50 Movies You Should See Before You Die (in No Particular Order)

From ‘Cop Land’—who knew Stallone could act?—to the original ‘Postman Always Rings Twice,’ Steve Jaeger on why these are movies worth watching.

My daughter is in Film Club at school, she joined because one of her friends belongs.  I get a kick out of her coming home after she’s “discovered” another film that I couldn’t have gotten her to watch if I’d tied her up in front of the screen. It occurred to me though that there are a lot of people out there who have missed decades of great films so I’m putting together my list of films I think any serious movie buff should catch.

  1. Au Revoir les Enfants—Louis Malle’s autobiographical film about his childhood under Nazi occupation. The final scene of the movie from which its title is derived is as heart wrenching as anything I have ever seen on film.
  2. The Wages of Fear—A group of ex-pat Frenchmen living in South America take a job transporting Nitro Glycerin though the jungles. The tension felt by the drivers as they inch their way along rutted jungle roads jumps off the screen and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
  3. Performance—James Fox plays an English criminal hiding out with reclusive rock star Mick Jagger. The film was originally slated for release in 1968 but was held up for two years by the controversial subject matter. Allegedly James Fox took a five year hiatus from acting after the film was made because he was so emotionally drained.
  4. Gimme Shelter—speaking of Mick Jagger, the Maysales brothers document the Rolling Stones 1969 American tour that ends up at a free concert in San Francisco where the Hell’s Angels wreak havoc. Aside from the violence it is in my opinion the greatest concert film ever made capturing the Stones at the absolute pinnacle of their career.
  5. Grey Gardens—another Maysales doc that follows mother Edith and daughter Edie Beale in their ramshackle East Hampton mansion. They were cousins to Jackie O and at one time among the elite of New York Society. Their fall to near bag lady status is shocking and compelling.
  6. Bringing Up Baby—Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in the quintessential screwball comedy. Director Howard Hawkes brings out the absolute best of both his stars where we get to see Grant’s incredible comic talents and Hepburn at her loveliest. I love the scene where the two of them sing I can’t Give You Anything But Love in perfect harmony.
  7. The Ox Bow Incident—Vigilantes take justice into their own hands after accusing a group of cowboys of cattle rustling. Gritty, tense and pulling no punches Henry Fonda plays the cowboy who tries to stop the lynching and Dana Andrews as one of the condemned deliver so of the strongest work of their careers.
  8. Head On—German film about a Turkish man and woman living in Germany who marry so the woman can live her wild life without repercussions from her strict father and brothers. Stunning and believable performances by the two lead actors it shows the clash of cultures and the complete inequity of women in Muslim society.
  9. The Best Years of Our Lives—Three vets deal with re-entering civilian life at the end of WW II. William Wilder directed this poignant story of the difficulties vets and their families faced as American society moved from war to peace
  10.  Hamlet II—Failed actor/high school teacher living in New Mexico puts together sequel of Shakespeare’s tragedy—omedy ensues. Steve Coogan plays the clueless teacher whose career, marriage and hold on reality all disappear at the same time. Amy Pohler as the ACLU lawyer is a scream.
  11. Paths of Glory—Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas collaborate on the story of insanity inside the insanity of WWI. The first collaboration of Kubrick and Douglas with a stand out performance by Adolph Menjou in the twilight of his career. The film centers on three enlisted men who are tried and convicted of cowardice to cover up mistakes made by generals.
  12. Spartacus—Kubrick’s epic about a gladiator slave turned liberator. Kirk Douglas was already a star when he made Spartacus, the film made him a super star. Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis (still with the Bronx accent) and Jean Simmonds deliver wonderful performances.
  13. O Lucky Man—Malcolm McDowell as an idealistic coffee salesman who keeps getting up as life knocks him down. Amazing soundtrack by Alan Price of the Animals that has never gone out of print. It was McDowell’s first film after Clockwork Orange and he was still full of the fire.
  14. Black Orpheus—Anglican Nuns isolated in a Himalayan Monastery as the natives get restless. Directed by the dynamic duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger with phenomenal cinematography and the beautiful performance of Deborah Kerr.
  15. Salvador—James Wood gives the performance of a lifetime as a down and out American journalist covering the civil war in El Salvador. An early Oliver Stone film, Jim Belushi co-stars in one of his best performances. A little heavy handed in the treatment of the Salvadoran right wingers but watching Wood makes any imperfections seem small.
  16. Raging Bull—Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, briefly the middleweight champ in the 1940s. His bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson are legendary. Martin Scorsese directs DeNiro and Joe Pesci as brothers and partners in what many consider the greatest film of the 1980s.
  17. Double Indemnity—the noir-est of the Film Noir classics of the 1940s. Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are running a scam to bilk the insurance company McMurray works for by murdering her husband. Sex and betrayal were never portrayed better on film.
  18. Thieves’ Highway—another noir classic about truckers in California and driver Richard Conte’s plan to extract revenge on a market operator who crippled his father. Everything goes wrong and there is no happy ending. Lee J. Cobb plays the ruthless market operator.
  19. The Postman Always Rings Twice—go for the original with Lana Turner and John Garfield. Even the 1940s censors couldn’t throw a blanket on the glaring sexuality of the two stars. I saw the re-make before I saw the original and thought Jessica Lange was the hottest thing on earth until I saw Lana turn it on.
  20. La Bete Humaine—Renoir directs, Jean Gabin stars about lust, betrayal and murder on the Paris-Brest rail line. For those not familiar with Gabin, he carried on a long, torrid romance with Marlene Deitrich and watching him, you can see why she found him so attractive.
  21. Amarcord—Fellini’s autobiographical film about his youth in Fascist Italy. Like most Fellini films it is a beautifully filmed story and at times quite absurd but it’s plain to see why it was one of his favorite films.
  22. Cop Land—Sylvester Stallone can act! Who knew? Throw in DeNiro, Ray Liotta and Harvey Keitel and you have one hell of a movie. New York cops and corruption: who could have imagined that?
  23. The Purple Rose of Cairo—Woody Allen’s story of an actor who steps out of the movie into Depression era New Jersey. Jeff Daniels and Mia Farro are wonderful together.
  24. Blood Simple—The Coen Brothers first movie, an homage to the Film Noir of the 1940s. Frances McDormand in one of her earliest roles. In fact I’d put almost all of the Coen Brothers films on the list
  25. Igby Goes Down—An upper crust kid rebels against his dysfunctional family and disappears into Manhattan. Kiran McCulken shows you why no one remembers McCaulay, Susan Sarrandon is the horrible mother, Jeff Goldblum his Godfather and a wonderful performance by Jarred Harris (the stuffy English partner on Mad Men.)
  26. Rushmore—Great acting, great story, great soundtrack with Bill Murray as the bonus. Wes Anderson’s second film about an over reaching underachiever in the elite prep school Rushmore. Like all of Anderson’s films, the cinematography is gorgeous and the writing and acting is superb.
  27. The Artist—A silent movie star fights against the advent of talkies. Jean Dujardin makes his American debut and shows what charming really is. We’ve waited so long.
  28. OSS 117—French James Bond spoof by the same director and actor from The Artist. There are two in the series, one funnier than the next. Director Michael Hazanavicus uses the mores and styles of the early 1960s to great effect. Anyone who suffered through the Austin Powers movies (yeah, baby!) will be delighted to watch a real satire.
  29. Mesrine—Biographical French film about notorious French criminal of the 1960’s. Called the “French Scarface” by critics, Scarface should be so lucky.
  30. Dig—Documentary follows both the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre as they follow divergent paths in the music business. The film captures some of the legendary live performances by the BJM in their early days and we follow tortured genius Antwon Newcomb trying to keep up with the Dandys.
  31. 24 Hour Party People—Fictionalized account of the rise of the Manchester music scene in the early 80s including Joy Division and the Happy Mondays. Steve Coogan once again is the heart and soul of the film and if you were a fan of Joy Division, this is one for you.
  32. Band of Brothers—I know it’s not technically a movie, it’s a mini series but in my mind the best film ever made about WW II. I liked Saving Private Ryan and thought it was the gold standard for war movies but Band of Brothers has real depth and character development that a two hour movie could never pull off.
  33. Ronin—Mercenaries chase a mysterious case across France. The best car chance since The French Connection. Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno were born to act together. It’s fast paced and smart.
  34. The French Connection—fact based film about NYC cops and the biggest heroin bust in city history. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are the partners who break the case and William Friedkin, who also directed The Exorcist, keeps the pace fast and furious. The car chase is worth the price of the ticket.
  35. Last Picture Show—Coming of age in a dying Texas town circa 1950. Jeff Bridges made his acting debut in this beautifully shot black and white film. Cybil Shepherd and Ellen Burstyn play mother and daughter and the soundtrack is what introduced me to classic country music.
  36. Catch 22—War is insane but there’s a catch …
  37. Little Murders—Apathetic photographer finds love in crime ridden New York. Elliot Gould stars, Jules Pfeiffer wrote the script and the supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin and Donald Sutherland fit together like a wonderful puzzle.
  38. Gosford Park—Murder mystery in country home in 1930s England. One of Robert Altman’s final films and absolutely one of his best. If you like Downton Abbey, you’re in for a treat.
  39. A Face in the Crowd—Andy Griffith, a long way from Mayberry. A drifter and con man sings and uses folksy humor to get to the top of the entertainment world. Patricia Neale and Walter Matthau co-star.  Ol’ Andy is at times charming, funny and evil.
  40. Nobody’s Fool—Paul Newman as a down on his luck contractor in upstate New York. The film perfectly captures life in small town on the Hudson. If you’ve ever spent any time in any of those dying little towns you’ll feel right at home. Jessica Tandy’s final film.
  41. The Searchers—John Wayne’s dark turn as he and a companion spend years searching for a niece captured by the Comanche. Personally, I think it’s the Duke’s finest performance.
  42. Little Big Man—The first Western to show the white man as the bad guy vs. the Indian. Dustin Hoffman in the title role, he plays a white man who was adopted by the Cheyenne as a young boy. He moves back and forth between the two worlds and makes the acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickock and Geroge A. Custer among others. Another amazing soundtrack.
  43. Cosi—Young Australian director stages an opera in a mental hospital. I love Australian films and this one shines. Toni Collette and Rachael Griffith co-star.
  44. Downfall—The final days in Hitler’s bunker. Bruno Ganz is mesmerizing as Hitler. They are rats caught in a trap as the Russians close in on the city and watching Ganz melt down as the Nazi dictator while still surrounded by his entourage is terrifying.
  45. Battle of Algiers—If you want to know why Muslims hate us, this is a good place to start. The 1966 French film chronicles the Algerian war for independence of the 1950s and gives us an early look at young men and women who are prepared, even eager to die for their cause.
  46. Sexy Beast—Ben Kingsley as the anti-Gandhi. A British gangster tries to retire and live the good life in Spain. Ben Kingsley is amazing as the psychopathic gangster who shows up to bring Ray Winstone back into the fold.
  47. Life of Brian—Monty Python takes on fanaticism in ancient Judea. Their most cohesive film, it managed to piss off Christians and Jews alike who could not get past the biblical setting and see the real humor directed at religious fanaticism and political correctness.
  48. Four Lions—Young British Muslims plot a suicide bombing—what could be funnier than that? The thick British accents take some getting used to but the story about an inept terror cell is worth the trouble.
  49. Stalag 17—American POWs in Germany have a traitor in their midst. William Holden stars, Billy Wilder directs and it is possible to find humor in some of the darkest moments.
  50. Matewan—Miners attempt to unionize in 1920s West Virginia. John Sales does a wonderful job telling the story about the West Virginia coal wars following WW I as the UMW tries to organize the miners. The violence started by hired goons for the coal company soon escalates into a bloodbath.
Read more in Media Men on The Good Life.
About Steve Jaeger

Steve Jaeger grew up in suburban New York but has lived in the Washington, DC area since his teens. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and worked as a chef for more than thirty years. He is an avid baseball fan, history buff and never misses Curb Your Enthusiasm. He lives in Arlington, VA with three children and a cat.


  1. I would add The bicycle thieves and Tokyo Story.

  2. Damn glad to meet you.

  3. “Fight Club” is a serious omission from this list. Yearning, consumerism, aspirations, and sex appeal, which is just a partial list of what the movie, a rare example of a the better-than-the-book oeuvre, tackles.

  4. Jeanette Minor says:

    Excellent list. There are a couple of titles on here I haven’t seen.My list is a little different.If you like Battle of Algiers Have you seen Pontecorvo’s Queimada! ‘(aka Burn!)? One of my all time faves.Also I’d add a couple of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger films Every film buff has to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus.

  5. steve jaeger says:

    This is just the tip of the iceberg, I could go on and on. I’d include Funny Games, both the German and English versions and King of Hearts, A Thousand Clowns, etc, and so on.

  6. gabby watts says:

    Nice to see, ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’, up there. I saw that film at the theatre when I was 12 and it was so beautiful.

    I’d add, ‘Fight Club’, obviously, as that’s my favourite movie.

  7. Great List… Id add “Wild At Heart” For the quirky Wizard of Oz –Love Story Angle, and Wym Wenders “Wings of Desire” and “Far Away So Close” for sheer beauty…

  8. real nice list……I live in Kenya and will have to download them….as they will not be around here….torrents are my favorite way of getting classic movies…
    So thanks for the list i will start to download from next week if available…if not would some one tell me where else I might find them.


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