While there are plenty of exciting blockbusters hitting the silver screen this year, we’re mostly cringing at the 2020 movie lineup.
So, we’ve reached into the archives to hand-select classic films made before 1980 that you should watch or rewatch this year. Why? Well, 1) they’re a reminder of what real cinematic gold looks and sounds like, and 2) their leads are the coolest of the cool, inspiring our modern threads and swagger.
How many can you mark off the list? When you’re done, start checking books off our list of classic books.
More Must-See Movies
This 1967 prison drama featuring King Cool, Paul Newman, sealed in our culture the reflective aviators aesthetic and timeless lines like, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Newman plays small-time criminal Luke Jackson who is sentenced to time on a Florida prison farm. Jackson is beaten down by the officers but earns respect for his perseverance and spirit. This film really does make you want to push harder and never give up, and it’s got a killer cover of “Plastic Jesus” courtesy Newman on the banjo.
The intelligent 1967 crime mystery starring the insanely talented Sidney Poitier remains one of the best films on race in America ever made. It took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and gilded one of the American Film Institute’s top quotes: “They call me Mister Tibbs!” The level of acting is superb, with Rod Steiger playing opposite Poitier, and the overall effect is unforgettable. It’s a murder drama set in the deep (deep) south, with Poitier playing the homicide detective who must solve the whodunit.
Akira Kurosawa. Memorize that name. Kurosawa is one of the most important directors in film history, having done 30 movies during this 50-plus-year career. The Japanese film director is best known for Seven Samurai, often ranked as the best foreign-language film to-date (Parasite may change that) and the film that got George Lucas “completely hooked” on Kurosawa movies. It’s the story of a rogue samurai who is hired to protect a village from bandits. What makes it so good? The visual styling. Each frame is masterfully set to be strong, unique, and powerful. Follow George Lucas’ suggestion and watch a few Kurosawa films to “appreciate the true genius.”
The Godfather is The Godfather of classic movies. Released in 1972 by director Francis Ford Coppola, this iconic film won three Oscars, is regarded as one of the best movies ever made, and even spawned what is called “The Godfather Effect,” a complete mental shift of how Italians are portrayed in Hollywood. The mob drama centers around the crime family of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his youngest son Michael (Al Pachino), touching on themes of vengeance, family, and the American Dream. Epic in scope and killer in script (it was based off a book), The Godfather series (I, II, and III) is worth calling out sick and revisiting. Come back to work with great negotiating lines like, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
With a much-deserved 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, this 1976 neo-noir thriller features a young Robert De Niro in arguably his best role ever: 26-year-old discharged Marine Travis Bickle. Travis is depressed, drives a taxi in New York City, and becomes infatuated with a political campaign volunteer, Betsy. Travis looks for ways to express his frustration and loneliness but continually comes up short. In today’s age of digital isolationism, it’s a great film to revisit. It also has one of those up-for-discussion endings we love so much and a surprising Jodi Foster role. Dudes who were into existentialism in college will especially dig this film.
One of only a few women to star on our list, Foxy Brown is a powerful and voluptuous Black woman who disguises herself as a high-class prostitute to get revenge on a murderous mobster. The Blaxploitation film released in 1974 stars a stunning and fierce Pam Grier and remains timely even through 2018. Not only was the movie paramount in getting more Black actors on screen, but it also represented a footing in the women’s power movement. Grier was a new type of heroine everyone needed to see, representing African-American beauty, sexuality, and womanhood. Make sure to listen to the commentary from director Jack Hill.
You might assume the classic Bruce Lee movie, Enter the Dragon, is a hardcore action flick but it’s actually a drama with martial arts, so, the best kind ever. In the film, Lee enters a kung fu competition in order to gain access to the drug dealer who killed his sister. OK, the plot isn’t very deep, but Lee is electrifying. As a leading man, Lee checks all the boxes of vulnerable, badass, determined, and charismatic. The fight sequences make watching it a third, 10th, and 100th time still engaging. It’s a national treasure; the movie was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Preferably sometime in October, press play on this classic horror fantasy made way back in 1922. Nosferatu was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic novel, Dracula; today, the term “Nosferatu” is synonymous with vampire or Dracula. The silent, black-and-white film tracks Thomas Hutter as he travels to a remote Transylvania castle owned by Count Orlok, who slowly reveals himself as a vampire. Rated a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, Nosferatu is a long-forgotten gem in the history of cinema, particularly the horror genre.
The epic, three-hour Italian saga La Dolce Vita is similar to reading Dante’s Inferno after drinking an entire bottle of limoncello. It’s insane, disorienting, but impactful. There’s sex, suicide, fame, wild parties that last through dawn, and the best Italian actor to grace this Earth: Marcello Mastroianni. The film follows Mastroianni, a journalist for gossip rags, as he lives “the sweet life” in Rome. It’s decadent and wild but rich with symbolism and messages about what this crazy thing called “life” is all about. Enjoy picking apart meaning and basking in the talent that is director Federico Fellini. Yes, there are subtitles.
Two words: Steve McQueen. This 1968 film will not only persuade you to try turtlenecks (a la McQueen’s cool style), it’ll also get you itching to drive a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT through the hills of San Francisco— as is done in one of the best chase scenes in all of film history (sit down, Fast and Furious franchise, real men are at work). Frank Bullitt is a police lieutenant in pursuit of a kingpin that killed the only living witness in a high-profile Congressional investigation. Bullitt then follows the trail of corruption. It’s hard to describe why, but this movie just hits all the right spots and reminds us what a great action movie looks like.
Do I need to say anything else here? Epic space adventure series, pop culture phenomenon — just grab a beer and rewatch the ’77 classic that started it all.
So you think you’re a movie buff but won’t watch horror? Grab your popcorn because Halloween is playing. John Carpenter’s 1978 horror movie is a crucial classic and we’ll tell you why. It shattered existing parameters (and what was deemed acceptable) in the horror genre and birthed the still-successful slasher category. Without Halloween, we’d never have Friday the 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street, The Amityville Horror, and “enter awesome ’80s horror movie here.” The film was originally an independent (filmed in 20 days) and turned low-budget horrors into a respected industry. Watch for details that have been recreated in every horror movie since.
I’ll admit, I haven’t seen this movie but it’s being rented tonight. This recommendation came directly from my dad, who knows his classics. So let’s watch it together. The movie is a biblical-style epic that follows a Jewish prince who is betrayed and sent into slavery by his Roman homie. The prince gains his freedom and seeks revenge. Possibly the best leading man in Hollywood history, Charlton Heston, plays the rugged and buff Ben-Hur.
At this point, you may have discovered we’re immovable Paul Newman fans. It’s hard to blame considering his work alongside Robert Redford in the western crime drama Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Based on the true story of Western train and bank robbers, this outlaw classic gives a likable face to the fabled Sundance Kid (Redford) and his frontier bestie Butch Cassidy (Newman). If Thelma and Louise is a film of sisterhood, this is our quintessential brotherhood flick, considering how the pair goes out guns blazing. The movie was the top-grossing film of 1969, captivating audiences with the charismatic due cast to play the historic anti-heroes.
James Cagney kills it (no pun intended) as Rocky Sullivan in the classic crime film, given a glimmering 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Buddies Rocky and Jerry Connolly grew up in the rough and tumble neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. While Rocky gets shipped off to reform school, Jerry becomes a priest and tried to stop gangsters from corrupting the youth of his neighborhood. The friends meet again and, to be honest, any 50-word explanation won’t do this film justice. Just watch it. It was the beginning of gangster-ism in film and is packed with brilliant characters, layers of social commentary, and much-needed Humphrey Bogart appearance in a world clogged with Matt Damons.
Based on the brilliant Tennessee Williams play of the same title, the 1951 film adaptation is executed with perfection by a wild and brutish Marlon Brando playing the vigorous Stanley Kowalski, obsessed with work, fighting, and sex. Kowalski’s disturbed sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, moves in with him and his wife and, as expected from Tennessee Williams, madness ensues. Hedonism and disillusion reign in this classic black-and-white film, worthy of a re-watch every year, if you ask us. If you don’t know where the line “STELLAAAA” comes from, get to watching.
No list of classic films is complete without a James Dean cameo, and none is so perfect as his role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. Having moved to a new town, teenager Stark tries to start fresh but his rebellious tendencies are tugged by violent bullies, love interests (Natalie Wood), and troubled friends. The film positioned the restless and misunderstood middle-class youth of America’s 1950s into a sympathetic view and committed Dean to stardom. Even as an adult, Stark’s struggle to cope is highly comparable. Watch with a red jacket, a glass of milk, and a handful of cake.
The dawn of James Bond. The year 1962 saw the start of what would become a legendary film franchise still alive and thriving to this day. Sean Connery took the role of British spy, James Bond, based on writer Ian Fleming’s series of crime novels. Suave, brash, and deadly, Bond captured our attention as a character every man wants to be. All the elements of story, acting, setting, and script came together in the case of Dr. No and the result is that many Bond connoisseurs still consider it the best 007 film ever made. Quick plot: Bond travels to Jamaica to thwart the efforts of a megalomaniac villain set on destroying the U.S. space program.
This 1967 Walt Disney production follows Charlie, who, as the title suggest, is a cougar adopted by a burly forester played by Ron Brown and raised in a lumber camp in the Pacific Northwest. Hijinks ensue. The movie has all the intense feels of any man-dog companion story but with a cougar (because real men love cats). If there’s one acceptable time for a grown man to cry, it’s while watching Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar.
OK, we had to add at least one musical to this list. Our pick: West Side Story. The 1961 “modern” take on Romeo and Juliet brings star-crossed lovers to the streets of New York, where switchblade-snapping gangs and prejudices threaten to stand in the way of true love. Epic dance numbers feature an intense physicality that brings a rough edge to the sometimes lofty and ethereal musical theater genre. The story, characters, and dilemmas have been stolen and recreated throughout film history. West Side Story is a classic film in every sense and one you need to see at least once.
Pick your poison. These Alfred Hitchcock classics redefined the psychological horror genre and continue to be copied, adapted, stolen from, and spoofed by modern-day movies. Vertigo follows a former San Francisco detective, Scottie, played by James Stewart, who suffers from acrophobia and vertigo. Scottie is hired as a private investigator to follow an acquaintance’s wife, who becomes the object of both his obsession and derailment. It’s been called the best film ever made, so … but there’s also Psycho, which is iconic for its shower murder scene, and Rear Window, another of our favorite film noirs of all time. To be safe, watch all three.
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