Many critics are calling 2018 a great year for movies, and with rich material from “Roma” to “Eighth Grade” to “The Favourite” to “A Star is Born,” that’s a hard position to oppose. But there have been many years that felt monumental while we lived them, and then proceeded to fade with time.
Some years just stick with us, crackling with so much creativity and produce so many influential titles that we remember them for decades. Which leads to the classic question: What year was the greatest of all years? We rounded up film buffs at The Washington Post and began brainstorming, arguing and writing.
Eventually we found the best year in movies — all seven of them.
— Travis M. Andrews
It’s hard to view “Gone with the Wind” these days as anything but massively problematic. Slavery is presented in soft-focus. Rhett Butler carrying a struggling Scarlett O’Hara up the stairwell, intended to make the audience swoon, is now as likely to make them vomit. If it was never screened in public again, then frankly, my dear, I wouldn’t give a — well, you know.
But there’s no denying that the Technicolor melodrama introduced generations of filmmakers and ticket buyers to the concept of a sweeping historical epic. Without “Gone with the Wind,” would there have been “Titanic”? “Brokeback Mountain”? It’s a building block of modern cinema. More importantly, it’s a lesson about America: The romantic stories we tell about ourselves often look different, even horrifying, with the benefit of time.
“Gone with the Wind” wasn’t even close to the best movie of 1939. The best, of course, was “The Wizard of Oz,” the original family-friendly fantasy, which simultaneously debuted Judy Garland and “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Eighty years on, is there a single human who has not, at some point, linked arms to skip down the sidewalk like they’re off to see the wizard?
The other top movies from 1939 can comparatively look like sideshows, but in any other year they would have been main events: Jimmy Stewart, trying to bring dignity to politics with a barn-burning filibuster in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell chewing scenery in “The Women,” which, revolutionarily — then and today — didn’t have a single speaking part for men. “Stagecoach” provided John Wayne his breakthrough role, and fully cemented the American western.
In fact, I’d argue that the best way to think of cinematic 1939 is as scaffolding — helping filmmakers build the movies that came next. From romantic dramas to rip-roaring adventures, every genre today was shaped by the works of that year. There have been massive shifts and improvements over time. But 1939 is still the scaffolding for a lot of what makes us pour into theaters today, and what we expect to see there once the lights dim. —Monica Hesse
In the classic film noir, puddles of blood run inky black, neon signs glow radiant white (even outside the “Green Cat” nightclub) and the everpresent gray cloud of cigarette smoke — sometimes wafting from a dead man’s lips — suggests a fog of moral ambivalence.
I first discovered the movies of 1946 in college, at a screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (hardly a film noir, but a story, nevertheless, with a suicidal man at its center). That was all I need to plunge into “The Big Sleep,” a film whose title refers to death, and that taught me that plot doesn’t always matter. That was followed by “Gilda,” “The Killers,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” — and my favorite film of all time, “Notorious.” Hitchcock’s spy film about a “fallen woman,” Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) — the daughter of a Nazi who marries one (Claude Rains) in order to rat him out — involved poison and bomb-making material. (In 1946, the war may have been over, but Nazis still terrified us. See Orson Welles’s “The Stranger,” about a fugitive Nazi hiding in plain sight in small-town Connecticut.)
I realized I had a taste for the dark — and the sweet. Alicia is in love with her American handler (Cary Grant), but neither will admit it.
The year introduced me to my own shadow self, and not just through film noir. In such movies as “The Best Years of Our Lives,” that year’s winner of the best picture Oscar, about veterans coping with civilian life and what we would today call PTSD, I saw a mirror held up to humanity. That same mirror was there in “Beauty and the Beast,” a film about the dual nature of man if ever there was one, and even in the western “My Darling Clementine,” in which Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday is a conflicted good guy/bad guy, halfway between Henry Fonda’s squeaky clean Wyatt Earp and the murderous Clanton gang. Within the beautifully constrained frame of the era’s pre-widescreen format was a universe of contradiction.
“The Big Sleep’s” General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) explained the oxymoronic appeal of the repellant best when describing why he loves orchids. The smell, he says, reminds him of human flesh. “Their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.” — Michael O’Sullivan
In the story of world cinema, the 1950s may seem like a transitional decade between Hollywood’s “Golden Age” and the more troubled, revolutionary visions of the French New Wave or the American film-brat renaissance of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But it was an extraordinarily vibrant moment, steeped in post-war cynicism and emotional intensity as well as the eye-catching showmanship of VistaVision, Technicolor and CinemaScope. And no year crystallized these developments quite like 1955: This was the year James Dean brought a wounded face to the younger generation in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden.” This was the year that film noir peaked with Charles Laughton’s bold Southern gothic “The Night of the Hunter” and the apocalyptic charge of Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly.” This was the year that France produced two diamond-cut suspense classics in “Rififi” and “Diabolique,” and India’s Satyajit Ray signaled a new global realism with the first entry in his “Pather Panchali” trilogy.
Above all, 1955 stands out for bright, expressive colors, when filmmakers took advantage of film stocks and processes that could render emotion with visual pop, from the florid melodrama of Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” to the opulence of Max Ophüls’ historical romance “Lola Montes,” about the rise and fall of a 19th century cabaret dancer. The overall mood may edge toward darkness — even the Gene Kelly musical “It’s Always Fair Weather” aches with regret — but audiences were also treated to uncharacteristically feather-light films by Alfred Hitchcock (“To Catch a Thief”), David Lean (“Summertime”) and Ingmar Bergman (“Smiles of a Summer Night”). Katharine Hepburn took an accidental dip in the canals of Venice, How about Robert Mitchum told the story of Love and Hate and Dean howled in reverberating anguish. There was no fuller year to be a moviegoer. — Scott Tobias
A common praise of a modern movie is that it’s reminiscent of cinema in the 1970s. The decade is rightly revered as a period when film took a great leap forward, as auteurs experimented with form, storytelling, framing and editing. Suddenly, movies became more than merely entertaining ways to pass an evening: They became art.
No year better represents this period than 1974.
The year’s bounty spreads generously across genres. Film noir reached its peak with Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” which finds Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunway playing cat-and-mouse in a drought-stricken Los Angeles. And thrillers were never better. Movies like Allan J. Pakula’s excellent conspiracy film “The Parallax View” and Tobe Hooper’s horror classic “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” terrified willing fans.
Two filmmakers, though, were on a very special tear. First there’s Francis Ford Coppola, who released the taut classic “The Conversation,” with Gene Hackman and a young Harrison Ford. The fact that this masterpiece was eclipsed by his other movie that year — “The Godfather: Part II,” considered by many to be the finest drama ever set to film — should frankly be the end of the argument.
But then there’s the comedy. Mel Brooks released two of his most lauded works in 1974, beginning the year with the Western satire “Blazing Saddles” and ending it with the Gene Wilder-starring horror spoof “Young Frankenstein.”
To earn pole position, though, a year needs more than great films. It needs the good films, the ones explored new territory but wouldn’t appear on an AFI top 100 list. Again, 1974 wildly exceeds expectation, courtesy of some top directors: Steven Spielberg directed “Sugarland Express”; Michael Cimino released “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”; and Martin Scorsese, still two years away from “Taxi Driver,” dropped both “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and a documentary titled “Italianamerican.” John Carpenter, Sidney Lumet, John Waters, Jonathan Demme, Sydney Pollack, Werner Herzog and Brian DePalma: All them released experimental films that pushed boundaries.
Other years might have stronger Oscar contenders or more popular blockbusters — but no year quite achieved the density of 1974, one that has continued to influence filmmakers every year since. — Travis M. Andrews
While a lot of old movies about sexual politics don’t hold up, “Tootsie,” directed by Sydney Pollack, feels just as relevant today as it did when it debuted in 1982 with the story of a difficult actor (Dustin Hoffman) forced to dress up like a woman in order to get work. Only then — after he’s been groped and belittled and learned the sausage casing-like horror of wearing pantyhose — does he understand the true plight of women.
“My name is Dorothy,” Hoffman’s well-coiffed alter ego corrects a dismissive director, sparking a flame of recognition, even for modern-day female viewers. “It’s not tootsie or toots or sweetie or honey or doll.”
“Tootsie” might be the most rewatchable of 1982’s movies, but it was hardly the most celebrated, what with so many films held up as standards of their genre, some even becoming shorthand in everyday vernacular. How many times have you heard someone refer to their own personal “Sophie’s Choice” or talked about needing to “phone home” in just the same hoarse whispery way that E.T. does? How many times has a movie that’s even slightly claustrophobic been compared to “Das Boot”? This was also the year a little cult movie called “Blade Runner” came out, influencing a generation of science fiction films. (It was also, admittedly, the year a little cult movie called “Porky’s” came out, unfortunately influencing a generation of boys.)
But it may have been the most unassuming of 1982 movies that had the most lasting effect. Barry Levinson’s “Diner” wasn’t really about anything, per se, but that’s what made it so groundbreaking. It was just a group of Baltimore buddies hanging out together, and the dialogue — with its easy, improvised cadence — was everything. Suddenly the world opened up, making space for the trivialities of “Seinfeld” and the snappy, quotidien conversations of “Reservoir Dogs.” It turned out that “nothing much happens” could be its own genre, and a surprisingly entertaining one, too. — Stephanie Merry
At the peak of summer 1999, Hogarth Hughes from the beloved animated film “The Iron Giant” did a little finger-gunning and uttered the words, “Welcome to downtown Coolsville. Population: us” for the first time. I have since realized the uncoolness of finger guns but cannot deny the accuracy of dear Hogarth’s proclamation. The cineplexes of 1999 were, indeed, Coolsville.
They’re movies you still remember and likely appreciate: “The Sixth Sense,” which contains one of the most quotable lines and one of the most memorable reveals of all time; “Toy Story 2,” arguably the best of the series; “Notting Hill,” a charming rom-com whose popularity turned the equally charming district into even more of a tourist destination; and “The Matrix,” which did wonders for the sci-fi genre.
In the mood for some witty, dark humor? Reacquaint yourself with Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick from “Election.” Waiting to be swept off your feet? Watch Heath Ledger do literally anything in “10 Things I Hate About You,” the greatest teen rom-com to ever be made. Or perhaps you’re more of a Brendan Fraser in “The Mummy” kind of person. (Yes, the dumb movie that, because of its cast and action-packed sequences, is an utter joy to watch.)
Sure, 1999 had some duds — the horrible (yet rewatchable) “The Phantom Menace” or the cringey cult classic “Cruel Intentions” — but even those join better movies like “Being John Malkovich,” “Office Space” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in infiltrating conversations to this day. And when someone tells you not to talk about something? “Fight Club” immediately comes to mind.
Maybe everyone, in a shared panicked state, decided to push out some of their best work before Y2K. Either way, Hollywood ended the 20th century with a bang and, for all that 1999 gave us, we can forgive the finger guns. — Sonia Rao
I was going to say 1939. Everybody says 1939. (See Monica’s excellent brief above.)
But recently, in doing research for another article, I jotted down a list of some of the best movies of the early-to-mid 2000’s, and I discovered that many if not most of them came out in 2007. That year rarely gets included in the Great Mentionings of stellar cinematic eras, but behold: This was a twelve-month period when not only “No Country for Old Men” but “Juno” was released; when we saw “There Will be Blood” and “Once.” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Michael Clayton.” “The Great Debaters” and “American Gangster.” “The Queen” and “Zodiac.” “Away From Her” and “Talk to Me.” “Superbad” and “Enchanted” and the scandalously overlooked romcom “Music & Lyrics.” Widescreen and small-canvas, soaringly ambitious and beguilingly modest, spanning genres, tastes, audiences and directorial sensibilities, these films formed the kind of balanced cinematic ecosystem that we rarely see anymore (although this year came encouragingly close). Forget a Top 10 list for 2007: How about a Top 35?
Of course, it’s easy to idealize a year as cinematic Eden, conveniently forgetting that the top box-office performers were nothing special: That list was topped by a forgettable iteration of the endless “Spider-Man” franchise, and included “300,” a “National Treasure” movie and the execrable “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” But hey, “Ratatouille” was a big hit, too, and who among us would begrudge the dumb visceral pleasure of “Transformers,” in which Michael Bay simply gave us the spectacle of cars turning into robots and left the purity of that worthy enterprise mercifully alone?
Have I mentioned “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” yet? “Into the Wild”? “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”? I could go on. But right now, I just want to go back. — Ann Hornaday