If someone asked you to list the best classic movies, you might rattle off titles like Casablanca, It Happened One Night, Citizen Kane, or other films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. And while those are definitely some of the best classic movies you can watch, our definition is a bit broader. Meaning, it also includes Heathers.
Think about it: What is a classic movie, anyway? For one, it’s a film that has a few years on it. (If it’s less than 20 years old, that’s basically a classic-in-training.) More important, though, it’s a movie that’s universally beloved or has etched its way into the fabric of culture in some significant way.
So without further ado, we present a new take on the best classic movies ever—one that includes your black-and-white favorites but leaves room for more modern icons, like Cher Horowitz. And the best part? Many of our best classic movies are on Netflix.
Do us favor, though: Don’t call them the “best old movies.” That’ll just make us feel bad.
According to many critics, the 40 best films
Joan Crawford earned her only Academy Award for playing Mildred Pierce, the working-class waitress turned restaurant mogul who will do just about anything to please her spoiled, coldhearted daughter, Vida. It’s a melodramatic performance, filled with the lingering beauty shots and beefy monologues that became Crawford’s signatures. It’s classic Hollywood at its most grandiose and most glamorous. As far as I’m concerned, Crawford is the definitive star of that era, and Mildred Pierce is her definitive role. —Christopher Rosa, staff entertainment writer
Thelma and Louise
What’s not to love about this feminist classic? It introduced us to young Brad Pitt (bless!) and passed the Bechdel test with flying colors. Plus, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis gave such incredible performances that they were both nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. My recommendation? Watch this incredible buddy film over Zoom with a friend you miss. —Madeline Hirsch, social media manager
You know how you think old movies are going to be all melty accents and trench coats and pearls and kissing under the moon, and the reality of old movies is that they’re often boring and really racist? You sit down to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, thinking you’re about to be transported to a world of chic and banter-filled meals eaten in jewelry stores, and instead you’re in this interminable mumble, which is occasionally interrupted by a man in yellow face?
Roman Holiday is not like that. Roman Holiday is everything you ever dreamed of—it’s the perfect romantic comedy. It’s about if Audrey Hepburn was a princess who pretended to be a normal to see the world for the day, with Gregory Peck for her guide. It’s basically the beginning of Aladdin, or one of those movies in which a ’90s actor plays a president’s daughter who just wants to fit in, except with Oscar-winning acting. You will laugh, you will gasp, you will google “cheap tickets to Rome,” you will throw yourself back on your bed and sigh with melancholy when it is over. If you can’t travel right now, Roman Holiday is absolutely the next best thing. —Jenny Singer, staff writer
Mean Girls is great, but have you met her cooler, older sister Heathers? The 1984 movie was the original teen dark comedy—and its biting social commentary on queen bees, bullying, and sexuality are as relevant as ever. “It was kind of outrageous for its time,” screenwriter Daniel Waters told “I think it’d probably be more outrageous now.” How very. —Anna Moeslein, senior entertainment editor
Valley of the Dolls
This movie is objectively not great. The acting is overdramatic, and the film itself doesn’t have the emotional depth that made the book so fabulous. But all these reasons make it a fun, campy watch. Visually, the movie is perfect. The costumes are stunning—1950s New York and L.A. make me wish I were alive in a different time. And, if you think about it, the overacting helps make the plot less depressing and easier to watch. (It’s about three women’s struggle with addiction and show business.) Plus, it gave us Patty Duke yelling, “Sparkle, Neely! Sparkle,” for which I will be eternally grateful. —Bella Cacciatore, beauty associate
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
This was the only Cinderella movie I knew for years, and it’s the best version of Cinderella to exist, in my opinion. This was colorblind casting before colorblind casting was a thing. The fact that Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber are presented as the parents of Paolo Montalban without any questions asked was genius. It also brought us classics like “The Sweetest Sounds” and “Impossible,” all thanks to Whitney Houston. Fun fact: She originally wanted to play Cinderella. —Khaliha Hawkins…
The chemistry between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey is what makes Dirty Dancing a classic. My God, that man and his arms and his torso and his eyes and his moves…sorry, where were we? Anyway, yes, their chemistry. And let’s not forget the soundtrack, the setting, and the coming-of-age love story that so many of us couldn’t get enough of. —Jessica Radloff, West Coast editor
It’s funny looking back on all my favorite movies from when I was a kid—in retrospect, they all kind of laid the groundwork for my life as an adult. Sure, I didn’t join the FBI, go undercover as Miss New Jersey in a national beauty pageant, and fall in love with Benjamin Bratt, but I’d like to think Gracie Hart (née Lou Freebush) inspired a bit of my no-nonsense attitude. Simply put, if Gracie were a man, she’d be the man. —Melissa Haney, analytics manager
The enduring tale of curly-haired Annie and her canine sidekick, Sandy, has become more cloying than a milky TikTok recipe but—despite its synchronized-scrubbing orphans and Ann Reinking’s Fosse-esque shimmies—the movie does try to make a statement beyond how the sun will come out tomorrow. Set during the Great Depression, Annie tries its hand at political and social commentary (although not as sharply as the comic strip and Broadway musical before it). Still, we get plenty about FDR’s New Deal, the Bolsheviks, and long asides about Republican tycoon Daddy Warbucks’s views on capitalism. Don’t worry, it also has an iconic performance by Carol Burnett, who plays orphanage manager Miss Hannigan as a drunk, horny shrew prone to stumbling around in silk robes clutching bottles of bathtub gin. As classic as this movie is, though, it loses points in retrospect for its racist portrayal of “Punjab,” Daddy Warbucks’s inexplicably mystical, presumably Indian bodyguard. —Perrie Samotin, digital director
Brad Pitt’s climactic “What’s in the box?” scene might be internet meme fodder now, but that doesn’t make this David Fincher film—about two detectives, Pitt and Morgan Freeman, trying to find a serial killer who is murdering based on the seven deadly sins—any less classic. It’s at once a thriller, horror film, and slice of social commentary. Plus, you have Gwyneth Paltrow in an iconic role. There’s a reason I wrote a paper about this one in college. —Abby Gardner, contributing writer
A League of Their Own
The cast alone destined this movie for greatness. Feminist icon Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell at her most hilarious, America’s dad, Tom Hanks, and Madonna (I repeat, Madonna) all grace the screen. I’m not generally into sports, but this team’s journey to greatness never fails to make me feel all warm and fuzzy. And who doesn’t need a little girl power in their life? —M.H.
If Mean Girls and Heathers had a baby—and the baby wore everything in the Delia’s catalog and had a thing for John Waters movies—that baby would be Jawbreaker. Rose McGowan was tailor-made for the role of Courtney, the bitchy ringleader in a group of popular girls who accidentally kill their best friend with a jawbreaker. This movie has everything: a makeover montage, a ’90s riot-grrrl-heavy soundtrack, and a cameo from Marylin Mason. It’s a perfect dark comedy and commentary on the cruelty of high school. It’s also just insanely fun to watch. —B.C.
Name a more iconic dance movie than Center Stage. I’ll wait. It’s got everything: drama, hot guys in tight pants, a sassy 21-year-old Zoe Saldana (her first film!), and the most delightfully unhinged ballet finale that somehow always manages to warm your heart and make you cringe at the same time. (The motorcycle, the bed…I mean!) Sure, in 2020, Cooper comes off infinitely more skeevy than I remember him being in middle school, but the women who refuse to take his shit remain the same. —Lindsay Schallon, senior beauty editor
Beauty and the Beast
No disrespect to Elsa and the Frozen gang, but Beauty and the Beast is Disney at its best. The story’s lessons—staying true to yourself, loving others for who they are on the inside—are universal. The music is catchy and timeless. It even has fashions! Another stat for its “classic” status: Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. —A.M.
Clue is pure chaotic good. It has all the ingredients for an instant cult classic: Tim Curry at the height of his powers, a chic haunted mansion, multiple endings, murder. Oh, and it’s based on a board game. Lovers of high camp, take note. This one’s a must-watch. —M.H.
Considering that I spend most of my time these quarantine days somewhat “ensemble-y challenged” (and very much not in the fashion-victim sense), it’s probably not surprising that I’ve resorted to endlessly rewatching possibly my favorite fashion, teen-coming-of-age feel-good movie of all time: Clueless. Who better to live vicariously through, right now, than Cher Horowitz and her 30-years-ahead-of-its-time, computer-generated, mechanically operated outfit-matching wardrobe? I mean! But if you still labor under the misimpression that this film is just about clothes and rich teens, well: as if. If the scene after scene of generation-defining one-liners isn’t enough to convince you otherwise, what the film teaches us about self-expression, acceptance, and tolerance has far outlasted the fashion showcase. To say this film defined my teenagehood is a lie. It defined my twenties too, and is still going strong in my thirties. I even introduced my daughter to it when she turned four (I just covered her ears for the swear words). It’s truly uplifting. Don’t agree with me? WHAT-EVER. —Natasha
Death Becomes Her
Death Becomes Her is one of the many movies I watched because I kept seeing it all over Tumblr when I was in college. The film has a cult following and rightfully so: Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn play rivaling ex-friends who drink a potion for eternal youth (but obviously, things don’t turn out as planned). With delicious one-liners like “She’s a woman. A woman, Ernest. From Newark, for God’s sake,” this one can’t be missed. —K.H.
This neo-noir crime classic, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, is told mostly through flashbacks from MacMurray’s character, an insurance salesman. Now, the term “double indemnity” is a clause used in insurance policies that allows for a larger payout on a life insurance policy if a person dies by accidental causes, which could include murder—as long as the person involved in the crime isn’t behind said murder. I think you can see where this is going, but watching it all play out is a truly great film-watching experience. —A.G.
Good Will Hunting
I was absolutely the perfect target demo for this movie when it was first released: a 22-year-old college senior with a love of film and big-city dreams. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck weren’t that much older than me, and their success story was everywhere in the marketing for the movie—and it inspired me greatly. But the script, the performances, and that epically heartbreaking Elliot Smith soundtrack are what stick with me and keep me coming back. Robin Williams’s “It’s not your fault” speech, Affleck’s “the best part of my day” monologue, and Damon’s “How do you like them apples?” are still as fresh in my mind today as they were then. —A.G.
For some reason, it took me a long time to get around to watching Erin Brockovich. But this movie about the legendary true-life story of a woman fighting for what’s right against incredible odds has since became one of my favorites. It makes me want to be a lawyer, a scientist, and Julia Roberts all at once. —M.H.
You know a holiday movie is good when you find yourself streaming it at midnight on a random April night. Macaulay Culkin’s performance as a young boy whose family accidentally leaves him at home alone on Christmas is endlessly endearing—as is the writing from Breakfast Club genius John Hughes. —A.M.
There is a case for Jaws being the greatest horror movie of all time, and I’m here to make it. Is it as pop-up spooky as Halloween? No. As visually unnerving as Nightmare on Elm Street? Not exactly. But what Jaws lacks in classic horror tropes it makes up for in sheer suspense. Think about it: You never actually see the monster—the shark—until the very end, yet you spend the entire film terrified of it. Just those two piano notes alone are enough to send a shiver down your spine. If that’s not horror mastery, then what is? —C.R.
Little Shop of Horrors
It’s a familiar piece of camp, but this bizarre tale is a giant allegory, a psychological farce, a Greek tragedy, and whatever else Freud would’ve had a field day with. On paper it seems nuts: A sad-sack orphan named Seymour works at a plant shop in an unnamed urban slum and pines for his ditzy colleague Audrey. During an eclipse, he discovers a strange plant that attracts customers to the failing shop. Business is booming, but at a price: The plant, which Seymour has named Audrey II, can talk and it demands human blood in order to thrive. Seymour complies, but as the plant grows it requires more, more, more. If Seymour can continue to deliver, the plant promises to give him everything his heart desires. The 1986 film is just one of many renditions, most of which have appeared onstage, but its homage to classic B-movies, its trio of soul singers as a Greek chorus, its sadistic dentist that eventually becomes plant food, and its iconic soundtrack (flawlessly sung, years later, by everyone from Jake Gyllenhaal to MJ Rodriguez
!) makes it a classic cult flick. —P.S.
Before Saoirse Ronan, there was Winona Ryder. This ’90s version of Little Women might be overshadowed by Greta Gerwig’s equally brilliant update, but it still has a special place in my heart. This rendition is more sentimental, earnest, and true to Louisa May Alcott’s original novel. Also, it always makes me ugly-cry. If you need a good sob, I can’t recommend it enough. —M.H.
Hot take: “No wire hangers!” is the most quotable line in cinematic history. Anytime a friend, coworker, or family member acts like a drama queen, I can’t help but think of this film. While it was critically panned at its release, Mommie Dearest has slowly infiltrated mainstream pop culture, reemerging as a camp classic. Don’t go into this movie expecting a feel-good flick: The dialogue is insane, Faye Dunaway’s performance is completely unhinged, and the costumes are next-level. But if you appreciate the dark art of camp, you will adore the strange and hilarious journey that is Mommie Dearest. —M.H.
If you haven’t seen Moonstruck and are wondering why the romantic comedy won three Academy Awards in 1988, all you need to know is this: There’s a scene in which Nicolas Cage professes his love to Cher and she slaps him—twice!—and screams, “Snap out of it!” Iconic. And now you want to watch, don’t you? —A.M.
“I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” Queen of rom-coms Julia Roberts—starring as Hollywood actor Anna Scott—said that memorable line to commoner Will Thacker, played by the dashing Hugh Grant, in this 1999 hit film. From the charming locations (much which was filmed in London’s Notting Hill) to the fairy-tale premise (a regular guy dates and marries the movie star of his dreams), fans still can’t get enough even 21 years later. —J.R.
My Best Friend’s Wedding
The plot today sounds nothing short of absurd: Two best friends agree to marry each other if they’re still single by 28 (because, LOL, apparently your 30s are just too old). Then, four days before Jules’s (Julia Roberts) 28th birthday, Michael (Dermot Mulroney) calls to tell her he’s marrying a 20-year-old (Cameron Diaz), who asks Jules to be her maid of honor. Regardless, it’s perfect. “I Say a Little Prayer for You” gets me every time. —L.S.
Tom Hanks earned his first-ever Academy Award for Philadelphia, in which he plays a gay lawyer who believes his firm fired him over his AIDS diagnosis. Denzel Washington plays the lawyer who defends him, and their onscreen energy is palpable and powerful. Philadelphia is one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to explore issues like homosexuality and HIV/AIDS and was formative viewing for many queer people. Myself included. —C.R.
On the flipside of formative queer viewing is The Birdcage, a laugh-out-loud flick that centers on a young straight man who tries to hide his gay fathers (Nathan Lane and Robin Williams) from his girlfriend’s conservative parents. A comedy of errors soon unfolds, with Lane giving arguably the best performance of his career. And that’s saying something. —C.R.
This film is probably my favorite from Alfred Hitchcock’s insanely rich résumé of work—and boy is it relevant right now. Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff is confined to his New York City apartment (and a wheelchair) with a broken leg and takes to watching and listening to his neighbors for entertainment. (Sound familiar?!) Things take a turn when he thinks he witnesses a murder, so I won’t spoil the rest. But you’re also going to want to take note of Grace Kelly’s amazing ’50s style. —A.G.
Singin’ in the Rain
This is the definition of a feel-good movie. The plot is neither here nor there—it’s set in the ’20s as movie studios begin to transition to the “talkies”—but more so serves as a vehicle for some of the best and biggest dance numbers onscreen. You can’t help but smile while Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor tap-dance with impressive speed, or when Debbie Reynolds jumps out of a giant cake. The costumes are beautiful, the comedy holds up over 60 years later, and the music is very catchy. I put it on whenever I’m feeling down. —B.C.
The Sound of Music
Set among the very alive hills of Salzburg, Austria, this classic has had many incarnations, but none—not the many stage versions and certainly not the live NBC version (sorry, Carrie Underwood)—can compare with this three-hour cinematic masterpiece about Maria, a failed nun (a young Julie Andrews) who becomes the governess for a strict widower, captain Von Trapp (a ridiculously hot Christopher Plummer), and his seven children. After a rocky start, Maria brings happiness and music back into the household, and her (palpable!) chemistry with the captain proves too much and—despite his engagement to a fancy baroness—they end up together only to face the loss of their homeland to the rising Nazi party. Come for “Do-Re-Mi”; stay for rebellious nuns messing with
This movie is one of the greatest rom-coms of all time, and I fear that it may be lost to younger generations. In my early 20s, my then boyfriend introduced me to the work of Billy Wilder via this movie (which he cowrote, directed, and produced), and while the relationship ended, my love of his films, especially this one, remains.
Here’s the basic premise: CC “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is trying to move up at his company, so he lets the bosses use his apartment for extramarital affairs, including Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who happens to be having an on-and-off relationship with the woman Bud has a crush on, Fran Lubelik (Shirley MacLaine). You can imagine the twists and turns that come from such a romantic plot, but the dialogue and performances make this a layered, complex, energetic romp. Plus, it gave us the classic line “Shut up and deal.” —A.G.
Strangers on a Train
This movie is another noir thriller from Alfred Hitchcock, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name. The titular strangers do indeed meet on a train and learn they both have someone in their life they’d like to get rid of. They agree to do the other’s murderous bidding, thinking there’s no way they’ll be caught because their lives are in no way connected. Things don’t go as smoothly as planned, as you can imagine. The film’s legacy is massive, as similar plots have been used in countless films and television shows over the years. —A.G.
Mario Puzo’s book of the same name was already a massive best-seller when the Francis Ford Coppola film was released, so expectations were fairly high. And boy, did he deliver. There’s a reason The Godfather (and its sequel, which came out in 1974) are in the film-nerd pantheon of greatest of all time. It’s a sweeping epic about family, crime, betrayal, and, yes, the mafia. Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) transformation over the course of the two films (let’s not spend too much time on the third!) is one of the greatest character studies ever put to film. —A.G.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Honestly, that line alone still brings chills to my spine. Based on a Stephen King novel, this movie is truly a cinematic masterpiece in the hands of the late Stanley Kubrick. The opening tracking shot will never not be studied at film school, and Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance is a total master class in acting. —A.G.
The Shawshank Redemption
This movie came out during my freshman year of college, but I really remember it taking hold in my life once I started seeing it on TV. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve seen it, and it truly never gets old or boring. It’s the sort of film that, if I happen upon it, I have to watch through to the end, even if it’s 1 a.m. I need to see Red and Andy reunite on that beach, or I won’t be able to sleep. Those are just the rules. —A.G.
Let me set the scene here: I had just finished finals of the first semester of my senior year at Duke, and most of my other friends were still studying, but I convinced a couple people to come see the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie with me. (We were all already huge fans!) There was a lot of press at the time about whether or not this big-budget movie was going to be a total flop. But when we walked out of that theater with puffy eyes, all we could talk about was how amazing it was. I immediately went home for Christmas break and required my entire family to go see it with me, and then my home friends. Rose and Jack are still two of my all-time favorites, even if I don’t understand why they use each other’s first names so often. My heart will go on forever for this movie. And yes, they should have tried to get Jack up onto that door. —A.G.
Waiting to Exhale
Any movie containing this star-studded cast (Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon, Whitney Houston, and Loretta Divine) should make you want to tune in. Waiting to Exhale follows four friends as they navigate their careers, family, and relationships. And it contains one of my all-time favorite Angela Bassett scenes. I hope I never have to light my future husband’s car on fire, but if I do, I hope I look just as good as she does. —K.H.
For me, it’s not officially the holiday season until I’ve seen White Christmas. The 1954 musical stars Bing Cosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen as four performers who decide to host a big show in order to save a small Vermont inn. That heartwarming plot alone would win anyone over, but it’s the music by Irving Berlin that takes this movie to another level. —A.M.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Crawford makes multiple appearances on this list—this time for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a genuinely terrifying film in which she and Bette Davis play bitter, aging sisters who live together, psychologically tormenting each other in their twilight years. (Well, it’s Davis’s Jane Hudson tormenting her wheelchair-bound sister, Blanche.) The movie works on multiple levels: as straight horror, as biting social commentary on Hollywood’s treatment of “older” women, and as a snapshot for one of pop culture’s greatest feuds. Crawford and Davis were rivals in real life too, and seeing them onscreen together is a thrill. So thrilling, in fact, that Ryan Murphy made a miniseries in 2017 about the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon playing Crawford and Davis, respectively. —C.R.
Sunset Boulevard holds up in 2020. Aging starlet Norma Desmond’s desperate flailing to stay relevant feels strangely prescient as women continue to struggle for equal leading roles, directing jobs, and screen time in Hollywood. There’s something endlessly compelling about a tragic fall from fame, and Gloria Swanson’s all-time great performance sticks with you long after the movie ends. —M.H.