You’re about to read something that will drive you crazy. We didn’t mean to make your day any worse than it already was, but any post that claims to rank the best of anything is guaranteed to make readers angry, and a list of the best movies of all time is no exception. It’s like the list, and of movie buffs, to do so. For good reason, movies have a powerful emotional impact on audiences.
Maybe it’s because the best movies stay with us forever. Sometimes it becomes the thing that helps you get through bad patches and helps you value the good times even more. Perhaps it’s the way a personally significant film gradually becomes entwined with your recollections, coming to feel like a real-life event.
Whatever the situation may be, movies are significant. Because of this, we’ve included as many categories as we could in this list. It takes place across a century and in several different nations. From groundbreaking classics to obscure gems, from lighthearted comedies to bloodcurdling horror, from suspenseful thrillers to brash action films, we’ve got it all.
Nonetheless, we may have overlooked something that would irritate you. We won’t mind at all, so relax. For the simple reason that true cinema fans often find themselves at odds with the views of those around them. Please feel free to shout. You can’t hurt us. Keep it nice, okay?
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick and science fiction visionary Arthur C. Clarke first met while they worked together on what would become the greatest film ever made. When Clarke’s name was brought up as a prospective writer for Kubrick’s planned science fiction epic, Kubrick remarked, “I understand he’s a nut who lives in a tree in India somewhere.” Other names mentioned for the job included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury.
They met, hit it off, and produced a story of technological advancement and tragedy (hello, HAL) that is rooted in humanity, in all its brilliance, vulnerability, heroism, and insane ambition. Clarke was living in Ceylon (not in India, or a tree). Stoners, impressed by the film’s groundbreaking cinematography and the film’s eye-candy Star Gate sequence, made it their own.
Without them, 2001 may have been forgotten, but it’s unlikely that it would have remained forgotten. Kubrick’s dystopian picture of the future, complete with artificial intelligence, still feels predictive, even after more than half a century. —Phil de Semlyen
2. The Godfather (1972)
All subsequent criminal families, from the smart guys in Goodfellas to the Sopranos, can trace their lineage back to the Corleones in Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum work, The Godfather. The operatic Mario Puzo adaptation begins with a monumental opening phrase (“I believe in America”), and then Coppola’s epic turns into a terrifying breakdown of the American dream.
The moral tensions are condensed in a legendary baptism sequence, beautifully edited in conjunction with the murder of four competing dons, as the corrupt saga of a powerful immigrant family struggles with the dual values of authority and faith. Whether it’s the severed head of a horse, Marlon Brando’s raspy voice, or Nino Rota’s memorable waltz, there’s no denying The Godfather’s lasting impact. —Tomris Laffly
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane always finds a way to refresh itself for a new generation of film enthusiasts, as evidenced by its recent resurgence in the spotlight owing to David Fincher’s delightfully sardonic making-of-drama Mank. For those who haven’t seen the film before, the story of its bulldozer of a protagonist – performed with unquenchable drive by actor-director-wunderkind Orson Welles – and his rise from unwanted child to thrusting entrepreneur to newspaper baron to populist will feel completely up to date (in unconnected news,
Donald Trump came out as a superfan). You can get lost in its bold innovations, such as Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography, or in the film’s boundless assurance in its staging and its examination of American capitalism. Nonetheless, the tale itself is excellent, and you need not be a film buff to enjoy it. –Phil de Semlyen
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
With a split from the Paramount logo to a warehouse straight out of Citizen Kane, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the most jubilant film ever made about the possibilities of cinema. Featuring a barroom brawl, a fiery heroine (Karen Allen) who can hold her liquor and lose her temper, a treacherous monkey, a champagne-drinking villain (Paul Freeman), snakes (“Why did it have to be snakes? “), cinema’s greatest truck chase, and a barnstorming supernatural finale where heads explode, “Jaws” is Steven Spielberg’s funniest blockbuster.
The cherry on top is Harrison Ford’s flawless portrayal of the reluctant yet resourceful hero Indiana Jones (look at his face when he shoots that swordsman). In a nutshell, it’s a piece of cinematic art. —Ian Freer
5. La Dolce Vita (1960)
Produced during Italy’s economic boom, Federico Fellini’s film became the global standard bearer for flamboyant celebrity culture. Marcello Mastroianni also became famous because of his role as a journalist covering the wild and free nightlife of Rome.
In a twist of fate, it seems that many moviegoers missed the film’s representation of this setting as shallow and soul-destroyingly hedonistic. Fellini films everything with such cinematic energy and wit that it’s frequently hard to not get caught up in the wild happenings onscreen, which may account for this. The term “paparazzi” itself may be traced back to this film, which also revolutionized our understanding of celebrity. —Bilge Ebiri
6. Seven Samurai (1954)
It’s the most relaxing 207 minutes at the movies you’ll ever spend. Akira Kurosawa builds an engaging, humorous, and exhilarating epic on the most basic of premises: a group of poor farmers band together to hire samurai to protect them from the savage bandits who steal their grain. Of course, the action moments are exciting (especially the climactic fight in the pouring rain), but this is a look at the virtues and vices of the human condition.
As the half-crazed self-styled warrior, Toshiro Mifune excels, but it is Takashi Shimura’s Yoda-like commander who provides the film’s emotional core. The original remains superior despite numerous remakes set in the Wild West (The Magnificent Seven), in outer space (Battle Beyond the Stars), and with animated insects (A Bug’s Life). —Ian Freer
7. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Is it possible for a movie to become an instant classic? Anyone who saw In the Mood for Love in 2000 might have answered in the affirmative. From the very first lines of this love story, you know you’re in competent hands.
In this Wong Kar-wai film, two neighbors (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) find out that their wives are having an affair, and the director takes us through the crowded stairwells and back alleys of 1960s Hong Kong to meet them.
They fall in love while still being committed to upholding their marriage vows as they fantasize and partially reenact how their spouses might be behaving. The flawless performances tremble with sexual tension, and the film’s three cinematographers help create an incredible sense of closeness. —Anna Smith, a film critic
8. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson went from being a Scorsese-like recorder of hedonistic Los Angeles to be one of the most influential filmmakers of the previous two decades. American confident guy investigator with a steely resolve.
There Will Be Blood, an epic about a certain type of con artist—the oil baron and prospector—was a turning point. In the end, Daniel Plainview is just a very scary Daniel Day-Lewis who’s willing to wash down your milkshake with him.
Anderson’s gloomy epic is the natural successor to Chinatown’s scathing cynicism, and it has a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (who is also developing as a prominent composer). Phantom Thread proves that Anderson still has a great sense of humor. But if ever there was a time for him to take things seriously, it’s now. – Joshua Rothkopf
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9. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Instead of watching The Artist (sorry, Uggie), you should watch MGM’s beautiful swan song to the silent age of filmmaking. Rubber-faced (and heeled) Donald O’Connor, sparkling newcomer Debbie Reynolds, and co-director and headline performer Gene Kelly are a triple threat, delivering flawless performances of the show’s excellent tunes, intricate and physically demanding dance sequences, and all the comedy beats.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s breezy screenplay sets the tempo for the extravaganza, and Jessica Hagen’s underrated performance as the crotchety silent film star Lina Lamont is the film’s funny-sad counterbalance. In addition, Stanley Donen, who was always gracious enough to let his actors enjoy all the glory, should get some of the credit for this flawless musical as well. -Phil de Semlyen
10. Goodfellas (1990)
Ray Liotta’s opening remark in “Goodfellas” is the crime movie equivalent of “Once upon a time…”, and the rest of the film is Martin Scorsese’s take on the classic narrative of a dreamy Brooklyn youth who gets his wish but ends up a schnook. Goodfellas, based on the life of real-life gangster Henry Hill, entered the world under the shadow of The Godfather, but the answer to the issue of which is more impactful has become increasingly generational.
There’s little doubt that the former is more enjoyable on repeat viewings because of how quickly its two and a half hours (and three decades) pass. Also, it’s surprisingly approachable for a film about hardened criminals. Whereas Coppola explored the inner workings of the one percent of organized crime, Scorsese’s criminals are more blue-collar.
It turns out that working for the mob isn’t much different from working for any other company: after 30 years of hustling to get ahead, you end yourself face down on a bloodied carpet in a garish mansion in the suburbs. I’m sorry, but I had to quote Matthew Singer.
11. North by Northwest (1959)
Hitchcock’s silken caper is the only thriller that manages to be simultaneously understated and seductive. Don Draper desperately needs a sense of humor when he gets a nasty case of Wrong Man-itis, and Cary Grant’s suavely empty adman Roger O. Thornhill (“What does the O. stand for?” “Nothing.”), is Don Draper with a sense of humor?
The picture is more than the sum of its spectacular components, including the set pieces, the antagonists, Eva Marie Saint’s femme fatale, Saul Bass’s credits, and Bernard Herrmann’s orchestral cues. Yeah, and Thornhill even finds his soul in there!—Phil de Semlyen
12. Mulholland Drive (2001)
There aren’t many films that are remembered equally for their titillating lesbian sex scene and their jump scares starring scary garbage witches. But then again, we’re talking about David Lynch, whose entire career has been devoted to taking risks that other filmmakers would never dream of taking. Yet, the term “Lynchian” was first coined about Mulholland Drive.
The third act of this film, which at first glance seems to be a fairly basic noir about a beautiful amnesiac (Laura Harring) trying to solve the mystery of her own identity, delves into a hallucinogenic dream world and essentially undoes the preceding two acts.
Some reviewers were unsatisfied with the film because of the abrupt change in direction they had seemingly been expecting. Fans already knew better, and for those who can approach the film as an adventure rather than a puzzle, it’s a treat that keeps giving (in both good and bad ways). —Matthew Singer.
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13. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
The world of Vittorio de Sica’s Neorealist masterpiece may be one in which a bicycle is key to getting by, but it could just as easily be one in which a lack of a car, affordable childcare, or a stable place to live, or a social security number, makes it impossible to break free from the cycle of poverty. Because of this, the picture is both about postwar Italy and about the present day everywhere.
That’s why it stands as a great, everlasting example of humanist cinema. From Ken Loach to Kelly Reichardt, it permeates all the social dramas. —Phil de Semlyen
14. The Dark Knight (2008)
Matt Reeves’ The Batman is the new dark knight in Gotham, and this is the standard it must meet. Christopher Nolan’s second film in his Bat trilogy is a near-perfect example of how to make a modern, cerebral superhero epic; the only issue is that the film’s third and final act tries to jam in far too many ideas, far too much moral math, which is both refreshing and distracting.
However, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight films challenges the conventions of cinematic bad guys.
15. City Lights (1931)
Incredibly, Charlie Chaplin not only scored his films with an orchestra but also wrote, directed, produced, edited, and performed in them. And while the cameras were filming, a global phenomenon was immortalized.
City Lights was excellent all the same. Chaplin was unwilling to abandon the visual methods he had learned, so his new comedy was made in silence even though audiences were demanding sound. The actor, as always, got the last laugh: not only did the movie do extremely well at the box office, but it also concluded with the most agonizing close-up in film history, the climax of the reaction shot (which has been stolen by films as diverse as La Strada and The Purple Rose of Cairo).
16. Grand Illusion (1937)
The current period of populists, nationalists, and shouty rabble-rousers feels like an especially ideal moment to revisit one of Jean Renoir’s great works (together with The Laws of the Game).
Filmed in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War I, it depicts the struggles of a group of French POWs and their German captors across barriers of class and nationality before concluding that the only thing that matters is the nobility of man for his fellow man. —Phil de Semlyen
17. His Girl Friday (1940)
Maybe it’s too much to say that Howard Hawks’ My Girl Friday is the pinnacle of screwball humor, but it’s undeniable that it’s his most sentimental and verbose film (the constant banter feels like foreplay). The laconic Hawks would minimize his proto-feminism throughout his life, but this film is also his most emancipated because it shows the kind of powerful women with careers and newshound friends that he longed to see.
This comedy does a fantastic job of highlighting the golden rule of wit: the person with the wittiest words usually prevails. This film is a treat for language buffs, in the opinion of Joshua Rothkopf.
18. The Red Shoes (1948)
Such was the quality of the films produced by Powell and Pressburger that practically all of them might be included here. This stunning romance set in the world of dance is, in our opinion—and that of superfan Martin Scorsese—the best of its kind.
It’s a beautiful ode to the creative spirit, shot by the great Jack Cardiff in a vivid Technicolor environment. We’ll take the two back seats, please; this is “the movie that plays in my heart,” as Scorsese puts it. —Phil de Semlyen
19. Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo is set in a world of existential obsession and crafty doubles and is a sexy Freudian mind-bender widely regarded as Alfred Hitchcock’s finest success.
With the help of Edith Head’s chameleonic costumes, Kim Novak spooks Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton, two women who attract James Stewart’s inquisitive ex-cop. Bernard Herrmann’s ominously devious soundtrack, which winds its way to a soaring conclusion, rounds out this fascinating psychodrama. —Tomris Laffly
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20. Beau Travail (1999)
Claire Denis, a French filmmaker who is quickly becoming a cinematic titan, consistently surprises with films that follow her eccentric beats and themes (colonialism, power, repressed attraction). Her breakthrough novel, this one, is a riff on Billy Budd by Herman Melville, but to say that is like saying Jaws is a riff on Moby-Dick.
The brilliance lies in Denis’s technique, which he uses to create images of shattering emotional precision. These include sinewy silhouettes of soldiers, abstract tests of will in the desert, and, most ravishingly, the euphoria of breaking into dance to Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night.” —Joshua Rothkopf