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The best year ever for American movies. Pick one.

Updated on July 7, 2011
Stagecoach | Source

You have to look back. Way back.

Like a particularly complex Bordeaux, or a malodorous Stilton, movies require a bit of aging before they can be fully appreciated or accurately judged. First impressions are simply too untrustworthy. As an audience, we're emotional little guppies, easily baited. This is why determining the best year ever for American films takes so long and is ultimately subjective.

In 1969, most critics and historians would have agreed that the year to beat was 1939. Even today, if one possesses the ability to observe film history beyond the self-imposed limitations of personal chronology, that particular year still stands out in sharp contrast. In 1939, an abundance of cinematic treasure emerged from the relentless and remorseless factory known as the studio system.

How and why did this celestial alignment occur? We are free to speculate. One could even devise a theory involving artistic oppression. In 1939, most Hollywood directors were hired help. Truffaut’s auteur theory was almost twenty years in the future, and 5,661 miles away. The studios and the omnipotent producers had first and final say concerning matters of art and commerce in Hollywood. In addition, the Motion Picture Production Code, a puritanical in-house reaction to the sublime and egregious excesses of the 1920s, was only five years old. Many writers and directors were still learning how to function under these draconian restrictions, which must have been daunting, especially for those who had witnessed the rowdy and anarchic birth of the industry. Perhaps this artistically stifling atmosphere gave the creative process something tangible to push against. Maybe the added burden of censorship engendered spontaneous regeneration. Or, maybe they all just got lucky.

In 1939, America was starting to take notice of political turmoil in Europe. Batman and Hewlett-Packard first appeared on the scene and Amelia Earhart was declared dead. CBS began tentative television broadcasts and Francis Ford Coppola was born. And even though the Great Depression was arguably waning, most Americans were still going to the movies every week to escape the daily drudgery required to make one elusive end meet another.

John Ford and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Dudley Nichols provided that escape, while noticeably elevating the stuff of Saturday matinees, with the audaciously innovative Stagecoach. A trip through Monument Valley with a handful of tarnished saints and unapologetic sinners, Stagecoach blew the dust off the American western and made it respectable. The film is now considered a blueprint for cinematic storytelling, and Orson Welles claimed to have watched it obsessively while shooting Citizen Kane. In addition, it made a movie star out of John Wayne.

With Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra delivered a surprisingly accurate parable of political corruption and cynicism, which rings just as true today ... unfortunately. Condemned as un-American upon release by the Washington press and the U.S. Congress, the Library of Congress would eventually recognize the film's significance and add it to the National Film Registry ... fifty years later. James Stewart’s famous filibuster scene propelled the lanky actor into the rarefied air of undeniable Hollywood stardom.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington | Source

The homespun allegory and art deco artistry of The Wizard of Oz impressed critics, but the film wouldn’t really find an audience until it stepped down into the cloudy cathode ray in 1956. Today, the meteorologically precipitous tale of Dorothy, the meek and small, is as beloved as any in cinema.

Leo McCarey’s unassuming Love Affair -- a precursor to the modern day chick flick -- would become a template for romantic storytellers and a touchstone for weepy viewers of both genders for years to come.

Gone With the Wind, a stunning visual achievement, won the Oscar for best picture of 1939. The film was an enormous commercial success, and is one of the most famous movies ever made. Surprisingly, its increasingly uncomfortable depiction of amicable enslavement in a romanticized “old South” continues to get a pass, or elicit a shrug – perhaps because of the technical prowess displayed on the screen.

Also released in 1939: Gunga Din, Dark Victory, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka and Young Mr. Lincoln. This was undeniably a banner year for American movies.

The stars of these films were genuine movie stars, and could claim that distinction for many years to come. James Stewart, Vivian Leigh, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Bette Davis, and, eventually, Humphrey Bogart. Even Greta Garbo, who retired after one more film, would haunt the public imagination until her death in 1990.

Easy Rider Theatrical Poster
Easy Rider Theatrical Poster | Source

A 30 year jumpcut.

If one had asked those same critics back in 1969 about the films of that year, there would have been much discord and disagreement. As it did everywhere else in those tumultuous days, chaos ruled in the land of dreams. The Production Code was dead, and the complacent old men who made and distributed Hollywood movies were struggling to compete with television and audacious independent productions, while failing to connect with an evolving movie-going public. A different type of feature film -- exploitive and raw -- was luring that audience into drive-ins and grindhouses across the country. Not surprisingly, these humble offerings, along with their upstart creators and distributors, would eventually help redefine the face of American filmmaking.

That year, one film in particular would rack these outlaw sensibilities into sharp focus in a form mainstream Hollywood could not afford to ignore – the unqualified, crowd-pleasing, popcorn selling hit. Easy Rider was not the best picture of the year, but it was the most important. The genesis, the content and the sensibilities of this flawed and miraculous production heralded an emerging new film culture with a precision even co-conspirators Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern could not have detected. And when a struggling actor/writer named Jack Nicholson stepped in at the eleventh hour to don a gold football helmet, the definition of the American movie star began to rewrite itself.

Easy Rider resonated with disenfranchised young people who were making noise about the state of the world they were inheriting, as disenfranchised young people are wont to do. These idealistic firebrands demanded social change, but more importantly, they bought tickets. So, without realizing it, they became a targeted demographic. Consequently, the revolution that never really happened, really did happen at the movies, but probably not as envisioned.

1969 was a also a good year for westerns, and three in particular rode in from different directions to pistol-whip new life into the genre made respectable by John Ford thirty years earlier. True Grit gave Stagecoach star John Wayne an eye patch and an opportunity to curse on screen for the first and last time. He rode away with an Academy Award. Paul Newman and Robert Redford deconstructed the great American anti-hero in George Roy Hill’s charmingly inaccurate portrayal of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And finally, in a brutal and operatic masterpiece, Sam Peckinpah eschewed the bloodless, cartoon violence of traditional westerns in favor of disturbingly artistic slow motion gut-shots and a profusion of arterial spray. For better or for worse, The Wild Bunch -- along with Bonnie and Clyde two years earlier -- permanently altered the face of American cinema and the gasp reflex of American audiences.

John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy was no western, but was the best picture of 1969, and it won a gold statue to prove it. A controversial and downbeat walk on the wild side, the film was rated X during its initial release. This absurd designation for a film that would barely garner an R rating today, probably did more to sell tickets to middle America than the dubious box-office draw of newcomers Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman … or the heartbreaking humanity of Waldo Salt’s screen adaptation.

1969 also saw the screen debut of Al Pacino, Jeff Bridges, Mel Brooks and Anjelica Huston. Woody Allen made his first appearance as a card-carrying multi-hyphenate with the deliriously funny Take The Money And Run. In spite of all this, very few film historians will point to 1969 as a banner year. Perhaps if two other breakthrough films -- Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate -- had been delayed a mere twenty-four months, the case could be more credibly argued.

Pick a year. Any year.

Some say 1974 was the best year for movies. 1984 and 1986 are often mentioned, as well. You’ll just have to work all that out for yourself with Mr. Google.

Even more surprising than the omission of 1969 for the distinction, is the neck-snapping speed with which 1999 was singled out as the best year ever for movies. This is actually being asserted out here in cyberspace … where everyone can hear you hyperbolize. This seems absurd, and not because of the dubious significance of many of the admittedly (and irrelevantly) popular films released that year. It is absurd because there’s no critical perspective. Even twelve years on, it’s still too soon. These things take time to gestate. In spite of what some ad campaigns may claim, there is no such thing as an instant classic. In these matters, it is imperative to understand the significant distinction between “best” and “favorite,” and to employ the cheese and wine aging analogy. Because there will always be more Stilton than Bordeaux.

Not to completely discount 1999 … The Sixth Sense is noteworthy for an extraordinarily successful gimmick, and The Blair Witch Project pretty much invented viral marketing. Sam Mendes and Paul Thomas Anderson did some impressive work. And boys didn't cry.

Yeah. Beyond that, I suggest we reconvene in 2029.


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