These classics never go out of style.
Given its assembly line of new and original series and films, it’s easy to forget that you can also watch some of the best classic movies of all time on Netflix. The current lineup available to stream includes notable titles from directors Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Altman. Whether you prefer heist films, World War II dramas, sci-fi, or adaptations of dystopian literature, there’s something here for everyone. Here are the best classic movies on Netflix.
The best classic movies on Netflix
1) Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
A terrifying, hallucinatory journey into the mind of a madman and the house of horrors he crafted to exert his will on unsuspecting prey. Well, that’s at least the experience I had watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory growing up, but apparently, I’m in the minority. This beloved children’s movie captures one of Gene Wilder’s most iconic performances. Remember kids: The schnozberries taste like schnozberries. —Chris Ostendorf
2) On Golden Pond (1981)
Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn both took home Oscars for their work in this 1981 drama about a curmudgeon and his wife who end up forming a surprising bond with the son of their daughter’s (played by Jane Fonda) boyfriend. On Golden Pond is an earnest movie, with somewhat simple ambitions. But if you remember old Hollywood fondly, it’s impossible not to fall for Fonda and Hepburn’s performances. Watching these two titans, now in their twilight years, come together onscreen for one last bow is a natural conduit for the waterworks. —Chris Ostendorf
3) Jaws (1975)
4) Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Sunset Boulevard is both a swan song to the age of silent films and a love story. Silent film star Norma (Gloria Swanson) is wasting away in the era of talkies. She spends her days screening her old movies and being waited on by her former husband Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stronheim), who was once the greatest silent film director of his time and is now just Norma’s butler. When Joe, a failed screenwriter (William Holden) half her age stumbles into Norma’s life, she begins to fall in love and offers him a job. The sordid sequence of events that follow turn Sunset Boulevard into a fascinating and bleak tale of lost stardom and the perils of unconditional love. —A.K.
5) Caddyshack (1980)
As Netflix’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture depicted, Caddyshack mastermind Doug Kenney was convinced the movie was terrible upon its release in 1980. He was coming off the success of Animal House, then the biggest comedy of all time, and Caddyshack also had the misfortune of opening the same year as a little movie called Airplane. Decades later though, Caddyshack is debatably more popular than both films, and that animatronic gopher Kenney hated so much has become iconic. —C.O.
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6) Dead Poets Society (1989)
Although occasionally lampooned for dumbing down literature, it’s hard to deny that Dead Poets Society is a pretty emotional movie. Peter Weir’s film about a teacher (Robin Williams) who uses poetry to connect with his students is incredibly earnest, wearing its heart on its sleeve and daring you not to cry. While the movie’s pseudo-intellectualism doesn’t play as well as “serious drama” today, Williams’ performance is lovely, and the young actors, including Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles, all do solid work. You have to be a real scrooge not to feel something during the “O Captain! My Captain!” scene. —C.O.
7) The Longest Day (1962)
Telling the story through Allied and German points of view, The Longest Day is a groundbreaking epic of old Hollywood. Its $10 million budget was nearly unheard of in 1962, and until Schindler’s List came out, it remained the most expensive film ever made in black-and-white. The gamble made by power producer Darryl F. Zanuck (The Grapes of Wrath, All About Eve) eventually paid off, as the film went on to gross $50 million and win two Oscars. Not everyone was such a big fan though; Dwight D. Eisenhower apparently walked out of a screening, upset over historical inaccuracies. In addition to John Wayne, look out for the insanely impressive supporting cast, including Paul Anka, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, George Segal, Rod Steiger, Peter Lawford, Robert Wagner and Robert Mitchum. —C.O.
8) The Godfather Saga (1972-1990)
It’s difficult to even talk about The Godfather without considering the monumental impact it had on cinema and pop culture at large. The first film defined the gangster genre and gave us icons in Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone. The second film subverted and redefined the expectations set by the first one while also making newcomer Robert De Niro a star. The third film… well, the less said about the third film the better. Regardless, Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy still stands as one of the finest American movie epics of all time. A defining immigrant story, a revelatory take on the nature of violence, and a profound meditation on family and power, The Godfather is all it’s cracked up to be and more. —C.O.
9) Metropolis (1927)
Metropolis, a silent German film, is essential viewing for science-fiction fans. The futuristic utopia that Freder, the son of the city’s master, lives in is heavenly until he learns about the workers who operate the machines vital to the city’s existence and strives to help them. —Michelle Jaworski
10) My Left Foot (1989)
My Left Foot tells the story of Christy Brown, an Irish author with cerebral palsy. Through frustration and determination, he learned to write using only (you guessed it) his left foot, making his journey on screen one that is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Daniel Day-Lewis won his first of three Oscars for playing this difficult character, and while the casting of an able-bodied actor for the part might inspire some criticism today, at the time the film all but cemented his reputation as one of the greatest actors of his generation. —C.O.
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11) To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Although there are elements of To Kill a Mockingbird that feel dated today, the book and the film’s core principles continue to ring true. Perhaps it’s hard not to look at Atticus Finch differently in light of the 2015’s controversial Go Set a Watchman. Perhaps the text has lost some of its relevance as more black artists have gotten the chance to shape their own narratives over the years. Nevertheless, the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic tale of Boo Radley, Scout, and Atticus Finch still tugs at heartstrings all these years later. Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus, in particular, remains an archetype for cinematic “good guy.” —C.O.
12) The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
Long before films like Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, and Heaven Knows What tackled the subject, director Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park shined a gritty light on heroin addiction all the way back in 1971. Released just a year before The Godfather came out, The Panic in Needle Park stars Al Pacino as a charming junkie named Bobby and Kitty Winn as his impressionable girlfriend, Helen. Although Panic feels a bit dated and occasionally over the top now, it still paints a stark picture of New York street life at its bleakest. While Pacino was at his most ruggedly good-looking here, clearly a star on the rise, it was Winn who won the Best Actress award when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, despite appearing in few pictures since. Trivia time: The screenplay was co-written by Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, whose older brother, Dominick Dunne, produced the film. The elder Dunne would, of course, go on to become a famous writer himself, mostly for the major American trials he covered in the second half of his life. —C.O.
13) White Christmas (1954)
Although the famous Irving Berlin song was first popularized in the 1942 Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire vehicle Holiday Inn, many Americans more closely associate with this 1954 classic, with which it shares a name. Crosby is back, but this time he’s paired up with Danny Kaye. The two play a song-and-dance team who fall for two sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). The plot is as silly as you might expect, but the songs, again supplied for Berlin, are wonderful, and the movie is a delightful old-timey treat to watch around the holidays.
14) The African Queen (1951)
John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn teamed up to make this WWI film about a romance between a riverboat captain and a missionary to regain public favor after their public support of free speech during the beginning of the Hollywood blacklist. Their efforts worked, and the picture became a huge hit, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Actor, which Bogart won, marking his first and only Oscar victory. This despite the fact that virtually everyone got sick with dysentery or worse while on set, and Huston was supposedly more preoccupied with shooting an elephant rather than shooting a movie, as later dramatized in the Clint Eastwood film, White Hunter Black Heart.
15) Grease (1978)
Grease is a silly movie. It’s got silly songs, silly dancing, silly costumes, silly ‘40-year-olds playing teenagers. But silly doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Yes, the ending feels a little regressive today. But if the rapturous reception of the 2016 live version is any indication, Grease may still be, if not the best or most important musical ever, perhaps the most popular. And if nothing else, the original film version is worth it for John Travolta’s performance as Danny Zuko alone. Travolta has had a lot of ups and downs in his career, but through it all Danny has remained a definite highlight. —C.O.
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16) Heathers (1988)
Heathers is a comedy about school shootings, and while that may be a hard sell, it’s still a great movie. You would think that growing sensitivity and cultural turmoil would’ve made it unwatchable in the years since it came out, but on the contrary, this black comedy works because of its take on today’s hot-button issue. Watching Heathers in the context of our national conversation about bullying actually makes it an even more interesting experience. And politics aside, Winona Ryder and Christian Slater as Veronica and J.D. are still the iconic misfit couple we all need. —C.O.
17) Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s hasn’t aged especially well, even for a movie made in the early ‘60s. Legendary director Blake Edwards’ take on Holly Golightly falls somewhere in between infantilizing and fetishizing, and the complete erasure of Paul’s sexuality as it’s written in Truman Capote’s novella obscures much of the original work’s importance. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more iconic image in cinema than Audrey Hepburn in those sunglasses and that little black dress. And despite the liberties the film takes with Capote’s story, George Peppard’s Paul and Audrey Hepburn’s Holly have undeniable chemistry together. It may be an adaptation of its time, but it’s an undeniable classic nonetheless. —C.O.
18) Batman (1989)
Tim Burton’s original Batman movie often gets overlooked thanks to the many good (and bad) takes on the caped crusader that followed it. But Burton’s mix of ‘80s excess, ‘50s noir tropes, and references to German expressionism set the template for how artistic a comic book movie could be. He created a dark fairytale version of Gotham City, bathed in gorgeous light and shadow. No one believed in 1989 that Mickael “Mr. Mom” Keaton could convincingly pull off the cape cowl, but he showed them all, not only giving audiences a Batman who was quick-witted and tortured but also showing that Bruce Wayne could be equally so. Then there’s Jack Nicholson’s robber baron Joker, a singular piece of pop culture perfection that put his skill for playing charismatically unhinged characters to use years before Heath Ledger came along with his own iconic spin. Combine all these elements with Danny Elfman’s moody, heart-pounding score (still the best of his career) and you’ve got one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. —C.O.
19) Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Like all of Stanley Kubrick’s work, Full Metal Jacket is cold, distant, and often disturbing. But Kubrick’s iciness works perfectly for examining the horrors of Vietnam. One of only two films he made in the 1980s (the other was The Shining), Full Metal Jacket redefined the war movie by suggesting that the training process could actually be one of the worst parts of the whole experience. The first half of the story, which finds a group of Marines going through a dehumanizing boot camp, is so good that people often forget the portion that’s actually set in Vietnam. The entire film is expertly crafted and sure to make an impression. Full Metal Jacket is the rare war movie that refuses to make war look even remotely cool, and it’s all the better for it. —C.O.
20) The Chase (1966)
Little-known and rarely talked about today, The Chase is a veritable buffet of big-time Hollywood talent. Robert Redford plays Charlie “Bubber” Reeves, an escaped convict who disrupts the lives of the residents in a small southern town. Jane Fonda plays his cheating wife, and Marlon Brando stars as the sheriff who’s determined to make sure he doesn’t fall victim to vigilante justice. Movie-lovers will notice a young Angie Dickinson and Robert Duvall in supporting roles, too. Released in 1966, one year before director Arthur Penn would have his biggest success with Bonnie and Clyde, you can see shades of the same daring style that would help change Hollywood forever in this film. Adapted by the great Lillian Hellman from a play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Horton Foote, the ending is surprisingly bleak, and the movie is filled with paranoia and anger. —C.O.
Still not sure what to watch tonight? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, and comedy specials when you really need to laugh.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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