What exactly makes a movie a “classic” varies wildly with the viewer, as does the appropriate timescale. For some, a movie from a decade ago might be eligible (I call these movie fans “children”). For others, you have to go back a lot further.
Today, I’m going to do the latter, taking a look at some of the great (or, at least, greatly entertaining) movies that were released no later than the tail end of the 1970s. (Even if I find it personally distressing to label movies younger than I am “classics.”) Quibbling over semantics aside, these offerings prove how deeply rewarding it is to dig through the back catalogue of motion picture history now and again.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Virgil Tibbs’ (Sidney Poitier) entry into Sparta, Mississippi at the outset of this steamy, socially conscious cop thriller unfolds like a scene from a horror movie, making clear the peril of a Black man in a southern town after dark. That’s, of course, before the sheriff realizes that Mr. Tibbs is the only one who can solve a murder. Though its politics are dated, this Norman Jewison-directed Oscar winner remains a landmark film of the Civil Rights movement.
The long-running franchise has had its ups (the Creed films) and downs (that robot butler in Rocky IV), but the original is one of the ultimate sports movies, with a ton of heart buoyed by characters who feel like real people. It beat out Network and Taxi Driver for Best Picture and it’s hard to be mad about it.)
Where to stream: MGM+
All About Eve (1950)
I’m not sure that Hollywood ever turned out a sharper, funnier script than this one. If Bette Davis had only done All About Eve, she’d still be a legend. Is it one of the best black and white movies ever made? Yes.
Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield are phenomenal in this drama about a family of deep-south Depression-era sharecroppers struggling to survive and to stay together.
Everybody’s favourite golden-age Hollywood movie came by its reputation fairly: Bogart and Bergman have tremendous chemistry, and the film blends the doomed romance vibes with real suspense and a sense of humour that keeps the wartime atmosphere from getting too heavy.
Jeanne Dielman, 32 Quai des Commerce (1975)
Recently named the best movie ever made in a stupidly controversial Sight & Sound critics’ poll, Chantal Ackerman’s three-hours-plus epic shows us three days in the life of a Brussels single mother; it’s gripping and tragic in its depiction of day-to-day drudgery, even as part-time sex worker Jeanne’s tricks turn out to be the least interesting parts of her day.
Black Girl (1966)
The movie that brought international attention to sub-Saharan African cinema. Black Girl stars Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Diouana, who is isolated and treated as less than human by her French employers as she reflects on her earlier life in Senegal.
Fritz Lang’s story of a future city starkly divided between the haves and the have-nots remains visually stunning, and its themes are no less relevant now than they were nearly a century ago.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Snappy dialogue, interesting, believable characters, and women who are at least as cool and interesting as the men: This Howard Hawks’ romantic adventure is mostly about pilots just hanging out in a South American town, with every takeoff and landing a potential tragedy.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Two musicians get in drag in order to escape from mobsters in this classic Billy Wilder vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, at the peak of her powers here. Nobody’s perfect, but this movie is close.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A deliberately paced mind-bender, Stanley Kubrick and company take us from the origins of violence to a hypnotically engaging and highly detailed mid-century modern future where we come face to face with our own evolution.
American Graffiti (1973)
Nostalgia’s nothing new. George Lucas’ American Graffiti takes us back to the last day of high school for a bunch of teenagers in the 1960s, as the director makes clear that some aspects of growing up are fairly universal, and that he has something to say about more than galactic space battles.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Another flashback to a bygone era, this one set in a dying small town in Texas. One of the best movies of the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich’s breakout is mercifully free of the rosy glow that the high school films of the ‘70s leaned into.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
A cinematic slice of pure joy, with a number of truly great musical numbers punctuated by some genuinely hilarious performances. For my money, the best musical of the era (and far weirder than you’re probably imagining).
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
A soaring, candy-coloured musical about young lovers (Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo) separated by circumstance in the titular city. Pretty much every word is sung. In French. Watch it anyway!
Killer of Sheep (1978)
A powerful slice of life from writer/director Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep stars Henry G. Sanders as Stan, a slaughterhouse worker in Watts whose mundane life is punctuated by random misfortune in a way that makes him question the mere idea of having hope.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Gloria Swanson was just 50 when she was cast as the horrifyingly outdated silent-film star at the center of this very dark comedy/film noir. Doesn’t matter, she kills it.
With some of the most brilliant cinematography and camerawork of the silent era, F. W. Murnau tells a story of romance (and attempted murder) that feels epic, even with stakes that, ultimately, aren’t any bigger than the marriage between the film’s troubled couple.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Just an old-fashioned love story about the romance between a young engaged couple, a genderfluid scientist, and a jacked lab experiment. A cult classic now to famous to qualify as a cult classic, and for good reason.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A sweet-seeming Kansas girl heads off to the magical Land of Oz, announcing her arrival by murdering a lady and stealing her shoes. Only one thing to do at that point, really: take out her sister, as well.
Near the tail-end of his career, Alfred Hitchcock reinvented American horror cinema and introduced the definitive screen slasher: Norman Bates’ mother and best friend, Norma.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Frank Capra’s risqué romantic comedy swept the Academy Awards in its year, with leads Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert making for a brilliant pairing in the movie that defined the rom-com, and remains among the best of the form.
Even if not as technically innovative as some of Disney’s earlier films, Bambi’s still absolutely gorgeous, and its simple, down-to-earth story is emotional, thrilling, and poignant in ways that the animator’s fantasy films couldn’t quite match.
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Fred Zinnemann’s Pearl Harbor drama is remembered for its all-star cast (Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, etc.) and swooning romance, but it’s also an impressive and harrowing recreation of the attacks in 1941, and their impact on the Americans at their centre.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
This historical drama brings Medieval Europe to stunning life with its depiction of Arthur, King of the Britons (Graham Chapman), scouring the English countryside in search of men brave enough to join his Knights of the Round Table, desperate to figure out if swallows can, indeed, carry coconuts. It’s all deeply serious. (Cough cough.)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
With Lew Ayres in the lead, the original All Quiet remains a harrowing experience—a recreation of the events of World War I so realistic, it stands as one of the true, great anti-war films of all time.
The Godfather (1972)
It’s said by many that the second film is better…and they’re not wrong, though the first is a similarly brilliant piece of filmmaking, and absolutely the place to start when watching or rewatching Francis Ford Coppola’s saga.
Peter Lorre is chilling as a murderer of children in Fritz Lang’s thriller. Aside from being a masterful film in its own right, M influenced every crime drama, serial killer film, and police procedural that’s come along since.
One of the greatest, and most entertaining, noir films of its era also foregrounds one of the hottest bisexual love triangles you’re likely to find in film.
Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)
The all-star cast can be a little distracting, but Stanley Kramer’s courtroom drama remains powerful, and depressingly relevant, in its depiction of normal, everyday people driven to committ atrocities with only minimal encouragement.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Its reputation is that of a beloved holiday classic, but few Christmas movies before or since have gone this deep and dark, turning on George Bailey’s very long, very dark night of the soul.
Pather Panchali (1955)
India’s answer to the French New Wave, Satyajit Ray’s gorgeous, but down-to-earth drama finds universal truths in the fraught relationships between desperately poor Apu, his sister Durga, and their mother, Sarbajaya. (The subsequent two films in what would eventually become known as the Apu Trilogy are just as great.)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
The General is often seen as Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, but I prefer Sherlock Jr., in which a normal schlub finds himself, literally, drawn into the movies. It’s an acrobatic and often hilarious journey into film history.
Funny Girl (1968)
Barbra Streisand broke through in a big way in this funny (naturally), moving, and ultimately epic story about the rise of real life comedian Fanny Brice and her troubled romance with Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). It’s like buttah.
His Girl Friday (1940)
One of the films that defined the sharp, fast-talking screwball comedy genre, with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant as an ex-married newshound couple trying to uncover the truth behind the story of a convicted murderer.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Otto Preminger’s gripping courtroom drama is less a crime procedural than it is an examination of the fallibility of memory and the dangers of relying too heavily on any individual’s ability to accurately replay our own narratives.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
On the eve of his wedding, Dr. Frankenstein finds himself drawn into temptation when his old mentor shows up in town. The two run off together with every intention of giving birth to new life.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks’ most cohesive film is a loving tribute to the Frankenstein films of old, while also serving as an entirely quotable, consistently hilarious parody of the entire Universal horror era.
Modern Times (1936)
Ever feel like you’re just a cog in the capitalist machinery of life? Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece is the perfect movie for anyone who’s ever been stuck in a rut at work.
It might not be a brilliant piece of filmmaking, but Grease is the enjoyably goofy a bit of cinematic comfort food that we all need now and again.
Akira Kurosawa’s samurai tale is not only wildly influential, it’s also film’s definitive statement on the unreliability of memory and the ease with which we spin stories for our own benefit. A warrior’s murder is recounted by a series of characters, each with a similar tale, but with details that vary in crucial ways.
Steven Spielberg created the thrilling, harrowing summer blockbuster to beat them all way back in 1975, shaping the cinematic landscape we’re still living in, for better or worse.
High Noon (1952)
It’s hard to believe, all these decades later, that this simple story of a sheriff abandoned by a terrified town was one of the most controversial films of its era. There’s a lot going on here just under the surface, including a strong defiance of the Red Scare and its accompanying Hollywood blacklist.
One of Stephen King’s earliest works translates into this memorably bloody coming-of-age story about a shy young woman (Sissy Spacek) with growing telekenetic powers, caught between her controlling mother at home, and her cruel classmates at school.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Roy Glenn, and Louis Gossett Jr. star in this family drama about a Black family about to come into a small windfall, and the intergenerational conflict and trauma that impacts the ways in which family members want to spend it, and even their their definitions of a better life.