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The 11 Greatest Years In American Cinema History

25 May 2014 | Features, Other Lists | by Alex Moore

greatest movie years

Although debatable, many attribute the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s controversial Birth of the Nation as the birth of American cinema (at least the first Hollywood film). This means we will soon be celebrating the centennial of the biggest industry in film.

In the hundred years that Hollywood has been making films, certain years have stood out in terms of significance. Whether it were the amount of box office successes, critically acclaimed films, or films that went on to become greatly influential, some years just clicked for Hollywood. It is hard to truly judge the greatness of certain years until later reflection which is why none of the years on this list are from the 21st century.


11. 1941


The (mostly) uncontested greatest film of all time Citizen Kane wasn’t the only landmark film to be released this year. Also released were the (mostly) uncontested greatest film noir The Maltese Falcon, the highly influential satire Sullivan’s Travels, and the film that will forever define “mise-en-scene”, best picture winner How Green was my Valley.

Other classics from that year include Hitchcock’s Suspicion, Disney’s Dumbo, the southern drama The Little Foxes, the beloved screwball comedy The Lady Eve, and one of the highest grossing films when adjusted for inflation, Sergeant York.


10. 1975


The blockbuster was born in the middle of the decade that reinvigorated Hollywood with Jaws. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became only the second film to win all five major Academy Awards. The long running social phenomenon and penultimate midnight movie Rocky Horror Picture Show was released to limited fanfare (with the exception of Los Angeles where it sold out every night). Speaking of transsexuals, Dog Day Afternoon cemented Pacino as the best actor of his generation (and perhaps ever),

Altman released his ensemble masterpiece Nashville, Kubrick gave us a visual feast with Barry Lyndon, and Peter Sellers’ career shot back into orbit with the franchise reboot Return of the Pink Panther. Other notable films include Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, The Who’s pinball musical “Tommy”, and Three Days of the Condor.


9. 1959


No year captured the essence of the 50’s (known mostly for it’s wide variety) than the one that brought us the Epic of epics Ben-Hur. Censorship boundaries were pushed with the crossdressing classic comedy Some Like it Hot and the tense courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder. We’ll never forget the crop duster chase scene in North by Northwest and would’ve never gotten Psycho if it weren’t for the success of the creepy horror classic House on Haunted Hill (it is well documented that Hitchcock was inspired to make his own low budget horror film after seeing it).

Other notable films include the original beach party film Gidget, the first of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson screwball comedies Pillow Talk, the best worst movie (before “Troll 2”) Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, the highly influential John Wayne western Rio Bravo, and John Cassavetes game changing directorial debut Shadows.


8. 1969

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Perhaps more astonishing than a man walking on the moon is that four films from this year appeared on AFI’s top 100 American films list (both iterations). They are John Schlesinger’s gigolo masterpiece Midnight Cowboy, the action marvel Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Peckinpah’s brooding epic western The Wild Bunch, and the iconic counterculture film Easy Rider.

Other influential films released this year include the dance-marathon flick They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the politically charged verite style Medium Cool, the original stuck in space spectacle Marooned, the original True Grit, and the Gordon Parks’ drama The Learning Tree.


7. 1933


The final year of the pre-code era gave us the most iconic scene in Hollywood history with King Kong. It also gave us the most beloved Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup, the Laurel and Hardy classic Son’s of the Desert, the creepy James Whale classic The Invisible Man, and two of the most influential movie musicals of all time 42nd Street and Footlight Parade.

We also heard the famous “I always did like a man in uniform…Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” uttered in She Done Him Wrong, and Jean Harlow proved a woman didn’t need a male co-star to be a box office draw with her hits, Bombshell and Dinner at Eight.



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  • James Wright

    2000 was the last year of the millenium

  • Bill

    2013 – 12 Years A Slave, Gravity (That’s enough right there) Her, Before Midnight, Inside Llewyn Davis, and just a consistent lot of others

    • Paesito “Martin Paez” Paez

      And artsy films like Only God Forgives, Under the skin and Spring Breakers

  • Vlad

    clockwork orange was also british..

  • bob

    Wtf? What about 1978? Halloween, Texas chainsaw massacre, dawn of the dead

    • Matthew

      TCM was 1974 Bud

    • granados1111

      Days of Heaven and The Deer Hunter!

  • Deb Enderle

    1964 was a great year in films: Dr. Strangelove, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Zorba the Greek, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Topkapi, Becket, Goldfinger, Night of the Iguana, The Pink Panther, AND A Hard Day’s Night!

  • debora

    in 1999 there was girl, interrupted too

  • Ted Wolf

    I’m so glad you positioned 1939 as the final slot. what a fantastic year for hollywood cinema.

  • Allan Bani

    1931 is imo a great year with horror movies like Dracula, Dr. Jekyll og Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein, but it also gave one of the best Chaplin movies in City Lights. Gangster moves became popular with Scarface and The Public enemy. Marx Brothers had Monkey Business prior to Duck Soup.

  • Miguel Valdez-Lopez

    “Mis en scene”, “Peter Sellars”, “1999 the last year of the millenium”. Some spell-and-fact checking are needed for this article.
    Also, some of these movies aren’t even American. They’re British.

  • Leigh Webb

    The Iron Giant also came out in 1999

  • Blaine Harris

    1980 should be their too Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back,Raging Bull. The Shinning. The Elephant man and Airplane

    • The “shinning”… like from The Simpsons Tree House of Horror?

  • eagleye

    2007: Grindhouse, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, and American Gangster. These alone would justify a solid year.

  • Jonathan Elfving

    The Holy Grail came out in 1975! How dare you not mention it? This is gosh darned outrage!

    • John W. Thackery

      Because it’s a British film and this is an article about American cinema

  • Owen Gagliardo

    1976- Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men, Rocky, Carrie, Marathon Man

    • Jasmin Jandric

      Sir, you read my mind! With the exception of Rocky..

  • Ari

    2011 – The Tree of Life, Melancholia, The Turin Horse, Drive, A Separation, Shame, etc.

    • chrosTV

      Are you kidding? For me it’s like the worst year for movies of the whole 21st century thus far

  • Brian Lussier

    Temple Of Doom was 1985, not ’84. And if you’re going to put ’84, where the heck is Once Upon A Time In America?! HUGE oversight!

    • John W. Thackery

      Temple of Doom came out in 1984, check again. But you’re right about OUATIA.

      • yeye

        OUATIA could be considered an italian film??

        • John W. Thackery

          It was a co-production with Italy and the US. So, it’s considered both an American and Italian film.

  • Camilo Caballero

    2007 – No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, Juno, American Gangster, Gone Baby Gone, just to name a few…

    • Tsotne Nadaraia

      atonement,ratatouille ,into the wild,zodiac ,sweeney todd ,the assassination of jesse james,28 weeks later

    • chrosTV

      Pans Labyrinth!

  • John W. Thackery

    Did they really leave out 1962?? Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Longest Day, The Music Man, Lolita, The Miracle Worker, Mutiny on the Bounty, David and Lisa, The Manchurian Candidate, Days of Wine and Roses, Cape Fear, Freud, Advise and Consent, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Sweet Bird of Youth, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, War Hunt, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, That Touch of Mink, Carnival of Souls, Pressure Point, Ride the High Country, Lonely Are the Brave, Experiment in Terror, The Interns, Period of Adjustment, The Chapman Report, All Fall Down??

    I know the article is American cinema but it was also a great year for foreign cinema as well including Divorce Italian Style, Jules and Jim, Seppuku, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Sundays and Cybele, The Trial, La Jetee, Knife in the Water, The Exterminating Angel, Last Year at Marienbad, Through a Glass Darkly, The Naked Island, Whistle Down the Wind etc.

  • skybluestoday

    1967 is an interesting transitional year, to be sure, but save for BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE GRADUATE, it is probably more memorable for the last gasps of Old Hollywood than for any kind of unified new movement. But for one very strong movie that sneaked out at the end of August: John Boorman’s POINT BLANK, which is an extremely challenging and visceral piece. The art-house movie as action movie. Most influential, despite not being quite the zeitgeist ringer as the Penn and Nichols films. (I am guessing that the OP wasn’t familiar with this one.)

  • Christian Pearson

    2010-Inception, The Book of Eli, Shutter Island, Black Swan, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, etc.

    • chrosTV

      Toy Story 3!

  • I have 2 things to say:

    1. you missed 2007

    3. you didn’t mention Amadeus in 1984.

    This is not fair, great selections nevertheless

  • Tsotne Nadaraia

    1960 – psycho ,the apartment ,spartacus,la dolce vita,the time machine,the magnificent seven,breathless,rocco and his brothers,shoot the piano player,inherit the wind,the virgin spring,purple noon,sons and lovers,eyes without a face,l’avventura,elmer gantry

  • Bryton Cherrier

    The segues in this list are shitty, but in a charming way of course.

  • fantail31

    1972-1973. The Godfather. The Exorcist, Deliverance, nuff said?
    And how could you leave Cool Hand Luke out of 1967?

  • John W. Thackery

    1979 was a great year for American cinema:

    Kramer vs. Kramer, Apocalypse Now, Norma Rae, All That Jazz, Breaking Away, Manhattan, The China Syndrome, And Justice for All, Being There, Alien, The Black Stallion, Going in Style, Time After Time, The Rose, The Jerk, The Wanderers, 10, Hair, A Little Romance, The Onion Field, The Muppet Movie, Rocky II, The Warriors, Escape from Alcatraz, North Dallas Forty, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Hardcore, Yanks etc.

    Some great foreign films from the same year: Life of Brian, Mad Max, La Cage aux Folles, Nosferatu the Vampyre, The Tin Drum, Stalker etc.

  • Ray Ricardo

    1960, 1962,1973,1976 and 2007 for god’s sake!

  • Juan Carlos Ojano

    Surprised there was no mention of 1993.

  • Pick any year from the 1970s and run with it.

    • Jackson Forest


  • 2007 was a great year and deserves a place here.

    There Will Be Blood
    No Country for Old Men
    The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
    American Gangster
    Gone Baby Gone
    Into The Wild.

    they were all great films

    • chrosTV

      And there were a lot more. Almost each year has at least 20 great films and another 50-80 good films.

  • jann1k

    1962 – Marathon Man, Taxi Driver, Network, Rocky, All the President’s Men
    1976 – as John W. Thackery already listed, HUGE year.
    1995 – Se7en, 12 Monkeys, Heat, The Usual Suspects, Casino, Die Hard With A Vengeance
    2014 – Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, Frank, Birdman, The Babadook

    • chrosTV

      Yeah, 2014 was fantastic, apart from those films you mentioned, we also had Interstellar, The Lego Movie, Mommy, Gone Girl and many more great films

  • Valerio Cordelli

    1974, The movie year!!!
    Godfather 2, Chinatown, Alice doesn’t live here anymore, Airport, The Longest Yard, Harry and Tonto, Midnight man, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, The conversation…

    • John W. Thackery

      Yes, 1974 is one of my favorite years as well. For all the ones you listed but also:

      A Woman Under the Influence,
      The Towering Inferno,
      Earthquake (not a great movie but a huge one that year),
      Murder on the Orient Express,
      Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,
      The Parallax View,
      The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,
      The Sugarland Express (Spielberg’s 1st),
      Phantom of the Paradise,
      The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,
      Benji (the 1st one is a gem and a pop culture staple),
      Death Wish (not great but another pop culture staple),
      The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (world’s 1st intro to the character)
      That’s Entertainment,
      Day for Night (from 1973 but didn’t get worldwide recognition til 1974)
      The Groove Tube

  • neiba

    Where’s 1968?

  • Jackson Forest

    You left Ed Wood out of 1994 – easily one of the best American films that year.

  • John W. Thackery

    They missed 1973! 1973 might be the best year in film ever.

    Paper Moon
    The Last Detail
    Last Tango in Paris (wide release in ’73, also in awards contention with films from ’73)
    Save the Tiger
    Cinderella Liberty
    The Way We Were
    The Paper Chase
    The Iceman Cometh
    Blume in Love
    The Hireling
    Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

    American Graffiti
    A Touch of Class

    The Exorcist
    Don’t Look Now
    The Wicker Man
    The Crazies

    Soylent Green

    Kung Fu/Action:
    Enter the Dragon
    Live and Let Die
    The Three Musketeers

    The Sting
    Mean Streets
    The Friends of Eddie Coyle
    Charley Varrick
    Coffy (Blaxploitation)

    Police Procedural/Detective:
    The Long Goodbye
    The Laughing Policeman
    Electra Glide in Blue
    The Seven-Ups
    Magnum Force
    The Offence
    Walking Tall (not a great movie, but a big hit that started a franchise)

    The Last of Sheila
    The Day of the Jackal
    The Day of the Dolphin
    Executive Action

    Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
    High Plains Drifter

    Bang the Drum Slowly
    The Last American Hero

    Jesus Christ Superstar
    O Lucky Man!
    Tom Sawyer

    Experimental/Art Films:
    The Holy Mountain
    Fantastic Planet
    Jonathan Livingston Seagull

    Robin Hood
    Charlotte’s Web
    Heavy Traffic

    The Great American Cowboy
    Let the Good Times Roll

    Foreign Cinema:
    Cries and Whispers (in awards contention with films from ’73)
    Day for Night
    Scenes from a Marriage
    The Mother and a Whore
    The Spirit and the Beehive
    Fellini’s Roma
    The Big Feast
    Turkish Delight

  • Payam Azad

    2000 is one of the best.