Even though there are so many great new films to see (from the superhero blockbusters of Marvel and DC to the terrifying treats of A24), moviegoers shouldn’t ignore classics from the pre-’93 era. Many of the films on this list, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Seven Samurai, take the audience on a vast and innovative journey they will never forget.
The following films were all released before 1993, but they cover a century’s worth of cinematic history, travel across borders and genres, and highlight the work of several legendary directors via the medium of a single picture. While many of these films will be instantly recognizable to cinephiles, the list serves as a reminder of what makes them truly special and as a resource for readers looking for recommendations on what to watch (or rewatch) with fresh eyes.
12 Angry Men (1957)
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The film 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda and directed by Sidney Lumet, tells the narrative of a murder trial in which eleven of the twelve jurors are deadlocked on whether or not the defendant should be found guilty. The film is both a condemnation of the flawed American judicial system and a very personal exploration of bias, identity, and prejudice. Each performer has their moment in the spotlight thanks to the brilliant blocking and moving monologues. The viewer’s preconceived notions are challenged by the stark black-and-white visuals, which transform even the most obvious facts into a thrilling grey enigma.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
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Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is an experimental science-fiction epic and possibly the director’s magnum effort. The genius of 2001: A Space Odyssey is that each spectator walks away with a different interpretation, ranging from existential fear to a life-affirming experience, even though it covers life from the Stone Age to an unsettling 21st century when sentient technology threatens mankind. The special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey are a technological wonder, from the revolving sets to the slit-scan photography to the match cuts and the phantasmagorical colors.
The Godfather (1972)
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The Godfather tells the narrative of the Corleone family through several generations, focusing on how the efforts of the patriarch to preserve the family unit ultimately lead to its dissolution. Francis Ford Coppola’s film transports the audience to a nostalgic 1940s environment on the edge of huge, terrible change through the use of warm color and low lighting. Even while The Godfather is often cited as a classic of the gangster cinema canon, it doesn’t mean Coppola is condoning or celebrating criminal behavior. The Godfather shows how characters like Vito Corleone and his offspring are trapped by their own decisions and how trying to hold on to the past may result in a broken future.
The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
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The Wizard of Oz becomes a classic everyone should watch at least once because of Dorothy’s first solo trip to the Land of Oz. The stunning costumes, elaborate settings, and dazzling lighting transport viewers to L. Frank Baum’s fantastical world. Dorothy’s search for “home” in The Wizard of Oz is a universal theme, yet the narrative itself is deceptively straightforward. The video reveals that the answers to the questions of belonging, intelligence, sympathy, and bravery lie inside each individual viewer.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
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Since the opening wide tracking shot of Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Do the Right Thing has been unapologetically confrontational in its depiction of racism in the United States. Spike Lee’s depiction of a diverse group of Brooklynites on the hottest day of the year is as stressful as it is hilarious. Colors of orange and yellow, slanted camera angles, and folks’ perspiring necks all hint to the growing unease and tension in this neighborhood. The film’s depiction of how people may disagree while yet coming together is hopeful, despite the film’s harsh and timely conclusion.
Blue Velvet (1986)
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Blue Velvet captures both the promise and the shadows of an idealized American neighborhood. In David Lynch’s neo-noir mystery, a college student named Jeffrey finds a dismembered ear in the middle of a field and gets obsessed with solving the case. Jeffrey finds more and more wickedness both in his hometown and inside himself as his investigation continues. Lynch’s vision is rich in dramatic lighting and color, and the seemingly idyllic image of the United States is both reassuringly familiar and deeply unsettling. A lovely smile and the terrible turmoil that exists underneath America’s manicured lawns are both depicted in Blue Velvet.
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In Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, we learn that sometimes the things we don’t see are the scariest. With the story of a shark terrorizing a sleepy seaside community, Jaws forces viewers to face their own fears of the unknown. Jaws is an example of both inescapable and elusive terror, thanks to the combination of terrifying music by John Williams and point-of-view views that put the audience in the place of the shark. The shark is a versatile symbol, and it has been used to represent anything from the perils of global warming to the insidious effects of unresolved trauma.
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Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is a classic that everyone should see because it broke new ground in filmmaking using non-Hollywood methods. The use of a handheld camera and quick cuts gives the picture a sense of closeness and authenticity that will appeal to any budding filmmakers. Godard employs a unique cinematic language that anybody with a camera can understand. In Breathless, we follow the lives of Michel, a criminal who has a soft spot for action flicks and a tense relationship with his girlfriend Patricia. Just as the film’s style critiques Hollywood cinema, so too does the narrative examine Michel’s self-deception. The unconventionality of this French New Wave film allows both its creators and its audience members to question their own identities.
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The house is great for a group viewing. A group of Japanese schoolgirls and their six friends visit the girl’s aunt’s house in this 1970s horror comedy. Soon they begin to experience mysterious occurrences and come to the terrifying realization that the house itself wants to devour them. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s goal isn’t to frighten his viewers but rather to make them laugh out loud with his use of stop-motion animation, splashy cartoons, and excessive chroma keying. House has no clear message, but its heart is so full of unbridled delight that the film’s vibrant colors and catchy tune leap off the screen and envelop the audience in a dream.
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In Citizen Kane, an ambitious newspaper magnate’s quest for love leads him to become famous but also lonely and powerful. Both the foreground and backdrop of Orson Welles’ films were in excellent focus because of the director’s use of deep-focus cinematography, which was an audacious choice. Cutting holes in the floor for low-angle views and employing optical printing to blend matte paintings and stage footage both contribute to the operatic quality of the scenes and the fabled status of Kane. As the picture is widely acknowledged as the pinnacle of cinematic achievement, Citizen Kane is a must-see for any film buff.
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In Billy Wilder’s alluring and hazardous Sunset Boulevard, the story begins with the narrator dead and floating in a pool. The film follows scriptwriter Joe Gillis as he becomes obsessed with silent cinema star Norma Desmond. Gloria Swanson plays Desmond, a seductive but deluded predator who systematically ensnares her victim. The way Gillis and Desmond cling to one another in search of a return to their more hopeful past is both disturbing and fascinating. Even today, Sunset Boulevard’s narrative of nostalgia and the futile pursuit of immortality via celebrity rings true.