Bringing Up Baby (1938/Howard Hawks) Baby is a great entry point into the screwball comedies of the '30s, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in top form as a zoologist and an heiress, respectively.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939/Frank Capra) Jimmy Stewart plays the earnest young Jefferson Smith, appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacant seat. Idealism crashes head-on into deep-seated corruption. Guess which-thankfully-wins out?
Sergeant York (1941/Howard Hawks) This is the true story of Alvin C. York, one of the most celebrated heroes of World War I and a onetime conscientious objector. York's conversion and struggle to understand his new faith in light of the looming war is among the best presentations of Christianity ever put on film. A thrilling story with endless possibilities for family discussions.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946/Frank Capra) Another Christmas classic that does in fact improve with repeated viewings. The religious element is hokey, but the sentiments are pure and never fail to tug at the heart.
High Noon (1952/Fred Zinnemann) This "real time" countdown to a showdown between the town sheriff (Gary Cooper) and some really bad men is thrilling as a Western and profound as a picture of a crisis of conscience.
Singin' in the Rain (1952/Stanley Donen) Probably the best movie musical ever made, this film is also a behind-the-scenes look at the sometimes painful transition from silence to sound in 1927 Hollywood.
Shane (1953/George Stevens) A complex Western that challenges viewers on many levels, as a loner makes the difficult decision to defend a family from the powerful cattleman gunning for its land.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956/ PG/Alfred Hitchcock) Not the best of Hitchcock's thrillers by any means, Man is still an easily accessible entry point for younger viewers learning to appreciate the Master of Suspense, on the way to more mature fare like Vertigo and Rear Window.
Charade (1963/Stanley Donen) With humor too adult and villains too scary for younger kids, Charade is still a thoroughly entertaining ride for much of the family, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn generating the perfect mix of sharp-witted humor and Hitchcockian suspense.
The Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983/PG/George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand) Mr. Lucas's recent additions to the series may not have lived up to the promise of the first three films, but that shouldn't diminish the power of this modern myth narrative. Families can discuss the way the films' struggle between good and evil relates to-and does not relate to-a biblical understanding.
Chariots of Fire (1981/PG/Hugh Hudson) Beloved by many as a "Christian" classic, this story is more complex than that label implies. Eric Liddell's courage and conviction do shine wonderfully through this chronicle of runners in the 1924 Olympics, though. The example of his faith makes the film worth showing to younger children who may not yet "get" the rest of the story.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982/PG/ Steven Spielberg) Mr. Spielberg's remarkable ability to tell a story to which people of all ages connect has never been more evident than in this tale of a visitor from outer space. A B-grade story that shouldn't have worked is instead transformed into what was-and is-for many a defining movie-going experience.
The Man from Snowy River (1982/PG/George Miller) This Australian Western is straightforward family fun family drama, forbidden love, the journey to manhood, rapturous scenery, and some of the most remarkable riding you'll ever see on film.
A Christmas Carol (1984/Clive Donner) An excellent British cast headed by a never-better George C. Scott makes this TV movie of the Dickens classic a commendable Christmas tradition.
The Princess Bride (1987/PG/ Rob Reiner) A few coarse elements are the only blight on this very funny fairy tale that manages to simultaneously spoof and re-enliven the genre. Inconceivable.
White Fang (1991/PG/Randal Kleiser) Another Disney entry that expands on the theme of a classic tale, rather than straightforwardly adapting it. Good performances, beautiful scenery, and solid storytelling help make this story of a boy and his dog work on all levels, however.
Into the West (1992/PG/Mike Newell) and The Secret of Roan Inish (1994/PG/John Sayles) Two Irish fables made by talented filmmakers of typically more adult films, joined by a common (sometimes dark) mood, a deep appreciation for the power of myths, and an emphasis on the bonds of family.
Rudy (1993/PG/David Anspaugh) This movie mirrors its protagonist, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to become, respectively, a sports movie classic and the smallest, most unathletic player to make Notre Dame's football squad.
The Winslow Boy (1999/G/ David Mamet) Remarkable simply for the fact that Mr. Mamet directed a G-rated film, Boy stands out in its own right as an examination of honor and family, set in the context of 1910 England.
The Rookie (2002/G/John Lee Hancock) Dennis Quaid gives a winning performance as baseball's oldest rookie.
Other good ones Harvey, White Christmas, That Thing You Do, Night Crossing, Arsenic and Old Lace, Father of the Bride, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, My Fair Lady, How the West Was Won, Gunga Din, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Hoosiers, and What's Up, Doc?