24 Movies You Must See Before You Die 

A list like this could be about the 25 most popular films ever, the 25 best films, or the 25 most influential films. With an endless number of movies to choose from, it's challenging to whittle down the essential film to see to only 25.

Therefore, we included titles that will reframe your vision of what movies can be and highlight what is important and valuable in the culture.

1. The Consequences of Feminism (1906)

Pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché directed this uber-camp 6-minute, 45-second silent short, in which gender roles are swapped. Women swagger and work and proposition while men take care of the children, struggle to protect their virtue — and ultimately stage a feminist revolution.

The short could be read as a reactionary warning against women's progress. Still, its joyful spirits suggest it's less focused on fear than celebrating queer possibilities and social transformation. Today, more than 115 years after its creation, it still feels daring and forward-thinking.

2. Nosferatu (1922)

Image of Nosferatu standing in doorway
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W. Murnau's stunning silent expressionist Dracula rip-off turns 100 this year. But, like its protagonist, it seems likely to never die. As the bald, bat-eared vampire, Max Schreck casts some of cinema's most terrifying shadows — hunched, stark, and hungry.

3. The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)

Germaine Dulac's interpretation of a scenario by Antonin Artaud is often credited as the first surrealist film and chronicles a priest's hallucinations and repressed desire as he lusts after a general's wife.

It may be a dream; it may be a metaphor for patriarchal authority's nervous, self-throttling instability. Nevertheless, even the surrealists were shocked by it, and it retains the power to startle and entrance its viewer.

4. Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life (1935)

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A 9-minute tour through Black music and dance of the mid-1930s. It features one of Duke Ellington's first long-form compositions as he coaxes his orchestra from elegant swing to earthy growl.

Earl “Snakehips” Tucker's dancing shows how he got his name some two decades before Elvis. Still, the highlight is undoubtedly a short torch song by Billie Holiday at the height of her powers. Her voice is sorrow personified.

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5. Bringing up Baby (1938)

Howard Hawks' fast-talking screwball masterpiece in which Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and an indeterminate number of large cats race up and down ladders and into and out of frilly bathrobes was a flop. But, as Katherine Hepburn explains, “There is a leopard on your roof, and it's my leopard, and I have to get it, and I have to sing.”

6. Out of the Past (1947)

Jacques Tourneur directed this hardest of hard-boiled noirs, in which every word hits with the force of lead, and every dame is “awfully cold around the heart.” Robert Mitchum and Rhonda Fleming circle each other like elegant wolves, but not too elegant.

7. Duck Amuck (1953)

Chuck Jones' masterpiece features the hapless Daffy Duck tormented by the worst antagonist of all—his own animator. You can talk about Borges or Tarantino all you want. Still, there is no art more meta than an animated eraser scribbling out a plummeting Daffy's parachute and replacing it with an anvil.

8. Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan Crawford, in trousers and gunbelt, stars in this Western where women are the toughest thing on the range and men wilt around them in a hail of love and lead. Nicholas Ray's direction is saturated in color, neurosis, and sex. If Freud made a Western, this is what it would look like.

9. No.4 (Butts) (1966)

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Yoko Ono filmed the naked bottoms of numerous friends as they walked, then strung them together into an 80-minute film. There are voice-over interviews in which participants giggle and chat about the project. Still, you never find out whose butt belongs to whom. Everyone is just a significant stream of butts together, exhilarating, ludicrous, and loved.

10. One-armed Swordsmen (1967)

Chang Cheh's iconic Hong Kong classic set the tone for many a Shaw Brothers wuxia releases to come — lots of blood (including an arm-severing scene, naturally), brooding angsty protagonists, and gimmicky battle-scenes galore.

In this case, you've got the one-armed hero (played by Jimmy Wang) but also an improbable hooked sword contraption that traps other swords so you can stab the surprised opponent with a knife. Fiendish yet preposterous, like One-Armed Swordsmen itself.

11. The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

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There are black comedies, and then there's the Neil Simon written, Elaine May directed The Heartbreak Kid. Charles Grodin plays Lenny, an awkward, relentless social climber who abandons his wife on their honeymoon after taking one look at upper-crust blonde Kelly (Cybil Shepherd).

Lenny's utter commitment to selfishness and self-debasement is only more painful because it's so successful. A searing, miserable, laugh-out-loud funny indictment of assimilation (mainly Jewish) into the American dream.

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12. Solaris (1972)

Stanislaw Lem's novel about a mysterious distant planet that makes thoughts into reality is a cheeky mockery of the limitations of science. A stark contrast to Andrei Tarkovsky's adaptation, which is a slow meditation on dreams, grief, and the absence you may (or may not) find in the human heart.

13. Listening to Kenny G (2021)

Penny Lane's HBO documentary asks what we hate when we hate Kenny G. It's a fun, squirm-inducing look at how aesthetic taste becomes an identity — and a perfect way to end a list codifying what art you should make your own.

A list like this is limited to what the compiler has seen—and no one has seen everything. Oliver Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920) and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) might be on here if I'd seen them. Hopefully, I'll get to both. There are a lot of movies out there, but, alas, you can't see them all before you die.

14. Reassemblage (1982)

Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha shot this short, mysterious anti-documentary in Senegal. In the film, images of women's village life among the Sereer people are juxtaposed with Minh-ha's elliptical commentary on the documentary process; she refuses to “speak about” instead, choosing to “just speak nearby.”

The film is a commentary on how anthropological documentaries function to define, limit, and colonize their subjects.

15. Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa's titanic adaptation of King Lear is a strong contender for the most excellent film ever made. Smoke and banners flap against blasted landscapes; even the stillness of death is alive with motion. The painterly battlefield scenes drench despair in the palette of beauty and vice versa.

16. Do the Right Thing (1989)

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Spike Lee's kinetic breakthrough celebrates Brooklyn's multi-racial, multi-ethnic community while exposing its core racism and violence. The stunning cast includes Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Samuel Jackson, and Rosie Perez. But the star shines in Lee's direction, which quick cuts between realism and theatrical bombast, giving the film the force of sidewalk myth.

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17. Daughters of the Dust (1991)

The plot of Julie Dash's first feature on the surface revolves around the people of the Georgia Sea Islands preparing to migrate north in 1902. Yet, a deeper look reveals the true focus is portraying the beauty of Dataw Island's landscape and Gullah culture. The film highlights cooking, children's games, and the poetry of the dialect to the love of family, which is embodied in the unborn child narrates and in the film itself.

18. Face/off (1997)

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John Woo's absolutely barmiest manic action psychodrama morality play with large bore firearms and pigeons. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta play one another as if each were pumped full of a pharmacy full of psychotropic amphetamines. This film has it all: angst, sex, massive property damage, and mirror imagery. Especially mirror imagery. And property damage.

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19. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)

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Karan Johar's epic is a triumphant declaration that titanic sugary hooks will conquer the globe. Marriage and familial reconciliation stomp and twirl across the screen and the ocean in a whirl of saris, culminating in an enthusiastic diaspora's stirring rendition of the national song.

No one movie can encapsulate the goofiness, joy, and ambition of Bollywood, but K3G comes as close as anything. You owe it to yourself to immediately watch Amitabh Bachchan shaking it to the big band bhangra nonsense of Aadesh Shrivastava's “Say Shava Shava.”

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20. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

In Alfonso Cuarón's breakthrough movie, teens Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) convince the married Luisa (Maribel Verdú) to join them on a trip to a non-existent beach house.

Unfortunately, the boys know even less about their motivations and hers than they seem to at first, and the expected arc of reconciliation and self-discovery is cut painfully short. An aching meditation on Mexico's bleak political landscape, death, and failure that's thinly disguised as a sexy coming-of-age road trip.

21. Saving Face (2004)

Image of Lynn Chen in a blue top
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In Alice Wu's pioneering lesbian romance, a mother and daughter learn from each other to embrace their unconventional relationships, even if their traditional Chinese family's object. Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen, and Joan Chen are all fabulous in the lead, and the script is a delight from start to finish. The movie's reputation has grown, but it still deserves more recognition as one of the all-time great romantic comedies.

22. The Clock (2010)

The Clock is a looped 24-hour video installation by Christian Marclay. He spliced together scenes from movies that show clocks, watches, or timepieces. It is meant to be synchronized with the local time, so the film itself functions as a clock, with the images on the screen telling you the minutes as they pass. It's virtually impossible to see the whole thing, but even watching a portion is a disorienting delight.

23. The Love Witch (2016)

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Anna Biller not only wrote and directed but made the sets and costumes for this retro-horror tribute/critique of the gender norms of Hitchcock and classic Hollywood. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) stars as a witch who dresses in outrageous pink hats and casts spells to find true love. However, men are too weak for the relationships she demands. The battle of the sexes has rarely been so sumptuously saturated in camp and pain.

24. Titane (2021)

Titane scrambles from sexploitation to revenge to body horror before turning into an ode to queer found family that explodes in birth, black fluid, and love. Agathe Rousselle turns in a fantastic feature film debut as Alexia, a model impregnated by a car who murders everyone who has sex with her and escapes into another gender. This is only director Julia Ducournau's second feature, and she has a fantastic career ahead of her.

25. Listening to Kenny G (2021)

Penny Lane's HBO documentary asks what we hate when we hate Kenny G. It's a fun, squirm-inducing look at how aesthetic taste becomes an identity — and a perfect way to end a list codifying what art you should make your own.

A list like this is limited to what the compiler has seen—and no one has seen everything. Oliver Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920) and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) might be on here if I'd seen them. Hopefully, I'll get to both. There are a lot of movies out there, but, alas, you can't see them all before you die.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.

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