100 Best Movies to Watch from the Last 100 Years
From comedy to drama to horror to infinity (and beyond), these are the best movies you absolutely have to see—and the ones you need no excuse to see again.
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The best movies to add to your watch list
When it comes to cultural touchstones, few things have the power of good movies. You don’t even have to have seen a Rocky movie to know Bill Conti’s iconic score, and people throw around lines like “These go to 11” or “I’ll have what she’s having” even if they haven’t actually seen This is Spinal Tap or When Harry Met Sally. And of course, debating the “best movies ever” has enlivened dinner party conversations and social media feeds for decades—in fact, we guarantee the following list will have overlooked at least one good movie you’ll be shocked wasn’t included.
The concept of “best” is such a subjective thing, though. It’s really about intention. Just because something was made to be mass entertainment doesn’t mean it’s automatically devoid of value. And just because something is three hours long and in black and white doesn’t immediately make it higher quality. If a movie is successful in what it is setting out to do and maybe raises the bar for its genre in the process, then it deserves to be applauded. So this isn’t a ranking of the best. The movies are presented in no particular order—it’s just a list of royal movies, funny movies, serious movies, plus some family movies and musical movies, and hard-to-classify movies—everything you should definitely try to see if you haven’t already. Enjoy!
The Shawshank Redemption
What you’re in for: The harsh realities of prison life…with surprising heart
Based on a rare non-horror short story by Stephen King, Shawshank Redemption stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as inmates who develop a friendship over time in a harsh prison in 1950s Maine. What makes this movie exceptional is, first and foremost, the chemistry between the two leads—this is a high point in the careers of both Robbins and Freeman (which is saying something). The other thing is the unexpected twists and turns of the story that veer from dour to tragic to comic to…unexpectedly hopeful. It’s the kind of good movie that runs you through the gamut of emotion but rewards you for the journey.
In the Mood for Love
What you’re in for: A slow-burn romance that is absolutely gorgeous to look at
Director Wong Kar-wai has a filmography that could be a film course in and of itself. A genre-hopping (and convention-bending) maverick, he’s jumped from traditional wuxia films (fantastical tales of martial arts heroes) to eccentric urban dramas like Chungking Express (also worth seeing). His style and substance comes to the fore with In the Mood For Love, a slow-burn romance about two people who connect over their spouses’ affairs. It pairs acting icons Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung and is set in 1960s Hong Kong. Both leads are fantastic, and every frame is an insanely gorgeous mix of color, shadow, and light.
What you’re in for: A war film unlike any you’ve seen before
War films have been a staple of cinema since its birth, so you really have to go the extra mile to do something new in that space. Director Sam Mendes went about 100 extra miles. 1917 follows two British soldiers in World War I as they traverse war-torn France on a mission to warn an artillery battalion of an impending German ambush. What is astonishing is that the film unfurls as though in one continuous take, which is mind blowing, as it moves steadily from moments of mundane ordinariness to intensely terrifying scenes of war. It really is an entirely new take on the war movie.
What you’re in for: A return of the sword-and-sandals epic, without the cliché
When Gladiator hit theaters in 2000, there hadn’t been a serious “sword-and-sandals” epic in a long, long time. Director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe removed all of the stock cheesiness that had come to define the genre and delivered a powerful historical epic that mixed a painstaking recreation of ancient Rome with some legitimate stand-up-and-cheer action sequences.
It also has emotional weight, with Crowe in a career-best performance as a Roman general betrayed by the son of the former emperor and left for dead, only to work his way up the ranks as a gladiator in a plot to get his revenge. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve no doubt heard some of this good movie’s more famous quotes, like Crowe’s Maximus taunting a bloodthirsty crowd with, “Are you not entertained?” It’s one of many best picture Oscar winners on our list.
Out of Sight
What you’re in for: A twisty, funny, and chemistry-driven crime tale with a big-time cast
First of all, the cast: George Clooney. Jennifer Lopez. Don Cheadle. Albert Brooks. Ving Rhames. Dennis Farina. Steve Zahn. Luis Guzman. It’s so loaded, Catherine Keener and Michael Keaton show up for little more than one scene cameos and it barely phases anyone. Second of all, everything else: Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, Out of Sight at first glance looks like a copycat attempt at the twisted chronology and wise-cracking criminals of Pulp Fiction. But its romantic core (and insane onscreen chemistry between Clooney and Lopez) and memorable characters distinguish it and make the movie a thoroughly engrossing ride (and an endlessly rewatchable go-to favorite).
What you’re in for: A sweet and whimsical comedy that frequently zigs when you expect it to zag
Amelie is the kind of good movie that defies plot synopsis. Sure, you can say it’s about a sweet and childlike Parisian woman who enjoys helping out her friends and neighbors, and you’d be correct, but that tells you absolutely nothing about the strange, cartoonish, and hilarious journey this movie is. A sort-of rom-com with surreal, fantastical elements and a bizarre (but funny) sense of humor, this movie is like an exotic French dessert. You have no idea how it was made or what’s in it, but you still think about how good it was years later.
What you’re in for: Simply one of the best police comedies ever made
Part of director Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy” (named after a popular UK brand of ice cream that makes an appearance in all three movies), Hot Fuzz is about an urban supercop (Simon Pegg) who is forced to relocate to a sleepy country village. He’s an abrasive fish out of water until he uncovers a possible murder plot. Hilariously spoofing cop and action movie cliches, Hot Fuzz has endlessly quotable lines and some of the best sight gags and physical comic timing you’ve ever seen. It’s also packed with great British character actors clearly having the times of their lives—most notably, former James Bond Timothy Dalton, who steals the movie as the village’s wealthiest (and shadiest) man. Laugh out loud funny.
Boys Don’t Cry
What you’re in for: A searing and unflinching emotional drama
Based on the true story of Brandon Teena, Boys Don’t Cry is a dramatization of his life as a trans man in Nebraska. When Brandon (Hilary Swank) meets and falls in love with a local girl named Lana (Chloe Sevigny), he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that results is his sexual humiliation and eventual murder at the hands of Lana’s ex-convict friends. A painful but often sweetly romantic story, it nonetheless has a sense of dread at all times because you know where it’s headed. But Swank and Sevigny are incredible in the lead roles, and the movie is a tough-to-watch but vital standout.
What you’re in for: A pitch-black satire about media and culture that has lost none of its bite over the years
After a burnt-out newscaster (Peter Finch) delivers a scathing rant on live television about the depressive state of the world (the infamous “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech you’ve likely heard referenced a million times), his network turns it into an excuse to launch more outrageous shows. What’s amazing (and startling) about this satirical movie from the ’70s is not just that it’s still relevant, but that it may be even more so now. A thought-provoking, landmark type of movie that needs to be seen.
Children of Men
What you’re in for: A dystopian drama with unexpected bursts of jaw-dropping action
A problem with movies that take place in a harsh and distant future is that they often get cartoonish in their depiction of a world gone to ruin. There are no elaborately-costumed marauders or killer robots in Children of Men, just an unnervingly plausible and realistic look at a world where natural disasters, war, and terrorism have rendered most of the world uninhabitable, and the rest locked in an oppressive police state. With standout performances by Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, this story of a man tasked with escorting the last (possibly) fertile woman in a world that has been reproductively barren for years to a vague safe haven is harrowing, but uttering gripping.
What you’re in for: A thoroughly entertaining adventure with chills, thrills, and dinosaurs
A lot of directors have stylistic quirks, and Steven Spielberg’s is that he loves to show you characters reacting to something before he shows you what they’re reacting to (go back and watch any of his movies, you’ll see it). This pet shot was put to its greatest use in Jurassic Park. Watching Laura Dern’s and Sam Neil’s faces reacting to a nature reserve filled with living, breathing dinosaurs before you see them yourself just encapsulates the mix of joy, wonder, and excitement that makes this movie so great. Still an impressive and awe-inspiring adventure, even almost 30 years later.
Thelma and Louise
What you’re in for: A road movie that changed road movies forever
The “two buddies go on a road trip” concept has been source material for movies for a long, long time. But in 1991, the concept was given new life and new purpose in the form of Geena Davis’s Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s Louise. Best friends who decide to spice things up with an impromptu road trip, their mini-vacation is brutally interrupted when a man Thelma flirts with in a bar attacks her. In a fit of rage, the man is shot by Louise, and the two go on the run. In addition to moments of humor and thrilling suspense, Thelma and Louise changed the dynamics of the crime movie by having the lead pair’s actions motivated by an (understandable) distrust of men and a belief that they’ll never get a fair shake because of their gender. And the ending is still as powerful as it ever was.
What you’re in for: A space adventure that rewrote all the rules, and built its own Empire
Before it was Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, it was just Star Wars. The tale of a simple farm boy on a faraway planet who gets sucked into an intergalactic battle between the forces of good and evil, it is only the single most influential cultural phenomenon of all time. Countless sequels, spin-offs, TV series, specials, and a planet-sized load of merchandise later, it remains as fun, exciting, and endlessly quotable as it was when it first debuted. In fact, considering how much world building has been done over the 45 years since, Star Wars actually seems refreshingly quaint and simple when you go back and watch it now.
What you’re in for: A claustrophobic slice of space horror that has been mimicked but never topped
Though it was made just two years after Star Wars, Alien couldn’t be any more different. A dark and paranoid horror thriller set in space, it’s about a small crew on a merchant vessel that accidentally picks up a parasitic alien organism which proceeds to stalk and kill them one by one. It’s infamous for the “chest burster” scene (which still makes you jump, even when you know it’s coming), and for introducing Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley. There have been sequels and spin-offs, but the original remains a tight and terrifying classic.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
What you’re in for: A heart warming classic for the whole family
A young boy named Elliot from a nondescript California suburb befriends a squat—but friendly—alien left behind on Earth, and together the two try to reunite the straggler with his people. Talk about iconic, everything about E.T. is a cultural touchstone. From the image of Elliot and E.T. flying a bike across the moon, to the uplifting score, to the repeated phrase “E.T. phone home,” you know this movie even if you’ve never seen it. But see it, because it is absolutely as magical as advertised. Just have tissues handy, because this sad movie goes straight for the heartstrings.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
What you’re in for: A globe-trotting adventure introducing an iconic hero
The combined might of Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jurassic Park, Jaws) and George Lucas (Star Wars) created one of the most imitated and beloved action heroes of all time: Indiana Jones. His first adventure remains his best, as “Indy” is tasked by the U.S. government to track down and retrieve the fabled Ark of the Covenant (which was believed to hold the actual Ten Commandments tablets from the Bible) before Hitler and the Nazis can use its power to help them win WWII. Harrison Ford is perfect as the grizzled but indefatigable Dr. Jones, and the movie’s mix of action, exotic locations, humor, and the supernatural have been attempted by others since, but none have come close.
Superman: The Movie
What you’re in for: A refreshing throwback to a time before comic book movies dominated theaters
Watching Superman: The Movie now—in a world where Marvel has crafted a deep cinematic universe of superheroes—feels quaint and a little corny. But isn’t that what Superman should be, after all? The 1978 movie might have some special effects that haven’t aged well, but one thing that remains unchanged is Christopher Reeve’s incredible lead performance. He sells you on both Superman and Clark Kent, switching between the two with such subtle physical shifts you actually believe that a pair of glasses could be an effective disguise. This version of the classic character is fun, bright, and thoroughly entertaining.
The Thin Man
What you’re in for: Banter, wisecracks, and an hour and a half in the company of the greatest husband and wife duo in movie history
A murder mystery where the mystery is beside the point, The Thin Man is all about watching William Powell and Myra Loy play off each other like expert tennis players—his Nick Charles lobs up some snark, her Nora Charles returns with a witticism. Back and forth. Martini break. Then more. Nick is a semi-retired private detective, and Nora is his wealthy, restless wife. Together they solve a murder case mostly for the fun of it. This is a classic that feels more modern and progressive than its 1930s birthdate would initially suggest.
The Dark Knight
What you’re in for: One of the rare sequels that improves upon the original, and proof that comic book movies don’t have to be frivolous
With 2005’s Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan showed that you can actually make the idea of a billionaire who fights crime dressed as a bat grounded and believable. With this follow-up, he delivers a dark and complex urban crime drama that barely feels like a “comic book movie” in the traditional sense. It all revolves around an absolutely riveting performance by the late Heath Ledger, whose Joker changed everything you thought you knew about the classic Batman villain and still has never been topped. He is all twitchy menace, and he kicks the movie up several notches every time he’s onscreen.
Lawrence of Arabia
What you’re in for: A historical epic against which all others are measured
Based on the memoirs of the former British soldier, Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of how T.E. Lawrence helped unify Arab tribes during WWI in a struggle against the German-allied Turks. The movie is a masterclass in scope and scale—filling the scene with vast desert locales so massive you can almost feel the radiating heat. It took home a boatload of Oscars after its release, and it’s not difficult to see why. A true pillar of movie making.
What you’re in for: A morally-questionable classic of the Blaxploitation era
Like any trend or era, the Blaxploitation period of the 1970s was definitely a mixed bag when it came to quality—some movies were made just to cash in, with little care about production value or story. But if you are interested in checking out movies from that era, few can top Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly. The story of a cocaine dealer named Priest as he attempts one last big score, the movie is carried by an incredibly charismatic Ron O’Neal, Park’s distinctive visual flair, and Curtis Mayfield’s incredible music.
What you’re in for: The kind of sweeping romance that made the movies “the movies”
First of all, let’s get it out of the way: Despite “Play it again, Sam” being the line most often associated with Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart never actually says it. (The line is, “If you played it for her you can play it for me. Play it!”) But that doesn’t matter, because this tale of an American ex-pat running a gin joint in North Africa during WWII has enough memorable movie quotes (“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” “Here’s looking at you, kid”) to cement its place in cinema history forever. It’s an undisputed classic and one of the greatest onscreen romances ever made.
What you’re in for: Fred and Ginger at their absolute best
A lot of people probably know Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers from YouTube clips of their dance routines—but how many have actually watched one of their movies? Well, if you’re going to, make it Top Hat. Proving they’re more than just incredible dancers, Top Hat is light and funny and spotlights Fred’s impish humor and Ginger’s wry sarcasm on top of the lavish and gorgeous dance numbers. Also, see if you can spot a quick cameo by a friend of Ginger’s who was a struggling actress at the time. You might have heard of her, someone named Lucille Ball? (Hint: watch closely in the florist shop.)
What you’re in for: A horror thriller that hasn’t gotten any less unsettling with age
Prior to Psycho, the idea of a “horror movie” still involved cobwebbed castles and Eastern European actors in plastic fangs and capes. Alfred Hitchcock turned the genre on its head by refusing the tropes of traditional horror (save a spooky house on a hill) and lulling you into thinking you’re watching a movie about a secretary embezzling cash and going on the lam. Then he pulls the rug (or shower curtain?) out from under you. It’s a stylish and scary thriller movie with a closing shot that will send shivers down your spine.
What you’re in for: An excuse to never go swimming again
When a gigantic great white shark begins attacking people off the coast of Long Island, a local sheriff teams up with a marine biologist and a grizzled fisherman to hunt it down and kill it. The term “blockbuster” was coined for Jaws (because people lined up around the block to see it) and it’s easy to see why—it’s one part buddy comedy, one part family drama, one part horror movie, and one part action film. It’s a masterclass in building and maintaining tension—only showing you enough of the shark to keep your fear levels stoked without overdoing it at any point.
What you’re in for: A Vietnam War movie that feels more like a fever dream
Some movies have to be seen because it’s unlikely anything like them will ever be made again. The making of Apocalypse Now was so bizarre and intense it inspired its own separate documentary (also worth seeing). Director Francis Ford Coppola took Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and transplanted it to the Vietnam War, creating a strange, unpredictable movie that feels less like a war film and more like the lucid nightmare of someone inside a war film.
What you’re in for: The definitive mafia movie against which all others are measured
Some movies need no introduction, and their place in cinema history is well cemented. The tale of the Corleone crime family, based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzzo, took the “gangster movie” and made it something sprawling and epic. And what a cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, all doing career highlight-level work. A true landmark.
What you’re in for: Martin Scorsese firing on all cylinders
Everything that comes to mind when you hear the words “Martin Scorsese movie” is encapsulated in Goodfellas. The code of honor among thieves. Street level New York grittiness. Unforgettable characters and infinitely quotable lines. Based on the true life story of former mobster turned informant Henry Hill, Goodfellas is bolstered by a trifecta of lead performances from Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, and of course, Joe Pesci, whose “I’m funny how?” scene alone deserves its place in pop culture history. Gripping, expansive, even hilariously (but darkly) funny at times, it’s Scorsese at his finest.
The Double Life of Veronique
What you’re in for: A moving and poetic “what if?” that rewards careful viewing
The story of two identical women—Polish Weronika and French Veronique—who don’t know one another but are leading parallel lives forms the framework for this dreamy, entrancing movie from Polish director Krysztof Kieslowski. A quiet and slow-burning mediation on life, love, and the interconnectedness of people, The Double Life of Veronique is moving and mysterious. It also features one of those scores that is heartbreakingly melancholy (but also incredibly beautiful). It will have you searching to see if you have your own doppelgänger out there somewhere.
The Red Shoes
What you’re in for: A gorgeous and moving romantic tragedy you won’t believe is nearly 75 years old
You hear a lot of movies described as “haunting,” but few actually live up to the billing. Not so with The Red Shoes, which remains as moving and mysterious as it was when it was first released in 1948. Making incredible use of the then-new innovation “technicolor,” the movie is a story about love, art, and obsession that hasn’t softened with age one bit. The kind of movie that even your favorite movie makers love, with its mix of fairy tale fantasy and emotional realism.
Night of the Living Dead
What you’re in for: The zombie movie that started it all
Zombie movies and TV shows are everywhere now, but that wasn’t the case in 1968 when Night of the Living Dead dropped into theaters (and dropped jaws everywhere). FIlmed in stark black and white, it’s an intense thriller with more on its mind than just bloodshed. Once the terror starts, which is shockingly immediate (like, seconds in), it does not relent. Night of the Living Dead was also incredibly groundbreaking at the time for having a heroic African-American lead, which makes the absolute gut-punch of an ending even more incredible for the social and political implications behind it.
What you’re in for: The movie you can’t have a “Best Of” list without including
It’s almost a cliché in and of itself to include Citizen Kane on a list of best movies, but…there’s a reason why it’s always there. Orson Welles’ epic masterpiece is a not-so-thinly veiled examination of the life and legacy of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. It’s bold and mysterious with its use of fractured chronology, an incredibly innovative technique at the time. Some shots are so beautiful you’ll want to pause the movie and have them framed. Even if you know the mystery of who or what “Rosebud” is (what’s the statute of limitations on 80 year old spoilers?) everything about Citizen Kane still works.
The French Connection
What you’re in for: A cops-and-robbers thriller that is smart and stylish
The story of a pair of NYPD narcotics detectives (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) who uncover a heroin-smuggling operation headquartered in France, The French Connection is a cop thriller with smarts and boatloads of style. You feel the dirt and grime of 1970s New York in every scene, and Hackman’s Detective “Popeye” Doyle is an instant icon with his grizzled demeanor and porkpie hat. It also has one of the greatest car chases in cinema history. If you’re looking for more films to add to the list, check out these Irish movies you can stream now.
Bonnie and Clyde
What you’re in for: Two screen legends in a match made in movie heaven
At its most basic level, Bonnie and Clyde is a dramatization of real-life criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who gleefully robbed banks during the Great Depression before meeting a tragic, bullet-ridden end. But really, this movie is about Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty making absolute meals of the lead roles. Their chemistry and charisma are enough to keep you riveted—is it any wonder they’re one of the biggest sources of “couples costume” ideas for the past few decades?
The Iron Giant
What you’re in for: One of the most surprisingly heartfelt and endearing “kids” movies of all time
On the surface, it’s a simple fairy tale kind of story: A lonely young boy discovers a giant robot, and the two forge an unlikely friendship. But what that doesn’t tell you is how engaging and emotional Iron Giant turns out to be. Maybe it’s the realistically-sketched characters (there is more natural energy in them than in most animated movies), but the central friendship really works on such a level that makes the ending a legitimate tear-jerker. It’s a whimsical, emotional, and substantial movie for the whole family, which is rare enough to warrant Iron Giant‘s inclusion on this list.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
What you’re in for: A left-field holiday classic that is truly magical
A stop-motion musical fairy tale about Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” of Halloweentown, who, bored with scaring people, stumbles on the concept of “Christmas” and tries to step into Santa’s boots. Featuring some of the best songs—”This is Halloween” and “What’s This?” are definite standouts—and a slew of ingeniously unique characters and designs, this is like literally nothing else you’ve ever seen. Oh, and for the record, we’re on the “This is a Halloween movie” side of the “Halloween Movie” vs. “Christmas Movie” debate about this one, but make your own call.
In the Heat of the Night
What you’re in for: A sweaty and intense murder mystery drama
You can enjoy In the Heat of the Night on its own merits—of which there are many—and you can also appreciate how many ways the movie sent ripples culturally with its tale of a black Homicide detective investigating a murder in a Mississippi town in the 1960s. Facing racist hostility even from those who are helping him, Det. Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is nonetheless determined to solve his case—and Poitier is a pillar of poise and strength throughout. “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” is the standout line, but Tibb’s slap of racist plantation owner Endicott is the movie’s real mic drop.
What you’re in for: The original buddy cop comedy, and still one of the best
A grizzled cop (Nick Nolte, the go-to for grizzled) reluctantly has to partner up with a motor-mouthed convict (Eddie Murphy, in his breakout role on the big screen) in order to crack a killer in two days. The plot is secondary to the banter, though, as Nolte and Murphy write the rules for all subsequent buddy cop movies to come with each scene. This is ground zero for the “mismatched partners” trope. This is also the movie that made Murphy a superstar, and he is all wired energy and machine-gun gags.
The Blues Brothers
What you’re in for: A wild musical comedy that plays by its own rules
There are a lot of movies you can say “they don’t make them like that anymore” about, but none really earn it the way The Blues Brothers does. Based on characters created by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the early days of Saturday Night Live, The Blues Brothers is the story of Jake and Elwood Blues and their “mission from God”: To reunite their old band and do a gig to earn enough money to save the orphanage where they were raised. What follows is surreal, cartoonish, screwball comedy, but also an amazing tribute to the legends of R&B history—with performances by Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, and Ray Charles that are all scorchers.
What you’re in for: A mind-bending sci-fi adventure that changed the game for the genre
Starting from the most ingenious, trailer-perfect line of dialogue ever (“No one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself”), The Matrix arrived on the scene at the turn of the century and changed action movies forever. A twisted dystopian tale about a computer hacker (Keanu Reeves) who begins to doubt the realness of the “real world” and is taken on an insane cyber adventure through a robot-controlled world, it introduced “bullet time”—a slow-mo effect that would be endlessly imitated ever since. It also brought cyberpunk into the mainstream. Still a trippy, thoroughly entertaining ride.
What you’re in for: Still one of the most imitated sci-fi movies ever made
This movie was not fully appreciated in its time, but has been imitated and “paid homage to” by almost every sci-fi movie since. Set in a futuristic Los Angeles that is grimy and pelted with seemingly endless rain, Blade Runner is about an ex-cop who has to track down four missing “Replicants” (humanoid robots made for labor in hostile environments) who have gone on the run. It’s slow paced but filled with such intricate stylistic details that you’ll want to linger on every scene. One of the reasons it’s aged so well is that it always felt out of time—part ’40s film noir mystery, part ’80s sci-fi (the Vangelis score is a highlight, though), and part dispatch from the future.
His Girl Friday
What you’re in for: The perfect way to put your closed captioning capabilities to the ultimate test
If there were ever a way to measure a movie’s chemistry and charm, it would have to be called the Grant-Russell Test, because no movie has the kind of rapid-fire banter and crackling spark that forms the heart of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s His Girl Friday. The story of a newspaper editor who tries to keep his ex-wife (and former ace reporter) from remarrying, Friday is like watching two expert tennis players serve overhand smashes at each other over and over. The quips come so fast—apologize to your closed captioning system now.
What you’re in for: A powerful epic with absolutely jaw-dropping visuals
Legendary director Akira Kurosawa takes Shakespeare’s King Lear and sets it in medieval Japan. That’s the basic gist of the movie, but it also does nothing to prepare you for the visual experience Ran really is. From the vast armies bathed in bold colors to the outward representations of an elderly warlord’s descent into madness, this is a spectacle in the best sense of the word.
What you’re in for: A dark fairy tale that’ll stick with you long after it’s over
Set in Spain during the 1940s, Pan’s Labyrinth is about a girl who escapes into an elaborate fantasy world to avoid her sadistic military stepfather. This being from director Guillermo Del Toro, the fantasy world is hardly glitter and rainbows. It’s an eerie, sometimes terrifying place, with characters that come out of nightmares. This is a journey that takes you in a lot of unexpected directions. It’s beautiful to watch with a gripping central story.
What you’re in for: An ahead-of-its-time masterclass of storytelling
A bandit attacks a young bride and her samurai husband, and the recap of the event is told and retold from different perspectives throughout the movie. I created an important storytelling innovation and one that would inspire the term “Rashomon-like” for any of the hundreds of movies after it that borrowed the same technique. The original is absolutely worth seeing, an intricate head game from a master player.
What you’re in for: A rare opportunity to watch movies change right before your eyes
You typically can’t get an idea of what an entire film movement is about through one movie, but watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is a pretty good way to wrap your head around what the French New Wave was all about. The way the movie plays carelessly with the traditional means of storytelling—it has a “plot” in only the loosest sense of the word—has that youthful, “breaking all the rules” energy. Lead actress Jean Seberg became a global icon after this, too.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
What you’re in for: A strange, hypnotic test of patience, but one that’s worth it
Movies are generally meant to be entertainment, but every so often it’s good to remind yourself that they can be more than that. They can be confounding, almost infuriating works of art, too. Jeanne Dielman by French director Chantal Akerman runs three and a half hours long and forces you to watch a lonely French woman painstakingly go about her daily routine. You will go from “Okay, so…” to “ugh, enough already…” to “WHAT?” It’s not a movie to pop on when you want to kick back and just enjoy a good show, but it’s an astounding example of just how far movies can push the envelope.
What you’re in for: A whole new take on the crime drama that changed the rules for the genre forever
Interconnected stories of criminals and their associates spread across Los Angeles, Pulp Fiction plays with chronology and audience expectations. Set to an anachronistic surf movie soundtrack, the movie is director Quentin Tarantino firmly cementing his tone and style: criminals more invested in their conversations than their crimes, bursts of intense violence, and even more surprising bursts of dark humor. It’s an unfailingly fun ride, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
What you’re in for: The most fun you’ll ever have watching people destroy their lives
A movie about a bunch of heroin addicts in Scotland doesn’t immediately scream “good times,” which is why Trainspotting hit the cultural zeitgeist like a tornado. A fast, surreal, rollicking comedy set to an amazing soundtrack, the movie manages to be a total blast despite never glossing over (and in some scenes, unblinkingly digging right into) the darker and more tragic elements of drug addiction. It doesn’t glorify its characters or what they do, but still manages to make them all charismatic and watchable.
Do The Right Thing
What you’re in for: A slice of New York life brimming with comedy, tension, and colorful characters
Set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn during the hottest day of the year, Do the Right Thing is a movie that definitely has something to say about race relations and the idea of “community,” and it delivers its message with such well-drawn characters and wit that every note of it lands perfectly. This is one of director Spike Lee’s greatest and most iconic movies, with an incredible cast (including a then-unknown Samuel L. Jackson).
Devil in a Blue Dress
What you’re in for: A gripping film noir in the classic style
There are almost too many Denzel Washington movies that could and should be on a list like this, but Devil in a Blue Dress is an underrated gem that deserves some time in the spotlight. A classic film noir based on the Walter Mosley “Easy” Rawlins detective novel, this has all the moodiness and style you’d expect from something so rooted in this genre. Not only is Washington incredibly magnetic in the lead, but this was the movie that introduced the world to Don Cheadle, who steals the show as Rawlins’ loose cannon friend, Mouse.
Daughters of the Dust
What you’re in for: A generational story, beautifully constructed and told
Set in the early 1900s, Daughters of the Dust is about the Gullah—a community of African-Americans who lived on the sea islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina—and tells a multi-generational tale that carries some heavy themes. Director Julie Dash chooses to tell the story with a novel-like feel—you get absorbed in the visuals and the haunting tone and the story just seems to flow from event to event as you come along for the ride. A beautiful story that will absolutely stay with you.
What you’re in for: An engrossing epic from the most unlikely source
On the surface, Boogie Nights is about the porn industry, and is loosely based on the life of real life performer John Holmes. But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Boogie Nights recreates such a specific time and place—in this case, the San Fernando Valley at the tail end of the 1970s—so perfectly, it feels almost like it was made at that time, too. It also features an all star cast including Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and more.
What you’re in for: A perfectly drawn family comedy/drama set against a colorful and boisterous Indian wedding
Mixing the best parts of Hollywood and Bollywood, Monsoon Wedding is an exuberant ensemble comedy about a Punjabi family preparing for a wedding and the influx of relatives from all over the world. Bright and energetic, the movie runs the full gamut from dramatic to touching to hilariously funny. It’s a destination wedding you won’t mind RSVPing to.
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian
What you’re in for: One of the funniest and boldest satires in movie history
The legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python (members: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam) take on the Bible with this tale of a simple man named Brian who gets mistaken for the Messiah. It’s scathingly funny in the inimitable Python way—jokes careen from incredibly high brow (an extended gag about Latin grammar) to head-shakingly juvenile (“Wewease Woger!”) But in the end, it’s a pointed satire about faith, religion, and mob mentality—and the “Biggus Dickus” scene is still one of the funniest sequences of all time just for the sheer tension of Roman guards trying not to laugh.
This is Spinal Tap
What you’re in for: An instantly quotable mockumentary classic, and a great satire of rock and roll stardom
A “mockumentary” that purports to follow around “England’s loudest band,” This Is Spinal Tap is one of those movies that is funny the first time, and then gets funnier the second, and then even funnier after that. From its instantly quotable lines—the frequently imitated “These go to 11” or “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever”—to the parade of cameos (check out young Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey as mime waiters), it’s a gloriously dumb joke at the expense of heavy metal, rock stardom, and celebrity in general.
Eight Men Out
What you’re in for: A great sports movie and a great historical drama all in one
Naturally, many sports movies appeal to sports fans because of their focus on the joys and heartbreak of the game—but if you’re not into sports, there’s not as much to draw you in. Not true with the 1988 drama Eight Men Out, which is both an exceptional sports movie and a thoroughly engrossing historical drama. Centered on the real-life 1919 “Black Sox” scandal that saw several members of the Chicago White Sox conspire to throw the World Series, Eight Men Out is a great period piece told by an incredible cast, even if you couldn’t care less about baseball.
What you’re in for: A tension-filled horror film with smarts and shocks in equal measure
A research team based in Antarctica unearths an alien vessel frozen in the tundra for thousands of years. Once defrosted, it unleashes a killer organism that hunts down the trapped science team. Although it sounds pretty basic, The Thing is anything but. For one, the “alien” isn’t some rubber monster—it behaves more like a virus, infecting and imitating members of the crew before bursting (in full gory detail) out of them in a spray of tentacles and blood. This scary movie isn’t for the squeamish, but the mix of paranoia and claustrophobia create almost unbearable tension…and the “who has it/who doesn’t” part resonates even more these days.
What you’re in for: A comic book movie that is so much more than just a comic book movie
Although the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) really kicked off in 2008 with the original Iron Man, it really wasn’t until 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that it came of age. That movie’s surprising complexity and maturing paved the way for a new era—specifically, the cultural phenomenon that is Black Panther. Based on the comics about T’Challa, the brilliant and brave king of the mysterious African nation of Wakanda, Black Panther was more than just the next chapter in the ever-expanding MCU, it was a moment of representation for Black people, who don’t often see themselves reflected in big-budget superhero movies.
On top of that, it’s also an absolutely gorgeous and thrilling epic, featuring a standout cast including the late Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, and Winston Duke—who, for our money, almost steals the movie as T’Challa’s quirky and oddly endearing rival, M’Baku. Duke takes what could have been a standard villain and makes him something truly memorable.
The Green Knight
What you’re in for: An imaginative new take on the Arthurian legends
The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has always been open to interpretation, and few have taken those threads and woven such a dreamlike and challenging spectacle. Starring Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, it is an ambitious movie that takes real risks but rewards viewers with stunning visuals and the uneasy tension of a dream that straddles the line between good and bad. A beautiful film worth investing time in.
What you’re in for: A mix of Western, urban crime drama, and cartoonish action film that almost defies categorization
The late ’70s and early ’80s saw a lot of movies about the nightmare of urban living—New York, in particular, was usually the focal point of how crime-ridden and lawless cities were becoming, which led to movies like Escape from New York and Death Wish. The Warriors, at first, seems right in line with those, but by creating a deliberately over-the-top vision of New York crime committed by gangs in uniforms and costumes ranging from militaristic to silly, it reveals itself as something totally different. Worth the ride.
Boyz in the Hood
What you’re in for: A generation-defining shot of street-level drama and heartbreak
Coming out a year before the infamous 1992 L.A. riots, Boyz in the Hood now seems like a prescient forecast of the tensions bubbling up all over the region at that time. Director John Singleton follows three young men (played by Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, and Morris Chestnut) as they navigate life in the Crenshaw area of South Central L.A., fluctuating between being typical young guys (flirting with girls, hanging out, dreaming big) and being forced to age beyond their years when faced with racist cops and the constant threat of gang violence. Bracing and brutal, it’s nonetheless riveting.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
What you’re in for: The start of a fantasy trilogy that finally does credit to its expansive and dense source material
A few animated films aside, there was a reason J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling epic The Lord of the Rings (made up of the books The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) never got a big-screen adaptation—it seemed impossible. There was simply too much story. But director Peter Jackson finally cracked the code and created adaptations that both honored and improved upon the source material. Perfectly cast with stunning visual effects, you should really see the whole trilogy, but definitely start here. The books have also inspired the show Rings of Power, which found itself in the midst of heavy controversy but has been deemed one of the best TV shows of all time. While you’re at it, make sure to check out these hit books being made into movies this year.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
What you’re in for: A teen comedy that is more than just gross-out gags and naughty hijinks
John Hughes pretty much defined the teen comedy in ’80s movies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, but Ferris Bueller stands out for being—much like its lead character—a true original. A high school comedy that barely spends any time in high school (it’s kind of the point of the movie, after all), it’s witty and carefree and incredibly well-structured. The ending race home, for example, is a masterful use of editing, music, and physical comedy.
What you’re in for: A social satire with a potent mix of black comedy and tragedy
It’s rare to have no idea where a movie is going or what’s going to happen, but to still understand that you’re watching pieces being set up to collapse spectacularly. That’s what it’s like watching Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, a social satire that is simultaneously funny and sad and genuinely surprising. The less you know going in, the better, so you can fully appreciate the inevitable roll towards tragedy, and the completely head-spinning twists and turns along the way. A really incredible movie all around.
What you’re in for: A surprisingly sweet and genuine character study that launched an unlikely franchise
After you’ve seen Rocky Balboa fight pro wrestlers and single-handedly end the Cold War, it’s hard to imagine how it all started. It’s a nice reminder that the original Rocky was not an over-the-top action movie with increasingly cartoonish antagonists, but a sweet and sensitive story about a down-on-his-luck guy with a ton of heart who takes on the heavyweight champ just to prove to himself and the love of his life that he can do it. Really touching and uplifting.
What you’re in for: A horror classic that skips all the usual jumps and scares
It feels almost a disservice to call Rosemary’s Baby a “horror film,” because although the story of a young couple who move into an apartment building populated by Satanists certainly fits the bill, this is not a horror movie in the traditional sense. A scary story made for people who normally avoid such things, the movie eschews jump scares and gore for a mounting sense of dread, tantalizing glimpses of the unusual, and a surreal final punchline. Gripping and artful, it’s a benchmark for the genre that had come a long way from old castles and bats.
Dead Poets Society
What you’re in for: An uplifting story that will inspire you to write poetry and “seize the day.”
This is the movie that really cemented Robin Williams as a gargantuan talent. Everyone knew he was funny, but few movies corralled his gift for inspired improv with his sizable talent as a dramatic actor. Dead Poets Society is about a progressive teacher who comes to a repressive boarding school and inspires his students to be free thinkers despite the concerns of the conservative staff and the boys’ disapproving parents. Williams is remarkable, but so are the kids, led by future stars Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke. The “O Captain, My Captain” closing moment is an all-time reach-for-the-Kleenex scene.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
What you’re in for: One of the best movies about love and loss around, told in a completely head-spinning way
It is really hard to sum up Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but at its core it’s about a man named Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and a woman named Clementine Krucynski (Kate Winslet) who, after breaking up, have medical procedures to remove their memories of each other. The depiction of memory and memory loss is expressed through mind-blowing visual tricks and suggestion. Carrey and Winslet seemingly swap personas—this time, Carrey is the dramatic heavyweight and Winslet is the flippant wildcard. The movie is confounding, ridiculous, and absolutely heart-rending.
The Big Lebowski
What you’re in for: A languid, meandering comedy that moves at a stoner’s pace, but is packed with hilarious details
The Big Lebowski is about an aging stoner named Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski who is confused for a millionaire also named Jeffrey Lebowski by thugs looking to collect debts. When The Dude confronts the “Big” Lebowski, he sparks off a comedy of errors that involves kidnapping, German anarchists, porn, and bowling. The whole thing kind of feels like a traditional film noir detective movie, except the guy who is supposed to be the detective is just a befuddled guy off the street. A movie absolutely loaded with quotable lines and hilarious characters, it’s no wonder it inspires intense devotion among its many fans.
What you’re in for: An era-defining comedy-drama
The question “So what are you going to do now?” haunts every college graduate, and it forms the heart of this late-’60s comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. A recent graduate tries his best to avoid planning his future and instead has a tryst with a married woman before falling for the woman’s daughter. Funny, satirical, and masterfully acted all around, it’s a real gem that deserves its place among the all-time classics.
Stand By Me
What you’re in for: Not just a coming of age film, the coming of age film
Four boys in the 1950s set off on a sunny afternoon to see a dead body. That’s the set-up for this adaptation of a Stephen King short story that, despite the author’s reputation, is not really all that interested in the dead body part. The strength of Stand By Me is in the characters, their friendship, and the slow-motion realization that they are losing their innocence the closer they get to the missing boy by the side of the railroad tracks. It’s a moving tribute to being a kid that you can appreciate no matter how far removed from it you are.
When Harry Met Sally
What you’re in for: The kind of romantic comedy that works even for people who roll their eyes at romantic comedies
Leave it to director Rob Reiner and writer Nora Ephron to create a romantic comedy about two people determined not to be in a romantic comedy. Tracing the relationship of Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) as they meet, break up, get back together, break up, etc. is anything but overly cute and schmaltzy—it’s incredibly funny, sharp, sarcastic, and, before it ends, genuinely romantic. Plus, New York in autumn has never looked better on film.
What you’re in for: A white knuckle ride…about jazz music?
If you think of jazz music as a soundtrack to a leisurely afternoon sipping pumpkin lattes in a Starbucks, then you need to see Whiplash. Almost unbearably intense, this story of an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) who is challenged to raise his game by an overbearing and abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons), this movie feels almost like a horror film at times. Simmons is dynamic and menacing and instantly iconic, and Teller more than keeps up with him. And that finale…whew. It will literally leave you breathless.
What you’re in for: A teen comedy so pitch black it can be used to pave asphalt
Consider Heathers the anti-John Hughes movie. Sure, it’s set in high school, and, yes, it mines the trials and tribulations of teen life for laughs, but that’s where the similarities end. Heathers is a pitch-black satire about a rebellious couple (Winona Ryder and Christian Slater) who decide to push back against the tyrannical popular kids—unfortunately, it leads to murder. It’s high school as a bizarre fever dream, with a unique style and language all its own (“What’s your damage?”). Twisted and hilarious.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
What you’re in for: It’s…really hard to explain
Most movies on a Best Of list are standouts in their genre, or they changed the way movies were made or perceived, or they defined a generation. But some movies deserve a spot simply for being so boldly (borderline insanely) unlike anything else ever made before or since, that you just have to throw up your hands and accept them as vital and important. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is chaotic, amateurish, and nonsensical, but also has great songs and the kind of go-for-broke performances (especially from Tim Curry as the legendary Frank N. Furter) that you just have to stand up and applaud. A musical tribute to classic horror and sci-fi, it’s raunchy and strange and just really has to be seen to be believed.
2001: A Space Odyssey
What you’re in for: A sci-fi adventure more interested in the “sci”
A landmark of science fiction that tackles big heady themes like the dawn of mankind and the species’ inevitable space-based future, 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is inarguably a masterpiece. Ostensibly about a group of astronauts on a mysterious mission when their onboard computer system HAL starts displaying increasingly strange behavior, it all builds up to a mind-blowing journey through the interconnectedness of time and space.
North by Northwest
What you’re in for: A spy thriller with a Hitchcockian twist
A tale of mistaken identity, North by Northwest is about an advertising executive pursued across the United States by a mysterious organization who believes he is trying to thwart their sinister plans. The adventure unfolds with style, a mix of suspense and wry humor, all of which star Cary Grant delivers flawlessly. It’s known for the iconic “crop duster” chase scene, but the movie is a blast from start to finish—one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest.
What you’re in for: A sad and affecting drama from post-war Italy
This movie was known for a long time as “The Bicycle Thief,” a title that turned out to be a slight mistranslation. However, the correct translation is also a bit of a spoiler—knowing there’s going to be more than one thief sets you up (even unwittingly) for the film’s incredibly moving and disheartening ending. A classic of post-war Italian neo-realism, Bicycle Thieves is about a down-on-his-luck man raising a son who needs a bicycle to eke out his meager living. When it’s stolen, he goes on an increasingly frantic search to track it down.
What you’re in for: The Marx Brothers at their absolute best
Sometimes when you watch old comedies, you can appreciate their place in history but don’t find yourself laughing all that much. The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup—a mockery of politics and war—still has the power to elicit genuine laughs. It’s surprising now to look back and see the utter anarchy that was the Brothers’ comedy—they have a “mess with everyone at all times” ethos that keeps their comedy from feeling stale or corny even many decades later. And the song “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” seems to have predicted current political discourse.
What you’re in for: A detective mystery that is as hard-nosed and cynical as it was the day it was released
Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman named Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to investigate her husband in what Gittes believes will be a routine infidelity case. What follows is a cesspool of corruption, deceit, and murder that pretty much throws any hope for a neat and tidy ending out the window early on. No, this is a case where no one’s coming out clean, and Chinatown is a hardboiled mystery with zero soft spots. But still incredible, and with knockout performances all around.
Lost in Translation
What you’re in for: A sweet and meandering almost-love story mixed with fish out of water comedy
A past-his-prime actor (Bill Murray) in Tokyo to make quick cash doing commercials befriends the lonely girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) of a photographer who leaves her to fend for herself while he’s off working. That’s the premise of Lost In Translation, a sweet, funny, and romantic movie about meeting your soulmate at the wrong time, and the magic of being completely out of one’s element in every conceivable way. Murray and Johansson are an unlikely but incredible onscreen couple.
What you’re in for: A rare technological achievement that’s also just a good movie
It’s no secret Pixar changed the world of animated movies forever, showing that computers could create intricate, elaborate worlds just as well as (if not better than) hand-drawn animation. But Pixar’s real triumph was being able to do that without skimping on those important details like story and character. Toy Story clearly established that it wasn’t just a technical animation marvel—it’s a poignant story about identity and nostalgia. It’s also very, very funny.
What you’re in for: A harrowing crime thriller that pulls exactly zero punches
A veteran detective (Morgan Freeman) teams up with an eager newcomer to the department (Brad Pitt) to track a serial killer who murders people in elaborate ways based on one of the seven deadly sins. Director David Fincher creates a rain-soaked, depressive urban landscape of grays and browns and dots it with visceral scenes of carnage and horror that will stay with you long after the movie’s over. It’s not for everyone, but no doubt a masterfully constructed and executed trip to the dark side.
Sweet Smell of Success
What you’re in for: A sordid tale of ruthless, power-hungry people set against the bright neon glow of New York City
A movie that manages to feel violent even though there’s not a single gunshot or stabbing in it, this is the story of a powerful Broadway columnist named J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) who uses his considerable weight to force a slimy press agent (Tony Curtis) to break up a budding relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and a jazz musician. This movie is all-seeing dialogue and shady dealings—the kind where you actually notice the script, in a good way. The lines shoot back and forth, with Lancaster in particular wielding Hunsecker’s words like a sledgehammer.
Life is Sweet
What you’re in for: A bittersweet tale of working-class English life
The story of a family in a working-class suburb of London, Life is Sweet is one of those movies that is more about characters than any kind of overarching plot. Sometimes unbearably sad and other times laugh out loud funny, it’s an underrated movie from a director known for his realistic takes on English life (Mike Leigh). This one will reward you with surprising discoveries and unforgettable moments.
What you’re in for: A truly mind-bending sci-fi thriller with astounding visual effects
Inception is the kind of movie you don’t really “get” the first time you see it, but it lingers with you and rewards repeat viewings. This mystery about corporate raiders who literally steal ideas from people’s dreams is twisted and bizarre. It’s also bolstered by some of the most imaginative visual effects ever devised—cities folding in on themselves, a zero-gravity fight scene inside a spinning hallway, etc. The fact that director Christopher Nolan dropped this in his downtime between epic Batman movies is astounding.
What you’re in for: Nothing you’re expecting—but a dark psychological thriller nonetheless
A twisted psychological thriller set in the world of ballet (yes, ballet), Black Swan starts off feeling like a rather straightforward story of an artist’s dedication and perseverance in the harsh world of professional dance, but Black Swan is one of those movies that truly takes you to unexpected places. You don’t really know where it’s going, and when it gets there, it blows you away. A shocking and “can’t take your eyes off it” wonder.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
What you’re in for: Teen comedy meets sprawling epic saga
The joke in most teen movies is that the stories tend to feel a lot like they were written by older people looking back at high school fondly (or not), and the casts usually feel a bit too old to be hanging around lockers and gym classes. What makes Fast Times at Ridgemont High such a classic is how young it feels. It actually has the messy, sporadic vibe of teen life, jumping between subplots with energy and unfocused angst. It’s also insanely funny and cringey in equal measure. There’s a reason Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli is still an iconic character.
Don’t Look Now
What you’re in for: A bone-chilling story with indelible imagery
The story of a married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who are grieving the death of their young daughter forms the basis of Don’t Look Now, a movie that appears at first to be a look at love and loss but then hits you with an absolutely unexpected and, frankly, terrifying ending. The less you know, the better, but it’s a movie that lulls you along at a slow pace while planting powerful visual images in your head along the way—you won’t soon forget any of it long after it’s over. The two leads’ extraordinary performances do a lot of the heavy lifting, too.
What you’re in for: A mournful Western ballad
It’s tempting to call Unforgiven Clint Eastwood’s love letter to the Western genre where he got his start, but this isn’t exactly a sweet and sentimental movie. The story of an aging gunfighter reluctantly pulled back into his old violent ways is harsh and brutal, but the inevitable slow burn from retired cowboy to shotgun-wielding avenger is deliberate and precise. When it all boils over, you’ll understand why Clint was always the consummate movie cowboy.
What you’re in for: The kind of meaty crime drama that is a perfect match of cast, story, and setting
Set in 1950s Los Angeles, L.A. Confidential is a hardboiled police thriller with an exceptional cast. In fact, this is the movie that introduced the world to two actors who would go on to big things: Guy Pearce (who plays a young and ruthlessly ambitious detective) and Russell Crowe (who is the closest thing the story has to a hero, a brutal cop who longs to be more than just a leg breaker). The movie is smart and memorable, beautifully styled to capture the glitz and glam of ’50s Hollywood just as effectively as it does its grimy underbelly.
A Shot in the Dark
What you’re in for: The best Pink Panther movie, and a wonderful showcase for Peter Sellers
The sequel to the 1963 film The Pink Panther, which introduced audiences to bumbling French cop Inspector Clouseau, A Shot in the Dark is Sellers really settling in and taking his physical and verbal comedy to the next level. A wacky and hilarious whodunit, it is a real comedy classic. And it’s not just about Sellers, either—the opening scene is an incredibly choreographed sequence as the camera tracks residents of a Parisian apartment complex sneaking into each other’s rooms for midnight trysts.
Night on Earth
What you’re in for: A deceptively simple film with tons of humor and heart
Night on Earth is made up of five short stories—each one taking place in a cab at the same time in different cities around the world. Each story is a self-contained vignette, and the mix of humor and melancholy wins you over each time. A pint-sized garage rat takes a glamorous talent agent around Los Angeles (Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands), a motor-mouthed Brooklynite hops into a cab with an out-of-his-element German driver in New York City (Giancarlo Esposito and Armin Mueller-Stahl), a frenetic Italian cabbie in Rome delivers stream of consciousness monologues even when alone (Roberto Benigni), an African immigrant shuttles a blind woman around Paris (Isaach De Bankole and Beatrice Dalle), and finally, a driver (Matti Pellonpaa) has to get a pack of drunken workers home in Helsinki. Unforgettable.
What you’re in for: An introduction to your new favorite movie cop: Marge Gunderson
A crime thriller that moves at the glacial pace of a long, drawn-out Minnesota accent, Fargo has at its heart (in every sense of the term) the unforgettable character of Marge Gunderson. Brought to life by Frances McDormand, Marge, the ultimate feminist hero, is sweet and honest (and heavily pregnant), but also a hell of a great cop. Her adventure moves at her own speed, and along the way, there are thrills and laughs. A really endearing and hilarious movie.
The Princess Bride
What you’re in for: A whimsical, hilarious mock fairy tale that ends up being magical anyway
The Princess Bride feels like a movie that wants to make fun of sappy fairy tale romances—and does at times—but also can’t help getting caught up in it anyway. A wry and funny (but also genuinely romantic) adventure, it’s the kind of movie that the word “timeless” was made for. It’s also a treasure trove of quotable lines, from “As you wish,” to “Inconceivable!” to “You keep saying that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Always worth it, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. You’ll also understand a lot more memes afterward.
What you’re in for: A magical animated adventure with real soulful depth
Hayao Miyazaki is often called “The Japanese Walt Disney,” but even that high accolade doesn’t quite do him justice. His movies are whimsical and sweet, but also soulful and affecting. Spirited Away is one of his haunting and beautiful masterpieces, telling the story of a 10-year-old girl who escapes into a world of fantastical beings.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
What you’re in for: An actual documentary that is funnier and more outrageous than any mockumentary ever made
We swear that King of Kong is not a mockumentary like Spinal Tap—this is the 100 percent real story of Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe and their decades-long battle to be the greatest Donkey Kong player of all time. Featuring enough jealousy, heartbreak, sacrifice, and subterfuge to fuel a whole slate of thrillers, this documentary has to be seen to be believed. Mitchell especially is a cartoon villain that even a screenwriter would deem “too much.”
World’s Greatest Dad
What you’re in for: One of the darkest comedies you’ll be embarrassed makes you laugh as much as it does
A lonely high school English teacher (Robin Williams) with dashed hopes of becoming a novelist struggles with his job and single-parenting his obnoxious, sleazeball teenage son. When the son accidentally kills himself during an autoerotic asphyxiation incident, the man forges a suicide note that causes everyone to reevaluate his son and makes him an unwitting local celebrity. You don’t want to root for him (or for anyone in this movie, really), but Williams is magnetic and engaging and the story unfolds in wildly unpredictable ways. Raunchy and dark, but incredible.
What you’re in for: A moving portrait of uprooted and aimless American life
A woman who loses everything during the Great Recession (Frances McDormand) embarks on a nomadic existence across the United States and meets a host of colorful and tragic characters. Director Chloe Zhao populates the movie with real-life transients rather than actors, but it’s McDormand who is the anchor for the whole experience. Dour and depressing, but absolutely a one-of-a-kind achievement.