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Does anyone really need another list of the greatest movies ever made? Of course not. There are already a million of those clogging up the internet. And, frankly, our goal isn't to make you roll your eyes and stifle a yawn. Which is why we've come up with a different kind of list — a list of the films that you simply must see because they're not only great, they're relevant in a timeless way.
These are the movies that when they come up at a dinner party, you want to be able to say, “Oh yes, I know exactly what you mean.” Some may speak for a generation (The Graduate, Pulp Fiction). Some are shared touchstones in our pop-culture vocabulary (the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane or “the Dude abides” in The Big Lebowski). They may offer insights about growing up (the Seven Up series) or having already grown up and now wistfully look back (Tokyo Story).
Here then are the 30 must-see films for all grownups, in chronological order. Let us know in the comments below how many you've seen and what films you'd add to the list!
Movies from the 1930s
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Walt Disney single-handedly ushered in the golden age of Hollywood animation. He also magically transformed Saturday matinee kids’ stuff into capital-A Art. And this tale (Disney's first feature-length film) about a fairest-of-them-all princess and her seven pint-sized pals is the movie that kicked his studio's remarkable pixie-dust run — which would last until the outbreak of World War II.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Most film buffs will tell you that 1939 was the greatest year in movie history. After all, Gone With the Wind, The Women, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were all released during that overstuffed 12-month span. But their argument would fall to pieces without Victor Fleming's ruby-slippered rhapsody about a plucky Midwest farm girl named Dorothy (17-year-old Judy Garland) who bumps her head, gets swept up in a twister and is transported “somewhere over the rainbow” — from black and white to a Technicolor dream world of Munchkins, witches, flying monkeys and kindly friends also seeking what eludes them. Add in Garland's otherworldly singing voice and, well, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Movies from the 1940s
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The 1930s are often cited as the heyday of the Hollywood screwball comedy. But that fast-talking, door-slamming, champagne-quaffing genre reached its bubbliest heights in director George Cukor's ritzy romantic farce about a high-society swan (Katharine Hepburn) who's recently divorced from an irresponsible millionaire (Cary Grant, natch) and about to marry a drip (John Howard). On hand for the upper-crust nuptials of the season is a gossip reporter (James Stewart) who throws another wrench into the works. Everyone in the cast is in peak form as the booze keeps flowing, the flirtation keeps heating up and the laughs keep right on coming.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
This is where film noir begins. And man, does it start off with a bang! Humphrey Bogart is world-weary, tough-talking perfection as Dashiell Hammett's famed literary private eye Sam Spade. Hired under false pretenses (which he sees right through) by Mary Astor's Bridgid O'Shaughnessy, Spade quickly finds himself tangled up in a twisty, deadly quest for a precious statue known as the Black Bird ("the stuff that dreams are made of") and pitted against shady types played by Peter Lorre and the indelible Sidney Greenstreet.
Citizen Kane (1941)
A mysterious and fabulously wealthy tycoon named Charles Foster Kane dies at the opening of Orson Welles’ RKO masterpiece. His final word on his deathbed: “Rosebud.” What does it mean? Nothing ... and everything. Directed by a precocious but undeniably brilliant 25-year-old Welles (who also plays Kane), Rosebud is simply the MacGuffin that drives this elusively murky investigation into the regret-filled rise and fall of one extraordinary man's sad, lonely life. Citizen Kane has been called the “greatest movie of all time” so many times that that platitude has almost lost all of its meaning. But watch it — or rewatch it — and you'll remember what all the fuss is about.
Humphrey Bogart was more than just a great film actor. He is, was and will always be the greatest movie star that the Tinseltown dream factory ever created. If that sounds like hyperbole, go back and watch Casablanca. As Rick Blaine, the cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow café owner and American expatriate who went to North Africa “for the waters,” but really to get over his true love (Ingrid Bergman), Bogart sticks his neck out for no one. He's a dashingly jaded mercenary in a world forced to take sides in the midst of World War II. Then, she walks into his bar and his world is upended, forcing him to get off the sidelines and to choose between love and honor. Folks often say, “They don't make them like this anymore.” Well, the truth is, they didn't make them like this back then either. This is a rare gem … and quite possibly the greatest love story of all time.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
We all know It's a Wonderful Life as the black-and-white staple that pops up on TV every year in the walk-up to Christmas. Just the mere mention of its title may make some folks roll their eyes at its yuletide corniness. But have you watched it lately? I mean really watched it? Because beneath all the tinsel is one of the most resonant (and occasionally darkest) meditations on what it means to be a human being on this seemingly meaningless big blue marble. James Stewart gives an emotional master class as a small-town hero who realizes how necessary he is, thanks to the intervention of an angel who shows him what his town would look like if he never had existed. Director Frank Capra's film is more than a movie — it's a reason for living.
Movies from the 1950s
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Screen acting can be divided into two chapters: before Brando and after Brando. This live-wire adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ stage play (where Brando's Method-man mythology was first created) is like a cinematic fault line. When his blue-collar brute Stanley Kowalski howls “Stella!” to the heavens, an earthquake rocked cinema and a more naturalistic style of performing was born. Thanks to affecting turns from costars Kim Hunter, Karl Malden and Vivien Leigh as the delusional Blanche DuBois, Streetcar mixes theatrical intimacy with sweaty, street-level realism — while Brando showed a generation of up-and-coming actors the way forward.
Tokyo Story (1953)
Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu's heartbreaking import is the story of an older couple who decide to visit their grown-and-married children in Tokyo and find that those children have very little room for them in their homes or their lives. Beneath the frosty family dynamics bubbles an undercurrent about a way of life that has been lost — when kids looked after their aging parents and family was the most important thing in the world. Tokyo Story is a slow, meditative film, but it's also undeniably moving and profound.
More than 60 years after it first hit theaters, Vertigo packs one kinky punch. Alfred Hitchcock's perverse, eye-candy melodrama stars James Stewart as an acrophobic San Francisco police detective who falls head over heels for a woman, torments himself with guilt when she dies and then becomes obsessed with another woman who looks just like her (Kim Novak). Vertigo surfaces all of Hitchcock's personal obsessions and neuroses — but all that aside, it's a beautifully bizarre thriller that will haunt and stick with you long after the end credits roll.
Movies from the 1960s
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Italian maestro Federico Fellini began his career as a neorealist before segueing into world cinema's greatest fantasist. La Dolce Vita ("the sweet life") captures the moment when the pendulum was swinging, showing us the after-hours decadence amongst Rome's go-go Via Veneto set. The partying is viewed through the eyes of Marcello Mastroianni's jaded columnist, who feels a spiritual hangover long before the booze has worn off. The film is teeming with exquisite imagery: a statue of Christ being flown across the city while hanging from a helicopter; the tempting-as-meringue sex bomb Anita Ekberg frolicking in a fountain; and the final image of a little girl whispering something we know is important to Mastroianni on a beach at dawn that he can't quite hear.
Watch it: La Dolce Vita, on Amazon Prime
Anthony Perkins is creepy perfection as the ultimate mama's boy, Norman Bates — the seemingly mild-mannered proprietor of a down-on-its-heels motel where Janet Leigh's Marion Crane decides to spend the night while on the run with a suitcase full of cash that she stole from the bank where she works. Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene is a masterpiece of lurking suspense, primal terror and masterful quick-cut editing that ends with a close-up of a bloody shower drain that matches the lifeless victim's pupil. By killing off the movie's heroine before the picture's halfway mark, Hitch broke every rule in the Hollywood playbook ... and birthed the modern horror film in the process.
West Side Story (1961)
At a time when the golden age of MGM musicals seemed as passé as “I Like Ike” buttons, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins breathed one last gasp into the genre with an assist from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Gone were sunny songs about state fairs and splashing around in puddles, and in their place was an almost rock-n-roll tale about the Sharks and the Jets — two warring New York City gangs who sang, danced, and battled with a dangerous balletic grace.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Director David Lean was the undisputed master of the sweeping epic. His compositions are like breathtaking frescoes that stretch as wide as the eye can see. Clocking in at three and a half hours (don't worry, the movie's so good that they fly by), Lawrence of Arabia tells the bigger-than-life story of T.E. Lawrence, a slightly batty World War I British war hero who defied the odds in the deserts of the Middle East. There are lots of gorgeous things to look at in Lawrence, but the most arresting of all are star Peter O'Toole's blue eyes — even if they contain a spark of madness.
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
From the opening guitar clang of the title song, this giddy lark of a film starring the most famous band on the planet, the Beatles, is pure joy. The plot is so thin that if it was standing sideways, you wouldn't be able to see it. But director Richard Lester captures the infectiously cheeky charm of John, Paul, George and Ringo (especially Ringo), and the shrieking, mop-topped madness of Beatlemania. Viewed today, it's also a lovely look back at an entire generation's lost innocence.
The Seven Up series (1964 to —)
It was 1964 in England, and one of the strangest and most revelatory experiments in documentary filmmaking was about to begin. The first film was called Seven Up, and the idea behind it was to follow 10 boys and four girls, all age 7, from different socioeconomic backgrounds as they grow up, checking in on them periodically to see how their lives were going and what sort of impact the British class system had on their prospects. Seven years later, director Michael Apted continued with 14 Up, and then 21 Up, then 28 Up and so on (the most recent of the nine docs checked in on the subjects at 63). It was impossible not to get emotionally invested in these kids as they grew into adults, some facing more happiness and hardship than others. But the series is a testament to the power of movies to enlighten while they entertain.
Watch it: The Seven Up series, on Amazon Prime
The Graduate (1967)
"Plastics.” With that one word, the counterculture of the 1960s heard an expression of what they were rebelling against. Namely, the comfort and conformity of their parents’ generation. Careers, kids, direction. Mike Nichols somehow managed to turn all of this into a comedy — and not just any comedy, but a new kind of comedy that crystalized the generation gap with the sort of satire that stung and left a welt. Dustin Hoffman gives a star-is-born performance as Benjamin Braddock, but I'd argue that even more memorable is Anne Bancroft as the boozy, hungry-eyed housewife Mrs. Robinson, whose predatory seduction of Benjamin belies an inner loneliness and alienation far more poignant than anything Benjamin and his college-aged peers could fathom.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The ultimate head-trip movie courtesy of Stanley Kubrick. Based on a story from science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 is one of those eye-of-the-beholder films. Depending on your worldview (and perhaps your recreational drug consumption ... remember this was 1968), this monolithic voyage tracing man's evolution from caves to the stars was either a gee-whiz mind-bender or a confounding head-scratcher. Either way, it's poetic, gorgeous and undeniably ambitious. It's also the film where Kubrick's chilly perfectionism synced up most perfectly with his subject matter. You can watch 2001 literally dozens of times (the bigger the screen, the better) and still have questions. But not every movie has to be easy.
Movies from the 1970s
The Godfather (1972) & The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Rather than agonize over which of Francis Ford Coppola's first two epics about the Corleone crime family belonged on this list, we decided to take the easy way out and just counted them as one movie. A cheat? Sure. But it would be a bigger crime to leave one of them out. This is personal filmmaking of the highest order on the grandest canvas, but all of the little details are there, too. ("Leave the gun, take the cannoli.") Here is the story of the American dream told through one Italian American clan and how that dream goes rotten to its core. Coppola's first two Godfather films deserve every bit of purple praise they get. Because taken together, there may be no greater statement about America, and no better artistic statement about family, loyalty, love, power corruption, and sin.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Loving Monty Python was like being a member of a secret society when their British Flying Circus show first made its way to the U.S. You were either on its absurd wavelength or you weren't. I'm not sure that Hollywood ever was, but by the time they figured it out, the Pythons had already cranked out a couple of timeless big-screen comedies. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the best of the bunch, putting the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table into their irreverent crosshairs. Whether they are surreally serving up killer rabbits, farting Frenchmen, knights who say “Ni!” or servants clickety-clacking coconuts together to sound like horses’ hooves, the Pythons are never afraid of letting silliness outweigh smarts.
Taxi Driver (1976)
"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” That rain has a name and it's Travis Bickle, a New York City cabbie in the seedy Sodom and Gomorrah of the ‘70s. Written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver is a descent into a modern-day hell — and Travis’ taxi is his ferry across 42nd Street's River Styx. Robert De Niro is both amazing and harrowing as Travis, a man who can't tell the difference between salvation and damnation. What makes Scorsese's film a timeless sucker punch is that they end up being one and the same.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now wasn't the first Hollywood film to show the Vietnam experience, but it certainly was the biggest and most operatic. The story is more or less Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness set in Southeast Asia, as Martin Sheen's Capt. Willard is sent upriver to assassinate Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz, who's gone rogue — and totally mad. But it's Coppola's own madness that turns the film into a masterpiece. The director cranks everything in the film up to 11 — whether it's Wagner and the Doors on the soundtrack or the fantastic strangeness of Robert Duvall's “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” speech. This is Vietnam as an acid flashback.
Movies from the 1980s
Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Yes, this is intentional. After all, if you have to pick just one Star Wars installment to represent the thrillingly transportive heights of George Lucas’ sci-fi cycle, this is the one. I'm sorry, but it's true. Thematically darker and more narratively layered than the 1977 original that made American teens absolutely lose their minds, Empire showed that Star Wars was more than a one-off blockbuster. It was a bottomless good-versus-evil soap opera that had everything from unexpected revelations, Oedipal conflict and a wise, shriveled green Jedi muppet named Yoda. With this one, the Force is.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Public Enemy's hip-hop call to arms “Fight the Power” plays over the opening credits of Spike Lee's day in the life of a tinderbox Brooklyn neighborhood, and that anthem telegraphs the message of the filmmaker's intimate and incendiary film. Lee himself plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man who works for the Italian American Sal (Danny Aiello). Over the course of 24 sweltering hours, we get to know every corner and face of the block where these two men will eventually square off. Everything about Lee's masterpiece feels authentic and real, especially the emotions that escalate with the thermometer. The genius of Lee's film (and the tragedy) is that it could be made today and feel just as urgent.
Movies from the 1990s
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme's Oscar winner about an FBI trainee (Jodie Foster) who enlists the help of Anthony Hopkins’ caged serial killer Hannibal Lecter to track down another murderer on the loose is one of the greatest and tightest and most white-knuckle thrillers to ever come out of a major studio. And the fact that it was treated as a prestige film rather than a grisly genre throwaway says a lot about the talent involved and what they were able to achieve. Yes, it may be Hopkins’ deliciously evil performance ("I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti") that gives you goose bumps in the theater, but it's Foster's more subtle, feminist shadings that stick with you 30 years after the fact.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
It's almost impossible to put into words how revolutionary Quentin Tarantino's follow-up to Reservoir Dogs was when it came out, if you weren't there. It's as if he invented an entire new language. He didn't, of course. But with its wildly shuffled nonlinear narrative, cool pop-culture references, groovy soundtrack needle drops and arch, ironic Gen X distance, it sure felt like something new and invigorating. The fact that Tarantino single-handedly rescued John Travolta from the A-list remainder bin and had him do the twist with Uma Thurman didn't hurt either. Here was a young filmmaker who seemed so confident in his vision of the world that he seemed unable to make a false step. Pulp Fiction bristled with that confidence and instantly became the coolest film of the ‘90s.
Toy Story (1995)
Much in the way that Walt Disney invented the animated feature film with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back in 1937, Pixar breathed new life into the form with the help of ones and zeroes. But rather than being cold and impersonal in the way most of us think of digital technology, Pixar's debut feature, Toy Story, felt undeniably warm and human — which is especially impressive considering all of its characters are lifeless toys. Well, at least when people are around. Anchored by a floppy old cowboy puppet named Woody (Tom Hanks) and a shiny new rocket-man action figure named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), this delightful and stealthily emotional story about what playthings get up to when their owners are away is, like the best Disney films from 50 years earlier, entertainment made not only for kids but for their parents too.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Cult movies seemed to die out around the time that people could watch movies in their living rooms, thanks to the VCR. So the ‘80s and ‘90s were fallow years in that department. And then, in 1998, along came a dude named “the Dude.” Played with dazed-and-confused grace by Jeff Bridges, the Dude, aka Jeff Lebowski, is a bowling, toking, White Russian-drinking Angelino who unwittingly gets swept up in a twisty caper and comes out the other end like a holy fool in sunglasses. Directed by the Coen brothers, The Big Lebowski rewards repeated viewings (preferably while wearing a bathrobe and sipping a White Russian). But, you know, that's just my opinion, man.
Movies from the 2000s and 2010s
City of God (2002)
The early 2000s were a boom time for Latin American cinema. Urgent, adrenalized, intense and unflinching, City of God is like Goodfellas but set in the poverty-cursed favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Spanning the ‘60s through the ‘80s, the movie doesn't just simply tell a moralistic story about drugs, guns, and good and evil — it drops you into a world as alien and unfamiliar to Western audiences as Neptune. Director Fernando Meirelles shoots the film with a color-saturated, hyperkinetic style that leaves you as breathless as if you just ran a marathon.
Get Out (2017)
Arriving at a time when the racial divisions many of us thought (or hoped) had healed were being brutally reopened, director Jordan Peele's satiric horror film showed us the true horror of going through life as being “other.” Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams play an interracial couple who go to the lily-white suburbs to meet her parents. “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could,” says the white dad in solidarity to his daughter's Black beau. But no one turns out to be quite the color-blind liberals they appear to be. Peele, in his first film behind the camera, crafts a horror movie whose biggest jolts have nothing to do with blood or body counts, but rather big ideas.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.