When people are willing to give it a chance, classic cinema can be just as rewarding as any modern movie or show. The problem is that, with more than 100 years of films to work with here, finding the best ones can be daunting.
To serve as a starting point, here are 10 classic movies that encapsulate the breath of cinema in the order I would watch them.
“Rear Window” (1954, streaming on Prime Video): Alfred Hitchcock was not just a master of suspense, but a master of visual storytelling. And “Rear Window” is his crowning achievement of that title. Set entirely in one New York apartment overlooking a dozen other apartments, we’re given the evidence of events rather than being told what happened. The film gives you hints and clues as to what happened, letting you become the investigator, without much dialogue to get in the way. Because cinema is ultimately about showing, not telling.
“Sunset Boulevard” (1950, streaming on Prime Video): Among other things, Billy Wilder’s film is about the allure of Hollywood and how it is all too often short-lived. It is a deep look at why it’s so intoxicating, but also an examination of what happens after a star falls out of the sky. Gloria Swanson’s performance walks the thin line between loneliness and insanity, while the dialogue crackles with some of the best lines in movie history.
“The Philadelphia Story” (1940, streaming on HBO Max): Meet the best example of an extinct genre: the screwball comedy. A genre that prided itself on wit and innuendos, there’s a certain charm to these fast-talking, silver-tongued comedies. George Cukor’s lavish story of love going up against class and elegance excels because it had the three greatest actors ever: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart.
“Rashomon” (1950, streaming on HBO Max): The world is full of wonderful cinema, and Japan offers some of the most personal and authentic stories you’ll ever see. Especially from Japan’s premier director, Akira Kurosawa. No list of great movies is complete without at least one Kurosawa entry. And “Rashomon” has one of the best storytelling devices ever invented: one murder told from three perspectives – and each with a different outcome.
“Double Indemnity” (1944, streaming on Prime Video): While the film noir isn’t dead like the screwball comedy, it is a forgotten genre that has many hidden gems lurking in its shadows. And no film noir is darker or as thrilling as Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” This is the gold standard that all thrillers aspire to become: sharp, witty, intense and a reversal where you find yourself rooting for the bad guys.
“Singin’ in the Rain” (1951, streaming on HBO Max): If there’s one musical that everyone can enjoy, it’s Stanley Donen’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” Even if you’re not a fan of musicals, the charm and heartwarming dance numbers are enough to turn anyone into a musical lover. Not to mention, it’s one of the funniest movies as it depicts the antics of filming one of the first talking pictures.
“Les Diaboliques” (1955, streaming on HBO Max): To introduce anyone to European cinema, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques” offers one of the most accessible yet foreign experiences out there. Taking “Rear Window” and “Double Indemnity” and ramping up the paranoia, the film follows a wife and her husband’s mistress and their attempts to kill him. No film will ever keep you on your toes as much as this French thriller.
“City Lights” (1931, streaming on HBO Max and Prime Video): No list of cinema appreciation would be complete without at least one truly great silent film. And no filmmaker ever perfected the art of silent cinema quite like Charlie Chaplin. “City Lights” is his greatest accomplishment. It is equal parts comedy and drama, able to bounce between both so effortlessly and without ever uttering a word.
“The Searchers” (1956, streaming on HBO Max): John Ford’s classics set the groundwork that all filmmakers aspired to emulate. Without Ford’s Westerns, we never would have gotten the works of Spielberg, Kurosawa or Scorsese. While he made a dozen excellent Westerns, “The Searchers” is Ford at his most emotional and complex. It’s a film about racism and how it corrupts the souls of good men.
“King Kong” (1933, streaming on HBO Max and YouTube): We end on a film that most people have probably seen, but now you take the knowledge and experiences of the previous nine films to gain a deeper appreciation of one of the first great achievements in sound filmmaking. Merian C. Cooper’s fantasy epic was made before any of these “talkies” and is just as fresh now as it was in 1933, with effects that are even more impressive by today’s standards.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.