Debating the Best Year in Movies — 1939 vs 1999

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I have a friend that knows more about movies than anyone I’ve ever met. We’ll send texts to each other talking about movies we’re watching or just throwing random quotes from films at each other. He sent me a message about 1999 being a great year for movies, and listed 20 of them. It was rather impressive. He had seen something online, and a few days later when I was reading Newsweek, I saw a story about the year 1999. It had nothing to do with the Prince song or Y2K fears, but this terrific year in cinema. A guy named Brian Raftery wrote a book making the case that it’s the best year for movies ever. I immediately scoffed. Not because I’m a critic and that’s our natural instinct. It’s because…nobody ever does lists or debates like this in a way I see fit.

I learned this when trying to debate an old guy I played basketball with in the ‘90s. He thought Bill Russell was the greatest NBA player of all-time because he had 11 rings. I brought up Magic, Jordan, Kareem, and Wilt all being better, despite having less rings. I brought up players that weren’t very good, that had rings because they were on a team with Michael Jordan (I’m looking at you, Poway player Jud Buechler, who has 4 rings for sitting the bench with the Bulls).  

We’re getting to a point in these debates about athletes where people are starting to understand the differences in the time someone played. Is Babe Ruth the best baseball player ever? Well, he played during an era where African-Americans weren’t in the league. Maybe if someone like Satchel Paige were pitching to him, or hell…Roger Clemens…he might only hit 20 homers a year.

Jack Johnson is considered one of the best boxers of all time (as well he should be). Yet I’m guessing if we sent Mike Tyson into a time machine, he would’ve destroyed him. Maybe even a middleweight like Sugar Ray Leonard would’ve just danced around and defeated him.

Arguing about favorite albums by a band can be problematic. I once tried to explain to a hardcore Beatles fan that he can’t pick the White album as the best one, since it’s a two album set. That’s cheating. Those two records had 30 songs. So to say it’s better than Rubber Soul, which has only 11 songs, makes no sense. Otherwise, for the best album by a band, why not just pick their 2-LP “greatest hits”?

Debating the best year in music isn’t even close. It would easily be 1967. That’s not even open for debate, when you have the debut albums of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and The Doors (and Doors second album, “Strange Days”), two Beatles albums: Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, Buffalo Springfield’s “Again,” Love’s “Forever Changes” Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow”, Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” as well as two Stones’ albums, two Beach Boys, The Who’s “Sell Out”, The Kinks, Miles, Aretha, Dylan, and so many other great records.

Yet I’m here to talk movies, not music, and 1967 wasn’t a bad year for movies either. The Summer of Love gave us these films we love: The Graduate, Doctor Dolittle, The Dirty Dozen, In the Heat of the Night, Casino Royale, You Only Live Twice, The Jungle Book, Valley of the Dolls, Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, Barefoot in the Park, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Wait Until Dark, In Cold Blood, and To Sir, With Love.

That list of films from 1967 may make you think that perhaps that might be the best year in movie history. It’s strong, but in my opinion — no.

It used to always be considered 1939. I asked my wife to guess how many movies she thought were released that year. She guessed 72, while I thought it was around 60. We were surprised to find out during that year, over 350 films were released. In 1999, there were about 500. And as I said with my Beatles album comparison — if there’s around 150 more movies released in 1999 vs 1939, shouldn’t there be a lot more great films?

In ‘39, we had The Wizard of Oz. There was Gunga Din (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), Wuthering Heights (Laurence Olivier), Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Dark Victory (Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and future president, Ronald Reagan), Only Angels Have Wings (Cary Grant), The Little Princess (Shirley Temple), Love Affair, Juarez (Paul Muni in a John Huston film), and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers cutting a rug in Stanley and Livingstone (also starring Spencer Tracy).

The best comedic screenwriter/director ever — Billy Wilder — co wrote Midnight (Don Ameche). Ameche (as a kid I only knew his work in Cocoon and Trading Places) also starred in Hollywood Cavalcade and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell.

There were classics like Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A strong argument can be made that Gone with the Wind is the most successful film ever made. (fun fact: director Victor Fleming also directed The Wizard of Oz).

Bette Davis didn’t get the part of Scarlett O’Hara, but don’t feel too bad for her. She had four other films come out in 1939 and ended up having a solid career on screen.

John Ford didn’t just give us Stagecoach that year, but Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk.

You could catch Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, or Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo.

Judy Garland fans got to see her with munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, and with a munchkin in Babes in Arms (well, Mickey Rooney wasn’t a munchkin, but he was rather short).

Matinee idol Tyrone Power played Jesse James, in the movie that made the most money that year.

Another matinee idol, and known womanizer, Errol Flynn was in like flynn in ‘39. He and Olivia de Havilland starred in Dodge City.

On a day I’m writing this, after watching Notre Dame burning down in France…I remember that that’s the year we first saw Notre Dame on screen, with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

There was humor on screen in 1939. Laurel and Hardy were in The Flying Deuces, W.C. Fields was hysterical in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, and the Marx Brothers appeared in At the Circus.

The end of the ‘30s also gave us the end of Boris Karloff. He played his last monster in The Son of Frankenstein.

There was Union Pacific, the Cecil b. De Mille film with Barbara Stanwyck.

A few other titles you might remember from 80 years ago — The Hound of the Baskervilles, Gulliver’s Travels, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Since Hitler was in the news at the time, we got Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which for a propaganda/war film, was surprisingly well made and considered a classic.

So for my money, 1939 was and still is, the greatest year in cinema. I think I already proved that with the movies above, but I’ll entertain other years.

I investigated a few other years that popped into my mind before comparing 1939 with 1999.

In my senior year of high school, every weekend I was at the movies. Either on dates, or with my friend that had a job at the movie theatre in UTC and got us in for free. During that year — 1987 — it seemed like a lot of great movies came out.

The worst title for a movie that year, but was a funny parody — Amazon Women on the Moon. There was an amazing cop buddy picture — Lethal Weapon. It changed how screenplays were written because of the details Shane Black provided. Robert Townsend financed his own movie using maxed out credit cards to give us Hollywood Shuffle. It was a charming little comedy that was the first film I recall dealing with racism within the film industry.

One of my favorite teen comedies — Some Kind of Wonderful — ranks up there with the best John Hughes films. Hughes also gave us Planes, Trains, and Automobiles that year. We found out greed was good (and cell phones could be smaller) in Wall Street. My guilty pleasure movies that year include Dirty Dancing, The Big Easy, La Bamba, Stake Out, Can’t Buy Me Love, Blind Date, and Project X.

A couple movies I didn’t care for that year, but everyone else loved: The Lost Boys and Predator.

Movies that I loved that year include: Broadcast News (you can never go wrong with Albert Brooks), The Princess Bride (arguably the best family comedy of all-time), Fatal Attraction (we’ve never looked at having an affair, or bunny rabbits, the same), Raising Arizona (arguably the Coen brothers’ funniest film), No Way Out (yes, Kevin Costner does more than just baseball movies and westerns, and what a twist), Good Morning, Vietnam (Robin Williams has done better work, but this nicely showcases his talents), Nuts (and it was nuts that Barbara Streisand didn’t get a best director nomination for this film), Full Metal Jacket (many felt it was nuts that it didn’t get nominated for best picture; it was one half of a great film and far from Kubrick’s best work). In 1999, we also didn’t get Kubrick’s best film, but his last one. But I’m not there yet.

Other good movies that year include: RoboCop, The Untouchables (it got Sean Connery his only Oscar), Spaceballs (could be the last funny film we got from Mel Brooks), Moonstruck (truth be told, that’s actually a bit overrated), The Living Daylights (we got a new James Bond with Timothy Dalton), The Last Emperor, Empire of the Sun, Tin Men, Gardens of Stone (interesting to do a Vietnam movie that takes place where soldiers are buried), Barfly, and Roxanne.

When I type all those movies in this story, it makes me wonder why Raftery is so sure 1999 is the best year, but we’ll get there. I want to look into one other year. It’s a year that cost me over $500 in an Oscar pool. That year would be 1994, and it was between me and another guy, who was running away with the Oscar picks. Nobody else was even close. The category I got wrong and he got right, is when I picked The Shawshank Redemption to win best adapted screenplay. He picked Forrest Gump, which won, giving him the win over me (the worst part is — Shawshank is the better movie).

Aside from those two great movies, 1994 gave us Quiz Show, a great film for adults dealing with the game show scandal where the network rigged “Twenty One” so the better looking contestant would win (the real guy this was based on, Charles Van Doren, died a few weeks ago).

One of the best romantic comedies ever came out that year — Four Weddings and a Funeral. After seeing that, I remembered thinking that if more rom-coms were done like this, men wouldn’t fight about being dragged to see them.

Nobody’s Fool gave us an understated performance from Paul Newman and it was nice to see Bruce Willis in a movie where he wasn’t shooting or punching.

Perhaps my favorite, later era Woody Allen film, Bullets Over Broadway came out in 1994, as well as the comedy Naked Gun 33 ⅓, The Hudsucker Proxy (not my favorite Coen picture), Little Big League (such an underrated baseball comedy).

The movie that won the best original screenplay, and is arguably one of the best movies ever made — Pulp Fiction (Bruce Willis back to punching people). It was so good, there are college classes that revolve around that movie. Film studios all started making films in that style, and filmmakers realized the narrative doesn’t have to be in order.

Tarantino wrote the screenplay for that year’s Natural Born Killers.

Nicolas Cage still did normal movies, playing a secret service agent guarding a first lady (Shirley MacLaine)  in Guarding Tess and a normal cop in It Could Happen to You.

Winona Ryder wasn’t crazy yet, and Ethan Hawke sang a Violent Femmes song in Reality Bites.

Disney gave us The Lion King (which will be coming out in a live animated form very soon).

Bruce Lee’s son Brandon died while filming The Crow.

There were three Jim Carrey movies — Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, and Ace Ventura.

Other films that year include: True Lies, Speed, Wolf (such an underrated Nicholson film), Cobb (such an underrated Tommy Lee Jones film), I.Q., Interview with the Vampire, Clear and Present Danger, The River Wild, and the overrated but well-shot and acted Ed Wood.

So, we covered 1967, 1987, and 1994 movies. Yet there’s one more year I want to tackle before jumping to 1999. It’s the year of my birth — 1969. Now, I don’t think that year had as many great films as any of the years I previously mentioned, but it was known as being a year that had groundbreaking movies that are cited for changing how the studios looked at filmmaking and doing more character studies. The movies that year include the westerns Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Undefeated, True Grit, Paint Your Wagon, and the violent The Wild Bunch. We said hello to Goodbye Columbus and Goodbye Mr. Chips. There was Cactus Flower, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Take the Money and Run, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, The Italian Job, Hello Dolly!, Alice’s Restaurant, The Sterile Cuckoo, and Easy Rider — which showed studios you could have a small budget and make a big profit (it was long considered the movie that was the most successful at that, until a small horror movie in 1999).

Other years that culture writer Brian Raftery admits were strong for film include 1977 (Star Wars, Annie Hall, Saturday Night Fever, Close Encounters) and 1985 (Back to the Future, Cocoon, The Breakfast Club, The Color Purple, Out of Africa, Prizzi’s Honor, Silverado).

Now, let’s party like it’s 1999.

One of the things that bothers me about Raftery’s list is he includes things that don’t necessarily make a movie great. For example, he cites Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, because it revived a cinematic franchise. Uh, so what. It should be about great movies that year, not how it affected the film industry.

Here’s my Top 10 list from 1999:

  1. The Sixth Sense
  2. Election
  3. Office Space
  4. The Matrix
  5. Fight Club
  6. Galaxy Quest
  7. Toy Story 2
  8. Magnolia
  9. The Cider House Rules
  10. Being John Malkovich, and an honorable mention for Woody Allen’s tender picture Sweet and Lowdown, with Sean Penn playing a jazz guitarist in the ‘30s.

Those are my favorites, but others I enjoyed that year include the Oscar winner for best picture, American Beauty, as well as four underrated comedies — Mystery Men, Blast From the Past, EDtv, and Bowfinger. That year also gave us the good films The Iron Giant, The Blair Witch Project, The Insider, Boys Don’t Cry, Stir of Echoes, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, October Sky, 200 Cigarettes, Analyze This, The Hurricane, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Go!

Looking at that list of movies does make me think it was a fine year for film. But best ever?

Perhaps for M. Night Shyamalan, who will never make a movie as good as Sixth Sense, or Mike Judge (Beavis & Butthead), whose Office Space became a cult hit and surprisingly tanked at the box office.

American Beauty is often talked about on lists of movies that have won the best picture Oscar but probably shouldn’t have.

Raftery mentions The Talented Mr. Ripley and Virgin Suicides. Those were both half of a good movie, and half of a mess.

There’s mention of Eyes Wide Shut. I liked that, but most of the people I know hated it. It’s certainly considered one of Kubrick’s lesser works.

I understand how Blair Witch made so many millions, and only cost $35,000 to make when it was filmed on handheld cameras. It was billed as a “lost footage” film, so we had shaky cameras. It kicked off the trend of films that went down these paths (in both the filming with your own camera, or presenting the picture as if it was reality). I just don’t think you can act like this is such an innovative thing and credit it to that year. This is a path that would’ve happened with younger filmmakers in attempts to save money. It’s not like the days when Robert Townsend had to max out credit cards, or a rich person like Tommy Wiseau spent his own money to make The Room.

Raftery makes the argument that American Pie and Cruel Intentions helped reboot the teen movie. I disagree.

I’ll give Fight Club and The Matrix all the credit for what they did for the film industry.

He cites Three Kings and The Limey for reinvigorating the caper genre. I found both movies to have a few great scenes, but overall, both were disappointing. And the caper genre never left us.

He claims The Best Man and The Wood showed studios that black-themed films could make money. Uh, really? I thought it was Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians last year, showing studios that audiences no longer care about the racial makeup of the protagonists, they just want good stories.

Raftery says that “multiple generations of filmmakers came along and started a counterinsurgency that would reshape the culture for years to come.”

I believe you can make a bigger argument for that happening in 1939 and 1969.

Now, I have two shirts with the phrase “I see dead people” (one of them is a Simpson’s parody picture of The Sixth Sense). And of course, everyone likes to play with the phrase “The first rule of ‘fight club’ is, don’t talk about fight club.”

My friends and I quoted the hell out of Office Space. How could you not? It was a brilliant comedy. Yet I’m guessing none of those quotes would rise to the level of the films from 1939.

That year gave us the quotes: “Let me go! I’m not fit to be Senator!” and “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” and “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies.” It gave us “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “There’s no place like home” and songs future generations still sing.

I’m also not sure whether in a debate about the best year in film, you should also bring up the turkeys. I mean, if you’re going to debate who the best hitter in baseball is, you also take into consideration how often they strike out, right? Well, 1999 struck out with these bad movies:

The Mummy, which may have made over $400 million at the box office, but was crap. The movie Wild Wild West (which Will Smith did instead of The Matrix) is Smith and Kevin Kline’s Ishtar.

There were these duds: Play it to the Bone (and I love Ron Shelton sports films), Angela’s Ashes, Inspector Gadget, Runaway Bride, End of Days (which could be Schwarzenegger’s worst film ever), Big Daddy (which is Adam Sandler’s biggest money maker, but it’s bad), Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Topsy Turvy (a stuffy period piece that’s one of the most boring films I ever sat through), The General’s Daughter (what a cast for such a turkey), Message in a Bottle, My Favorite Martian, Varsity Blues (which I thought about because of the current college admission scandal), A Walk on the Moon, The Mod Squad, The Out-of-Towners, 10 Things I Hate About You, Winslow Boy (the second most boring film I ever watched), Payback (you can’t fault Mel Gibson for taking easy paychecks doing these), Virus (the worst film of both Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland’s careers), and The Bone Collector (the worst of Denzel’s career).

I had mixed feelings about Bringing Out the Dead (Nic Cage in a Scorsese film), Mickey Blue Eyes (James Caan in a mob movie), and The Green Mile (which I liked better when it was The Shawshank Redemption).

After looking at the list of bad movies that came out that year, perhaps a better argument can be made that 1999 was one of the worst years for movies.

But kidding aside, Brian Raftery’s book “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.” is a fun read, and he interviews some filmmakers from that time. It gets people talking and debating film, which is never a bad thing.

UPDATE (4/23/19): Of all the letters, emails, and angry phone calls I got over which years others deemed to be the best, I found this email the most interesting. Someone suggested that I don’t count the flops that year, as that means nothing, and that instead I look at the lists AFI and other outlets use, as the best movies of all-time. This is what he concluded:

  •         IMDB top 122 (only checking the three years up for debate): 1939=2; 1967=0; 1987=1; 1994=5; 1999=3
  •         IMDB top 181 (threshold of 4 except for the three years of debate): 1939=2; 1957=7; 1967=1; 1975=4; 1976= 4; 1987=1; 1994=6; 1995=6; 1997=5; 1999=4; increasing threshold for 2000 and newer*; 2004=5; 2006=6; 2009=5; 2011=5; 2014=5
  •         AFI top 100 (threshold of 3): 1939=3; 1941=3; 1960=3; 1967=3; 1969=4; 1971=3; 1975=3; 1976=4; 1982=4; 1; 1994=3; 2007 is the most recent in this list

*IMDB tends to be weighted towards newer movies having higher scores

In the AFI, you can clearly see the golden age of Hollywood with 26 between 1967 and 1977. Compare to 8 for the entire 1980s and 12 for the 1990s.

AFI top years:

1969 43. MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)
1969 79. THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
1969 84. EASY RIDER (1969)
1976 52. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
1976 57. ROCKY (1976)
1976 64. NETWORK (1976)
1976 77. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
1982 24. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
1982 69. TOOTSIE (1982)
1982 91. SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)
1982 97. BLADE RUNNER (1982)


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