What makes a classic film? That depends on who you ask.
The American Film Institute is often the go-to for its list of 100 greatest. Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger has a specific list of criteria: "For me, a classic film is one that is 30 or more years old and has stood the test of time thanks to its exceptional storytelling, themes or performances," Karger tells TODAY via email. "A true classic is just as great, if not better, upon repeat viewings."
Still, for the approximately 120-year history of feature moviemaking, the stories most of us know to be classics have told particular stories about particular individuals — while ignoring, distorting or downplaying many others.
In recent years, modern films with greater diversity in all areas have begun adding to the pantheon, which means in another generation this list might look very different than it does today. Do some of these films included have problematic sections? Yes, indeed; but at this stage, they're still part of the modern conversation. Thirty years from now, who knows?
For now, taking a cue from Karger and some tips from AFI, we've assembled 30 of the best classic films of all time you should have under your belt, and capped our list at around the mid-1990s.
Some are better known than others, but all deserve attention and respect: These are some of the greatest works of art that will never hang in a museum, now streaming on platforms like HBO Max, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. There are some that are fit to watch with families and kids, like "The Wizard of Oz," and others that everyone should see.
'Bringing Up Baby' (1938)
There were screwball comedies before "Bringing Up Baby," but few as screwy as this one, and we mean that in the best possible way. Description defies understanding: A socialite (Katharine Hepburn) comes into possession of a baby ... er, rather a leopard named Baby simultaneously as she falls in love with a much more straitlaced paleontologist. When her dog steals his bone (actually, a dinosaur bone), and the cat gets loose, and the humans end up on a Connecticut farm searching for both, well, it just gets wackier and funnier from there.
'The Wizard of Oz' (1939)
Considering that "The Wizard of Oz" is over 80 years old, this movie still stands up beautifully. It's one adults and children adore, with iconic characters and classic quotes everywhere. For those unfamiliar with the story: Dorothy (Judy Garland) is blown from her Kansas farmhouse by a tornado into the merry old land of Oz, where she immediately kills someone (OK, she didn't mean to, but the house landed on a witch), takes up with a few strangers and heads to the Emerald City only to discover she had the means to go home all along. All these years on, the Wicked Witch of the West is still terrifying.
'Gone With the Wind' (1939)
On the one hand, "Gone With the Wind" is a classic: beautiful to behold, with standout characters and performances, especially by Vivien Leigh as the spoiled Scarlett O'Hara, who obsesses over the same guy ("Oh, Ashley!") for way too long, and who perseveres over it all. No wonder Rhett (Clark Gable) loves her. But "GWTW" is also dated and problematic in its portrayals of Black characters and the way it romanticizes a way of life made possible by enslaving others. And yet: This is a film worth seeing, just through a gimlet eye.
'It’s a Wonderful Life' (1946)
Whether you see "It's a Wonderful Life" as an inspirational story about the power of a good man to triumph over evil or a horror story about a poor schmoe who just wanted to travel the world but could never escape his hometown, the annual Christmas classic is a true delight, with a premise stolen by TV and films alike: What if you could see what the world would have been like if you'd never been born? Jimmy Stewart's George makes that wish and learns what it really means to have a "wonderful" life, after all.
'All About Eve' (1950)
"Fasten your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy night." Bette Davis as aging stage actor Margo seems to have it all: a hunky husband, a thriving life as a respected actor, and fans who show up at her stage door and want to steal her life away — like, say, Eve. Though Eve (Anne Baxter) first seems like the best possible personal assistant, her true motives quickly shine through, and Margo's going to have to face some hard truths if she's going to put this wannabe in her place. Bonus: A small, early role for Marilyn Monroe! Don't miss this inside look at "the theee-ay-tor," with all its attendant sniping.
'Singin’ in the Rain' (1952)
If joy could be captured on camera, "Singin' In the Rain" would be what it looks like. It's a musical about Hollywood's gear shift from silent films to talkies, and what happens to the actors caught in the middle. It's also a love story between Don (the ever-charming, graceful Gene Kelly) and Kathy (Debbie Reynolds, as perky as it is possible to be, yet also down-to-earth), who meet cute, bicker, stay up all night working on the show and band together to take down one actor who just doesn't know how to share credit. Plus, Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" is a masterwork of rubber-faced song and dance.
'High Noon' (1952)
Whether you're a Western fan or not, "High Noon" needs to be in your vocabulary. Gary Cooper plays newly-married Marshal Will Kane (his bride is Grace Kelly, a Quaker and pacifist to whom he's sworn to give up a violent life for), on the verge of retiring. Guess what? Bad folks are coming to town just as he's about to leave, including one Kane once sent to prison. He could escape, and leave the town to the devices of the outlaws, but his conscience won't stand for it. Who will stand with him? Is that a tumbleweed? This is a story about doing the right thing because it's, well, the right thing, and the showdown at noon is about as classic as cinema gets.
Sneer if you want at the cheesy monster, the paper-thin "buildings" and overuse of green screen, but without the original "Godzilla" Hollywood might never have embraced its full potential to wreak havoc via special effects. It's also a commentary on nuclear weapons testing (how do you think the great kaiju got roused in the first place?) and a fun, all-out smash-a-thon.
'On the Waterfront' (1954)
"On the Waterfront" is a small story with big implications, about a former boxer (Marlon Brando) who does as he's told by a corrupt union boss ... until he suddenly doesn't. It's about the power of workers to band against not just the man, but the corruption in their midst, and Brando is both heartfelt and electrifying (and rightly, he won a best actor Oscar for the role).
'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (1957)
A lush adventure story that's also about the cost of war, "Bridge" tells several stories at once, all branching from a WWII POW camp in Thailand. Prisoners are put to work building a bridge that will carry the enemy's supplies across the Kwai. Things go very poorly until Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) goads the men into doing a good job to keep up morale. Meanwhile, an American (William Holden) is sent back to take down the bridge and ... things do not go well. Gorgeously shot and endlessly intriguing, this is a character study of people and of a nation.
'The Graduate' (1967)
When a young man leaves college, it's easy to feel a bit cast adrift. So what does young Ben (Dustin Hoffman) do with his lack of direction? Falls for one woman, has sex with her mother, considers a career in plastics and makes a mess of a wedding ... only to end up still not knowing exactly where he's going in life. "Graduate" is billed as a comedy, but it often feels quite serious and thoughtful, and the music from Simon & Garfunkel (this is where "Mrs. Robinson" got started!) is moody and classic, too.
'The Wild Bunch' (1969)
You think modern movies are violent? Well, wait until you see this one. Released amid a rash of movies and TV series that romanticized the American West, director Sam Peckinpah's revisionist take did not stint on the shootings, the blood and the overall mayhem. He also made liberal use of techniques like slow-motion battles and quick-cut editing, things that seem familiar to modern eyes but were fresh at the time. The story focuses on an aging outlaw gang (including William Holden and Ernest Borgnine) out for one last scam, who get scammed themselves, then end up getting caught up in the Mexican revolution.
"MASH" premiered as the Vietnam War was raging and citizens battled at home in the U.S. over how to treat soldiers and peace activists alike, wading into the fray like your nutty uncle who actually has a few nuggets of wisdom to share. The ensemble cast is full of quips, sarcasm, existential malaise and yeah, misogyny typical of the era, but it's eccentric and pointed and true at the same time. Fans of the TV show (which stylizes itself as "M*A*S*H") may be jarred by seeing Donald Sutherland and Tom Skeritt as Hawkeye and Trapper John, and is a more adult and challenging version of what you might have seen in the TV series. But it was a straight arrow into the heart of the discussion about the futility of war, which makes it eternally relevant. (Rated R)
'Enter the Dragon' (1973)
"Enter the Dragon" wasn't Bruce Lee's breakthrough role; he was already a big international star before it was released. But it was his last completed film before he died at age 32. And it's a hand-flailing, foot-kicking good time as a group of antiheroes take on a man with his own fortress island. A masterwork in martial arts, "Dragon" is mesmerizing and a good time all around.
'Citizen Kane' (1941)
"Citizen Kane" is the film that all your most knowledgeable about film friends and relatives will tell you is the best movie ever made. And you know what? They might be right. So with that bar set high, bear in mind that this is an over-80-year-old movie, and both the industry and the world have moved on, technically and in terms of storytelling. Yet the Oscar-winning "Citizen Kane" — which was co-written, starred in and directed by a then 25-year-old Orson Welles — makes the case for film as a real art form. Welles' use of lighting, camera angles and elliptical storytelling, along with his ability to be both charming and menacing on camera, makes this film about an idealistic sudden millionaire who rots from within beautiful to look at and heartbreaking to experience.
The extent to which you will enjoy "Casablanca" — and really, you will enjoy it — depends on how much you can enjoy Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. She seems to be filmed 100 percent of the time in soft focus and it's shocking to see him smile during the happier times flashbacks, but their story does work as it unfolds: He's a cynical bar owner named Rick escaping from his past life, until that past life in the form of Bergman's character Ilsa walks in ... with her husband Victor (Paul Henreid), a freedom fighter during World War II. The romance is punctuated by the circumstances, some incredible one-liners and Bergman's permanently dewy expression. The ending will make you about as happy-sad as any film can.
'The African Queen' (1951)
Speaking of Bogart, you'll get a very different glimpse of him in "The African Queen," where he plays a hard-drinking, gruff riverboat owner who gets stuck with a prim missionary whose outpost has been destroyed (Katharine Hepburn). As they try to elude capture, a sense of adventure and romance descends and they get a harebrained idea: To sink the German gunboat ahead that's keeping the British from attacking. But the river is not so forgiving. Between alligators, leeches and shallow, mucky swampland, they are seriously put to the test. A rollicking adventure led by two of Hollywood's greatest.
To say almost anything about "Psycho" is to say too much to the uninitiated. Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece is a study in tension, hiding the monster and not letting the plot go in an expected direction. "Psycho" is not super gory, but that's the beauty of Hitchcock: He suggests the horror rather than throwing it at the audience, and lets your imagination do the rest. Suffice it to say that a woman who embezzles from her employer (Janet Leigh) does not do well in the wide world, at least not once she pauses at the Bates Motel, where Norman and his mother are running things.
'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962)
No matter how big your home entertainment center is, it won't be big enough to watch "Lawrence of Arabia" on. A film that positively demands to be seen in a big movie screen, David Lean's stunningly-photographed wide-screen adaptation of the life of onetime British soldier T.E. Lawrence is gorgeous to behold. And then there's a young Peter O'Toole, swathed in white cloth with piercing blue eyes and Omar Sharif as his Arab companion in varying shades of black who both confound expectations and refuse to take no for an answer. Early on, O'Toole's Lawrence snuffs out a lit match with his fingers and notes, "The trick is not minding that it hurts." Rarely has one sentence so clearly encapsulated one man.
'The Sound of Music' (1965)
In some ways, "The Sound of Music" is two films: A love story about an out-of-place aspiring nun sent to nanny a super-strict wealthy man's brood, who then fall in love with one another ... and a story about refusing to give into fascism and preferring to flee your homeland rather than be conscripted into being a Nazi. But the two stitch together beautifully thanks to some of the most evocative songs any Hollywood musical has created. The worst part about the film is that of the five Oscars it earned, none went to star Julie Andrews, who will win your heart from that first moment where she's twirling on an Alpine hill.
'2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968)
Those arriving at "2001: A Space Odyssey" expecting strict narrative coherence should probably check those expectations at the airlock. "2001" is a collection of multiple short stories, woven together by the appearance of an unexplained monolith that appears in front of primates, on the moon and in a "cosmic zoo," for starters. The meaning of the monolith is left up to the audience to decide. But the core of the film focuses on a spacecraft heading to Jupiter, in which the onboard computer gets a few ideas of its own, and one astronaut goes on a very trippy journey into his future. Visually influential, "2001" may be in our rear-view mirrors now, but it's still one of the best portrayals of what space life, and alien beings, might really be like.
'The Godfather' (1972)
"The Godfather" does not telegraph its intentions. Despite all the gunfire, bloodshed and horse heads left as messages, this is a film about a son choosing his father's life of power and danger over an escape into fully-assimilated America. And, of course, so many other things. But "Godfather" is a Mafia story for adults, where the son Michael (Al Pacino) slips through the audience's fingers as a possible hero and becomes the next Don. It is his destiny, and he embraces it ... which makes "The Godfather" a work of art and a true tragedy.
Perhaps surprisingly, "Chinatown" doesn't spend a lot of time with Chinese people, or in Chinatown itself. Instead, it's a neo-noir mystery with a detective lead character (Jake, played by Jack Nicholson) who wears a bandage over his nose for most of the film and a hell of a twist ending — with everything tying into water rights in 1930s Los Angeles. Tight and smart and as sharp as a knife's edge, "Chinatown" is a tough cookie of a film that gets under your skin when you're not looking.
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest' (1975)
Jack Nicholson is back in rare form in "Cuckoo's Nest," a movie that seems like it'll be a feel-good drama about a not-crazy guy named Randle McMurphy (Nicholson) who gets himself committed to a mental institution to avoid hard prison labor, then rallies the true mental patients into rebelling against the most unyielding caregiver ever created: Nurse Ratched, who prefers to bully patients than empathize with them. There are some joyful, hilarious moments, but when everything comes crashing down, the film turns dark and poignant on a dime.
The film that won a best picture Oscar and created six sequels (plus three, so far, in a spin-off series) is a bulldog movie. Much like star (and writer) Sylvester Stallone himself (at the time, at least), Rocky Balboa is an outsider trying to punch his way into a system that doesn't seem to want him. But sheer dogged determination and a single-minded goal (to be a great boxer, for Rocky; for Stallone to get his movie made without compromise — the then-near-unknown actor insisted on starring in his own film) prove that you really can come out a winner, of sorts, if you're willing to go the whole 15 rounds with a champ.
'Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope' (1977)
It's a classic tale: farm boy meets androids, reads secret message, discovers destiny after falling in love with a holographic woman and fighting off the galaxy's greatest threat. Of course director/writer George Lucas confused everyone for all time by originally calling it "Star Wars," then revealing he'd started in the middle of the saga and eventually having to explain it was Episode 4, not 1. But put all that aside, as well as knowing everything you do about the decades-long ride this franchise takes everyone on to understand it in context: There was nothing like it, visually or with this kind of ambition and storytelling, done at a high level in theaters before. It changed movies, it changed toys, it changed special effects, it changed everything. Turns out these were the droids we were looking for, after all.
'Raging Bull' (1980)
Hard to imagine that just three years after the success of "Rocky" that another boxing-related film could capture the public's imagination, but director Martin Scorsese was an up-and-coming director not to be ignored. Plus, after a handful of films he'd settled solidly into some of his greatest themes (men who are their own worst enemies; gangsters) and actors (the film stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci). This is the work of a young but confident filmmaker and is less about the punches thrown than the internal conflict between a guy (De Niro's Jake LaMotta) who has it, and loses it all.
'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981)
Tomb-raiding and punching Nazis has rarely been this fun on screen before. Harrison Ford is the titular Jones, an archaeology professor so dreamy his students write words on their eyelids so they can blink their love to him, who learns that the actual Ark of the Covenant is about to be unearthed and purloined by some really bad Germans. There's swashbuckling and pirates and elbow kissing and melting faces galore, and trust us when we say that sometimes you shouldn't underestimate the power of the divine to take care of its own business.
'E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial' (1982)
Turn on your heart light for this one, a modern classic by the master known as Spielberg that's for once not about scary aliens trying to take over our bodies or lives, but about a lost visitor who makes friends with the most open-minded among us: young kids. If you only ever saw the film as a child, you may not have fully absorbed just how much of "E.T." is about missing fathers, and finding someone special just to call your own. It's also about sacrificing what you want (because Elliott clearly would love for his new friend to stay on Earth) for the good of your friend. That's love.
'A Soldier’s Story' (1984)
When a Black soldier from the Judge Advocate General's Corps (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) is sent to investigate the death of a Black master sergeant outside a segregated Army base in 1944, it doesn't take long for race to not just be a factor, but the factor. Rollins' Capt. Davenport is mistrusted on all sides, yet only has three days to figure out whodunnit and why. A major studio motion picture with serious content about race, with Black actors at its center in the 1980s is rare enough; this one stands the test of time and makes for compelling commentary that feels all too modern, even today.
'My Beautiful Laundrette' (1985)
A young British-Pakistani man (Gordon Warnecke) gets a break when his uncle gives him the keys to run a laundry in Thatcher-era London. But he's got a secret that soap bubbles can't hide: He's gay and is in love with the former childhood friend he hired to help out around the business (Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of his earliest roles). Funny, charming and (for the era) transgressive, it's about culture clashes, love, intolerance and punks, and it's both sweet and revolutionary at the same time.
'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Director/co-star Spike Lee had made a splash with "She's Gotta Have It" and "School Daze," but with his third film he came out swinging: On the hottest day of the year in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the simmering culture and racial clash between white and Black residents explodes over an incident that seems tiny, but has enormous importance to many in the community. It's funny and dramatic, an ensemble character study with a truly great cast (including Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Samuel L. Jackson and Ruby Dee) and a look, feel and voice like none other.
'Boyz ‘n the Hood' (1991)
A few years after Lee's "Right Thing," debut feature director John Singleton made his case for Black neighborhoods and conflicts in South Central Los Angeles. After a fight, Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is sent to live with his wise father Furious (Laurence Freeman), where he makes new friends, finds a girlfriend and learns what it's like to have gangs running the neighborhood. Overall it's more of a look at a Black community struggling not to be dragged under by its criminal elements, and tells a story where success means getting out, not staying at home. Heartbreaking and beautiful, it's a story not to be missed when understanding the way America works.
'Raise the Red Lantern' (1991)
In the Chen household in 1920s China, having the red lantern raised in your room means you will receive the favor of your husband's attentions that night. But since there are four concubines in the house, the women are left to scheme, plot and undermine one another to be the recipient of his favors ... which confer power, better food and overall status in the house. A historical document as well as a richly-told tale of a slice of Chinese society, "Red Lantern" is gut-churning and compelling, and beautifully made.
'Pulp Fiction' (1994)
Certainly not a film for everyone (especially if you prefer a lower body count in your films), "Pulp Fiction" is nonetheless a raucous tale of interwoven stories, altered timelines and characters who are both instantly weird and forever memorable. You have a set of diner robbers, a pair of hitmen, a briefcase packed with the brightest MacGuffin to grace the movies, a drug-using spoiled rich man's wife and a boxer who double-crosses a gangster, just for starters. It's also a treat to see the legendary director Quentin Tarantino show up late in the film, irritated that one of his pals has shown up covered in viscera. Funny, daring and an instant classic.