Now, then, and probably forever, 3-D is a gimmick: Whether you’re talking about the first major wave of stereoscopic movies in the 1950s (which employed the now defunct dual-strip system), the brief revival of the ’80s, or the current dominance of “true” or post-converted 3-D blockbusters, the technology exists mainly to jack up ticket prices or attract moviegoers away from the siren call of television. Which would be fine, if 3-D typically delivered on its promise of an enhanced viewing experience; most of the time, however, slipping on the plastic glasses guarantees little more than a couple bodies bulging off the screen, a few objects flying cheaply at the viewer, or a headache.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and in the right hands, a gimmick can become more of a tool, or even an invitation to innovate. Below, we’ve singled out 21 films that not only put their third dimension to good use, but are dramatically improved by the format. These are the movies that practically demand to be seen in 3-D—although with stereoscopic televisions no longer really a thing, you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for a retrospective screening.