It’s impossible, right? Listing the greatest films ever made is a recipe for failure that subjects us to hostile comments, rolling eyes, and a whole lot of missed opportunities. A ‘Best Of’ list is a limiting and exclusionary enterprise by definition, fencing off an often arbitrary selection of titles at the expense of literally thousands of others. What is the point of this? Why subject ourselves to the abuse?
Well, that’s just what we do. Anyone who loves art of any kind, who deals with it professionally, who chooses how to navigate it, or who makes opinions about it — all these people have a ‘Best Of’ list of some kind. What else do you call museum curation? What do you call your Blu-ray collection? What is a music playlist if not a ‘Best Of?’ We are all creating miniature ‘Best Of’ lists every day, whether it’s the specific selection of websites you visit or apps you use, the distinct brands you purchase, the same foods you seek out at grocery stores, or the restaurants you visit. We are curators of taste, all of us, and we collect and remember what we enjoy.
A cinematic ‘Best Of’ list is not very different. It’s a collection of “great” films that are easily enjoyable, endlessly enlightening, aesthetically exquisite, or emotionally significant. The critic’s job, however, is to bridge the objective and the subjective, so that others can walk this bridge and access things they otherwise may never have. Of course, everything is subjective with art, so there are no right answers here (and most of the ludicrous comments below will complain about how these aren’t “the best” films of all time). That’s all well and good. It’s by definition.
However, there is something objective involved here. What makes something one of “the best” in its field, especially when there isn’t hard data to qualify it, as in sports? Well, in cinema, as in most art, it depends on a variety of factors. How important is the film to culture at large? How much did it innovate and advance the medium? How influential has it been? Did it capture and reflect history in a wholly unique way? Does it express something about the human condition that practically nothing else has in the same way? Is it utterly perfect from all technical perspectives? Is it more entertaining and entrancing than any other two hours you could spend? Does it change the actual way in which you perceive the world?
These criteria are lofty, but they must be. These are “the best” movies, after all. Of course, there are literally thousands of other films which are legitimate masterpieces. There’s now an average of 600 American movies released each year alone, on top of the hundreds of other films every year, and feature films have been released for over 110 years; of course, the number’s different each year, and that’s just America. There have been hundreds of thousands of films, possibly millions. And you want a top 25? It’s impossible, right? There are just too many great films which might not make the list:
Pulp Fiction, The Conversation, Pi, All Quiet on the Western Front, Blazing Saddles, Johnny Guitar, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Shining, Saving Private Ryan, Nosferatu, Jaws, Baraka, Easy Rider, Annie Hall, Akira, Mouchette, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Metropolis, Lost in Translation, The Silence of the Lambs, Spirited Away, Caché, Gates of Heaven, The Red Shoes, Pickpocket, In a Lonely Place, Withnail & I, Waking Life, Magnolia, Koyaanisqatsi, Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke, Blade Runner, El Topo, Werckmeister Harmonies, Crumb, Forbidden Games, Top Hat, Rebel Without a Cause, Woodstock, Last Tango in Paris, Out of the Past, Leaving Las Vegas, Strangers on a Train, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Goodfellas, and hundreds upon hundreds more.
And don’t even get us started on directors. A top 30 list of the greatest movies could actually just contain the work of four or five directors; some are just that good. As such, we’ll be limiting the great directors (Godard, Bergman, Lee, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Kore-Eda, Ozu, Varda, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Campion, and many more) to just one film. We’ll also be avoiding all the masterpieces under 60 minutes in length, from Night and Fog and Meshes of the Afternoon to Un Chien Andalou and La Jetée.
And still, we will miss so much, and you will not be satisfied. It’s just too much. But, as Samuel Beckett wrote, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” These are the 30 best movies of all time, ranked (for some sick reason).
30 Barton Fink
There are several films from the Coen brothers which could understandably be placed here, and it really comes down to personal preference (a recurring theme here). The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, or even A Simple Man could all feasibly be called some of the best movies of all time. It’s Barton Fink, though, which seems to be the most personal, daring, and greatest film the Coens have made.
It’s also arguably the most mysterious, a dark allegory about the creative process, intellectualism, Marxism, Judaism, and bigotry that’s as funny as it is disturbing. John Turturro gives his greatest performance as a playwright obsessed with the proverbial proletariat, wanting to write a play ‘for the people.’ Holed up in a creepy hotel, the writer slowly loses his mind, thanks in no small part from the most menacing John Goodman performance you’ll ever see. Barton Fink is a masterful anxiety dream, a comic nightmare, and a great American tale.
29 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
While he’s most known for the horror classic Nosferatu, the great F.W. Murnau made his best film in 1927 with Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Using his immense skill at expressionistic atmosphere and emotional close-ups, Murnau brought on cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss to innovate film language in a way that set it apart from literature and the theater (as Eisenstein attempted something similar in the Soviet Union).
The result is a powerful romantic drama with very little text and titles, relying on a purely cinematic medium to engage emotions and tell a story of marriage, adultery, guilt, and redemption. Suspenseful, sad, and sublime, Sunrise won the only ever Oscar for “Unique and Artistic Picture” at the very first Academy Awards.
28 Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver remains one of the most influential American films of all time, and it’s easy to see why. While there may have been more technical flourishes in fun epics like Goodfellas and Casino, or deeper meaning in Scorsese’s religious films, Taxi Driver‘s emphasis on the antihero, the unreliable narrator, the reactionary tendencies of antisocial loners, and the spectacle of sex and violence elevate it to a kind of lugubrious importance in cinematic history.
The troubled tale of one Travis Bickle, a disaffected young taxi driver home from Vietnam, Scorsese’s film is a nihilistic blast of anger and ethical ambiguity. A snapshot of America as a miasmic hellscape seen through the eyes of a fascist renegade, Taxi Driver is just as disturbing today as it was in 1976, and features arguably Robert De Niro’s greatest performance.
The Holocaust is one of the greatest traps in film history, luring countless directors and studios to attempt capturing it, dramatizing it, or explaining it. The vast majority of these attempts, from documentaries to narrative features, are failures at best, and morally repugnant cash grabs at worst. If there was ever a film to truly capture perhaps the darkest moment of the 20th century, though, it would be Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour-long documentary.
Interweaving testimonials from Nazis and victims alike, along with archival footage, detailed reporting, and hauntingly poetic cinematography, Shoah understands the magnitude of its subject and does not treat it lightly. It demands your full attention, and if you study it carefully, it reveals things about history and humanity that you can’t learn elsewhere.
26 Sans Soleil
The great Chris Marker will always be the black sheep of the French New Wave, which is a shame; endlessly prolific, extremely playful, and intellectually astonishing, Marker made some of the most fascinating films of all time. His best works were hybrids of drama and documentary, and his true masterpiece is Sans Soleil, a gorgeous travelogue through Japan, California, France, Guinea-Bissau, and elsewhere. With philosophical dialogue, gorgeous imagery, a great deal of mystery, and searing questions about the nature of culture, time, and memory, Sans Soleil is an unforgettable cinematic essay of the highest caliber.
It’s difficult to find the intersection of horror and the traditionally lauded ‘best movies of all time.’ Horror has historically (and wrongly) been relegated to a separate function of film, apart from what can be high art, though of course the lamentably named ‘elevated horror’ movement is attempting to rectify that. The truth is, horror has always been representative of the greatest films ever made, whether it’s Vampyr, Nosferatu, and Possession, or The Tenant, The Descent, and The Exorcists. Alien remains one of the greatest horror films of all time for even non-horror fans because it is so perfectly executed, and succeeds at hybridizing the Agatha Christie mystery, classic science-fiction, and feminist manifesto into a powerful horror package that’s hard to compete with.
Sigourney Weaver is incredible as Ripley, and would lead perhaps the best-directed film franchise of all time (Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet), in a legendary performance that would become as synonymous with feminism as Rosie the Riveter. Ripley weaves through space and time in an existential and cosmic battle with an alien life force throughout the series, but it all starts with Alien, an ingeniously small horror-thriller that turns rape into an alien creature, and morphs the slasher film into something altogether smarter.
24 The Searchers
John Ford’s masterpiece with John Wayne is the best of their collaborations, and perhaps the best Western film ever made. Before the era of Revisionist Westerns and more ethically ambiguous Hollywood films, The Searchers dared to present a nuanced, dark critique of male American conquest in the Wild West.
The Searchers follows Wayne as he’s tasked with “rescuing” a girl (Natalie Wood) who has supposedly been kidnapped by an Indigenous tribe after a massacre. What Wayne and the other men discover leads to psychologically and culturally complicated refutations of manhood, jingoism, and ego. On top of that, Ford and his cinematographer Winton Hoch create some of the most indelible Western images of all time.
23 Do the Right Thing
Arguably Spike Lee’s greatest film, Do the Right Thing is a perfect portrait of a community and a cinematic conversation with the politics of race relations. Lee’s first stroke of genius is to explore two quotes from different Black icons, each of whom seemed to represent a different type or revolutionary — the more peaceful Martin Luther King, Jr. and the more revolutionary Malcolm X.
Lee never sides with one more than the other, instead presenting the day-long lead-up to police violence in a small New York community on an extremely hot day. Give or take some fashion and aesthetic choices, the film could be made today and still be as incendiary and relevant. It’s a constantly engaging, cool, but thought-provoking masterpiece.
Věra Chytilová’s bonkers masterpiece, Daisies, is unlike any film before or after it. The 1966 movie may be the best Soviet film since 1929’s Man with a Movie Camera, and is almost as experimental and innovative, but is even better because of its hilarious performances from Czechoslovakian actors Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, whose existence in the film is anarchy incarnate.
A politically subversive and radically sarcastic film, Daisies is 50 years ahead of its time in its wicked takedown of consumerism, patriarchy, and traditional values, but is smart enough to critique itself and not pretend like the hip, hot youth has any answers at all. Laugh it up, because we’re all screwed, and we’ll all be pushing up daisies.
21 The Wizard of Oz
Is The Wizard of Oz the most exhilarating and enlightening film, more than 80 years later? Maybe not. Are other arbitrary films like Run Lola Run, Pulp Fiction, Touch of Evil, or My Dinner with Andre more fun? Yeah, probably. So what is it about The Wizard of Oz that always ensures its place in the greats? Well, for starters, it’s extraordinarily important, indulging in fantasy and vibrant colors in a mainstream way that few films had ever attempted. Its oddball combination of childlike fantasy with surreal, almost horrific imagery, musical sequences, and quirky comedy still remains a relentless stream of consciousness that never loses its balance despite the utter maximalism on display.
The Wizard of Oz is one of the most influential films ever made, affecting everything from David Lynch’s work to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The fantasy world of the film has become synonymous with cinema’s ability to transport audiences into different states of mind.
The movie has infiltrated the pop culture lexicon more than almost any other, and seemed to spring from an almost possessed madman of a director, Victor Fleming, who literally made Gone with the Wind the same year; his two films shattered the black-and-white calm of the 1930s and brought Hollywood into the 1940s. It’s The Wizard of Oz, though, which remains timeless, and which seems to instantly transport any viewer into special place, no matter when they watch or how old they are.
20 The Rules of the Game
1939 was arguably the second or third instance in which cinema truly exploded (after 1918 and perhaps 1930), and writers like Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly have called it “film’s finest year.” In addition to The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, there was Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and At the Circus. But that was just in America. Over in France, something beautiful had been brewing.
The great filmmaker Jean Renoir (son of the legendary Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir) made perhaps the greatest French films of the decade, including the incredible anti-war film The Grand Illusion and The Human Beast. He capped off this marvelous decade with one of the greatest films ever made — The Rules of the Game. The deceptive dramedy was one of the first to highlight the “upstairs, downstairs” disparity between the aristocracy and “the servants,” and is a damning and hilarious but melancholic look at the upper class on the eve of war, as romance and mistakes play out while games are played by all.
It’s an aesthetic masterpiece for myriad reasons, from its deep focus to its extravagant production values (being the most expensive French film ever made at the time. With a flawless cast, gorgeous cinematography from the underrated Jean Bachelet, and one of the most intelligent scripts ever written, The Rules of the Game is a true masterclass in cinema and social commentary.
19 Three Colors: Red
The great Kryzstof Kieślowski ended his career with this magisterial, metaphysical masterpiece, which people still believe should’ve won the Palme d’Or (instead of Pulp Fiction). Three Colors: Red is the third in his fascinating trilogy exploring the meaning of the colors in the French flag (liberty, equality, and fraternity) and using their narratives to comment about the reunification of Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
While the other two films, Blue and White, are incredible in their own right, it’s Three Colors: Red that ties everything together and creates the most impactful, fascinating story. The film follows a lonely Polish model in Geneva who stumbles upon a disgraced and heartbroken judge who is spying on all of his neighbors. Through their simple connection, a variety of intersecting events slowly reveal a grander, and perhaps even transcendent narrative.
As Roger Ebert wrote in his adoring retrospective of the film for his “Great Movies” list, Most films make the unspoken assumption that their characters are defined by and limited to their plots. But lives are not about stories. Stories are about lives. That is the difference between films for children and films for adults. Kieślowski celebrates intersecting timelines and lifelines, choices made and unmade. All his films ask why, since God gave us free will, movie directors go to such trouble to take it away.
18 Tokyo Story
Yasujiro Ozu was a master of stillness, warm humor, quiet melancholy, and subtle but unforgettable beauty, and Tokyo Story is regularly regarded as his masterpiece. While the black-and-white film lacks the vibrant colors and sweet characters of later masterpieces like Floating Weeds, An Autumn Afternoon, and Good Morning, it is still brimming with wisdom and beauty, and is probably his most emotionally powerful film.
Many Ozu films captured generational differences and the death of pre-war Japanese society as a new wave of culture took over, and Tokyo Story is no different. It stands out, though, for its brilliant details and simple but heartbreaking narrative of two aging parents (the great Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama at their very best) who travel to Tokyo to visit their son, daughter, and widowed daughter-in-law, but find that no one really has time for them anymore. It was voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll in 2012.
17 Au Hasard Balthazar
One of the most spiritually moving (and emotionally devastating) films of all time, Au Hasard Balthazar is arguably the greatest film from the transcendental master Robert Bresson, who created tense, stiff studies of broken people with plots that suddenly burst open, erupting with emotion and religious meaning. This film follows the tragic life of a donkey who gets passed around from person to person and mostly suffers his entire life from abuse and indifference in a Christlike fashion.
Almost everyone in the film is a horrible person, so it’s immensely realistic, and has an utterly heavenly performance from Anne Wiazemsky as a kind farm girl who experiences almost as much pain as the donkey. It’s a viscerally painful, depressing film that reveals the horror of humanity and the miracle of small, kind moments.
16 The Long Goodbye
Robert Altman was one of the greatest American filmmakers, partly because of how he took classic film genres and deconstructed them for the rapidly changing world. The 1960s and ’70s shifted culture and filmmaking in many ways, and the entire New Hollywood movement made many types of cinematic aesthetics obsolete, but Altman was able to bring stories into the modern day with his strange, kaleidoscopic style of overlapping voices, long tracking shots, and massive ensemble casts.
His films redefined what genre could be, whether it was war (M*A*S*H), musicals (Nashville, A Prairie Home Companion), Westerns (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), horror (Images), comedies (Brewster McCloud, California Split), or anything else, Altman could filter it through his unique contemporary vision and make it modern and brilliant.
He did this with film noir in possibly the greatest neo-noir movie of all time (with Chinatown a close second), The Long Goodbye. A frequently hilarious but also sad and disturbing adaptation of the classic Raymond Chandler text, the 1973 film is an ingenious commentary on changing cultural values and the kinds of morality and dispositions which have been left behind.
Elliott Gould gives one of the greatest performances of all time as the bumbling but somehow suave and charming private eye, Philip Marlowe, who lives with his cat in an apartment complex across from some swinging hippies and exists as a kind of holdover from the 1950s. When he investigates the death of his friend, he finds himself involved with a complicated criminal conspiracy.
15 In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-Wai’s unbelievably romantic and gorgeous film, In the Mood for Love, is arguably the greatest title in his hyper-stylized, super-cool filmography. It’s a masterpiece of unrequited love, with perhaps the most sultry and exquisite use of slow-motion outside the action genre, and perhaps the best integration of nondiegetic music in cinematic history, give or take Wes Anderson’s work.
It’s a story of a man and a woman in British Hong Kong during the 1960s who discover that their respective partners are having an affair with each other. To better understand the situation, the two betrayed people come together and share information, comfort each other, and imagine how their partners’ fell in love and began their affair. In the Mood for Love was listed number two in the BBC’s “100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century,” based on a major survey of 177 film critics. The consensus was that, “never before has a film spoken so fluently in the universal language of loss and desire.” In the Mood for Love is simply one of the best romance movies ever made.
Casablanca is another romantic masterpiece about doomed romance amidst historical conflict (which seems to be the best kind of romance movie, if this, In the Mood for Love, Doctor Zhivago, and The English Patient are any indication). The classic film follows Humphrey Bogart as an ex-pat in the titular Moroccan city who is supposedly neutral during World War II and owns a nightclub where all are welcomed, from the Vichy French to refugees of the war.
When a woman from his past turns up and is entangled in a conspiracy to help the French resistance, the man must take a political position when his love and passion are finally rekindled. Hopelessly romantic, perfectly written, and overflowing with unforgettable quotes and scenes, Casablanca remains a shining example of the very best films produced from The Golden Age of Hollywood.
13 Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin was one of the first great American auteurs, before auteur theory was even formulated. Writing, directing, producing, and starring in a variety of masterpieces, from uproarious comedies (The Gold Rush and The Circus) and political satires (The Great Dictator) to heartbreaking rom-coms (City Lights) and very dark dramedies (Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight). He directed about a dozen masterpieces, but perhaps his most interesting, funny, and influential one was Modern Times.
The 1936 film effectively bridged silent cinema and talkies with its largely dialogue-free narrative that nonetheless found Chaplin “speaking” for the first time, albeit in utter gibberish, Modern Times is one of the greatest comedies of all time. Focusing on socioeconomic industrialization while also commenting upon the rapid technological development and mechanical conveyor-belt mentality of the Hollywood studio system, Modern Times is a hilarious takedown of wage labor and capitalism without ever really being didactic or explicitly political at all. Countless comedy bits from the film would inspire legions of future comedians, from Lucille Ball and Mel Brooks to Woody Allen and Jacques Tati.
Akira Kurosawa is one of those directors who have a dozen or more films that could justifiably be considered one of “the best” films ever made. Ran, Red Beard, Kagemusha, Rashomon, The Bad Sleep Well, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Throne of Blood, Dreams, The Hidden Fortress, High and Low, Stray Dog, Drunken Angel — they’re all incredible and could understandably be listed here.
However, it’s arguably Ikiru that stands as his most universal, timeless, and appealing masterpiece. While it isn’t a perfect samurai film or intense look at Japanese history like many of his other great works, its lack of cultural specificity makes it relevant to everyone, to the extent that it was recently rewritten and made as a British film in 2022, Living.
Ikiru (literally “to live”) concerns a low-level bureaucrat who discovers that he is terminally ill. What begins as the man’s personal existential rumination turns to a political and deeply human awareness of his surroundings, as he tries to do one good, real thing with his government job before he dies. He reaches out to a young woman, and his passion and yearning for connection, almost terrifies her, and the man spends his final days trying to build a simple playground. It’s a quiet, intentionally small film that will nonetheless break your heart and shatter your soul before building them back together as something stronger, healthier, and more beautiful.
11 The Third Man
The Third Man is simply one of the most entertaining, clever, and perfect Hollywood films of all time; Roger Ebert named it as one of the 10 greatest films ever made. Orson Welles’ filmography deeply influenced its expressionistic style and themes of betrayal, but it was ultimately Carol Reed’s picture, and he was a master at paranoia with a light touch of humor (also seen in Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol). Reed collaborated with the great English author Graham Greene for the second time in two years and struck gold with this wonderful post-war thriller about an author who travels to Vienna to meet his old friend for a job.
When the man has been declared murder, the cynical fiction writer is plunged into a weird criminal world where he can’t trust anyone. From the Ferris wheel scene to the sewer chase and closing scene, The Third Man is just one of those masterful suspense movies where every shot and line of dialogue are perfect, while also commenting upon the massive global changes caused by World War II. With some of the greatest black-and-white cinematography of all time, a devious streak of dark humor, and an utterly sublime performance from Orson Welles, The Third Man is perfection incarnate.