Some of the very best movies of all time have flaws that aren’t terminal, but that are nevertheless prominent: a questionable performance, a problematic element, an ending that doesn’t quite land. That’s fine: a film that takes risks is generally preferable to one that’s technically proficient but dull, and a movie can be great without being perfect.
There are movies, though, with nothing worth complaining about; movies whose flaws (if they can be said to have any) fold so well into the total package as to be indistinguishable from touches of genius. Nothing in life is perfect…but these 30 movies are pretty much there.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Just when he thought he was out, Dr. Frankenstein gets pulled back in. Director James Whale followed up what would have been the greatest of the monster movies with one of the most impressive feats in American cinema history: something altogether funnier, weirder, and deeply more queer, with gay icon Ernest Thesiger prancing through the gothic sets, offering bitchy rejoinders and seducing his old protege into reanimating the dead just one more time. That’s all before Elsa Lanchester trades her Mary Shelley outfit for the Bride’s wire-cage wig, giving birth to an icon with just a few short moments of film and no dialogue. Whale and company are clearly having a lot of fun, but the level of detail in plot, makeup, and sets ensures that nothing ever feels sloppy. —Ross Johnson
His Girl Friday (1940)
When we think of the snappy, smart style of the better screwball comedies, we’re thinking of His Girl Friday. Or we ought to be. There are few better examples of the form, and director Howard Hawks deserves much of the credit for insisting on relentlessly fast-paced patter—the movie was based on a popular, dialogue-heavy play that had already been filmed once as The Front Page.
This version makes a couple of innovations over the original, the most significant of which is in co-lead character Hildy Johnson: a man in earlier versions, here “Hildy” is short for Hildegard and she’s played by Rosalind Russell, now the ex-wife of Cary Grant’s character, but still every bit the hard-charging reporter and equal (and then some) of every man in the newsroom. There’s not a single moment that sags. —Ross Johnson
Citizen Kane (1941)
Everyone knows about Citizen Kane, but I suspect that it’s reputation for cinematic greatness is off-putting to an awful lot of people who’d enjoy it. Which is too bad, because it’s more than great. It’s good. Stunningly beautiful to look at, with stylistic and technological innovations that are still impressive today, it’s also quirky, funny, and remains impressively timely in its portrait of an American whose youthful idealism curdles in the presence of his own increasing power and wealth (and a media magnate whose interest in the truth fades with time). —Ross Johnson
Casablanca is a product of golden-age Hollywood—a slick movie, no doubt, which makes it easy to underrate. From its opening chase through the streets of the title city, to the poignant and all-time memorable ending, there’s nothing here that doesn’t work brilliantly, with off-the-charts chemistry among all the main characters, not just Bogart and Bergman.
What makes it even better is its ambiguities: it’s set in an underworld in which people may be doing some of the right things, but nobody’s good all the time. Bogart’s character Rick Blaine, one of the most beloved characters in film history, steadfastly refuses to stick his neck out in the face of Axis aggression until it’s absolutely unavoidable. That anti-heroism saves the movie from its own production values. —Ross Johnson
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
Movies are all products of their time, but comedies are especially tricky. Laughter is often based on behavior that is in opposition to societal norms, so what’s funny to one generation may seem stale or toothless a few decades later. Which is why it’s remarkable that this nearly 78-year-old screwball farce from writer/director Preston Sturges is still so dang hilarious.
The plot is a lot more, uh, adult than you might expect for the ‘40s: Small town gal Trudy Kockenlocker is out at a bar celebrating with the boys before they head off to war. She has too much to drink and wakes up the next morning with a ring on her finger, but she can’t remember who she married (“…it had a z in it. Like Ratzkywatzky. Or was it Zitzkywitzky?”). Even worse, she soon realizes she’s pregnant and minus one marriage license.
The innuendo-laden script, which only gets kookier from there, ran into problems with the censors of the era, naturally, and even though it’s incredibly tame by today’s standards, it’s still sharp and funny throughout. (If you’re a classic cinema buff who thinks this list should feature Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or The Lady Eve instead, I can’t argue too much.) —Joel Cunningham
The Set-Up (1949)
Director Robert Wise remains underrated precisely because he didn’t seem to have a signature style, working in a variety of genres (he’s best known for slick Hollywood musicals like The Sound of Music and West Side Story). The Set-Up is very different: a sweaty, claustrophobic, and brutal boxing noir about a boxer who’s been set up to take a dive. Nobody told him, he’s just such a has-been that it’s assumed that he’ll lose. Except that he doesn’t. It’s as dark as noir gets, and doesn’t let up for any of its brisk 70 minutes. —Ross Johnson
All About Eve (1950)
Commonly cited as a film with one of the best screenplays ever written, All About Eve is a behind-the-scenes Hollywood satire that is both of its era and timeless. It concerns a bitter feud between a beloved, aging actress, Margo Channing (played to bitter perfection by Bette Davis), and ambitious young up-and-comer Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who is willing to do anything to become a star. Laced with barbed wit and deep cynicism and impeccably performed (the cast earned a combined five nominations at the 1951 Academy Awards; Marilyn Monroe also kills it in a four-line bit part), All About Eve will delight contemporary viewers who love the soapy, salacious work of Ryan Murphy. —Joel Cunningham
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon is one of the most-admired films ever conceived. The ubiquity of its once-novel central narrative conceit—reviewing the same series of events through the eyes of three different characters, each offering a different perspective on the truth, if it even exists—has earned shorthand status. (The AV Club recently described 2021’s The Last Duel as Ridley Scott’s own take on this “influential ode to subjectivity.”)
The legendary Toshiro Mifune plays a woodcutter who claims to have discovered the body of a murdered samurai warrior in the forest. He is called into court alongside other witnesses, each of whom has a different explanation for how the body came to be there and why. Even after being imitated and parodied everywhere from The Last Jedi to The Simpsons, the original still enthralls. —Joel Cunningham
Rear Window (1954)
A movie about watching movies, Hitchcock’s classic is as meticulous as anything he ever produced, but takes a delight in tweaking its audience for our own voyeuristic tendencies. It’s not as if it’s gotten harder to keep tabs on our friends and neighbors, and the film’s line: “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change,” is at least as true now as it was in 1954. —Ross Johnson
Pather Panchali (1955)
Coming from a movie culture dominated by musicals and adventure films, Satyajit Ray leapt ahead of not only India’s film traditions, but those of Hollywood and even the French New Wave to shoot an ultra-realistic but still-beautifully-photographed story that’s both universal (especially in its fraught family dynamics) and tied to its time and place. The magic of the film (and its two equally great sequels) is that during its runtime, the separation between 1950s rural India and the modern world virtually disappears. —Ross Johnson
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Ingmar Bergman has a reputation for cheerlessness and, though that’s not entirely fair, it doesn’t help that his most famous movie involves a chess match with death in a plague-ridden medieval landscape. There’s extraordinary beauty here, though, and several extraordinarily humane moments. Bergman is far more interested in exploring than he is in answers or morals, but the suggestion here is that hard-won moments of love, sex, and family in defiance of death are that much more precious. —Ross Johnson
The Lion in Winter (1968)
Forget Die Hard, The Lion in Winter is my favorite Christmas movie. This decidedly non-epic medieval historical is a two-hander between Peter O’Toole’s Henry II and Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine, as they convene at the king’s residence in Touraine, France to argue matters of politics and succession. Henry wants his son John (Nigel Terry) to inherit the throne, while Eleanor prefers their son Richard (Anthony Hopkins).
There’s more intrigue afoot though, thanks to interference from King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton), but really, this is two hours of gloriously written arguments (the Oscar-winning script is by James Goldman, based on his play) between the king and queen more fascinating than any warfare that might unfold on the battlefield. —Joel Cunningham
A B-movie premise produced with top talent, the science fiction/horror hybrid Alien is a masterpiece of both genres. The cast is an all-time great assembly of actors who would shortly become legends, all of whom manage to convincingly portray blue-collar workers forced to survive with absolutely no help from their employer. Just as importantly, H.R. Giger’s creature designs give the movie its iconic monster, one that hasn’t been matched for originality and sheer alien-ness in the decades since. —Ross Johnson
Back to the Future (1985)
A masterclass in screenwriting, the BTTF script pays off every joke and plot point, balancing the arcs of different versions of dozens of characters across multiple timelines without ever dropping any balls. That alone might earn it a reputation for flawlessness, but the movie probably wouldn’t be as beloved without the manic energy of Christopher Lloyd and the loose and light touch of Michael J. Fox at his 80s coolest, each bringing personality and style to balance (and disguise) the machinations of the film’s finicky and knotty script. —Ross Johnson
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s third film may be his masterpiece. Set in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn over the course of an incredibly hot summer day, Do the Right Thing explores simmering racial tensions in the neighborhood, stoked by encroaching gentrification, unfair policing, and general prejudice. The plot, such as it is, concerns a conflict that arises between the Black residents and the Italian-American owners of Sal’s, the neighborhood pizza joint, but the film is more remarkable for how that conflict sheds light on the everyday lives of this particular strata of New Yorkers, and how injustice can force people to take sides and take action when they’d really rather keep the peace. But more than that, it’s as vibrant, funny, and full of life as it is tragic. It’s a hangout movie with a lot to say about America. And it’s 30 years old and more relevant than ever. —Joel Cunningham
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Is this the best romantic comedy ever made? It certainly is a film with no bad scenes. Perhaps the sexual politics seem a little dated—the whole movie operates from the premise that men and women can never really be friends (because “the sex part always gets in the way”), which means the relationship between the inseparable Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) is either doomed to implode or grow into something more—but I’ve also had similar arguments with my wife 33 years later. Produced right in the middle of director Rob Reiner’s miracle run (which includes The Princess Bride, another film that would fit on this list), and with an insanely quotable script from a never-better Nora Ephron, it might be the most rewatchable movie ever made. —Joel Cunningham
Home Alone (1990)
I’m going to get some crap for this one, but after countless seasonal viewings, I contend that this cartoonishly violent Christmas classic flawlessly executes its mission—which is probably why we’re all still watching Kevin (Macauly Culkin) slap his hands against his face 32 years later. That’s not to say anything in it is realistic, but that doesn’t matter. You can poke a million holes in the setup (how could any parents actually forget a child at home? Why would criminals be so stupid as to plan such a conspicuous string of burglaries?) without letting the air out of the zany antics of the temporarily orphaned tyke’s attempts to defend his home from bad guys, or the distress the boy’s mother (Catherine O’Hara, the film’s true secret weapon) feels as she repeatedly fails to get back to him, and then does—just in time for Christmas. —Joel Cunningham
Groundhog Day (1993)
Like Rashômon, Groundhog Day is built on a plot device that has since become a narrative staple. Too bad it got everything right the first time. As grumpy weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray), snowbound in the picture-perfect hamlet of Punxsutawney, PA and pissed off about it, is forced by unexplained cosmic chance to repeat the titular holiday over and over again until he learns how to be a better person, we’re all forced to confront the terrifying fact that we’re only given one chance to get life right, so we’d better make it count. On one level it operates as a high-concept romantic comedy, and while it is satisfying to see Phil get the girl, it’s much more fun to contemplate this one’s philosophical core. —Joel Cunningham
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Eve’s Bayou, the impossibly assured debut of director Kasi Lemmons, is transporting, conjuring a world of southern gothic mystery and magic that’s never loses sight of the emotional realities of its main characters. Jurnee Smollett plays the title character, who begins the film with the promise of a story: one in which she killed her father as a ten year old. The film proceeds to deal in dark and thorny issues, but does so with a Rashômon-esque understanding of the mutability of memory and the ways in which time and perspective can drastically change our view of events. —Ross Johnson
The Truman Show (1998)
The Truman Show would be remarkable if only it had predicted the rise of reality TV and our coming obsession with being main characters in a narrative unfolding across the canvas of social media. But this weird sci-fi fable about a man who is unwittingly the star of the world’s most popular show is also a moving exploration of the human desire to question our origins and find a way to live meaningfully, despite the risks involved. Director Peter Weir brings just the right blend of the grounded and the surreal to Andrew Niccol’s high-concept screenplay, and Jim Carrey totally deserved the Oscar nomination he didn’t get. —Joel Cunningham
All About My Mother (1999)
Pedro Almodóvar’s films are, by deign, boisterous, colorful, and wild, so much so that to call any one of them “flawless” sounds like faint praise. Flawless can be dull, and Almodóvar is never that. All About My Mother reinvents the melodrama (and expands our ideas of motherhood) with this queer, sex-positive, and hilarious story of a grief-stricken mother who discovers a whole new family on a journey to Barcelona. —Ross Johnson
The Sixth Sense (1999)
A great twist ending can really make a movie, but the tru mark of quality is whether there’s more to it than just the twist. You could lop the final reveal off of this box-office smash about a boy (Haley Joel Osment) who can see ghosts and the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him, and you’d still be left with one of the most expertly crafted, emotionally devastating horror films ever made. Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan made his name with it and has never quite stepped out of its shadow. Which is understandable, because how do you improve on a film that’s damn near flawless? —Joel Cunningham
The Matrix (1999)
Come on, I don’t need to tell you why The Matrix is perfect, do I? Beyond the discourse, beyond the divisive sequels, this is one for the ages: A never-bettered blend of martial arts action, anime style, flashy sci-fi, and thematic depth, it only gets better with the passage of time. Whoa. —Joel Cunningham
Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki’s love of animation as an art, and his passion for his own story is present in every single frame of Spirited Away. There’s not a second, not a single frame of the film that isn’t stunningly detailed, to the point that you feel like you could fall into the frame and live there for a long time without ever getting bored. I’m not sure that Spirited Away is any more or less perfect than several other Miyazaki movies, but its story of a lonely child who gets lost in a dark fantasyland is among his most moving. —Ross Johnson
The breakout film from Christopher Nolan, this crime thriller is less flashy than his later hits like Inception and Tenet, but no less high concept: Unfolding in reverse, it tells the sad story of a man with no short-term memory who is hunting for his wife’s killer, and at the mercy of whoever happens to be controlling his narrative at any given moment. It plays out like a magic trick; even after you’ve seen it performed backwards and forwards, you can’t quite figure out how the director pulled it off. —Joel Cunningham
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This mind-bending comedy-drama is that rare example of the “aromantic comedy”: a movie about two people whose relationship is so clearly doomed, we can’t help but hope they wind up together in the end. Music video director Michel Gondry brings a grungy, handmade, low-tech charm to the outlandish story of a dysfunctional couple (played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) that makes use of weird new tech to erase their memories of one another from their minds (“Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage,” the doctor notes), but still manage to find one another again, suggesting even (possibly) doomed love is better than no love at all. In the wrong hands, Charlie Kauffman’s screenplay would come off as confusing or overly misanthropic. Instead, this is one of the best stories of doomed love ever told. —Joel Cunningham
No Country for Old Men (2007)
The only thing wrong with this Coen brothers/Cormac McCarthy quasi-western crime thriller is that it’s so exacting as to border on nihilistic, which means it’s not exactly the kind of movie you want to watch over and over. Still, there’s nary a false note to the cascading nightmare of violence that follows in the wake of a drug deal gone wrong, as a small-time criminal (Josh Brolin) is pursued by a nigh-supernatural hitman (Javier Bardem in an instantly iconic performance—and haircut). Spare, methodical, and uncompromising, it’s a dark exploration of the line between destiny and self-determination, unfolding against the stark emptiness of the American west. —Joel Cunningham
Get Out (2018)
If you weren’t around to witness the fervor Get Out’s release generated (box office success, mega-awards attention, instant meme status), you’d be excused for wondering how the hell Jordan Peele managed to be anointed the future of cinematic horror after a single film. But you were, so you know what I’m talking about.
In some ways, this grim sci-fi fairytale plays out like an episode of The Twilight Zone, as a young Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) apprehensively visits the upstate New York estate of his wealthy girlfriend’s family and discovers weirdness that goes beyond the expected cultural and social classes. Peele’s wry screenplay blends surreal laughs with true horror, even as it crafts a perfect metaphor for the Black experience in a “post-racism” America in which those with the power pretend that inequality and injustice are relics of an earlier, unenlightened era, and even as they continue to benefit from both in terrible and transformative ways. —Joel Cunningham
Knives Out (2019)
We’ve seen these types of all-star murder mysteries before (including in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express just a couple of years before this), but never with this type of style. Keeping all of the frothy fun of earlier locked-room mysteries (and then some), Rian Johnson’s film goes deeper into the dark hearts of our array of suspects, while still willing to have a laugh at the expense of their rich white asses. And rarely has a resolution ever been quite this satisfying. —Ross Johnson
Bong Joon-ho’s ambition here is nothing less than to pull the rug out from under all of us, examining the scaffolding that holds our social structures together before making a good case for ripping the whole thing down. The genre-defying masterpiece begins as something like a dark comedy before becoming something not unlike a horror movie. At several moments, it appears as though Bong’s movie is about to run completely off the rails, but each carefully navigated twist and turn only makes the movie that much more exhilarating. —Ross Johnson
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