I have been a practitioner of the martial arts and a fan of martial arts movies for most of my life. So I thought I would put together a completely personal, biased, and slightly irrational list of martial arts movies. The irrational part comes from the fact that my list does not follow logically prescribed rules. For instance, a few caveats:
1) This is not a "Best of" list. These are not necessarily the best martial arts movies nor necessarily even movies that I would recommend for everyone to see.
2) These are also not necessarily my favorite martial arts movies, though some may be. I will also likely miss several good movies that could be on my list simply because I have not seen all of them.
3) What this list represents are movies that illustrate different martial arts in effective or interesting ways. When many non-martial artists see martial arts movies, they often think of them simply as "karate movies." Yet there are countless different martial arts, each with their own nuances. I sometimes get asked by people, "My son/daughter wants to take martial arts. Can you recommend one for me?" That's a very difficult question to answer. Martial arts can differ so widely from each other that an art that is right for one person is not for another. So my list is an attempt to provide movies that illustrate these (sometimes subtle) differences.
4) Having said that, all of these movies have been "Hollywoodized" to some extent. They are not pure examples of the art, but exaggerated and often altered versions. Yet they do provide a good introduction to the distinctions between styles. Enough preamble meandering.
Enter the Dragon (Jeet Kune Do)
Jeet Kune Do is a martial arts style developed by the late Bruce Lee.
Enter the Dragon is arguably Lee's best movie and a good showcase of his talents. What he displays in the movie is not strictly Jeet Kune Do as it is heavily adapted for flash and show, but it does give a good indication. Of course, one must keep in mind that Bruce Lee is able to do things that no ordinary human being can do.
Best of the Best (Tae Kwon Do and other Korean arts)
A tournament-based movie that highlights what Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do and other Korean arts do well: kicking.
The Karate Kid (Okinawan Karate)
This is also a movie in which much of the martial arts action takes place in a tournament, although it illustrates a different style than Best of the Best. Mr. Miyagi trains young Daniel in Okinawan style karate. I was studying an Okinawan style of karate (Ryu Kyu Kempo) at the time this movie came out and I recall that we went to the theater every night for a week and gave a demonstration before the show to illustrate some of the movements shown in the film.
Above the Law (Aikido/Jujitsu)
The first--and possibly the best--of Steven Seagal's films, this movie was one of the first times that American audiences got to see Aikido presented on film. Seagal is a practitioner of Aikido, which is a very gentle art that focuses on using another person's momentum and energy against them. If you have seen the movie, or any of Seagal's movies for that matter, you probably didn't notice a whole lot of gentleness. That is because what he performs in his movies is much closer to Jujitsu, which is a very similar art to Aikido except that where Aikido tends to throw people, Jujitsu tends to break bones.
Fist of Legend (Chinese Martial Arts)
One of Jet Li's best movies. Chinese martial arts, like Wing Chun and others, are very different from traditional Japanese styles and a comparison of a film like this with The Karate Kid, for instance, makes that very clear.
The Perfect Weapon (Kenpo)
This movie starring Jeff Speakman, kind of like Above the Law with Seagal, showcased a distinct martial art that is not often seen in films. Whereas many American films tend to gravitate towards arts like Tae Kwon Do because their fancy kicks often look better on film, arts like Seagal's Aikido/Jujitsu and Speakman's Kenpo rely more on the use of one's hands in unique and often deadly ways.
Billy Jack (Hapkido)
Hapkido is another art that has seen little air time in American film. It is a Korean art that is sort of a mixture of the kicking style of Tae Kwon Do and the the use of throws and joint locks that one finds in Jujitsu. The park scene in Billy Jack where the title character takes on a group of local ruffians well represents this unique art.
The Last Samurai (Iaido)
Iaido -- my personal favorite of all the martial arts I've practiced -- is the art of the Japanese sword. I had a hard time choosing a movie for this one because I have not seen one yet that really captured the essence of this beautiful art. I chose The Last Samurai because it is probably the best American attempt, although the idea that Tom Cruise's character could become a capable samurai with a few months of training is ludicrous. No doubt there are several Japanese movies that capture this art better, though I have only seen a few. One, though, would be the life story of the most famous samurai to ever live, Miyamoto Musashi, whose life story was told in three successive films, staring the famous Japanese actor (and practitioner of Iaido) Toshiro Mifune: Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, and Duel at Ganryu Island.
Well, that's my list for what its worth.