First things first: This is not the list of movies you’d see on a syllabus for any classic films class. Some of these might appear there, but this list wasn’t made to teach you which films released before 1975 were the best made. Instead, we’ve compiled a list of truly great movies that we think you could enjoy; movies that may inspire you to check out an actor, director, or genre you’ve never experienced before. At the very least, it’ll help you stop proclaiming, “I don’t like black-and-white movies,” as several on this list are, in fact, devoid of color (gasp!). These movies deserve and need your focus to be truly appreciated, so turn off your phones, turn down the lights, and actually experience them.
Though this list is not ranked, this first entry would be number one on that list if it were. It's impossible to undersell this movie. Humphrey Bogart's weathered, rugged demeanor didn't always suit the roles he played, but his acting prowess always made it work. In Casablanca, though, Bogart is 100 percent perfect and equally matched by every major and minor actor in this film. There's a reason the song from this film, "As Time Goes By," is, to this day, the Warner Bros. theme song. That studio could make a million movies and still never come close to equaling the perfection of Ingrid Bergman, Bogart, et. al, in this World War II drama. She's beautiful, he's heartbroken, people are scrambling trying to escape a war-torn region, and yet, there's plenty of humor sprinkled throughout. If you ignore every other movie on this list, at least see this one. Consider it a rite of passage.
The Godfather (1972)
Here's another that would likely find its way to the top of a traditional list or even a film class syllabus, but it also is just a truly great movie that is as enjoyable to watch as it is educational. Marlon Brando's performance alone is pretty much textbook method acting, and he's honestly not the strongest actor in the movie (go back and watch the first scene after you've finished it to remind yourself where Al Pacino starts as compared to the end). It is also required to view The Godfather: Part II (1974) and settle the debate for yourself about whether it is the lone instance in cinematic history when the sequel was better than the original.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Gone With the Wind isn't a classic movie; it's a sweeping epic that tells part of the story of the Civil War like no other film does. We can go back now and talk about what it was like in the South before and after the war broke out, or you can see it for yourself from the standpoint of one spoiled young woman's point of view. Meet the infamous Scarlett O'Hara. If you find yourself not sure whether you should love or hate her, you're in good company. Rhett Butler can't decide either.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
It's not Alfred Hitchcock's most well-known film, and it might not even be his best, but it's a gripping thriller that is also a great way to get to know Grace Kelly on the screen. When a man plots to murder his wealthy wife in the hopes of getting his hands on her inheritance, things go a bit awry and even though the audience is in on it the whole time, you still might be surprised to see how the case gets solved. If you like it, move on to the rest of the Hitchcock output, especially Psycho (1960), North by Northwest (1959), Rear Window (1954) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), to name a few.
It Happened One Night (1934)
A funny thing will happen when you check this one out: You'll start to realize how many movies that were made after it borrowed a thing or two from this Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert comedy. The formula for romantic comedies is nothing new: put two people who are perfect for each other on the screen then keep them apart for two hours. What's even better is when you can throw increasingly ridiculous obstacles in their way to see how they'll deal with them. Another great one in this screwball comedy genre that is seriously hilarious? The Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neal gem What’s Up Doc (1972).
Rio Bravo (1959)
There's a reason the name John Wayne is synonymous with the Western genre of film. The man made nearly 250 movies in his career, many of which are absolute classics. This one is a great introduction to The Duke and his movies because it stands out for a few reasons. With co-stars like Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (both of whom sing in the movie) and a splash of humor throughout, it has enough grit and drama to grab you, but it's not as traditionally Western as many of his other films. Move on from here to McLintock (1963), The Quiet Man (1952), True Grit (1969), and any other titles that catch your eye.
The Graduate (1967)
You'll never look at your significant other's parents the same way after this one. If you don't know why the name Mrs. Robinson is famous, aside from the Simon and Garfunkel song, get to know her through Benjamin Braddock's eyes and buckle up for one of the most uncomfortable love triangles ever captured on film. When Braddock (played to bumbling perfection by Dustin Hoffman) comes home from college after graduation, he finds himself in quite the predicament after giving a friend's mom a ride home one night.
Roman Holiday (1953)
Audrey Hepburn deserves her own category on this list and it's nearly impossible to pick the best film among her work, but this is a great place to start. Hepburn plays a restless princess visiting Rome as part of a European tour. She is tired of visiting places but not actually seeing them. She escapes to have an adventure and meets a dashing Gregory Peck who serves as her tour guide while withholding a crucial secret: he's actually a reporter and hoping to make money on her story. From here, check out Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Charade (1963), and Sabrina (1954).
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Marilyn Monroe was a complicated movie star. Her on-set difficulties are widely known and she's remembered more as a Hollywood icon than a talented actress. But as Sugar Kane in this Tony Curtis/Jack Lemmon cross-dressing comedy, she's pretty much perfect. She plays a flighty singer in the all-female band that Curtis and Lemmon are hiding out in to escape the mob after witnessing a murder. Things get complicated when Curtis tries to make a play for her without revealing his actual identity. In a role that could come across as superficial or stupid, she manages depth and humor up against two of the best leading men of the day.
An Affair to Remember (1957)
There never will be another actor to match the screen presence of Cary Grant. Dashing, unique, charming, and funny, and he's only half of the pair that makes this film so great. Deborah Kerr was not only a phenomenal actress, but her voice was also one of a kind and so beautiful in this and all of her movies. If you've seen (and loved) Sleepless in Seattle, you really do owe it to yourself to watch this one and finally see what they were paying homage to.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
A young man who truly loves America, but has no experience in politics, is chosen to fill an empty seat in Congress. Instead of the noble institution he believed our government to be, poor Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) soon discovers corruption and greed running rampant through the Capitol. If every elected official watched this movie when they took their office, and vowed to be more like Mr. Smith, could our country be a better place? Side note: You should see pretty much everything Jimmy Stewart ever did, especially The Spirit of St. Louis (1957).
West Side Story (1961)
There are so many classic musicals to see, but this is an absolute must. The story of Romeo and Juliet told in New York City, but this time with rival gangs instead of warring families makes the story that much easier to relate to, especially because the gangs are divided by racism and prejudice. Can young love bring everyone to their senses in time before hatred causes irreparable damage? Spoiler alert: not likely, but perhaps there's hope in the end.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
We mentioned John Wayne earlier, and for traditional Westerns, he's a great place to start. As the 1960s came to an end, though, the world needed movies where the line between good and bad was a little more murky. What better way to show that than with a Western starring two anti-heroes? It's still got a great Western vibe to it, but it's clear that the world was changing, as evidenced by the ending, which is anything but traditional. Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles were one of the great original bromances before we even knew what that was.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Pillow Talk (1959)
There were several Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies around this time, and she made so many other great comedies and musicals, also, that it's hard to pick one. But it's almost worth choosing this one just to see how different telephone communication used to be (it'll make more sense when you watch it). The Day/Hudson chemistry is great, as is their fiery banter as they pretend to hate each other through half the film. For a super fun Doris Day musical experience, check out her Western musical Calamity Jane. It's cheesy and awesome, but no one could ever match her screen presence and powerful voice.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
There are way too many great lines and moments in this film to count, so don't let the fact that it might be offensive keep you away. When an all-white town in the Old West is horrified to discover the Governor has sent them a Black Sheriff, it seems like a recipe for disaster. But what this Mel Brooks comedy lacks in political correctness it certainly makes up for in flatulence humor, as the title subtly suggests, not to mention enough puns and innuendo to make even a skeptic crack up a few times.