What makes a movie great? Why do some stand the test of time while others slowly (or rather quickly) lose their value? For some films, it’s the emotion the story invokes. Sometimes an actor’s performance is so unforgettable, it captures our attention. Occasionally a film is so visually stunning, it can’t be forgotten.
I put together a collection of the 30 best movies of all time. To warn you in advance, this isn’t the usual film snob list of black and white classics and foreign films meant to show off my knowledge of classical cinema. These are the movies we watch because we want to, not because we’re told to.
30. Avatar (2009)
Avatar is one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made. Even people who complain about special effects in movies dropped their jaws upon seeing it for the first time. This film pushed modern cinematic technology into a new age, ushering in the age of stereoscopic 3D. Beneath its beauty, the film features a cross-species love story and a social message. Avatar is a must see for any movie fan.
29. Scarface (1983)
There are a lot of gangster movies out there, but Scarface is easily the most quoted. The story of Cuban immigrant turned maniacal gangster Tony Montana is gritty from front to back. The chainsaw scene in the beginning still gives me quivers. As he gains more power, his greed starts to get the best of him. He makes a few bad decisions that lead to the one of the best death scenes in movie history.
28. The Notebook (2004)
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I’ve never seen The Notebook. The reason I know it’s a great film is because every time I tell a woman I’ve never seen it, she tries to convince me to watch it. The basic premise is a boy falls in love with a girl. They have a budding romance, some conflict gets in the way, and they end up together when they’re older. This movie is the bar in which many women measure a man.
27. Audition (1999)
I judge horror movies by how many full length cartoons I have to watch afterwards so I can go to sleep, and Audition is easily a 10 toon film. A widower auditions women for his new wife. He picks a young beautiful woman named Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) …who turns out to be the most eerily psychotic film character of all time. Yamazaki has scenes of torture so brutal they’re almost unwatchable, and the pleasure she takes in her work is beyond disturbing.
26. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks is a king of screwball comedy, and Young Frankestein is the film Scary Moviewishes it was. The cast delivers brilliant lines with impeccable comedic timing. Igor’s (Marty Feldman) sarcastic responses to Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) crack me up every time. If you’re adverse to older movies, this may be the one to change your mind.
25. The One Percent (2006)
The One Percent is the second of Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson’s documentaries chronicling a lifestyle that 99% of us will never have. Born rich, Jamie gives the rest of us a look into the lives of some of America’s wealthiest families. Jamie’s father Jim spends the majority of the film opposing it. With the crash of the artificial housing market soon after and the Occupy movement popping up 5 years later, it’s easy to see what he’s afraid of.
24. Cinderella Man (2005)
James Braddock (Russell Crowe), a washed up boxer who fights impossible odds to compete for the heavyweight championship is one of cinema’s most memorable underdogs. Director Ron Howard expertly recreates the 1930s setting to draw you into this “based on a true story” sports drama filled with award winning actors. Cinderella Man is everything you want in a sports movie.
23. Bad Boys (1995)
Hate on Michael Bay all you want, the man knows how to make an entertaining movie. Bad Boys is a buddy cop movie that never gets old, thanks to the personalities of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Filled with flashy car chases and spectacular shoot outs, this is a movie that you can sit down and watch anytime it’s on television, no matter how far in it is.
22. Unforgiven (1992)
Before he went crazy and started talking to chairs, Clint Eastwood was responsible for some of the most classic Westerns in American cinema. In Unforgiven, he plays Will Munny, a retired gunslinger who lets his old friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) convince him to collect a bounty from some hookers. On the way, they encounter other bounty hunters and a hardnosed sheriff (Gene Hackman). It takes a lot for Munny to snap, but once he does, you’ll be glad you’re watching from a distance.
21. Leon: The Professional (1994)
This tale of professional assassin Léon (Luc Besson) is dramatic and heartfelt. He takes in a young girl (Natalie Portman) whose drugged out parents are killed by their psychotic dealer (Gary Oldman) then proceeds to teach her the tricks of the trade while protecting her and seeking vengeance. Léon: The Professional is one of those movies where you can’t help but side with the killer, who deep down has a heart of gold.
20. Love & Basketball (2000)
While many romance movies are difficult for men to watch, Love & Basketball goes a long way into drawing men into this “chick flick” genre by incorporating an underlying sports theme. Quincy (Omar Epps) and Monica (Sanaa Lathan) meet on the basketball court as kids, and their love/hate relationship keeps their lives intersecting as they live their individual dreams of playing pro ball.
19. The Hurt Locker (2008)
War. What is it good for? Fantastic movies. Hurt Locker is a thrilling look at the realities of the Iraq War, and modern warfare in general. It’s not a propaganda film. It doesn’t take sides. It focuses on the decisions faced by soldiers, specifically SFC William James (Jeremy Renner). Hurt Locker is simultaneously a war movie and a technically sound thriller. I don’t believe in war, but I believe Hurt Locker is the second best war movie ever made, showing the good and bad in every soldier.
18. Princess Bride (1987)
Fairy tale movies are a dime a dozen. The Princess Bride stands head and shoulders above them all. It’s a playful children’s movie with plenty for adults to love too. It has everything a fairy tale should: a mysterious protagonist (Cary Elwes), a giant (André the Giant), swordplay, a princess, and a happy ending. The Princess Bride is a reminder of everything that’s right about humanity.
17. Inside Man
A cop (Denzel Washington) tries talking down a criminal mastermind (Clive Owen) in the best bank heist movie ever put on film. What makes Inside Man so great is the cat and mouse tension. As the story progresses, you find out this is much more than your average bank robbery. It’s not just money these guys are after, and even knowing they get away with it won’t take away the shock of seeing how… and why…
16. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Godfather 2 is often cited in the argument of sequels outdoing the original movie, but Bogus Journey deserves a spot on that list. Bill S. Preston, Esq, (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) were the models of slacker youth way before Beavis and Butthead. The first Bill & Ted movie most triumphantly explored time travel in a phone booth, but the second movie ups the ante, as the dimwitted pair battle death on a journey through heaven & hell. Beneath the schlock, Bogus Journey is a lighthearted look at a scary subject.
15. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
This is the movie where Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie met. Watching their onscreen chemistry, it’s easy to see how they’ve lasted so long. No matter how many times this movie is on TV, it’s hard not to watch. Filled with shootouts, explosions, comedy, romance, and flat out sex appeal, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a spy film with something for everyone. It doesn’t make you think; it just invites you to sit, stare, and smile.
14. Love Actually (2003)
Love Actually follows the intertwining stories of eight British couples dealing with love in very different ways. It’s a romantic comedy and a Christmas film, but it is in no way sappy. It’s a touching comedy filled with amazing moments. It’s impossible to watch this movie without laughing, crying, and falling in love with at least one character. Love Actually is the best romantic comedy ever written.
13. Good Will Hunting (1997)
A janitor with an attitude problem (Matt Damon) solves a complicated math problem at MIT, gets sent to a psychiatrist (Robin Williams), and has to choose between his street life and becoming a respected mathematician. Good Will Hunting’s is a charming drama with great writing, brilliant acting, and an intelligent story. The movie explores a lot of philosophical angles on the human experience in a way that draws you in.
12. Where The Buffalo Roam (1980)
While Johnny Depp is often praised for his portrayal of cultural icon Hunter S. Thompson, Bill Murray nailed it on the head first. Where The Buffalo Roam mashes together several of Thompson’s writings about his adventures with his attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta. Murray gives a great performance, perfectly capturing everything we love about Thompson, and proving he’s much more than just a comedian.
11. Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future is a time travel movie packed with memorable characters. Biff (Thomas Wilson) is a quintessential bully with some of the best quotable lines in cinematic history. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) inspired a generation of kids to become scientists. What makes the movie so great, though, is that protagonist Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) is just a normal kid in a crazy situation, and he overcomes. If he can overcome, anyone can.
10. Grandma’s Boy (2006)
Grandma’s Boy is an ensemble comedy that hits all the right notes. The story of a 35-year-old video game tester forced to live with his grandma and her Golden Girl roommates, it’s literally LOL funny the entire way through. Filled with zany characters played by actors normally confined to bit roles, this movie is a hilarious gem in a pile of modern comedies. Everything about Grandma’s Boy is best when viewed high, but works just as well sober.
9. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The story of two men who form a friendship during long term prison sentences, Shawshank is the best prison movie ever made. Morgan Freeman’s narration is so good, it launched him a second career. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is the kind of protagonist every movie should have. The dialogue and plot as superb. The soundtrack is beautiful. Dufresne dancing in the rain after crawling through miles of sewage is an epic movie moment. You’ll be tempted to run outside and dance along with him.
8. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
When the teaser for this movie first appeared in theaters, we all had doubts. How in the world could Disney turn a subpar ride into a two hour epic? Three words: Captain. Jack. Sparrow. Johnny Depp’s role as a drunken, smart-mouthed, and shockingly resourceful captain without a ship made Pirates an instant classic. With a well-rounded cast, beautiful sets, and a brilliant mix of comedy, action, and drama, Curse of The Black Pearl is everything we love about Disney rolled into a rare live action gem.
7. Network (1976)
What makes Network so great is that it’s a universally realistic depiction of media in society. TV anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) gets tired of dealing with ailments of society so he goes live on the air and gives the most epic speech in cinematic history. His brutal honesty makes him an instant icon, reviving his career. The TV network exploits his anti-establishment following for profit. Beale’s star power grows until it eventually pops, and he must be disposed of. The message in Network gets more and more important as our digital society progresses.
6. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart is the best war movie ever made… period. Mel Gibson both directed and starred in this epic film depicting William Wallace’s (Gibson) war for Scotland’s freedom from English rule. The battles are brutal and graphic. The speeches are inspiring. The cinematography and soundtrack in Braveheart is so moving, you’ll find yourself actually enjoying bagpipe music. By the closing credits, you’ll find yourself wanting to paint your face blue and scream out “FREEDOOOOMMM!!!” until your last breath.
5. Gandhi (1982)
Richard Attenborough’s three hour biography of Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) is the best biopic ever made. Gandhi was a lawyer who freed India from British rule. Where William Wallace fought with his sword, Gandhi fought violence with nonviolence and compassion, becoming one of the most prolific revolutionaries in human history. The film covers as many highlights as possible from his life, showcasing his wisdom how anyone can follow his footsteps.
4. Caddyshack (1980)
Golf is arguably the most boring sport to watch. Caddyshack, a comedy centered on golf, is hands down the funniest movie ever made. Starring an array of comedy legends at the top of their game, it’s not only a laugh-a-minute ride, it’s a visually beautiful film. With multiple concurrent storylines, a variety of comedic styles, a great soundtrack, and the best pool scene ever put on film, watching Caddyshack feels like a party everyone is invited to.
3. Dark Knight (2008)
When it was announced Heath Ledger would play The Joker in a new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, the internet erupted with fury. “He’ll never be as good as Jack Nicholson,” we cried. I wish Heath Ledger could have lived to see the collective jaw of the world drop. Ledger’s Joker is the best character performance in movie history. The Dark Knight isn’t just the best Batman movie. It’s not just the best superhero movie. It’s one of the undisputed best films ever made.
2. The Iron Giant (1999)
Don’t let the fact that The Iron Giant is an animated film fool you. It is pure cinematic brilliance. It’s a sci-fi film featuring a giant alien robot weapon of mass destruction. After crashing into the earth, he’s rescued by a young boy named Hogarth (Eli Marienthal), and they develop a friendship. The film approaches war and world destruction from the eyes of a child. It makes you fall in love with a robot… and then it breaks your heart. If you’re not crying by the end of this movie, you’re the robot.
1. Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump is the best movie ever made. It spans generations to tell the fictional story of the most likeable, honest, caring, and genuinely good person this world will ever see. If everyone in this world had even a fraction of Gump’s heart, we’d solve all the world’s problems. The soundtrack is a classic. Tom Hanks is amazing. Forrest continuously overcomes adversity throughout the movie. His life is comprised of every heroic act in the news on any given day. From the first second to the last credit, everything about this movie is flawless. You can watch it 100 times and never tire of it. Forrest Gump is the reason movies exist.
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