Can you believe that after twelve years of writing lists we haven’t ever done a list of the best movies of all time? It’s true! So today we correct that terrible oversight.
You may find yourself staying in a lot over the next few weeks, and if you are, what better what to relax, and forget about your problems, than with a movie?
No need to cross the door. There are thousands of films available on streaming services around the world. But which one do you choose? And how do you know it is going to be great?
You could watch hundreds of trailers, read thousands of reviews and make a spreadsheet ranking every film for watchability.
Or you could just read this list, and start watching some really great films.
20 Call Me By Your Name, 2017
If you are looking for a coming of age romance, or you just want something to make think of summer, try Call Me By Your Name. Released in 2017, it stars Timothée Chalamet as 17-year-old Elio, living with his family in an idyllic Italian villa. Armie Hammer is slightly miscast as Oliver, who is supposedly 24, but doesn’t look it.
Once you have got over that, however, the film is a beautiful story of first love. If you had to describe the pace of the movie in one word, it would probably be ‘languid’. It’s as if everyone is too hot to move quickly. The scenery is stunning, Hammer acts better than he ever has before, and Timothée Chalamet is brilliant as a young man who finds everything arousing – women, men, fruit.
It is not a movie about forbidden love. In Call Me By Your Name, all love is allowed, and celebrated.
Notably this is also the most significant film produced by James Ivory since the death of his partner in business and life, Ismail Merchant who, under the Merchant Ivory label, gave us such greats as Remains of the Day and A Room With A View.
19 The Seventh Seal, 1957
The Seventh Seal regularly makes an appearance on the list of the Greatest Movies Ever. Some people who voted for it actually watched it. The rest should.
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, and set during the time of the Black Death, the film famously features Death playing chess for the possession of a human soul.
Is he playing to win, or does he have a different motive?
The movie is said to be an Existentialist Masterpiece, but don’t let that put you off.
Come and join the Dance Macabre.
18 Tokyo Story, 1953
Tokyo Story is a 1953 film by Yasujiro Ozu. If you haven’t heard of it, you should have. It is often regarded as one of the best films ever made, but, being in Japanese, has suffered from lack of exposure in the West.
Time to correct that. It is a simple story of an elderly couple who visit their children in Tokyo, only to find themselves largely ignored. Only their daughter-in-law makes an effort to be kind.
Their kids are vile, and far too busy with their own lives to care about their parents, and can’t wait to ship them off again. They give them passes to a health club because they want their room for an office.
Not a feel-good movie, this one, with its themes of loss and loneliness and the decline of family, but it is a simple story, beautifully told.
17 Die Hard, 1988
The only thing that makes Die Hard a Christmas movie is the Christmas tree in the lobby of the Nakatomi building, but don’t let that put you off. Alan Rickman plays the baddie, Hans Gruber, who will definitely kill you, but he will do it suavely.
Bruce is having a bad day. But it’s nothing to how bad it’s going to get. Die Hard spawned a million imitations. One lone tough guy, who prevails against overwhelming odds, whilst still finding time for humor. One dead bad-guy is used as a Post-It Note, with the message ‘Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho’ scrawled across his body.
There is one wince-inducing scene where Bruce has to walk over broken glass in bare feet, but other than that, its high-octane, explosive good times all the way.
Welcome to the party, pal.
16 Some Like It Hot, 1959
Some Like It Hot is the ultimate feel good movie. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are fantastic as a couple of musicians on the run from mobsters after witnessing a mob shootout. They join a big band that is heading out on tour, only to discover that it is an all-girl group. Cue Lemmon and Curtis in drag. Unsurprisingly, Tony Curtis made rather a good-looking woman, although Lemmon had his admirers too.
Marilyn Monroe also stars as the band’s singer, Sugar Kane, in which she famously sings ‘I wanna be loved by you’, which is a recommendation on its own.
It’s hard to find anything to criticize in this movie. Which is surprising, since the film-shoot was said to be difficult. Monroe famously needed 47 takes to get the line, ‘It’s me, Sugar’, right. And when she had to say, ‘Where’s the bourbon?’ whilst rummaging through some drawers, the director, (Billy Wilder again) ordered the words to be pasted inside every drawer.
It took 59 takes.
But nobody’s perfect.
15 The Princess Bride, 1987
Cool guys get their pick of hero films, but if you are a little bit clumsy and a little bit of a chump, there is always The Princess Bride. The plot is, shall we say, complicated, but there are a variety of hero roles to choose from. You could be Westley, the farm hand who loves Buttercup (that’s a girl not a cow) and would do anything to please her. Or a giant named Fezzik, who is, well a reasonably friendly giant. Or Inigo Montoya, a Spanish fencing instructor on a quest for revenge against a 6-fingered man.
Which is enough hero for anyone.
The film, a fantasy/comedy/fairy-tale has become a cult classic, despite the ropey sets, cheesy dialogue and Mandy Patinkin in a truly awful wig. The ‘heroes’ succeed more by luck than judgement, but a win is a win, and a hero is a hero.
And anything else is inconceivable.
14 The Great Dictator, 1940
Charlie Chaplin made a lot of great silent films, of which City Lights is generally considered to his greatest, and he continued to work in the medium of silence long after everyone else was making talkies. But then, in 1940, just to prove that he could do it, Chaplin made his first full-length talking film. And it was a great one.
The Great Dictator was a film about fascism. At a time when the world was at war, Charlie Chaplin made a film lampooning Hitler and Mussolini, and the ridiculousness of their ideology. He starred both as the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, and as a persecuted Jewish barber, who looks remarkably like a much-loved tramp.
After a complicated series of events, the barber is mistaken for the Adenoid Hynkel, and is pushed on stage to address a great rally. After some reluctance, the barber seizes the opportunity to make a different kind of speech, which leaves his audience feeling at first confused, and then empowered.
You are not machines.
The Great Dictator has everything that you know and love about Charlie Chaplin movies. Plus anti-Nazi propaganda.
It’s da banana.
13 Sunset Boulevard, 1950
Sunset Boulevard is a film about a washed-up movie star. Possibly Billy Wilder’s greatest movie, it starred Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, the aging silent movie star who lives alone, except for her butler.
The film isn’t just about the movie industry. It’s also about the arrogance of youth, the fragility of age, and dreams we can’t let go of. Mostly, it is a movie about obsession. Norma Desmond’s obsession with recapturing her stardom, her butler’s obsession with her (he wasn’t always her butler), and a playwright’s ruthless ambition to Make It in Hollywood.
Gloria Swanson took a huge risk in playing a washed-up has-been obsessed with her fading beauty, unable to come to terms with no longer being adored. After all, she was herself a former silent movie actress whose career stalled with the advent of the talkies, and she could have done lasting damage to her reputation. In the end, however, Sunset Boulevard became the outstanding film of her career, and ensured that she has a place in the top 10 of everyone’s greatest movie list.
12 Reservoir Dogs, 1992
A list about great movies wouldn’t be complete without at least 1 Tarantino film.
And there are plenty (well 9) to choose from. But we only have 20 films in this list, and so we are restricting ourselves to 1 QT film. And the most Tarantino-esque movie of all, is Reservoir Dogs.
His first feature film (according to his count), Reservoir Dogs has everything. It has pretty much every motif that he is famous for, from the shot looking out from the trunk of the car, to the Mexican standoff. It has more blood than could possibly fit inside one human body, and a disturbingly musical psychopath who sings while he works. It has sharp-suited criminals and long tracking shots.
It doesn’t have any women with bare feet, but only because, apart from a couple of background artists, there aren’t any.
11 One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975
Jack Nicholson plays crazy rather well. There’s The Shining, of course, where he is psychotic, or As Good as it Gets, where he has OCD, and, of course, he’s the Joker, which is madness personified.
Tell me, did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
But his best film about insanity, was the one where he is the only sane man in the lunatic asylum. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a celebration of individualism, and a cautionary tale about pretending to be mad, when you’re not.
Based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, the film won 9 Oscars, including Best Director, Film, Actor and Actress. Brad Dourif was also nominated for his supporting role as Billy Bibbit, a young man who discovers his manhood in a night of glory, and loses it again the morning after.
Louise Fletcher is terrifying as Nurse Ratched, for whom orderliness is next to godliness and sanity cannot be allowed if it makes the place look untidy.
The film’s end is truly horrifying, but compulsive viewing, nonetheless.
10 The Usual Suspects, 1995
Some films are easy to follow. Others make you pay close attention. For The Usual Suspects, you might need to take notes.
Described as a ‘neo-noir’ movie (like Noir, but newer), The Usual Suspects makes heavy use of flashback to tell the story of a group of con men, a jewel heist, a mysterious crime lord with a ridiculous name, who may, or may not, exist, a shit ton of cocaine and an explosion on a ship.
Kevin Spacey plays Verbal Kint, a weasel-like con man that no one likes, who is scared to death that Keyser Soze or his henchman, the equally implausibly named Kobayashi will wreak revenge on him and his family, if he tells what he knows.
Gradually, Verbal is persuaded, cajoled and threatened into telling his, frankly incredible, story, and the police, let him go.
And like that, he’s gone.
9 Apocalypse Now, 1979
Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola’s startling retelling of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. It stars Martin Sheen as Captain Willard, who is sent up-river in Vietnam to find Colonel Kurtz, as played by Marlon Brando, who is leading a team of Special Forces and who is believed to have gone mad.
The movie beautifully captures the true nature of war. Long periods of being shit-scared, while absolutely nothing happens, followed by brief bursts of action that achieves nothing.
Brando does not appear until late in the movie, but his appearance is worth the wait. Is Kurtz insane, or is being insane the only sane thing to be when you are living on your last nerve in the jungle, waiting for an unseen enemy to kill you in unspeakable ways?
Brando’s appearance is surreal and disturbing. As is the end of the movie. Will the horror of his actions have the same effect on Willard as it does on Kurtz? Is the horror contagious?
Although the shooting was beset by problems, not least Martin Sheen’s heart attack and Brando’s lack of preparation, the final cut of Apocalypse Now, edited, it is rumored, from over a million feet of film, is consistently voted one of the best films ever made about war.
8 Toy Story, 1995
Toy Story is a film of firsts. It was the first entirely computer-animated feature length film. It was the first feature by a new company called Pixar. And it was the first film to have the marketing built right in. Because the characters were all toys.
You make a kids film with toys in it, and then you sell the toys.
What was also genius, was the script. The idea of toys that come to life when no one is watching wasn’t exactly new. But that didn’t matter, because the script was not about toys. It was about friendship. Toy Story is a buddy movie. It’s a movie about acceptance. Accepting ourselves, even when we don’t live up to our expectations, and accepting our friends, even when they are really irritating and give themselves stupid catchphrases that make no sense.
The script was so good, in fact, that it was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay. Watch this film with your kids, or better yet, without them, and let it take you to infinity. And beyond. (See? No sense at all.)
7 The Matrix, 1999
The Matrix was a 1999 sci-fi movie from the Wachowskis that was unlike any other sci-fi ever. Sure, it had the same dystopian future, we’ve-all-been-taken-over-by-aliens shtick going on, but apart from that, totally new.
For a start, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and even Laurence Fishburne, looked cool. All black clothes, slicked-back hair and great sunglasses. They also had awesome Kung Fu moves. And then there were the special effects. Ground-breaking doesn’t begin to describe it. They may not have invented ‘bullet time’, but no one had ever used it as well.
The Matrix showed us that anything was possible. The trick was not to try and bend the spoon, but to realize that you can make $460 million by persuading people that the spoon is not there.
Both Matrix sequels were appalling, but nothing can take away the memory of seeing the first one.
Unless you take the blue pill.
6 Fight Club, 1999
The first rule of soap club is… It’s not about the soap. It’s about the fighting.
Fight Club, based on the novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, is a film about men’s loss of identity in a civilized world. Or about the increasing dissatisfaction with capitalist society.
Or it maybe it was about the fighting.
Edward Norton, an insomniac who travels the world to look at car wrecks, literally, meets Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). Tyler is everything that he is not. He is smart, he is tough, and he is without fear.
One of them is crazy.
They start a fight club because they don’t want to die without any scars. And soon half the city has a black eye or a busted lip.
While it barely made a splash when it was first released, Fight Club has become one of the most quotable films in history.
And the second rule of Fight Club is…
5 The Dark Knight, 2008
Not all superheroes movies are the same. They can be fun, sure, but they’re not usually good, and they are rarely great.
Last year’s Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix, was certainly great, but can hardly be called a superhero movie. It merely inhabited some of the same spaces. But The Dark Knight, which also features, a Joker, does qualify. Directed by Christopher Nolan, and starring Christian Bale as Batman, this is a much more sinister film than most superhero movies.
Gotham is a very dark place, both literally and metaphorically. And Christian Bale is great, but Heath Ledger is better. He brings a dangerous level of insanity to the Joker, his last great role.
The movie broke box office records, not just as tribute to Ledger but because the film made being a superhero sexy. Out went the spandex costumes, and in came black leather, moody lighting, and a bad guy so exuberant that you can’t help loving him a bit too.
4 Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991
Terminator 2 was better than The Terminator. Unfortunately, while the laws of time continued to be suspended throughout the rest of the Terminator series, the law of diminishing returns reasserted itself after Judgement Day, and by the time we reached Terminator 6, Dark Fate, it was considerably less good.
But still with Terminator Action.
Which is pretty cool.
But Terminator 2 was the one. It still had Arnold Schwarzenegger. But this time he had lines. He still said ‘Sarah Connor’ a lot, but he said other cool stuff too. Like, ‘hasta lavista, baby’.
And, ‘I’ll be back’.
It has lots of shooting, machines, chases, and blowing stuff up. If you are looking for great action, explosions and unnecessary muscle (and who isn’t), this is the film for you.
3 The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
There are lots of great movies about space. 2001: Space Odyssey, Alien, Guardians of the Galaxy (kidding). But Star Wars is in a galaxy of its own. Not those horrible later Disney versions, of course, but certainly the first 3 films. And if we could only pick 1, The Empire Strikes Back is it.
It has everything. Not only Luke, Hans, Leia and Darth Vader to provide the drama, but also some robots and a tiny Jedi master called Yoda, who talks kind of funny.
There are plenty of light-saber battles, explosions and a mind-blowing plot twist involving parental lineage, which make this film a must.
But, for best results, you should always watch The Empire Strikes Back after watching A New Hope. And if you’ve watched the first 2 films, you might as well keep going and watch The Return of the Jedi, too.
But stop there. For the love of God, stop there.
2 Harold and Maude, 1971
Can’t decide between a black comedy or a love story? Why not have both?
Released in 1971, Harold and Maude is the story of a teenage boy obsessed with death and suicide. He meets Maude at a funeral, and falls in love. Maude loves life, perhaps because, at the age of 79, she knows that she doesn’t have much of it left.
Maude teaches Harold a lot. While he drives around in a hearse, and continually plans his own demise, Maude makes every second count. She teaches him how to appreciate life. She teaches him to play the banjo.
And she teaches him how to love.
Harold and Maude is touching, funny, and yes, OK, it’s a little bit strange. But it has a whole lot of joie de vivre and a soundtrack by Cat Stephens
So, watch the film, and if you want to sing out, sing out.
1 12 Angry Men, 1957
The best courtroom drama ever, wasn’t filmed in a court room. There were no impassioned speeches for the defense, no expert witnesses, no damning testimony. There were just 12 Angry Men. Made in 1957, it starred Henry Fonda as Juror #8, and Lee J Cobb as Juror #3. As well as 10 other guys, obviously.
The film is a fascinating study of Crowd Behavior, and how people will abdicate responsibility to anyone with a stronger personality than their own. It was also ground-breaking, in that it was filmed almost entirely in one setting – the jury room, filled with 12 people who don’t know anything about each other. Not even their names.
After a cursory discussion, 11 jurors vote guilty. Only 1 man stands out against them. Yes, you’ve guessed it, Henry Fonda is not satisfied. He insists that they discuss the evidence, questions the reliability of the witnesses, and the rarity of the supposedly rare murder weapon, found in the defendant’s pocket. Henry Fonda, in fact, does the job that the defending barrister should have done, but presumably didn’t.
Fonda is not a man to be swayed by peer pressure, the cramped confines of the room, the heat, or the raging thunderstorm outside. He is prepared to sit there, calmly, and discuss the case all night, if need be.
12 Angry Men is tense, and genuinely suspenseful. It shows us how much we are swayed by the opinions of others and how far our own prejudices inform our thinking.
Most of all, it shows how one person, standing up for what is right, can make a difference. And who doesn’t want to watch that?