The 55 Essential Movies Kids Must Experience (Before They Turn 13)

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45. Stand By Me (1986)
R, 89 min., directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Kiefer Sutherland

It’s rated R, but there’s nothing in Stand By Me that tweens haven’t heard or talked about with their friends when you’re not around. Four oddball pals in the 1950s set out to find the dead body of a local missing boy, and they come back home changed forever. Aside from mentions of Annette Funicello and Wagon Train, the tale is perfectly contemporary and suitable for a modern audience, and actually a timely primer into the warm bath of pop-cultural nostalgia—especially pop music—that coats so much of the entertainment they will consume for the rest of their lives. Finally, Stand By Me is based on The Body by Stephen King, and it’s about time for your young reader to pick up some of the master’s other literary works. (A suitable distaff alternative is My Girl.) —JL

46. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
PG, 87 mins., directed by Wes Anderson
Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray

Every frame of this stop-motion animated film based on the classic Roald Dahl book could be paused and hung as great art. But this comedy—penned by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach—is as rich in wit and well-developed characters as it is beautiful to look at. The clever interplay between a wily fox who has promised his wife to curb his chicken-stealing ways and settle down with his family but who has trouble reconciling his own innate nature (“Because I’m a wild animal”) may resonate more with parents than children, but all will be equally delighted by the whimsical charm that pervades every minute. And cuss it, you’ll want more. —Sara Vilkomerson

47. Big (1988)
PG, 104 min., directed by Penny Marshall
Starring Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard

Enjoy it while you can, kids. Don’t be in such a rush to grow up, sweetheart. Parents can say those words over and over, but it’s a hard lesson to take when adulthood seems to offer so much freedom. Penny Marshall’s film makes the point more directly, by magically transforming 12-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) into a thirtysomething man overnight. He gets a job as a toy company exec, a dream loft apartment, and a very adult girlfriend who has no clue of his inexperience. The film catapulted Hanks into superstardom—reason enough to study it closely—and Big is a sweet and timeless meditation on growing up. —KA

48. Some Like it Hot (1959)
Unrated, 120 mins., directed by Billy Wilder
Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, George Raft, Joe E. Brown

Tony Curtis is a much prettier woman than Jack Lemmon, but let’s not be shallow about it. The two actors play Chicago musicians who go on the run in drag with an all-ladies band after they witness a mob slaying. Both immediately fall for Marilyn Monroe’s tipsy, ditsy bombshell—an iconic performance if ever there was one—but Lemmon’s “Daphne” attracts her own amorous affection from a daffy Florida millionaire (Brown). The cross-dressing is a big part of the film’s humor, but Billy Wilder always reaches for the bigger laugh behind the obvious joke, while gracefully dancing across sexual innuendo. “Nobody’s perfect,” is the film’s famous last line, but this is one comedy that is. —JL

49. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
PG, 115 mins., directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen

Cinematic action changed forever when Steven Spielberg joined forces with George Lucas to create Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford’s globe-trotting archeologist in pursuit of the titular, biblical artifact. The pace is relentless from the opening jungle sequence, and there’s plenty of laughs (“Why’d it have to be snakes?”), gasps (melted faces), and romance—thanks to Karen Allen’s wonderfully feisty portrayal of Indy’s lost love, Marion. More than three decades later, it’s still the Citizen Kane that every modern adventure movie aims to emulate. —SV

50. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
PG-13, 143 mins., directed by Gore Verbinski
Starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Kiera Knightley

Remember when you were maybe 10 or 11, and your friend told you about the dirty bits in Disney movies—the stuff the animators snuck in, embedded deep into the firmament of the G-rated adventure? Capt. Jack Sparrow is all of that in human form. Immediately after introducing your little ones to Harrison Ford’s old-school adventure hero, immediately throw them into the deep end with Johnny Depp andro-goth high-camp wack job, one of the craziest performances to ever sneak into a family-friendly adventure film. The first Pirates is a fun ride—leaner and wackier than the ever-more-bloated sequels—and between Depp’s performance and Verbinski’s Looney Tunes-inflected style, it’s the film most likely to ensure that your 12-year-old burgeoning cinephile becomes a 13-year-old Monty Python-quoting absurdist. —DF

51. The Avengers (2012)
PG-13, 143 mins., directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston

Where to begin with the superheroes? Do you give your kids the pre-history of Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman? Do you start them off with the lighthearted Spider-Man or the darker-tinged X-Men? Here’s an idea: Start with the one with all the superheroes. Avengers cuts out the usual heroes’-journey/origin story routine in favor of a kitchen-sink ensemble. Special bonus: Avengers doubles as a kid-friendly introduction to the world of Joss Whedon. —DF

52. Titanic (1997)
PG-13, 194 mins, directed by James Cameron
Starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio

The best way to teach your kid about grand Hollywood epics like Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia? Find a film that both emulates those classics, but couches them within a modern sensibility—and also features Winslet and DiCaprio at their most bewitching. Even nearly 20 years later, the sheer scope of James Cameron’s masterpiece—the sets, the costumes, the score, the effects—is breathtaking. And if the script hasn’t aged quite as well… eh, we’ll always have “I’m the king of the world!” Warning: Unless you yearn to make your child (and, uh, yourself) incredibly uncomfortable, go grab a snack during the “draw me like one of your French girls” scene. —HB

53. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
PG-13, 120 mins., directed by Ang Lee
Starring Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, Chow Yun-Fat

The problem: How to open up your cusping-on-the-teen-years youngster to the world of foreign cinema, which requires them to leapfrog over the basic human desire to never watch a movie with subtitles? The solution: Crouching Tiger, a film that cross-blends Chinese martial-arts mythology and John Fordian Western adventure into a thrilling tale. Even better: Crouching Tiger is an action-movie starring not one, but two strong heroines. Show your kid Crouching Tiger, and in no time at all, he or she will be deconstructing the French New Wave and learning about the Bechdel test! —DF

54. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
129 minutes, directed by Robert Mulligan
Starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford, Brock Peters

There are ugly things in this world, and Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic examines them through the eyes of a child. The film—with a screenplay by Horton Foote—has rightly carved out a place in the Great Movie pantheon and is justly required viewing, regardless of when the book is introduced. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is a moral beacon for his two motherless children, Scout and Jem, in segregated 1930s Alabama—best demonstrated when he defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. But the smaller teachable moments—when Atticus accepts hickory nuts as payment from a man who can’t afford to pay, or when Scout and Jem learn the truth about reclusive Boo Radley (Robert Duvall’s screen debut)—are every bit as heart stirring. —SV

55. Jurassic Park (1993)
PG-13, 127 mins., directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum

Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful horror directors of all time. That doesn’t gibe with his family-friendly image, but consider the evidence. Duel and Jaws are real-life monster movies; he maybe-directed Poltergeist; every Indiana Jones has at least one nightmare-haunting moment; and then there’s Jurassic Park, maybe the scariest movie ever sold as a thrill ride. It’s a good way to introduce your child to the grown-up terrors of the horror genre, without actually showing them a gory horror movie. It’s also a guaranteed crowd-pleaser with a relentlessly quotable script, from Hollywood’s greatest director working at the top of his game. —DF

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