Ranking the Movie Decades


It’s awfully easy to compartmentalize films when watching them. It’s a mental checklist that we probably all do before we watch a movie. What genre is this? Who directed it? Who stars? When was it made? And that brings me to today’s topic- the various decades of film. Every decade has its own unique flair, and they’re all great on some level. But which decades have provided the most quality? Here’s one interpretation of how the decades can be ranked. These are presented in reverse order, from worst to best. And it goes without saying that these are clearly the subjective opinions of one man.

Note: I have excluded 1900-1929 for two reasons. First, I don’t feel particularly qualified to rank it appropriately. Second, comparing that era to other decades is apples and oranges. Those early decades were so developmental that every film made since then owes a debt. It’s simply not fair.

frodo8. The 2000s (2000-2009)
At first blush, there wasn’t a lot of massive filmmaking achievement to come out of the most recently completed decade. To be sure, films like There Will be Blood and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made quite an impression. And several great filmmakers turned out a lot of very good films. But so much of the most recent decade was bogged down in rehashing the same message of globalization. Admittedly, perspective is important and we’re only four years away from the close of the aughts or whatever that decade is called. Perhaps ten or twenty years down the line, it will look better. But for now, it takes the last spot.

ghostbusters1237. The 1980s
The 1980s were far and away the hardest decade to place. Much like the 2000s, it lacked a lot of weight at the very top- the classic, groundbreaking films that changed cinema. It would’ve been very easy to place the 1980s at the bottom of the heap for that reason alone. But what it lacks in groundbreaking cinema, it makes up with pure, unadulterated fun. Films like Back to the Future and Ghostbusters will never appear on any credible list of the best films ever made, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t love those movies. They are the totem animal for the 80s, the decade at its best. There may not be a lot of intellectual merit to screwball comedies with wacky premises, but the 80s owned that genre well enough that its other shallowness can be forgiven.

psycho-original6. The 1960s
The 1960s offered the world a few nuggets here and there. Psycho and 2001: A Space Odyssey come to mind. Several foreign filmmaking titans and film movements reached prominence during the 1960s. My personal favorite is the Czech New Wave, which is almost exclusively a 1960s product. And the American film revolution started to take root with gutsy films like The GraduateEasy Rider, and Bonnie and Clyde in the latter half of the decade. Unfortunately, the bulk of the 60s in American cinema were spent regurgitating tired Hollywood tropes in an era where people were growing impatient. There are only so many cowboy and war movies that you can make, and only so much Hayes Code that a restless generation will swallow. As with any decade, there were high points, but the 1960s lag behind on the whole. It also suffers because its two greatest benefits- foreign film and the American renaissance- are more commonly associated with other decades. Both were practiced in the 60s to some degree, but neither are owned by the 60s.

pulp_fiction_duo5. The 1990s
The list becomes difficult from here on out. The indie revolution of the 1990s was a breath of fresh air after the big budget franchises of the 80s had choked off innovation. The 90s provided a bumper crop of bright, innovative filmmakers who embraced newer approaches to the medium. Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, David Fincher, and Wes Anderson all burst onto the scene. Kevin Smith and Spike Lee gave the world their last legitimately great work. The Coen brothers graduated from quirky to transcendent. On the foreign front, directors like Krzysztof Kieslowski and film movements like Dogme 95 dotted the landscape. Cinematic stalwarts Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese created, arguably, their best films in the 1990s- Schindler’s List and Goodfellas. Ultimately, the downfall of the 90s- and the reason it’s not higher- is that Hollywood was still dominated by big budget films, a remnant of the 80s reaching its horrifying conclusion. Genres like horror lag woefully behind in the 90s, and the 90s gave us a special brand of rock bottom with craptastic films like Batman and Robin, Waterworld, and Kazaam. The highs were high- heroin high- but the lows of the 90s were too low to allow this decade to rank any higher.

casablanca-romance4. The 1940s
A significant part of the 1940s weighs the decade down. Specifically, a healthy chunk of the decade was more or less lost to cinematic jingoism during the war years and immediately following. And that makes it all the more impressive that the 1940s still found time to have a film noir heyday; provide a stage for massive icons like Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, and Gary Cooper; and feature two of the best films, bar none, ever made- Casablanca and Citizen Kane. The cherry on the sundae is the amazing animation created by Disney in the era. Fantasia alone was a tremendously important film. The 40s were also ripe with amazing, game-changing directors like Preston Sturges, John Huston, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. Another director- some guy named Alfred Hitchcock- grew to global prominence in the 1940s. Despite the jingoism, the 1940s made quite a mark on film history.

1348507284-modern-times-33. The 1930s
The 1930s saw my two favorite genres reign supreme- comedy and horror. Comic heroes like the Marx brothers and Charlie Chaplin put together some of their very best work, creating brilliant social satire with Duck SoupModern Times, and City Lights. Screwball comedies took their place at the head of the table, featuring Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, and Sons of the Desert. A whopping 19 of the AFI “100 Years… 100 Laughs” list came from the 1930s, just under 1/5th of the entire list in one decade. Although film noir wouldn’t truly hit prominence until the next decade, the seeds were planted in the 1930s thanks to Fritz Lang’s M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. More importantly, the seeds of noir came to the US because of some of the best horror films ever made- the Universal creature features, another strong point in favor of the 1930s. Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Bride of Frankenstein all brought German Expressionism to the US and gave it a wider audience. On the foreign front, in addition to Lang, France added three Jeans (Renoir, Cocteau, and Vigo), Marcel Carné, and poetic realism to a potent mix for the decade.

SeventhSeal2. The 1950s
The 1950s saw a continuation of so much of what made the 1940s great. Disney still cranked out amazing animation, all of the iconic actors were still very active, and the directors were still making high quality movies. Film noir was replaced by top shelf Westerns, and Preston Sturges was replaced by Billy Wilder. Alfred Hitchcock also took a major step forward by banging out Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Vertigo in a dizzying span of six years. Gene Kelly did his best work in the 1950s. This is all impressive stuff, but it also doesn’t separate it from the 1940s all that much… until you add art house cinema to the equation. The world may never again see the mind-blowing array of art house talent that came out of the 1950s. Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu,and François Truffaut all cut their teeth in the 1950s, either rising to prominence or cementing their genius status. The French New Wave and Italian Neo-realism were in full bloom, while the Japanese were finding exciting ways to fight American censorship in a post-World War II world. The 1950s were an amazing decade for cinema, and the decade would hold the top spot if not for…

GodfatherII1. The 1970s
If you like drama, allow me to present Apocalypse Now, Rocky, The Deer Hunter, and Network. If you like horror, the 1970s had The Exorcist, Alien, The Shining, and Jaws. If you’re into comedy, the 70s were dominated by Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, and threw in MASH and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for good measure. If you like crime, action, and/or anti-heroes, then you’re in for a special treat thanks to The Godfather (parts 1 and 2), Taxi DriverThe French Connection, and the Dirty Harry films. Sci-fi fans revel in the birth of the Star Wars franchise and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If surrealism is your thing, Luis Buñuel made The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, while Alejandro Jodorowsky made El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Fans of musicals were treated to Cabaret and Nashville. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange deserves mention, even if it’s almost completely unclassifiable. All the while, American film was reborn thanks to a tremendous influx of talent from directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Altman, and DePalma. The entire decade boasts something for everyone, and it was all a completely revolutionary deconstruction of everything that had come before it. The sheer quality coming out of the 70s is breathtaking, almost as though the entire history of cinema had been leading up to those specific ten years. And that’s why it earns the top spot.


Filed under Movies

33 responses to “Ranking the Movie Decades

  1. Superb piece John. Must have been pretty difficult putting this together. Cannot at all argue with having the 70s in the number one slot. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend the book ‘Easy Riders Raging Bulls’ which focuses, as the title suggests, pretty heavily on that period.

    • I have read it, and glad you brought it up. Reading that is part of what led me to put the 70s at the top.

      I flip-flopped the 30s and 40s no less than 3 times. I kept going back and forth on it. They were the toughest to place. And I had to scrub out some personal bias for the 90s, which I love… but really aren’t justified ahead of the 30s and 40s.

  2. John, you are my hero!!! Vicki, my writing partner hates the films of the 70’s, and is always perturbed when I argue it’s the most important decade in cinema history. So, to be validated by another is always a great thing! The breadth of 70’s movies is astonishing. I’ve always believed that is was the decade where the directors were left to their own muse…coporate

  3. I meant to continue….Corporate interference was almost non-existent. I love the films of the 70’s, and I truly thank you for the article! Well done sir!

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it, and glad to defend the decade. I could buy other decades as the best as well- I think good arguments can be made for the 30’s-50s. But the list of 70s accomplishments just keeps going and going and going and going… After 30 years of Production Code chicanery, it was a breath of fresh air.

  4. Phil

    That’s a tough assignment to rank all of cinema. Well argued, though.

  5. SDG

    Great Idea for a post. I have to firmly agree with your top two spots for the lasting impression they both have left on the cinema in various genres. ’30s is still a bit of Blind Spot for me and ’40s are growing on me, movie by movie. I also agree with the ’80s, would be my least favourite. However, I think I have a little higher opinion on the ’00s.

  6. The guy who was babysat by the sister of the guy who played Nuclear Man in Superman IV

    About half of my top 10 comes from the 70s. Its hard to argue against that.

  7. Love this – the ’70s reign supreme. That’d definitely be my top decade, and from there… damn, who knows. I love the ’60s so much, but, like you mentioned, many of the greats in that decade became great in the ’50s. Tough stuff.

    Great work!

    • It’s been bugging me all day* that I had the 60s so low.

      *true sign you’re a horrible movie nerd- you say stuff like “It’s been bugging me all day that I should have ranked the 60s higher in my list of favorite movie decades”

  8. Very interesting round up of the History of Films! I don’t know if I would rank the 1950’s as #2 but I agree on pretty much all your ranking. It probably would have this form:
    4. 50’s

    But like you said, it’s only one man’s opinion after all.

  9. Can’t argue hard against this one. The 70’s was definitely the ultimate. I love the 80’s and 90’s since those are the movies I really grew up on but I totally get your placements. It’s crazy to think within 6 years you could get 3 brilliant Hitchcock films. I don’t think there’s anything comparable to that in the last 10 years.

  10. This is a great idea for a list. I have seen movies from each decade and I still would not know how to rate each decade. They all have things I love. I would say the decade I wish I could go back in time to see these movies would be the 70’s. Great Job

    • Thanks, Vern. You could probably whittle out each genre and the list would look completely different. A comedy list, for instance, would have to have the 30s at the top, the 70s would be… much, much lower. The 80s would get a goose, etc…

  11. Great work! It’s already been said in the comments but this must have been a real tough list to make and order!

  12. I loved reading this! You made some excellent points. I never would have imagined the 1970’s as the best year for film (being partial to the 30s-50s – which you have also placed well), but you may have swayed me. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Vladdy

    I have two issues, both relatively minor (since this is an opinion-based list, after all). 1) The French New Wave started in the ’50s, but barely. 98% of all its films are from the ’60s, which also brought us Fellini’s masterpieces and all the Malle films you love. 2) You forgot the rest of the world when you rated the ’70s first. This was a great decade in American film, for sure, but it’s when all the great international filmmakers started to lose the way. Not arguing your opinions, just the occasional facts that are skewed to support your arguments, lol.

    • Ha… a few years as a media relations guy has taught me some dirty writing tricks.

      I did sort of have a hard time reconciling the poor foreign showing in the 70s. You’re absolutely right- the art house guys who boosted the 50s and 60s slowly fell by the wayside, or their work wasn’t as good, or they were regurgitating the same tricks (Bunuel not withstanding).

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  15. Love this post, and I apologize for swiping your idea for my weekly poll. I’m inclined to agree with you on the 70s being the best — many of its films hold up surprisingly well today, too. I would probably lower the 30s, but there are still so many I need to see from that decade. Can’t argue with the rest though.

  16. jackdeth72

    Hi, John:

    Very cool looking site and an excellent piece on grading the decades in films!

    Cannot disagree that the 1970s were the last great decade for films of all shape, form and stripe. A diverse canvas of more middle class, odd and quirky. As opposed to the last breaths of the old Hollywood system. And today’s films that are over budgeted Blockbusters, silly safe Rom Coms and toned down, inoffensive pablum.

    • Thanks Jack! I appreciate you coming by.

      Just the other day, I was having this conversation with someone. It seems like it’s so rare now that films take chances like they used to. “Inoffensive pablum” is an awesome way of saying it.

  17. And don’t forget. Star Wars started in the 70s

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