I was raised/reared watching old movies and musicals and I was lucky enough to manage a video store for many years back when movie stores were a thing. So when it came to pass that when I begat children and we established a “family movie night” then sometimes we watch old movies. For the most part, good movies, no matter how old, will be as entertaining as new movies. I will add to this list frequently as other movies are recommended to me. In educated western society, in articles, art, or other movies, you can’t escape allusions to many of these movies. All have redeeming themes that you can talk about with your kids. They may not end up being your favorites, but most are part of history, literature and western culture.
A black man (Sidney Poitier) heading west gets stranded and then pressed into working for a group of nuns trying to build a Catholic church. My older kids love this movie and have added the term “nun’s breakfast” to their lexicon.
A long musical following the life of a Jewish family in czarist Russia. Some of the songs from this movie are on my kids iPhones. Frequently I will hear someone singing “If I were a Rich Man,” or “Matchmaker.” Small children won’t make it past the intermission though, which is okay because it gets violent and sad at the end.
Rebellious petty criminal (Paul Newman) bristles at the restrictive life in a small sixties prison. Teens only. This is a must see movie as it is often alluded to in other movies, even Toy Story 3.
Dark mystery drama about a woman who feels she is becoming insane. Too spooky for children under about 12. I use the term “Gaslighting” as a verb when I feel I am being bamboozled by my kids or others. “I know I left my keys here! Who is gaslighting me?”
Comedy set during World War II on a submarine. For everyone. Most elementary school kids can follow the story of the problems that arise when a few dozen pretty nurses are forced to share a cramped rickety submarine with a bunch of love struck sailors. Some may not like the innuendo. I think it shows typical attraction issues and healthy romantic resolutions. Set in a time when premarital sex was a no-no.
For older teens. Dark comedy about a New York insurance schlub being coerced into allowing his apartment to be used as a spot for his executives to use for infidelity. Very “Mad Men”-ish. 50s style sexual innuendo.
It doesn’t matter that it is in Japanese with subtitles. Everyone can follow this. Unhappy executive secretly takes up ballroom dancing. Comedy for everyone 10 and up. Do not! I repeat. Do not! think that you can watch the horrible remake of this movie with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon and get the same entertainment. The Japanese version is the only one to watch.
Classic American comedy. Probably for 12 and up. Two musicians witness a mob murder and have to flee by disguising themselves as women. Hilarity ensues when a suitor falls in love with Jack Lemmon’s character. 50s style sexual innuendo.
Not old, old but old to kids. Executive Producer is Steven Spielberg. Comedy. For teens on up. Heavy drinking and the pressing Vietnam draft inspire college students to take a road trip to Mexico to dig up a friend. PG cursing, lots of drinking and hangovers, and bad decision making.
For everyone. Musical. Even the wizened 8 year-old will be able to follow the story of a poor street girl in London who gets swept up by a bet between two gentlemen that one of them cannot turn her into a “lady”. Can be difficult to understand the speech of street urchin version of Eliza Doolittle and you may have to translate a little in the beginning. One of the favorite recurring moments of my life is when one of my kids does their Henry Higgins impression.
Bridge on the River Kwai 1957 (Alec Guinness) My all time favorite movie alongside Unforgiven and the new Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Set in WWII Japanese PoW camp, an ambitious British officers tries to motivate his troops to build a “proper British bridge” while under the heavy hand of a sadistic Japanese commander. Teens. Kids will enjoy Obi-Wan Kenobi as the lead in this.
Set in the early 1900s during Arab and Turkish conflicts, Brit T.E.Lawrence falters in his allegiance and goes a little “native.” Particularly good to watch after reading T.E. Lawrence’s biography. Some violence make it troubling for kids under 12. Would also be good if you knew a little history or had a good map of the Middle East to show.
Based on a story by Kipling about 2 Brits seeking fortune in remote Kafiristan. Funny, dark, and poignant. Teens only.
Daring drama about a directionless young woman who finds herself pregnant after a one night stand then seeks an abortion. I won’t give it away. Lots to discuss, if you watch with your teens, about goals, passion, love, unintended consequences and CTR. Teens only.
Comedy about a crooked lawyer and a personal injury case. About Insurance Fraud. Age 14 on up, as the theme may be too complex.
A black man is accused of raping a white girl and gets treated unfairly by the law. I would make my kids read the book first. A must see for all 12 and up. Excellent parody of this by Studio C.
Dark drama about men in a prison in French Guyana who plan and try to execute an escape. Other than Kung Fu Panda, this might be Dustin Hoffman’s best performance ever. Teens only. Nudity.
Alfred Hitchcock mystery thriller about a mistaken identity. Kids 10 and up will be able to follow this. Some drinking and romantic situations.
Follows the book by Jane Austen fairly well. For hundreds of years women have been looking for Mr. Right. Each of the Bennett daughters has a personality that will mirror girls of today. Are you a Lydia, a Jane, an Elizabeth, a Kitty or a Mary? The theme also concerns the timeless desires of parents for their children to marry well and not be destitute. Even my 6 year old son can follow this movie as he knows who Jane Austen is thanks to Studio C. Watch this, then watch the “Mormon” version of Pride and Prejudice, which I think is genius.
The death of a son prompts older man to take the walking pilgrimage in his son’s place. Tear jerker. Teens.
Beautifully filmed comedy about serious birdwatchers. No really, you’ll love it. What makes this redeeming is that it opens your eyes to a culture you had no idea existed. It stresses importance not only of family but also of goal setting. PG cursing, For everyone.
A good introduction to the actor James Dean. Wealthy Socialite marries Texan rancher and adjusts to the misogyny, racism and poverty of 30s, 40s, 50s, ranch life.
After the Japanese occupation of China, young boy is separated from his parents and lives in a concentration camp run by the Japanese. Based on True Story, excellent book. Teens.
Classic American Film about a young pool hustler. This movie often referenced and alluded, too. The followup movie “The Color of Money” came out in the 80s with Tom Cruise. Paul Newman plays the aging character he played in The Hustler. Teens.
Prepare to cry. Brilliantly acted by a young John Malkovich, Ed Harris and a younger Danny Glover, this movie touches many strings. It’s about untimely death, poverty, racism, fidelity, hard work, hopelessness, redemption, etc., all wrapped up in a feel good drama that ultimately reminds us that relationships are what matter. I’d say 12 and up. There is racial violence in the beginning that may be confusing to a younger audience. One of my children told me it was inappropriate for his age of 12.