All art is entirely subjective, and that rings especially true when it comes to cinema, which are by far the most populist. They’re the biggest in scale, most expensive, furthest-reaching an most accessible form of art, and as such tend to divide opinion more than any other.The biggest blockbusters are viewed more as entertainment these days, but any feature film is technically regarded as art, whether it’s a genuine masterpiece or something completely wretched. The debate about which movie can definitively be named the best movie ever made is impossible to answer, and one that will generate constant discussion until the end of time.
It’s entirely open for interpretation and up for debate, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying anyway.
50. The Third Man (1949)
Orson Welles’ Harry Lime gets one of the most famous introductions in cinematic history, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the iconic moments in Carol Reed’s postwar classic. A penniless writer heads to Vienna at the behest of his old friend, only to discover upon his arrival that his acquaintance is dead, and from there the mystery and intrigue only thickens.
The incredibly atmospheric cinematography, musical score and phenomenal acting performances all combine in a perfect storm of a thriller that remains one of the genre’s finest ever entries.
49. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
There’s a reason why the second installment of the Star Wars franchise is still cited as an inspiration by many modern filmmakers 40 years later, because it’s one of the greatest blockbusters ever made. Star Wars may have been dismissed as a kids film by the snootier critics, but The Empire Strikes Back deepened both the mythology and the emotional heart of the story in a massive way.
Setting the template for the darker sequel that Hollywood still sticks to today, no movie has managed to strike the balance between delivering something that’s both bigger and better quite as well.
48. Jurassic Park (1993)
There’s no rule that says the greatest movies of all time have to be intimate, character-driven dramas, and in terms of sheer awe-inspiring spectacle Jurassic Park is hard to beat. A perfect blend of old-school practical effects and the oncoming CGI revolution, Steven Spielberg and his cast are firing on all cylinders in a relentlessly entertaining adventure.
Jurassic Park became the highest-grossing movie in history when it was released, and will forever endure as one of the greatest big budget blockbusters ever made.
47. Psycho (1960)
A movie like Psycho could never exist in the age of internet spoilers, and Alfred Hitchcock inadvertently popularized both the slasher film and the major plot twist in one fell swoop. Psycho starts off with all the trappings of a crime thriller, before Hitchcock turns expectations on their head after killing off the biggest name in the cast in one of the most famous scenes ever shot.
The camera angles, score, atmosphere and performances all work in perfect sync, with Psycho managing to capture the public’s imagination while transcending several different genres.
46. Some Like It Hot (1959)
Two friends escape from the Chicago mob by disguising themselves as women and joining an all-female jazz band in Billy Wilder’s legendary romantic comedy.
The central trio of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe deliver three iconic performances in a movie that pushed buttons at the time, but soon ascended to greatness.
Light, breezy, quick-witted and perfectly pitched in terms of writing, acting and directing, Some Like It Hot is often lauded as the single greatest studio comedy to ever come out of Hollywood.
45. The General (1926)
Incredibly, The General wasn’t received with much enthusiasm by either critics or audiences when it was first released, and ultimately cost Buster Keaton his creative freedom. That means it marked the final time the death defying star was given full carte blanche to pull of the meticulously planned daredevil antics that made his name in the first place.
Watching it almost 100 years later and you still can’t help but be impressed by the leading man’s desire to lay it all on the line in increasingly dangerous fashion, all in the name of entertainment.
44. Die Hard (1988)
During the 1980s, the action movie was dominated by the musclebound likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, who barrelled through their star vehicles gunning down everything in sight. Die Hard presented a more relatable everyman hero, and it was a happy coincidence that Bruce Willis’ John McClane just happened to debut in the greatest action flick in history.
Also one of the most influential, the basic premise spawned an entire subgenre, while the original has endured as a masterclass in high-octane filmmaking that still hasn’t been bettered.
43. Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s masterpiece had an impact on sci-fi that simply can’t be measured, and is fully deserving of its reputation as one of the most important movies ever made. Another all-time classic that didn’t find universal acclaim right out of the gate, Lang’s ambitious and unprecedented method of cinematic storytelling was far, far ahead of its time.
There have been multiple restorations over the years, but any cut of Metropolis is enough to do justice to a visually stunning epic that set the standard all future sci-fi would need to live up to.
42. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Peter Jackson’s closing chapter to The Lord of the Rings was an absolutely monumental cinematic achievement, and deserved all of the accolades that it got. Few would argue that it hadn’t earned eleven Academy Awards and over a billion dollars at the box office, with the so-called unfilmable book series turning out three of the best ever.
Tying up such an epic and sweeping saga was a difficult task, but Jackson made it look easy in The Return of the King, which will always endure as the very pinnacle of the fantasy genre.
41. North by Northwest (1959)
Alfred Hitchcock was talented enough to turn his hand to anything and produce greatness, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are few better spy thrillers than North by Northwest. Cary Grant’s ad executive is pursued by a ruthless spy in a case of mistaken identity, which adds a most welcome action element onto Hitchcock’s typically assured mastery of suspense.
Action thrillers are still borrowing heavily from it over half a century later, and North by Northwest’s most iconic moments are recognized by audiences that have never even seen it.
40. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Milos Forman’s literary adaptation boasts perhaps the single greatest collective performance by an ensemble cast in a major movie, despite the two main characters scooping most of the plaudits. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher dominate every inch of the screen in two powerhouse turns, as the battle for supremacy in a mental institution intensifies at every turn.
One of the rare movies to win the Big Five of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay at the Academy Awards, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has lost none of its power in the years since.
39. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Many though Clint Eastwood was committing career suicide when he first teamed up with the maverick Sergio Leone, but he returned an even bigger star than ever before. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly popularized the Spaghetti Western, and has gone on to influence everyone from Stephen King to Quentin Tarantino over the last half a century.
The Man with No Name became a cultural icon from the second he first appeared on the screen, with plenty of substance to back up Leone’s almost unlimited style.
38. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Peter Sellers brings his manic energy to Stanley Kubrick’s absurdist comedy, one that laced the satire with no shortage of timely social and political subtext. The leading man manages to give all three of his characters a distinct and unique personality, and was even allowed to improvise heavily, a rarity given Kubrick’s meticulous nature.
The political digs are still as sharp as ever, even when viewed through a modern lens, and Dr. Strangelove is living proof that the best comedies are the ones that remain timeless.
37. 8 ½ (1963)
A famed Italian film director struggles with his self-perceived lack of creativity in Federico Fellini’s not so thinly veiled semi-autobiographical surrealist masterpiece. 8 ½ proved to be one of the most influential movies of the decade, with countless imitators hailing from all over the world, before it soon entered cinematic folklore as an all-time great.
An introspective look at the creative process, 8 ½’s dreamlike qualities and sense of profundity bear all the fingerprints of a filmmaking genius working at the top of his game.
36. West Side Story (1961)
Even an industry titan like Steven Spielberg should be braced for the pressure that comes with remaking a classic when his new version of West Side Story arrives next year. Winning ten Academy Awards from eleven nominations, Robert Wise and Jeremy Robbins’ musical has long since secured a place in the history books as one of the genre’s monoliths.
The direction, musical score and lyrics are as dazzling now as they were back then, and so the modern musical as we know it owns a massive debt to the influence of West Side Story.
35. Ben-Hur (1959)
Ben-Hur quite simply has to be the greatest remake in Hollywood history, taking everything that worked about the 1925 silent movie and making in bigger, bolder, better and ten times more epic. Eleven Academy Awards and almost $150 million at the box office isn’t a bad return for what was one of the most expensive productions ever mounted, with every penny up there on the screen.
The signature chariot race still holds up today as one of the most immersive and tangible action scenes ever filmed, but the human drama is just as exciting as the set pieces.
34. Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner has been re-edited numerous times over the last four decades, but whatever cut you prefer, any version of the movie is a classic. The dystopian sci-fi bombed at the box office, but a reputation as a cult classic swiftly arose, before it eventually elevated into all-timer territory.
Visually stunning, narratively complex and thematically resonant, Blade Runner has more than stood the test of time despite being ignored by audiences when it was brand new.
33. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
The phrase ‘they just don’t make em’ like they used to’ directly applies to Singin’ in the Rain, which is one of the defining movies of a legendary bygone era of Hollywood. If it isn’t the greatest musical ever made, then it’s top three at the very least, backed by iconic musical interludes and some precision engineered dance choreography.
Gene Kelly was never better than he was as the all-singing, all-dancing Don Lockwood, and people across the world will forever remember his signature contributions to a stone-cold classic.
32. All About Eve (1950)
One of only four movies in history to land fourteen Academy Award nominations, All About Eve is powered by a quartet of powerhouse performances from the female leads. Writer/Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and producer Daryl F. Zanuck were Hollywood heavyweights, so it didn’t come as a surprise that the dynamic duo crafted one of the Golden Age’s greatest dramas.
Bette Davis and Anne Baxter are nothing short of astounding as the Broadway megastar and her protege, with the two generating fireworks in the smart and sophisticated insider story.
31. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
An aging star of the silent era refuses to step out of the limelight and aims to mount a comeback in Billy Wilder’s black comedy cleverly disguised as a noir thriller. Movies by Hollywood about Hollywood can often devolve into self-indulgence, but Sunset Boulevard doesn’t put a foot wrong as the story spirals into madness and murder.
Irresistibly clever without being smug and almost entertaining to a fault, Sunset Boulevard saw through the bright lights and exposed the seedy underbelly of the movie business.
30. La Dolce Vita (1960)
La Dolce Vita faced some censorship issues when it started rolling out in the summer of 1960, robbing audiences of the chance to see what would soon become regarded as a masterpiece. One of the greatest films in world cinema, Federico Fellini’s tale of a reporter drifting through life in Rome and experiencing the ups and downs that come with it has been picked apart by analysts for over 60 years.
Each new re-watch provides further rewards, as even the minutiae has been carefully curated by a genius filmmaker who was thematically and structurally in a league of his own.
29. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Two people who realize that their spouses are having affairs end up falling for each other in Wong Kar-wai’s piercing romantic drama. No stranger to superlatives, the filmmaker delivers his best movie by letting the performances do the talking, while the emotional undercurrent draws creates a massive level of investment.
There’s nothing flashy at all about In the Mood for Love, which steadfastly places emphasis on the characters and the smaller more subtle moments to create the desired effect and attachment.
28. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
One of the most uplifting movies ever made, Frank Darabont’s classic is another all-timer that disappointed at the box office when it was first released. For some reason, audiences initially weren’t enamored with the decades-spanning story, but with each passing generation an entirely new wave of fans fall in love with The Shawshank Redemption.
For twelve year it’s reigned supreme as the top choice on IMDb’s Top 250 list, cementing the movie’s status as undisputed global phenomenon.
27. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
A staple of the Christmas schedule for over 70 years, It’s a Wonderful Life’s annual re-airings and enduring legacy as a festive favorite will never see it fade from memory. Director Frank Capra admitted that it was his personal favorite, which is high praise from one of Hollywood’s most legendary filmmakers, and it’s easily his most enduring.
James Stewart brings every ounce of his everyman warmth and charisma to the title role in an unashamedly saccharine story that has good intentions seeping out of every frame.
26. Goodfellas (1990)
To be regularly named as both the best gangster movie in history and Martin Scorsese’s finest work is no easy feat, but Goodfellas is more than worth the consideration. Henry Hill’s upward trajectory through the ranks of the mob is gripping viewing from start to finish, before his success eventually starts to spiral out of control.
The acting is phenomenal across the board, with Scorsese pouring every ounce of style at his disposal into a whip-smart, darkly funny and visually dazzling masterpiece.
25. Gone with the Wind (1939)
It may have been generating a lot of controversy recently, and the movie is very much a product of the time period it was made, but Victor Fleming’s Golden Age epic will always remain a cinematic milestone. Lavish, sweeping and epic are just three of the superlatives that fail to the scale of the story justice, the sprawling Civil War remains the highest-grossing movie in history when adjusted for inflation.
A critical, commercial and awards season juggernaut, despite facing modern day backlash Gone with the Wind still has a legacy that looms large over the industry.
24. Casablanca (1942)
Michael Curtiz’ romantic drama is the epitome of noir-influenced cool, and boasts many moments that are still widely quoted and parodied to this day, almost 80 years later. An American expat is torn between the love for his old flame and desire to help her and her husband escape from the titular city, leading to plenty of inner turmoil and personal conflict.
Heart, humor, smarts, laughs, mystery and intrigue are all painted in distinct shades of grey throughout the black and white classic that influenced several generations.
23. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Reservoir Dogs put him on the map, but Pulp Fiction was the movie that saw Quentin Tarantino’s surname become an adjective used to describe an entire genre of pale imitations. Crackling dialogue, nonlinear narratives, ice-cool characters and diegetic music pulled from the archives all became the hallmarks of independent cinema for the rest of the 1990s.
Skirting the border between homage and self-indulgent, Pulp Fiction is a narrative and stylistic landmark in American film, and the postmodern noir has lost none of its bite.
22. Back to the Future (1985)
You’d be lucky to find anyone that hasn’t seen Robert Zemeckis’ time travel adventure at least a handful of times, and even luckier to discover someone that doesn’t love it. About as close to perfection as summer blockbusters can get, Back to the Future is an absolute triumph of originality, smarts, inventiveness and unbridled entertainment.
The intricate and witty script, stellar performances and almost constant moments that instantly became iconic have long since secured a reputation as one of the most re-watchable movies ever.
21. Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s talents as a filmmaker can be summed up by the fact that Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List were released just six months apart in 1993. Directing the highest-grossing movie of all-time and the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards in the same year is an incredible feat, and both deserved their success.
Schindler’s List is Spielberg at his most mature and emotional, allowing the human element of the story to shine through against the backdrop of one of humanity’s worst atrocities.
20. Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle became an icon of the counterculture, something that Martin Scorsese probably didn’t have in mind when directing the psychological noir. De Niro’s performance permeated pop culture and still hasn’t left yet, but there’s so much more to the hard-hitting drama than the soundbites everyone can quote at the drop of a hat.
Scorsese turns everyday life into a haunting and harrowing tale of one man’s descent into the darkest depth of his humanity, with the consequences increasingly far-reaching.
19. The 400 Blows (1959)
Francois Truffaut’s directorial debut is one of the defining movies of the French New Wave, and an incredible calling card for a filmmaker destined to become one of the greats. A misunderstood youth can’t help but get himself into all sorts of trouble in the semi-autobiographical piece that epitomized the glory days of European cinema.
An unfiltered look at adolescence, The 400 Blows is an honest look at growing up that benefits massively from a total absence of nostalgia or sentimentality.
18. Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles assembled a star studded cast for his noir thriller, with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor all featuring alongside the writer and director. The story is set in motion by a car bomb explosion on the U.S/Mexico border, the investigation soon leads to accusations of corruption before things start to get personal.
One of the last noir classics to arrive during the Golden Age, Welles used his penchant innovation to great effect in a twisting and sinister thriller that grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go.
17. Chinatown (1974)
Roman Polanski’s neo-noir is generally regarded as the controversial filmmaker’s career, with Jack Nicholson also delivering what many call the best performance in a laundry list of classic roles. A mystery thriller riddled with corruption and deceit, Chinatown was instantly named one of the best movies of the 1970s, and still endures as one of New Hollywood’s highest points.
The screenplay is also one of the finest ever written, and when the three key elements to make any movie a success are firing on all cylinders, greatness was almost a guarantee.
16. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Unsurprisingly, one of the greatest books ever written was adapted into one of the greatest movies ever made, and Robert Mulligan’s courtroom drama remains as timely today as it ever was. Message movies with showy performances often devolve into overwrought earnestness and histrionics, but To Kill a Mockingbird is both understated and incredibly powerful.
The perfect balance of weighty emotional and societal subtext against a gripping narrative, and Gregory Peck’s performance has long since become the stuff of legend.
15. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Sidney Lumet takes a minimalist concept and wrings every single ounce of tension and drama from it, with 12 Angry Men limited in scope but massive in impact and influence. Almost the entire movie takes place on a single set, letting the actors do the heavy lifting as they deliberate the verdict in a murder trial, with a boy’s life dependent on the outcome.
A true ensemble piece, each of the dozen title characters has a major part to play in the narrative in a movie that betrays its apparent simplicity to present a morally complex tale of human conflict.
14. Vertigo (1958)
Few filmmakers in history have tackled the psychological quite as well as Alfred Hitchcock, and the themes of obsession and compulsion drive James Stewart’s protagonist descends into hysteria. As is the case with all of Hitchcock’s best works, there’s plenty of tension and suspense to go along with the mystery and intrigue, combining in a maelstrom of stylistic expertise.
James Stewart’s everyman persona was the ideal foil for the sinister undertones prevalent in all of the director’s work, allowing the actor to embrace and subvert his nature at the same time.
13. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
There are a minute number of Westerns more iconic than Sergio Leone’s magnum opus, which melds elements of classicism and the Spaghetti subgenre together to create an epic for the ages. Backed by perhaps the single most grizzled ensemble of actors ever gathered together, the maverick filmmaker crafted an extravagant ode to the Old West that’s violent and yet beautifully operatic.
Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino have all named Once Upon a Time in the West as a direct inspiration, and that’s only the tip of the movie’s lasting influence on the industry.
12. Raging Bull (1980)
The sports drama was typically a genre loaded with cliché and sentimentality, but Martin Scorsese’s no-holds-barred look at the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta was an entirely different animal. Robert De Niro gives everything to one of the most fearless and committed performances in history, and you can almost feel yourself taking the punches alongside Jake as he spirals downward.
The emotional aspect of the story might be the driving force, but Scorsese doesn’t pull his punches in the ring either, with the boxing sequences jarring in their realism, with the movie itself an all-round powerhouse.
11. Rear Window (1954)
A photographer confined to a wheelchair is convinced that he’s witnessed a murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic masterpiece, that takes place almost entirely on a single set. This being a Hitchcock mystery thriller, nothing can truly be taken at face value, and soon enough layers of doubt are cast upon both the reliability of the photographer’s claims and his own psyche.
The best mysteries cause viewers to constantly change their minds and cast suspicions elsewhere as the plot rolls on, and few movies create that sense of uncertainty better than Rear Window.
10. Jaws (1975)
The prototypical summer blockbuster, Steven Spielberg burst onto the scene as cinema’s newest wunderkind and just happened to revolutionize the entire industry for good measure. It seems hard to believe that Jaws went down in history as one of the most tortured and troublesome productions of all-time, especially when the end product turned out to be jaw-droppingly spectacular.
The highest-grossing movie ever made at the time, Jaws’ influence simply cannot be overstated. Spielberg’s breakthrough doubles as a masterclass in thrilling genre filmmaking and a watershed moment for Hollywood as a whole.
9. The Searchers (1956)
Johns Ford and Wayne were already established as figureheads of the Western, and The Searchers put an exclamation point on their importance to the genre. Few movies have had such a widespread impact on any single medium, with the minds behind everything from Star Wars to Breaking Bad lauding the epic post-Civil War story’s influence.
The iconic leading man was never better than he was as Ethan Edwards, while Ford’s talent for shooting sweeping vistas and framing unique shot composition was never as evident as it was in The Searchers.
8. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
On a purely visual level, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is part of the conversation when it comes to naming the single best looking movie ever committed to celluloid. Every single shot feels like it’s been painstakingly researched and crafted to become as effective as humanly possible, and the narrative has more than enough heft to back it up.
Lawrence of Arabia’s direction, cinematography, score, production design and lead performance are all second to none, and viewers became so entranced that the epic 227 minute running time flew by.
7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Franchise blockbusters don’t usually tend to be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest movies ever made, but Raiders of the Lost Ark is far from the standard studio fair. In terms of imagination, inventiveness and enthusiasm, the action adventure genre has never been so good, and Harrison Ford was the perfect choice to embody the title character.
Modern Hollywood owes an incredible debt to the legacy of Indiana Jones’ debut, and bearded best buds Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ collaboration somehow managed to even exceed the expectations that came with a movie created by the combined might behind Jaws and Star Wars.
6. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Somehow, Francis Ford Coppola managed to follow up a masterpiece with another masterpiece, and The Godfather Part II was received with the same universal acclaim as its predecessor. Using a unique narrative framing device to tell a father/son story, Michael Corleone’s misfortunes as head of the Corleone family are shown in parallels to the struggles of a young Vito.
With the majority of the same cast and crew involved, the sense of familiarity with the characters and source material was a huge boost to a sequel that lived up to near-impossible expectations.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Painstakingly scientifically accurate but also ambitiously fantastical, Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi set a benchmark that the genre has always tried but never managed to replicate, duplicate or emulate. Surreal, existential, unconventional and groundbreaking often in the space of the same scene, only a filmmaker of Kubrick’s meticulous and singular vision could have pulled off such a feat.
Over half a century later and critics are still finding new ways to interpret and analyze 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there’s so much depth to it that the dissection will only continue.
4. Apocalypse Now (1979)
There’s a school of thought that trying circumstances tend to bring out the best in the most talented filmmakers, and that most definitely applies to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Wildly behind schedule and massively over budget, everything that could have gone wrong during the production did, but the director still came out on the other side with an all-time great movie.
Coppola paints a haunting and harrowing portrait of the Vietnam War, and gets the themes and messages across through the experience and actions of the characters instead of relying on obvious allegory for dramatic effect.
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
It still boggles the mind how a first-time director could create something like Citizen Kane, but Orson Welles was far from a run-of-the-mill filmmaker. The relative rookie was given complete creative freedom, and repaid that unusual show of faith with what many people believe to be the single most influential movie in the history of cinema.
The cinematography and narrative structure both found themselves often imitated but never bettered, and almost every major name over the last eight decades has cited Citizen Kane as a direct inspiration on their work, from Stanley Kubrick to Richard Linklater.
2. The Godfather (1972)
If Francis Ford Coppola had bowed to the pressure that the studio kept trying to force upon him when he was making The Godfather, then we wouldn’t be talking about one of the greatest movies of all-time. The filmmaker stuck to his guns and made the epic crime saga exactly the way he’d originally envisioned, and the end result was a legendarily morally ambiguous complex and ambiguous parable on the American Dream.
Mesmerizing and utterly transcendent, The Godfather ushered in an entirely new era for Hollywood, one where the talent could break free from the shackles of their paymasters and bring their undiluted vision to the big screen.
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
From a technical, narrative and creative standpoint, arguably no movie has had the sort of long-lasting impact on cinema as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The basic setup, plot machinations, visual techniques and even dialogue have been reworked, reinvented, remade and reimagined by everyone from George Lucas and Peter Jackson to George Miller and Quentin Tarantino.
The ‘men on a mission’ movie fell into cliché a long time ago, but Kurosawa’s epic adventure is a monolithic presence in the annals of film history, one that will always be regarded as a benchmark for all future generations to draw awe and inspiration from.
Click here to learn more about the movie’s legacy in the motion picture industry.