As I was updating The Big List just now, I got to wondering what were the best movie years of all-time. In putting these lists together, of course, the big ones jump out (1939 being the most famous), but I’ve never gotten around to actually ranking the individual years. So I might as well do that now. I’ll rank the years by decade, and when I’ve finished, come up with a Top 10 Years Of All-Time list.
The rankings are determined by considering both a year’s depth (the sheer volume of good movies) and height (the greatness the movies). As always, these are limited by the films I’ve seen from each year. We’ll start in the middle, with the 1950s.
10. 1951 – The weakest of a truly great decade for film, 1951 is topped by only two movies I consider truly great (Jean Renoir’s The River and Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet), the weakest peak of any year this decade, though it does feature some solid depth, including a few films I know other people like more than I do (Dairy Of A Country Pirest, Ace In The Hole and Strangers On A Train). Other highlights include The Thing From Another World, Flying Leathernecks, An American In Paris, Alice In Wonderland and Tales Of Hoffman. Best: The River. Most Underrated: The Steel Helmet. Most Overrated: The African Queen.
9. 1956 – Four great films from this year, led by John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers, one of my favorite films, along with Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Spring, Douglas Sirk’s Written On the Wind and Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now. It’s a shallow year though, with only a few more films I’d call really good. Best: The Searchers. Most Underrated: Early Spring. Most Overrated: Giant?
8. 1950 – A good peak but this year is sorely lacking in depth. Rashomon and All About Eve are masterpieces, and Harvey, Stromboli, Winchester ’73 and In A Lonely Place are very god as well. After that are a few good but flawed films. With only 14 Movies I’ve Seen, this is my least watched year of the decade. Best: Rashomon. Most Underrated: Winchester ’73. Most Overrated: DOA.
7. 1958 – Like 1956, this year is lead by a phenomenal top four: Touch Of Evil, Vertigo, Mon Oncle and Ivan the Terrible, Part 2. But unlike that year, there’s a number of very good films backing up that great peak: The Tarnished Angels, The Hidden Fortress, Ashes And Diamonds, Some Came Running, A Night To Remember and Equinox Flower. Best: Touch Of Evil. Most Underrated: The Tarnished Angels. Most Overrated: Gigi.
6. 1955 – The most difficult year to rank, as there isn’t a single film I’d call a masterpiece, but an impressive depth of very good films. Headlined by Kiss Me Deadly, Ordet, Mr. Arkadin, All That Heaven Allows and Lola Montes, there are at least 17 films from this year I really liked (Street Of Shame, Rebel Without A Cause, Bad Day At Black Rock, The Big Combo, Smile’s Of A Summer Night, The Seven-Year Itch, It’s Always Fair Weather, etc etc) leaving out at least one wherein I’m of the minority opinion that it’s not all that good (Guys And Dolls). Best: Kiss Me Deadly. Most Underrated: Mr. Arkadin. Most Overrated: Guys And Dolls.
5. 1952 – A much better version of 1951, with two masterpieces at the top followed by a decent amount of very good films filling out spots 3-15, and even some films I may be underrating below that. Topped by one of my (and everyone’s) favorites in Singin’ In The Rain, and the film that even critics who don’t like Kurosawa concede is great, Ikiru. Several other very good films, including The Quiet Man, Limelight, Othello, Bend Of the River, On Dangerous Ground, The Life Of Oharu, The Big Sky, and Europa ’51 follow. Best: Singin’ In The Rain. Most Underrated: Limelight. Most Overrated: High Noon.
4. 1959 – The decade went out with a bang with 6 masterpieces: Hitchock’s North By Northwest, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour, Hawks’s Rio Bravo, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Preminger’s Anatomy Of A Murder. A few other great films as well, with Ozu’s Floating Weeds and Good Morning, Bresson’s Pickpocket Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and Sirk’s Imitation Of Life, which I think is a bit overrated. Unfortunately for ’59 partisans, the year just doesn’t have the depth past the top 10 that the top three years do. Best: North By Northwest. Most Underrated: Sleeping Beauty. Most Overrated: Ben-Hur.
3. 1953 – Four great non-American films headline this year, with arguably the best films by Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu), Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) and Max Ophuls (Madame de . . .) and Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday. There’s plenty of good American films as well: Samuel Fullers Pickup On South Street, John Ford’s Mogambo and films by Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Howard Hawks and Ida Lupino. 1953 also features what is possibly the scariest, most disturbing film of the 50s, if not of all-time: Ed Wood’s Glen Or Glenda. Best: Ugetsu. Most Underrated: The Band Wagon. Most Overrated: Shane.
2. 1954 – 1954 has the highest peak value of the decade with two of my favorite films: my #1 film, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and my current favorite Alfred Hitchcock film (the fifth film to hold that honor over the last 15 years) Rear Window. Not far behind are another great Mizoguchi film (Sansho The Bailiff), Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, Federico Fellini’s La Strada, Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, Anthony Mann’s The Far Country and William Wellman’s Track Of The Cat. there’s even some decent if unspectacular musicals: Brigadoon, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and A Star Is Born. Best: Seven Samurai. Most Underrated: The Barefoot Contessa. Most Overrated: Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto.
1. 1957 – The best year of the decade features the two most popular Ingmar Bergman films (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), the second best Fellini film (Nights Of Cabiria), classic films from Kurosawa (Throne Of Blood), Stanley Kubrick (Paths Of Glory), Stanley Donen (Funny Face), Alexander Mackendrick (The Sweet Smell Of Success) and Leo McCarey (An Affair To Remember). Lesser known, but nonethless amazing films from foreign directors Mikhail Kalatozov (Cranes Are Flying) and Ozu (Tokyo Twilight). There’s a pair of films from Budd Boetticher, and a pair from Billy Wilder and some fine movies by John Ford, Samuel Fuller, David Lean, Sidney Lumet, and Vincent Minnelli. All in all, I count 22 films I consider worth seeing, more than any other year, with at least a half dozen masterpieces. Best: Throne Of Blood. Most Underrated: Tokyo Twilight. Most Overrated: Bridge On The River Kwai.