The Best Decade in Film Keeps Changing

The Godfather greatest film

I enjoy seeing lists of great movies. Part of it is to get recommendations for films worth checking out, but there’s also a fun in observing how things have changed, be it in the way that Louisiana Story was briefly considered one of the most acclaimed movies ever, or how Birth of a Nation stopped being DW Griffith’s most acclaimed film. One interesting thing is the way that the repuations of decades have shifted. The consensus seems to have shifted a bit.

I can compare three lists of mostly American films formed by polls of Hollywood insiders and critics: The American Film Institute’s 1997 Top 100, their 2006 follow-up and the Hollywood Reporter’s list from last year, which came to my attention because they keep retweeting it. In the 1997 AFI Top 100 list, the 1950s were the best represented decade with twenty films, and seven in the top twenty: On the Waterfront in 8th Place, Singin’ in the Rain in 10th, Sunset Boulevard in 12th, The Bridge on the River Kwai in 13th, Some Like it Hot in 14th, All About Eve in 16th, and The African Queen in 17th. For the 2007 list, five films from the 50s were removed (From Here to Eternity, Rebel Without a Cause, An American in Paris, Giant and A Place in the Sun.) Another decade had taken its place.

In the 1997 list, the 1970s were represented by 18 films, with The Godfather in third place. Two films from the decade were removed (Patton and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) but four were added (The Last Picture Show, Cabaret, Nashville, All the President’s Men) so the 1970s were the dominant decade. With last year’s list, the change was more drastic, perhaps because the focus on film professionals from multiple walks on life means they’ve got a much younger crowd. There were eleven films from the 1950s (none in the Top 25!), and eighteen from the 1970s. This time the 1990s dominated, with 24 films.

1994 film

1994 in particular made a hell of a showing, with Forrest Gump in 14th place, Pulp Fiction in 5th place and Shawshank Redemption in 4th place. There were fourteen films from the 2000s, but none in the top fifty. Part of it may just be that there isn’t a perceived consensus, and the kids exposed to these films weren’t in a position to vote for these things. Early film was really missing from the list, with two films from the 1930s (Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, both from 1939) and three from the 1940s. I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps younger film folks simply aren’t tolerant of early film technology, or the anachronistic attitudes.

The first AFI list had 18 films from 1939 or before. Seven were gone in the next iteration, although there were five new ones, with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights jumping from 76th place to 11th, and Buster Keaton’s The General popping up in 16th place. Birth of a Nation was in 44th place in the 1997 list, and gone in the 2007 list, although DW Griffith was represented with Intolerance. It’s suprising how much the reputations of the earliest films are still so much in flux.

It’s also taking some time for recent films to become established parts of the film canon. This can take a while. Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption did some climbing to get to the top five. It’s possible they’ll be a little bit lower next time around, but probably not by much. Schindler’s List is the one film from the 1990s on all three top ten lists, so it was acknowledged relatively quickly, in a way that doesn’t seem apparent of any film in the 2000s, although much of that may just be the combination of artistry with a director acknowledged as one of the best ever, and weighty subject matter. There isn’t quite that perfect storm with recent films.

Wall-E can be considered a great film

My guesses for the films most likely to rank higher in lists made decades from now are Wall-E, The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight. Wall-E is probably Pixar’s masterpiece, and the best science fiction film in decades. Lord of the Rings was the Star Wars of the 21st Century, and the biggest problem is determining whether the first film (which introduced the characters and brought attention to the franchise) should rank higher than the third (which got more awards, and brought the story to a satisfying conclusion.) The Dark Knight is considered the best superhero film, so it’s the apex of a genre dominating the box office, and typically getting impressive reviews. Heath Ledger (whose lead performance in Brokeback Mountain is also in the Top 100) is one of the great film villains, while Nolan is probably the most acclaimed recent director (Inception and Memento made the Top 100.) The Shawshank Redemption, and Citizen Kane a long time ago, show that films don’t chart in early lists can still rate highly decades later, so it’s possible for films ignored in The Hollywood Reporter‘s selection to dominate in the 2020s. Don’t be surprised to see The Departed (Scorcese crime drama with A-list cast), Requiem for a Dream (arguably the best drug drama in American film, can rise with the fortunes of lead Jared Leto or director Darren Aronofsky) or The Hurt Locker (Most significant American film by a female Director, Most acclaimed film about the 21st Century military) start climbing.

Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window

Incidentally, I’d still say that the 1950s for are the best decade in film. It was a good decade for English language cinema, with directors like Hitchcock, Wilder, and Kazan at their peaks, in addition to impressive westerns (High Noon, The Searchers, Shane) and a few other all-time classics (Singin’ in the Rain, Paths of Glory, Bridge on the River Kwai, The African Queen, Touch of Evil.) The ’70s might be better for American films-although I’m not convinced on that one- but the 50s was fantastic for foreign language films. Kurosawa had Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Ikiru. Ingmar Bergman had Smiles of a Summer NightWild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. And there was Diabolique, La Strada, Wages of Fear and The 400 Blows.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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