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A Fine Vintage 

Just what was the best year for movies?

Back in 1989, a film fan couldn't turn around without getting smacked by an article trumpeting that it was the 50th anniversary of the greatest single year in motion picture history. After all, 1939 had produced such enduring classics as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach, to name just a smattering. Who could argue with this choice as the best 12-month period for cinema?Frankly, almost everybody. Picking a single year as representative of the apex of cinema is as daunting a task as, say, choosing a favorite Beatles tune or singling out a favorite M*A*S*H episode, and everybody's gonna have their own preference to champion. And recently, some folks in LA did just that, staging a week-long film series titled "The Greatest Year In Motion Picture History." Only their selections weren't from 1939 but from 1962, a year that gave birth to Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird and a significant number of influential foreign imports.

While it may be impossible to ascertain the single greatest year, there are certainly some years that stand out more than others. Here's a chronological look at what might be the best of the best.

1935 Cinema had only discovered its voice via "talkies" less than a decade earlier, yet it was already making itself heard loud and clear. Musicals were all the rage, with this year's charge being led by Top Hat, the best of the many Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers teamings, and by Busby Berkeley, whose ingenious choreography could be spotted in four offerings (including the Oscar-winning Gold Diggers of 1935). The year witnessed classic pictures from Alfred Hitchcock (The 39 Steps), John Ford (The Informer) and the Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera); other hits included Bride of Frankenstein, considered the best of Universal's long-running horror series, Captain Blood, with Errol Flynn establishing his swashbuckler persona, and the Clark Gable-Charles Laughton take on Mutiny on the Bounty.

1941 Forced to choose the single greatest year, I'd probably lean toward 1941, with 1950 a close second. Never mind that this unbelievable year for cinema saw the release of Citizen Kane, widely considered the greatest movie ever made -- it goes far beyond that. For starters, 1941 saw the premiere of a motion picture that in its own way would prove to be as influential as Kane: John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. Perhaps the most significant -- and popular -- of all the film noir flicks produced by Hollywood, this was also the picture that made a genuine superstar out of Humphrey Bogart (and established his screen image), and it marked Huston's directorial debut. Indeed, it was also a big year for Huston as a screenwriter, penning not only Falcon but also the excellent crime drama High Sierra (another film that aided Bogart in his climb to the top) and Howard Hawks' rousing war pic Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper (York also proved to be the only time that the Academy in its infinite wisdom would toss a Best Director nomination at Hawks, one of the greatest filmmakers American cinema has ever known). Hawks and Cooper reteamed this same year for the screwball gem Ball of Fire, co-starring Barbara Stanwyck. It was impossible to keep Stanwyck down in 1941, as she delivered a second terrific performance in another screwball classic, Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve. In other film news from "41, the incomparable Bette Davis had one of her defining roles in The Little Foxes, John Ford helmed the ambitious How Green Was My Valley, Alfred Hitchcock signed up Cary Grant for the first of four times with Suspicion, the Universal horror series continued with the superb The Wolf Man, and Walt Disney built on his winning cinematic streak with Dumbo -- and had a rare box office flop with Fantasia, a movie that grew in stature over the ensuing decades.

1950 It doesn't hurt that my favorite movie, as well as a popular choice with the American Film Institute (#16 on their all-time list) and the Academy (handing it a record-setting 14 nominations), came from this year. But beyond Joseph L. Mankiewicz's incomparable All About Eve (with Bette Davis giving the performance of her career), the year also yielded Billy Wilder's pitch-black comedy Sunset Boulevard, which would make any cineast's short list of screen immortals. This bountiful year also featured two of Spencer Tracy's best pictures -- the delightful Father of the Bride and the Tracy-Katharine Hepburn classic Adam's Rib -- as well as one of the templates for the "heist flick," John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (featuring Marilyn Monroe in an early important role). Through his own production company, Humphrey Bogart released the powerful In a Lonely Place, the sort of cynical yarn that only an independent studio would dare release today, while the maturization of the Western, evolving from giddy shoot-'em-ups into psychologically probing morality tales, began in earnest with the releases of both Winchester "73, starring James Stewart, and The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck. Marlon Brando, an actor who came to own the 50s, made his film debut in The Men, and England contributed to the merriment via the stateside release of Carol Reed's The Third Man, with Orson Welles and that renowned zither score.

1959 Where to begin? With Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, chosen by the American Film Institute as the all-time best comedy? Or Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, designated by many scribes (including me) as perhaps the best Western ever made? Or with the foreign field, which included such staples of international cinema as Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu? Lovers of large-scale epics could bask in Ben-Hur (and its record-setting 11 Oscars), Hitchcock devotees could turn toward North By Northwest, and students of unadulterated great acting could marvel at James Stewart delivering one of his best performances in Anatomy of a Murder. Even fans of fluff were included in the celebration, thanks to the presence of the quintessential Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy Pillow Talk.

1967 The Academy's five nominees for Best Picture displayed the wonderful dichotomy evident in this trend-setting -- and trend-breaking -- year. On one hand, there were the two "old school" nominees, the bloated musical extravaganza Dr. Dolittle and the annoyingly preachy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? On the other side, there were the two "new school" candidates, the galvanizing, controversial Bonnie and Clyde, which helped rewrite the rules on what was permissible on the screen (and led to the dismissal of Bosley Crowther as the New York Times film critic after his pan demonstrated he was out of sync with the current mood), and the playfully imaginative The Graduate, which not only spoke to a whole generation but also heralded a more hip direction for the entire film medium. (The winner turned out to be the fifth nominee, In the Heat of the Night, which nicely straddled the line by using funky "new school" sensibilities to tell an "old school" murder-mystery.) Other releases in this "anything goes" year included In Cold Blood, Cool Hand Luke, The Dirty Dozen, John Huston's truly bizarre Reflections In a Golden Eye (with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor) and, oh yes, the camp classic Valley of the Dolls. And although it wasn't released in the US until 1969, 1967 also saw the debut (in its Swedish homeland) of I Am Curious (Yellow), a taboo-shattering skin flick that would pave the way for a more lenient attitude toward sex in cinema.

1974 Considering many people cite the 70s as the best decade for American filmmaking, it seems only fitting that it should be represented here. A case could certainly be made for 1975 (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Jaws, Nashville), but I'd go with 1974, which, among other achievements, saw two extraordinary efforts by the decade's most acclaimed filmmaker (The Godfather Part II and The Conversation, both courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola) as well as two comic gems from a legendary funnyman (Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, thanks to the irrepressible Mel Brooks). The 70s' consummate independent filmmaker, John Cassavettes, had one of his biggest successes with A Woman Under the Influence, leading international director Federico Fellini scored big-time with Amarcord, and burgeoning critical darlings Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick earned kudos for, respectively, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Badlands. As if this wasn't enough, a young filmmaker by the name of Steven Spielberg made his big-screen debut with The Sugarland Express. And then there's Roman Polanski's undisputed masterpiece Chinatown, which would instantly elevate any year in which it appeared. For better or worse, 1974 also witnessed that most schlocky of 70s movie trends, the "disaster flick," reach its pinnacle with the one-two punch of The Towering Inferno and Earthquake.

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