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by Jason Koenigsberg
We have written a lot here in recent months about previous movie eras. The best franchises, the best blockbusters, the best summers at the movies. Well now let us take a look at the best years of cinema. The finest calendar years from January through December which brought about a striking amount of great motion pictures that have remained classics. Since 2020 has practically no movies it is tough to say if this is the worst year for movies or if it just should not count until there is a vaccine because most theaters across the nation remain closed with no new films being released. This is an ideal time to look back at better years when motion pictures were coming out rapidly and every week brought something new and exciting to enjoy in the cinema. Some years with outstanding movies that just missed the cut for this article are 2006, 1974, 1975, 1957, and 1990.
Most Important Films: Star Wars, Annie Hall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Spy Who Loved Me, Smokey and the Bandit, Saturday Night Fever, A Bridge Too Far, The Kentucky Fried Movie, Suspiria, Sorcerer, High Anxiety, The Goodbye Girl, Oh God!, Eraserhead, The Turning Point, Slap Shot, The Rescuers, Equus.
1977 was a revolutionary one for motion pictures, mostly because of one movie…Smokey and the Bandit. No, I’m kidding, its Star Wars. It was a game changer even more so than Jaws because not only did it break every record at the box office but it has impacted our culture ever since. Not just American culture but the entire world has fallen for George Lucas’ saga of Jedi’s, lightsabers, and an all powerful mystical force. There were a few other box office success stories that summer the biggest and second highest grossing movie of the year was a bit of counter programming for everyone that did not get or care to get involved in a space opera with Smokey and the Bandit starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field. Lucas’ best buddy Steven Spielberg was not going to be left out in the cold. That summer he released his own major science fiction blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind to great success, and Roger Moore had his biggest hit as 007 in The Spy Who Loved Me which formally announced James Bond as no longer being in the shadow of Sean Connery and establishing the secret agent once again as a global phenomenon. And then there’s Annie Hall and its surprise Best Picture win at the Oscars over Star Wars. As great as Lucas’ space saga was, one cannot deny that Woody Allen’s Annie Hall raised the bar for the romantic comedy and pretty much all romantic movies since 1977 owe some debt of gratitude to Annie Hall. Plus, that movies big wins on Oscar night established the Academy’s nearly 40 year love affair with Woody Allen’s work. He may be one of Hollywood biggest offenders and persona non grata right now, but for years Woody’s work was perennially nominated for Oscars very often its actresses winning in the acting categories, and Allen himself won four Academy awards over the years starting with Best Screenplay and Director for Annie Hall. 1975 may have been the year that created the summer blockbuster with Spielberg’s Jaws, but it was Star Wars that forever transformed movie culture and pop culture with how blockbusters would be marketed and sold to the masses. 1974, 1975, and 1976 were all tremendous years for movies with diverse output equalled by excellent, but 1977 was the year where movies really entered the modern era and the New Hollywood of the 70’s began to fade and a focus on blockbusters would soon become the emphasis of the industry.
Most Important Films: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, Michael Clayton, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Knocked Up, Superbad, I am Legend, Into the Wild, Ratatouille, Grindhouse, Eastern Promises, Once, Away From Her, Atonement, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, American Gangster, Gone Baby Gone, The Mist, Black Book, The Host, Hot Fuzz, Bug, Zodiac, Transformers, 3:10 to Yuma.
2007 gave us some of the best movies of all time involving serial killers, assassins, pregnant ladies, and milkshakes. Technically, one could argue that the best year in cinema from this millennium so far started in 2006 with such modern classics as The Departed (the film that finally won Scorsese his coveted Best Director Oscar), The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrith, Children of Men, Casino Royale, The Descent, Borat, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, and The Lives of Others. Those titles alone seem to warrant 2006 as arguably a better year for movies than the one that followed. But 2007 was even more diverse and rewarding. It was like a year that kept on giving more and more great films. Just when you thought you had seen the best, something the following month came out of nowhere and surprised you and was even better. Comic book movies were still not officially in full force as they would be in the coming years, in fact the following summer of 2008 gave the world both Iron Man and The Dark Knight. So 2007 was a blessed time for intellectual pictures and movie lovers that like being challenged by their entertainment. The year started off strong that March with David Fincher’s Zodiac, one of the best and most unconventional serial killer thrillers based on the real life serial killer that terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area and inspired the original Dirty Harry movie (1971). That fall the Coen Bros. released one of their bleakest and most unconventional motion pictures with No Country For Old Men based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. No other Best Picture winner subverts audience expectations especially with its subtle ending as much as No Country for Old Men. Looking back it is very hard to believe that this won Best Picture in 2007 which was a very strong year for motion pictures with Joel and Ethan Coen winning Best Director(s) and Adapted Screenplay, as well. A very brave and subversive choice for the Academy. Michael Bay made his best movie in years with the summer blockbuster Transformers, William Friedkin also made his best film in a long time with the paranoia thriller/Iraq war allegory Bug, and the same could be said for Paul Verhoeven who made a triumphant return to Europe with his film Black Book after diminishing returns on his last three Hollywood productions. Those were all some of the best movies of the year. Not only established directors were churning out great work but so were newcomers as well. Ben Affleck made a confident directorial debut feature with Gone Baby Gone, one of the best mysteries and explorations of the seedy side of Boston with powerhouse performances from a terrific cast. Judd Apatow after scoring a sleeper hit with his debut film The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and making Steve Carell a star, he tried to do the same thing and succeeded with Seth Rogen headlining Knocked Up, which was one of three significant movies about pregnancy, the other two being the Academy Award winning Juno and the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Believe it or not, all three films are excellent and very different in terms of tone and theme. Probably the best movie of 2007 was Paul Thomas Anderson’s first of two collaborations with Daniel Day-Lewis. The first time he played as an oil tycoon in a clever indictment of our nations greed and reliance on fossil fuels in There Will Be Blood, both milkshakes and bowling have never quite been the same. There are so many great movies from 2007 that I would love to discuss I could write a book about it, or at least an entire article of its own. Just seek out all of the titles listed above and enjoy the greatness that was 2007. This was one of the few times in the new millennium that the genre and quality of pictures released would be comparable to the revisionist Hollywood of the 1970’s. Only 2009, 2012, and 2019 would come close to capturing the glory of motion pictures that were released in 2007.
Most Important Films: Born on the Fourth of July, Do the Right Thing, Driving Miss Daisy, My Left Foot, Field of Dreams, Henry V, Drugstore Cowboy, Dead Poets Society, Batman, Roadhouse, Major League, Lethal Weapon 2, The Burbs, Roger & Me, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Say Anything, A Dry White Season, The Little Mermaid, Casualties of War, Parenthood, Glory, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, When Harry Met Sally, License to Kill, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Ghostbusters 2, Weekend at Bernies, Back to the Future Part II, Uncle Buck.
1989 is often regarded for having a record breaking summer with some spectacular movies, but that fall as the weather got cooler movie theaters were filled to capacity with just as many modern classics as the months when it was incredibly hot and humid out. I already wrote about the exciting summer of 1989 in my Best Summer Blockbuster Season article so I will try to skip repeating myself about the importance of Batman, Parenthood, and Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Along with the onslaught of impressive sequels like Lethal Weapons 2, Ghostbusters 2, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But I will have to repeat myself by mentioning Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing which was probably the most critically acclaimed film of the year. Its cultural impact is more prescient today as at least as much as it was in the summer of 1989 predating the police brutality incidents of Rodney King and most recently George Floyd and the subsequent riots that followed. Sadly, the Academy chose to mostly ignore Do the Right Thing with only two Oscar nominations that year and were shut out of the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Instead they chose to honor Driving Miss Daisy, a fine film about friendship between two unlikely people in the South during the Civil Rights era, but still mostly a film about the good old days when blacks were subservient to whites and needed their help for employment and to teach them to read at an older age. The tone is comical and the acting is stellar but in the year of Do the Right Thing awarding Driving Miss Daisy with Best Picture felt like an intentional slap in the face to Spike Lee and all independent black filmmakers. Had the Academy given the top honor to any other film nominated for Best Picture it is likely that the backlash would not have been as severe. For example, it is doubtful anybody would have complained if the Vietnam war film Born of the Fourth of July won Best Picture since Oliver Stone won his second Best Director Oscar for that film and it featured a career best performance from its star Tom Cruise who really transformed himself to play paraplegic war veteran Ron Kovic. Nobody would have been upset if My Left Foot won Best Picture either, the movie that introduced most of the world to Daniel Day-Lewis who won his first of three Best Actor Oscars and is the role that made him a household name and still not only his best performance but arguably one of the best performances by any actor on film. Both Dead Poets Society and Field of Dreams were outstanding pictures and great vehicles for their stars Robin Williams (who earned a Best Actor nomination) and Kevin Costner respectively but neither one had the same dramatic impact of Born on the Fourth of July or My Left Foot. Do the Right Thing was not the only independent movie to make an impact on the mainstream with Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape which was huge on the festival circuit, and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy which gave a big boost to his career as well as its stars Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch. The latter also starred in the hit film Roadhouse of the same year opposite Patrick Swayze so she was likely going to get major offers regardless but she showed a more serious side in Drugstore Cowboy. Denzel Washington also formally announced he was ready for the big leagues and no longer a television doctor on St. Elsewhere when he won a well deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the Civil War film Glory. Michael J. Fox was already a movie star but transitioned to serious dramatic fare going head to head against Sean Penn in Brian De Palma’s Vietnam film Casualties of War. Plus, one of the biggest breakout stars of 1989 was Kenneth Branagh who still in his twenties earned himself Best Director and Actor Academy Award nominations for his debut film, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V and was immediately declared the next Laurence Olivier. Olivier coincidentally passed away in 1989. Michael Moore also made a lot of noise with his debut documentary Roger & Me and became a well known rabble rouser in both politics and movies. Disney started its renaissance in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, its best animated feature film in decades which paved the way for Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). 1989 was a stellar year for motion pictures and culminated the final year of a decade where audience tastes perfectly matched up with the studios sensibilities and the results produced classics which have been enjoyed by children and adults alike for over thirty years.
Most Important Films: Ghostbusters, The Killing Fields, Amadeus, Beverly Hills Cop, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Karate Kid, Gremlins, Sixteen Candles, The NeverEnding Story, Police Academy, Splash, Paris, Texas, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, Romancing the Stone, Broadway Danny Rose, Moscow on the Hudson, The Bounty, The Natural, Once Upon a Time in America, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Top Secret, Under the Volcano, Bachelor Party, Revenge of the Nerds, Purple Rain, Red Dawn, Tightrope, A Soldier’s Story, Stop Making Sense, Body Double, The Terminator, 2010, Dune, Footloose, The Woman in Red, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, and Beverly Hills Cop alone could be enough to make 1984 one of the best crowd pleasing years in movie history. Those are three huge hits and three of the most enjoyable and re-watchable films of the 1980’s. But the Oscar movies of 1984 were every bit as amazing as the box office champions. Amadeus won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and remains one of the best costume drama/comedy/biopics about a music legend of all time. The Killing Fields was the biggest competition and runner up for that years Best Picture and is one of the most unforgettable stories of war and friendship that was ever released. Legendary filmmaker David Lean directed his final epic motion picture A Passage to India. Sally Field won her second Best Actress Academy Award for Places in the Heart, plus Woody Allen and Norman Jewison received a ton of acclaim for their movies Broadway Danny Rose and A Soldier’s Story respectively. However some of the most enduring films of 1984 were not the biggest box office hits nor were they nominated for any Oscars. James Cameron’s feature film The Terminator jump started his career as one of the biggest filmmakers ever, sort of a David Lean of the visual effects era, along with helping make Arnold Schwarzenegger a bigger star. A Nightmare on Elm Street gave horror master Wes Craven a serious boost and put New Line Cinema on the map as a major studio for the next few decades. John Hughes had his first major motion picture with Sixteen Candles and made Molly Ringwold a star and icon of the 1980’s teen movies. Even Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone who directed some of the grandest westerns of all time made his final masterpiece the crime saga Once Upon a Time in America with Robert De Niro and James Woods. Clint Eastwood has said he owes a lot of his career from starring in westerns directed by Leone and Eastwood himself had one of his best performances in the New Orleans based cop drama Tightrope. Robert Redford starred in one of his most beloved roles and one of the best movies about our national pastime in The Natural and Robin Williams gave one of his best performances as a Soviet who defects to America during a government sanctioned trip to New York in Moscow on the Hudson. 1984 also produced some of the most fun movies of the decade with unforgettable pictures such as Gremlins, a summer hit that has now become a Christmas staple. Bachelor Party and Splash were both released and were big early hits for the outstanding Tom Hanks, one of the most cherished actors of all time, the original Police Academy came out which spawned many inferior sequels but the original is an 80’s comedy classic. Revenge of the Nerds is easily the best college comedy since National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). The team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker released their follow up to Airplane (1980) with Top Secret which was also the debut film for Val Kilmer who would become a big star. German director Wolfgang Peterson made his follow up to Das Boot with a fantasy adventure movie The NeverEnding Story which is a bonafide classic for children who grew up in the 80’s. Steven Spielberg, the biggest director of the time reunited with Harrison Ford, the biggest movie star of the time for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, their sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). This sparked controversy because of some of its violent content and 1984 saw the creation of the PG-13 rating which studios have loved and adopted as their favorite rating for most blockbusters. The first PG-13 rated movie was John Milius’ Cold War action thriller about high school kids fighting Russian soldiers that invaded US soil in Red Dawn. Future blockbuster filmmaker and Spielberg protege Robert Zemeckis had one of his first hits with an Indiana Jones style rip-off Romancing the Stone starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito, three super popular actors from the 80’s. Motion pictures about music were also very much in demand in 1984 with the groundbreaking Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense, Prince’s highly acclaimed Purple Rain, and the Kevin Bacon hit dance film Footloose. Even music in movies seemed to reach new heights in 1984 with hit songs and soundtracks from a lot of the biggest blockbusters. Stevie Wonder made history by becoming the first and only blind man to win an Oscar when “I Just Called to Say I Love You” won Best Song from The Woman in Red. 1984 was a time where movies did what they were supposed to do. Educate and entertain while simultaneously transporting the audience to different worlds of horror, excitement, laughter, adventure, and wonder.
Most Important Films: Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, The Shawshank Redemption, True Lies, Speed, Natural Born Killers, The Crow, Crooklyn, Maverick, Wolf, Quiz Show, The Madness of King George, Nobody’s Fool, Clear and Present Danger, The Last Seduction, Hoop Dreams, Bullets Over Broadway, Nell, The Client, Interview with the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, Red, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Heavenly Creatures, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Stargate, Timecop, The Professional, Clerks, Immortal Beloved, Star Trek Generations.
Often regarded as one of the best years of cinema 1994 produced so many classic movies from such diverse genres there is no way I can adequately discuss each film and its importance. This was the year independent movies made their mark on cinema as a force to be reckoned with. It all started with Pulp Fiction. There were also smart and slick blockbusters that were way better than films of their type were before and since like Speed, to nostalgic stories about men that did not fit into the world they were born in but somehow accomplished great things and achieved happiness while their actions touched others like Forrest Gump. The Oscars that year was a showdown between sincerity vs. irony. The “Aw shucks” greatness of Forrest Gump against the new age dialogue and style of Pulp Fiction, and since it was the Oscars in the 90’s and they loved historical films sincerity won and Forrest Gump took home the most gold. Since 1994 there has been a backlash against Forrest Gump winning Best Picture despite the fact that it was a tremendous emotional story and has arguably the best performance from Tom Hanks. Meanwhile Pulp Fiction has gone on to often be hailed as the best film of the 1990’s and Quentin Tarantino has become one of the most respected auteurs in cinema history being placed on the same level as Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Scorsese. Both Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction are incredible movies and deserve all of the praise and attention they receive, but 1994 also gave us other classics that are easily on the same level as those two Oscar front runners were. Tim Burton directed his best movie that year and Johnny Depp gave his best performance with Ed Wood, a beautiful black and white ode to shlock cinema from a bygone era. One of the best big screen biopics and movies about the art of making movies. Disney ended their second golden era with The Lion King, its last of the big four from their late 20th century renaissance. The following year Pocahontas came out and despite earning a lot of money, officially ended Disney’s consecutive streak of greatness. The Shawshank Redemption came out and flopped at the box office, but also earned 7 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and after being replayed a lot on cable, it eventually found its audience and is today viewed as one of the best films of all time. Speed and True Lies were the best two summer action movies and made a ton of money. A Die Hard (1988) clone and a James Bond clone respectively that were both so good most audience members did not even notice and if they did they did not care because they were having so much fun watching Keanu and Arnold blow things up. Oliver Stone made the best social commentary of American culture in the 1990’s with the controversial and very violent Natural Born Killers and helped make a movie star out of Woody Harrelson, then mostly known for Cheers. Controversy also surrounded another great movie The Crow, which under bizarre circumstances its lead actor Brandon Lee was shot and killed on set. It is hard to believe that the movie itself was spectacular and worked as well as it did. Harrison Ford continued his action star dominance as Jack Ryan in Clear and Present Danger based on the best selling Tom Clancy novel. In a year of great movies and outstanding performances Paul Newman gave one of his best and easily his most underrated work in Nobody’s Fool. The same could be said for Jodie Foster and her role in Nell, a movie that is today practically forgotten, and Gary Oldman as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. There were just so many great movies with outstanding performances in 1994. Linda Fiorentino gave one of the best femme fatale roles in a modern take on the film noir genre with The Last Seduction. Woody Allen despite recent unsavory events in his personal life had no problem assembling A-list stars like John Cusack, Jennifer Tilly, and Chazz Palminteri in Bullets Over Broadway one of his best films of the 90’s which won Dianne Wiest her second Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for a Woody Allen film. The documentary Hoop Dreams which chronicled two Chicago boys and their years long rise from poverty to a chance to play on the professional level was a huge hit on the indie circuit. Quentin Tarantino was not the only independent filmmaker to make a big splash in 1994, New Jersey based writer/director Kevin Smith made his debut feature Clerks for very little money and earned a lot of acclaim and is still considered the best film of his career. Horror movies were not particularly memorable throughout the 90’s but 1994 gave us Interview with the Vampire with a studs-capade of big names like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas and many others in one of the best vampire movies of all time. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare brought the director back to the Freddy Krueger franchise he created with a meta-horror film that initially bombed but has been reappraised as being ahead of its time and one of the best in the series. Perhaps the biggest star of 1994 and also undeniably the breakout star of 1994 was Jim Carrey. He had three number 1 films at the box office that year with his first three leading roles, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber, and two of those three grossed over $100 million. 1994 was a year that everything Hollywood produced seemed to be better than previous years and even movies not from the major studios really struck a nerve with audiences and remain cherished movies today.
Most Important Films: E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Blade Runner, The Thing, Poltergeist, Gandhi, The Verdict, Rocky III, Conan the Barbarian, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Tron, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, An Officer and a Gentleman, Missing, Tootsie, Sophie’s Choice, The World According to Garp, Victor Victoria, Annie, Das Boot, Quest for Fire, The Dark Crystal, First Blood, 48 Hrs., The King of Comedy, The Beastmaster, Grease 2, Airplane II: The Sequel, Cat People, A Midsummer Nights Sex Comedy, Fanny and Alexander, Creepshow, Diner, Swamp Thing, Porky’s.
The best summer ever and also one of the best years at the movies with so many great ideas and terrific actors, writers, and directors all working at the top of their game. 1982 felt like the last hurrah from the new Hollywood movement that started in the late 60’s and ran throughout the 1970’s before big studio heads started to take over and only cared about making a profit. This was the last time these auteurs in Hollywood had the freedom from the studio system to create personal projects, and these movies resonated with audiences then, and still hold up today as classics. I already wrote about the big summer movies of 1982 so I will not go into detail about the importance of E.T., Blade Runner, and The Thing. Gandhi ended up winning Best Picture and being the heavy favorite during most of the awards season. There is nothing wrong with that film and it is a traditional Oscar movie, but so was The Verdict which is one of the best courtroom dramas of all time and one of Paul Newman’s best performances as an alcoholic down on his luck lawyer with one last big case as his shot at redemption. Meryl Streep gave not only the best performance of her career but quite possibly the best performance from any actress on screen in Sophie’s Choice. 1982 gave us the gender bending comedy Tootsie with one of Dustin Hoffman’s funniest performances as well as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro spoofing their own work with The King of Comedy which featured a career best turn from comedian Jerry Lewis. Eddie Murphy had a breakout year with his motion picture debut 48 Hrs. opposite Nick Nolte and that movie started the buddy cop craze that seemed to last for the rest of the decade. Raunchy teen sex comedies seemed to also get their jump start in 1982 and would last through most of the decade with big hits like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Porky’s. Stallone had a big year introducing the world to John Rambo in the long awaiting film adaptation of First Blood which turned out to be a huge hit and spawned four sequels. There were also some very imaginative and unique films that were financed involving sword and sorcery like the Arnold Schwarzenegger breakout hit Conan The Barbarian, Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster which earned a lot of replay on cable for the next two decades, Jim Henson’s world building mythic experience The Dark Crystal, and the caveman adventure with very little dialogue Quest for Fire. Imaginations were really rolling on all cylinders in 1982 and thank God that the powers that be in the movie studios were willing to finance these directors personal visions.
Most Important Films: Rocky, Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Omen, The Bad News Bears, Carrie, Marathon Man, A Star is Born, Assault on Precinct 13, Logan’s Run, Bound for Glory, Family Plot, King Kong, The Last Tycoon, Midway, Mikey and Nicky, Obsession, Silent Movie, Silver Streak, The Shootist, Stay Hungry.
In 1976 the best movies that came felt like they were actually talking to us. Films that were about issues of the time and how people were dealing with them. Ironically, these issues are sadly just as relevant today in 2020 as they were in the 70’s. 1973, 1974, and 1975 were great years for movies but it seemed like they were all building toward this. 1976 was probably the highest point of the New Hollywood with maverick filmmakers reaching some of their highest points before they all experienced their first inevitable flops and the big studios took back control from the wonder kids. Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture and it is hard to argue against that film since it introduced the world to Sylvester Stallone who also wrote the screenplay and remains the best and most quintessential sports movie of all time and the ultimate underdog story, and a great love story for that matter. But it was up against Taxi Driver possibly the best work of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, a revisionist story about what makes a hero, and a stark social commentary about the grimy New York City of the 70’s and the Vietnam veteran experience. Rocky also beat Network, arguably one of the best screenplays ever filmed with powerhouse award winning performances from Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight. Then there’s All the President’s Men, what many consider the best political drama and film about journalism to ever see the light of day. Wow. And that is just what the Academy Awards said were the best, how often do those guys get it right? There was John Schlesinger’s gritty New York thriller Marathon Man, Brian De Palma’s horror thriller Carrie, the first and still one of the very best film adaptations of a Stephen King novel, and Richard Donner’s The Omen, one of the best horror movies of all time. Rocky was also not the only memorable sports movie to come out in 1976, we also got to see a drunk Walter Matthau coach a bunch of misfit kids in The Bad News Bears, a sort of anti-sports movie that has created many imitators but none quite as good as the original. John Carpenter had an independent hit with Assault on Precinct 13, two years before he became a household name for directing Halloween. The dystopian future flick Logan’s Run was a big hit and a one of the last great science fiction films from its era before Star Wars came out the following year and changed the genre. Hitchcock made his last film the lighthearted Family Plot and Elia Kazan had one final film with The Last Tycoon starring Robert De Niro. It is interesting to see that generation of filmmakers release movies along with the kids that grew up watching their works and even stranger that the next generation made superior films to their heroes. De Palma unapologetically worships Hitchcock and blatantly stole some of his ideas and techniques but Carrie is clearly better than Family Plot although it is tough to compare them since their tones are completely different. Scorsese loved Elia Kazan and presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1999, but his Taxi Driver remains a masterpiece today and The Last Tycoon is mostly a forgotten film, only known for being Elia Kazan’s last. Don Siegel mostly known for directing Clint Eastwood in a lot of his early movies got to direct the previous generations Western icon John Wayne in The Shootist before he passed away three years later. 1976 seemed like the year that Old Hollywood and New Hollywood came together for one last big All Star game reunion before the studios started to take over, before all of the Golden eras legends passed away, and before the writers, directors, and actors from the new era achieved their status as being Hollywood icons, when they were still aspiring for greatness and new ways to tell stories.
Most Important Films: In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, You Only Live Twice, Valley of the Dolls, To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Barefoot in the Park, The Taming of the Shrew, Belle de Jour, The Dirty Dozen, In Like Flint, The Gnome Mobile, Wait Until Dark, Camelot, Dr. Dolittle, In Cold Blood, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Jungle Book.
The year movies started to reflect the changing times. The 1960’s counterculture and Civil Rights movements exploded onto the screens with stories that stuck it to the man. These movies gave the finger to the establishment, and they made audiences of all ages question their values about where they were as individuals and where our country was heading as political and racial unrest spread across the nation and into cinemas. Thereby strengthening the discussions further with some of the most thought provoking movies ever made within a calendar year. Seriously, look at the Best Picture nominees from 1967 and you see four classic films of varying degrees that deal with the upheaval the United States was going through and one last bastion of hope for the Academy that the old ways of doing things were still relevant. The four films that were nominated that reflected the changing times were The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and the eventual Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night. The lone movie and Best Picture nominee that clearly did not fit in was Dr. Dolittle. Seeing those five movies listed together you can hear the song from Sesame Street “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong” playing in your head. Dr. Dolittle starred Rex Harrison as the animal talking doctor and was one of the last attempts for the Academy and the studios to hold onto their old ways when MGM musicals were in demand and dominated the box office and the Oscars. My Fair Lady was only three years prior and that won Best Picture and Best Actor for Rex Harrison with no arguments. But 1967 was vastly different than 1964. The 60’s were changing so fast Hollywood was doing a good job keeping up but the old guard did not want to let go. The Graduate represented the youth culture and their angst and confusion after they left college and were now out into adulthood which was very different than the so called real world their parents entered at their age. Bonnie and Clyde represented the changing mentality of young people going against authority under the guise of a real life story of 1930’s outlaws that robbed banks. Both In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starred Sidney Poitier and addressed race relations from different perspectives. One a racist Southern sheriff who has to work with a black detective to solve a murder, and the other about a girl bringing home her African-American fiancé to introduce them to her parents and alter their way of thinking about race relations from a familial level. Sidney Poitier really had a terrific year in 1967. He had those two movies and To Sir With Love where he played a schoolteacher who takes a job teaching high school in London to a bunch of disruptive teenagers and really reaches them and ends up loving his job. That could have replaced Dr. Dolittle as a Best Picture nominee. But I would have rather seen Cool Hand Luke take that fifth spot with Paul Newman in possibly his best performance as a prisoner who refuses to conform and battles a cruel warden and guards, much like a lot of Americans at the time were fighting against a system they did not want to conform to. Newman was nominated for Best Actor and George Kennedy won a well deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work. There was also The Dirty Dozen which was very influential for the action and war genres, and Wait Until Dark which is a frightening thriller with a jump scare most horror movies only wish they could achieve. One of best movie of 1967 that should rank up with the classics like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde is Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood, based on a true story of murders in the rural mid-west that brought the fear, terror, and brutal violence into people’s homes for the first time. This movie and book changed the way people think about crime and created a paranoia that has never gone away. The best movies of 1967 were smart social satires that commented on how our culture was changing and how different types of people reacted to and resisted those changes.
Most Important Films: American Beauty, Fight Club, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Three Kings, The Insider, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Limey, All About My Mother, Run Lola Run, The Blair Witch Project, Election, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The Green Mile, Ten Things I Hate About You, Deep Blue Sea, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, The Hurricane, The Straight Story, Topsy Turvy, The Sixth Sense, The Cider House Rules, Boys Don’t Cry, Girl Interrupted, Sweet and Lowdown, Bowfinger, Sleepy Hollow, Eyes Wide Shut, Analyze This, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, The World is Not Enough, Buena Vista Social Club, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Mummy, Tarzan, Galaxy Quest, Office Space, Big Daddy, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Existenz, Stir of Echoes, Summer of Sam, Any Given Sunday, She’s All That, Mumford, Bringing Out the Dead, Ride with the Devil, Man on the Moon, and many many many more.
Many have proclaimed 1999 as the greatest year for movies. The first official year of cinema in the twenty-first century for artistic expression. I have stated before that they could write entire books about certain years for movies, well one was actually written about 1999 and how it impacted our pop culture. I wrote an article last summer about 1999 and gave a retrospective on the best movies of the year and where they stand today. American movies in particular were very strong. Like in 1976 where you had master filmmakers put out some of their last great films, you had radical new filmmakers emerge as potent voices in cinema with their visions, their dialogue, and their unique voices. We saw the older generation of directors meet the new filmmakers who would become the masters of the new century. Stanley Kubrick delivered his final movie with Eyes Wide Shut and it was met with mixed reviews and varying degrees of enthusiasm and is more revered today than it was upon its initial run in July of 1999 going up against big blockbusters. Other veteran filmmakers had their films released to mixed reactions like Martin Scorsese with Bringing Out the Dead, Sidney Lumet with Gloria, and Bernardo Bertolucci with Besieged. But honestly it was the new strong filmmakers in Hollywood that had critics and audiences cheering. Directors that would go on to become important filmmakers such as Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), David O. Russell (Three Kings), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Alexander Payne (Election), Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Doug Liman (Go), M. Night Shymalan (The Sixth Sense), and The Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) all received high praise for their films released in 1999 in the parenthesis. But sadly when it came time for the Academy Awards to honor the best in the year from looking at the Best Picture nominees being American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, and The Sixth Sense, one might not think that 1999 was not such a revolutionary year for cinema. All of those are fine films in their own way but only American Beauty was really highly praised across the board by critics and audiences at the time yet today is much maligned because of its subject matter and the fact that its lead Kevin Spacey, who won his second Academy Award for his role has become a pariah after personal revelations came to light. Meanwhile a lot of the directors that had their first or second major film released in 1999 have become well respected directors but not on the level some would have hoped for. Some still have trouble securing financing for their next film despite the fact that they have won Oscars and have hits under their belt. Teen movies seemed to dominate the box office like She’s All That, Cruel Intentions, and Ten Things I Hate About You, and they received positive marks from critics either back then or today as they have been reappraised twenty years later. 1999 was also the last year sex seemed to be a dominant topic in cinemas with three films flirting with the dreaded NC-17 rating. Kubrick’s aforementioned Eyes Wide Shut which added silly digital people to block images from an orgy scene, they have since been removed on the unrated DVD. American Pie, another critically acclaimed hit teen comedy which removed some raunchy scenes involving penetration of an apple pie, and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut which appealed and the MPAA afterwards just said they probably should not have given that movie an R. All of those films were well received by critics and audiences but speaking of South Park, that was one of several revolutionary animated films that year in terms of content and style. 1999 also saw the release of Toy Story 2, the exceptional sequel to the first completely CGI animated feature which was also 100% CGI, still a big deal at the time. There was Brad Bird’s animated film The Iron Giant which had a less than stellar debut because of its hand drawn retro 50’s style but has since become a beloved classic. Disney released a traditional animated film with Tarzan, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke premiered to rave reviews and good business in a limited North American release. Never before has a year with such diverse animated feature films ever existed. 1999 represented a time when movies were getting bigger and movies were getting smaller. In the same summer that George Lucas released his much anticipated Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace which became the highest grossing film of the year and pushed CGI and live action to the limits, that July a little horror movie made with handheld cameras on a shoestring budget in the thousands used the internet to create a marketing sensation and became one of the most unexpected hits of the year with The Blair Witch Project which has since spawned an entire new sub genre of horror with the found footage film. 1999 also made films that represented their era better than almost any other year with the cubicle films such as American Beauty, The Matrix, Fight Club, and Office Space. All are classics today and deal with people being dissatisfied with their current life and career and longing for more than just staring at a computer screen at a desk in a cubicle. 1999 was also slightly ahead of the curve with Hilary Swank and her breaking of gender norms in her first Best Actress Academy Award winning role for Boy’s Don’t Cry which was directed by a female Kimberly Peirce. Nowadays movies directed by women are quite common but in 1999, a movie about a trans woman in the midwest being directed by a lesbian woman was very progressive. I could go on and on about 1999, maybe I should write my own book about the subject.
Most Important films: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Love Affair, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, Babes in Arms, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Ninotchka, Young Mr. Lincoln, Of Mice and Men, Intermezzo, Gunga Din, Dodge City, Jamaica Inn, Only Angels Have Wings, The Four Feathers, Gulliver’s Travels, The Rules of the Game, The Women, Destry Rides Again, The Oklahoma Kid.
If movie years were sports teams then 1999 would be the equivalent of the 1998 Yankees, an all around solid team and possibly the best team in American sports history, then the year of 1939 in film would be the 1927 Yankees, the team that made them the most famous organization in sports and that helped place baseball on the map as a cultural touchstone and as America’s pastime. 1939 was the year that movies went from being fluff and something to do to pass the time, to a full blown million dollar, now billion dollar, business, and a legitimate art form. Then Gone with the Wind is the Babe Ruth of movies. Sure he had his character flaws, and Gone with the Wind certainly has its own flaws that make it politically incorrect today, but many could argue the Babe is the best baseball player of all time and many film scholars consider Gone with the Wind one of the best pictures ever made. It has an epic feel that many have tried to capture and very few have equalled or surpassed its historical and majestic scope. It was the first motion picture shot entirely in color and opened up a whole new world of what movies could do and transformed the medium to transport audiences in a way no other film ever had. The other landmark film from that year is of course, The Wizard of Oz. A perennial favorite and classic that has entertained generations. The second film to be in color and used sequences of black and white to enhance Dorothy’s journey into the magical world of Oz. 1939 also had Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of the greatest political movies ever made and career high moment for both its director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart before they both went overseas to help the allies in World War II. 1939 also brought us quite possibly the best Sherlock Holmes film adaptation with Basil Rathbone as the detective in his most famous mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles. John Steinbeck’s then contemporary now classic novel Of Mice and Men received its first of many sterling film adaptations. John Ford directed Henry Fonda as an American icon in The Young Mr. Lincoln, while both its director and star were on their way to becoming American icons of motion pictures. Even Alfred Hitchcock still directed in Great Britain made a contribution to cinema in 1939 with his underrated Jamaica Inn. So many great movies were released that when combined they all contributed to making 1939 the golden year in motion pictures. The year that American cinema launched forward and never looked back. Since 1939 it has only grown monetarily and artistically. Sure some years it seems like movies are getting worse but they are constantly pushing the medium with new screenplays and technological advances that take what was started in 1939 and mold them into something new for the twenty-first century. 1939 pushed the limits of cinema forward with colorization and stories that transported the audiences to new worlds and actors that gave performances allowing audiences to feel emotions and generate empathy in ways that motion pictures never had before. 1939 was the year that made cinema the greatest art form of the 20th century and there was no turning back.