Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear reeeeaaaderrrrr. Put this on your queue! Whether you’re a party animal fervently celebrating another spin around the sun — or an introvert quietly enjoying some well-earned Me Time — the day you were born should be wholly and unequivocally about you and what you want.
Just ask the Princess Aurora: a babbling baby girl-turned-titular “Sleeping Beauty” whose 1st and 16th birthdays were notoriously ruined by a woodland fairy with self-esteem issues. Or consider the plight of Tree: a screamingly funny (albeit slightly self-obsessed) sorority girl whose birthday warps into a time-loop slasher flick in the Blumhouse-produced “Happy Death Day.”
The best birthday movies can only be defined by the birthday-havers watching them. If spending your special day endlessly rewatching an old favorite that has nothing to do with birthdays is what you want, then that makes it the perfect fit. Cue it up and crack open a cold one, sweet birthday baby! But if you’re looking to make the most of the birthday theme or start a new annual tradition, you’ll find the best birthday movies take a variety of forms and offer a variety of experiences.
You’ve got the good birthday movies, as in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” These are the movies — typically coming-of-age movies — in which some unbelievable or fantastical development coincides with the birthday of our hero. We watch their lives change overnight almost entirely for the better with the birthday-of-it-all as a pleasant inciting incident for some big adventure.
Or you’ve got the kind-of-good birthday movies, as in “13 Going on 30.” In these journeys, the protagonist is gifted a Monkey’s Paw sort of birthday wish and is granted some massive change they ultimately discover they only want parts of. Pour one out for Jenna Rink, the fictitious “Poise” magazine, and that sparkly Barbie dream house.
And finally, you’ve got the bad birthday movies. Think everything from forgotten birthdays, as in “Sixteen Candles,” to cursed gifts that straight-up try to kill you; see Andy Barclay’s pal Chucky and the blood-splattered “Child’s Play” franchise.
To honor you, whoever you are, here are the 18 best movies to watch on your birthday. Listed chronologically, these titles are all about a birthday or feature a birthday scene good enough to make the entire movie worth recommending.
With editorial contributions by Sam Bergeson, Kate Erbland, and Ryan Lattanzio.
“Sleeping Beauty” (dirs. Clyde Geronimi, Wolfgang Reitherman, Eric Larson, and Les Clark, 1959)
What better way to ring in a birthday with a prick of a finger and an eternal curse? Disney circa 1959 knew how to throw a hauntingly eerie party with Maleficent (this is before she became a redeemed character courtesy of Angelina Jolie’s live-action prequel) made poor Aurora pay for being a beautiful teen on her 16th birthday. Not so sweet, after all, as the kiss of true love is the only thing that can wake Aurora up from her evil slumber. And no birthday cake? We’ll be dodging that RSVP. —SB
“The Birds” (dir. Alfred Hithcock, 1963)
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is just trying to get to Cathy’s 11th birthday party. Cathy is the sister of Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a handsome lawyer whom layabout San Francisco socialite Melanie wants to bed at his family’s hideaway in Bodega Bay. Alas, sparrows, gulls, crows, and all manner of flying fauna set terror upon the Bay Area (and presumably the world) on her way. Director Alfred Hitchcock, working from Evan Hunter’s script based on a Daphne du Maurier horror story, never explains the origins of the violent bird attacks, which makes their rampantly increasing presence all the more unsettling. It’s no secret that Hitchcock tortured Hedren on the film’s set, leaving the actress dissipated over her Hollywood career after he discovered her in a Sego commercial. (She went on to make “Marnie” with him anyway, a role he offered her while making “The Birds.”) But her charismatic, mannered performance remains one of the finest in his filmography. —RL
“The Godfather: Part II” (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Francis Ford Coppola finishes out his legendary “The Godfather: Part II” with a flashback to Vito Corleone’s 50th birthday, celebrated years before the blood-soaked events of the unparalleled mafia sequel. It’s a scene that sees Michael (Al Pacino) choosing to enlist against his father’s wishes and later silently reflecting on how that choice changed the course of his life. It’s a linchpin moment for the masterwork contemplating power, family, country, and faith with one of the most brilliant symbolic uses of a birthday cake in cinematic history. —AF
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (dir. Jim Sharman, 1975)
Nothing says celebration like the “Time Warp.” Just seven hours old and truly beautiful to behold, the titular Rocky (Peter Hinwood) celebrates his franken-birthday in this 1975 queer cult classic turned theater-kid safe haven. Writer/director Richard O’Brien — aka Riff Raff — first realized his vision for “The Rocky Horror Show” as a stage musical on London’s West End before enlisting Tim Curry to star as sexed-up mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” two years later. When a conservative couple facing car troubles (Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick) stumble onto a mysterious mansion one dark and rainy night, they discover a party already in progress. The occasion? The birth of a hunky, mute, undead plaything for their maniacal leader, seemingly born wearing skin-tight gold shorts. —AF
“Sixteen Candles” (dir. John Hughes, 1984)
“Sixteen Candles” kicked off John Hughes mid-1980s hot streak that saw him churn out an endless string of teen classics like “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” without missing a beat. The first of many collaborations between Hughes and Molly Ringwald, the film tells the story of a high school girl whose 16th birthday gets off to an abysmal start when her family forgets the occasion due to her sister’s upcoming wedding. But in classic John Hughes style, the forks in the road pave the way for an unexpected romance to form. It’s a classic piece of 80s teen cinema that’s always good for a nostalgic rewatch. —CZ
“Child’s Play” (dir. Tom Holland, 1988)
Chucky has been one of the most recognizable characters in horror for the past quarter century, but it all started with a birthday present gone wrong. When a single mom can’t find the Good Guy Doll that her son desperately wants for his birthday, she inadvertently invites evil into their home by buying a black market one that happens to contain the soul of a deadly serial killer. “Don’t buy your kids toys from strange men you meet on the street” is one of those parenting lessons that you can only learn one way. —CZ
“City Slickers” (dir. Ron Underwood, 1991)
Here are the things most people tend to remember about Ron Underwood’s 1991 comedy smash hit: Jack Palance being scary, Billy Crystal helping birth an adorable baby cow, young Jake Gyllenhaal, and plenty of goofy Wild West hijinks. Less remembered? That it’s also a canny look at the midlife crisis, care of a trio of would-be cowpokes who take to the country life (within the seemingly safe confines of a prepackaged cattle drive trip) in order to work out their very real (and very male) angst over aging. When we first meet Mitch (Crystal) and best pals Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (the late, great Bruno Kirby), the trio have already tapped into the idea that taking a crazy trip is good for breaking up their otherwise straitlaced, mundane lives. But when Mitch is about to hit 40, suddenly, the need for a new outlet takes on a deeper cast. Enter: cowboy cosplay! The film remains wonderfully funny even all these years on, a mix of strong jokes and emotional truisms so many big budget comedies lack these days. And though we might not all walk away from this rooting, tooting adventure with our own tiny baby Norman to show for it, it’s still a feel-good feature that makes audiences feel something very important: growing older doesn’t have to mean growing old. —KE
“Toy Story” (dir. John Lasseter, 1995)
On the opposite end of the “kid gets a doll that’s actually alive for their birthday” spectrum, you have the delightfully wholesome “Toy Story.” Pixar’s first feature film became a monster hit in 1995 thanks to its then-jaw dropping special effects, but it’s remained a classic because of its timeless story about finding friendship in unlikely places. Pixar is apparently plotting yet another “Toy Story” film as it tries to navigate a transitional period after a few misfires — but the original remains the standard that the studio should be aiming for. —CZ
“The Game” (dir. David Fincher, 1997)
Escape rooms have nothing on the deeply twisted wringer Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) goes through for his 48th birthday in David Fincher’s Hitchcockian brain-bender “The Game” from 1997. Nicholas lives a comfortable, moneyed, and altogether selfish life as an investment banker in San Francisco, estranged from most of his family, and especially his prodigal younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). After he receives a voucher from a gaming company billing itself as Consumer Recreation Services, Nicholas plays along, and eventually against his will, forced into a rigamarole of physical and psychological torture. The ending leaves you reeling, and the narrative rug just a bit swept out from under you, while reminding that you probably shouldn’t trust anonymous birthday presents from a shell company. And — spoiler alert for a nearly three-decade-old movie — don’t entrust your closest family members with your birthday wish list, either. —RL
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (dir. Chris Columbus, 2001)
“You’re a wizard, Harry.” With those unforgettable words — and a cake, a pig’s tail, and a magical umbrella — Robbie Coltrane’s Rubeus Hagrid kicks off the eight-film aughts zeitgeist that is the Warner Bros. adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s beloved fantasy books. An orphan boy named Harry (“just Harry!”) turns 11-years-old and is suddenly whisked away to a magical boarding school where mail-carrying owls, charms classes, trolls, and a completely unreasonable amount of responsibility await him. It’s the quintessential coming-of-age tale for countless millennials, and a spectacular birthday watch for anyone still waiting on their metaphoric letter from Hogwarts. —AF
“13 Going on 30” (dir. Gary Winick, 2004)
Ah, to be 30, flirty, and thriving. “13 Going on 30” is the ultimate birthday watch, complete with a fated romance between Matty (Mark Ruffalo) and magazine editor Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner) plus a tear-inducing nod to the past to Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” A 13-year-old Jenna wishes during her 13th birthday party to jump ahead to her 30th birthday to finally be an adult and away from middle school popularity contests. Turns out, the real adult world can be just as petty as the pre-teen years. It’s only when Jenna tries to find her roots does she really thrive as an adult. And aren’t we all just 13-year-olds in bigger bodies trying to figure it out in the first place? —SB
“Marie Antoinette” (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006)
Lavish birthday gifts given to the queens and consorts of royals have long provided fodder for period pieces. But Sofia Coppola brings her signature effervescence to the birthday celebrations featured in the Kirsten Dunst-starring “Marie Antoinette” from 2006. Backed by the timeless bop “I Want Candy,” the not-yet-fallen French empress celebrates in style with fizzing gimlets, pastel-colored backgammon sets, and sex with an especially hunky revolutionary. —AF
“Happy Death Day” (dir. Christopher Landon, 2017)
Christopher Landon’s signature blend of guts and humor has never been more effective than in “Happy Death Day,” his “Russian Doll”-meets-“Scream” story about a young woman who can’t stop reliving the birthday she got murdered on. Jessica Rothe gives a star-making performance as Tree Gelbman, a college student who has to go into detective mode to find the masked killer who keeps murdering her every day. It’s a whip-smart, highly entertaining film that should remind you that even your most disappointing birthdays could have been so much worse. —CZ
“Midsommar” (dir. Ari Aster, 2019)
“Does he feel like home to you?” Ari Aster’s sophomore horror feature is first and foremost a breakup movie, tracing the nightmarish end to a romance between a grieving young woman (Florence Pugh) and her flaming douche-rocket of a boyfriend (Jack Reynor). The couple is unwittingly staying at a remote village inhabited by a Swedish cult thanks to Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren): a brilliant and duplicitous foil who uses the basic boyfriend-forgot-your-birthday sitcom plotline to drive an unfixable wedge between the two soon-to-be-ex-lovers. Consider “Midsommar” for your next crappy birthday, when “Sixteen Candles” just isn’t angry enough. —AF
“Onward” (dir. Dan Scanlon, 2020)
Pixar has long championed coming-of-age stories about discovering who you really are. But the wildly underrated “Onward,” released just before the pandemic in March 2020, is an especially strong birthday selection about a teenage elf named Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) who is gifted a magical staff from his late dad when he turns 16. The fantastical artifact soon leads him and his brother Barley (a pre-“Mario” Chris Pratt) on a perilous journey featuring everything from gelatinous cubes à la Dungeons and Dragons to giant cheese puffs fit for aquatic travel. —AF
“She Dies Tomorrow” (dir. Amy Seimetz, 2020)
If your birthday party gets ruined by a weird guest who kills the vibe, just be grateful it (presumably) wasn’t an alcoholic who wants to be turned into a leather jacket because she thinks you’re all going to die tomorrow — and is basically correct. Amy Seimetz’s “She Dies Tomorrow” is a singular cinematic experience about people staring down the apocalypse. Seimetz’s decision to fuse the existential crises that plague so many of us with an actual crisis is genre filmmaking at its absolute best. It’s the kind of film that you’ll never forget, but maybe don’t watch it on your actual birthday unless you’re sad and looking to get sadder. —CZ
“Encanto” (dir. Jared Bush and Byron Howard, 2021)
You can’t go wrong spending a birthday with the Family Madrigal. In this instant-classic from Walt Disney Animation, 15-year-old Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) is grappling with a strange phenomenon. Every member of her family has been granted a supernatural gift — seeing the future, talking to animals, etc. — on their fifth birthdays, but Mirabel’s came and went without their magical home Casita granting her anything. When an unseen force threatens the Madrigals and the village they lead, it’s up to Mirabel to solve the mystery and find her power. —AF
“Nope” (dir. Jordan Peele, 2022)
Sure, there’s only one birthday scene in “Nope”: Jordan Peele’s third horror feature about an alien predator hunting people in modern-day California. But the infamous events of “Gordy’s Birthday,” an unfinished sitcom episode from 1998 referenced by Steven Yeun’s character in a career-best monologue, are too unforgettable to leave off our list. When a chimpanzee gets out of control on a TV set thanks to some popping balloons, the carnage flies like confetti in one of the scariest scenes Monkey Paw Productions has rendered yet. —AF
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