A reader adds to a previous pick:
1994 also feature two of the greatest documentaries of the 20th Century, Crumb and Hoop Dreams (both of which were controversially omitted from the Best Documentary and Picture categories of the Oscars). It was also the year that Wong Kar-Wai broke through with Chungking Express, and Peter Jackson made waves with Heavenly Creatures. And of course, Jackie Chan released his penultimate film, Drunken Master II. Kevin Smith also made his debut with Clerks, triggering the next wave of DIY filmmakers that would produce and market films (and themselves) outside the studio system, and setting the stage for the next generation of filmmakers, comics and showrunners that would grow up with the Internet. It really was a killer year.
Another begs to differ:
1996? Ugh. I’ll never forgive that year for foisting Vince Vaughn AND Owen Wilson upon us. The greatest year for film was 1984, hands down:
Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Karate Kid, Footloose, Romancing The Stone, Splash, Purple Rain, Amadeus, The Natural, Bachelor Party, The Terminator, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Starman, The Last Starfighter, Muppets Take Manhattan, Sixteen Candles, This Is Spinal Tap, Top Secret!, The Neverending Story, Body Double, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Revenge of the Nerds, Once Upon A Time In America, Dune, Police Academy, Against All Odds, Repo Man, Night of the Comet, Toxic Avenger, Red Dawn …
Another fan of 1984:
Now, these aren’t “Oscar” caliber films by any stretch of the imagination – in fact it was an incredibly weak Academy Awards year – but the deep impact of these movies, for a generation who grew up in the ’80s at least, is almost beyond the reach of any statues or honors. Almost each one of these films was a genre defining, cinema shattering event (not to mention providing about three-fifths of all movies airing on cable between 1-6 PM on any given weekend).
Update from a reader:
Since some readers are treating the subject of the greatest year in film as My Favorite Hollywood Popcorn Flicks of My Youth, maybe it’s time for us film snobs to set the record straight.
While 1939 and 1974 have their partisans, I’d have to say film’s greatest year was 1959.
1959 saw the emergence of the French New Wave, with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. It also featured John Cassavetes’ landmark independent film Shadows, which inspired countless young filmmakers to see what they could do with a 16mm camera and a shoestring budget. It saw Robert Bresson’s classic Pickpocket and Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger, which is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the British postwar social realist films. Less often mentioned is Kon Ichikawa’s harrowing Fires on the Plain, which I consider one of the very few genuinely anti-war films ever made (most get too caught up in the machinery and the “shock and awe” of war – Exhibit A is the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene from Apocalypse Now.)
Hollywood was no slouch either, in 1959, releasing perennial favorites Some Like It Hot, Ben-Hur, and North by Northwest. It also saw the release of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, with its frank and theretofore unheard-of discussions of semen, penetration, and that famous pair of torn panties. Preminger had been fighting against the Production Code his whole career, and Anatomy of a Murder may have represented his final victory: the Code by that point was so weakened that it gave his film the green light anyway, sealing its own obsolescence.
Of course, my favorite youthful year for popcorn flicks was 1986, but that’s a totally different subject. ;-)
I’m surprised more readers haven’t posted about the ’70s. I really think it was the last legitimately great decade for American film. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some great gems since then, but the ’70s had a combination of revolutionary dramas, blockbusters, horror films, and comedies that I don’t think any decade since can match.
Take 1974: The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My favorite year might be 1975 though: Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Barry Lyndon, Return of the Pink Panther, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Dog Day Afternoon. All amazing movies that blow pretty much the decades of the ’80s, ’90s, and certainly the 2000s out of the water.