7 Best Classic Films Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

With Howards End, the magic trio of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala converted yet another turn-of-the-19th-century EM Forster novel into exquisite cinematic form. Ravishingly shot and performed to career-best heights by many of its cast, Howards End loses nothing of the elegance we expect from a period drama, and yet it also feels thoroughly modern. The film charts the tragic entwining of three families: the progressive and intellectual middle-class Schlegel sisters, the much more traditionally minded and wealthier Wilcox family, and the Basts, a down-on-their-luck working-class couple. It’s the liberally minded Schlegels who cross the class divide of 1910 London to bring these two distant social circles so close to each other, but it’s the old-world values of the Wilcoxes that make that meeting a tragic one. Simmering with rich emotion and crackling with class politics, Howards End is the crowning glory of the Merchant Ivory powerhouse and the rare perfect period drama.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Ross Magenty, Allie Byrne, Anne Lambton, Anthony Hopkins, Barbara Hicks, Brian Lipson, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Emma Thompson, Gerald Paris, Helena Bonham Carter, James Ivory, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Jo Kendall, Joseph Bennett, Margery Mason, Mark Payton, Mark Tandy, Mary McWilliams, Nicola Duffett, Patricia Lawrence, Peter Cellier, Prunella Scales, Sally Geoghegan, Samuel West, Simon Callow, Susie Lindeman, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG

The visceral pain at the center of this adaptation from period drama powerhouse Merchant-Ivory comes not from fading or unrequited love but unrealized affection. Try as he might to repress his feelings, devoted butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) can’t stifle the blossoming attachment he shares with housemaid Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). And yet, at every opportunity she gives him to do something about it, he balks, squandering the potential for something truly beautiful — something that actually belongs to them, not their aristocratic employer.

The Remains is partly told in flashbacks to the period leading up to the Second World War. From his stately home, Stevens’ master Lord Darlington and his peers play at international relations and try to avoid another war by pandering to the Nazis, but find they’re woefully under-equipped to decide the fate of Europe in this changing world. One of the many brilliant things about The Remains is the way this political drama doubles the devastation of Stevens’ die-hard commitment to his job — because now, he’s sacrificing his one chance at love for something that won’t even survive the decade. Sublime filmmaking and performances turn Stevens’ every minute choice into a pillar of profound tragedy, giving us a maddeningly heartwrenching life lesson for the ages.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anthony Hopkins, Ben Chaplin, Brigitte Kahn, Caroline Hunt, Christopher Brown, Christopher Reeve, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Ian Redford, James Fox, Jeffry Wickham, Jo Kendall, John Haycraft, John Savident, Lena Headey, Michael Lonsdale, Miles Richardson, Patrick Godfrey, Paul Copley, Paula Jacobs, Peter Cellier, Peter Eyre, Peter Halliday, Peter Vaughan, Pip Torrens, Rupert Vansittart, Steven Beard, Terence Bayler, Tim Pigott-Smith, Tony Aitken, Wolf Kahler

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG

Stand By Me follows four young friends as they journey around their small town searching for a rumored dead body. On the surface, it moves like an adventure story. The boys narrowly avoid guard dogs and leeches, speeding trains and tough teen gangs. But along the way, they also learn much about each other, in particular about the stark reality of their home lives and the growing depths of their inner struggles, so that beneath all the small-time thrill is a beating coming-of-age story. 

Based on a novella by horror master Stephen King, Stand By Me is terrifying in its ability to evoke the unique thorniness of passing through the gates of adulthood, but also warm and comforting in its reminder of the universality of this feeling.

Genre: Adventure, Crime, Drama

Actor: Bradley Gregg, Bruce Kirby, Casey Siemaszko, Chance Quinn, Corey Feldman, Dick Durock, Frances Lee McCain, Gary Riley, Jason Naylor, Jason Oliver, Jerry O'Connell, Jerry O'Connell, John Cusack, Kent W. Luttrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Korey Scott Pollard, Madeleine Swift, Marshall Bell, Matt Williams, O.B. Babbs, Richard Dreyfuss, River Phoenix, Scott Beach, Wil Wheaton, William Bronder

Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: R

Break-ups aren’t the easiest thing to overcome, but how we deal with them usually doesn’t get as ludicrous as the events Pepa goes through in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The film makes said nervous breakdown chaotic– it includes spiked gazpacho, a frantic call to the police, and being held at gunpoint– but as Pepa and the women around her try to put off each fire, at least one of them literally, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar ensures sympathy for them, with Pepa's snappy dialogue cutting through the lies of a smooth-talking womanizer refusing to face them. And it’s all paired with a suitably dramatic score, meticulous staging, and exaggerated, colorful frames mostly occurring in the wreck of a fabulously styled penthouse.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Agustín Almodóvar, Ana Leza, Ángel de Andrés López, Antonio Banderas, Carmen Maura, Chus Lampreave, Eduardo Calvo, Fernando Guillen, Francisca Caballero, Gabriel Latorre, Guillermo Montesinos, Imanol Uribe, Joaquín Climent, José Antonio Navarro, José Marco, Juan Lombardero, Julieta Serrano, Kiti Manver, Loles León, Lupe Barrado, María Barranco, Rossy de Palma, Yayo Calvo

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rating: R

Known for showcasing the grittier side of New York in his films, Martin Scorsese shifts to its upper echelons in The Age of Innocence. Based on the 1920 novel, the film follows society attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he courts and marries the respectable May Welland (Winona Ryder), despite his desire for childhood friend Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Undeniably gorgeous and impressively shot, what ultimately makes the film stand out among Scorsese’s work is how well the three leads embody the complex characters of the novel on multiple levels. Day-Lewis skillfully turns a corrupt, arrogant lawyer into someone who admirably refuses to be anything but himself, while Pfeiffer hides a stubbornness and frustration within Olenska. But it’s Ryder who best portrays her character's complexity, Welland’s wide-eyed gaze concealing secret manipulations. All of them drive this story that not only mourns for lost love, but acts as a mourning for a lost Golden Age.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alec McCowen, Alexis Smith, Brian Davies, Carolyn Farina, Catherine Scorsese, Charles Scorsese, Cindy Katz, Clement Fowler, Daniel Day-Lewis, Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, Geraldine Chaplin, Howard Erskine, Joanne Woodward, John McLoughlin, Jonathan Pryce, June Squibb, Linda Faye Farkas, Martin Scorsese, Mary Beth Hurt, Michael Gough, Michelle Pfeiffer, Miriam Margolyes, Norman Lloyd, Pasquale Cajano, Patricia Dunnock, Richard E. Grant, Robert Sean Leonard, Siân Phillips, Siân Phillips, Stuart Wilson, Thomas Barbour, Thomas Gibson, Tracey Ellis, W.B. Brydon, Winona Ryder

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rating: PG

Warm, enchanting, poetic and delicate, this is an almost silent film about a poor Vietnamese girl who goes to work for a well-off family in Saigon. The film follows her experiences as she grows but is also very focused on the nature around her, and the beautiful little details of this nature, which the young girl seems attuned to and curious about. The feelings in the film come more from the excellent visuals rather than the plot itself.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anh Hoa Nguyen, Hoa Hoi Vuong, Keo Souvannavong, Man San Lu, Ngoc Trung Tran, Thi Loc Truong, Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Vantha Talisman

Director: Anh Hung Tran, Tran Anh Hung

Rating: Not Rated

For skeptics of the western, Silverado might be too overstuffed with storylines that feel more appropriate for a series than a single film. But those willing to give it a chance should find a consistent level of entertainment with the movie's wide array of cowboys and sheriffs trying to outmaneuver each other. The action gets surprisingly intense, with impressive stunts and shootouts selling the idea that these characters could go at any time. And with the relatively young and fresh faces of Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, John Cleese, and Jeff Goldblum popping up, it feels like a greatest hits of the '80s and '90s, with these charismatic actors all getting a turn playing in the sandbox.

Genre: Action, Action & Adventure, Drama, Western

Actor: Amanda Wyss, Autry Ward, Bill Thurman, Brad Leland, Brian Dennehy, Brion James, Danny Glover, Dick Durock, Earl Hindman, Gene Hartline, Jake Kasdan, James Gammon, Jeff Fahey, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Haynie, Joe Seneca, John Cleese, Jonathan Kasdan, Ken Farmer, Kenny Call, Kevin Costner, Kevin Kline, Linda Hunt, Lois Geary, Lynn Whitfield, Marvin J. McIntyre, Meg Kasdan, Patricia Gaul, Ray Baker, Richard Jenkins, Rosanna Arquette, Rusty Meyers, Sam Gauny, Scott Glenn, Sheb Wooley, Thomas Wilson Brown, Todd Allen, Troy Ward

Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Rating: PG-13