Back on schedule after an off-week last week, we’re continuing the countdown of the Best Movie Years of each decade. So far, we’ve done the 50s-the 90s, and now we’ll start going backwards with the 40s through the 20s. I’d do the teens as well, but I can’t remember any of most of the pre-1915 movies I’ve seen, or any titles from 1916, so clearly I’m even less competent to rank those years than later decades. As always, there’s no rigorous system involved in my rankings, I just look at the Movies I’ve Seen from each year and pick what I think is the best considering both the quality of the best films (peak value) and the quantity of good films (depth). The goal is to eventually use this to come up with a ranking of the Best Movie Years Of All-Time. Previous Best Ofs can be found on the sidebar, along with my rankings for each individual year.
10. 1942 – You know it’s a strong decade when one of my Top 5 Favorite Films can’t manage to push its year higher than tenth place. Casablanca heads this relatively weak year, along with the best of the Val Lewton films, Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People and a fine Preston Sturges comedy, The Palm Beach Story. Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons might deserve to rank higher, but I can’t watch it without becoming incredibly depressed at the way it was butchered. Other solid films from this year include Rene Clair’s I Married A Witch, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, and John Farrow’s Wake Island, one of the finest of this decades many great World War II films. Best: Casablanca. Most Overrated: Yankee Doodle Dandy. Most Underrated: I Married A Witch.
9. 1947 – It’s the lack of depth that brings this year down in the rankings. Despite a great Top Three Films in Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, Jacques Tourneur’s Out Of The Past and Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai, the fact that I’ve only seen 13 films from this year (the least of the decade) can’t help but hold it back. There are some fine noirs this year: Crossfire, Odd Man Out, T-Men, Born To Kill and even Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, in addition to the two mentioned above. And some folks think much more highly of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage than I do. Best: Black Narcissus. Most Overrated: Gentlemen’s Agreement. Most Underrated: The Lady from Shanghai, I guess.
8. 1945 – Marcel Carné’s massive masterpiece Children Of Paradise tops this year, while its polar opposite one of Akira Kurasawa’s slightest and most low-key films, The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail comes in second. Fine films from Powell & Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!), David Lean (Brief Encounter) and Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City) round out a solid, but unspectacular Top Five. This year has more depth than any of the previous ones (films like Detour, Mildred Pierce, The Southerner, The Clock and A Walk In The Sun), but its mediocre peak keeps it from moving higher. Best: Children Of Paradise. Most Overrated: The Lost Weekend. Most Underrated: The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail.
7. 1943 – A better peak than ’45, but still not an amazing one, led by my favorite Carl Theodor Dreyer film, Day Of Wrath. Powell & Pressburger turn up again (expect them to dominate the director rankings at the end of this post) with The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. There’s also Busby Berkely’s delirious (is that redundant?) musical The Gang’s All Here, Howard Hawks Air Force, a perfect example of the World War II genre, William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, Akira Kurosawa’s fine first film Sanshiro Sugata and Jaques Tourneur’s Jane Eyre adaptation I Walked With A Zombie. This year isn’t quite as deep as the previous one, but its close. Best: Day Of Wrath. Most Overrated: I can’t think of one. Most Underrated: Air Force.
6. 1946 – From here on out, the peaks are tremendous, with at least a handful of great films every year. This year is topped by Frank Capra’s noir holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life, Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life And Death, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, and John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Other fine films include: Paisan, Gilda, The Best Years Of Our Lives (which I’m in the midst of rewatching and enjoying a lot more than I did a decade ago), The Killers, and Beauty And The Beast. Best: It’s A Wonderful Life. Most Overrated: The Postman Always Rings Twice. Most Underrated: A Matter Of Life And Death (at least until Criterion puts it out).
5. 1944 – Yet another Powell & Pressburger film tops this year’s list, this time it’s the sublime A Canterbury Tale, narrowly edging Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible Part 1 for the #1 spot. Howard Hawks’s first Bogart and Bacall gem To Have And Have Not is followed by a pair of classic noirs (Laura and Double Indemnity) to round out this terrific Top 5. This year has very slight edges on ’46 in peak and depth, with its other fine films including Lifeboat, The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek, Meet Me In St. Louis, Gaslight, Henry V and Arsenic & Old Lace. Best: A Canterbury Tale. Most Overrated: Henry V. Most Underrated: A Canterbury Tale.
4. 1941 – The consensus Best Film Of All-Time leads this year, Orson Welles’s magnificently entertaining Citizen Kane (“It’s Terrific!”). It’s followed by John Huston’s foundational noir The Maltese Falcon, a pair of great Preston Sturges comedies (The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels) and a Hitchcock film I seem to like more than anyone else, Suspicion (that may have more to do with Joan Fontaine than anything specific about the film. There’s a lot of other very good films this year as well: Josef von Sternberg’s perverse classic The Shanghai Gesture, John Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley, a lesser-known but nonetheless great Howard Hawks screwball comedy (Ball Of Fire), Kenji Mizoguchi’s epic telling of a famous Japanese legend (The Loyal 47 Ronin), and solid war films from Hawks (Sergeant York) and Powell & Pressburger (49th Parallel). Best: Citizen Kane. Most Overrated: Belle Starr, The Bandit Queen (any rating is too high for it). Most Underrated: The Shanghai Gesture.
3. 1949 – This year’s peak is led by two of the best film’s of the decade: Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring. The rest of the top films don’t quite measure up to the best peaks of this decade, but this year has the second best depth of the decade, which combined with its incredible Top Two is enough to movie it into the third spot in these rankings. That depth comes from such fine films as: Stray Dog, The Set-Up, Jour de fête, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Kind Hearts And Coronets, Thieves’ Highway, A Letter To Three Wives, Battleground, The Fountainhead, Adam’s Rib, Sands Of Iwo Jima, and I Shot Jesse James. Best: The Third Man. Most Overrated: A Letter To Three Wives, but only because there are people in the world so deluded as to think it’s superior to All About Eve. Most Underrated: The Set-Up.
2. 1940 – Terrificly balanced year with an excellent peak and excellent depth. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner heads the list, followed by Disney’s Fantasia, Hitchcock’s Rebecca and a pair of perfect screwball comedies: His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. There are great films from comedy legends WC Fields (The Bank Dick) and Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), the pioneering epic fantasy The Thief Of Baghdad and a pair of John Ford films (The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes Of Wrath). Best: The Shop Around The Corner. Most Overrated: Santa fe Trail, because it’s really bad. Most Underrated: The Shop Around The Corner.
1. 1948 – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s third #1 film this decade, The Red Shoes, tops this year, followed by great films from Howard Hawks (Red River), John Ford (Fort Apache), Marcel Ophuls (Letter From An Unknown Woman), Preston Sturges (Unfaithfully Yours), and Vincente Minnelli (The Pirate). This amazing peak, possibly the best of the decade, is backed by the most depth of the decade as well (this year has the most films I’ve seen of the decade, with 24). The other very good films include: Macbeth, Rope, Portrait Of Jennie, They Live By Night, Force Of Evil, The Naked City, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Hamlet, He Walked By Night and Bicycle Thieves. It’s no coincidence that the top four years on this list are the first and last films of the decade, as World War II, of course, caused massive disruptions in film production around the globe. Best: The Red Shoes. Most Overrated: Bicycle Thieves. Most Underrated: Unfaithfully Yours.
And here’s the director countdown, everyone with at least two films in my Top Tens for each year this decade:
John Ford – 7
Michael Powell- 7 (6 with Emeric Pressburger)
Alfred Hitchcock – 7
Howard Hawks – 7
Preston Sturges – 5
Orson Welles – 5
Vincente Minnelli – 4
Akira Kurosawa – 3
Jacques Tourneur – 3
George Cukor – 3
Robert Wise – 2
Carol Reed – 2
Roberto Rossellini – 2
Frank Capra – 2
Charlie Chaplin – 2
Ernst Lubitsch – 2