100 Must-See Films of the 20th Century
by Leonard Maltin
(part 1, ordered chronologically by decade)
Birth of a Nation (1915)
186 minutes, D: D. W. Griffith
The landmark of American motion pictures. Griffith's epic story of two families
during Civil War and Reconstruction is still fascinating. Sometimes the drama
survives intact; other times, one must watch in a more historical perspective.
Griffith's portrayal of Ku Klux Klan in heroic role has kept this film a center
of controversy to the present day.
178 minutes, D: D. W. Griffith
Landmark American epic, interweaves four stories of prejudice and inhumanity,
from the Babylonian era to the modern day. Melodramatic, to be sure,
but gains in momentum and power as it moves toward its stunning climax.
That's Lillian Gish as the mother rocking the cradle; Constance Talmadge
gives a most appealing and contemporary performance as the sprightly
Our Hospitality (1923)
74 minutes, D: Buster Keaton
Buster goes to the South to claim a family inheritance, and falls in
love with the daughter of a longtime rival clan. Sublime silent comedy,
one of Buster's best, with a genuinely hair-raising finale. Incidentally,
Buster married his leading lady in real life.
140 minutes, D: Erich von Stroheim
Powerful adaptation of Frank Norris' novel McTeague, about a simple
man whose wife's obsession with money eventually drives him to madness.
Even though von Stroheim's film was taken from him, and severly cut
by the studio (it originally ran eight hours), this remains a stunning
work, one of the greatest of all silent films. The final sequences in
Death Valley are unforgettable.
The Gold Rush (1925)
82 minutes, D: Charlie Chaplin
Immortal Chaplin classic, pitting Little Tramp against Yukon, affections
of dance-hall girl, whims of a burly prospector. Dance of the rolls,
eating leather shoe, cabin tottering over cliff - all highlights of
wonderful, timeless comedy. Chaplin re-edited film in 1942; that version,
with his narration and music, runs 72m.
Potemkin (1925 - Russian)
65 minutes, D: Sergei Eisenstein
Landmark film about 1905 Revolution. Unlike many staples of film history
classes, this one has the power to grip any audience. Odessa Steps sequence
is possibly the most famous movie scene of all time.
The Big Parade (1925)
141 minutes, D: King Vidor
One of the best WWI films ever; clean-shaven Gilbert a wonderful hero.
Adoree an unforgettable heroine. Filled with memorable vignettes, and
some of the most harrowingly realistic battle scenes ever filmed. A
The Freshman (1925)
70 minutes, D: Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer
One of Lloyd's best remembered films casts him as collegiate patsy who'll
do anything to be popular on campus, unaware that everyone is making
fun of him. Football game finale is one of several comic highlights.
A real audience-rouser.
Metropolis (1927 - German)
120 minutes, D: Fritz Lang
Classic silent-film fantasy of futuristic city and its mechanized society,
with upper-class young man abandoning his life of luxury to join oppressed
workers in a revolt. Heavy going at times, but startling set design
and special effects command attention throughout. Many shorter prints
exist; reissued in 1984 at 87 minutes with color-tints and score by
Giorgio Moroder. [Also restored in its most complete version in 2002.]
The General (1927)
74 minutes, D: Buster Keaton
One of Keaton's best silent features, setting comedy against true Civil
War story of stolen train, Union spies. Not as fanciful as other Keaton
films, but beautifully done.
110 minutes, D: F. W. Murnau
Exquisite silent film is just as powerful today as when it was made,
telling simple story of farmer who plans to murder his wife, led on
by another woman. Triumph of direction, camerawork, art direction, and
performances, all hauntingly beautiful. Screenplay by Carl Mayer, from
Hermann Suderman's story. Cinematographers Karl Struss and Charles Rosher
won Oscars, as did the film for "artistic quality of production." Gaynor
also won Best Actress Oscar (shared for her performances in 7th Heaven
and Street Angel). Remade in Germany as The Journey to Tilsit.
Full title onscreen is Sunrise - A Song of Two Humans.
The Crowd (1928)
104 minutes, D: King Vidor
Classic drama about a few happy and many not-so-happy days in the marriage
of hard-luck couple. One of the greatest silent films; holds up beautifully.
Written by Harry Behn, John V.A. Weaver, and director Vidor, from the
latter's original story.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
133 minutes, D: Lewis Milestone
Vivid, moving adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's eloquent pacifist
novel about German boys' experiences as soldiers during WWI. Time hasn't
dimmed its power, or its poignancy, one bit. Scripted by Milestone,
Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews, and George Abbott. Academy Award winner
for Best Picture and Director.
City Lights (1931)
86 minutes, D: Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin's masterpiece tells story of his love for blind flower girl,
and his hot-and-cold friendship with a drunken millionaire. Eloquent,
moving, and funny. One of the all-time greats.
M (1931 - German)
99 minutes, D: Fritz Lang
Harrowing melodrama about psychotic child murderer brought to justice
by Berlin underworld. Riveting and frighteningly contemporary; cinematically
dazzling, especially for an early talkie. Lorre's performance is unforgettable.
75 minutes, D: Tod Browning
Classic horror film of Transylvanian vampire working his evil spell
on perplexed group of Londoners. Lugosi's most famous role with his
definitive interpretation of the Count, ditto Frye as looney Renfield
and Van Sloan as unflappable Professor Van Helsing.
70 minutes, D: James Whale
Definitive monster movie, with Clive as the ultimate mad scientist,
creating a man-made being (Karloff) but inadvertently giving him a criminal
brain. It's creaky at times, and cries for a music score, but it's still
impressive...as is Karloff's performance in the role that made him a
star. Long-censored footage, restored in 1987, enhances the impact of
several key scenes, including the drowning of a little girl. Based on
Mary Shelley's novel. Followed by Bride of Frankenstein.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
83 minutes, D: Ernst Lubitsch
Sparkling Lubitsch confection about two jewel thieves (Marshall and
Hopkins) who fall in love, but find their relationship threatened when
he turns on the charm to their newest (female) victim. This film is
a working definition of the term "sophisticated comedy." Script by Samson
Raphaelson and Grover Jones.
King Kong (1933)
103 minutes, D: Merian C. Cooper
Classic version of beauty-and-beast theme is a moviegoing must, with
Willis O'Brien's special effects and animation of monster ape Kong still
unsurpassed. Final sequence atop Empire State Building is now cinema
folklore; Max Steiner music score also memorable. Followed immediately
by The Son of Kong.
Duck Soup (1933)
70 minutes, D: Leo McCarey
The Marx Brothers' most sustained bit of insanity, a flop when first
released, but now considered a satiric masterpiece. In postage-stamp-sized
Freedonia, Prime Minister Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) declares war on
neighboring Sylvania just for the hell of it. Enough gags for five movies,
but our favorite is still the mirror sequence. Zeppo's swan song with
Sons of the Desert (1933)
69 minutes, D: William A. Seiter
Laurel and Hardy's best feature film; duo sneaks off to fraternal convention
without telling the wives; then the fun begins, with Chase as hilariously
It Happened One Night (1934)
105 minutes, D: Frank Capra
Legendary romantic comedy doesn't age a bit. Still as enchanting as
ever, with reporter Gable and runaway heiress Colbert falling in love
on rural bus trip. Hitch-hiking travails, the Walls of Jericho, other
memorable scenes remain fresh and delightful. First film to win all
five major Oscars: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay
(Robert Riskin). Based on Samuel Hopkins Adams' story "Night Bus," originally
published in Cosmopolitan.
It's A Gift (1934)
73 minutes, D: Norman Z. McLeod
Fields is a grocery store owner who goes West with his family. Beautiful
comedy routines in one of the Great Man's unforgettable films. Charles
Sellon as a blind man, T. Roy Barnes as a salesman looking for Carl
LaFong, contribute some hilarious moments. A remake of Fields' silent
film It's the Old Army Game.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
92 minutes, D: Sam Wood
The Marx Brothers invade the world of opera with devastating results.
Arguably their finest film (a close race with Duck Soup), with
tuneful music and appealing romance neatly interwoven. One priceless
comedy bit follows another: the stateroom scene, the Party of the First
Part contract, etc. This is as good as it gets.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
75 minutes, D: James Whale
Eye-filling sequel to Frankenstein is even better, with rich vein of
dry wit running through the chills. Inimitable Thesiger plays weird
doctor who compels Frankenstein into making a mate for his creation;
Lanchester plays both the "bride" and, in amusing prologue, Mary Shelley.
Pastoral interlude with blind hermit and final, riotous creation scene
are highlights of this truly classic movie. Scripted by John L. Balderston
and William Hurlbut. Marvelous Franz Waxman score, reused for many subsequent
films. Followed by Son of Frankenstein.
The 39 Steps (1935 - British)
87 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
Classic Hitchcock mystery with overtones of light comedy and romance,
as innocent Donat is pulled into spy-ring activities. Memorable banter
between Donat and Carroll, who thinks he's a criminal, set style for
sophisticated dialogue for years. John Buchan's novel was adapted by
Charles Bennett and Alma Reville; additional dialogue by Ian Hay.
Swing Time (1936)
103 minutes, D:George Stevens
One of the best Astaire-Rogers films, with stars as dance team whose
romance is hampered by Fred's engagement to girl back home (Furness).
Fine support by Moore and Broderick, unforgettable Jerome Kern-Dorothy
Fields songs "A Fine Romance," "Pick Yourself Up." Oscar-winning "The
Way You Look Tonight." Astaire's Bojangles production number is a screen
Modern Times (1936)
89 minutes, D: Charlie Chaplin
Charlie attacks the machine age in inimitable fashion, with sharp pokes
at other social ills and the struggle of modern-day survival. Goddard
is the gamin who becomes his partner in life. Chaplin's last silent
film (with his own music - including "Smile" - sound effects and gibberish
song) is consistently hilarious, and unforgettable. Final shot is among
Chaplin's most famous and most poignant.
101 minutes, D: William Wyler
Superb adaptation of Sinclair Lewis novel about middle-aged American
industrialist who retires, goes to Europe, where he and his wife find
differing sets of values, and new relationships. Intelligently written
(by Sidney Howard), beautifully filmed, extremely well acted, with Huston
recreating his Broadway role. Won Oscar for Interior Decoration (Richard
Day). Unusually mature Hollywood film, not to be missed.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
115 minutes, D: Frank Capra
Cooper is Longfellow Deeds, who inherits 20 million dollars and wants
to give it all away to needy people. Arthur is appealing as the hard-boiled
big-city reporter who tries to figure out what makes him tick. Capra
won his second Oscar for this irresistible film, written by Robert Riskin
(from Clarence Budington Kelland's story "Opera Hat").
Grand Illusion (1937 - French)
117 minutes, D: Jean Renoir
Renoir's classic treatise on war, focusing on French prisoners during
WWI and their cultured German commandant. Beautiful performances enhance
an eloquent script (by Renoir and Charles Spaak).
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
83 minutes, D: Ben Sharpsteen
Walt Disney's groundbreaking animated feature film - the first of its
kind - is still in a class by itself, a warm and joyful rendition of
the classic fairy tale, enhanced by the vivid personalities of the seven
dwarfs. Only a real-life Grumpy could fail to love it. Songs include
"Whistle While You Work," "Heigh Ho," and "Some Day My Prince Will Come."
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
102 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
Dashing Flynn in the definitive swashbuckler, winning hand of de Havilland
(never lovelier as Maid Marian), foiling evil prince Rains, dueling
wicked Rathbone. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's outstanding score earned
an Oscar, as did the art direction and editing. Scripted by Norman Reilly
Raine and Seton I. Miller. Arguably Flynn's greatest role.
The Lady Vanishes (1938 - British)
97 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
An old woman's disappearance during a train ride leads baffled young
woman into a dizzying web of intrigue. Delicious mystery-comedy; Hitchcock
at his best, with a witty script by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat,
and wonderful performances by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, who scored
such a hit as a pair of twits that they repeated those roles in several
other films! Based on Ethel Lina White's novel The Wheel Spins.
96 minutes, D: John Ford
One of the great American films, and a landmark in the maturing of the
Western, balancing character study (as disparate passengers travel together
on the same stagecoach) and peerless action (in a lengthy Indian attack,
featuring Yakima Canutt's famous stuntwork). Also the film that propelled
John Wayne to genuine stardom. Mitchell won an Oscar as the drunken
doctor, as did the music score. Script by Dudley Nichols, from Ernest
Haycox's story "Stage to Lordsburg" (whose plot is reminiscent of Guy
de Maupassant's Boule de Suif). Filmed in Ford's beloved Monument
Valley on the Arizona-Utah border.
Gone With The Wind (1939)
222 minutes, D: Victor Fleming
If not the greatest movie ever made, certainly one of the greatest examples
of storytelling on film, maintaining interest for nearly four hours.
Margaret Mitchell's story is, in effect, a Civil War soap opera, focusing
on vixenish Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara, brilliantly played by Leigh;
she won Oscar, as did the picture, McDaniel, director Fleming, screenwriter
Sidney Howard (posthumously), many others. Memorable music by Max Steiner
in this one-of-a-kind film meticulously produced by David O. Selznick.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
101 minutes, D: Victor Fleming
A genuine American classic, based on L. Frank Baum's story of a Kansas
girl who goes "Over the Rainbow" to a land of colorful characters and
spirited adventure. A perfect cast in the perfect fantasy, with Harold
Arlen and E. Y. Harburg's unforgettable score. Just as good the fifteenth
time as it is the first time. Won Oscars for "Over the Rainbow" and
Herbert Stothart's scoring, plus a special miniature award for Judy.
His Girl Friday (1940)
92 minutes, D: Howard Hawks
Splendid comedy remake of The Front Page with Grant as conniving
editor, Russell as star reporter (and his ex-wife), Bellamy as mama's
boy she's trying to marry amid hot murder story. Terrific character
actors add sparkle to must-see film, scripted by Ben Hecht and Charles
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
129 minutes, D: John Ford
Classic Americana of Okies moving from dust bowl to California during
Depression, lovingly brought to screen. Fonda, as ex-con, is unforgettable
in role of his life. Darwell, as determined family matriarch, and Ford
won well-deserved Oscars. Written for the screen (from John Steinbeck's
classic) and produced by Nunnally Johnson. Don't miss this one.
120 minutes, D: Ben Sharpsteen (production supervisor)
Walt Disney's eight-part marriage of music and animated images remains
an amazing achievement; Taylor's narration dates it more than the content.
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (with Mickey Mouse), "The Dance of the Hours"
(with dancing hippos and alligators), "Rite of Spring" (dinosaurs stalking
the earth), and "A Night on Bald Mountain" (with Chernobog, the personification
of evil) are so stunning that they make up for the less compelling sequences.
Also notable for groundbreaking use of multichannel stereophonic sound.
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
91 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
Tired of making fluff, movie director McCrea decides to do a "serious"
film; to research it, he sets out with 10 cents in his pocket to experience
life in "the real world." Slapstick and sorrow blend seamlessly in this
landmark Hollywood satire, which grows more pertinent with each passing
year. A unique achievement for writer-director Sturges.
Citizen Kane (1941)
119 minutes, D: Orson Welles
Welles' first and best, a film that broke all the rules and invented
some new ones, with fascinating story of Hearst-like publisher's rise
to power. The cinematography (by Gregg Toland), music score (by Bernard
Hermann), and Oscar-winning screenplay (by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz)
are all first-rate. A stunning film in every way...and Welles was only
25 when he made it!
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
100 minutes, D: John Huston
Outstanding detective drama improves with each viewing. Bogey is Dashiell
Hammett's "hero" Sam Spade, Astor his client, Lorre the evasive Joel
Cairo, Greenstreet (in his talkie film debut) the Fat Man, and Cook
the neurotic gunsel Wilmer. Huston's first directorial effort (which
he also scripted) moves at lightning pace, with cameo by his father
Walter Huston as Captain Jacobi.
The Lady Eve (1941)
94 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
Stanwyck is a con artist who sets her eyes on wealthy Fonda - the dolt
to end all dolts, who proclaims "snakes are my life." Sometimes silly
and strident, this film grows funnier with each viewing - thanks to
Sturges's script, breathless pace, and two incomparable stars.
102 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
Everything is right in this WW2 classic of war-torn Morocco with elusive
night-club owner Rick (Bogart) finding old flame (Bergman) and her husband,
underground leader Henreid, among skeletons in his closet. Rains is
marvelous as dapper police chief, and nobody sings "As Time Goes By"
like Dooley Wilson. Three Oscars include Picture, Director, and Screenplay
(Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch). Our candidate for the best
Hollywood movie of all time.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
75 minutes, D: William A. Wellman
The irony and terror of mob rule are vividly depicted in this unforgettable
drama about a lynch mob taking the law into its own hands, despite protests
of some level-headed onlookers. Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark's
book; superb script by Lamar Trotti.
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
99 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
Frantic, hilarious comedy of Betty attending all-night party, getting
pregnant and forgetting who's the father. Bracken and Demarest have
never been better than in this daring wartime farce. Filmed in 1942.
Double Indemnity (1944)
106 minutes, D: Billy Wilder
Wilder-Raymond Chandler script (from the James M. Cain novel) packs
fireworks in account of insurance salesman MacMurray coerced into murder
plot by alluring Stanwyck and subsequent investigation by Fred's colleague
Robinson. An American movie classic, with crackling dialogue throughout.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
97 minutes, D:
Beautifully-directed, low-key Western about Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and Doc
Holliday (Mature), leading to inevitable gunfight at O.K. Corral. Full
of wonderful details and vignettes; exquisitely photographed by Joseph
P. MacDonald. One of director Ford's finest films, and an American classic.
Screenplay by Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller, from a story by Sam
Hellman. Based on a book by Stuart N. Lake. Remake of Frontier Marshal
It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
129 minutes, D: Frank Capra
Sentimental tale of Stewart, who works all his life to make good in
small town, thinking he's failed and trying to end his life. Guardian
angel Travers comes to show him his mistake. Only Capra and this cast
could pull it off so well; this film seems to improve with age. Capra,
Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling expanded Philip Van
Doren Stern's short story "The Greatest Gift" (which had originally
been written by Stern as a Christmas card!).
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
172 minutes, D: William Wyler
American classic of three veterans returning home after WW2, readjusting
to civilian life. Robert Sherwood's script from MacKinlay Kantor's book
perfectly captured mood of postwar U.S.; still powerful today. Seven
Oscars include Best Picture, Wyler, March, Russell, Sherwood, Daniel
Mandell's editing, Hugo Friedhofer's score. Russell, an actual veteran
who lost his hands, also took home a second Oscar, a special award for
bringing hope and courage to other veterans.
Great Expectations (1946 - British)
118 minutes, D: David Lean
One of the greatest films ever made, a vivid adaptation of Dickens's
tale of a mysterious benefactor making poor young orphan a gentleman
of means. Opening graveyard sequence is a gem. Oscars went to cinematographer
Guy Green and art director John Bryan. Lean, Kay Walsh, Cecil McGivern,
and producers Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame all contributed
The Bicycle Thief (1948 - Italian)
90 minutes, D: Vittorio De Sica
Simple, realistic tale of working-man whose job depends on his bicycle,
and the shattering week he spends with his young son after it is stolen.
An honest, beautiful film that deservedly earned a special Academy Award
(before foreign films had a category of their own); one of the all-time
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
124 minutes, D: John Huston
Excellent adaptation of B. Traven's tale of gold, greed, and human nature
at its worst, with Bogart, Huston, and Holt as unlikely trio of prospectors.
John Huston won Oscars for Best Direction and Screenplay, and his father
Walter won as Best Supporting Actor. That's John as an American tourist
near the beginning, and young Robert Blake selling lottery tickets.
Gun Crazy (1949)
86 minutes, D: Joseph H. Lewis
Knockout of a sleeper in the Bonnie and Clyde tradition, stylishly (and
sometimes startingly) directed. Cummins is femme fatale who leads gun-crazy
Dall into life of crime. Screenplay credited to MacKinlay Kantor and
Millard Kaufman (who was actually "fronting" for then black-listed writer
Dalton Trumbo), from Kantor's Saturday Evening Post story. Aka
Deadly Is The Female.