30 Best American Movies of the Twentieth Century
All of these classic movies are filled with unforgettable and iconic scenes
This list doesn’t include movies made in the 2000s, because it’s hard enough to produce a list covering an entire century. It also doesn’t include silent films, which would be hard to compare to sound films or “talkies,” though many silent films are decidedly good and even classics, especially some made by artists such as Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith or Buster Keaton. The list also doesn’t include documentaries, which should be in a genre other than entertainment.
Please keep in mind this compilation includes a few movies that have been remade, but it only includes the original sound version.
So let’s begin the countdown for the 30 best American movies of the twentieth century.
30. Star Wars (1977)
Created by American film legend George Lucas, Star Wars is a story about a galaxy far, far away, where an alliance of earthlike people, friendly aliens and dutiful robots battle the rapacious, often monstrous, forces of the Galactic Empire. People and extraterrestrials, good and bad, utilize opposing sides of “the Force,” which holds together all matter. This space opera is the first movie in a series that has generated about $9 billion in revenue since the 1970s, though the total value of the Star Wars franchise is about $65 billion, making it the fifth highest grossing entertainment venture in the history of planet earth. So, for some time to come, the Force will be with you!
29. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Certainly one of the greatest “romcoms” ever, The Philadelphia Story, starring some of Hollywood’s best – Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, John Howard and Ruth Hussey – was designed to be a comeback vehicle for Hepburn, who’d become box office poison, even though her acting was always first-rate, so go figure. Stewart won an Oscar for Best Actor and Donald Ogden Stewart won an Oscar for writing a screenplay that has some of the snappiest bon mots of all time. (Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress but didn’t win). The movie scored highly on the American Film Institute’s 2008 list: fifth best Romantic Comedy Film.
28. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Based on a novella by Stephen King entitled “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” Shawshank the movie stars Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as Ellis “Red” Redding, both of whom locked up for years in Shawshank State Penitentiary. Andy, convicted for murdering his wife and her boyfriend, helps the warden engage in money laundering. But after 28 years, Andy finally breaks out of the joint and flees to Mexico, where Red, after being paroled, meets up with Andy along the coast of sunny Mexico. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and eventually developed a cult following that continues to the present day.
27. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Produced by some of the best in the movie business at the time – Steven Spielberg (director), George Lucas (story), Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay) and John Williams (music), Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action adventure that never lets you catch your breath. Playing archaeologist Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, one of the top leading men back in the day, is hot on the trail of the lost Ark of the Covenant, hoping to find it before the dreaded Nazis gets their filthy hands on it. Raiders, one of the highest grossing films of all time, won five Academy Awards and spawned many great sequels – and there may be even more to come. So hold on to your hats!
26. The Natural (1984)
Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a fictitious baseball player, who, at the age of 19 seems a phenomenal pitcher, as he strikes out “The Whammer,” reputedly the best hitter in the majors during a tryout with the Chicago Cubs. Unfortunately, while riding a train, a woman seduces Hobbs and then shoots him in the stomach and flees. The story jumps forward to 1939 when Hobbs is 35 and now plays the outfield. Although middle-aged, Hobbs can hit the ball like the greatest slugger ever, so he joins the fictional New York Knights. Excitingly, in perhaps the most iconic scene in the history of baseball movies, Roy Hobbs hits the ball so hard it strikes the light standard above the stadium wall, sparks flying upon the field as Hobbs rounds the bases. It’s arguably the greatest baseball movie ever made.
25. Manhattan (1979)
Manhattan is perhaps the best of Woody Allen’s many films because of its superior acting, writing, direction and black-and-white cinematography. Essentially a romcom about life in contemporary Manhattan, the movie stars Woody Allen as a middle-aged TV comedy writer named Isaac Davis, who has an affair with Tracy, a 17-year-old girl (Mariel Hemmingway). Diane Keaton stars a Mary Wilkie, a neurotic, self-effacing woman who has an affair with another woman’s husband. Meryl Streep plays Isaac’s ex-wife Jill Davis, a lesbian who comes out while writing a confessional book about her marriage to Isaac. Narrated by Woody Allen’s character, this movie pays homage to Manhattan, while the music of George Gershwin lilts and sways along.
24. North by Northwest (1959)
Directed by the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest stars Gary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who’s chased across the US by a mysterious group of criminals hoping to smuggle government secrets out of the country. It’s a case of mistaken identity when two thugs think Thornhill is George Kaplan, a government agent, and abduct him. After a few twists and turns in the plot, Thornhill flees with Eve Kendall, the actual government agent, to Mt. Rushmore, where they confront the two thugs who snatched Thornhill earlier. While scaling the monument, Kendall slips, falls and then clings to a cliff face, as Thornhill reaches for her. Then the camera cuts to a scene where Thornhill pulls Kendall to safety in the upper berth of a moving train, comprising one of the most spectacular transitions in movie history!
Interestingly, North by Northwest is often referred to as the first James Bond film, because of its chase scenes, diabolical villains, government agents and glamorous locales.
23. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The movie opens with a flashback showing the death of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter seduced by Nora Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who fantasizes about making a comeback in the talkies. Eventually, Gillis, disgusted with himself for becoming a gigolo, tells Desmond she’s nothing but a deluded has-been with no chance of making a comeback. Desmond then shoots Gillis three times, ending the flashback. When the cops arrive at the finale, Cecil B. DeMille pretends to direct a film as Nora Desmond utters the immortal line: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” (Another famous line of Desmond’s is: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!”) Interestingly, when director Billy Wilder was asked if Sunset Boulevard was a black comedy, he replied, “No, just a picture.”
22. Some Like It Hot (1959)
This comedy stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon who, after witnessing a St. Valentine’s Day kind of massacre, must flee town and change their identities. So they dress in drag and join an all-women’s band, the lead singer of which is Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe). The film’s plot was considered risqué, because Curtis and Lemmon play cross-dressing men; moreover, Daphne, Lemmon’s character, eventually becomes engaged to Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Famously, when Fielding finds out that Daphne is actually a man, he says, “Nobody’s perfect.” The film was supposed to be shot in color but Curtis and Lemmon, while wearing feminine makeup, looked ghastly in color, so the film was shot in black and white. Also, Monroe, then the greatest female star in Hollywood, was taking so many pills one of her scenes required 47 takes!
21. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Movies directed by Steven Spielberg often become classics, and this gritty war epic may be the greatest American war film of the last century, if not all time. Its opening scenes of the Normandy Invasion at “bloody” Omaha Beach are probably some of the best ever filmed. After the Normandy landings, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and a squad of soldiers go in search of Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), the only survivor among four brothers, three of which killed in action. Their task is to find Ryan and remove him from combat. They find Ryan, of course and, before Captain Miller dies from combat wounds, he tells Private Ryan to earn what they’ve given him. The movie won five Academy Awards, and its list of accolades seems as long as that of any American film ever made.
20. Chinatown (1974)
Considered a neo-noir film, Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson as a hard-boiled private dick named J.J. “Jake” Gittes, who, walking in the footsteps or Humphrey Bogart’s similar character in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, becomes enmeshed in the twists and turns of the California Water Wars, especially as they relate to the life of Hollis Mulwray (John Huston) chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Written by Robert Towne, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and directed by Roman Polanski, before he fled the country to avoid arrest, Chinatown is almost certainly the best mystery-drama film produced about the City of Angels, a town in a desert, which wouldn’t exist without lots and lots of water.
19. The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne made many westerns with director John Ford, and The Searchers may be the best of them; in fact, it was named the best American Western by the American Film Institute in 2008. John Wayne stars as Confederate Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, who chases a renegade band of Comanches after they burned down his house, killed three relatives and abducted Debbie (Natalie Wood), his niece, and her older sister, Lucy. Edwards searches for the girls throughout western Texas with his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter.) Along the way, Martin thinks Ethan, if they find Debbie, will kill her, because of the brutal way the Indians may have treated her. After five years of searching, Ethan and Martin find Debbie and return her to the Jorgensen ranch, an iconic scene that’s about as tearful and heartwarming as they come in the movies.
Please note according to Alan Le May, who wrote the novel upon which the picture was based, as many as 64 children in Texas during the 1800s were abducted (and sometimes ransomed) by the Comanches and other Indian tribes.
18. Apocalypse Now (1979)
This film may be both the greatest war film and anti-war film ever made. This contradiction could be applied to most movies about the Vietnam War, which became very unpopular in the early 1970s. A contemporary take on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899), from the movie’s first scene it appears few soldiers want anything to do with ‘Nam, a war America would like to exit ASAP. The plot involves Special Forces Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), who searches for Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a rogue officer, presumed insane, who needs to be assassinated for the good of the cause. Of course, Willard finds Kurtz, but there’s no gung-ho ending to this story, or to the Vietnam War, which ended in ignominy for the US, what was left of the soldiers fleeing Saigon in 1975.
At any rate, this movie is filled with memorable quotes, especially one by Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning . . . it smells like . . . victory.”
17. Casablanca (1942)
Perhaps the greatest romantic drama on this list, Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. In Bogart’s first romantic role, he plays the owner of a nightclub frequented by all manner of fascinating characters. Though the cast comprised a stellar ensemble, the film wasn’t supposed to be a hit, simply one among hundreds of films produced that year by Hollywood. Its initial run was mediocre, but it did win the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. Then, as many people know, the movie soon became a classic, filled with iconic scenes, memorable music and unforgettable lines. Perhaps the best line is: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the entire world, she walks into mine." (Would that one be your choice?) Interestingly, Casablanca was made the old-fashioned way – virtually the entire picture was shot indoors in Los Angeles, California.
16. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Based on a novel of the same name written by Ken Kesey, Cuckoo’s Nest stars Jack Nicholson as Randel McMurphy, a new, fun-loving patient at a mental hospital ruled by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). McMurphy and Ratched clash from day one until Ratched has McMurphy lobotomized. Another character, the Chief (Will Sampson) then suffocates McMurphy, releasing him from a vegetative state. The film won five major Academy Awards - Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. (Only two other movies have made such a sweep.) Interestingly, Kirk Douglas bought the screen rights to the movie but couldn’t find a producer. Then he sold the rights to his son Michael Douglas, and the rest is filmic history.
Incidentally, the two other movies to achieve a five-Oscar sweep are It Happened One Night and Silence of the Lambs.
15. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
To say this movie has a stellar cast would be a gross understatement; virtually every famous comedian from the period stars or at least makes an appearance in this epic comedy film, its running time 197 minutes and originally shown in Cinerama. The plot stars Spencer Tracy as Captain T.G. Culpeper who searches for $350,000 in stolen money near the Mexican border. Then various characters, while driving through the desert, encounter the mobster who buried the ill-gotten cash 15 years ago, and then he tells them where it is before he dies. At first they try to cooperate with each other, hoping to split the money, but the search soon degenerates into a mad dash to where they finally dig up the dough. Then Captain Culpeper steps in, takes the money, and then flees with everyone bolting after him.
Interestingly, this movie is the first using one-projector Cinerama. Utilizing the impressive Super Panavision 70 process, the projector presents a huge, widescreen experience. Other movies using this process were Grand Prix, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
14. Mary Poppins (1964)
A musical fantasy, this film features both live-action and animation. Julie Andrews stars as Mary Poppins, an upbeat but disciplined woman who answers a classified ad by floating down to earth so she can become the nanny for the dysfunctional Banks family. Dick Van Dyke plays Bert, a cockney-speaking man of many trades, who’s Poppins best friend and knows all about her magical ability. Of course, Mary Poppins sings like an angel, and Bert can dance with animals. Mary Poppins was the only live-action Walt Disney movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture during Disney’s lifetime. (Disney died in 1966.) The movie won five Academy Awards, one of which by Julie Andrews for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Critics loved this marvelous movie, which made enough money so Disney could build Walt Disney World in Florida.
13. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Seemingly, racial issues have been a major component of America’s sociological constitution, and To Kill a Mockingbird certainly qualifies as a poignant drama of white and black issues in America’s Deep South during the 1920s. Based on Harper Lee’s awarding-winning novel, it stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who’s accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. To some, Atticus Finch is a cliché of the educated white man who defends the poor, ignorant black man, while others see him as a positive role model (perhaps a heroic one) for white or black people during the Jim Crow era, as well as the present day. Gregory Peck said he was very grateful for playing the part of Atticus Finch, because it allowed him to play himself. Moreover, Brock Peters was very happy to play the part of Tom Robinson in this great film.
12. Westside Story (1961)
Based on a musical of the same name and bearing some resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Westside Story is about two Manhattan gangs, the Jets (white) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican), which vie for supremacy over the Westside of Lincoln Square. In the plot, Maria (Natalie Wood) kindles a forbidden romance with Tony (Richard Beymer), the leader of the Jets. Then the gangs clash in a knife-wielding rumble, after which Chino (Maria’s fiancée) shoots Tony, who dies in Maria’s arms. Leonard Bernstein did the music, while Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyric. The film won 10 Academy Awards, more than any other American musical. Interestingly, Elvis Presley wanted to audition for the part of Tony, but Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, didn’t want Elvis associated with knife fighting.
11. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Around 1960, a plethora of epic American movies were produced, and Lawrence of Arabia is certainly one of the greatest of that august group. This film is a biopic of Englishman T.E. Lawrence, who engages in guerrilla warfare against the Turks during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War One. In a spell-binding performance, Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence, an egotist who revels in his role as the Brit who saves the Arabs. Director David Lean’s sweeping scenes of the Middle Eastern desert are enchanting and surreal. But critics have pointed out numerous historical inaccuracies in the film, particularly as they relate to the real life of T.E. Lawrence. Also, notably, there are virtually no women in the story and, by the way, LOA is Steven Spielberg’s favorite movie.
10. King Kong (1933)
King Kong has definitely been remade a time or two, because it highlights the use of special effects, reason enough to keep making newer versions, as technology advances. King Kong is essentially a love story about a giant ape that seems bent on self-destruction in order to possess a beautiful blonde woman. But it was the work of Willis O’Brien, and many other special effects artists, which made the movie great. They used stop-motion animation to make Kong move; other techniques were rear-screen projection, matte paintings and miniature projection. And the use of an optical printer, which joined strips of film into a final composited image, was integral as well. Simply put, before the advent of computer generated imagery (CGI), this flicker was definitely the best monster movie ever made.
Please note you can see the latest cinematic incarnation of King Kong in Real Player One (2018), directed by Steven Spielberg.
9. Schindler’s List (1993)
A heart-rending, gritty, violent, historical drama, Schindler’s List is about the Holocaust during World War II, particularly as it involves the story of German businessman Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over one thousand Polish Jews by having them work in his factory rather than be sent to Nazi death camps. Co-producer and director Steven Spielberg said making the movie helped him re-connect with his Jewish heritage, per an interview in Spielberg, an HBO documentary. Spielberg also said he wanted the movie made in black and white, because he grew up watching black and white documentaries of WWII. Interestingly, the film will be re-released in 2018, and Spielberg said this is a very good time for doing this because there’s so much “collective hate” in the world. Schindler’s List won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
8. Ben-Hur (1959)
A remake of a silent movie made in 1925, Ben-Hur, based on a novel by Lew Wallace, is an epic historical film that takes place during the time of Jesus Christ, who interacts twice in the film with Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). Filmed with over 10,000 extras, 200 camels, 2,500 horses, 300 sets, plus elaborate props and costumes, this movie is certainly one of the greatest epics ever filmed in Hollywood. Most people probably remember the thrilling nine-minute chariot race in which Ben-Hur defeats Messala (Stephen Boyd), whom Ben-Hur thinks killed his mother and sister, though they actually contracted leprosy while in prison and are still alive. Ben-Hur won a record 11 Academy Awards and was the biggest money-maker since Gone with the Wind.
Notably, 12 different versions of the script were written by numerous writers, including Gore Vidal, though Karl Tunberg got the final credit for writing a 230-page screenplay for a movie that ran for 212 minutes!
7. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Produced during perhaps Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, The Wizard of Oz has probably had a greater influence on American popular culture than another other American film. Starring Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale from Kansas, who’s snatched by a twister and dropped into the mythical, and Technicolor, Land of Oz, where she looks at her dog and says, “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Oz, located somewhere over the rainbow, is where some needy characters offer to help Dorothy find her way back to Kansas. Of course, the movie has a moral or two: (1) people already possess what they think they need, and (2) there’s no place like home. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
6. Citizen Kane (1941)
Based on the life of a fictional newspaper tycoon (in fact, it's a biopic of William Randolph Hearst), Citizen Kane is the work of wunderkind Orson Welles, who co-wrote, produced and directed the film. In the old days, say the 1970s, students taking a film appreciation class were required to watch Citizen Kane which, at the time at least, was considered one of the most innovative and stylish films of all time. And, as recently as 2007, it was still considered one of the best, if not the best film of all time, according to the American Film Institute. Film buffs and critics love this flick, so placing it on this list seems a safe option. By the way, people who are familiar with the nickname “Rosebud,” please raise your hands.
5. Spartacus (1960)
Not many movies have a cast of over 10,000. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, Spartacus takes place during the time of Julies Caesar and is based on historical fact. A slave named Spartacus escapes gladiator school and forms a slave army, which defeats the armies of Rome and threatens the city of Rome itself. Eventually, as the slave army prepares to sail away from Italy, their cause is betrayed and they must fight the legions of Crassus (Laurence Olivier). A massacre ensues. Then Crassus offers to return the slaves to servitude if they identify Spartacus but, one by one they claim, “I’m Spartacus!” So Crassus crucifies them all. Fortunately, though, Spartacus discovers, as he’s dying on a cross, that his son is not a slave. The battle scenes in this movie, filmed in 70 mm Technirama, are truly epic, and only the coming of CGI may have surpassed them in, say, in the Lord of the Rings movies.
Interestingly, Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter for the movie, had been blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten (artists accused of having communist ties). But the intervention of Kirk Douglas led to Trumbo being given credit for writing the screenplay, and thereafter blacklisting disappeared for good in Hollywood.
4. The Graduate (1967)
The Graduate is a comedy-drama featuring Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who plays a college graduate with no definite plans for the rest of his life. Braddock meets Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older woman who seduces him. They have an affair until Braddock falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Later, Elaine tries to marry somebody other than Braddock, but Braddock interrupts the ceremony and they flee the church. Interestingly, Paul Simon was hired to write the signature song for the movie but said he was too busy to write it. However, he was writing a song about Mrs. Roosevelt and Joe DiMaggio, and then director Mike Nichols said, “No, now it’s about Mrs. Robinson, not Mrs. Roosevelt.” The title song was a big hit in 1968.
3. Gone with the Wind (1939)
Many films on this list were adapted from novels, and the book upon which this movie is based is probably the most popular and best-selling American novel of all time. Written by Margaret Mitchell, GWTW the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937. The movie is a captivating story about the American Civil War, though the movie has few if any war scenes, and some critics thought its treatment of slavery certainly seemed “whitewashed.” Interestingly, Vivien Leigh was among 1,400 women who auditioned for part of Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, but only two actually got a Technicolor screen test: Vivian Leigh and Paulette Goddard. Of course, Leigh got the part and won the Academy Award for Best Actress. It seems safe to suggest that GWTW may be one of the most popular American movies of all time, but is it the best American movie made in the twentieth century?
2. The Godfather (1972)
This gangster flick takes place in the 1940s to 1950s, when the Corleone family, led by Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), vies for supremacy in New York’s organized crime syndicate. Based on a best-selling novel by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather was the highest grossing film of all time - for awhile, anyway, as there were numerous high-grossing films in the 1970s. Interestingly, Paramount Pictures paid only $80,000 for Puzo’s book, but he took the money because he had gambling debts. Also, Coppola initially turned down the job of director, because he thought Puzo’s novel was “pretty cheap stuff.” But then he changed his mind when he realized he needed the money! The release of The Godfather revived the Italian mobster genre in American movies; two sequels were produced and other such gangster films and TV shows followed.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Written by director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey may be the greatest science-fiction movie ever made. Astonishingly, produced way before CGI, its special effects still look first rate. The film has four different acts: an ape-man wields an animal bone, perhaps humankind’s first tool or weapon; scientists investigate an alien monolith on the moon; two astronauts and the HAL 9000 computer journey to Jupiter; and astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) space walks into the Jupiter monolith wormhole and comes out the other end as a Star Child. What?!...These days, people are still trying to figure out exactly what happens in this movie and, understandably, its plot has been ripped off more than that of any other sci-fi film. High praise indeed, wouldn’t you say?
Please leave a comment!
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Kelley Marks