Casablanca (1942/G/Michael Curtiz) A regular challenger to Citizen Kane at the top of "best" lists everywhere, with good reason. The remarkable ending may shock younger viewers who expect everything out of Hollywood to follow the same romantic formula.
Hamlet (1948, 1990, 1996/ Unrated, PG, PG-13/Laurence Olivier, Franco Zeffirelli, Kenneth Branagh) Pick any one of the three most prominent adaptations of Shakespeare's most famous play-Olivier's definitive treatment, the very accessible Mel Gibson version, or Mr. Branagh's perhaps too complete translation to the screen. In all three the power of the bard's words and the complexity of his characters shine brilliantly through.
Key Largo (1948/John Huston) and To Have and Have Not (1944/Howard Hawks) Two Humphrey Bogart classics that are full of oft quoted lines and memorable scenes. It's hard to believe that potboilers were once made with this much class and character depth.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957/PG/David Lean) British and American soldiers struggle to maintain sanity and perspective in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. Equal parts action adventure and psychological drama.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962/ Robert Mulligan) A southern black man is accused of rape, and the contentious trial is seen through the eyes of his defense attorney's (Gregory Peck) children. Searing, intelligent, and powerful.
The Great Escape (1963/ John Sturges) This tale of Allied prisoners of war in a World War II German prison camp provides great characters, suspenseful action, never-give-up attitudes, and humor.
A Man for All Seasons (1966/G/Fred Zinnemann) A six-time Oscar winner about Sir Thomas More's conflict with King Henry VIII over the formation of the Church of England. Paul Scofield's More stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Liddell and York (see above) for great portrayals of faith on screen.
Gallipoli and The Truman Show (1981 and 1998/PG/ Peter Weir) Two films that serve as crowning achievements in director Peter Weir's notable career, which is built around the careful examination of serious themes. The first tells the simple and heartbreaking story of two Australian sprinters sent to fight in the bloody title battle during World War I; the second features Jim Carrey in his best performance to date in a story that now seems eerily prescient, arriving before the boom of reality TV.
The Right Stuff (1983/ PG/Philip Kaufman) A soaring film set at the beginning of the space era that ranks character and courageous accomplishment above the pursuit of fame and fortune, and depicts "the American character" perhaps better than any other film.
Henry V (1989/PG-13/ Kenneth Branagh) Never before has Shakespeare been brought so vividly to life on screen. The rousing St. Crispin's Day speech will not fail to invigorate young minds.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989/ PG-13/Steven Spielberg) The final episode of the Indiana Jones trilogy, with lots of action and humor, and fewer of the elements that some parents find objectionable.
King of the Hill (1993/ PG-13/Steven Soderbergh) Despite the presence of younger kids in the plot, this tale of Depression-era survival is for older children only. Mr. Soderbergh vividly films this period story, and its sometimes difficult themes will require a thoughtful debriefing.
Apollo 13 (1995/PG/Ron Howard) The breathtaking, true story of the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 space mission in 1970, which required the heroic efforts of both the air and ground crews to return the ship safely. Very few films achieve this level of excitement without featuring any violence.
Sense and Sensibility (1995/PG/Ang Lee) The title personality dichotomy, between two very different sisters, helps to illustrate the deeper themes almost always present in Jane Austen's writing honor, integrity, and self-sacrificing love. It's also rapturously filmed by Mr. Lee and scripted with an excess of wit by Emma Thompson.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, and 2003/PG-13/Peter Jackson) If the yet-to-be-released third film in the trilogy matches the quality of the first two, Mr. Jackson's efforts will have produced one of the greatest film fantasies of all time. Despite running times requiring significant pruning of the original material, J.R.R. Tolkien's elaborate vision comes through with spirit-and many details-wonderfully intact.
Other good ones The Enemy Below, The Man Who Would Be King, The Hunt for Red October, The Guns of Navarone, Much Ado About Nothing, Cold Comfort Farm, Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping, Quiz Show, Babette's Feast, The Hudsucker Proxy, Groundhog Day, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Spider-man, Superman, Twelve Angry Men, Field of Dreams, and The Fugitive.