Pulp Fiction. The Dark Knight. Schindler’s List. Each of these movies enjoys a spot in film’s pantheon, and in 2022 can be called classics without reaching. This will inevitably make more than a few folks who grew up in these movies’ eras wither on the spot. For them, “classic” refers to films made before their time: The oldies but goodies from the 1970s, 60s, and 50s. “Old” and “classic” being relative terms, and Netflix being a revolving door for any movie the streaming service can’t claim as an “original,” a line can be drawn that divides everything made after 1990 or so from everything made before.
Let’s not downplay the reality here: Netflix’s library is sorely lacking in classic movies, whether American or international. But the library is so vast that, if only by accident, a handful of bona fide masterworks made in decades long past remains available for your viewing pleasure. Just make sure you watch them all before Netflix makes like an Etch A Sketch and shakes these films out of their lineup.
Below we’ve rounded up the best old and classic movies worthy of your time. Whip up a bowl of popcorn and enjoy!
White Christmas (1954)
Every year, we argue about whether or not Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie of all time, and we wax nostalgic about the time we shot our own eye with a BB Gun after watching A Christmas Story for the millionth time. Nothing gets us in the holiday spirit quite like White Christmas, though. It’s absurdly saccharine. It’s unabashedly cheerful. It’s a sappy, romantic musical. It’s the film version of a Starbucks peppermint mocha, and yet it remains a holiday classic because of the execution, the star power, and yes, the sentiment. It probably also has something to do with the fact that it features Bing Crosby singing the Irving Berlin hit “White Christmas,” which, according to Guinness, is still the best-selling single worldwide fifty years later. Just because it’s an old movie, doesn’t mean it can’t be a hit.
Cairo Station (1958)
Youssef Chahine’s neorealist-noir bromide holds the distinction of being the first Arabic film submitted for consideration in the 31st Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category. The Academy accepted it as the Egyptian entry for that year, but it didn’t make it through the nomination process. So it goes. It’s still a great classic movie! That’s all that matters! Chahine documents Egyptian life after the 1952 fall of the Egyptian Monarchy, considering working class struggles and the relationship between sexual repression and sexual violence; he packs a great deal of thought into an hour and 10 minutes of running time, and makes every beat count. An economic, excellent movie.
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Lee Thompson’s beefy war drama makes two promises and delivers on both. There are guns, and the guns are on an island called Navarone. Promise given; promise kept. What Guns of Navarone does so well, and what distinguishes it from the countless other examples of “men on a mission” old films scattering war cinema’s canon, is its breadth. The film runs long at 150 or so minutes, but every minute has a purpose, whether permitting character development or introducing dramatic plot points or staging bold set-pieces so cleanly orchestrated that they make an embarrassing number of today’s set-pieces look like childrens’ backyard army games.
If it’s not already clear based on Cairo Station’s presence on this list, Youssef Chahine is a pretty big deal in 1950s – 1960s classic world cinema. Saladin shouldn’t be called “revelatory,” because Saladin came well before better-known movies about the Crusades, like Robin Hood (take your pick), Kingdom of Heaven, and Lionheart; at the same time the film had the misfortune of being sandwiched between those movies and movies like Ivanhoe and King Richard and the Crusaders. Here we see a pattern of the movies showing audiences these medieval religious wars from an Arab perspective instead of just a European POV; whatever you think of the film itself, and this classic film is very good, the shift in vantage makes a big difference.
My Fair Lady (1964)
Alan Jay Lerner. Frederick Loewe. George Cukor. Audrey Hepburn. My Fair Lady is one of those rare examples of everything going exactly right in production, every element, every detail, every hand on deck working in tandem with one another. The film’s pushing 60, of course, so maybe it’ll look dated over here in 2022, but the sheer pleasure of a spectacle this rich is impossible to pass up with this great yet old movie. Let My Fairy Lady sweep you away with its costumes, its photography, its musical numbers, and of course the inimitable Hepburn.
The Queen (1968)
Silvio Bandinelli does two things well (okay, more than two, but two in particular) in The Queen: Capture the extravagant theatricality and boundless creativity that gives the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant a sense of identity, and predict the various tensions and issues the LGBTQ would continue struggling with well into the new century. It’s hard being prescient. The Queen doesn’t dwell on or really even talk about that sub-theme; it’s occupied with committing the exuberance and glamor of 1967’s drag queen competition to film.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Ever had the impulse to revisit the old movie that gave you hallucinatory nightmares as a kid and probably set the foundation of your therapy sessions as an adult? Netflix provides. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory hits differently today if you grew up in the 1970s or 80s; now, this classic gives reason for us to pause and wonder why the hell our parents thought it was a good idea to let us watch it in the first place. Is it fun? Sure. Whimsical? Yeah. Utterly messed up? Above all else, yes. What kind of confectionary fellow casually punishes kids, even naughty ones, with vacuum tubes and shrink rays? Someone should put Wonka behind bars.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
There’s a scientific trial worth conducting to prove which Monty Python movie has the most staying power among all Monty Python movies, quantified through quotability. As no one’s dedicated themselves to this important undertaking, we’ll just have to take our best guess on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a movie whose title alone will, for most viewers, spark a free association recitation of various one-liners responsible for keeping the picture alive in popular consciousness almost a half century after its release. Your father was a hamster; strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government; it’s just a flesh wound; The Holy Grail is an all-time classic movie worthy of your time.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Marvel partisans like to claim Martin Scorsese only makes mob movies, but nuts to them: He made Taxi Driver, too! (And Silence, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy, The Age of Innocence, Hugo; you get the idea.) Taxi Driver changed the way we watch movies and changed the movies, period, capturing New York City at the end of an era while establishing Scorsese as the great American director we know him as today. There’s a certain sort of contemporary discomfort you may feel watching this classic movie now, given the unflattering gritty frankness of Scorsese’s storytelling; the travails of Travis Bickle aren’t easy to sit through. But Taxi Driver endures nonetheless for good reason, however its material might strike today.
Apocalypse Now Redux (1979)
Napalm in the morning; ego and ambition on the screen. Apocalypse Now, Redux or not, remains the Hollywood object lesson of big budget auteurist filmmaking escaping from the filmmaker’s control. For the audience, only the result matters. There’s nothing quite like Francis Ford Coppola’s monumental war picture, whether with or without that extra 49 minutes of appended footage. For the people who made the movie, production was a unique Hell on Earth, a shoot totalling nearly one year in length stymied by the elements, by funding, by Martin Sheen’s heart attack, and by, yes, graverobbing; it’s quite a story to read about, quite a movie to watch, and quite a memory most anyone involved in putting the whole thing together would rather not revisit.
What’s especially impressive about Stripes is that neither Ivan Reitman, nor Harold Raimis, nor Bill Murray had, at this point in their careers, reached their peak talent. You wouldn’t guess as much when you watch this classic movie, a military satire and a celebration of slacker noncompliance; where “improvisation” has become a dirty word for comedy films today, because for most comic actors “improvisation” is just a shortcut for being genuinely funny, it’s key to Stripe’s character. Warren Oates chipped a tooth filming one of his scenes, but a chipped tooth is a small price to pay for immortalizing hilarity.
Blade Runner (1982)
The argument over which version of the Ridley Scott masterpiece is the best has gone on for decades, and the people still carrying that argument forward are so entrenched in their views that they’ll burden incumbent generations with the same back and forth. So: Who cares? Take the film as it comes to you and appreciate it for its many other merits. However you experience Blade Runner, Blade Runner is genre-defining cinema; with that voiceover or without, the movies, science fiction and otherwise, are what they are in part because of what Ridley Scott accomplished in his meticulous dystopian vision. This classic film is years ahead of its time. In 2022, we can still learn from this oldie. (Just look at Black Mirror or Ex Machina or The Matrix for proof.)
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Spike Lee made his undisputed masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, 3 years after She’s Gotta Have It, which unsurprisingly also counts as one of his masterpieces. Lee, if you didn’t already know, is very good at making movies. But She’s Gotta Have It is his first feature, and for a first feature shot for relative pennies it’s remarkably polished. Frankly, that would still be true if She’s Gotta Have It was a second or even a fourth feature. The movie demonstrates Lee’s facility for empathy and insight, and contextualized in the 80s stands out as a landmark in Black American cinema and independent cinema writ large: Lee wrote characters who cut a stark contrast to the movies’ typical depictions of Black men and women as lower class and crooked, and instead showed American audiences a group of erudite Black urbanites. That’s as revolutionary an act as throwing a garbage can through a pizzeria window.
The youngest film on this list and one of the earliest examples of the late, great Robin Williams playing a straight man, Awakenings pulls off a tricky feat: Allowing Robert De Niro to fully lean into his character’s catatonia, a risky move in the present and a risky move in 1990. Performing disabilities on screen takes chutzpah. If nothing else it takes a willingness to court serious criticism. The thing is, if you’re an actor playing a disabled character, and if you play that character well, then maybe that’s enough. De Niro is pretty good as Leonard Lowe. Williams is pretty good as Malcolm Sayer, a fictionalized version of Oliver Sacks, the British neurologist whose same-named book provided the basis for Penny Marshall’s film. Together, they’re pretty good together, navigating Awakenings into sentimental waters without sinking, and finding the heart of Sacks’ story without reading as patronizing.
The Other Side of the Wind (1985, But Also 2018):
Netflix generously dropped about $6 million on completing Orson Welles’ final movie, shot over the course of several years in the early 1970s, technically finished in 1985, the year Welles passed, and then actually finished in 2018 after about a half decade’s worth of sweat equity put into that daunting task. The content and conceit of this classic film reflects the restorative effort. The Other Side of the Wind unfolds against the backdrop of macho Golden Age filmmaker Jake Hannaford’s (John Huston) 70th birthday, where a series of unfortunate events ultimately leads him to his end; Welles’ big idea is that Hannaford’s partygoers are packing 16 mm and Super 8 cameras, and that the movie comprises the footage they collectively captured. Remember when Welles invented the mockumentary in Citizen Kane? The man invented the found footage picture, too, and we didn’t know as much until years after The Blair Witch Project. Orson Welles; what a concept.