The 15 Best Classic Movies That Every Film Fan Needs to See


You don’t have to attend film school to become a scholar of the cinematic arts. The best classic movies can provide an adequate education on their own.

To understand what makes a great movie, simply see a lot of them. And this list of 25 of the best classic movies ever created is a great place to begin.

The 25 Best Classic Movies That Every Film Fan Needs to See (Old Hollywood Movies)

1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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A jaded detective (Humphrey Bogart), a sinister villain (Peter Lorre), a seductive femme fatale (Mary Astor), and a convoluted plot that mainly functions as a framework for scenes of bad people doing bad things for selfish reasons—all of the style and clichés that would come to define the film noir are all present in this delightfully dense crime film.

2. Children of Paradise (1945)

Pathé Consortium Cinéma

This epic drama, which is France’s take on Gone With the Wind, was secretly created during the German occupation of World War II. It is set in 1830s Paris and narrates the tale of four men who fall in love with a courtesan (French fashion sensation Arletty) over several years.

3. The Red Shoes (1948)

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This lurid Technicolor spectacle from British filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger tells the story of a ballet prodigy, Victoria Page (Moira Sherer), who falls under the sway of a charismatic and demanding dance instructor, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), and struggles with the demands of performing to his expectations while sacrificing everything else in her life. Drenched in dreamy images, it’s most known for a 17-minute reproduction of the title ballet, which employs filmmaking techniques to transport viewers inside Victoria’s shattered mind.

4. Seven Samurai (1954)

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Akira Kurosawa, the genius of Japanese cinema, created a lot of classics, but none have stood the test of time like this epic tale of a small community under attack by bandits and the odd band of warrior misfits who band together to defend it. If that scenario seems familiar, it is because it has served as the foundation for a number of quasi-remakes, ranging from The Magnificent Seven to A Bug’s Life.

5. Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

The 25 Best Classic Movies That Every Film Fan Needs to See
Metro-Goldwyn Pictures

If you’ve never seen a silent film before, this Buster Keaton classic is a great place to start—a hilarious, romantic adventure about a cinema projectionist who thinks he’s an amateur detective and gets falsely accused of a crime by his romantic rival. It contains original sight gags and physical comedy sequences that are still effective a century later.

6. It Happened One Night, 1934

The 25 Best Classic Movies That Every Film Fan Needs to See
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This screwball comedy, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, follows two strangers who fall in love during a cross-country bus ride, despite a series of mishaps and hijinks along the way. It was one of only a few films to win the top five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

7. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The 25 Best Classic Movies That Every Film Fan Needs to See
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Frankenstein is better recognized, yet the sequel is the superior film. Dr. Frankenstein from the original film has vowed never to play God again until he is forced to create a female companion for his first horrific creation. A filmmaking accomplishment on all levels, it has been reexamined in recent decades for its subversive queer undercurrent (director James Whale was a closeted gay man).


8. Gone with the Wind (1939)

The 25 Best Classic Movies That Every Film Fan Needs to See
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This adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel is one of the greatest spectacles in Hollywood history, from its production (famously featuring multiple directors and a “cast of thousands”), length (nearly four hours), and box office success ($3.4 billion in today’s dollars). Its Civil War-era setting and post-reconstruction racial views remain controversial today, but the fundamental romance between Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) endures.

9. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

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Charles Laughton, an actor-turned-director, had never made a film before attempting to adapt Davis Grubb’s novel The Night of the Hunter for the screen, and his inexperience (and the film’s small budget) are evident onscreen in all the right ways. Laughton used Broadway acting and staging techniques to create a surreal blend of realism and artifice in the story of two young children fleeing down the river, pursued by a fanatical, self-styled ex-convict preacher (Robert Mitchum) in search of the loot their father hid after a bank robbery. At the time, audiences and critics had no idea what to make of it, yet it is now regarded as a classic.

10. The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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In this deeply cynical quasi-film noir, Burt Lancaster plays powerful, corrupt newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (based on the real-life Walter Winchell), who uses his influence to ruin people’s lives, and Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, an eager press agent who will do anything to earn Hunsecker’s favor. The scathing screenplay goes into the rotting core of the media, unabashedly focused on a pair of irredeemable scumbags, one destined to be the other’s downfall.

11. North by Northwest (1959)

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This espionage caper about a Manhattan ad man (Cary Grant) who is mistaken for a government agent and followed across the country by sinister forces is the most purely enjoyable film Alfred Hitchcock has ever made—and that’s saying a lot.

12. The Third Man (1949)

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This cynical post-war thriller from the United Kingdom handed Orson Welles one of his best parts, despite the fact that the film takes its time. Joseph Cotten plays an American who travels to Vienna to work for his army buddy, only to discover that his old friend has died and that a conspiracy is underway. Much more would be a spoiler, but consider that Welles’ mid-film entrance is regarded as one of the best in cinema history, and the odd soundtrack—performed entirely on the zither—became an unexpected hit.

13. All About Eve (1950)

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Hollywood likes nothing more than navel-gazing, and this is without a doubt the finest film about movies ever made. Bette Davis portrays aging cinema beauty Margo Channing, whose renown is diminishing as she ages, aided by the cunning and scheming of young upstart Eve (Anne Baxter), who will do anything to become a star. The caustic script has some of the most unforgettable lines ever penned, so buckle your seat belts, because it’s going to be a rocky night.

14. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

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Another behind-the-scenes romp, this musical comedy stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds as three actors navigating the transition from silent cinema to talkies. It’s widely recognized as one of the best Hollywood musicals of all time because to its hilarious physical comedy, catchy lyrics, and one bravura dance sequence after another.

15. High Noon (1952).

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A literal ticking clock propels this thrilling western, which unfolds in real time in the hours before a marshal in a wild west town (Gary Cooper) must decide whether to face off against a gang of criminals or flee and let the community devolve into chaos. Former President Bill Clinton liked it so much that he had it screened at the White House over a dozen times.

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