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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?

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.

Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif in film still from 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Egyptian actor Omar Sharif and Irish actor Peter O'Toole on the set of 'Lawrence of Arabia,' directed by David Lean, 1962

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

The Ultimate Epic

The endless desert, the sword-wielding armies, the sweep of history. Director David Lean jammed his widescreen 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.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman on the set of 'Casablanca'

Everett Collection

Michael Curtiz directs Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman filming 'Casablanca,' 1942

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.

Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, and Zero Mostel in 'The Producers' movie.

Everett Collection

Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars and Zero Mostel star in the 'The Producers,' 1968

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.

Film still from 'The Longest Day' starring Robert Mitchum

20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Robert Mitchum with cigar among group of soldiers in a scene from the film 'The Longest Day,' 1962

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.

Pierre Fresnay and Jean Gabin star in the movie 'Grand Illusion'

Everett Collection

From left: Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin in 'Grand Illusion' (aka 'La Grande Illusion')

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."

Movie clip from animated film spirited away.

Walt Disney Pictures/Everett Collection

'Spirited Away,' (aka 'Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi'), Chihiro, No-Face

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?"

Film still from the movie 'Metropolis' starring Brigitte Helm

Everett Collection

'Metropolis,' Brigitte Helm (front)

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 film scene from '2001: A Space Odyssey' movie.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Actor Gary Lockwood on the set of '2001: A Space Odyssey'

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.

Movie still from animated film 'Pinocchio'

Everett Collection

'Pinocchio,' Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket

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?

Actors John Qualen and John Wayne in 'The Searchers' movie.

Everett Collection

'The Searchers,' from left, John Qualen, John Wayne

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.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in 'The Music Box' movie

Everett Collection

'The Music Box,' Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

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.

Director Albert Hitchcock directs actress Kim Novak on set of the film 'Vertigo'

Photo by Everett Collection

'Vertigo,' Director Alfred Hitchcock on set with Kim Novak, 1958

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.

Scene from the movie 'Battleship Potemkin'

Mary Evans/Goskino/Ronald Grant Archive/Everett Collection

'Battleship Potemkin' (USSR 1925)

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.

Director Francis Ford Coppola with actors Al Pacino and Marlon Brando on set of 'The Godfather' film.

Everett Collection

Left Francis Ford Coppola, middle Marlon Brando, and right, Al Pacino on the set of 'The Godfather'

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.

Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi in 'Last Year at Marienbad' movie.

Everett Collection

'Last Year at Marienbad,' (aka 'L'Annee Derniere A Marienbad'), Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, 1961

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.

Movie poster for 'Rome, Open City' movie.

Mary Evans/Excelsa Film/Everett Collection

'Roma Citta Aperta' aka 'Rome, Open City'

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.

George O Brien and Margaret Livingston in the film 'Sunrise'

20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

'Sunrise,' (aka 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans') from left: George O'Brien, Margaret Livingston

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.

Actor Gene Kelly stars in 'Singin' in the Rain' movie.

Everett Collection

'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly sings and dances in the rain

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.

Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff star in 'Bride of Frankenstein' movie.

Everett Collection

'Bride of Frankenstein,' (from left): Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff

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.

Actors Danny Glove and Mel Gibson in movie still from 'Lethal Weapon'

Warner Bros/Everett Collection

'Lethal Weapon,' from left: Danny Glover, Mel Gibson

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.

Orson Welles stars in a scene from 'Citizen Kane' movie

Photo by Everett Collection

Orson Welles among stacks of newspapers in 'Citizen Kane,' 1941

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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