Movies have always been a great interest of Kelley's, particularly as this relates to producing lists of the greatest ones for each genre.
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 only includes the original sound version—with the exception of Titanic, which had many sound version predecessors going back to 1933.
So let’s begin the countdown!
60. Psycho (1960)
The forerunner of countless slasher flicks to follow, Psycho may be director Alfred Hitchcock’s most shocking movie, it not his most popular one. The shower scene in which a woman (Janet Leigh) is attacked by a knife wielding assailant (Anthony Perkins) could be the most iconic horror scene in the history of American cinema. This sequence required 78 edits and lasted 45 seconds; the music for this piece—all of it done with stringed instruments—was written by Bernard Hermann, one of the greatest film composers ever. For years afterward, women were afraid of taking showers, lest they get sliced up like the Janet Leigh character! The film spawned three sequels—Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986) and Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)—all of which starring Anthony Perkins.
59. The Pink Panther (1963)
This film was the first in a series of 11 Pink Panther movies. David Niven stars as the Phantom, Sir Charles Lytton, while Peter Sellers plays Inspector Jacques Clouseau. But Sellers’ leading role as Clouseau didn’t happen until the release of A Shot in the Dark (1964). Then Alan Arkin plays the lead in Inspector Clouseau (1968). After the death of Sellers in 1980, other actors portrayed Inspector Clouseau or the character was dropped entirely. Notably, Steve Martin stars as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther (2006) and The Pink Panther 2 (2009). So, which of these movies is the best? Since Peter Sellers appeared as Clouseau in the first movie—and almost certainly portrayed the funniest and most popular character in the series—the first movie has been selected for this list; or, put another way, this entry represents all of the Pink Panther movies!
58. Double Indemnity (1944)
Widely regarded as one of the best film noir movies of all time—right down to the venetian blind lighting—Double Indemnity was directed by Billy Wilder, who also wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, one of the best crime writers of the era. Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff and Barbara Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, both of whom conspire to murder Dietrichson’s husband and try to make it look like an accident, thereby kicking in the double indemnity clause in the life insurance policy. Later, growing suspicious of each other, Dietrichson shoots Neff in the shoulder but can’t finish him off. Then Neff takes the gun from her and shoots her to death. Neff then tries to run to Mexico but can’t make it before he passes out while confessing to the murders in a Dictaphone. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
57. Raging Bull (1980)
The best boxing movies tend to be directed by the best directors and Martin Scorsese definitely fits the bill. It’s based on the memoirs of boxer Jake LaMotta, whose inner demons ruin his family life, though he still becomes one of the greatest middleweight boxers of all time during the 1940s and ’50s, one time defeating the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. Robert De Niro plays LaMotta in a film that’s about as gritty and realistic as any boxing movie ever made. Moreover, to play an aging Jake LaMotta, De Niro gained 50 pounds and portrays LaMotta doing a comedy routine in the 1960s. Notably, Raging Bull is sometimes considered one of the greatest American movies ever made, and Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert named it the best movie of the 1980s; De Niro also won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Jake LaMotta.
56. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
One of many great films starring Sidney Poitier made in the 1950s and ‘60s, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also features Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, two legends of the Silver Screen. The movie is about the proposed marriage of a black man, Dr. John Prentice (Poitier) and a white woman, Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton), in real life, the niece of Katharine Hepburn. This union was not common in the 1960s, when anti-miscegenation laws in many states prevented blacks and whites from marrying. Coincidentally, the Supreme Court in 1967 passed a ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws banning the marriage of people from different races. Notably, Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for Best Actress for playing Christina Drayton, mother of Joanna Drayton.
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55. Pulp Fiction (1994)
This quirky flick depicts the contemporary crime world of L.A. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, with story by Roger Avary, the film offers gratuitous violence, gangster parody, neo-noir homage, pop culture references and black comedy, as shown in seven sequences and with a nonlinear plot. In the main sequence, John Travolta and Samuel Jackson play hit men with philosophical leanings similar to that of Caine in the Kung Fu TV series. In another one, Bruce Willis plays a prizefighter who rips off the mob. The movie is Tarantino’s touchstone to postmodern film, as some critics have called it. By the way, Tarantino and Avary won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the movie grabbed a total of 23 awards.
54. Back to the Future (1985)
Perhaps the most popular American science-fiction film of all time—and/or the most popular movie of the 1980s—and/or the most popular time travel movie ever, Back to the Future is still a sensation, having spawned two successful sequels, a 2020 stage production, an arcade-adventure game, an amusement park ride and a board game. Originally rejected by scores of studios, the movie was considered too tame compared to other sci-fi movies of the era, and its comedic elements weren’t considered sexual enough to compete with flickers such as Porky’s (1981) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Considered a great movie for all ages, Back to the Future may have had a greater effect on American popular culture than any other American movie.
53. Field of Dreams (1989)
This movie is about a man who, while walking in his corn field, hears a voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come.” Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, who plows under his Iowa corn field and builds a baseball playing field. Eventually Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) makes an appearance. Jackson was a member of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, some players of which were banned from MLB because of intentionally losing games in the 1919 World Series. Soon, Shoeless Joe brings the whole “Black Sox” team to play on Ray’s field. Unfortunately, some people can’t see these players, including Mark, Ray’s brother. At the conclusion, Kinsella learns that “he will come” pertains to his deceased father, who returns as a young man to play on this “field of dreams.”
Interestingly, a MLB field was eventually built near the filming site. In August 2021, with Kevin Costner in attendance, a regular MLB game was played at this field. In an old-fashioned slug fest, the Chicago White Sox beat the New York Yankees 9 to 8.
52. Lolita (1962)
The tagline of the film is “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” Based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita is about a middle-aged man named Humbert Humbert (James Mason) who becomes sexually obsessed with a 14-year-old girl named Lolita (Sue Lyon). Stanley Kubrick directed this film, whose subject matter is controversial and had to adhere to the restrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code; but Kubrick did a tasteful job of portraying Lolita as seductively as he could get away with. Vladimir Nabokov also wrote a 400-page screenplay that was nominated for an Academy Award, though much of the script wasn’t used, particularly many of the erotic parts, which Kubrick wanted to show, but couldn’t.
51. The French Connection (1971)
Released about the same time as the US federal government initiated the so-called War on Drugs, often considered America’s longest war, The French Connection tells the fact–based story of Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), who tries to bust French mobsters, particularly Alain "Frog One" Charnier (Fernando Rey), as they try to smuggle 120 pounds of heroin into the Big Apple. The movie won five Academy Awards, including a Best Actor award for Hackman and the Best Director award for William Friedkin; it also won an Oscar for Best Picture. This film is often considered one of the best movies ever made, and the car chase involving Popeye Doyle, who steals a civilian’s car and speeds with it through the streets of NYC, is considered one of the greatest action sequences ever.
50. All About Eve (1950)
Starring Bette Davis as Margo Channing, a great Broadway star but—getting a little long in the tooth—is worried about her prospects for continued success in the theater; if not, she’ll try making Hollywood movies, what the heck. Ann Baxter plays Eve Harrington, understudy to Channing, who connives to supplant Channing as Broadway’s greatest actress. All About Eve was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, a record, and won six, including Best Picture, though Davis didn’t win the Best Actress Award that year. Interestingly, newbie Marilyn Monroe plays Claudia Casswell in Eve. When she had trouble completing a scene after 10 takes, Davis carped at her, until she bolted from the set and got sick in the bathroom. Bette Davis nearly always presented an intimidating demeanor!
49. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Billed as a Thinking Person’s Monster Movie, Silence of the Lambs is about an FBI investigator named Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who hunts “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), a wanted serial killer who’s murdered many women. Starling thinks incarcerated serial killer Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who’s also a psychiatrist, may be able to help her catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again. The film was greatly successful at the box office, grossing $272 million worldwide on a budget of $19 million. It also won five Academy Awards—Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture. Only two other American movies have won all five such Oscars: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night. It’s also the only horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
48. The Lion King (1994)
Perhaps the greatest, if not the most popular, Walt Disney animated feature film of all time, The Lion King earned nearly one billion dollars in gross income and is the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time. The Lion King was mostly produced using hand-drawn animation, though CGI was used, particularly for the wildebeest stampede. The movie is based on the biblical characters Joseph and Moses, was well as stories in Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The movie has spawned numerous spin-offs, sequels and remakes, including two TV series, a stage play and a photorealistic CGI version made in 2019. Many stars provided voices for the movie: Mathew Broderick, the voice of Simba, Jeremy Irons as Scar and James Earl Jones as Mufasa. Ever popular, the movie's spin-offs, etc. may never end!
47. Titanic (1997)
Not to be confused with 17 other films produced about the sinking of the Titanic (not including documentaries), this movie is almost certainly the best of the bunch. It won 11 Academy Awards, tying Ben-Hur and The Return of the King for the most won by any movie and garnered a total of 111 awards. At the time, it was also the most expensive film ever made, costing $200 million, but earned more than $2.1 billion. Nevertheless, Titanic had its share of critics; many thought James Cameron’s screenplay was subpar, and it won no awards. In fact, some critics called Titanic one of the worst movies ever made! At any rate, this flick seems one of the greatest tear-jerkers ever; even men cried at the ending. Of course, the story of the Titanic will always draw a tear or two—at least.
46. The Birds (1963)
Filmed in the sleepy little town of Bodega, California, this movie ends with no explanation why birds suddenly begin attacking people. Maybe it was simply a vehicle for expressing Alfred Hitchcock’s penchant for directing suspenseful and horrific scenes. But during these times of climate change, pollution and endangered species, the premise of such a film would seem easier to figure. Starring Tippi Hedren—satisfying Hitchcock’s attraction for beautiful young blondes—and hunky Rod Taylor, this horror movie shows the best optical effects of the time—plentiful usage of matte shots, blue and yellow screen effects, as well as $200,000 spent on mechanical birds—the film features 370 effects shots. The final scene comprises 32 separate elements and is still a marvel of moviemaking magic. (Watch it on YouTube.) The Birds is possibly Alfred Hitchcock’s most ambitious film!
45. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Considered by some to be a “dirty movie,” Midnight Cowboy is the only x-rated flick to win an Oscar Award for Best Picture. This fish-out-of-water drama is about a naïve, would-be stud named Joe Buck (John Voight) and his con man mentor Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who try to hustle their way through the seedy underbelly of NYC. Based on a novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy, the script for this film may have seemed laughable yet, somehow, was used to make a superb movie—for which Waldo Salt won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Much about this movie is laudable, including the taut direction of John Schlesinger; John Barry’s theme music is also some of the best produced in the 1960s, a decade when people expected such memorable, original and melodious music—and often got it!
44. Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have made many films together, and Taxi Driver may be their best. De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who begins stalking a senator. Studying for the part, De Niro read the diary of Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. Bickle is a cabbie who’s disgusted with the sleaziness in NYC. When Bickle encounters Iris (Jodie Foster), a child prostitute, he tries to save her from a life of degradation. One night Bickle drives to the brothel where Iris works and confronts the pimps and thugs. Bickle pulls out a gun and kills three men before he passes out from blood loss. Thereafter, Bickle is declared a local hero. Notably, cinematographer Michael Chapman, operating on a tight budget, shot a movie that seems a work of art in the neo-noir genre.
43. The African Queen (1951)
This adventure film is set in German East Africa at the beginning of hostilities between England and Germany in WW1. Featuring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn—two movie stars at the height of their careers—Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, a miner whose claim has been destroyed by the Germans, and Hepburn portrays Rose Sayer, a Methodist missionary whose brother was killed by the Germans. This odd couple hatches a plot. They convert the African Queen, Charlie’s rickety steam boat, into a torpedo boat, hoping to sink a German warship. Then they steam along the treacherous Ulanga River until they encounter the Königin Luise, a German gunboat patrolling a large lake. In a storm, the African Queen capsizes, separating Charlie and Rose who are captured by the Germans. But later a torpedo on the partially submerged African Queen strikes the Königin Luise, sinking her, after which Charlie and Rose happily swim away. Notably, for this film, Bogart won an Oscar Award for Best Actor.
42. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Often ranked as one of the best Westerns ever made, The Wild Bunch takes place in northern Mexico, circa 1914, when a gang of aging outlaws battles the forces of General Mapache, a ruthless and corrupt officer in the Mexican Federal Army. Directed by “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah, the film stars William Holden as Pike Bishop, the leader of the Wild Bunch, who stresses the importance of friendship; otherwise, “we’re just animals,” he growls. When General Mapache abducts Angel, a member of the Wild Bunch, and then tortures and murders him—the gang must avenge their friend! The action sequences in this movie are as thrilling as any ever made, particularly at the flesh-shredding denouement when the Wild Bunch swaps fusillades with Mexican soldiers, at one point Pike Bishop blazing away with an M1917 Browning heavy machine gun!
41. Alien (1979)
In space no one can hear you scream. This movie's tagline would make just about anyone fear space! Consistently chosen as one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time—as well as one of the best movies of all time—Alien is helmed by sci-fi master director Ridley Scott. It stars Sigourney Weaver as warrant officer Ripley of the Nostromo, a space tug that, after responding to a distress call on some gothic-looking planet, inadvertently picks a up a monster that’s about as hideous as any creature ever imagined. The nightmarish thing, designed by artist H.R. Geiger, makes its presence known aboard the ship by bursting from the chest of a crew member, producing one of the most terrifying and iconic scenes ever. Then the crew led by the unlikely heroism of Ripley—because she’s a woman after all—keeps audiences twitching fearfully in their seats—as the beast snatches crew members one by one.
40. The Misfits (1961)
Written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston and starring two of Hollywood’s greatest stars—Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe—this movie is memorable, poignant and riveting. It’s about some aimless cowboys who make money by capturing mustangs meant for slaughter as dog food, but Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe) tries to stop them from capturing these hapless animals. Gable’s acting may be his best, especially when his character learns his children have left town before he can introduce them to Roslyn Tabor, at which point he throws a drunken tirade in the street that’s as mesmerizing as any scene in a Hollywood movie. But the film flopped at the box office. It wasn’t a Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe movie; it was an Arthur Miller film—a superb drama.
This was Gable and Monroe’s swan song as actors. Monroe was imploding because of drug addiction and undependable on the set. Clark Gable said: “Working with Marilyn Monroe on The Misfits nearly gave me a heart attack. I have never been happier when the film ended.” Ironically, Gable died of a heart attack when the movie premiered early in 1961. As for Monroe, she overdosed on sleeping pills a year later.
39. East of Eden (1955)
Based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, a magnum opus with references to the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible, East of Eden is about the lives to two brothers and their devoutly religious father, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey), who runs a shipping business in the Salinas Valley of California. James Dean plays Caleb “Cal” Trask, a loner who tries to win favor with his father by making a big profit selling pinto beans during WW1. Cal tries to give the money to his father, but his dad rejects the money, calling it “war profiteering.” Cal is devastated and becomes estranged from his father. Then Cal’s brother Aron joins the army and his father has a stroke, after which he wants Cal to take care of him, mending the fences between them. Filmed in Cinemascope and directed by Elia Kazan, East of Eden won many accolades, including a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture.
38. An American in Paris (1951)
This movie is a musical comedy based on the music and songs of George and Ira Gershwin and set in Paris, France, though it was filmed on scores of exquisite sets in MGM’s back lot. Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an American painter who moves to Paris hoping to produce and sell his art. Although Mulligan is no great painter, he certainly finds plenty of music, song and dance—as well as the love of Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron)—in post WW II Gay Paree. The 17-minute, dialogue-free ballet sequence at the end of the film is considered one of the greatest such sequences of all time. An American in Paris was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won six, including Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Motion Picture.
37. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Another gem of a flicker by legendary director Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t popular when first released; in fact, it lost money, at which point people began wondering if Capra had lost his touch for directing commercially successful films. But eventually people decided they liked the film, and it became a Christmas classic after placed in the public domain. James Stewart plays George Bailey who, after experiencing financial hardship and disgrace, wants to jump into a freezing river and end his life—until his guardian angel intervenes and shows him how bad life would be for his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and the town of Bedford Falls—if he had never been born! James Stewart’s acting in the movie is about as believable and engrossing as any performance ever in American movies. This picture strives to prove that everybody’s life matters.
36. Thelma and Louise (1991)
An anthemic movie for the Me Too movement—even though it was produced decades ago—Thelma and Louise stars Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise, two women who want more empowerment in their lives. The story unfolds when Thelma and Louise begin a two-day road trip. They stop at a cowboy bar, where a man tries to rape Thelma in the parking lot—until Louise comes along, revolver in hand. The man disrespects the women, so Louise shoots him dead. Thelma wants to call the cops, but Louise insists they flee. Later motoring through the Southwest, they turn outlaw when Thelma robs a convenience store. Finally they’re confronted by the cops at the Grand Canyon. Rather than surrender, the women decide to drive their T-bird off a cliff. This is the kind of movie you never want to end!
35. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A Streetcar Named Desire stars Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois. This steamy Southern drama is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan. Brando was a virtual nobody at the time, while Leigh had starred in the Hollywood blockbuster, Gone With the Wind (1939). The movie was highly acclaimed by critics and won four Academy Awards; Leigh won the Oscar for Best Actress. Notably, A Streetcar Named Desire seems to have as many references in pop culture as any American film, particularly the scene when a drunken Kowalski (Brando) yells, “Stella! Stella!” And the Blanche DeBois character is often parodied as an aging Southern belle with rattling skeletons in her closet.
34. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Its full title, Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a dark comedy/war satire about the possibility of thermonuclear annihilation if the Cold War ever heats up. Starring George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson and Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove and two other characters, the film’s plot involves a B52 bomber, loaded with H-bombs, as it flies on patrol toward the USSR. Driven to insanity by a belief the Russians are contaminating America’s drinking water, General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders the B52 crew to bomb an ICBM site in the Soviet Union. President Miffley intervenes and calls back the bomber, but it cannot respond after being hit with anti-aircraft fire. Then the president learns that the Soviet Union has a doom’s day device that will activate when it’s attacked.
In the film’s most iconic scene, Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) rides a hydrogen bomb as if it were a bucking bronco until it hits the ground and goes BOOM! Then, in the finale, the doom’s day device kicks in and one nuclear bomb after another detonates around the world, spreading lethal nuclear fallout, as Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again.”
33. It Happened One Night (1934)
It Happened One Night is one of the first American road pictures. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, and showing aspects of a so-called screwball comedy, the film stars Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, two of the most famous actors during the Silver Screen days of the 1930s and ‘40s. Colbert plays a privileged socialite who flees her domineering father, and Gable plays a reporter who finds her and agrees to let her run free while he soaks up material for what he hopes will be a best-selling story. So the couple hits the road and eventually falls in love. It Happened One Night swept the top five Academy Awards for best picture, director, adapted screenplay, actor and actress. This flick is certainly one of the best romantic comedies ever!