A few years ago, I began this list – and would update it every time people I know and love would say “I never saw [insert name of iconic film here].” Off I’d run to add another title to the list.
This list isn’t necessarily the BEST films ever made – rather, it’s a combination of great films, iconic films, and those which have had a significant impact on pop culture. Many of them echo (or create) modern mythologies (Star Wars), others explore human nature (Caine Mutiny), our relationship to the divine (Chariots of Fire), or historic events that shape us (The Right Stuff). And some are just iconic for their place within pop culture (Blazing Saddles). Just as we use the languages of music, literature, and art – so too does the language of film help us communicate sometimes complex ideas in ways that help others understand.
And so it is finally here: my list of 101 films I think everyone should see. It’s shockingly short, based on how many more movies are out there that are fantastic. There are some films definitely missing: several great films of the last 10 years missed the list, as their impact on pop culture is unclear (although a list in ten years should probably include Napoleon Dynamite and Inception). Gone with the Wind didn’t make the cut – as influential as it has been, I don’t wish to further the harmful racism of the film (although Carol Burnett’s parody is still one of the funniest sketches of all time.) The Wizard of Oz is another that didn’t make it – if you haven’t seen that, well, you never turned on a television. (It’s iconic, I agree – it’s just so obvious.) There aren’t as many action or horror films on here as some would like – that’s a product of my tastes. (I probably should have included Rocky and The Terminator… forgive me?) I also forgot Double Indemnity, the classic film noir to end all film noir. I didn’t include Psycho, as iconic as it is. I am also woefully lacking in films from African American and Latin@ directors (films like Do the Right Thing and Maria Full of Grace should be here) – a blindspot I’m now working to correct. But there’s only so much room. And yes, this is my way of sneaking in a few more films…because it was indeed hard to keep the list to 101.
So… have a gander. What do you agree with? What should I have cut? What did I miss? (I promise I will kick myself for the obvious omissions.)
Oh, and check out the films you haven’t seen. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Cheers, and happy watching!
- 12 Angry Men
Stunning script that’s as appropriate today as it was then; great performances by all, including Henry Ford.
A beautiful musical with book and lyrics inspired by real letters/documents. Plus, Blythe Danner sings.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
Classic in so many ways – great scifi imagery for its time, plus graceful and stunning cinematography.
- 84 Charing Cross Road
A gentle, charming literary film starring Anne Bancroft as a writer and reader who develops a camaraderie with Anthony Hopkins and the London bookstore he runs.
- A Room with a View
In the 80s and 90s, Merchant and Ivory made a series of simply stunning English films, many based on classic English novels. This one features a young Helena Bonham Carter, back before she became Tim Burtonized. Plus, it is sweet, graceful, and features the sweeping cinematography Merchant and Ivory were known for.
- Adam’s Rib
Perhaps Hepburn and Tracy’s best, also features Judy Holiday in an award-winning role.
- The African Queen
Hepburn and Bogart, giant insects, and the Nile River. What more could you want?
The first in a new genre of comedies – so many imitators, but nothing compares to the original. Its impact on pop culture cannot be measured.
- All the President’s Men
A well-acted, quite accurate version of the book, not just a window into the Watergate scandal but also the future of investigative reporting.
- Almost Famous
All around, a beautifully made film – captures the early 70s with grace. Plus, I fell in love with “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John all over again.
One of the best adaptations of a play I’ve seen… plus great music, plus a stunning performance by F. Murray Abraham.
- American Beauty
Wow. Just…wow. Award-winning, unique.
- The American President
One of Aaron Sorkin’s best – includes perhaps the most wonderful speech on what it means to be an American.
- Apocalypse Now
It’s a classic – perhaps the rawest of the Vietnam flicks. And Martin Sheen is stunning.
- Apollo 13
Another slice of American history, but beautifully told and amazingly acted. And it’s got Kevin Bacon, connecting him to a whole new crowd.
- Barefoot in the Park
My favorite Neil Simon play, with simply charming performances by Redford and Fonda.
- The Bells of St. Mary
It’s a holiday classic – I think this is Bing Crosby’s best work.
- Best in Show
All of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries are funny, but this one is his best – and it’s got dogs and Jane Lynch.
- Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Russ Meyer flick – such an outrageous, kitsch piece. Not as well known, but maybe freakier than anything else he did. See it just for the WTF factor (and because Roger Ebert actually wrote it).
- Blazing Saddles
Classic Mel Brooks. Again, the pop culture impact is huge.
- Born Yesterday
Judy Holliday in the original version absolutely amazing, and it’s a funny film. Melanie Griffith’s remake is pale in comparison.
- Bullets Over Broadway
From the Year of Chazz Palmenteri, one of Woody Allen’s best, and most cohesive films. Great performances by Dianne Wiest and John Cusack.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
This is one of those films that is referred to in so many others – plus, both Newman and Redford are gorgeous in it.
- Caine Mutiny
A truly striking film about the south Pacific theater (WWII). A unique role for Bogart.
The iconic film of all iconic films. I almost didn’t even put this on the list, as it’s such a no-brainer. But really, you must see this.
- Chariots of Fire
I saw this again recently, and it stands the test of time. Strong characters, lush cinematography, brilliant storyline.
Forget that it’s Renee Zellweger and revel in one of the best screen adaptations of a musical in decades. Plus, Richard Gere dances!
- Citizen Kane
Yes, it is THE classic film. I don’t think it’s Welles’ best, but everyone should still see it – it’s amazing.
Kevin Smith’s first – it feels a bit stilted after watching his growth as a director, but he captured something special here, and it’s damn funny. (I do think Dogma is better, but this one has more cultural impact.)
Not an award winner, but it’s got a terrific cast, quotable lines, and well, it’s just full of win. (Tim Curry, Michael McKean, Elieen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Leslie Ann Warren, Christopher Lloyd – that kind of win.)
- The Color Purple
Panned by many, this is nonetheless a beautiful film with an incredible performance by Whoopi Goldberg.
- Desk Set
Another Hepburn and Tracy film – this one’s much more ‘romantic comedy’ than not. Features an early computer – funny stuff.
- Destry Rides Again
Subsequent westerns – and Madeline Kahn’s role in Blazing Saddles – will make SO much more sense after seeing this.
- Doctor Zhivago
Sweeping, romantic, epic. Watch on a blustery winter day with a warm comforter, hot chocolate, and a box of tissues.
- Enchanted April
One of the loveliest films I have ever seen. Great to watch on a rainy afternoon cuddled up with a cup of tea and a cat.
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High
This was my generation’s seminal teen movie – a young Sean Penn is hysterical. Sets the stage for the future of teen movies.
- Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Another seminal teen movie – Fast Times and Ferris Bueller framed my teen years and explain a lot about GenX.
- Fifth Element
If someone can explain what it is about this movie that is so captivating, please do. All I know is that every time it’s on, I watch – and there are so many pop culture references that spring from this bizarre little futuristic action movie.
- Fight Club
Another WOW. Not for the faint of heart, but stunning.
- The Front Page
Fast talking, fast humor, funny as hell – Cary Grant is perfect in this.
- Galaxy Quest
The perfect spoof of Star Trek, with a great cast including Tony Shaloob, Sam Rockwell, and Alan Rickman.
A beautifully-filmed slice of the American Civil War. Perhaps Broderick’s best role, plus amazing performances by Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, and Morgan Freeman.
- The Godfather Parts 1 and 2
These two set the stage for all gangster films that came after. Pacino is amazing, Brando is Brando. (Don’t see Prt 3 – it sucks.) (Side note: there’s a lovely little film called The Freshman, where Brando plays a Godfather-like role. Charming, funny. Worth catching.)
- Gosford Park
I think this is Robert Altman’s best film since Nashville – beautifully shot, plus an amazing cast, including Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren and my man Clive Owen.
A charming Channel Four film with Mirren and Owen – often overlooked, but very well done.
- Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner
Why look, it’s Hepburn and Tracy again – this time with Sidney Poitier, in a great piece about racial issues in the US, handled with grace and humor.
- Guys and Dolls
The best musical adaptation – perhaps the best musical ever written. And oddly enough, Brando sings (and gets away with it). Sinatra is in fine voice too.
- Hamlet (Kenneth Brannagh’s version)
Some says Olivier’s Hamlet is the best (none say Gibson’s is), but I think that this production is superior. (Ethan Hawke’s is good too, but not as amazing as this.)
Some may argue that Mean Girls or Clueless is a better choice for the high school chick movie – and they’d be right. All three are brilliant; I chose Heathers because I think it’s Winona Rider’s best performance, and the revenge aspect is delightful. (Mean Girls is a Dangerous Liaisons remake, and Clueless is an Emma remake…which makes both of them pretty spectacular too. WHY do you make me choose, oh list of mine?)
- High Fidelity
I generally don’t like American adaptations of British books (or worse, American remakes of British films), but this one absolutely captures the Hornby novel, Jack Black is funny as hell, and well, this is where I officially fell in love again with John Cusack (first, of course, being Say Anything, but that was more a schoolgirl crush.)
- Holiday Inn
A delightful holiday romp – and where the song White Christmas originally came from. (The subsequent film White Christmas is worth seeing too.)
- Hunt for Red October
From The Year of Scott Glenn, this film features great performances by Alec Baldwin, Sam O’Neill, and Sean Connery at his handsomest. Baldwin’s portrayal of Jack Ryan was Tom Clancy’s favorite, btw.
- Inherit the Wind
Another amazing slice of American history – the Scopes trial (over Darwinism). The film adaptation of the play is simply amazing.
- It Happened One Night
This early romantic comedy features Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. It’s funny and well done.
- Jane Eyre
A classic novel often gets made into multiple films, each generation casting its own perspective. For me, I’ll stick with the Orson Welles version, where I first learned just how scary Mrs. Danvers can be.
- Johnny Dangerously
Great lines, references, parody of gangster films. Plus, Marilu Henner sings.
- L.A. Confidential
For a modern film noir, this one hits all the right notes. Some breakthrough performances, too.
- Lawrence of Arabia
This classic is best enjoyed over a long afternoon snuggled on the couch with comfort foods. It is amazing – and a great reminder of why Peter O’Toole is one of the best actors of all time.
- Monty Python’s Life of Brian
The best of the Python films – remarkably honoring of Christianity and snarky about those who would corrupt Christianity’s ideas.
- The Lion in Winter
It’s Hepburn and Burton. Need I say more?
- Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels
Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch is better known (probably because of Brad Pitt), but this is his better film. Hint: watch with captions on.
- Looking for Richard
Not much in the way of documentaries on this list, but this one is worth it. It’s Pacino, rehearsing for Richard III, and experiencing not just the rehearsals but the idea of Shakespeare in modern Manhattan. It’s so beautifully done – worth the watch.
- Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Sweep, beauty, great performances, inspiring, as faithful to the Tolkein books as film can be… and Viggo Mortensen.
- Man For All Seasons
A sweeping period piece – the way they should be done.
- Monsters, Inc.
This continues to be my favorite Pixar film – not just for the story line (which is sharp), but for the advances they had made in terms of texture and movement. Plus, John Goodman, Billy Crystal, and Steve Buschemi.
- The Muppet Movie
Brilliant music, great storyline, and it sets up the Muppet Universe. Plus, Kermit sings the iconic “Rainbow Connection.”
- Murder by Death
Parody, thy name is Neil Simon. Simply hysterical. Alec Guinness was never funnier.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” Fantastic Robert Altman film, great performances.
- O Brother, Where Art Thou
When you are the Coen Brothers, your source material is Homer, and you feature bluegrass music, you have the ingredients for a hit. Clooney is amazing in this.
- The Odd Couple
Matthau and Lemmon at their comedic best (thanks to a fabulous script by Neil Simon).
- Peter’s Friends
A touching British film with some of our generation’s biggest British stars – Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Kenneth Brannagh. Plus, a remarkable take on living with AIDS, back when it was a death sentence.
- Philadelphia Story
Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn sparkle in this amazing comedy.
- The Princess Bride
Another great film which has had a great impact on pop culture. Infinitely quotable and as charming as it is funny.
- The Quiet Man
I would argue this is John Wayne’s best film. It was my mother’s favorite, too, which means even if I didn’t like it, it would have to be on this list. (Hint: my mom had excellent taste in film.)
- Radio Days
This is a quiet little Woody Allen film that few know about but many should – it features great music from World War II, plus some hysterical storylines. It is just a delight.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
I was hard pressed to choose between this and Last Crusade, but really, Raiders set the stage for this kind of adventure movie, and is probably the better of the two (despite the late River Phoenix as Young Indy and Sean Connery as his dad). Again, iconic, influential.
- Raising Arizona
Perhaps Nick Cage’s best performance – but definitely an iconic film. (it’s hard to go wrong with a Coen Brothers movie – I am also a huge fan of The Big Lebowski and The Hudsucker Proxy, also worth watching.)
- Rear Window
It may not be Hitchcock’s best, but it is iconic, and the concept is brilliant – everything is seen from James Stewart’s vantage point at the rear window of his apartment.
I know, I know, another Hitchcock film. What can I say? His work has had incredible influence on pop culture and the way we see film. But this one has an added bonus: it’s based on the classic novel by Daphne Du Maurier, and begins with an iconic line: “Last night, I dreamed I was at Manderley again…”
- The Right Stuff
It’s long and sometimes moves a bit slowly, but it lovingly tells the story of the dawn of the space program – plus, it is a veritable who’s who of late 20th century actors. Worth the watch.
There are many awesome things about this film – the message, the acting, the music. It continues to be one of my favorite high school films. Plus, Mary Louise Parker. (I’m a fan.)
- The Shawshank Redemption
Stephen King’s short stories have made for some of the most incredible films (see: Stand By Me); this one is my favorite. Morgan Freedman and Tim Robbins are simply amazing.
- The Shining
One of the most iconic moments in motion picture history: Jack Nicholson peeking his head through the broken-down door – “I’m baa-aack!” It is one of the scariest movies I have ever seen…iconic, brilliant.
- Singin’ in the Rain
Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds dance and sing. And if that’s not enough, it features another of the most iconic images in all of motion picture history – Kelly with the umbrella, hanging off the lamp post, singing “Singin’ in the Rain”… a scene that doesn’t disappoint.
- Sleeping Beauty:
This remains my favorite of the Disney princess movies. You can have your modern day Ariels, Belles, and Jasmines. I’ll take Aurora every day and twice on Sundays.
- Star Wars, Episodes 4-5-6
Groundbreaking modern sci-fi. These movies have become our modern mythos (even if Lucas keeps tinkering with them…sigh). Affected our syntax, Yoda did.
- Steel Magnolias
Enter it remembering it’s a stage play (thus some of the lines seem… fake) – but then relax into the beautifully drawn characters, brilliant performances, and pitch perfect emotional journey.
- The Sting
There is nothing about this movie I don’t love – the story is amazing, the acting is terrific, the music is pitched perfectly. Plus, Redford and Newman together again.
- Strangers on a Train
This Hitchcock film has had a great deal of influence on other movies – it’s a unique set up and is strikingly played out.
- Taxi Driver
It’s not one of my favorites, but it is iconic in many ways – “you lookin’ at me?” A young DeNiro shows just how good an actor he is here.
- The Third Man
Positively stunning work; I think it’s Welles’ best. It’s the first time musical score was a character. Ending devices are common now but groundbreaking in this film.
- This Is Spinal Tap
The mockumentary that set the bar for all other mockumentaries. Great music, hysterical storyline, plus we learned that some amps DO go to 11.
- To Kill a Mockingbird
A classic film version of this classic novel – definitely a film of its time, raising many questions about the different shades of racism (side note: Malcolm Gladwell wrote an amazing essay about this book for The New Yorker in 2009 – worth the read).
- To Sir With Love
Sidney Poitier. (Oh, was I supposed to give more reasons? It’s well done and has some key cultural references.)
While it is a little dated, it has amazing performances by Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange – and is iconic.
- The Trouble with Harry
The funny Hitchcock film – I love it. It was also Shirley MacLaine’s film debut.
- The Usual Suspects
From the Year of Chazz Palmenteri – so many iconic moments that have permeated popular culture. Plus, it’s quite well done. I think this is one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances.
- West Side Story
It’s a musical, but it’s pretty dark – remember, it’s based on the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. But it is spectacular. And yes, it is iconic in pop culture.
- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
The Johnny Depp version may be more faithful to the book, but the Gene Wilder version has had incredible impact on pop culture.
- Witness for the Prosecution
Agatha Christie. Alfred Hitchcock. Plus, this film rather sets a standard for this kind of dark courtroom drama.
- Young Frankenstein
Complete classic, and a great homage to the old horror flicks. Plus, the most quotable lines in modern cinema.