Classic films are perennial. They’ve stood the test of time and age. Generally, classics are old because only time can tell if films are exemplary enough to be understood and resonated by upcoming generations. They stand out because of a unique plot never heard of before, stars who acted phenomenally, or sometimes both. You’ll notice that films of that time stressed on extravagance with their dialogues and clothes. As a movie buff watching an old classic today, I feel like a new age author reading a Shakespearean play.
In the 1900s, different directors had their own ways that were unique to them. Music and light were only beginning to be used to evoke feelings of thrill, horror, or romance among the audience. The excitement of sitting in a movie theatre and watching a story being played out on screen was brand-new. It felt like an elite experience, yet it was accessible to all classes of society.
The actors starring in age-old classics weren’t on social media- they were stars, far away and unreachable, making them all the more appealing. Cary Grant’s charisma and Marilyn Monroe’s charm swept millions off their feet. When watching these classics, you’re also hit with the realization that while the wave of technology may have spread across the globe, people and how they feel will remain the same. The only thing that changed is the way it was portrayed.
Here are Top 15 Classic Films to See Before You Die:
1.Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
With a bold but eccentric female character, Breakfast at Tiffany’s can be called ahead of its time. Audrey Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly, is a young socialite living in Manhattan, who wants to escape her past and marry a rich man. She is introduced to the hero, Paul Varjak, played by George Peppard, in a groggy state of sleep. Her dishevelled appearance is a stark contrast to the opening scene, which shows her standing outside a Tiffany’s wearing her signature black dress staring longingly inside. This film is Hepburn’s most iconic and a must in classic films to see before you die.
Hepburn’s character, a small-town girl reinventing her life in a big city, is a cliché now. But back then, it was new and authentic. The movie has big bright colours, iconic hairstyles and a cat who is named Cat. Watch it for Audrey Hepburn, if not for the plot.
2. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Sunset Boulevard is a tragic tale about fame and the paranoia that engulfs those who are exposed to it. Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, is a young screenwriter who is starting out in the industry. By a coincidence, he finds himself in the house of once-famous Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson. Now with her career over, Norma is desperate to make a comeback and uses Joe as her accomplice.
This drama speaks about what it means to be forgotten, making it one of the most interesting classic films to see before you die. To anyone watching it, Norma’s insanity becomes evident through the screen. Her manipulative attempts make you despise her but her desperation and loneliness make you pity her more. It’s a black and white film, so it may take some getting used to, but you can rely on the story to hook you in. This is one of the most famous classic films to see before you die.
3.Modern Times (1936)
Modern Times is a silent film starring Charlie Chaplin which portrays the cruel living and working conditions of common people during the time of The Great Depression. It’s a twist on satirical comedy. By playing a goofy lovable character, Chaplin will walk you through the life of a young man and the problems he faces during that time.
The comedy-drama starts with Chaplin being over-worked in a factory under inhumane conditions. In a fit, he gets himself fired and lands in jail, where by a lucky mistake, he is hailed as a hero and freed again. Through hilarious turns of events, the worker tries to stay out of trouble and find jobs, yet never manages to do so. Make sure to include this one in your list of classic films to see before you die.
4.Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a musical, which features the iconic dance sequence, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friends”. Monroe wasn’t very popular when this romantic-comedy came out, and thus paid abysmally low compared to her co-star, Jane Russel. Nevertheless, this film set the precedent for a dumb gold-digger character that she would later become known for.
Lorelai and Dorothy, the main characters, are show-girls who are best friends but have opposing ideas. While Lorelai is hungry after men who are rich, Dorothy is more sensible and often has to keep her best friend on track. Both of them go on a cruise, where they have several misadventures, guaranteed to send you in fits of laughter. This Marilyn Monroe starrer is a must in classic films to see before you die.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart, Vertigo is a psychological thriller, and perhaps the most cited, studied, and analyzed films of Hitchcock’s career, and in this list of classic films to see before you die.
Vertigo is a story of obsession and deception, designed to play with the viewer’s mind, creating an illusion which succeeds in inducing in us what it set out to do, a dizzying feeling of vertigo. As the movie becomes increasingly mysterious, the protagonist’s mental condition becomes increasingly deranged and after a while, it becomes hard to tell what’s real and what’s an illusion. With a chilling ending, Vertigo is the first Hitchcock film you should see, before being inevitably hooked on his directing skills.
6.The Philadelphia Story (1940)
With an iconic star trio of Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story is a must inclusion in classics films to see before you die. Deemed to be a re-birth of Katherine Hepburn’s career, this romantic comedy has several moments when chaos breaks out, and you find yourself enjoying it simply for the sheer naiveté of the characters.
Hepburn’s character, Tracy Lord is a wealthy socialite with a personal life the tabloids love talking about. After divorcing her husband, she is getting married again. But her ex-husband returns to the scene, along with her cheating father and a plotting reporter, causing her emotions to be toyed with much too often. Tracy Lord is a character that is relevant even today; a woman who falls in love a lot and gets slut-shamed by society as a result of it. This is one of the funniest classic films to see before you die.
7.It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Trapped in a paradox between commercial failure and critical success, It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas themed drama. One of the best classic films Hollywood has ever seen, this James Stewart starrer is about hope and strength. Make this your first watch in classic films to see before you die!
George Bailey, has been a dealt a bad hand by life, wants to kill himself. That’s when a guardian angel comes into his life, and sends him to a world where he was never born, to make him realize how many lives he touched. This film is a perfect watch for holidays- you can huddle up with your family and watch it to get into the true Christmas spirit.
8. The Sound of Music (1965)
This film is a musical drama, about a family sticking together during World War II. Based on a book about a true story, it was first adapted into a Broadway musical, then later into a film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummet. It became famous all across the globe and broke numerous records.
The story is about a young woman, Maria, who becomes a governess to the seven children of a Naval officer. She wins the children over with her love and kindness and teaches them how to sing. The plot gets more serious as the story progresses, portraying how Hitler’s thirst for power had an effect on the innocent. It’s a heart-warming tale with the message- love conquers all.
9.Gone With The Wind (1939)
Starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable, Gone With The Wind is a romance-drama set during the time of the American Civil War in 1861. The film holds to its credit the title of ‘highest-grossing film in history’. It was intricately thought about, with extreme efforts by the makers to get the casting, screenplay, visuals- everything perfect. To that end, its success was precedented, the only criticism at the time being its length.
In a war-ridden country, rich and spoiled Scarlett O’Hara is torn between two men- Ashley and Rhett. Her indecisiveness, constant mistakes, and the deaths that the war brings hurt her over and over. You have to include this one in your list of classic films to see before you die, to understand the context of the famous words, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
10. Rebecca (1940)
Another Alfred Hitchcock creation, Rebecca is a psychological horror-thriller (also a romance, depending on your perception). The film has special effects that were characteristic of Hitchcock’s films, luring the audience inside a web of mystery and drama, all enhanced by the eerie silent tone of the film. With its rich dialogues and mysterious plot, this is on the thrilling end of the spectrum of classic films to see before you die.
A young naïve girl, played by Joan Fontaine, marries a widower Maxim de Winter, played by Lawrence Olivier. At his house, she feels haunted by his previous wife, Rebecca, and the housekeeper’s strange obsession with her. She tries to imitate Rebecca in a desperate effort to make her husband more in love with her. The film unwraps a mystery slowly, luring the audience before finishing with a bizarre ending.
11.Some Like it Hot (1959)
Another Marilyn Monroe classic, this Romantic-Comedy is a charming, hilarious pure two hours of entertainment. This film proved to be a gift to Monroe’s career, having been her most successful. By then typecasted in the dumb-blonde role, Monroe charmed the hats off of her audience.
Played out in black and white, the film is about two young men, Joe and Jerry, portrayed by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, who are desperate to run out of town to escape mobsters. They dress up as women to join a female band where they meet Sugar and hopelessly fall for her. Hilarity ensues, as they try to score a chance with her. A personal favorite, this is one of the most lovable and goofy must-watch classic films to see before you die.
The most popular Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho has several spinoffs and remakes to its name. Another novel adaption, this psychological horror-thriller was the first in its time to portray brutal violence on a digital screen, paving way for many more such films to come. Though color films had already been established in cinema at the time, Hitchcock made the film black and white, not only because of budget constraints but also to amplify horror.
Starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, the film is about Marion, a woman who flees to Bates Motel after an act of theft. There she encounters Norman Bates, the owner, a charming young man. Ironically, Marion lands herself in more danger than she had run away from. Without a doubt, this film is one of Hitchcock’s best works and one of the most iconic classic films to see before you die.
13.Roman Holiday (1953)
Audrey Hepburn never ceases to impress. And Roman Holiday is another testament to that. Alongside Gregory Peck, the film created a romantic-comedy that would work even with today’s audience. Apart from the story and acting, the film was shot in scenic locations around Rome, an addition to its charm. Hepburn even won an Oscar for it.
Ann, a young princess, is tired of being royalty and wishes to have more freedom and fewer responsibilities. She runs away and finds herself in the home of a handsome man, Joe. The plot thickens as Anne tries to escape the reporters, and Joe tries to hide the fact that he is one. This film is refreshing and entertaining, like any other Hepburn starrer.
You’ve most likely heard if this film, but you’re missing out if you haven’t seen it. Responsible for starting the “killer shark” trope, Jaws had special effects that were way ahead of its time. The director, Steven Spielberg, was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock in the creation of this classic.
After a shark attacks a woman, a ten-year-old boy, and a local fisherman, three men set out on a boat to hunt it down. Watching it in today’s day of powerful editing and CGI, its shots might appear amateur, but it is still a testament to how film-making has changed in the last fifty years. Today, with The Shallows (2016) and Forty-Seven Metres Down (2017), shark movies are in demand and they owe it all to Jaws.
15.Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
Starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane were meant to revive the careers of both actresses. Their hate on-screen looks authentic, simply because it was. Their rivalry caused them to have quarrels before, during, and after the shooting of the film and was a crucial reason for its success.
Based on a novel of the same name, the film follows the life of two sisters, and their jealousy for each other. As kids, Baby Jane is famous and loved, and her sister, Blanche, is overshadowed. Later in life, Blanche gains a big name in Hollywood, while Jane becomes an alcoholic. Years later, they live together, with Blanche in a wheelchair, dependant on Jane as her care-taker. This is a must-watch in classic films to see before you die. And after watching this, check out Ryan Murphy’s Feud- Bette and Joan (2017), to find out what went behind-the-screens and how it impacted Hollywood.
These classics films to see before you die, are few in a list of many. All of them left a substantial impact on Hollywood. These pieces of cinema are all a part of the big picture of Hollywood, which is now an immersive part of all of our lives.
Also, a fun tip from a classic film junkie: after watching all of these, check out their trivia on IMDb’s website. For example, here is some trivia on Breakfast at Tiffany’s.