Classic movies stand the test of time, with characters, themes, and even dialogue that could go toe-to-toe with those of any modern flick.
Maybe you have some in your Netflix queue, or on a watchlist, maybe even a DVD rack—or if you’re really “old school,” in a cabinet full of VHS tapes.
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You’ve been meaning to watch them, and now, stuck at home under quarantine, you’ve got plenty of time to do so.
That said, here, in no particular order, is a list of nine classic films you should watch.
1) “Ben Hur” (1959)
When the Civil War ended, Lew Wallace, an officer-turned-author, probably could have written volumes on the things he saw during the conflict between the Blue and the Gray.
But the work that would etch Wallace into history was set in a place very far away—Roman-occupied Jerusalem—in a novel called “Ben Hur.” It would later be adapted to film. Viewers follow a Jewish prince (portrayed by Charlton Heston) from the fire and waves of an ancient naval battle to a chariot race. (Move over, “Fast and Furious.”)
Ultimately, his adventures leave him bereft of true satisfaction, and in his searching, he finds his own story intertwined with an overarching narrative that would alter world history.
Aside from delivering Heston’s thundering performance, the film showcases perhaps the best practical special effects of its era.
2) “Rear Window” (1954)
Like us, L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (played by the iconic Jimmy Stewart) is stuck at home. Unlike us, he’s a photojournalist confined to a wheelchair.
While current audiences can relate to the mundanity of being shut up indoors, a series of strange happenings peel away the veneer of domestic serenity he’s become so accustomed to observing from his rear window.
This is an Alfred Hitchcock film, and suspense is the name of the game here.
As an aside, if the doldrums of being in quarantine have you considering spying on your neighbors, this film might make you reconsider.
3) “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967)
Interracial marriage wasn’t always as widely accepted as it is now, and few classic pieces of cinema so clearly capture the cultural tension of the times surrounding it in a moving, even comical, manner as this film does.
Featuring brilliant acting from Sidney Poitier and the duo of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and released amid burgeoning civil rights movements, it deftly weaves viewers through the rationale for and against calls for a more integrated society—and into a romantic tale of true love.
4) “12 Angry Men” (1957)
Democracy dies in groupthink. So does reason. That’s abundantly clear in “12 Angry Men.” The story centers on a jury member in a murder trial, played by Henry Fonda.
While his peers resign themselves to following the general consensus of “guilty,” he refuses to just go along. His shimmering reason and brilliance pits him against prejudice, ignorance, and personal bias, all blights of human nature that continue to plague civil society.
Combine such timeless themes with stellar acting and dialogue, in a film that takes place entirely in a single room, and you have an immortal classic.
5) “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
Underneath seemingly peaceful life in Maycomb, Alabama, lies a poisonous current of prejudice. Local lawyer Atticus Finch (portrayed by Gregory Peck) is rowing upstream against it, made apparent when serious claims are leveled against an African American member of the community.
As a man of the law, Finch struggles to do what’s right and draws heavy fire from his fellow townsfolk. As a parent, he grapples to protect his children’s innocence while teaching them to reckon with the rights, the wrongs, and outright hatred that shatter the tranquility of their world.
Another novel-turned-film, “To Kill a Mockingbird” arguably stands as one of the most important pieces of 20th-century American fiction. Watch it, and you’ll see why. (Also, please read the novel by Harper Lee.)
6) “The Sound of Music” (1965)
Can hills come alive? If you’re Julie Andrews, crossing over from Nazi-controlled Austria into Switzerland during World War II, then yes. But only if there’s music.
OK, so maybe it’s a bit more whimsical of a look at World War II than some would like. But then again, it’s not really about the war. Yes, the war serves as a backdrop, but it’s not the film’s main focal point. Rather, it gives us a glimpse at how people still manage to find beauty in life amid conflict—even if it’s one they don’t totally understand.
It co-stars Christopher Plummer—and a small army of singing children—backdropped by the Alps (aka the “hills”).
7) “Rope” (1948)
Is there such a crime as the perfect murder? It’s a question viewers unravel throughout this philosophical thriller. Yet another Hitchcock film starring Stewart (a combo so good it made this list twice), “Rope” finds its potency not in action or drama, but in the notion of just how powerful an idea can be—and just how far people are willing to take it.
8) “Apocalypse Now” (1979)
A modern retelling of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” this intensely riveting anti-war film leans heavily into allegory as it tracks a group of soldiers tasked with finding a comrade gone rogue.
As the group moves deeper into the jungle, the film doesn’t just explore the complexities of the war in Vietnam, but navigates viewers through mankind’s role in, and propensity toward, violence, bringing us to a conclusion that is as absurd as it is brutal.
Starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Weaver, and an aged Marlon Brando, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (the maestro of “The Godfather” trilogy), “Apocalypse Now” is a testament to the insanity at the heart of the conflict.
After you see it, Richard Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” will never sound the same.
Note: Unlike the other films on this list, “Apocalypse Now” contains large doses of graphic violence and strong language, and other disturbing elements. Watch it after the kids are asleep.
9) “Casablanca” (1942)
No list of film classics would be complete without this American staple. “Casablanca” has been capturing the hearts and animating the minds of audiences ever since its release in 1942.
Set in Nazi-controlled Morocco, the classic romance presents its audience with very real and relatable struggles and a decision that so many of us, including the heroic Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) must make, wartime or not; namely, to side with heart or conscience.
Once again, the world finds itself faced with adversity, and while the difficulties we’re currently facing will pale in comparison with the ones inflicted by Adolf Hitler’s regime, they still afford us an opportunity to appreciate a work of true, cinematic art that has been transmitting hope since its release nearly 80 years ago.
This article has been corrected to reflect that Martin Sheen stars in “Apocalypse Now.”