The popcorn's been popped, the sweatpants are on, and the evening is your oyster. Your next challenge: Figuring out exactly which of the great movies available to you is the one you're going to commit to tonight. No matter what you're looking for—romance, drama, comedy—there are plenty of classics to watch in your spare time. After all, if the past year-and-a-half cooped up in our homes has taught us anything, it's that there's nothing better than a movie to take us to a place that's far, far away from our current one. These are modern classics, the best of the best, the essential movies that millions of people are probably jealous that you're getting to see for the first time. There are a few that might be outside your comfort zone, and a couple that'll introduce you to cultures and environments you know nothing about. This list may be long, but FOMO is eternal. Here are the essential films absolutely everyone should see (and if you've seen them, ones to watch again and again).
The Notebook (2004)
Ryan Gosling. Rachel McAdams. An on-screen kiss that's impossible to forget. The Notebook, based on Nicholas Sparks's 1996 novel, is a must-watch for all of the hopeless romantics out there who believe they'll eventually find their way back to their one true love. "It wasn't over. It still isn't over!"
The Hate U Give (2018)
Amandla Stenberg gives a masterful performance in The Hate U Give—an equally heartbreaking and eye-opening film about main character Starr (Stenberg) who's stuck navigating between two worlds: the prep school she attends that reeks of white privilege and the mostly Black neighborhood where she lives that's harmed by police brutality. It's based on Angie Thomas's 2017 novel.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
The longest-running Hindi film of all time (going on 25 years now!) is an absolute delight. The Bollywood rom-com about two young star-crossed lovers who fall in love despite their parents' critiques ended up winning 10 Filmfare Awards—India’s Academy Award equivalent —and changed the game forever.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Every kid in high school dreamed of having a day off like Ferris Bueller's and, frankly, I still aspire to have one like his as an adult. Come for each character's hilarious antics, stay for the inevitable comparisons between Alan Ruck's character, Cameron Frye, and his current character on Succession, Connor Roy.
An unemployed family of four slips into the lives of the crazy wealthy Park family. Then, there's an incident that can’t entirely be cleaned up in a cleaning shift. Long after the credits roll, you’ll be questioning the ending and mulling over the tough, important themes.
Need we say more? If you haven't watched Titanic yet (please don't admit this out loud), do yourself a favor and stream it on Hulu immediately.
Set in the early years of World War II in Casablanca, Rick Blaine's (Humphrey Bogart) nightclub is an oasis for refugees despite the warnings he gets from local authorities. But things get rocky when an ex-lover and her boyfriend show up, bringing with them a challenge that Rick has to face. One of the most famous old Hollywood films of all time, Casablanca is a love story you won't forget.
A Star Is Born (2018)
If you were alive in 2018, you most definitely heard about Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga's on- and off-screen chemistry thanks to their roles in the hit adaptation of A Star Is Born. The movie centers on rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) and struggling artist Ally (Gaga) who fall in love while Maine pushes Ally into the spotlight and confronts his own demons. Make sure to have a pack of tissues handy.
The Farewell (2019)
In her Golden Globe-winning role, Awkwafina plays Billi, a woman on a trip to China for a "family wedding" that's actually a final goodbye to her grandmother. While there, Billi struggles to find a deeper connection to the country and tries to understand her family's decision to keep her grandmother's sickness a secret from her.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Quick history lesson: Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film directed by a Black woman distributed in theaters in the U.S. It tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in pre-Civil War times living on Saint Helena Island who are stuck on deciding whether to stay or migrate north for a better life. The film's scenery is stunning, but the real beauty of the film is its complex char
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Two words for you: James! Dean! The old Hollywood icon's second to last film, as teenager Jim Stark, before his untimely death in 1955 ended up being one of his most celebrated. The unlikely bond shared on-screen between him, John "Plato" Crawford (Sal Mineo), and Judy (Natalie Wood) gave American youths at the time a movie where they could finally see themselves on the screen.
Carmen Jones (1954)
This underrated musical set at an all-Black army camp follows Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge), who, despite being sought after by every man at the base, has her sights set on the super married Joe (Harry Belafonte). Dandridge's performance as Carmen Jones got her nominated for an Oscar, making history as the first African American actress in a leading role to be nominated.
Promising Young Woman (2020)
This very dark comedy juxtaposes one woman's insatiable quest to avenge her best friend's tragic assault in front of a backdrop of all things frilly, pink, and sweet. That stark contrast only makes the movie's incredibly intense climax that much more shocking. Promising Young Woman was nominated for five Oscars in 2021, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, and a history-making Best Director nod for Emerald Fennell.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Robert Redford! Paul Newman! Really strong facial hair game! What could go wrong? Well, actually, a train robbery does go wrong, leaving outlaws Butch Cassidy (Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Redford) on the run from a seriously dangerous posse as they try to leave rural Wyoming for Bolivia. It's a Western film you can't miss.
It’s the classic underdog story that made Sylvester Stallone a household name. The movie follows boxer Rocky Balboa on the road to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed in a match deemed “a somebody vs. nobody.” The film, written by Stallone, would go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars in 1977.
When Steven Spielberg made this movie, I’m unsure if he knew it would become the face of anti-shark propaganda, and make a whole generation scared to get in the water. Regardless, this movie about a sheriff, marine biologist, and fisherman hunting down a shark that’s terrorizing their beach town is a must-see.
Schindler's List (1994)
A movie about the Holocaust is almost guaranteed to be poignant, but under Stephen Spielberg's expert direction, this one surprises with its restraint. That's deliberate—the sadness and symbolism build throughout the film so that you have a full sense of what happened, who did it, and why it matters so, so much. The movie's in black and white, with the smallest pop of color to offer a moment of hope and then (devastatingly) all possible heartbreak in one unforgettable image.
The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson is on this list a few times, but this is probably his most well-known role. The Torrance family—husband Jack, wife Wendy, and son Danny—are staying in the Overlook Hotel during the winter. Then, the hotel begins to come alive with a terrible, terrifying evil. Stephen King famously hated this adaptation, because Stanley Kubrick takes out all the empathy from the patriarch (Nicholson, playing crazy like he was born to do it). But it makes the story even more powerful. Viewed through today's lens, it's also a haunting look at the effects of domestic violence.
Based very, very loosely on the book of the same name, Natalie Portman is a scientist who goes in search of her husband. She enters Area X, a mutated, trippy landscape that's been expanding ever since it was hit by a meteorite. And shit just keeps getting weirder and scarier. This is directed by Alex Garland, the same guy who did Ex Machina (another fascinating, freaky watch). Honestly, he's becoming the next big sci-fi director, and this proves it.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
You'll never think of coconuts the same way after watching this silly British slapstick comedy set in the time of King Arthur and the fabled Round Table. God sends a group of knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail, where they encounter several nonsensical obstacles along the way.
Life is Beautiful (1997)
While this Italian film is about the horrors of the Holocaust, it has plenty of comic moments as well—and it works. Roberto Benigni gives a breathtaking performance as a family man who, as a Jew, is sent with his family to a concentration camp in northern Italy, but uses his imaginative powers to convince his young son that it's all a game.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Set at a New England private school in 1959, this movie follows an English teacher, played by Robin Williams, and his relationship with his students as he teaches them to live a little more through poetry. The movie gave Williams his second Oscar nominee, and Ethan Hawke said that working on this movie inspired him to continue to be an actor.
Jurassic Park (1993)
It's a little hard to believe that the Schindler's List director also came up with this dino adventure movie, but what's even more impressive is that the two films came out mere months apart. This could not be more different, but if you're looking for a film about these prehistoric creatures, stick to the classic. There's so much loving attention paid to the dinosaurs' look—there isn't a ton of CGI, with a greater reliance on practical effects—but more importantly, the human characters are just as interesting. Samuel L. Jackson, in the best cameo of all time.
'Call Me By Your Name' (2017)
Watch Timothée Chalamet's breakout role starring alongside Armie Hammer in this heart-wrenching romance film. It's set in Lombardy, Italy, in 1983 and follows Hammer and Chalamet's life-affirming summer of love. Fair warning: Bring lots of tissues.
The Dark Knight (2008)
This second movie in the Batman trilogy is arguably the best of the bunch. Heath Ledger sets the standard what it takes to play the Joker, as he won an Oscar for his performance. Some say it's the best superhero film ever made and we have to agree.
A semi-autobiographical take on director Lee Isaac Chung's own upbringing, Minari tells the story of a family of South Korean immigrants who move to rural Arkansas in pursuit of the "American dream" in the 1980s. It's a must-see depiction of the immigrant experience in America, and was (rightfully) nominated for six awards at the 2021 Oscars, including Best Picture.
Roman Holiday (1953)
Breakfast at Tiffany's is terrific, of course, butAudrey Hepburn won the Academy Award for her turn as a princess who ditches her schedule (and her entourage) in favor of exploring Rome, only to fall asleep on a bench and get rescued by a hunky American reporter played by Gregory Peck. A classic romance film.
Before Sunrise (1995)
In this swooningly romantic movie from Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke play a pair of travelers—she French, he American—who have a chance meeting in Vienna and decide to spend the evening before his departing flight walking around the city and talking to one another. In 2005, the sequel Before Sunset continues the story, and then in 2015 the trilogy is wrapped up with Before Midnight. All of them are worth watching over and over.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Carey Grant and Rosalind Russell play a formerly married couple—he an editor, she an investigative reporter—who have to team up for one last assignment. Of course, the fact that he hired her only after finding out she was engaged to someone new might have something to do with it, but Russell is hilarious and their chemistry is bananas in this romance.
Sissy Spacek is the one true Carrie—a bullied young woman who develops telekinetic abilities just in time for a prank prom invite to turn into a full-fledged bloodbath. I know we shouldn't condone violence, but it's hard not to root for poor Carrie after her classmates dump pigs' blood on her in her prom dress, right?
Considered one of the best British films of all time, Trainspotting follows a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland who try and fail to integrate themselves into "normal" society. It's dark, sure, but it's also an ode to youth and economic insecurity that you won't be able to stop thinking about.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Scout Finch tells the story of how her father, Atticus, a small town lawyer in the rural South, defended a wrongfully accused black man in this adaptation of Harper Lee's beloved novel. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch is how most people who've seen this movie think of the character, and you will too when you see it.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Heard of the bend and snap? If you can believe this movie came into our lives 17 years ago, it's time to give it a watch if you haven't already—simply to witness the evolution of Reese Witherspoon and her incredible acting. What, like it's hard?
One of the first slasher films (that launched many copycats to come) is Alfred Hitchcock's creepy story of Norman Bates and his hotel on the hill.
Lady Bird (2017)
You've Got Mail (1998)
The Marie Claire team is *very* passionate about this movie, and for good reason. Starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the 1998 drama/romance tells the story of two neighborhood bookstore rivals who absolutely hate each other in real life, then fall in love online, and well...we won't spoil the rest for you. (The good ol' AOL days.)
The Sound of Music (1965)
Julie Andrews plays an Austrian nun during World War II in the Academy Award-winning film. When she comes to the villa of retired naval officer Captain Georg von Trapp to be governess to his seven children, she begins to realize how much the family means to her. The latter part of the movie has an unexpected twist and displays the unfathomable truth of what it was like living through Nazi Germany.
Get Out (2017)
It's not often that a movie so perfectly taps into the spirit of the times, but in a year where Trump's presidency has sparked tense discussions about police brutality, race, and false liberalism, this was the breakout movie that did the job—in the horror genre, no less. Director Jordan Peele turns the typical horror script on its head with this blend of cultural criticism and horror tropes.
Yes, you've heard all the buzz about this movie. But if you haven't seen it yet, make room in your schedule. Moonlight is a beautifully filmed coming-of-age story of a gay black boy growing up in a housing project in Miami. The many-layered film sheds light on aspects of black identity that are rarely spotlighted on film and was a truly watershed moment at the Oscars.
Save this for a day when you're not feeling a case of the sads, because it may make you a little blue. Spike Jonze's Her imagines a not-so-distant future where high waisted pants are still a happening trend and where one lonely man falls in love with his Siri-esque operating system.
The Godfather (1972)
Yes, there are three parts to this trilogy that might require a night of bingeing. But there's really nothing like Francis Ford Coppola's depiction of the mob family of Don Vito Corleone. It's a chilling to the bone, action-packed story that's not one to miss.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
J.Laaaaaw. What looks from the outset like a typical rom-com delves deeper into the motions of mental illness, as a bipolar man tries to reconnect with his estranged wife following his release from a psychiatric ward. He meets a recently widowed woman (Jennifer Lawrence) with her own problems, who convinces him to join a dance competition with her to help him win his wife back.
12 Angry Men (1957)
This classic film is ostensibly about 12 white men on a jury arguing over whether a young Puerto Rican man actually killed his father (the class and race dynamics feel unfortunately familiar, 60+ years later). But it's really about prejudice and stereotype and the assumptions we carry with us every day without realizing it. If you didn't get to watch this one in school, watch it now.
Mean Girls (2004)
No movie has ever spoofed high school culture as brilliantly as Mean Girls, whose hilarious script by Tina Fey has become iconic, bringing the phrases "so fetch," "I know, right?" and "cool mom" into our modern language. It lives on in countless memes and GIFs, even though the movie's more than 10 years old at this point.
Little Women (2019)
The classic book has been made into countless remakes. But this one offers up the most modern and nuanced take of four sisters growing up in a male-dominated world, looking for love and financial security. Greta Gerwig's latest also does something I thought was impossible: She makes Amy, who sometimes comes off as the villain of the book, smart, sensible, and relatable.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
One of the smartest love stories ever written (it won best screenplay at the Oscars that year) captures a couple who both undergo a treatment to erase each other from their memories following a breakup. The dream, right? Not so, as they revisit their life together in woozy flashbacks and realize that they're not ready to let go just yet.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee acts and directs in a film that marries comedy and drama perfectly. Roger Ebert's review is pretty spot-on, but to summarize: Lee builds a community in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, teeming with life and tension on the hottest day of the year. And then he rips it all apart. But it's so much more compelling than even that description. Lee handles all his characters with love, and there's no one who's truly evil, despite spot-on and heart-wrenching commentary about racism, classism, and poverty.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Best known for its "I wish I knew how to quit you!" line, Brokeback Mountain is actually an integral part of queer movie canon—a big-budget, A-list production about queer love. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal give phenomenal performances as cowboys who fall for each other.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
The elaborate costumes, the stunning visuals, and the beautiful art direction are all key features of this art house movie by Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai. And though there's sparse dialogue, sit back and prepare to be enchanted by the slow but captivating scenes of two married neighbors falling in love.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Volumes could be written about the sheer brilliance of this movie, but if you've never seen it, know that it's one of the best teen movies ever made, from the script to the acting (two words: Heath Ledger *swoons*) to the speech-making and wooing that make this feel like a modern Shakespearean comedy.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Still one of the most quotable of all the Coen Brothers' movies, this film is notable for its hilarious script, continually madcap sequence of events, and stoner dialogue from lead actor Jeff Bridges AKA "The Dude."
Rear Window (1954)
This early Hitchcock movie is one of the few films to score a coveted 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, and it's still considered one of the best of its time. Starring Princess Grace Kelly and James Stewart, the film revolves around a man confined to his wheelchair whose pastime involves spying on his neighbors. Things take a turn for the worst when he believes he's witnessed a murder.
The Truman Show (1998)
If you've ever wondered whether your life is just one big sitcom, The Truman Show illustrates what happens when one man, played by Jim Carrey, realizes that his entire life is scripted for television.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson's at his best in this film about a habitual criminal who's sentenced to time in a mental hospital. There, he threatens the natural order under the watch of cruel Nurse Ratched and attempts to flee with his fellow patients. The film swept up five Academy Awards in its day, from Best Picture to Best Actor and Best Actress.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Stellan Skarsgård plays a professor who discovers that his school janitor (Matt Damon) is actually a math whiz. And Robin Williams plays the therapist who draws out the troubled young man, breaking through his walls and helping him heal. Between the Elliott Smith soundtrack and the brooding performance from Matt Damon, it's the sad girl '90s movie that dreams are made of.
The Graduate (1967)
Between the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack and the easy-on-the-eyes love triangle—Dustin Hoffman as a wandering college graduate, his married neighbor Mrs. Robinson, and her daughter—this film is hard to not immediately fall in love with.
Cher Horowitz stole everyone's heart in the '90s as the well-intentioned Valley Girl with an enviable revolving closet who set out to prove she wasn't "just a ditz with a credit card." Inspired by Jane Austen's Emma, the film sees her trying to play matchmaker at school, until she gets caught up in her own love triangle.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder in the '90s were at the prime of their quirky weirdness in this Edward Burton flick that captures Depp as a human weapon with literal scissors for hands (but with lots of feelings, mind you). It's also the film that brought together the "Winona Forever" power couple of the '90s.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino is at his most quotable in this dark crime comedy starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson who play hitmen trying to reclaim a stolen suitcase for their mob boss. The chemistry of the outstanding cast members (including Tarantino favorite Uma Thurman) and the bizarre script routinely land this at the top of critics' lists for the best film of the century.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
When people discuss prison movies, probably the first one that comes to mind is The Shawshank Redemption. Expect excellent acting plus a suspenseful ending (that inspired Mexican drug lord El Chapo's rendezvous with the police last year) that you'll be talking about for years to come.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
If you haven't seen When Harry Met Sally, you probably know it from this famous "I'll have what she's having" scene. But it's worth seeing in full to relive Nora Ephron's groundbreaking screenwriting plus the easy banter between America's sweetheart Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal (it kind of set the stage for modern rom-coms as we know them).
Winona Ryder's always in her element in off-beat dark comedies, and this one sets her in the middle of a high school where her character Veronica gets invited to a join a popular clique of "Heathers" (literally three girls whose names are Heather) until they betray her. Veronica and her partner-in-crime J.D. Dean (Christian Slater) set out to right all the wrongs made against her, in cruel and unusual ways.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
John Hughes's catalogue of '80s films (with Molly Ringwald often playing the starring role) are all classics, though this story about unexpected friendship that blossoms in the middle of detention hall takes the cake for its iconic scenes, from coordinated dances to beauty makeovers.
Forrest Gump (1994)
You've probably seen it a dozen times, but it's worth it every time. Tom Hanks gives the performance of his life (don't fight me on this) as Forrest Gump, an intellectually challenged man from Alabama who lives an extraordinary life.
Back to the Future (1985)
This sci-fi film sees Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, a time traveler who drives his flying Delorean back into the '50s after an experiment gone wrong. Fun fact: the sequel is set in the far-away future, a.k.a. 2015.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Inspired by Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now updates the film setting to the Vietnam War Era. In Vietnam, an American group aboard a Navy patrol boat travel up the Viet Cong-held river, where they're horrified by the destruction and corruption they see.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
See for yourself where all the live versions of the cult favorite Rocky Horror Picture Show began with this over-the-top, perfectly cast musical (see: young Susan Sarandon).
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This movie is trippy and a bit hard to follow, but it's absolutely required viewing. Stanley Kubrick takes us from the dawn of the human species to the dawn of a totally new species in just a few hours, and his view of space and space travel set the standard for a thousand sci-fi films to come. More importantly, it's compelling and totally, totally terrifying. It's aged really well, despite being made over 50 years ago.
Some Like it Hot (1959)
If you don't know why Miss Marilyn Monroe was and is such a big deal, take a look at this one. The film shows off her vocal chops as the lead singer of an all-girl band who dreams of wooing a millionaire. As her band travels to sunny Florida, she makes friends with two new musicians in the group, who she doesn't realize are men in disguise and on the run.
The Wedding Party (2016)
One of the highest grossing Nigerian movies of all time, anyone interested in Nollywood should check out The Wedding Party. The film shows every aspect of the wedding day between Dozie (Banky Wellington) and Dunni (Adeusa Etomi), down to the families' concerns and the planner's antics. Plus there's plenty of glamorous inspo for your own big day.
Train to Busan (2016)
In this legendary Korean thriller, a group of travelers on a bullet train have to fight off a car full of zombies as a mysterious infection ravages the country. The pulse-pounding film has a stellar cast and a secret heart, with the characters making touch choices to help their families survive.
Coming to America (1988)
A hilarious comedy with a super-sweet love story, Coming to America is an essential watch for anyone who loves to smile. This film also cemented Eddie Murphy's place as comedy royalty, with him and Arsenio Hall cracking us up through multiple different characters.
White Christmas (1954)
The classic carol of the same name is just one of the great songs in this Irving Berlin musical. While it does hit harder during the holidays, the story of two song-and-dance duos banding together to save a Vermont Inn tugs the heartstrings year-round.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
A Chicago family, the Youngers, are about to receive a windfall that will change their lives, but they have different ideas on how to use the money. An adaptation of the Lorraine Hansberry play made with the original cast, this film questions who is allowed the American Dream.
A Separation (2011)
In this Oscar-winning Iranian film, a marriage is sent into turmoil when the couple has to choose between leaving the country and staying to care for an ailing relative.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
This inspiring drama stars Julia Roberts as a single mom who uncovers an environmental crime and goes after the huge corporation involved.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B Jordan, this heart-wrenching film follows the last day of Oscar Grant, a man who was killed by police at a BART station on New Year's Eve 2009.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
If you love superhero movies, this Spider-Man standalone may become your favorite of them all. The Oscar-winning animated film follows Miles Morales' origin story with a multiverse twist that has multiple Spider-Mans popping up in his world.
Love Jones (1997)
A photographer (Nia Long) and a poet (Larenz Tate) fall in love in one of the best romance movies of all time.
West Side Story (1961)
If you can't wait for the Steven Spielberg remake, be sure to also check out the original film adaptation of this Romeo-and-Juliet inspired musical, staring Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood.
Knives Out (2019)
This comedic mystery pays homage to old-school detective flicks while also showing a brand-new caper that surprises at every turn. Also, Daniel Craig is at his best when he gets to bust out a hilarious accent.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
This heartfelt adaptation of the Stephen Chbosky novel is a must-watch for anyone who wants to remember their favorite high school friends.
The Parent Trap (1998)
The movie that had little girls everywhere dreaming of finding a long-lost twin, The Parent Trap is an even better watch as an adult (Meredith is how old!?!).
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
Siblings Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy walk through a magical wardrobe to a secret world in the midst of a winter war. You don't have to be a fan of the books to love this faithful adaptation.
Bianca Rodriguez is the Commerce Editor/Writer at Hearst Magazines Digital Media, where she covers fashion, beauty, home, and more. She likes long walks through shopping malls, a good book, and thinks a closet without platform sneakers is a travesty.
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