Looking for good movies that your teenagers can enjoy? So much of what Hollywood markets to teens is just plain garbage – shallow romances, gory thrillers, and crude high school comedies. Teens are on their way to being young adults, so why insult their intelligence? A quality film can spark meaningful discussions and provide some fun and relaxation. Even better, you can enjoy it right along with your teens without squirming uncomfortably in your seat the whole time.
Here’s a list of movies we’ve enjoyed over the years with some brief notes on each. My 16-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son both assisted me in compiling this list. Many are classic movies, but there are some modern flicks as well. As you well know, the newer a movie is, the more likely it is to be problematic.
NOTE: If you have any questions about specific content (i.e. language, swear words, etc.), I encourage you to use the Content Advisory feature available at IMDB for pretty much any movie that’s listed on their site. You can also use VidAngel to screen out specific objectionable content in an otherwise worthwhile movie.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) – A slapstick horror comedy about a newly married man (Cary Grant) who tries desperately to hide his (literal) family skeletons from the bride.
Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) – Betsy’s Drake’s wacky romantic scheming will have you laughing and shaking your head. But she’s trying to land Cary Grant, so who can really blame her?
Secondhand Lions (2003) – A shy boy spends the summer with two grizzled uncles, rumored to possess a vast fortune. Your teenagers will get a big kick out of the scene where elderly Robert Duvall whales on a bunch of disrespectful delinquents.
Father Goose (1964) – This World War II romantic comedy boasts a unique storyline and a different sort of role for Cary Grant. What happens when a sloppy, iconoclastic misfit is stranded with an uppity French school teacher on a Pacific Island? To make things even more interesting, her students are all there, too!
It Happened One Night (1934) – A smart, wise-cracking on the road movie wherein a hard-nosed reporter clashes with a pampered socialite. Will the “walls of Jericho” between them ever come down?
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) – How many famous comedians can you cram into one movie? This film gets the prize! The plot is simple; a man dies revealing the location of stolen millions, and the group of strangers who witness the wreck morph into virtual criminals themselves in the race to get the loot before the police.
The Princess and the Pirate (1944) – This hilarious gem is unknown to some Bob Hope fans, and that’s a shame! Hope plays a cowardly, hapless stage performer who comes up against a ruthless band of pirates. Glamorous, shrewd Virginia Mayo is his sidekick and the perfect foil to Hope’s goofy, groan-inducing antics.
Adams Rib (1949) – A classic battle of the sexes movie, perfectly played out by Hepburn and Tracy. Husband and wife lawyers take on the same case, but defending opposing sides, and this leads to some pretty entertaining courtroom drama and domestic squabbling.
Animal Crackers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera (1930’s) – It’s hard for me to narrow down to three, because we truly do love all the Marx Brothers movies. Each with a distinct on-screen persona, these wacky brothers are widely considered to be among the greatest and most influential comedians of the 20th century.
Wonder Man (1945) – You either like Danny Kaye, or you don’t. My family falls in the former category, and this musical film about a shy scholar who is haunted by his murdered brother looking for justice really showcases Kaye’s myriad talents as actor, singer, dancer and comedian.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) – A clumsy daydreamer (Danny Kaye) gets caught up in a sinister conspiracy, with the challenge made worth his while in the person of beautiful but mysterious Virginia Mayo.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) – A sophisticated rom-com about reporters who crash a society wedding. Stars Katherine Hepburn alongside Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.
Seven Chances (1925) – If your teenagers have never seen a silent film, they are in for a treat! The legendary comedian and stuntman, Buster Keaton, plays a lad who learns he will inherit a fortune if he finds a bride by 7 p.m. that same day.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – Before You’ve Got Mail came this charming comedy about two co-workers who can’t seem to get along, not realizing they also happen to be romantic pen-pals. It’s set in a busy gift shop at Christmas time in Hungary and stars Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan.
12 Angry Men (1957) – Here’s a lesson in standing alone, standing on principle, and guarding against prejudice when justice is on the line. This movie sparked an hour long discussion with our teens and features some stellar actors of the time – Henry Fonda, Lee Cobb and E.G. Marshall. Amazingly, it was shot within the confines of one room, something I don’t think modern Hollywood could successfully pull off today.
The Giver (2014) – In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – This was one of Gregory Peck’s most memorable films, and is better suited for older teens as it deals with a rape allegation and racial tension. Based on Harper Lee’s novel.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – Two Americans searching for work in Mexico convince an old prospector to help them mine for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains. An astute psychological drama about the deadly lust for gold.
Roman Holiday (1953) – Romantic drama starring Audrey Hepburn (in her debut) as a princess out to see Rome on her own with an experienced reporter (Gregory Peck). Lots of beautiful scenes and locales in historic Rome!
The Quiet Man (1952) – John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara made many films together, but this one was especially close to her heart, set as it was in her beautiful native Ireland. Wayne returns to the village of his birth seeking peace and closure, but gets more than he bargained for upon meeting spitfire Mary Kate Danahur.
The Third Man (1949) – An artistic black-and-white whodunit set in postwar Vienna, this film centers on an American (Joseph Cotten), who accepts a job with his friend Harry Lime, only to learn that Lime has died. Famous for its zither music and expressionist photography, this film is a good intro to the iconic Orson Welles, if your teens haven’t met him on screen before.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) – A classic noir private detective story that set the tone for many films to follow, with plenty of drama and suspense and fantastic character actors like Peter Lorre and “the fat man” (Sidney Greenstreet).
Foreign Correspondent (1940) – A Hitchcock thriller about an American reporter who tries to expose enemy spies who are involved in a conspiracy leading up to World War II. Packed with great actors and Hitchcock’s wonderful camera magic (the windmill scene is hauntingly memorable).
On the Waterfront (1954) – An ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt and violent union bosses. Young Marlon Brando plays the longshoreman who works for justice alongside a courageous priest.
Field of Dreams (1989) – An Iowa corn farmer (Kevin Costner), hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come. Note: There is a fair amount of language, but of the milder variety.
Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken (1991) – One of my favorite movies growing up, it introduced me to the fascinating world of diving horses and their riders. Depression-Era runaway Sonora tries to land a spot as a diving girl.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – Will this Capra classic restore your faith in politicians? Maybe…but perhaps only because Jimmy Stewart is so sincere and believable as he rails against bureaucratic corruption.
Double Indemnity (1944) – Double Indemnity refers to an insurance clause that doubles the payout in rare cases when the death is accidental, such as falling off a train. In this film, an insurance rep hatches a murder/insurance fraud scheme with the help of a black-hearted housewife. Nominated for 7 awards, and I can’t believe it didn’t win one!
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – A veteran British barrister must defend his client in a murder trial that has surprise after surprise. Stars screen giants Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton.
Key Largo (1948) – A man visits his war buddy’s family hotel and finds gangster Johnny Rocko (Edward G. Robinson) has taken over. As a hurricane approaches, a deadly confrontation ensues. Humphrey Bogart co-stars with his real-life spouse, Lauren Bacall.
Vertigo (1958) – A tale of obsession with double surprises, and plenty of terror and suspense. Jimmy Stewart stars with iconic blonde Kim Novak in this famous Hitchcock psychological thriller which reaches its climax at a Spanish mission in California.
The Strawberry Blond (1941) – James Cagney longs for the Strawberry Blonde (Rita Hayworth) but she’s too proud and materialistic for a poor guy from the wrong side of the tracks. Features some great barbershop quartet era music and costumes, and a heartfelt performance from Olivia DeHaviland.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) – Tells the story of a marine and a nun stranded on a Japanese-occupied island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Tough guy Robert Mitchum has great on screen chemistry with the delicate Deborah Kerr.
Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957)- Your teens get to enjoy Alec Guiness of Obi Wan Kenobi fame as a clever British commander who oversees the construction of a strategic bridge for the Japanese by his British POWs.
A Man for All Seasons (1966) – The thoughtful and dignified Paul Scofield won an Academy Award for Best Actor in his portrayal of Saint Thomas More, who stood fast against the tyrant King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) in his bid to usurp the Church’s divine authority.
Anna and the King (2006) – Based on the diary writings of an English widow who journeyed to Siam in 1862 to tutor the children of King Mongkut, this film features veteran actors Chow Yun Fat and Jodie Foster in a clash of cultures and a just-beneath-the-surface romance.
The Good Earth (1937) – Although married Chinese farmers Wang and O-Lan initially experience success, their lives are complicated by declining fortunes and lean times, as well as the arrival of a beautiful rival. Based on Pearl Buck’s novel and surprisingly believable and well done, despite most of the cast not being Chinese.
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) – Detective Dixon wants to be something his old man wasn’t: a guy on the right side of the law. Fearful of being booked for a murder he didn’t commit, he lands in deeper trouble when it turns out that his girlfriend’s father gets blamed.
Laura (1944) – In this second film noir pairing between Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, a police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating.
The Lady Vanishes (1938) – While travelling in continental Europe, a rich young playgirl realizes that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared from the train.
To Sir With Love (1967) – British drama film that deals with social and racial issues in an inner city school. It stars Sidney Poitier.
The Rainmaker (1956) – Burt Lancaster delivers one of the most memorable performances of his career as Starbuck, the charismatic lightening rod salesman who descends upon a drought-ridden Western town and throws the “plain” farmgirl, Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn), into turmoil.
The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – Burt Lancaster plays a surly convicted murderer held in permanent isolation who redeems himself when he becomes a renowned bird expert.
Remember the Titans (2000) – The true story of a newly appointed black football coach (Denzel Washington) and his high school team on their first season as a racially integrated unit.
Amistad (1997) – Spielberg’s film highlights the intense suffering of African slaves and does feature some violence and realistic nudity of Africans, but it’s a very powerful story about the reality of the slave trade and those on both sides who fought bravely against it. Recommended for older, mature teens.
Quo Vadis (1951) – A sweeping sword and sandal epic featuring fierce Roman commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) who becomes infatuated with beautiful Christian hostage Lygia (Deborah Kerr). He begins to question the tyrannical leadership of Nero, and his own commitment to paganism.
The Silver Chalice (1954) – In his screen debut, young Paul Newman plays a 1st-century Greek sculptor who is sold into slavery. Based on the well-loved Christian novel by Thomas Costain.
The African Queen (1951) – In World War I-era Africa, a gin-swilling riverboat captain is persuaded by a prim missionary to use his boat to attack the Germans. Despite their differences, they find love along the way. Bogart won an Oscar for his role.
North and South (2004) – A masterful and thought-provoking 4-part adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s rocky love story between Margaret Hale, a middle class southerner who is forced to move to the northern town of Milton, and John Thornton, a mill owner. It’s an entertaining and educational look at the Industrial Revolution and the tension between workers and bosses.
Giant (1956) – A lengthy but never boring epic that explores the themes of love, power and social injustice on a sprawling Texas ranch. Stars Tinseltown “giants” Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson.
Winchester ’73 (1950) – The journey of a prized rifle from one ill-fated owner to another parallels a cowboy’s search for a murderous fugitive. Stars Jimmy Stewart. Not a widely-known Western, but definitely one of the best.
Shane (1953) – Who can forget that final scene of the little boy running forlornly after his hero…who rides away into the sunset? A weary gunfighter attempts to settle down with a homestead family, but a smoldering settler/rancher conflict forces him to pull out his guns again.
The Magnificent Seven (1960) – Seven gunfighters are hired by Mexican peasants to liberate their village from oppressive bandits. Who do you think will steal the screen in this flick, dignified Yul Brynner or cocky Steve McQueen?
The Big Country (1958) – “I smell mendacity!” So says feisty Burl Ives as he crashes his rival’s party, armed with a long gun. A New Englander (Gregory Peck) steps right into this messy feud when he arrives from the East to visit his fiance. Also stars Charlton Heston, Charles Bickford and Jean Simmons.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) – Stars Robert Redford as a mountain man who wishes to live the life of a hermit but becomes the unwilling object of a vendetta by the Crow tribe. A beautiful but sometimes tragic portrayal of the stark realities on the early prairie. Recommended for older teens.
3:10 to Yuma (1957) – I know there’s a remake, but this one is so much better. Van Heflin’s authentic performance as a broke small-time rancher who is hired to put a dangerous outlaw (Glenn Ford) on the 3:10 train is memorable and deep.
High Noon (1952) – A town Marshal (Gary Cooper), despite the disagreements of his newlywed bride (Grace Kelly) and the townspeople, faces a gang of deadly killers alone at high noon in middle of town. It’s a great lesson about the importance of law and order, and standing up even when you’re alone.
North to Alaska (1960) – During the Alaska gold rush, prospector George sends partner Sam to Seattle to bring his fiancée but when it turns out that she married another man, Sam returns with a pretty substitute, the hostess of the Henhouse dance hall. You get laughs, action and even a little bit of music in this beloved John Wayne flick.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – Before the likes of Tom Cruise and deCaprio, Erroll Flynn set female hearts on fire with his dashing good looks and buckling of swashes. He is at his peak in this full-color version of Robin Hood, and is paired with lovely Olivia deHaviland.
Scaramouche (1952) – He’s promised to a wildcat gypsy, but in love with a gentle aristocrat, all the while running for his life and engaging in many epic sword fights! Stars Robert Granger.
Hercules (1958) – Steve Reeves was the real deal, a bodybuilder in real life. This sword and sandal flick is a real blast and full of action!
The Princess Bride (1987) – If your teen hasn’t already seen this, get ready for one of the most quotable and lovable films of the 80’s. Stars Cary Elwes as the daring Westley, and Robin Wright as the gentle “Princess Bride.”
Kidnapped (1960) – Based on two Robert Louis Stevenson tales set in Scotland, (Kidnapped and Catriona), Michael Caine is stellar as fiery Jacobite rebel, Alan Breck. There’s also an excellent Disney live action version.
The Sword and the Rose (1953) – An exciting and colorful live action Disney romance set in the court of Henry VIII, with the focus on his strong-willed sister, Mary Tudor, and her loves.
King Solomon’s Mines (1950) – Adventurer Allan Quartermain (played by Stewart Granger) leads an expedition into uncharted African territory in an attempt to locate an explorer who went missing during his search for the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. Co-stars Deborah Kerr.
The Black Swan (1942) – An ex-pirate contends with rowdy buccaneers and a love-hate relationship with an aristocratic woman who’s tougher than she seems. The players? Dashing, dark-haired Tyrone Power and red-headed Maureen O’Hara.
Reap the Wild Wind (1942) Florida ship salvager, Loxi, falls for Jack, captain of a ship wrecked on the Key West shore. However, their romance is complicated by the arrival of another suitor, and eventually leads to tragedy. Stars John Wayne, Ray Milland and Paulette Goddard. There’s also a giant squid!
Ben Hur (1959) – After a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend, he regains his freedom and comes back for revenge. Charlton Heston is the powerful leading man in this compelling story of betrayal and redemption. The chariot race (and score) are absolutely memorable.
Zulu (1964) – Expertly staged and finely executed account of 139 British soldiers held off 4000 Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift. Zulu is a historic film highlighting the stoic heroism of its characters and stands tall among the greatest war movies.
The Guns of Navarone (1961) A British team is sent to cross occupied Greek territory and destroy the massive German gun emplacement that commands a key sea channel. Stars a trio of great ones: Gregory Peck, Anthony Hopkins and David Niven.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) – One of John Wayne’s best, it’s both a gritty and a sentimental tale that dramatizes the historic WWII battle.
Sergeant York (1941) – A pacifist marksman is drafted in World War I and ends up becoming one of the most celebrated war heroes. Based on a true story and played superbly by Gary Cooper.
The Eagle (2011) – In Roman-ruled Britain, a young Roman soldier endeavors to honor his father’s memory by finding his lost legion’s golden emblem. Stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. There is some profanity, but it is scarce for a modern movie.
The Enemy Below (1957) – During World War II, an American destroyer meets a German U-Boat. Both captains are experts, and so begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Great performances by Robert Mitchum and German actor Curt Jurgens.
The General (1926) – A silent film classic featuring the incomparable Buster Keaton. When Union spies steal a Confederate engineer’s beloved locomotive, he pursues it single-handedly and straight through enemy lines. Often rated as one of the greatest American films ever made.
The Last Samurai (2003) – An American military advisor (Tom Cruise) is hired to destroy the Samurai after being captured in battle, but ends up taking on their culture, and cause. The portrayal of Japan’s Samurai warriors is very beautiful and respectful. Gut-wrenching and realistically violent, but one of our favorites – and it always brings me to tears.
Hatari (1967) – Howard Hawks’s exciting portrayal of a group in Africa that traps and sells wild animals to zoos, and the female wildlife photographer who shows up to shake things up. If your teens don’t mind a lot of amusing flirtations throughout the film, they will love the realistic animal capture scenes, which were performed by the actors themselves. John Wayne admitted to being pretty darn scared!
The Vikings (1958) – A long movie but fun to watch and the incomparable Kirk Douglas does his own stunts. Teens should be reminded periodically that there’s much more to be learned about Scandanavia than you’ll find in the latest Thor movie 😉
Arrival (2016) – A linguist is recruited by the military to communicate with alien lifeforms after twelve mysterious spacecrafts land around the world.
Planet of the Apes (1968) – Every sci-fi fan has got to see this original! An astronaut crew crash-lands on a planet in the distant future where intelligent talking apes are the dominant species, and humans are the oppressed and enslaved. Stars Charlton Heston.
The Giver (2014) – In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man (Jeff Bridges) about the true pain and pleasure of the “real” world.
Tron (1982) – A landmark film about a computer hacker abducted into the digital world and forced to participate in gladiatorial games where his only chance of escape is with the help of a heroic security program.
Tron: Legacy (2010) – The son of a virtual world designer goes looking for his father and ends up inside the digital world that his father designed. He meets his father’s corrupted creation and a unique ally who was born inside the digital world.
Equilibrium (2002) – In an oppressive future where all forms of feeling are illegal, a man in charge of enforcing the law (Christian Bale) rises to overthrow the system and state. It does have some language, which might be ok for older teens but could be edited out with VidAngel.
Fantastic Voyage (1966) – A scientist is nearly assassinated. In order to save him, a submarine is shrunken to microscopic size and injected into his blood stream with a small crew. Problems arise almost as soon as they enter the bloodstream.
Ender’s Game (2013) – Young Ender Wiggin is recruited by the International Military to lead the fight against the Formics, an insectoid alien race who had previously tried to invade Earth and had inflicted heavy losses on humankind. There is some mild profanity in this one.