Showbiz luminaries such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Dustin Hoffman have commented in recent months that the quality of Hollywood movies today is as bad as they’ve ever seen. It’s certainly gotten harder, financially speaking, for many filmmakers to see a movie through to fruition. And yet, good, even great, motion pictures continue to sneak through and find their way to an audience. Rarer still are those years when several superlative movies all come out at once. Here is our take on the five best years in American cinema, in chronological order.
More than 75 years later, Gone With the Wind remains the all-time box-office champion (adjusted for inflation), and by a comfortable margin. Today, in an era when movie hype is commonplace, no film has yet to equal that which surrounded GWTW‘s release. That’s a reality modern-day detractors determined to lambast the picture for its period-appropriate treatment of slavery can’t deny. But 1939 was also the year in which one of the most widely seen films in history, The Wizard of Oz, debuted to raves. It may have won the Oscar for Best Picture if GWTW, which was the winner, had come out in another year. The film’s reputation has only grown with time; according to the Library of Congress, Oz holds the honor of most-viewed movie in television syndication, since premiering there in 1956. Beyond these two smash motion pictures, the hits kept on coming in 1939. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of James Stewart’s strongest films, stands today as a landmark of civic idealism. Hollywood was still very much in love with adopting classic literature in 1939, and Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, is a romantic masterpiece. And in Stagecoach, actor John Wayne and director John Ford essentially heralded their arrival as a filmmaking partnership that would deliver hit after hit, 14 films in all, for the next three decades.
Motion pictures, regardless of genre, tend to reflect the eras in which they’re made, including even period pieces. The angst of the 1960s wasn’t fully manifested in cinema until the early 1970s, but 1968, while still rife with screwball comedies and staid musicals redolent of an earlier era, was a showcase of superlative films that represented their times in a variety of fascinating ways. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t just tap into the space race then hoarding the headlines, it found in its technologies a profound sense of foreboding. Planet of the Apes may have been only a step removed from the dopey sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and early ’60s, but it was thoroughly modern in its depiction of a civilization turned upside down. Of course, that’s what the zombie genre is all about, and its newfound popularity has rendered zombies almost commonplace today. But 1968’s Night of the Living Dead basically started it all. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West took a well-worn genre that had become encrusted with stereotypes and clichés and thoroughly updated it for contemporary audiences. Suspenseful films about malevolent children have grown formulaic today, but Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby reveled in a sense of dread that upended postwar conventions about the traditional American family.
By 1977 the daring visionaries who had produced so many singular motion pictures during the first half of the decade were being confronted by commercial forces that would fundamentally change how Hollywood made movies. After all, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the first summer blockbuster, had been released just two years earlier. Spielberg’s far more ambitious Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of the highlights of 1977, propelled cinema still further in that direction, but it was George Lucas’s Star Wars, now officially known as Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, that most signified there would be no going back. At the same time, popular music was being affected by a new kind of commercialism all its own. Disco, widely derided at the time, may not have deserved a film tribute as accomplished as Saturday Night Fever, a movie that stands today as the de facto time capsule for that musical moment. Woody Allen introduced something of a new genre, the thinking person’s romantic comedy, in 1977 with Annie Hall, and scores of filmmakers paid homage to it with their own treatments for 20 years. Finally, no one will ever confuse Smokey and the Bandit with great art, but anyone seeking a window onto what American culture really looked and felt like in the late 1970’s need only gaze upon this silly road flick, starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field.
2. It was years, if not decades, in the making, but the independent film movement that grew in response to the era of the blockbuster transformed the late 1990s and early 2000s into some of the most invigorating years for cinema since the early to mid-1970s. Virtually every major studio branched out with a boutique division for indie titles, and although the movement has since waned and become as predictable as the mainstream part of the business, it was fun while it lasted. Indie films, including studio films with indie sensibilities, may have reached their peak in 1999. The movement gave rise to directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, who in 1999 released Magnolia, an ambitious opus on how parents transfer their weaknesses onto their children. David Fincher, another filmmaker who found his voice during this period, delivered Fight Club in 1999, one of the first high-profile movies to tap into the angst of Generation X. Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze from a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, helped to redefine how motion pictures can tell stories, while Boys Don’t Cry was a powerful precursor in the fight for gay rights. Finally, M. Night Shyamalan showed the effectiveness of a great twist ending in the commercial The Sixth Sense; unfortunately for the young director, it would come to mark the apex of his career.
With Hollywood now dominated by superhero and other blockbuster franchises, there’s less room, both at the cinema and in studios’ budgets, for movies that aren’t immediately familiar. That makes 2007 a unique year, with several films released that were both original and exemplary. Joel and Ethan Coen gave us No Country for Old Men, a film that was at once challenging, critically acclaimed (four Oscars, including for Best Picture) and commercially successful. Two of 1999’s highlighted directors didn’t lose a step in 2007. David Fincher released Zodiac, a long, thoughtful and absorbing look at the hunt for a serial killer, based on a true story, while P.T. Anderson returned with There Will Be Blood, a difficult, even at times inscrutable film about an oilman, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, that qualifies as high art. Yet 2007 was a winner in commercial cinema as well. Juno, a smart comedy about a real-life scenario, having a baby too soon, announced the arrival of both actress Ellen Page but especially screenwriter Diablo Cody. And Superbad reminded us that even dumb teen comedies can be not only wise, but also memorable. The movie captured the concerns of an age group that, even while being co-opted by the latest trends, never really changes.