With so many classic movies out there—from film noir to the golden age to (my personal favourite) cult classics—it is hard to find a well rounded list of classic films that are actually worth watching. Considering I have never taken a film class but love film, I had a lot of research to do. After hours upon hours of research, and staring at my laptop screen until my eyes felt like they were going to burst from my head, I compiled a list of films I deem worthy of their classic title and, no, it doesn’t include Casablanca.
I think it’s important to note that these films are inherently problematic; they feature almost exclusively white, heterosexual characters. However, these movies were made in a very different time and, while I highly encourage critical viewing practices, please don’t write any of these movies off based on contemporary standards.
So, that being said, here are my top nine classic films—in no particular order—that you HAVE to watch because they’re too good not to:
1. Heathers (1988)
Ah, Heathers: the original, better version of Mean Girls. This highly satirical and absurd high school movie will make you want to aggressively scribble in your diary while wearing a monocle and find your very own—less psychotic—version of Christian Slater. The fact that Winona Ryder is in this movie should already shoot it to the top of your “to watch” list because this movie’s got it all: teen angst, toxic relationships, murder, WINONA RYDER, and commentary on the ineffective (and ridiculous) responses to teenage suicide.
2. Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)
This list couldn’t be complete without a little dose of Tarantino and Uma Thurman, and while it was hard to chose just one film I thought people should watch—if you have time, watch them all—Kill Bill is the ultimate feminist revenge plot. If you’re open to wicked, lengthy fight scenes with multiple strong, diverse female characters kicking butt, this is the movie for you.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001 is a classic for a reason, and as an MIT student the whole concept behind HAL is very in line with what I’m learning at school. However, the movie will hit a certain point where any attempt at critical analysis will momentarily go out the window, because your mind will be so blown that you’ll stare at the screen with your jaw hanging open (multiple movies on this list will result in similar reactions). You’ll want to experience the full film, so I urge you to get through the first twenty minutes; there is no dialogue and it is just a bunch of apes. This may sound pointless and boring, but this scene is essential in understanding the rest of the movie, and seeing apes jump around and discover tools (and other things) is honestly pretty cool.
4. Psycho (1960)
Let me start by saying this: if you’ve seen the Bates Motel TV series, the movie is completely disgraced by that show. To be fair, it is a big project to take on a Hitchcock film and try to rework it, but some things should simply be left alone so as not to taint it.
In the original, you’ve got mystery, detectives, a hide-behind-the-couch soundtrack, and you’ve got murder (the scene in question is retroactively one of the funniest scenes I have yet to come across)… what more could you want except Anthony Perkins? Oh wait, it has him, too. And he rocks Norman Bates like no other actor possibly could.
5. Thelma and Louise (1991)
This film turns the road story on its head by featuring two female outlaws who take no sh*t. You’ll be crying for Louise, cheering for Thelma, drooling over young Brad Pitt, and condoning crime in a way you never expected. Overall, this movie handles difficult content (gender based violence) in a kick-ass way and will have you on the edge of your seat from fear and excitement the entire time.
6. Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)
This movie is simply too great to be excluded. The Monty Python movies seem to be far more popular among the British, but this satirical, slapstick comedy will get you every time (I say this as someone who quite avidly hates slapstick). From the Killer Bunny and the Holy Hand Grenade to the Black Knight to The Bridge of Death, these jokes stay relevant and hilarious no matter how much time passes.
7. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
I honestly don’t know how to adequately convey the magic that is Rocky Horror except to say that you should watch this movie and, if possible, go to a screening (they are interactive, and you can literally throw toast around and shout at the screen). It has catchy musical numbers, aliens, highly controversial and hilarious content, and Tim Curry. I really shouldn’t have to say any more than that.
8. The Wall (1982)
With one look at the cover art, it’s pretty obvious this is not your average movie. I can guarantee, this will be one of the most sensory, “trippy” films you will watch. Whether you watch it sober or impaired, this psychedelic, horror musical film will have you confused yet impressed, and your jaw will most likely be hanging open for at least 50% of the film. From the animated sequences to the powerful music to the political implications, you will never forget this audio/visual experience (it’s way more than just a movie).
9. Harry Potter (2001-2011)
Ok, so this one might not be your average “classic,” and is a lengthy series rather than a stand-alone, but this series is really hallmark of this generation. You can read this magical world from many perspectives: it’s a fun story for kids (at least the beginning), a coming of age story, a story about the power of friendship, and a tale of war (and genocide). It teaches us about the capabilities of women, acceptance of those unlike ourselves, the power of mental illness and the strength it takes to fight it (Dementors), and what it means to be a good person. Many of those currently in post-secondary education grew up with this series—both books and movies—and were guided through the darkest of times by Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, and the many other characters who taught us all the lessons we couldn’t possibly work out on our own. For these reasons, Harry Potter is a classic, and everyone (I mean EVERYONE) should watch the films and, of course, read the novels.