There are certain films every film fan needs to see and others that should at the very least be on their to watch list. These are not necessarily all films that I consider 100% must see (that list is coming soon), but they are all films that I believe are important to film history. There are a ton of films on Netflix right now so I had to cut a lot because these lists take a lot of work, but these films are ones that particularly stand out. Also, no pictures for this list as 35 is a lot to go through (I’m exhausted). Without any particular order, here are 35-ish films that I believe are essential for every film fan.
1. The Shawshank Redemption
Starting off the list is one of the single greatest films ever made. Widely regarded as a flawless film, The Shawshank Redemption is the tale of hope in the darkest of circumstances. Easily some of the greatest of cinema moments come from this film. This is one of the films on this list that will also be in my Essential Films list in a few weeks. An absolutely phenomenal film that you must watch in order to call yourself a film fan.
2. Good Fellas
One of the greatest films directed by one of the greatest directors. Martin Scorsese takes one of the most glamorized New York subcultures and is willing to show all the depravity it actually held. About a man who grew up in the mob and the events that led to his fall from power, Good Fellas is a gangster film that is filled with fantastic performances, incredible cinematography, and an amazing script. Can’t recommend this film enough.
3. Pan’s Labyrinth
This is a film I left off of my International Film list because I knew I was going to put it high on this one. This is another film that will be on my Essential Films list. This dark fantasy WWII film from Spain is a masterpiece for director Guillermo Del Toro. The way it is shot and the way that Del Toro gets the performances out of his actors is incredible. With well-executed twists, beautiful set pieces, and jaw-dropping practical effects, Pan’s Labyrinth is chilling and powerful.
4. Raging Bull
Another one of Scorsese’s bests, Raging Bull is so much more than a sports film. Speaking directly to humanity and emotions and the messiness of it all through its unlikable protagonist, this film is a piece of art that can speak to each and every one of us despite our paths. This is also probably Robert De Niro’s greatest performance as he commits to transforming this character in such a visceral way. While sometimes painful to watch, it is a must see.
5. The King’s Speech
This period piece about King George VI and his speech therapist is an intimate story about unlikely friendship and the human spirit. The biggest take away of this film is that it is a masterclass in acting. Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush give unbelievable performances. This entire film is nothing but intimate dialogue between the characters, and yet the performances draw you in and keep you captivated for the entire film.
6. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
This series of films hardly needs any explanation from me. These films have defined an entire era of blockbuster cinema and set an unprecedented bar for fantasy films. On top of that, each and every film in the series was nominated for Oscars, with Return of the King sweeping the awards and setting a record with 11 wins and 12 nominations.
7. The Evil Dead
This horror classic is an important film to both the horror film fan community and fans of Sam Raimi as this is his first feature film. This beginning film in the franchise is a cult classic with its suspenseful atmosphere and dark humor. While the plot and acting is not the best, this film is an important one to the horror genre.
8. Driving Miss Daisy
An amazing glimpse into the change of racial relations in the deep South through the lens of an elderly Jewish woman and her African American chauffeur. This beautiful film has incredible performances from Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy where they continually change up the dynamic to keep this intimate film fresh and intriguing.
9. Patriot Games
One of the odder picks on this list, Patriot Games is one of the non-franchise Harrison Ford roles that he really shined in. While the film doesn’t try to portray action realistically, it is fun action nonetheless. Despite being released in the 90’s, it is one of the last 80’s style action flicks from the era.
10. Dirty Harry
While the plot is a little absurd, this is the film that propelled Clint Eastwood’s career. The movie’s use of cityscape as a sandbox for action was also a jumping off point for many films about taking law and order into your own hands. This is film started an entire style of action cop films that flooded the 70’s and 80’s.
11. The Dirty Dozen
While not a fantastic war film, it is a classic. The various performances across their cast offer great fun and keep you entertained. An anti-war film masked in the disguise of a fun war film, The Dirty Dozen is a great film to go back to when looking for a “classic”.
12. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Any film by the great John Hughes is instantly discussed when talking about the greatest films of the 80’s as they all defined an entire generation of teenagers. This particular film is one of Hughes’ funnest and comedic outings and is some of the most enjoyable cinema you will ever see. With tons of heart and a surprising amount of poignancy, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a film fan must see.
Unfortunately, this film is going to be plagued as being the film in the 2016-2017 Oscars mix up with La La Land. Due to this, I believe a lot of people haven’t given this film a chance. This is a film that is hard for me to talk about in detail. The emotional gravitas and pure artistry in the film is breathtaking. This is a film that is vital piece in the history of, not just film, but of all humankind. One of the greatest films ever made, and one of the greatest pieces of art ever produced, this film will break you down.
14. Dallas Buyer’s Club
This is easily Matthew McConaughey’s greatest performance in his career so far. This is also a very important film as it is a unlikely, yet essential, advocate for the HIV/AIDS community. McConaughey, along with Jared Leto, deliver such an emotionally charged powerhouse of a story that in the end will leave you gut punched.
This Stephen King adaptation has escaped the confines of the horror community and has bled in to almost every facet of pop culture of the past 40 years. Wonderfully directed, this film hits all the marks of a great horror film and of a great classic in the world’s film repertoire.
16. Red Dawn
WOLVERINES!!!! This is the definition of a guilty pleasure action flick. Just as divisive now as it was when it was released, this film gets a rough rep. I contend it is one of the essential 80’s action films as it perfectly surmises the Cold War/Red Scare era of U.S. history. While nowhere near plausible, this fun 80’s romp, in my opinion, is one of the best to come from the era.
17. Quentin Tarantino Films
Netflix’s current offerings are Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, and The Hateful Eight. I’m choosing to group these films together because every film of Tarantino’s catalog is a brilliant piece of film making. Each offers their own taste of the Tarantino flare and each are wildly entertaining. Between the fast paced dialogue, tantalizing stories, and hyper-violence each Tarantino film is a masterclass on film making. Seeing as he will go down in history as one of the greatest directors and screenwriters of all time, watching his catalog is a must.
18. Once Upon A Time In The West
This classic spaghetti western is often seen as one of the greatest westerns of all time. Westerns defined an entire era of Hollywood history, and the spaghetti western defined the Italian cinema for Americans for decades. This movie effectively revived the entire western genre and is an essential film for fans of the history of cinema and genre filmmaking.
19. The Natural
While this film often teeters on the edge of over-sentimentality, this sports drama is a story of success and failure of a baseball player that is only a fable to all of America. This is one of those sport films that is actually a testament to society and its struggles as a whole.
20. True Grit (1969)
Another one of the greatest westerns ever made. I personally find the 2010 remake better than this film, but this is still a fun ride with a story ripe for the big screen. I personally despise John Wayne, but this is one of his greatest performances in his entire career.
21. Rosemary’s Baby
Note: This is a film directed by Roman Polanski, a man who fled the country after being arrested for molesting a child, so I understand wanting to avoid his catalog. That said, this is a piece of art that is to many the greatest horror film of all time. The performances of Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon are terrifyingly good and set a sense of paranoia and suspense that exceeds the level of instilled fear that any jump scare today will ever be able to pull off.
22. Monty Python Films
Netflix has graced us with both Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. These cult classics have shot up in popularity recently and I have to agree, these comedies are something special.
23. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
This was in my International Films on Netflix list and I must also list it here. This film is a Grade-A example of the fantastic film making happening in countries around the world, particularly in China. This film is a beautiful tale of star-crossed lovers told through a Chinese wuxia epic. Amazing action and a beautiful story, this is a must watch for all film fans.
24. Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse
This may be an odd addition, but hear me out. This is one of the greatest animated films ever made. Take away the superhero aspect and you still have a beautiful film about family, loss, and overcoming fears. It is one of the most unique animation styles to ever hit the cinema and the way it is utilized throughout the film is breathtaking. The story is incredibly woven and the action is top-notch.
25. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner
When looking at this social commentary film on interracial marriage from 1967 may not hold a candle to today’s standards of depth. That said, it came from a time period in which these messages were quite taboo. Despite the flaws in the plot and execution, this fun comedy pressed the boundaries at the time of its release and paved the way for deeper dives into the subject for future films to come.
26. The Indiana Jones Trilogy
These films are in the conversation of greatest trilogy of all time and greatest action/adventure flicks of all time. Most of my thoughts of these films are on my 20 Family Films on Netflix list so be sure to read up there. These films don’t need much explanation.
27. The Naked Gun Films
These films are some of the greatest deadpan, slapstick, parody films ever made. While no where near being “greatest of all time”, these films defined an entire genre and set a precedent that very few films within that genre were ever able to reach. The Naked Gun films are a must watch for fans of comedy.
28. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
While a little predictable, the main driving force of this film are the performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp. These two give moving performances that will make you fall in love with the characters and root for them through their hardships.
29. Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s fantasy sci-fi cop film has grown in appreciation over the years. This film, while at times a bit predictable, is a visual masterpiece and a stunning piece of storytelling.
30. There Will Be Blood
Easily Paul Thomas Anderson’s great directorial effort, this film is often regarded as a masterpiece. Starring perhaps the greatest actor to ever live, Daniel Day Lewis, this film utilizes its stars to the max. Between Lewis and Paul Dano, the performances drive home the ideas of greed and corruption and provide one of the greatest films to come out of the ’00’s.
31. The Dark Knight
This is the film that everyone knows. The quintessential Batman film with one of the greatest villain portrayals of all time by the late Heath Ledger. Even if superhero movies aren’t your thing, Ledger’s performance is enough to entertain any audience.
32. Groundhog Day
One of the greatest comedies from the 90’s, the Bill Murray led film was very inventive despite the gimmick seeming played out to today’s audience. Surprisingly, the film highlights Murray’s dramatic abilities while also being full of plenty of laughs. A must see for fans of comedy.
At the time of writing this, Inception is Christopher Nolan’s trippiest films ever made (Tenet, coming later this year, may beat it). That said, the screenwriting, cinematography, visual effects, and acting all come together in such a cohesive fashion that cemented Nolan in the hall of the greats. If you haven’t seen this mind bender, make sure you are fully attentive and ready to go and you won’t be disappointed.
34. The Pianist
Quick note before I begin: same as Rosemary’s Baby, the director is Roman Polansky. That said, one cannot deny the utmost horrific beauty of this film. The film is about a Jewish pianist during WWII. It has some of the most uncomfortable and poignant imagery of the Holocaust ever depicted in film. It is a rough watch and not one that you will ever want to watch for a second time, but it is necessary trial for the soul.
35. Beasts of No Nation
Rounding out the end of the list is the first film to solidify Netflix’s place in the realm of quality film making. About the real life events of boys in Africa being captured and trained to be soldiers, this heartbreaking tale shows us a glimpse into the terrible experiences those boys faced. One of the best films to ever come from a streaming service, this will go down in film history as a film that marked a turning point in the film distribution industry. It is a hard film to watch, but it is a necessary one.