Few studios are as essential, consistent, and prestigious as Warner Bros. They’ve been around since damn near the beginning and have been pivotal in every major sea change. Bogie had an incredible film noir hot steak with four iconic titles in quick succession in the ’40s and Brando was redefining what acting was in A Streetcar Named Desire. The ’60s had game changers like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bonnie and Clyde and the ’70s ushered in the age of the auteur that lasted up until Nolan jumped ship for his latest project. The next four decades after that, they grabbed pop culture by the throat and never let go. Blade Runner, Gremlins, Beetlejuice, The Goonies, The Matrix, and Harry Potter are just a handful of seminal fandom favorites released within that period that helped change the landscape of cinema and pop culture as a whole and looking at what they have coming down the pike, it doesn’t seem like they’re slowing down any time soon.
These are the 100 Greatest Warner Bros. Movies of All Time.*
*This list does not include direct-to-video releases or films from New Line Cinema prior to its merger with Warner Bros. in 2008, nor does it include third-party films or films Warner gained the rights to as a result of mergers or acquisitions.
40. The Hangover (2009)
“What happened here?” That question is usually the key element of a noir film. Here, The Hangover mines the stupor of a wild night as the cast of characters have to retrace their steps to find their missing friend, who is supposed to be married later that day. Oops. Those stakes offer some urgency that only fuels the hilarity as our cast (Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifinakis) uncover the next unbelievable turn in their night. Galifinakis in particular steals the show as the off-putting but lovable Allen, who is typically the source of the trio’s troubles. I think the character grows old and tiresome in the sequels, but here, he is comedic gold and sets up many memorable scenes.
39. Heat (1995)
Michael Mann will always exist in cinematic immortality for bringing the world our first onscreen pairing of acting legends Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. But beyond that, Heat is a dang good movie. Maybe even beyond dang good. This might be the ultimate cat and mouse game of a movie. In this case, both sides have such an immense respect for their adversary that they almost exist as a motivating motor for the other. This basis for the relationship of our two main characters is where the genius of casting Pacino and DeNiro comes into play. Both men must carry the gravitas to carry scenes on their own with other characters, but they also must be able to go blow for blow with the other in their few scenes together. On top of all of that, Heat also contains what is probably the best shootout scene in the history of movies. It also contains the single best line read in the history of cinema. I will never fully recover from Al Pacino exclaiming “she’s got a great ass!”
38. L.A. Confidential (1997)
There are a handful of 90s movies I wish I’d never revisited. Movies that I remembered being really good but when viewed in the clear light of the present day, not so much. (What’s with all of the melodrama in the 90s?)
I hadn’t seen LA Confidential in years, but I always thought it was one of the better movies to come out of the decade, a movie that never failed to suck me in no matter how many times I’d seen it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it hadn’t lost any of its luster. The casting and performances are great. The direction is solid but subtle enough that it doesn’t feel like a particular auteur’s film. Costumes and set design are top notch, and the cinematography lends the movie that noir feel without trying too hard. With all of those in the plus column, LA Confidential ranks right up there with the decade’s best.
37. Bullitt (1968)
My favorite Steve McQueen movie is The Blob (1958), by the way, but Bullitt comes a close second. A gritty, fairly realistic neo-noir crime movie, Bullitt paved the way for more bombastic cop-centric films like Dirty Harry (both films being based around a real life San Francisco police detective named Dave Toschi). While it’s a decent enough crime film, with plenty of violence and even occasional detective work, Bullitt is primarily famous for one 11 minute car chase through the streets of San Francisco. CGI and other technical achievements have made outrageous and impossible car chases a staple of filmmaking – you can’t have 10 minutes go by in your standard Fast and the Furious movie without somebody doing something incredible in a car – but nobody in 1968 had seen anything like the chase scene in Bullitt. If you pay close attention there are a ton of continuity issues with that chase, mostly due to it being shot over several days, but you don’t notice them at all during the scene. It’s still as intense, exciting and riveting as it was in 1968. And it’s still worth the price of admission. As my wife said at the end of her first viewing, “okay, that was pretty cool.”
36. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Released in 1942, Yankee Doodle Dandy is based on the life of composer/singer George Cohan with James Cagney in the starring role. For most of you, the name James Cagney might conjure up images of the Hollywood tough guy. This role is far from it, and it shows not only Cagney’s acting ability, but his singing and dancing abilities as well. This film was an Independence Day (4th of July for those of you not in the U.S.) staple in my house growing up. Time and time again, my mom and I would marvel at someone that could glide effortlessly across a stage, as if he was held aloft by invisible marionette strings. The film is a simple patriotic love letter and, considering the era it was released in, it should come as no surprise. The film’s ending will leave you patriotically charged and a tad teary-eyed as the United States enters World War I to the marching of the “Doughboys” singing Cohan’s “Over There”. Ahhhh ‘Merica!
35. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A fading southern belle moves in with her sister and her brutish husband in a New Orleans’ working-class neighborhood. The clash of personalities and tension between the characters lead to a dramatic unraveling of secrets and desires, culminating in a devastating finale. A Streetcar Named Desire is a textbook example on how to do heightened melodrama correctly. The Lifetime channel has a million examples of how to do this exact same story template wrong. Because they just focus on the violent husband and ignore the inherent drama of making every character wrong in their own way. Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) is definitely an abusive, temperamental monster but everything he says about Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stella (Kim Hunter) is right on the money. One manipulates the other because she’s too nice to say no. Extreme kindness, Stanley argues, is as bad as being an asshole because at least the asshole is true to themselves. This easily could’ve been three people in a room yelling at each other but Williams expertly parses out the dramatic outbursts and keeps the heat on sizzle for most of the time. Like a musical, you’re waiting for the next big number but instead of an elaborate Busby Berkely number, it’s Brando yelling or Leigh dramatically melting down. And it’s amazing. This film redefined what screen acting could be. Audiences in 1951 were seeing a brand new form of acting for the first time. Before this, the best actors were all staged trained, which meant they were either playing it to the back of the house or were graduates of the Shakespearean school of acting. Brando introduced the method and changed how acting would be approached for all time.
34. The Public Enemy (1931)
Normally I try and space out movies starring or directed by the same actors or directors but I thought it was important for historical context to have Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Public Enemy next to each other. Watching James Cagney, cinemas all time greatest hard ass gangster, go from this, to a musical where he’s singing and dancing and doesn’t violently smush a grapefruit in anyone’s face, is as radical a 180 any actor has ever done. De Niro and Pesci have done numerous roles that are PG friendly that help soften their images but even in most of those roles, they’re still playing gruff dudes. Cagney went from a deplorable piece of shit in this, to basically a singing American flag and audiences loved it. Watching him go from one extreme to the other should’ve permanently obliterated the myth of type casting. A great actor can do anything, we just can’t see past their image and on screen persona to even picture it. The Public Enemy follows the rise and fall of Tom Powers (Cagney), a small-time hoodlum who becomes a notorious gangster in the midst of prohibition. As Powers climbs the ranks of organized crime, he faces rival gangs, law enforcement, and personal struggles that threaten his power and life. Due to its importance to the sub genre, this, along with Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932), make up a triumvirate of gangster pictures which were built on the template created by the first gangster movie, 1927’s Underworld that then created the modern template every gangster picture would then rip off, homage or use. All three films featured the rise and eventual fall of an organized criminal. As described by crime film scholar Jack Shadoian the maxim became, “If the films insist that one can’t win, under that given it’s how you lose that counts.” You can draw a direct line from this, to everything from the Godfather to Scarface using that maxim as your starting point. It’s among the most important pre code era gangster films and arguably, the most entertaining because of Cagney’s performance.
33. Unforgiven (1992)
There ain’t no white hats here. Barely any white hats, come to think of it. Such is the way of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 magnum opus Unforgiven, possibly the first deconstruction of an entire genre before deconstructions became all the rage.
Unforgiven chronicles the late-life journey of Eastwood’s William Munny, an outlaw that typifies Eastwood’s own cinematic outlaw career—only the outlaw is old and beaten, struggling to make ends meet as a pathetic farmer and single father. Asked to help claim some bounties by a young gunslinger who fancies himself the same caliber of an aforementioned Eastwood outlaw, Munny sets off to seek vengeance for a cut-up whore and to make a few bucks along the way.
The film takes a very standard Western story and picks it apart, endlessly, and expertly, and then—doing what so many modern deconstructions fail to properly do, if they do it at all—reassemble it all into a genuinely great film. The script by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner) loads the story up on theme and motivation and characterization. The audience is loaded down with the struggles of regret and aging, the harsh realities of an authoritarian government represented by an epic Hackman performance and character, the cost and worthlessness of revenge, mythologizing one’s own character and deeds (as well as in a metatextual sense), the parasitic nature of media… The list could go on.
Eastwood’s barebones filmmaking, along with his general gravitas on-screen, further elevate the point of not just deconstructing the Western but reinventing it. An entire genre, after Unforgiven, had been elevated to something more than it once was. Sadly, few Westerns after Unforgiven have successfully risen to the challenge to rejuvenate a flagging genre in such a way. Or perhaps that is simply too tall an order.
32. Superman (1978)
Even the kid me that first watched Superman knew that “reversing time” scene at the end was absolute bullshit, but honestly I didn’t care. I bought in. I believed a man could fly. Or, more accurately, I believed Christopher Reeves was Superman. And Superman could fly. And I didn’t want Lois Lane to be dead anymore than he did.
The 70’s was the second on-screen super-hero boom (after the 50’s and 60’s Superman and Batman TV shows). On TV we got Shazam, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl and more. For major motion pictures we got… well, Superman. Maybe it was the lack of competition, but Supes shone brightly in his big screen debut. Richard Donner’s expansive camera gave the film an epic look that had some of the mythic feel of comic books without slavishly emulating them. Christopher Reeves was, somehow, the last guy the producers even looked at, having either passed on or been passed on by the likes of James Caan, Nick Nolte, Warren Beatty and Neil Diamond (yes, that Neil Diamond). It’s hard to imagine now, because Christopher Reeves is STILL the first actor I think of when someone talks about Superman casting. He was perfect, and did justice to both Clark Kent and Superman.
Watching the movie now it’s easy to get caught up in some of the problems – with plot holes and a weirdly goofy Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor – but it still has plenty of that old magic. And I am always going to want to tuck one arm against my chest, reach out with the other, and pretend to fly whenever I hear that iconic John Williams score.
31. JFK (1991)
John F. Kennedy’s assassination must be one of the biggest conspiracies in modern history. Not only was the sitting President assassinated, but his alleged killer was then later shot himself soon after, leaving a very confused nation in its wake. When this film was released, the public was quite interested in this movie but was ultimately disappointed with the final product. Not because the movie was bad but because they thought they were finally going to get answers as to what really happened at Dealey Plaza all those years ago. But JFK wasn’t meant to give any answers, it was only intended to tell you what happened. And that is exactly what it did.
50-41 | 30-21
What are some of your favorite Warner Bros. movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!