In the age of streaming, there’s rarely any shortage of new movies to watch. It’s finding old ones that can present a challenge. Unless, that is, you have Max: Thanks in large part to its sister company Turner Classic Movies, the platform is a treasure trove of cinema stretching back as far as the 1920s.
You’ll find old favorites and hidden gems, silent films and superhero flicks, stories from all over the globe and all across genres — and, if you’re anything like us, at least a few of those titles you’ve always meant to get around to seeing but never did. There’s so much great stuff, in fact, that it’s impossible for any single list to do them justice. But in the interest of saving you hours of scrolling, we’ve tried to do our best regardless. Here’s a list of 15 great classic films that you can watch on Max.
(Note: For the purposes of this story, we’re limiting “classics” to pictures released in 1979 or earlier. Not quite your speed? Find the best films on Max regardless of era here, or the best ’90s movies on Max here. We also have curated lists centered around the best horror, true crime, documentary, and romantic comedy that Max has to offer. Happy streaming!)
1. The Great Dictator (1940)
What could be more pressingly timely than an over-the-top 1940 comedy in which the legendary Charlie Chaplin hilariously torches fascist dictators generally, Adolf Hitler specifically, antisemitism, and Nazi beliefs? It’s the comic’s first sound film, and he uses that sound to great effect — including in a climactic speech that’s sadly as relevant today as it was in 1940, a time when the actual Hitler was still a dominant political figure.
Chaplin takes on dual roles in The Great Dictator. He stars first as a Jewish barber who loses his memory after a plane crash during a World War I fight between fictional nations. Waking up 20 years later, the barber wakes up in a changed world where the society he knows is ruled over by the brutal and hate-filled dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the so-called “Phooey of Tomainia” and an obvious Hitler parody. Troubled by what he sees and persecuted for his Jewish beliefs, the barber — who bears a striking and relevant-to-the-plot resemblance to Hynkel — joins the resistance. — Adam Rosenberg, Senior Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: The Great Dictator is now streaming on Max.
2. Casablanca (1942)
Nearly 80 years after its release, Casablanca remains one of the best-loved films of all time. It is perhaps the ultimate romantic drama, chronicling the bittersweet love triangle between American expat Rick (Humphrey Bogart), his lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and her resistance-fighter husband Laszlo (Paul Henreid). But it’s also an unusual kind of war film that’s less interested in bloody battles than in the personal complications and moral considerations presented by war (specifically World War II, which the U.S. had just entered after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor), and even today, it’s impossible not to get caught up in its emotional sweep.
Casablanca been quoted, copied, and parodied so many times that it’ll ring a bell even to those who’ve never actually seen it — but that familiarity does nothing to diminish its power, whether on a first view or a 50th. Reportedly, the people making Casablanca didn’t think it would be anything special. How utterly wrong they turned out to be. — Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor
How to watch: Casablanca is now streaming on Max.
3. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Easily one of the greatest movie musicals ever made, Singin’ in the Rain tells the story of Hollywood’s shift from silent films to talking pictures. Caught in this transition is leading man Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), whose leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) has the most grating voice imaginable. With the help of his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and aspiring actor Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), he plans to make a movie musical. What follows are some of the best musical numbers in history, with show-stopping choreography accompanying catchy tunes. The title number is an absolute joy, as are “Good Morning” and the comedic masterpiece “Make ‘Em Laugh.” But it’s the 13-minute “Broadway Melody” sequence in all its Technicolor glory that solidifies Singin’ in the Rain as one of the all-time greats.* — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: Singin’ in the Rain is now streaming on Max.
4. Superman (1978)
Superhero movies didn’t really hit their peak until the 2000s, but Richard Donner’s Superman is the prototype for all the like-minded blockbusters that would follow in subsequent decades. The most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release, Superman does that comic book movie thing where it introduces a character and an origin story that readers have known for years. There are familiar faces, including a major villain reveal and a nefarious plot for our titular hero to derail.
The difference here is the hero is played by a captivating Christopher Reeve. His Lois Lane is Margot Kidder. And Lex Luthor, the arch-nemesis of Krypton’s sole survivor (as far as anyone knows at that point), is a playfully sadistic Gene Hackman. We even get Marlon freakin’ Brando in brief appearances as Jor-El, Superman’s Kryptonian dad. This is a Superman propelled by superstars, and an early example of Hollywood getting a comic book adaptation perfectly right. — A.R.
How to watch: Superman is now streaming on Max.
5. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
There are iconic movies and there are iconic movies. The Wizard of Oz is one of the latter. The story of Dorothy Gale’s journey to the land of Oz is possibly one of the most referenced films in history, having had 82 years of acclaim to popularize phrases like “lions, tigers, and bears,” “there’s no place like home,” and “we’re not in Kansas anymore” — to say nothing of the lasting musical impressions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart.” The Wizard of Oz was made in a different time, when borderline torturing 16-year-old Judy Garland into meeting studio demands and maiming more than one lead actor in on-set accidents was viewed as the cost of doing business. Today the movie stands as a product of the best and worst achievements of Hollywood. — Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: The Wizard of Oz is now streaming on Max.
6. Stagecoach (1939)
Westerns don’t get much more iconic than Stagecoach, which helped catapult John Wayne into super-stardom, and the entire genre along with him. John Ford, another titan of the genre, directs the riveting tale of a group of strangers thrown together for a dangerous journey through the Old West. Not everything about Stagecoach holds up in this day and age — for one, its portrayal of Native Americans is frustratingly, if unsurprisingly, unenlightened — but its memorable characters, thrilling action, and precise editing have stood the test of time. — A.H.
How to watch: Stagecoach is now streaming on Max.
7. Godzilla (1954)
If you really want to understand giant monster movies, better known as the Japan-originated kaiju genre, then Godzilla, the original Toho Studios feature from 1954, is the only place to start. The story is much the same as what we know today: A giant monster emerges from the great unknown (in this case, the deep ocean) and threatens the world, starting with a major city (it’s Tokyo here).
Really though, Godzilla is a product of a post-World War II Japan that had only recently faced one of history’s few nuclear attacks, with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla the creature is the product of a post-nuclear world, an ancient, nuclear-breath-spewing dinosaur that only re-emerged as a result of underwater hydrogen bomb tests. Kaiju movie monsters are meant to be metaphorical reflections of our latent fears of mass destruction, and Godzilla, the first of them, forced humanity to take a hard look at one of our earliest man-made existential threats.
For a really interesting exercise, pair Godzilla with Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (also on Max) in a double-feature. The latter movie, released two years later, is an Americanized version of the original starring Raymond Burr that cuts up and reframes much of the Toho classic. — A.R.
How to watch: Godzilla is now streaming on Max.
8. Harlan County, USA (1976)
Harlan County, USA drops us into small-town Kentucky in the 1970s to show us a time, a place, and a community — and to reveal what happens when a group of coal miners go on strike, incurring the wrath of the Duke Power Company. Barbara Kopple’s film follows the miners and their supporters (including their ferociously determined wives) into the front lines of the fight, from picket lines to town hall meetings to more intimate moments of grief or rage or everyday life.
As the battle intensifies, spilling over into violence, what emerges is a gritty portrait of hard-won courage against an all-too-familiar villain, captured through Kopple’s principled perspective. Harlan County, USA won Best Documentary at the 1977 Oscars, and almost half a century later, it’s still regarded as one of the best documentaries of all time. It’s as riveting, as powerful, and urgent as it was the day it was released.* — A.H.
How to watch: Harlan County, USA is now streaming on Max.
9. Rashomon (1950)
Akira Kurosawa is rightly considered one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers, and Rashomon is his best known film in the United States. When it premiered in 1950, its unique storytelling device, in which the same events are told from the perspective of four different witnesses (one of whom is actually dead), was such a revelation in filmic structure that the movie became eponymous with the concept — hence, the Rashomon Effect. Through this effect, the relatively simple tale of a priest, a bandit, a samurai, a woodcutter, and a woman becomes a complex analysis of truth and perspective that earns its place as a keystone of 20th-century filmmaking.* — A.N.
How to watch: Rashomon is now streaming on Max.
10. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
There are more well-known examples of film noir, such as Jules Dassin’s stellar The Naked City (also available on Max). But filmmaker Louis Malle’s French noir, Elevator to the Gallows (a translation of the original title, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) is notable for a few reasons.
It was Malle’s debut as a filmmaker, for one. It also represents something of a breakout moment for Jeanne Moreau, the French actor and singer who would go on to even greater acclaim only a few years later in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte and François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. But this dark mystery, about Moreau’s adulterous wife and her lover (Maurice Ronet) plotting a murder that goes sideways when one of them gets stuck in an elevator, has an even bigger draw: the music. Led by Miles Davis, the smokey score was created on the spot during a screening of the movie. That act of creation turned out to be a formative moment in the jazz legend’s career. — A.R.
How to watch: Elevator to the Gallows is now streaming on Max.
11. Touki Bouki (1973)
The premise of Touki Bouki sounds familiar enough, following a young couple who scheme to leave their dusty town (well, city — specifically Dakar) for the glitz and glamour of Paris. But the way it unfolds onscreen is anything but.
Even as filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty borrows from familiar influences like Bonnie and Clyde and Breathless (also both on Max, by the way), he serves up a vision that’s all his own. Combining the real and surreal through frenetic editing, vivid imagery, and an experimental edge, Touki Bouki is less a plot to be followed than a dream to be experienced. It’s no wonder it’s still a fixture on “greatest film of all time” lists — even at almost half a century old, it surprises with its boldness and unconventionality. — A.H.
How to watch: Touki Bouki is now streaming on Max.
12. Pather Panchali (1955)
Some cinephiles can’t name an Indian movie besides Satyajit Ray’s 1955 drama, but it’s a high bar to clear; Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) is the story of Apu (Subir Banerjee), a Bengali boy living in a bare village with his mother and sister. The film stuns to this day for its minimal budget and inexperienced cast and crew (including Ray, in his debut as screenwriter and director). Everything about it immerses the audience in a way few films replicate to this day; the sparse dialogue, the stark cinematography, the spare location with its crumbling walls and changing weather. Ray’s work continues with two more Apu films and a vast cinematic and literary legacy. — P.K.
How to watch: Pather Panchali is now streaming on Max.
13. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Visionary of the zombie apocalypse George A. Romero changed the game forever with Night of the Living Dead. Not only did the contents of Romero’s film redefine what was possible for horror in 1968, but the project’s underdog development story also paved the way for decades of other offbeat indie filmmakers’ success.
In the movie, a group of strangers barricade themselves in a farm house after radiation from an exploded space probe begins reanimating human corpses. Of course, the phenomenon has begun to spread, and keeping the undead out of your home is now a matter of life and (un)death.
An all-time great bit of science-fiction, Night of the Living Dead takes itself so seriously that even its rudimentary special effects will leave your skin crawling. It’s classically built tension, with the added spooky effect of watching a film that’s now more than 50 years old. Truly, this title can feel like one you’re almost not “supposed to be” watching, and if that doesn’t give you the chills? Well, you’re tougher than me. — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: Night of the Living Dead is now streaming on Max.
14. Watership Down (1978)
In Watership Down, based on Richard Adams’ novel of the same name, a group of rabbits receive a vision that their current warren will soon be destroyed and leave in search of a new home. Along their journey they encounter several threats, including the authoritarian General Woundwort. The result is a phenomenal adventure, with roots in epic fantasy and mythological quests.
One of the wonders of Watership Down is that it never dilutes its source material. It is unflinching in its bleakness and violence, resulting in some truly nightmarish sequences — think the final fight scene with General Woundwort or the claustrophobic montage of the rabbits’ warren being destroyed. The film’s willingness to navigate these horrors, as well as its emotional richness and gorgeous animation, make it deserving of a watch even now, over 40 years after its release. — B.E.
How to watch: Watership Down is now streaming on Max.
15. Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962)
You might not be familiar with the work of director Agnès Varda yet, but you should fix that as soon as possible.
A pioneer of Left Bank Cinema — a bohemian-influenced indie filmmaking movement in mid-20th century France — Varda became the first woman ever recognized with an honorary Academy Award in 2017, and is largely considered one of the foremost voices in feminist filmmaking. Her most renowned work, Cléo from 5 to 7, tells the story of a young singer who fears she may be dying of cancer.
Starring Corinne Marchand as the titular Cléo, the film explores timeless themes of superstition, mortality, and existentialism in a manner only a French film from 1962 can. It’s supremely stylish, but also haunting and tragic. This one can be enjoyed whenever, but I’d personally recommend a rainy afternoon or right at the stroke of midnight. Trust me, the ambiance is worth it for one of the most transformative viewing experiences of all time. — A.F.
How to watch: Cléo From 5 to 7 is now streaming on Max.
Asterisks (*) denote the writeup was included in or adapted from a previous Mashable list.
UPDATE: Oct. 24, 2023, 3:59 p.m. EDT This article has been updated to reflect the current streaming options.