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.
Watch it: Psycho, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: West Side Story, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Lawrence of Arabia, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
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.
Watch it: A Hard Day's Night, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: The Graduate, on Amazon Prime,
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.
Watch it: 2001: A Space Odyssey, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Taxi Driver, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Apocalypse Now, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back, on Amazon Prime, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Do the Right Thing, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: The Silence of the Lambs, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Pulp Fiction, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Toy Story, on Amazon Prime, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: The Big Lebowski, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: City of God, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
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.
Watch it: Get Out, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube