The very best movies with one-word titles

Published December 9, 2023

With Oppenheimer popping up on everybody’s 2023 best-of lists, Questionist wondered: Could it be the best movie ever to bear a one-word title? Heck, is it even the best World War II movie ever to bear a one-word title? It was 80 years ago that Casablanca bossed the Oscars, and that one famously still holds up like it was made yesterday.

Clearly what we needed was a TOTALLY SCIENTIFIC RANKING. So we set about to compile the top one-word movies by Metacritic rankings, because expertise is important. But millions of movie fans can’t be wrong, so we sorted those by worldwide, inflation-adjusted box office hauls, and then put the aggregate rankings together to make our final top 10. (disclaimer: We used U.S. inflation data for our inflation-adjusted amounts, because country-by-country inflation rates are even harder to come by than pre-1977 box-office totals. Sue us.)

Let’s see how all that went!

#10 Goldfinger

Release year: 1963. Metacritic score: 87. Box office: $508M.

Of course we’ve got a Bond movie on our list, and of course it’s the stone-cold classic that established most of the franchise’s tropes. In the film, villain Auric Goldfinger—named in the grand, subtle tradition of Cruella de Vil and Remus Lupin—wants to bust into Fort Knox in order to control (muahahaha) the world’s supply of gold. But implausible names and schemes weren’t the only innovations here: It was also the first time we saw Bond’s Aston Martin, the pre-credits scene, the gadgets at Q branch… and oh yeah, it was the first (and best) of three theme songs sung by Shirley Bassey. It wasn’t the last mononymic Bond movie though (see Thunderball, Moonraker, Octopussy, GoldenEye, Skyfall, and Spectre).

#9 Alien

Release year: 1979. Metacritic score: 89. Box office: $450M.

This one wouldn’t have scored nearly as high had it stayed under its working title, “Star Beast.” Thankfully screenwriter Dan O’Bannon didn’t like it either, and powered through the block until a late-night writing session revealed the one word that would become the movie’s title and beacon—Alien. Often included on lists of the all-time best movies overall, this sci-fi/horror/haunted house film is about a species whose only goal is preservation and propagation. (If the movie’s goals were to launch the careers of Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver, it accomplished those too.)

#8 Parasite

Release year: 2019. Metacritic score: 96. Box office: $316M.

The title carries a powerful double meaning in the film, according to its director Bong Joon-ho. Parasite follows the lives of a poor family leeching off the money off of the rich, but also about a rich family who exploits the poor people who work for them. It’s got a dark, sometimes comedic plot, that shines a light on deep-rooted societal issues. Landing on Questionist’s “best one-worded movies of all time” list is probably the biggest honor it will ever receive… unless you count being the only foreign-language film in the 95-year history of the Oscars to win Best Picture. That’s pretty cool, we guess.

#7 Platoon

Release year: 1986. Metacritic score: 92. Box office: $388M.

The word “platoon” is synonymous with survival in this, which is probably the best Vietnam War movie ever. The autobiographical Platoon earned Oliver Stone a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, and an Oscar for directing. It’s almost enough that we can forgive it for launching Charlie Sheen’s career! It’s also Stone’s cussinest screenplay, packing an impressive count of 344 swearwords into its 120-minute run time. Holy poop! 

#6 Psycho

Release year: 1960. Metacritic score: 97. Box office: $333M.

This one came from a one-word book title – Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel – but Alfred Hitchcock took Norman Bates’s story to the screen in ways moviegoers had never seen before. Everyone knows Janet Leigh’s shower scene, which innovated with extreme close-ups, creeping shadows, and stabbing sound effects (made with a knife and a melon). Plus, it was also the first movie to show a toilet flushing on screen. Why Gus Van Sant thought he could improve on that, we’ll never know. 

#5 Oppenheimer

Release year: 2023. Metacritic score: 88. Box office: $950M.

The father of the atomic bomb is the only real person to find his name on our list – and, again, most every other list in 2023. Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of the 2005 biography American Prometheus is “about genius, hubris, and error, both individual and collective,” according to the original New York Times review. Pretty much sums up humanity for us! Astonishingly, though, this is not even Nolan’s top movie in this countdown. Hell, it’s not even his top World War II movie in this countdown. Read on…

#4 Up

Release year: 2009. Metacritic score: 88. Box office: $1.0B.

Pixar’s Up finds itself in aptly rarefied air, floating its way to #4. Pixar packs punch when it comes to one-worded film names—41 percent of their full-length films are mononymic (or 46 percent, if you take out the Toy Story sequels). As for this one, though it runs for 96 minutes, it might as well stop after 11: The self-contained silent short that encapsulates old man Carl’s whole life with his wife Ellie is famously very beautiful and very traumatizing. (We know full-grown adults who still nearly cry whenever they hear that music. Nearly.)

#3 Jaws

Release year: 1975. Metacritic score: 87. Box office: $2.7B.

A one-word reference to the giant, toothed mouth of the monster shark that terrorized Amity Island, Jaws is of course the perfect name for the o.g. summer blockbuster, the first film to chomp down on (non-adjusted) box office totals of $100 million. It’s based (loosely) on the 1974 novel by Peter Benchley, which was also called Jaws – though it famously had a much longer, much worse title suggested by Benchley’s comedian father: What’s That Noshing On My Leg? We’d still watch it.

#2 Dunkirk

Release year: 2017. Metacritic score: 94. Box office: $666M.

Now we’re down to the films that made the top ten by both box office and Metacritic reviews, and the first is the only one named for a location—the city of Dunkirk, at the northern tip of France, where Allied forces (and many civilian helpers) conducted a white-knuckle evacuation of more than 300,000 troops over the course of a week at the opening of World War II. Rolling Stone calls it one of the best war movies of all-time. Like Pixar, Christopher Nolan enjoys a one-word film title – think Tenet, Interstellar, Inception, and Memento. Like Pixar, he finds himself with two movies in this top 10, because #1 is …

#1 Ratatouille

Release year: 2007. Metacritic score: 96. Box office: $925M.

Could any one-word movie be as deliciously entertaining as Ratatouille? This is one of those note-perfect Pixar classics that combines brilliant physical comedy with emotional gut-punch story beats, all in a flaky pastry crust of beautiful visuals and a sumptuous score. They also served up a perfect name for the film, mashing up the word “rat” with the peasant dish that stars in the film’s climactic scene. C’est magnifique.

The next 10

Just to prove that we didn’t forget your favorite, here they are.

11. Avatar (2009) / 12. Wall-E (2008) / 13. Casablanca (1942) / 14. Vertigo (1958) / 15. Lincoln (2012) / 16. Cinderella (1950) / 17. Sideways (2004) / 18. Chinatown (1974) / 19. Shrek (2001) / 20. Superman (1978)