The Best Decades For Filmmaking 

Ann Casano
Updated June 14, 2019 2.4k votes 826 voters 15.5k views 10 items

List Rules Vote up the decades with the best movies, greatest directors, and finest innovations.

What are the best decades for movies? It’s a question for which the answer will certainly vary from generation to generation. Perhaps this list, which features some of the best movies ever, decade by decade, and cinema's top directors, will help to answer the almost unanswerable question.

Some will contend the best years for movies came in the 1990s, with the explosion and mainstream success of independent film. Others will point to the great generation of filmmakers that emerged in Hollywood in the 1970s. While some will look to the Golden Age of Hollywood in the '30s. Think technology rules the big screen? Perhaps the 2000s, the era when 3D was finally perfected, tops your list as the best cinematic decade? And let's not forget the 1960s, during which time Godard, Fellini, Kurosawa, and Kubrick did some of their best work. 

Which decade produced the most creative epochs in cinema? Which era are most of your favorite films from? What are the underrated gems of each decade? Make your voice heard and vote up which decade you think produced the best cinema.

1990s is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Best Decades For Filmmaking
Photo: Miramax Films

Remember hitting the local video store or Blockbuster in the 1990s on a Friday night? Thankfully, the days of late fees are gone, but the nostalgia will never die. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino changed the landscape of filmmaking with the box office and critical success of Pulp Fiction, proving that independent cinema could marry the best of both worlds - artistry and profits.

Also, Wes Craven launched the rebirth of the slasher film with the meta-funny, really scary Scream, which eventually turned into one of the most profitable horror franchises in cinema history. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, John Woo exploded the heroic bloodshed genre in the mid-'80s and was reveling in excessive body counts and bullet shells, Jackie Chan and Jet Li brought martial arts cinema to new heights, and Wong Kar-Wai found deep soul in neon-lit streets. 


United States: Goodfellas, Scream, The Big Lebowski, Shakespeare in Love, The Shawshank Redemption, True Romance, Fargo, Seven, Dazed and Confused, Reservoir Dogs, Schindler's List, Three Kings, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, Being John Malkovich, Titanic, Fight Club, Forrest Gump, The Sixth Sense, Braveheart, Unforgiven, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Heat, Clerks, Saving Private Ryan, Boogie Nights, The Silence of the Lambs, The Matrix, Philadelphia, Dances with Wolves, Boyz N The Hood, Thelma and Louise, Home Alone, JFK, Sense and Sensibility, Home Alone, Rushmore, The Thin Red Line, Eyes Wide Shut, The Player, Starship Troopers, Magnolia, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The English Patient, Beauty and the Beast, Malcolm X, Out of Sight

World Cinema: Trainspotting, Princess Mononoke, La Haine, All About My Mother, The City of Lost Children, Run Lola Run, Audition, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Chunking Express, Dilwale Dulhania Le JayengeOpen Your Eyes, Hard Boiled, Funny Games, Police Story 4: First Strike, Life is Beautiful, Three Colors: Red, My Best Fiend , The Full Monty, Drunken Master II, Andaz Apna Apna

UNDERRATED GEMS: Strange Days, Devil In A Blue Dress, Chaplin, Very Bad Things, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Gattaca, Beautiful Girls, Six Degrees of Separation, Election, Dark City, The Game, Go, Miller's Crossing, Office Space, A Simple Plan, Zero Effect, Jackie Brown, After Life, Fallen Angels, The Eel, Safe, Ravenous, The Crying Game, El Mariachi

TOP FILM DIRECTORS OF THE 1990s: Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Danny Boyle, Wes Craven, Wong Kar-wai, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, The Coen Brothers, David O. Russell, M. Night Shyamalan, Kevin Smith, Alexander Payne, Richard Linklater, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, John Woo, Jonathan Demme, Robert Zemeckis

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1970s is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Best Decades For Filmmaking
Photo: Paramount

Many consider the 1970s a comeback decade for cinema. Not only did the movies bring in major dollars at the box office, but young directors took artistic risks with sexuality, language, violence, and controversial subject matter. Francis Ford Coppola had one of the great runs in cinema history with two Godfather films, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now; Woody Allen struck comedic gold with Annie Hall, and gritty crime films like The French Connection and Serpico blurred the lines between good cop/bad cop. VCRs and pay channels like HBO were finding their way into American homes, ultimately changing the way we watched movies.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the literal and metaphorical hangover from the '60s manifested itself in myriad bizarre and fascinating ways, and in Hong Kong, the Shaw Brothers were pumping out countless kung fu classics, changing the way fighting and movement took place on screen. In Mexico, Alejandro Jodorowsky was living in a space not unlike the acid-drenched parallel dimension Coppola visited in Apocalypse Now. Off in Russia, Tarkovsky took advantage of state-employed Soviet film crews to make mind-bending science fiction at a cozily deliberate pace. 


United States: The Godfather, The Godfather II, Annie Hall, One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest, Cabaret, Apocalypse Now, Rocky, Chinatown, Network, Taxi Driver, American Graffiti, All the President's Men, Manhattan, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Sting, The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, Jaws, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dawn of the Dead, Kramer vs. Kramer, Dirty Harry, Grease, The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein, The Deer Hunter, Dog Day Afternoon, Halloween, Blazing Saddles, Saturday Night Fever, M*A*S*H, The French Connection, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, American Graffiti, Carrie, Serpico, Deliverance

World Cinema: StalkerDay For Night, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Sholay, Le Cercle Rouge, Enter the Dragon, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Amarcord, Solaris, Vengeance Is Mine, The Holy Mountain, Suspiria, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Anand, The Conformist, The Five Deadly Venoms, A Touch of Zen, Deewar, The Avenging Eagle, In the Realm of the Senses, The Spirit of the Beehive, A Swedish Love Story, Claire's Knee

UNDERRATED GEMS: Bad Company, The Conversation, Nashville, Duel, Days of Heaven, Barry Lyndon, Harold and Maude, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, A Woman Under the Influence, Straw Dogs, The Jerk, Five Easy Pieces, Badlands, Johnny Got His Gun, Sleuth, The Long Goodbye, Le Boucher

TOP FILM DIRECTORS OF THE 1970s: Luis Buñuel, Sidney Lumet, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Bob Fosse, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, William Friedkin, Werner Herzog, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Mel Brooks

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1980s is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Best Decades For Filmmaking
Photo: Anchor Bay

Several blockbuster franchises from prestigious directors were born in the '80s, including Indiana Jones with Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg), Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis), and Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman). A young director named John Hughes entered the zeitgeist making movies that captured what life was like for bored American teenagers. George Lucas released the second and third installments of his space saga set in a galaxy far, far away.

It was also the era of muscle-bound dudes being huge, slasher films, and a major influx of punk rock influence into the aesthetic and attitude of films. Plus all that glorious dystopian science fiction, thanks to the economic disparity of the Reagan years. 

Meanwhile, an underground scene that eventually exploded in the '90s went about slowly creating new ways of making cinema, thanks to the likes of Jim Jarmusch. In Hong Kong, John Woo released A Better Tomorrow, paving a road of double-fisted pistols, trench coats, and sunglasses that ended in The Matrix, and Jackie Chan took on-screen stunts to insane (and nearly lethal) new heights. Over in Japan, a guy you may have heard of called Hayao Miyazaki was doing marvelous things, as anime became high art.

In Europe, filmmakers struggled to define their identity in the fractured Cold War world. 


United States: Raging Bull, Robocop, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Princess Bride, Do the Right Thing, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason LivesE.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Sixteen Candles, Die Hard, Full Metal Jacket, Lethal Weapon, Caddyshack, The Terminator, A Christmas Story, Say Anything, Back to the Future, This Is Spinal Tap, Down By Law, The Big Chill, Platoon, When Harry Met Sally, Predator, Beverly Hills Cop, They Live, The Untouchables, Blade Runner, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Shining, sex, lies & videotape, Blue Velvet, Aliens, Amadeus, Raising Arizona, Ordinary People, Stand By Me, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Airplane!, Scarface, Ghostbusters, The Breakfast Club, Hannah and Her Sisters, Rain Main, Stranger Than Paradise, First Blood (Rambo), Road House

World Cinema: A Better Tomorrow, Come and See, My Neighbor Toroto, Wings of Desire, Ran, Police Story, Fitzcarraldo, City on Fire, The Decalogue, Paris Texas, Cinema Paradiso, Kiki's Delivery Service, Christiane F, Withnail and I, Akira, The Killer, Kagemusha, Au revoir les enfants, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind , The Last Metro, Fanny and Alexander, Grave of the Fireflies, Tampopo, Prison on Fire

UNDERRATED GEMS: Ladyhawke, The King of Comedy, Angel Heart, The Fabulous Baker Boys, A Fish Called Wanda, The Killing Fields, Brazil, The Thing, Once Upon A Time In America, Broadway Danny Rose, Gloria, Pennies From Heaven, Talk Radio, The Return of Godzilla, Total Recall, Repo Man

TOP FILM DIRECTORS OF THE 1980s: John Hughes, Spike Lee, James Cameron, Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, Paul Verhoeven, Hayao Miyazaki, Wim Wenders, John Woo, Robert Zemeckis, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, David Lynch, Brian De Palma, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese

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1960s is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Best Decades For Filmmaking
Photo: Criterion Collection

As the Beatles and other rock bands of the British invasion took over the American music charts, foreign arthouse films found their way across the pond. Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, and Francois Truffaut were just a few of the auteurs who made a name for themselves in America, not to mention a guy called Stanley Kubrick, who found his authorial cinematic voice in the 1960s with Spartacus, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The French New Wave, led by friends Godard and Truffaut, changed the way filmmakers made movies by eschewing studios, traditional narratives, and pretty much every other convention of filmmaking you could thing of. For Breathless, Godard made up the script as he went along, shouting lines for actors as they were filming scenes. Just a year earlier, in 1959, Truffaut blew the doors off the film world with The 400 Blows. These were films about films, movies by movie fans, and that self-awareness is directly responsible for the similar device used by Quentin Tarantino and his many acolytes. 

On top of that, the great Italians Fellini, Sergio Leone, and Michelangelo Antonioni were whipping up some marvelous dishes while, in Japan, a generation of filmmakers disillusioned by restrictions placed on post-war socialism bred a darkly comedic strain of nihilistic samurai films. Oh yeah, and James Bond kicked off in England. 


United States: The Apartment, Midnight Cowboy, Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho, The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, To Kill A Mockingbird, Cool Hand Luke, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Lolita, Night of the Living Dead, Bonnie and Clyde, Rosemary's Baby, Easy Rider, West Side Story, Mary Poppins, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Exterminating Angel, The Great Escape, The Sound of Music, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Wild Bunch, Spartacus, My Fair Lady, The Manchurian Candidate, The Guns of Navarone

World Cinema: La Dolce Vita, 8 ½, Harakiri, Blow Up, Dr. No, Persona, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Samurai Assassin, Goldfinger, Mughal-e-AzamL'AvventuraYojimbo, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Kwaidan, High & Low, Dragon Inn, Cleo from 5 to 7, Le Samouraï, Andrei Rublev, Ivan's Childhood, From Russia with Love, Daisies, Closely Watched Trains, Come Drink with Me, Repulsion, Divorce Italian Style, Double Suicide, The Bad Sleep Well, Thunderball

Godard (because he owned the '60s): Breathless, Contempt, A Woman Is a Woman, My Life to Live, Weekend, A Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le fou, Masculin Féminin, Alphaville, Two or Three Things I Know About Her

UNDERRATED GEMS: The First 25 Zatoichi films, Belle De Jour, Elmer Gantry, Ride the High Country, A Man for All Seasons, Inherit the Wind, Georgy Girl, Darling, Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini Satyricon, The Soft Skin, Red Beard, Pickpocket, Zazie Dans le Metro, ViridianaBlack God White Devil, La Collectionneuse

TOP FILM DIRECTORS OF THE 1960s: Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, Roman Polanski, John Ford, John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, John Cassavetes, William Friedkin, Sergio Leone, John Schlesinger, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone

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