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The 20 Best Classic Movies on Netflix

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Netflix’s library of classic movies (films released before 1985 by our definition) is not nearly as deep as it once was, before the streaming service shifted its focus to newer content, particularly original series. But there are some timeless treasures from the 1940s through the 1980s if you want to watch a bit of movie-making history. If you’re curious about a specific decade, we have more picks from the Best Movies of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s on Netflix. And for a broader selection, visit our list of the 100 Best Movies on Netflix.

Here are the 20 Best Classic Movies Streaming on Netflix:

20. Out 1
Year: 1971
Director: Jacques Rivette
In this sprawling narrative, two different Parisian theater groups are rehearsing plays by Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound), while one young deaf-mute man panhandles and a bewitching young women swindles. There’s also there’s some kind of conspiratorial group modeled on the “Thirteen” of Balzac’s novels. Most of the first installment consists of the Prometheus group engaging in a big, loud, moaning-and-mud-slinging acting exercise that begins with pairs mirroring one another’s actions and ends (a lot later) in a pantomime of a pagan ritual. There’s other stuff going on, but this sets the tone: We’re not here to engage with an epic plot so much as settle down into the slow rhythm of real time, to live with characters over a long period. Most of the characters are actors, conscious always of being watched (and trying not to be), and those characters are played by real actors who know they’re in a film. So we’re several layers deep, as audience members. The film wants us to remember that real life is just as much of an improvisation—in fact, more so—as anything that happens in the theatre. People repeat lines and interact with one another in ways we realize are drawn from previous interactions. In real life, Rivette seems to be saying, we are all engaged in creating some kind of spectacle, each of us at the center of our own story. The theater exercises in which characters engage are designed to break down barriers between their fellows (barriers that keep getting thrown up through arguments or conflicts of artistic vision) and to bust any wall between emotion and reality. But all falls apart. Connection fails. The troupes split up. Language begins to run backwards or loop, underlining the difficulty of any of this happening at all. —Alissa Wilkinson


19. The Verdict
Year: 1982
Director: Sidney Lumet
It’s worth noting upfront that Sidney Lumet shot most of The Verdict in New York City. But the real connective tissue that links The Verdict to Boston is its narrative, in which a hard luck, hard drinking lawyer (the great Paul Newman) butts heads with the city’s archdiocese over a “right to die” case. Boston has a large Catholic community that wields an impressive amount of social influence—Lumet might have shot his picture in the Big Apple, but he nonetheless encapsulates that religious influence perfectly in his courtroom drama. Plus he has his cast tiptoe around the matter of accents quite deftly, too, which is a nice if nonessential touch. —Andy Crump


18. Gremlins
Year: 1984
Director: Joe Dante
Joe Dante’s Gremlins is an yearly Christmastime argument waiting to happen, in the same vein as Die Hard, given that both are annually tossed onto “best Christmas movie” lists, but those debates often overlook the dark comedy of an expertly crafted ‘80s horror film from Dante at the height of his powers. Taking the lessons he learned as a ‘70s Roger Corman protege, Dante borrows character actors like Dick Miller to create a cynical, biting rebuke of maudlin sentimentality and children’s entertainment. The surprising counterpoint between comedy and graphic violence was a source of consternation that led directly to the creation of the PG-13 rating, but its more important impact was shaping the aesthetic of nearly every horror comedy for the next three decades.—Jim Vorel


17. An American Werewolf in London
Year: 1981
Director: John Landis
Few directors have ever displayed such an innate tact for combining dark humor and horror the way John Landis does. At the height of his powers in the early ’80s, one year removed from The Blues Brothers, Landis opted for a much dirtier, grittier, scarier story that stands as what is still the best werewolf movie of all time. When two travelers backpacking across the English moors are attacked by a werewolf, one is killed and the other infected with the wolf’s curse. Haunted by the simultaneously unnerving and hilarious visions of his dead friend, he must decide how to come to terms with the monster he has become, even as he strikes up a relationship with a beautiful nurse played by Jenny Agutter. The film lulls you into comfort with its witticism before springing shocking, gory dream sequences on the viewer, which repeatedly arrive unannounced. The key moment is the protagonist’s incredibly painful, traumatic full transformation, set to the crooning of Sam Cooke doing “Blue Moon,” which is still unsurpassed in the history of the genre. Legendary FX and monster makeup artist Rick Baker took home the first-ever Academy Award for For Best Makeup and Hairstyling for creating a scene that has given the wolf-averse nightmares ever since. —Jim Vorel


16. The African Queen
Year: 1951
Director: John Huston
The madcap, screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s helped set the template for the battle-of-the-sexes comedies that would populate American cinemas for years to come (and still do, to some extent). Writer/director John Huston’s genius in making The African Queen was taking the feuding couple out of the metropolitan areas for which they’d often been associated with and instead placing them square in the middle of an inhospitable jungle. With the added element of survival driving their journey, the flirtatious banter between classy widow Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) and crass boatman Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) crackles all the more, making for a rom-com as vicious as it is sweet. —Mark Rozeman


15. Patton
Year: 1970
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Watching Patton, Franklin J. Schaffner’s colossal biographical ode to one of World War II’s most renowned and most controversial military figures, you get the sense that George S. Patton would likely dig Schaffner’s work; the film doesn’t apologize for itself or for its subject’s actions and attitudes, much as Patton didn’t make a habit of apologizing for either unless directly ordered to by his superiors. There may be no more appropriate way to honor the man’s memory than that, such as Patton can be narrowly described as an “honor.” The film doesn’t exactly flatter the general, per se, but straddles a line between hero worship and sober representation, letting Patton, and by extension George C. Scott’s commanding and iconic portrait of him, speak for himself without fear of condemnation or reprisal. As Patton is about Patton, so, too, is it about Scott, which makes sense: If you make a movie and name it after its central character, you’re also making it about its central performance, and so it’s good that Scott was up to the task of reincarnating the late general in all his egotistical, violent, callous, and shockingly vulnerable glory. Patton is a war movie, make no mistake, but it uses the war movie blueprint for housing a character study of its protagonist. The results, almost half a century later, remain completely singular in the genre. —Andy Crump


8. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Year: 1984
Director: Wes Craven
Taking a big hint from The Cabinet of Caligari, Wes Craven warps reality and tackles one of humanity’s primal fears: the dark. Freddy Kruger stomps through intangible dreamscapes, tormenting a group of teenagers by denying them sleep lest he kill them in a series of extremely creative disembowelments. Technology and creativity merged in this feature to create a searing illustration of fatigue and color that has yet to be effectively replicated. —Sean Edgar



13. The Panic in Needle Park
Year: 1971
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Want to know what it was like for Lou Reed to score drugs in New York? Then this is your film. Al Pacino stars as a junkie who drags his girlfriend (Kitty Winn) into the life. It sounds like a downer, and it definitely can be, but Pacino’s energy keeps the film buoyant and interesting. New York in the late ‘60s and ‘70s represents a paradox in American history—a hotbed of revolutionary art, but also a stunning symbol of American desperation and decline. Few films capture what it was like to be young and rudderless in the Big Apple like Panic in Needle Park. —Shane Ryan


12. The Hustler
Year: 1961
Director: Robert Rossen
It’s hard to believe this classic Paul Newman/Jackie Gleason movie about pool shark “Fast Eddie” Felson is over a half-century old. That might be why it was just nudged out of the elite eight of our Best Sports Movies bracket by White Men Can’t Jump. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but Newman had to wait 25 years to win an Oscar as Felson for the film’s eventual sequel, The Color of Money. —Josh Jackson


11. To Kill a Mockingbird
Year: 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Gregory Peck perfectly encapsulated what made Atticus Finch the ideal father in the novel To Kill A Mockingbird and brought him to the big screen in a classic performance. While Finch goes through a controversial rape trial, he stands up for what is right regardless of the danger and shows his children Scout and Jem how they should be not by telling them, but by teaching them through example. —Ross Bonaime


10. This Is Spinal Tap
Director: Rob Reiner
Year: 1984
The only rock documentary worth watching, according to Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl—next to Pennebaker’s Dont Look BackThis Is Spinal Tap isn’t really a documentary at all, though it aspires to so much more truth than any countless, beatific biopic that’s come out in the past couple decades or so. The story of a fictional metal/cock rock band told through talking head interviews that chronicle their iconic ups and downs, Spinal Tap is our best, early glimpse at the team who’d go on to make Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind and Best in Show. While it isn’t the first of its kind, it feels like it could be: So deeply does it understand the world it parodies, Spinal Tap knows that a mockumentary is best a biopic of people who never existed, taking the personalities that define this starfucking realm and then, ever so slightly, ever so lovingly, cranking them to 11. —Dom Sinacola


9. Sunset Boulevard
Year: 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s meta noir is a doozy, an unfailingly cynical critique of showbiz and a portrait of postwar alienation projected on the microcosm of Hollywood. It’s also wickedly funny in Sahara dry fashion, from the opening words of our dead narrator—floating facedown in his killer’s swimming pool—to Norma Desmond’s concluding descent down her staircase, and the rabbit hole. Gloria Swanson is magnificent and sad as Ms. Desmond, a fading beauty of the silent screen who manipulates broke, hackish screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) into becoming her boy toy. Theirs is a fated relationship from the get-go, she of the wordless era, he dependent on them for his very livelihood. They’re on the outs with their industry, and each other, yet coexist out of desperation. Wilder, who co-wrote with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., layered the script with in-joke upon self-referential wink, perhaps the least of which is Desmond’s passion project, about that OG of femme fatales, Salome. There’s a parade of Hollywood cameos, namechecks, and behind-the-scenes instances of “art imitating life” (and vice versa); for example, Erich von Stroheim, who portrays Desmond’s former director/first husband-turned-still lovestruck butler Max, directed Swanson in 1929’s Queen Kelly (excerpted here) before she as the film’s producer fired him, much like her Sunset Blvd. character discards his. Many of these nods were in less-than-good fun, so it’s no shock that Sunset Boulevard met with local disdain, yet Wilder doesn’t flinch. Norma, Joe, Max … they’re all unwanted souls who, try as they might to live in the past, have succumbed to the present—in Joe’s case, most finally. The smoke and mirrors of Tinseltown, of life, don’t do the job anymore (though cinematographer John Seitz, who also lensed Double Indemnity, most certainly did, sprinkling dust into the air for the lights to catch). Desmond may be a seductress past her sell-by date, but Hollywood is the ultimate femme fatale, who chews suckers up and spits them out. Sunset Boulevard gives L.A. its close-up, alright. —Amanda Schurr


8. The Omen
Year: 1976
Director: Richard Donner
In the canon of “creepy kid” movies, the original 1976 incarnation of The Omen stands alone, untainted by the horrendous 2006 remake. The film has a palpable sense of malice to it, largely because of its juxtaposition of restraint and moments of extremity. Damien isn’t this little devil boy running around stabbing people—he’s full of guile and deceit. He knows that he’s playing the long game: It will be years and years before he achieves his purpose on the Earth, which gives him the uncomfortable attitude of an adult (and a pure evil one) in a child’s body. The Omen is brooding, morose, sullen, broken up by staccato moments of shocking violence—in particular, there’s the infamous scene where a sheet of glass leads to a decapitation, or there’s the fate of Damien’s nurse in the opening. For the parents out there: This will genuinely get under your skin. —Jim Vorel


7. Kagemusha
Year: 1980
Director: Akira Kurosawa 
Like Rashomon before it, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha proves the director is as much a master of story plotting as he is perfectionist over the smallest technical nuances in his films—though here, he’s painting on a far grander canvas. Not long after the peak of their relevance, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped secure financing for Kurosawa to finally film this extraordinary, sweeping epic, with both admitting to owing the filmmaker a huge debt as an influence. That alone is excuses an Ewok (and Jack) or two. —Scott Wold


6. Laura
Year: 1944
Director: Otto Preminger
Maybe falling in love with dead people is just an occupational hazard of being an investigative detective in New York City. Then again, maybe a shotgun blast to the face couldn’t keep anybody from developing a crush on Gene Tierney, which is pretty much how the plot of Otto Preminger’s Laura goes. The film tracks the trajectory of NYPD detective Mark McPherson’s growing obsession with the eponymous young lady as he cobbles together the bits and pieces of her life and death. Poring over her diary and her letters, he comes to moon over her, and why not? She’s every bit as delightful as Preminger’s movie. Laura doesn’t waste time and stacks contrivance on top of unlikelihood, but such is the strength of Preminger’s craft and the performances of his cast that the film’s convolution doesn’t matter. —Andy Crump


5. Blazing Saddles
Year: 1974
Director: Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks’ greatest and most racially charged comedy has recently been mentioned in debates of political correctness, in the tone of “Nobody would be able to make Blazing Saddles today,” and for better or worse, it’s hard to refute. The film is a product of its time, a decency-stretching Wild West farce about a black sheriff trying to win over the white settlers of his frontier town and foil the plot of comically nebbish villain Harvey Korman in an all-time great comedy performance. Brooks regulars such as Madeline Kahn contribute great bits, and there’s the wonderfully understated Gene Wilder, but the reason the film remains such a classic today is that the surface-level gags are largely harmless and timeless. From its little diversions in Loony Tunes parodies, to the genre satire of every person in town seemingly being named “Johnson,” it’s a surprisingly sweet film for one that’s also throwing around heavy themes of racism and discrimination. One thing that genuinely wouldn’t be done in a film today is its madcap, zany ending, as the cowboys spill out of their own movie and into the other Warner Bros. soundstages. Outside of Anchorman 2, nothing else in recent years has tapped into that level of reality-bending, plot-snapping absurdism. —Jim Vorel


4. El Dorado
Year: 1966
Director: Howard Hawks
Easily one of the best Westerns ever made, and perhaps one of the best movies ever made period, El Dorado is Howard Hawks at his best and most self-referential. In case the obvious question need be asked: Might this be Hawks’ re-do of his own 1959 masterwork, Rio Bravo? In many ways, yes, absolutely, 100%, hands-down. Both are about ragtag teams of heroes joining in defiance against arrogant ranchers, greedy men with varying nefarious aims, and both star John Wayne. When you strike gold, you strike gold, and Rio Bravo being a hit, maybe we can understand why Hawks decided to rehash it twice over the next 10 years and change. (Note: Avoid the second of these, 1970’s Rio Lobo. It’s sort of a dud.) If El Dorado is the lesser version of Rio Bravo, though, it’s still excellent, seasoned with a nimble sense of humor, superb action, and strong performances bolstered by the chemistry of Hawks’ cast, expanding beyond Wayne to include Robert Mitchum, Arthur Hunnicutt and James Caan. (The perspective shift helps, too.) El Dorado willingly engages with perfectly Western concepts of death and mortality, perhaps reflecting the span of time separating it from Rio Bravo. —Andy Crump


3. The Third Man
Year: 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Any person who calls themselves a cinephile yet has not seen Carol Reed’s phenomenal Third Man needs to stop reading this blurb immediately, carve out two hours and rectify this mistake. In all seriousness though, Vienna has rarely looked more richly cinematic than it does here, with Robert Krasker’s expressionistic camerawork capturing the feel of a city distorted. The plot centers on Joseph Cotten’s Western writer Holly Martins, who arrives in Vienna after hearing about a job from his friend, Harry. Holly is promptly shocked to discover that Harry was killed in a car accident but, suspicious of the shady details, begins to investigate his friend’s death. On the off chance anyone has remained unspoiled (or never watched Pinky and the Brain), I will leave it at that, adding only that the film boasts a brilliant performance from Orson Welles and a thrilling final-act foot chase. —Mark Rozeman


2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Year: 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg 
Steven Spielberg’s classic is many things: an ode to friendship that resonates with child and adult alike, one of the top-grossing films of all time, and the moment his career, on a scale of 1-10, reached 11. Though the Academy would not award Spielberg the Best Director trophy until there were more Nazis involved, E.T. remains perhaps the most deft expression of his directorial hand. —Michael Burgin


1. The Shining
Year: 1980
Director: Stanley Kubrick 
Stephen King famously hates Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of his novel The Shining, which is difficult to understand until you actually read King’s original book, whereupon things become much more clear. Kubrick, ever the mad genius, largely rejected the emotional core of King’s story because he saw within the bones of The Shining an opportunity for a journey into the heart of visually and sonically inspired terror that few films have ever come close to replicating. Unlike in King’s novel, Jack is never treated with any kind of sympathy or pathos in the eyes of the audience—he’s a creep from the very first moment we meet him during his job interview, and he only gets worse from there, with the implied threat of his physical violence toward Danny and Wendy hanging over every scene like the sword of Damocles. His madness is alluded to masterfully through some of the most iconic visual and especially sound editing in cinema history—few horror films, or any film in general, has ever used sound as unnervingly as The Shining. Go watch The Witch from last year, and the aural comparisons are obvious. This movie, like The Exorcist, seeps into your bones. It becomes part of your DNA and stays there, infecting every perspective you have on the horror genre for the rest of a lifetime. It’s a monumental film. —J.V.

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