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52 Best American Movies of the Twentieth Century

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!


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!


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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!


32. 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!


31. 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.


30. 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.


29. 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!


28. 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.


27. The Longest Day (1962)

Definitely one of the greatest war movies of all time, and perhaps the best film about the Normandy Invasion of WW II, The Longest Day is epic filmmaking at its best. The authenticity of the film is first-rate and the specials effects were the best possible before CGI. The inclusion of notable actors is remarkable as well; in fact, there seems to be a star in every shot. Led by such cinematic luminaries as John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, George Segal and Robert Wagner, as well as featuring countless other foreign actors and former soldiers who took part in the invasion, and also supplemented by the use of 2,000 extras, this action film is a feast for the eyes—and cost $10 million—big bucks in the 1960s, when Hollywood churned out some of the greatest film spectacles ever made.


26. 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.


25. 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.


24. 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.”


23. 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!


22. 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.


21. On the Waterfront (1954)

Based on the lives of real people working in the longshoreman industry of Hoboken, New Jersey, Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a washed-up pug and longshoreman who wants to testify against Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a corrupt union boss who runs the docks with an iron fist and doesn’t stop at murder to get what he wants. Based on the life of whistleblower Anthony DeVincenzo, who testified about corruption before the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, Brando’s performance is considered spellbinding and legendary—one of the greatest of all time, in fact. On the Waterfront, lauded by critics and a the box office hit, was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won eight, including Best Motion Picture and the Best Actor Award for Marlon Brando.


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.


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!

© 2018 Kelley Marks


Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on June 06, 2019:

Thanks for your comment, Jack Lee. "Roman Holiday" and "Rear Window" are two great movies. If I had to pick one Hitchcock movie for this list, I'd probably choose "The Birds" or "Vertigo." Later!...

Jack Lee from Yorktown NY on June 06, 2019:

The Godfather series is the best movie of all times in my book. Roman Holiday, and Rear Window by Hitchcock should make the list too...

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on December 16, 2018:

Thanks for the comment, Peggy Woods. I enjoy writing these epic lists. If it doesn't have at least 20 on it, why bother?...I also considered putting "Sound of Music" on the list, but opted for "Mary Poppins" because I wanted at least one Disney movie on the list. Later!...

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 15, 2018:

That is a great compilation of movies for sure. Sound of Music is one movie that I have watched many times and there are others I would add if it was not limited to just 25. Casablanca is one of my husband's favorites and I was curious to see if it would be on your list when I saw your title.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on December 14, 2018:

Thanks for the comment, Zia Uddin! Ben-Hur is definitely worth seeing many times; in fact, every movie on this list is the same in that regard. Later!...

Zia Uddin from UK on December 13, 2018:

Nice list of all-time classics. Ive watched 15 of those movies from your list and Ben Hur is the one ive watched more than 10 times. Cheers.

Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on December 13, 2018:

Thanks for the comment, Pat Mills. I forgot about "Woodstock." Is it too late to add it to the list?...Later!...

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on December 13, 2018:

Fine films all, but I think some silent films would have held their own against sound films, especially The General and Tumbleweeds. Others that are beloved to me include Singin' In The Rain, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Ordinary People, A Night At The Opera, Woodstock, and Annie Hall. Every one of the films you listed remain timeless, though.

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