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The Best Decades For Filmmaking

Updated September 23, 2021 3.5k votes 1k voters 19.3k views10 items

List RulesVote 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.

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  • 5

    1950s

    Photo: Criterion Collection

    Hollywood responded to the relieved but defeated post-war world of the 1950s by creating complex films about conflicted youth, damaged war vets, and an uncertain world and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, banal musicals, absurd historical spectacles, and heroic battle films. The disgruntled youth rebellion led by cool icons such as James Dean and Marlon Brando brought a new vision to young people around the country. American cinema also found the power of rock n' roll and in 1955 Blackboard Jungle became the first Hollywood movie to use music's hottest new trend on its soundtrack.

    Abroad, Italian Neorealism forged ahead. Ingmar Bergman was laying groundwork for the surreal imagery and esoteric metaphors Kubrick loved so much, while in Japan, Akira Kurosawa changed action cinema forever - without him you can kiss Lucas, Coppola, Spielberg, and Scorsese goodbye. Meanwhile, in France, the New Wave officially kicked off with The 400 Blows

    NOTABLE RELEASES:

    United States: The Searchers, Rear Window, An American in Paris, Sabrina, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, Night by Northwest, Rebel without a Cause, Sunset Blvd., Ben-Hur, The Searchers, Vertigo, Singing in the Rain, 12 Angry Men, High Noon, The Ten Commandments, The Wild One, The Big Heat, Dial M for Murder, Some Like It Hot, Touch of Evil, Shane, Strangers on a Train, The African Queen, From Here to Eternity, In a Lonely Place, East of Eden, The Asphalt Jungle, Giant, Shane, Limelight, A Streetcar Named Desire, Blackboard Jungle, Seven Year Itch, Gigi, A Place in the Sun

    World Cinema: Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, The Seventh Seal, The 400 Blows, Black Orpheus, Wild Strawberries, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Ugetsu, Tokyo Story, La Strada, Rififi, Gojira, The Cranes Are FlyingNights of Cabiria, The Human Condition Parts 1 & 2, I Vitelloni, The Lady Killers, Elevator to the Gallows, Stromboli, Bellissima, The Lavender Hill Mob, Gate of Hell, The Wages of Fear, The Bridge, Los Olvidados, Machine to Kill Bad People

    Akira Kurosawa: Rashomon, Scandal, Ikiru, The Idiot, Seven Samurai, Record of a Living Being, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress 

    UNDERRATED GEMS: The Night of the Hunter, Ace in the Hole, Marty, All That Heaven Allows, Johnny Guitar, D.O.A., Gunfight, Suddenly, Salt of the Earth, Ride Lonesome, The Narrow Margin

    TOP FILM DIRECTORS OF THE 1950s: Billy Wilder, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Zinnemann, Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Elia Kazan, John Huston, George Stevens, John Ford, Orson Welles

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  • 6

    1960s

    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. 

    NOTABLE RELEASES:

    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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  • 7

    2000s

    Photo: NBC Universal

    Watch a movie on your laptop, on your iPad, even on your phone. The world didn't end with Y2K, as the turn of the century made entertainment available at any time. James Cameron finally nailed the whole 3D technology thing with his billion-dollar blockbuster Avatar, war films (Blackhawk Down, In the Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker) made a comeback post 9/11 and Iraq War, and low budget, torture-filled horror (Saw franchise, Hostel) made a killing at the box office, all of which seemingly reflected the mood of the country. 

    Meanwhile, American indie directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino increasingly embraced classicist blocking and mis-en-scene with roots in the 1930s, a new generation of indie filmmakers led by the likes of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola emerged, an all-time great martial star emerged in Tony Jaa, Wong Kar-Wai found yet more romance mining Hong Kong's past and future, Danny Boyle pushed innovation in digital cinema, South Korean auteurs created new ways of being brutally violent and simultaneously hilarious, and Michael Haeneke quietly went about proving he's one of the best filmmakers in the world. 

    And, lest you forget, the Three Amigos of Mexico innovated cinematic narrative, visual language, myth-making, and the correlation between violence and pathos in such a way that the total effects of it probably won't be understood until Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu are willowy haired old men. 

    NOTABLE RELEASES:

    United States: There Will Be Blood, Inglorious Basterds, Ratatouille, Avatar, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Traffic, Memento, No Country For Old Men, Wall-E, Saw, Ocean's 11, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, Mulholland Drive, The Departed, The Hurt Locker, Juno, Almost Famous, Minority Report, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lost In Translation, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Dark Knight, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Little Miss Sunshine, Up, Million Dollar Baby, Brokeback Mountain, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Grizzly Man, Garden State, Adaptation, Requiem for a Dream, Erin Brockovich

    World Cinema: Amelie, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, SnatchAbout Elly, Slumdog Millionaire, District 9, A Prophet, 28 Days Later, In The Mood For Love, Old Boy, Spirited Away, Tell No One, The Protector, Millions, The Host, City of God, Heaven, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The White Ribbon, The Piano Teacher, Cache, Code Unknown, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Memories of Murder, Infernal Affairs, Irreversible, Dancer in the Dark, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Gomorrah, Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Hero, Mother

    Three Amigos Films: Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone, Amoresperros, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, 21 Grams, Babel, Blade 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

    UNDERRATED GEMS: Notre Music, I Heart Huckabees, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Brick, Stranger Than Fiction, Bug, Gerry, Rules of Attraction, Laurel Canyon, The Act of Killing, Lymelife, Bubble, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Chop Shop, Silent Light, The Son, Elephant, Whale Rider, The Secret of the Grain, 2046, Exiled, Triad Election

    TOP FILM DIRECTORS OF THE 2000s: Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, Ang Lee, Wes Anderson, Stephen Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Cameron Crowe, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Ron Howard, James Cameron, David Lynch, Kathryn Bigelow Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh, Alfonso Cuaron, Michael Haeneke, Wong Kar-Wai, Johnnie To

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  • 8

    1930s

    Photo: Universal Studios

    The bulk of the 1930s is often labeled The Golden Age of Hollywood. Talkies dominated the landscape, and more and more films throughout the decade were made with color. The establishment of film genres also emerged as audiences seemed to favor the rule-bound world established by a western, horror, or screwball comedy.

    The establishment of the Hayes Code in 1930 set a rigid standard of censorship of language, sex, and violence in American cinema. One of the first films to challenge the Hayes Code, Gone with the Wind, with its use of the word "damn," gained notoriety and huge box office receipts in part for defying the code. 

    Meanwhile, in France, Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne trafficked in humanism and romance, which Renoir undercut with hiw scathing social satire The Rules of the Game. In Germany, the Nazis helped redefine the language of cinema as propaganda through films like Triumph of the Will, yet at the beginning of the decade, some great films shot out of the death rattle of Weimar Expressionism. 

    NOTABLE RELEASES:

    United States: Gone with the Wind, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, Dracula, Duck Soup, City Lights, It Happened One Night, Trouble in Paradise, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Scarface, The Shame of a Nation, Modern Times, The Rules of the Game, Frankestein, Bride of Frankenstein, Bringing Up Baby, King Kong, Hell's Angels, Design for Living, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Stagecoach, All Quiet on the Western Front, Top Hat, The Thin Man, You Can't Take It With You, Animal Crackers, Young Mr. Lincoln, City Girl, Holiday, Tom Sawyer, Shanghai Express

    World Cinema: The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion, October: Ten Days That Shook the World, Earth, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, Boudu Saved from Drowning, L’age d’Or, Alexander Nevsky, The Blue Angel, M, Triumph of the Will, Vampyr, Kuhle Wampe, Olympia Parts I & II, L'Atalante, Le Million, La Chienne, Daybreak, Pepe Le Moko, ¡Que Viva Mexico!, A Day in the Country

    UNDERRATED GEMS: Freaks, The Lady Vanishes, The Only Son, Our Neighbor, Miss Yae, People on Sunday

    TOP FILM DIRECTORS OF THE 1930s: John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, Marcel Carne, Alfred Hitchcock, Victor Fleming, Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Cecil B. DeMille, George Cukor, John Cromwell, W. S. Van Dyke, Sergei Eisenstein, Leni Riefenstahl

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