So let me say I did some exhaustive research for this. I'm a big dork, but with a library of almost a thousand movies at my disposal, I have a cataloging program so I can find them all. That made going through the years pretty easy. But considering that I have seen far less movies from the way past, and know of far less than I should, including many hidden treasures, I decided to make the cut off point 1977, the year the blockbuster broke with Star Wars. maybe at some point when I have seen more classics I revisit this, but I started there. After looking up Box Office Numbers, and awards winners, I took out '77 and '78 both for their lack of quality films, and my lack of knowledge/information. I will say this about the 70's, for the most part, with the exception of one or two movies a year, they mostly were pretty bad. Lots of decent B movies, but very few truly exceptional. I also discounted last year because I haven't seen all the movies worth seeing, it's also a bit soon to see it in the grand scheme.
One other note. I have not seen every single movie form every single year, the list of movies I haven't seen is long and varied, but mostly centers on (pre-1998) award winners and (post 2003) blockbusters. I don't really see Disney movies, and I'm not a huge horror fan. I can give you reasons, but take a wild guess if you want, it is what it is. So really I'm just looking at my version of quality, which could be anything from just general enjoyment, radical technique, quality story/visuals/acting, iconic movies, touchstones, or critical AND box office success. Just because a movie is big/hyped/played out, etc etc doesn't doesn't detract, I take all comers on the basis of what the movie is and that only, no elitism here. "Best Movies" does not mean critcally the best movies made that year, but most iconic/groundbreaking/worthwhile movies, example: Karate Kid, probably shouln't be on anyones top 10, even for that year, but is it iconic? yes. one of the best examples of 80's teen movies? yes. rewatchable? yes. So there you go.
And in looking at the year, I'm looking at average quality to grade the year.
So yeah, now I'm gonna give an overlong entry on what has been the best year for movies, enjoy! (grade, # of "quality" movies in parenthesis, best movies in no particular order)
Prelim grade on 2007: B/B-
Worst year: 1983 (10): Academy Award: Terms of Endearment, Top Grosser: Return of the Jedi
Best movies: Scarface, Zelig, Evil Dead, Koyaanisqatsi, Jedi, A Christmas Story.
That's it, Videodrome was good, and Koyaanisqatsi is excellent, but Jedi was the worst of the original trilogy, Scarface is overrated, and I haven't seen Terms of Endearment, but even if it's all it could be, it's not saving this year. Good thing I was 4 years old.
1984 (19): Academy Award: Amadeus, Top Grosser: Temple of Doom
Best Movies: Brother From Another Planet, Karate Kid, This is Spinal Tap, GhostBusters, Terminator, Amadeus, Temple of Doom.
'84 may be the golden age of hiphop, but not so much for movies. Temple of Doom is kinda lackluster, especially compared to Raiders, and the rest are pretty so-so, at least as far as overall quality goes.
1990 (10): Academy Award: Dances with Wolves, Top Grosser: Ghost
Best Movies: Edward Scissorhands, Goodfellas, Dances With Wolves, Jacob's Ladder.
Goodfellas is excellent, though almost overrated, and Edward Scissorhands is very very good, they carry this year from the basement.
1981 (9): Academy Award: Chariots of Fire, Top Grosser: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Best Movies: Raiders, Polyester, The Gods must be Crazy, Escape from NY, Time Bandits, Stripes
Seriously, I love Raiders. It carries this much.
1988 (16): Academy Award: Rain Man , Top Grosser: Rain Man
Best Movies: Akira, A Fish Called Wanda, Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beetlejuice, My Nieghbor Totoro
Some personal favorites this year, including Coming to America, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Scrooged, and Big, but Die Hard (best action movie since Raiders) goes a long way here, along with some innovation with Roger Rabbit, and the start of the golden age of Miyazaki, and the best anime of all time.
1991 (18): Academy Award: The Silence of the Lambs, Top Grosser: Terminator 2
Best Movies: Fisher King, Slacker, New Jack City, Silence of the Lambs, L.A. Story, T2, Thelma & Louise, Delicatessin
The start of the indie movement, the new era of urban movies, and one of the best thrillers ever made.
1987 (16): Academy Award: The Last Emperor, Top Grosser: Fatal Attraction
Best Movies: Broadcast News, Full Metal Jacket, Predator, Wall Street, Raising Arizona, Princess Bride, Good Morning Vietnam, Roxanne, Last Emperor
This feels like the year they finally figured the blockbuster action formula, with Predator and Robocop. Princess Bride has held up REALLY well. Untouchables is way overrated. The last great Mel Brooks movie (Spaceballs). What feels like the start of the Coens. one of the best Freddy films (3). Solid if a bit lackluster year.
1992 (21): Academy Award: Unforgiven, Top Grosser: Aladdin
Best Movies: Reservoir Dogs, Glengarry Glen Ross, Unforgiven, Last of the Mohicans, Bob Roberts, League of their Own
3 very high quality movies amongst some very very good ones.
1995 (21): Academy Award: Braveheart, Top Grosser: Toy Story
Best Movies: Heat, City of Lost Children, Seven, The Usual Suspects, Smoke, Before Sunrise
Lots of movies that I like a lot (Desperado, Crumb, Billy Madison, Dead Presidents, Strange Days, To Die For), but overall I think the quality for the year just isn't that great. While Usual Suspects was my favorite movie for a very long time, when it or Heat is your best movie of the year, it's not holding up.
1997 (21): Academy Award: Titanic, Top Grosser: Titanic
Best Movies: Gattaca, Boogie Nights, LA Confidential, When We Were Kings, Princess Mononoke, Jackie Brown, Full Monty
Lots of decent space/sci fi movies: Gattaca, Starship Troopers (don't care what you say), Contact (which lots of people hate), Men in Black, 5th Element, space was big that year, maybe everyone realized the millenium was coming soon and went "oooooh", that might have even been the year that Chris Carter's Millenium show came on and then went. Not a huge fan of LA Confidential myself, but many people are, but Jackie Brown is still QT's best movie.
1979 (10): Academy Award: Kramer vs Kramer, Top Grosser: Moonraker
Best Movies: Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, Dawn of the Dead, Manhatten, Deer Hunter, Warriors, Mad Max
The Jerk this year as well. High top quality to good movie ratio. You can tell America's in a year of discontent.
1998 (18): Academy Award: Shakespeare in Love, Top Grosser: Armageddon
Best Movies: American History X, Pi, Out of Sight, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Big Lebowski, Good Will Hunting, Saving Private Ryan
Best war movie made, some very good scripts and performances, the best comedy the Coens have made, and Out of Sight is way underrated.
2001 (28): Academy Award: A Beautiful Mind, Top Grosser: the first Harry Potter
Best Movies: Fellowship of the Rings, Wit, Spirited Away, Mulholland Drive, Amelie, A.I., Blow, Beautiful Mind, From Hell, Pootie Tang (yep. trust me)
None of the Potters make the best movies, they just aren't "great" movies, yet. Most of the other epic trilogies/series do though. This is a pretty weak crop of top movies, but underneath are some personal favorites, as well as some very good films. Emma Thompson is amazing in Wit, The Royal Tennenbaums is only okay, same with Training Day, Waking Life, Snatch, Donnie Darko (still too confusing to be great), Ali, Ghost World, etc. Good films, but not GReeeeeat films.
2002 (23): Academy Award: Chicago, Top Grosser: The Two Towers
Best Movies: Gangs of New York, Bourne Identity, Solaris, Spiderman, Dirty Pretty Things, In America, City of God, Minority Report, 8 Mile
A trio of some of the best foriegn films to be made, a well underrated film in Gangs, the second best Marvel movie (after Iron Man), and some good overall films just out of this list.
1982 (13): Academy Award: Gandhi, Top Grosser: E.T.
Best Movies: Gandhi, Tron, Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Blade Runner
A murderer's row of influential/iconic movies...uh Gandhi included I guess.
1989 (18): Academy Award: Driving Miss Daisy, Top Grosser: Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
Best Movies: My Left Foot, Do the Right Thing, Batman, Heathers, Baron Munchausen, Lean on Me, When Harry Met Sally, Harlem Nights, The Abyss, Glory, Last Crusade
Man, the year of Morgan Freeman. Heathers and Baron are awesome, Daniel Day-Lewis does and amazing job, and well that Batman now looks as quaint as the 60's era Batman did to us in the 80's.
1996 (21): Academy Award: The English Patient, Top Grosser: Independence Day
Best Movies: People vs Larry Flynt, Swingers, Trainspotting, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Lone Star, Dead Man, Ghost in the Shell, Fargo, Bottle Rocket, 12 Monkeys, Scream
This year probably should be higher. The year indie movies broke through. Owning an art house theater then would have been great, just an killer lineup of non-traditional fare.
2003 (30): Academy Award: Return of the King, Top Grosser: Return of the King
Best Movies: Lost in Translation, American Splendor, 28 Days Later, Adaptation, Supersize Me, Saved, Primer (almost violates the Donnie Darko rule), The Pianist, Return of the King, Pirates of the Caribbean, Kill Bill vol 1, Whale Rider, The Quiet American
Some very good movies not in that list: The Cooler, Elephant, The Shape of Things, 21 Grams, 25th Hour. Along with your epics: Master & Commander, Last Samurai, Seabiscuit, the 5 ending Return of the King, Pirates. Solid Year.
1985 (15): Academy Award: Out of Africa, Top Grosser: Back to the Future
Best Movies: Back to the Future, Goonies, Brazil, Better off Dead, Rambo FB pt. 2, Breakfast Club, Ran, Clue
Hard to take this year seriously, but the quintessential 80's year, much like 96 could be the quintessential 90's year. Not that many truly great movies, but the top movies are so damn iconic they're impossible to ignore.
1986 (16): Academy Award: Platoon, Top Grosser: Top Gun
Best Movies: Platoon, Three Amigos, Blue Velvet, Stand By Me, Aliens, Labrynth, Ferris Buellers Day Off, Castle in the Sky, Children of A Lesser God, Color of Money
Good movies, not great. High top movie to good ratio though.
1993 (23): Academy Award: Schindler's List, Top Grosser: Jurassic Park
Best Movies: Baraka, Nightmare Before Christmas, Menace II Society, Dave, Army of Darkness, Groundhog Day, True Romance, Schindler's List, Name of the Father, Philadelphia
Nightmare, Menace, Groundhog Day, Schindler, and my favorite trashy movie are a pretty good starting five.
2004 (26): Academy Award: Million Dollar Baby, Top Grosser: Shrek 2
Best Movies: Aviator, Incredibles, Friday Night Lights, Collateral, Eternal Sunshine, Shaun of the Dead, Before Sunset
Some quality sequels this year, Bourne, Spidey, Before Sunset. Old boy has one of the best fighting sequences made, same goes for District B13. Good stuff this year.
2006 (24): Academy Award: The Departed, Top Grosser: Pirates: Dead Man's Chest
Best Movies: Little Children, Children of Men, Departed, Half-Nelson, United 93, Idiocracy, Little Miss Sunshine, Thank You For Smoking, Paprika, The Host
Somewhere along the line (I'm thinking after the '96 indie movie explosion) movies got more sophisticated. Make this lineup in the early 90's (with the exception of Children of Men) and we're talking maybe a C+. But the intensity of United 93, the incredible perfomances in Half-Nelson, the pitch-perfect of Thank You & Idiocracy, the coldness of Little Children, the maturity of Departed, the hope in Little Miss all shine brighter because of the growing pains from years earlier.
1980 (11): Academy Award: Ordinary People, Top Grosser: Empire Strike Back
Best Movies: Raging Bull, Caddyshack, Airplane, Blues Brothers, The Shining, Empire Strikes Back, Friday the 13th, Altered States
Yeah, a pretty damn good year.
1994 (11): Academy Award: Forrest Gump, Top Grosser: The Lion King
Best Movies: The Professional, Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood, Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show, Wyatt Earp, Hudsucker Proxy
Again, possibly should be rated higher, Leon, Pulp, Shawshank, and Hudsucker could easily be in the top 5 for anybody, seriously, Hudsucker is prossibly the best overall movie the Coen's have made yet. Doesn't quite top the list because there's a huge drop off between these and other movies that year.
2000 (25): Academy Award: Gladiator, Top Grosser: M:I 2
Best Movies: Reqiuem for a Dream, Gladiator, Time Code, O Brother, Memento, Dark Days, Crouching Tiger, Amores Perros, Cast Away, Traffic, Almost Famous
Some really groundbreaking movies here (that's how Time Code slips in there) along with some truly excellent performances.
2005 (34): Academy Award: Crash, Top Grosser: HP and the Goblet of Fire
Best Movies: Syriana, Walk the Line, Good Night and Good Luck, 40 Year Old Virgin, Kung Fu Hustle, Hotel Rwanda, Mirrormask, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Brick, Hard Candy, Steamboy, Hustle & Flow
Another decade defining year, but one that is really disjointed: you've got the year the teen fights back (also including Havoc), the year of the documentary (Murderball, March of the Penguins, Grizzly Man), the year of the conscious (Clooney's works, Jarhead, Constant Gardener, Maria Full of Grace, Hotel Rwanda), the really quality indie (Conversations with Other Women, Happy Endings), or as it will be known, the year gay broke through (Capote, Brokeback). Diverse quality year. Suffers cause Crash gets top nod and lack of complete depth compared to...
1999 (29): Academy Award: American Beauty, Top Grosser: Phantom Menace
Best Movies: Sleepy Hollow, South Park: Bigger Longer Uncut, Run Lola Run, Election, Matrix, Rushmore, Office Space, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Fight Club.
This was the year of the Cerebral Mindfuck, and I LOVE Cerebral Mindfucks. While '05 is very good, better in some ways than this year, most of the movies that year are very straightforward. Cerebral Mindfucks give you pause, a reason to watch again and again, while I'm not saying that's the case with '05, time will tell if they still fit the bill, it's a little early to call on that.
Maybe I'm being biased because I went in assuming this was the best year, and it may take some time to see if 05 can challenge, but look at the bench for this group: Whiteboyz, Summer of Sam, Red Violin, Buena Vista Social Club, Bowfinger, Lock Stock, Magnolia, Ghost Dog, 6th Sense, Straight Story, Insider, Boys Don't Cry, Girl Interrupted, Thin Red Line, Blair Witch. Even the crappy movies (Varsity Blues, Go, American Pie) have some redeemable qualities. The overall meatiness of this group, the something for everyoneness, the iconicness of the movies, the chances taken made it easy to go the movies in 99. and to think, I only saw a couple of those movies in the theater, too bad I was busy being poor.
yes I lean heavily towards recent memory, but as I noted in the 06 paragraph, somewhere Hollywood took a turn where the quality of individual aspects just got that much better. Much like comparing pre and post blockbuster, I think the real story will be how the dramas hold up. We all know effects get better and better, but individual performance can be only so much enhanced by camera tricks. Filmmaking has gotten more sosphisticated, but does that make Saving Private Ryan that much better than Apocalypse Now?
top 3: 1.'99 2.'05 3.'94
total number of quality movies in the last 27 years (by my count): 536