscht all his life in a hat like a tea cozy.”
2. Fight Club (1999)
“I am Jack’s smirking revenge.”
Tyler Durden’s Rules of Fight Club speech gets all the glory, but Edward Norton’s nameless narrator’s rambling thoughts are really the heart and soul of this movie.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
He doesn’t ever appear on screen, but Alec Baldwin gives the best performance in this movie, by far. Which is pretty amazing, when you think about the rest of the cast in Wes Anderson’s second-best picture.
- I should clarify that this is not intended to be a list of the best movies that used voice-over, but rather, a list of the best uses of voice-over in movies. [↩]
- Also – this list doesn’t include Ferris and Alvy and John Cusack because, while I love those guys, speaking to the camera during a scene feels like something different than voice-over. Who knows, maybe I’ll make a list for breaking the 4th wall some day… [↩]
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