Classic movies hold a special place in our hearts and, come to think of it, so does Netflix. Great movies enable us to access our memories and wishes, hopes and fears, through the medium of a wonderful story, exciting characters, and unforgettable scores. These films are classics. And this list hopes to provide you with some of the best options that are available right now on Netflix.
The following movies all tell epic tales. Some are sweeping wartime biographies, others are gritty horror or crime dramas, while still others are black-and-white monoliths on which many in modern filmmaking have been influenced and found their own cinematic footing. These films are visual expressions at a very high level, showing off what human beings can do creatively and with storytelling. All are critically acclaimed, and have found themselves on countless lists of the greatest movies of all time.
So with that, sit back, put up your feet, boot up the Roku, and take in some of the best that cinema (and Netflix) has to offer. Here is Screen Rant's list of 11 Classic Movies You Can Watch on Netflix.
11 Chinatown (1974)
One of two Roman Polanski movies on this list, Chinatown is a wonderful crime drama set in Los Angeles, starring the one and only Jack Nicholson as private detective JJ Gittes. A seasoned professional who never lets a case beat him, Gittes agrees to take on a job from Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of a powerful man in the city water department. She believes, like many clients who have come through Gittes’s doors before her, that her husband is cheating on her. Soon enough, Gittes is on what seems like yet another matrimonial mission. That is until Mr. Mulwray is found murdered.
Gittes learns that the woman who said she was his wife was only an actor, and that the real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) is herself an entirely complex and mysterious character. She seems to have something to hide, and Gittes gets wrapped up in a dangerous game that has as much to do with conspiracies surrounding the city water system as it does with family secrets and, of course, murder.
Chinatown is a tour de force — film noir set in post-Watergate America. It is cynical and writhing and honest. Polanski is able to set the perfect tone, and Nicholson gives one of his finest performances.
10 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Likely Stanley Kubrick’s best-known film, with only The Shining perhaps as famous, 2001: A Space Odyssey is known for its radical approach to filmmaking, arresting imagery, and groundbreaking special effects. Only the Star Wars series that came almost a decade later can vie for such a level of photorealism in a twentieth century space flick.
But aside from that similarity, they are very different films. Star Wars is an epic adventure serial set in space, whereas 2001 is a very serious meditation on technology, human progress, and the meaning of life.
It does everything a film can do. It transports the viewer to another world. It is an awe-inspiring epic. It is at times horrifying, hilarious, enigmatic, and yet strangely warm and accessible. As with all of Kubrick’s other films — The Killing, Dr. Strangelove, and Eyes Wide Shut come to mind — his cold and calculating style masks a great deal of humanity. It’s arguable whether 2001 is his best film. But there’s no argument that it’s one of the best in cinema.
9 Fantasia (1940)
It may not seem this way today, but Walt Disney’s Fantasia was a revelation when it came out back in 1940. It was a sensation for the senses, a masterpiece of animation and the first movie of any kind to feature stereo sound.
Fantasia is a feature-length film made up of eight animated shorts. Each part has its own orchestral accompaniment. There isn’t really a larger meaning to the film; it was meant more to be a showcase for Disney to show what could be done. Cuts from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Bach unfold in perfect harmony with crackerjack visuals.
It was the third Disney feature, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940). A collection of shorts, each featuring different characters, the highlight of Fantasia is certainly “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” wherein Mickey Mouse attempts to save a castle from being flooded by marauding buckets and mops.
8 Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a tale about society, stratification of wealth, and the double-edged sword of technological progress. Released back in 1927, it is the only silent film on this list. Directed by Lang, written by his wife Thea von Harbou, and starring mostly unknown stage actors, Metropolis received a lukewarm reception from critics upon its release. Many criticized it for being heavy-handed social commentary, some even panning it as leftist schlock.
But with time, Metropolis has endured.
The story is enticing: Freder is a young man who lives his life in splendor, playing in the gardens with other scions. His father is a wealthy industrialist, and they are part of the privileged minority who get to exist in the sumptuous city. One day, he sees Maria, a beautiful woman he’s never seen before, who shows up in the garden before being hustled away. Freder leaves the comfy confines of his city to find the woman, only to discover that there is a world underneath the city he lives in, full of the working poor who slave away at machines all day to keep the city powered.
Freder decides to join the workers, giving up his lifestyle. Meanwhile, a scientist invents a robot that looks like Maria, which is released and foments anger among the workers, turning them against the machines and the society that is crushing them. Freder and Maria work together to try and stop the workers from making the city unlivable.
The story works so well thanks to the direction, and the special effects are considerable, even today. Regularly earning itself a spot on ‘best movie’ lists, this is a must-see for any film buff.
7 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Based on T.E. Lawrence’s memoir “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, Lawrence of Arabia tells the incredible story of a seemingly regular British officer who goes on an epic quest to help turn the tide of the First World War.
Convincing his superiors that he could be of some help in Arabia, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is transferred to a remote post to work with local tribes. He soon gets close to Prince Faisal (Alec Guiness) who is having some trouble fighting the Turks. Lawrence convinces Faisal to perform a surprise attack on the enemy. Lawrence takes fifty men across the desert to the fortified Turkish naval base, eventually turning the villagers against them and overthrowing the fort.
He soon builds a legendary reputation with the Arabs, leading them in guerrilla warfare against the Turks. He continues to have a major influence, but when finally he tries to set up a city government in Damascus and fails, a weary Lawrence must retire from his odyssey.
The film clocks in at almost four hours — it is split into two parts, divided by an intermission. (When was the last time a movie had one of those?) It features landmark cinematography, great acting, and so much more. The film garnered seven Academy Awards in 1962, including Best Picture and Best Director. If you have an afternoon and an extra-large popcorn, then this is the one to watch.
6 Laura (1944)
Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating the murder of beautiful socialite Laura (Gene Tierney). He questions her best friend, columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a flamboyant and subversive man who was infatuated with the young woman. Lydecker asks McPherson if he can tag along when he goes to interview the other suspects, and strangely, the detective agrees. McPherson — with Lydecker in toe — interviews Laura’s fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who is strapping, though a bit dim-witted. McPherson questions both Carpenter and Lydecker like he believes that each man is the culprit, but he never goes far enough to arrest.
The love triangle at the center of the film, and the detective’s own eventual infatuation with the victim, make for satisfyingly twisty film noir. Laura is superbly directed by Otto Preminger, who elevates it beyond a typical crime drama, into the truly sublime. And Webb steals the show as a man of many contradictions.
5 The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin’s classic The French Connection is one of the best cop flicks out there. New York detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) must track down and bust a heroin ring that’s importing the narcotic into the city en masse from overseas.
As important as any story being told here, the film’s setting defines gritty, with its grey winter weather, seventies New York in all of its guts and steam-pipe glory, and characters who look like they’d prefer not to be looked at but rather just cruise the alleys. Doyle especially, with his porkpie hat and misanthropy, cuts through the screen unforgettably. Gene Hackman’s portrayal of a frumpy, tough-as-nails cop in a broken city is a master class in natural acting.
The dialogue is great. The car chases and the showdowns are thrilling. It is just a brilliant action film.
4 Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
By far the scariest movie on the list, Roman Polanski’s masterwork Rosemary’s Baby is one of the best horror pictures of all time. It is the story of young couple Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), who move into a gorgeous old apartment building in New York City. Guy is a struggling actor and Rosemary a supportive housewife. They soon befriend their charismatic neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet, and Terry, a troubled young woman living with the old couple. Days afterwards, Rosemary and Guy learn that Terry has jumped to her death. Minnie passes along Terry’s necklace to Rosemary, which contains an odd-smelling herb.
Quickly, the Castevets become very close with Guy. His acting career picks up, and Rosemary and him decide to have a child. On the night of conception, Rosemary passes out beforehand, awaking later with scratch marks on her. During the beginning stages of pregnancy, she reluctantly accepts advice from the Castevets, who give her special tonics and refer her to their friend who’s an obstetrician.
Rosemary loses a great deal of weight, starts craving raw meat, and… Well, let’s leave the rest for you to see.
It is a superbly creepy film and a great psychological thriller, where you eventually start to see everyone and everything around fragile and naive Rosemary as being a threat. If you haven’t seen it yet, then do yourself a favor.
3 The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wild Bunch stars William Holden as Pike Bishop, the leader of an aging Texas gang in 1913. The team attempts to perform one final heist before retiring, to rob bricks of silver from a railroad vault, only to be caught off guard by bounty hunter Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). The bandits flee through a town with the silver, only to discover later that they weren’t silver bricks but worthless steel decoys.
The gang heads south to Mexico, where they get entwined in regional fighting. Ultimately, they attempt to rob another train, but Deke is on the train with his posse and fight them back to the border. After many are wounded and killed, Pike must decide if the risks are worthwhile.
Everything about The Wild Bunch was significant. Co-written by director Sam Peckinpah, the movie won the 1969 Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The direction, cinematography, and score also won numerous prizes for achievement. It may be the best American western ever.
2 Hombre (1967)
Martin Ritt’s great Hombre stars Paul Newman as the mysterious John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches. Russell has a humble humanity about him, eschewing the materialism of the ‘frontier west’ for his own kind of (somewhat isolated) rural life. But one day he is informed that a past guardian has willed him a traveler’s lodge. Russell makes the trip to visit the house. He’s not in town for long though, as he doesn’t see much point for it. In one of the film’s most astonishing scenes, Russell and a handful of others wait in the town’s dusty terminal for the next stagecoach out of town, when villain Cicero Grimes (the great Richard Boone) enters and bullies a soldier out of his ticket.
On the journey with the other travelers, Russell’s trip gets suddenly derailed when Grimes and his band of thieves rob everyone and steal the convoy’s horses, thus stranding them in the searing desert. The travelers must put aside their prejudices to let Russell lead them out of the desert to safety. Equal parts fun western and shrewd examination of our human tendencies, Hombre is delightful and puzzling.
1 The Bicycle Thief (1949)
Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) a man without a job, joins a job queue every day. One day, there’s a job that needs a man with a bicycle. Ricci has a bicycle, but it was pawned. His wife (Lianella Carell) has him pawn their bedsheets to get the bike back. He goes to work as a poster-hanger. Soon enough, unfortunately, his bike is stolen.
His young son (Enzo Striola) and him search for the bicycle, but to no avail. He then buys his son some pizza at a restaurant, where they are surrounded by upper-class family who are gorging themselves happily.
Later, Ricci spots the bicycle thief going into a brothel. He confronts the man but can do nothing as he has no evidence to show the cop who arrives. Finally, Ricci is left thinking about stealing a bike himself.
This heartbreaking tale is one of the most effective pieces of filmmaking ever. Directed by Vittorio De Sica and released in 1949, The Bicycle Thief shows us in stunning realism the large-scale poverty and melancholia of post-war Italy. A truly beautiful film.
Are there any other classics on Netflix that we should now about? Let us know in the comments!