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The 25 Best Classic Movies That Every Film Fan Needs to See

Embark on your own film history course with these influential flicks.

You don't need to go to film school to become a scholar of the cinematic arts. The movies can provide an ample education all on their own. If you want to understand what makes a movie great, all you need to do is watch a lot of great movies. And this list of 25 of the best classic movies ever made is an excellent place to start.

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25 Classic, Old Hollywood Movies You Need to See

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

Still from Sherlock, Jr.
Metro-Goldwyn Pictures

If you've never seen a silent film before, this Buster Keaton classic is the perfect one to start with—a silly, romantic romp about a film projectionist who fancies himself an amateur detective and is framed for a crime by a romantic rival. It's filled with innovative sight gags and sequences of physical comedy that still hold up a century later.

It Happened One Night (1934)

it happened one night
AA Film Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

One of only a handful of films to win the top five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, this screwball comedy follows two strangers (played by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) who meet and fall in love during a cross country bus ride… despite a series of mishaps and hijinks along the way.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Still from Bride of Frankenstein
Universal Pictures

Frankenstein is better known, but the sequel is the better film. The original's Dr. Frankenstein has sworn off of playing God until he is coerced into creating a female companion for his first monstrous creation. A filmmaking triumph on every level, it has in decades since been reexamined for its subversive queer subtext (director James Whale was a closeted gay man).

Gone With the Wind (1939)

hattie mcdaniel and vivien leigh in gone with the wind

One of the greatest spectacles in Hollywood history, this adaptation of the Margaret Mitchell novel is epic in every sense of the word, from its production (famously featuring multiple directors and a "cast of thousands"), to its length (nearly four hours), to its box office success ($3.4 billion in today's dollars). Its Civil War-era subject matter and post-reconstruction racial attitudes are problematic today, but its central romance between Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is forever.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Still from The Maltese Falcon
Warner Bros.

This delightfully dense crime film embodies all of the style and tropes that would come to define the film noir—a jaded detective (Humphrey Bogart), a sinister villain (Peter Lorre), a seductive femme fatale (Mary Astor), and a labyrinthine plot that mostly serves as a framework for scenes of bad people doing bad things in pursuit of selfish ends.

RELATED: The 25 Best Coming-of-Age Movies Ever Made.

Children of Paradise (1945)

Still from Children of Paradise
Pathé Consortium Cinéma

France's answer to Gone With the Wind, this epic drama, filmed clandestinely during the German occupation of World War II, is set in 1830s Paris and unfolds the story of a courtesan (French fashion icon Arletty) and four different men who fall in love with her over a period of years.

The Red Shoes (1948)

Still from The Red Shoes
General Film Distributors

This lurid Technicolor spectacle from British filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is 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 and sacrificing everything else in her life to meet them. Drenched in dreamlike imagery, it's most notable for a 17-minute recreation of the titular ballet, which using filmmaking tricks to take us inside Victoria's fractured psyche.

The Third Man (1949)

Orson Welles in The Third Man
Uber Bilder/Alamy Stock Photo

This cynical post-war thriller from the U.K. gave Orson Welles one of the best roles of his career—although the movie makes you wait for it. Joseph Cotten plays an American who moves to Vienna to work for his war buddy, only to discover his old friend is dead and there's a conspiracy afoot. To say much more would be a spoiler, but consider that Welles' mid-film entrance is considered one of the greatest in cinema history, and the unusual soundtrack—performed entirely on the zither—became an unlikely hit.

All About Eve (1950)

Still from All About Eve
20th Century Fox

Hollywood loves nothing more than navel-gazing, and this is unquestionably the greatest movie about movies ever made. Bette Davis plays aging screen siren Margo Channing, whose fame is fading as she ages—helped along by the conniving and scheming of young upstart Eve (Anne Baxter), who will do anything to become a star. The acidic script is filled with some of the most memorable lines ever written, so fasten your seat belts, because it's going to be a bumpy night.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Still from Singin' in the Rain
Loew's Inc.

Another behind-the-screen romp, this musical comedy stars Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds as three actors in an industry struggling to make the transition from silent films to talkies. Filled with silly physical comedy, catchy songs, and one bravura dance sequence after another, it's rightly regarded as one of the best Hollywood musicals ever made.

RELATED: The 25 Best Animated Movies Ever Made.

High Noon (1952)

Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in High Noon (1952)
Stanley Kramer Productions

A literal ticking clock drives this propulsive 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 run away and let the place fall into lawlessness. Former President Bill Clinton loved this one so much, he screened it at the White House more than a dozen times.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Still from Seven Samurai

Japanese filmmaking master Akira Kurosawa made a number of classics, but none has endured like this epic story of a small village under assault by bandits and the unlikely band of warrior misfits who unite to defend it. If that setup sounds familiar, it's because it has served as the backbone for any number of quasi-remakes, from The Magnificent Seven to A Bug's Life.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Still from Night of the Hunter
United Artists

Actor-turned-director Charles Laughton 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 limited budget) are apparent onscreen in all the best ways. Laughton used acting and staging techniques he'd learned on Broadway to lend a surreal blend of realism and artifice to 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. Audiences and critics at the time didn't know what to make of it, but it is now considered a masterpiece.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Still from Sweet Smell of Success
United Artists

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 is Sidney Falco, an eager press agent all too willing to do whatever it takes to earn Hunsecker's favor. The barbed screenplay delves into the rotting heart of the media, unapologetically focusing on a pair of irredeemable scumbags each destined to be the other's undoing.

North by Northwest (1959)

Still from North by Northwest
Warner Bros.

A perfect blend of humor and high-concept thrills, this spy caper about a Manhattan ad man (Cary Grant) who is mistaken for a government agent and pursued across the country by nefarious forces stands as the most purely entertaining movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made—and that's saying something.

RELATED: The Saddest Movie Deaths of All Time.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Still from Some Like It Hot
United Artists

This hilarious, subversive comedy from director Billy Wilder follows two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) in Prohibition-era Chicago who must go on the run after witnessing a mafia hit. They elect to disguise themselves as women and join an all-female band on tour. Their undercover act leads to complicated relationships with Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and enamored millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).

Breathless (1960)

Still from Breathless
Société nouvelle de cinématographie

This freewheeling classic of the so-called "French New Wave" finds director Jean-Luc Godard breaking all the rules of Hollywood filmmaking to enrapturing effect as he follows the brief, doomed romance between a young French criminal (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg). Shot on location with handheld cameras and employing then-novel techniques such as improvisation and jump cuts, the film's casual depiction of sex, violence, and youthful narcissism shocked contemporary audiences and remains daring today.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Still from Lawrence of Arabia
Columbia Pictures

Even 60 years later, director David Lean's adaptation of famed adventurer T.E. Lawrence's autobiography stands as one of the greatest adventure epics ever filmed. The film depicts Lawrence's experiences in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and delves into his dueling allegiances to his homeland of Great Britain and the tribes of Arabs he meets in the desert and comes to deeply respect. Grappling with issues of colonialism that persist to this day and filmed with an epic scope and grandeur, it went on to inspires generations of filmmakers and films, from Star Wars to Dances With Wolves to Mad Max.

The Graduate (1967)

Still from The Graduate
Embassy Pictures

A certain brand of youthful disillusionment with the American dream was crystalized in this coming-of-age dark comedy in which Dustin Hoffman plays a directionless college graduate who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life but will do anything to avoid becoming his father. Along the way, he falls into love affairs with an older woman (Anne Bancroft) and her daughter (Katharine Ross). Although circumstances have changed in the nearly 60 years since its release, its air of existential angst remains as indelible as its Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Still from Rosemary's Baby
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

A masterpiece of slow-burn horror, Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Ira Levin novel follows the titular Rosemary (Mia Farrow), who moves with her actor husband into an imposing apartment building in Manhattan occupied by a strange assortment of people who seem way, way too invested in her pregnancy. As Rosemary becomes convinced her neighbors have sinister plans for her child, she grows more isolated and paranoid, and the film captures her unraveling with an atmosphere of unrelenting dread.

RELATED: 30 Travel Movies to Help Inspire Your Next Trip.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Still from The Last Picture Show
Columbia Pictures

This coming-of-age drama marked the directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovich, who co-wrote the screenplay based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove). In stunning black-and-white cinematography, it captures the aimless generational ennui of a group of teenagers growing up in a small town in Texas in the early '50s. Jeff Bridges, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, and Cloris Leachman were all Oscar-nominated for their performances (with Johnson and Leachman winning), while the film's screenplay, direction, and cinematography were also honored.

Cabaret (1972)

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret
Allied Artists

Bob Fosse's adaptation of the Kander and Ebb stage musical is a dark and dour masterpiece about the rise of Fascism in 1930s Berlin. Liza Minnelli became an international superstar playing Sally Bowles, a performer at the seedy Kit-Kat Klub (overseen by Joel Grey's creepy, charismatic emcee) attempting at embracing a freewheeling, bohemian lifestyle even as the city is gripped by fear and paranoia. With inventive staging and a grim commitment to Cabaret's moral and political message, Fosse crafted a historical parable that remains every bit as relevant today.

The Exorcist (1973)

Still from The Exorcist
Warner Bros.

Demonic possession movies are a dime a dozen, but none compare to the OG classic. Time and repetition of tropes has done nothing to dull the impact of director William Friedkin's adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel about a young girl (Linda Blair) playing host to a malevolent entity and her mother's (Ellen Burstyn) attempts to save her soul with the help of a priest challenged by a crisis of faith.

The Conversation (1974)

Still from The Conversation
Paramount Pictures

Released between The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, this paranoia-tinged thriller completes a three-film run from director Francis Ford Coppola unmatched in Hollywood history. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance specialist who is attempting to catch two lovers in an illicit affair and inadvertently records evidence of a murder plot. Fearful for his safety as well as the moral weight of his actions, Caul wrestles over what to do with the recording as his grip on his sanity begins to loosen.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Still from Taxi Driver
Columbia Pictures

Robert De Niro secured his reputation as the greatest actor of his generation with his turn as Travis Bickle, the titular taxi driver, a mentally unbalanced, angry young Vietnam veteran navigating New York City at its seedy, '70s depths. Director Martin Scorsese never flinches from depicting the violence and moral decay of the city, which Bickle rails against as a sort of deranged vigilante (taking a particular interest in the plight of a young sex worker played by an adolescent Jodie Foster)—not the hero the city needs, but the one it deserves.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more