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Must-See Classic Movies List

These 21 quintessential films are required for ALL adults to watch (no exceptions)

En español | Are you a skim milk movie lover, or a whole cream movie lover? Do you treasure movies that confirm your view of the world, or ones that force you to look at life in ways you never expected? Do you insist on nodding in agreement with what the characters in a movie say and do, or do you occasionally want to feel the impulse to stand up and shake your fist at the screen?

See Also: The Greatest Movies Ever Made — According to You

Answer carefully, because your response reveals whether or not you are a true lover of Movies for Grownups.

Here, I’ll make it easy for you: If you really want to have your ticket punched as a bonafide grownup movie lover, you absolutely have to see the movies listed below. No excuses. Each one either pointed the direction in which movies would go, or assimilated the lessons of the past in a breathtakingly new way.

No Sound of Music here. No Gone With the Wind. No Titanic, Star Wars or Shrek. It’s time to put on your Big Boy Pants, erase your lame old Netflix queue, and rediscover what real movies are all about.

You got a problem with that? Then tell us what movies YOU think belong on the list of Required Movies for Grownups. Use the "tell us what you think" box below or join us on the message board we just started to discuss your movie favorites. I'll weigh in when I can.

Lawrence of Arabis is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

Egyptian actor Omar Sharif and Irish actor Peter O'Toole on the set of 'Lawrence of Arabia,' directed by David Lean, 1962 — Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962
The Ultimate Epic

The endless desert, the sword-wielding armies, the sweep of history. Director David Lean jammed his wide screen with swirling action, placed blue-eyed newcomer Peter O'Toole at the center and created a sprawling masterpiece that defined the high-water mark for movie spectacle.

See also: More on Peter O'Toole and his other movies.

casablanca is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

Michael Curtiz directs Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman filming 'Casablanca,' 1942 — Photo by Everett Collection

Casablanca, 1942 
Romance Grows Up

In this one, the boy (Humphrey Bogart) loses the girl (Ingrid Bergman) before the movie even starts. The question is, what is he willing to do to get her back? Casablanca's enraptured audiences learned that love stories can often find an unsteady resolution somewhere in an impenetrable fog.

The Producers is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars and Zero Mostel star in the 'The Producers,' 1968 — Photo: Everett Collection

The Producers, 1968
Comedy as Catharsis

Determined to mount a flop Broadway musical for tax purposes, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder stage the sure-fire failure Springtime for Hitler. Every "shock" comedy since then owes a debt to writer/director Mel Brooks — but not one of them gets its laughs with such profound insight into the delicate balance between tragedy and hilarity.

Next: A war movie with little to no action?

The Longest Day is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

Robert Mitchum with cigar among group of soldiers in a scene from the film 'The Longest Day,' 1962 — Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

The Longest Day, 1962
War Remembered

Three directors tell, with documentary-like detachment, the story of D-Day from both the Allied and Axis perspectives. Accurate or not, The Longest Day recounts the story of Normandy the way those who were there wanted it to be remembered.

Grand Illusion is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

From left: Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin in 'Grand Illusion' (aka 'La Grande Illusion'), 1937 — Photo by Everett Collection

Grand Illusion, 1937
War Reconsidered

In one of the greatest war films, barely a shot is fired. Two French soldiers are imprisoned in a World War I camp headed by an aristocratic captain (monocled Erich von Stroheim). A slave to outdated, gentlemanly rules of engagement, he clings to the grandest illusion of all: That war can ever be "civilized." 

Spirited Away is one of the 20 most essential films for people over 50+

'Spirited Away,' (aka 'Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi'), Chihiro, No-Face, 2001 — Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/Everett Collection

Spirited Away, 2001
Animation and the Dream State

Plugging directly into our cerebral cortex, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki immerses us in the stupefying world of a bathhouse populated by grotesque river gods. The mind-boggling image of a young girl and a white-masked ghost riding across a calm sea in a trolley triggers in us a mild panic attack: "Am I dreaming this?

Metropolis is one of the 20 most essential movies for people over 50+

'Metropolis,' Brigitte Helm (front), 1927 — Photo by Everett Collection

Metropolis, 1927
The Future, Part 1

Fritz Lang's visionary story of class war in a futuristic city is enlivened by humanoid robots, sparking machinery and darkly threatening urban canyons. From Blade Runner to Batman, there's hardly a movie set in a dystopian modern age that doesn't crib from Lang's indelible first look.

A Space Odyssey is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

Actor Gary Lockwood on the set of '2001: A Space Odyssey,' 1968 — Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
The Future, Part 2

Filmgoers had never seen anything like the starkly terrifying beauty of 2001. Hitting the sci-fi "reset" button, director Stanley Kubrick hurls us into the depths of space to the strains of a 19th century waltz. Can technology be humankind's savior? HAL, the rogue computer, throws that notion right out the pod bay door. 

Next: And the top Western is ... »

Pinocchio is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

'Pinocchio,' Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, 1940 — Photo by Everett Collection

Pinocchio, 1940
Animation as Art

Painstakingly animated, lovingly rendered, Walt Disney's tale of the puppet who wants to be a boy may well be animation's supreme accomplishment. Sentimental? Sure. But was there ever a scene more blood-chilling than the transformation of Pinocchio's pal Lampwick into a donkey?

The Searchers is one of the 20 most essential movies for people over 50+

'The Searchers,' from left, John Qualen, John Wayne, 1956 — Photo by Everett Collection

The Searchers, 1956
The Western That Hated Itself

John Ford courageously builds upon the cowboys-and-Indians genre — and strips it down to its racist roots. John Wayne is chilling as a man seeking his grown niece (Natalie Wood), kidnapped as a child by Indians, to kill her in an insanely misguided act of mercy.

The Music Box is one of the 20 most essential movies for people over 50+

'The Music Box,' Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy [Laurel & Hardy], 1932 — Photo by Everett Collection

The Music Box, 1932
The Perfect Comedy Short

It's simple: Laurel and Hardy must lug a heavy crate from street level up a seemingly endless stairway. Faced with every imaginable obstacle — primarily their shared imbecility — they tackle the task with grim, relentless determination. The music box itself is, of course, doomed. But Stan and Ollie won an Oscar.

Vertigo is one of the 20 most essential films for people over 50+

'Vertigo,' Director Alfred Hitchcock on set with Kim Novak, 1958 — Photo by Everett Collection

Vertigo, 1958
The Thriller in Your Head

Jimmy Stewart just knows that mysterious blonde Kim Novak couldn't possibly be the woman he loved: She's dead. But his obsession with their similarities nearly drives him mad. In his masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock proves again that the scariest monsters are the ones that we imagine.

Battleship Potemkin is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

'Battleship Potemkin' (USSR 1925) — Photo by Mary Evans/Goskino/Ronald Grant Archive/Everett Collection

The Battleship Potemkin, 1925
The Language of Film

Film-school junkies revere silent-era director Sergei Eisenstein for his revolution in film editing, but his story of a brutal Czarist attack in the Black Sea port of Odessa is also a flat-out great action film. Turn down the added soundtrack and "feel" the rhythm of his cuts. Your mind will write its own music.

Next: Why all three 'Godfather' movies made our list. »

The Godfather is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

Left Francis Ford Coppola, middle Marlon Brando, and right, Al Pacino on the set of 'The Godfather,' 1972 — Photo by Everett Collection

The Godfather I-III, 1972; '74; '90
The Family Saga

Part I: Marlon Brando shatters the old street-fighter image of movie mobsters.
Part II: Al Pacino explores the persistence of evil.
Part III: The border between Heaven and Hell turns out to be more porous than you might think.

Last Year at Marienbad is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

'Last Year at Marienbad,' (aka 'L'Annee Derniere A Marienbad'), Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, 1961 — Photo by Everett Collection

Last Year at Marienbad, 1961
Art Film 101

All the oddball conventions of pretentious French art films — the incongruous dialogue, the lingering, hyper-composed shots — get full frontal exposure in Alain Resnais' dreamy drama. You'll never understand what it's about — even Resnais isn't sure — but his images will haunt you.

Rome, Open City is on of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

'Roma Citta Aperta' aka 'Rome, Open City,' 1945 — Photo by Mary Evans/Excelsa Film/Everett Collection

Rome, Open City, 1945
Real Fiction

Almost as soon as Axis tanks rolled out of occupied Rome, Roberto Rossellini took to the streets to film this stark drama about war in the Eternal City. Heroism, betrayal and despair are palpable characters in a film that is as raw as an open, but slowly healing, wound.

Sunrise, A song of Two Humans is one of the 20 most essential movies for people over 50+

'Sunrise,' (aka 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans') from left: George O'Brien, Margaret Livingston, 1927. — Photo by 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927
Silence Perfected

Proof positive that the switch to sound films was utterly unnecessary, this profoundly touching love story won the first best actress Oscar (Janet Gaynor). F. W. Murnau's camera never stops moving, and neither does his story. Words would only get in the way. 

Next: The greatest movie ever made. »

Singin' in the Rain is one of the 20 most essential films for people over 50+

'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly sings and dances in the rain, 1962 — Photo by Everett Collection

Singin' in the Rain, 1952
The Ultimate Musical

It's set in the late 1920s, but Gene Kelly's musical about the shift to sound movies is cutting edge to its happy core, bristling with athletic dancing and a smart, knowing script. Ahead of its time, and timeless.

Bride of Frankenstein is one of the 20 essential movies for people over 50+

'Bride of Frankenstein,' (from left): Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, 1935 — Photo by Everett Collection

Bride of Frankenstein, 1935
Horror With a Heart

"The Monster Demands a Mate!" the poster screams, but director James Whale has more than savage titillation in mind. In a miraculous performance that penetrates inches of makeup, Boris Karloff's lonely, doomed monster draws not only shrieks of horror, but also tears of compassion.

Lethal Weapon is one of the 20 most essential films for people over 50 +

'Lethal Weapon,' from left: Danny Glover, Mel Gibson, 1987 — Photo by Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Lethal Weapon, 1987
Action to the Extreme

As the suicidal cop who literally doesn't care whether he lives or dies, Mel Gibson rewrote the Movie Detective Handbook. Later installments were played for laughs, but in one heart-stopping set piece after another, director Richard Donner doesn't let us catch our breath, not for one second.

Citizen Kane is one of the 20 most essential movies for people over 50+

Orson Welles among stacks of newspapers in 'Citizen Kane,' 1941 — Photo by Everett Collection

Citizen Kane, 1940
The Greatest Movie Ever Made

It tops nearly every list out there, so of course you should see it. But — surprise ­— in eating your cinematic spinach you'll discover a funny, tragic-yet-triumphant study of a man who tried to buy love and respect, and ended up with the opposite of each, whatever that is.

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