best film: The Rules of the Game is Renoir’s lyrical masterpiece. His camera glides in and out of the lives of an enchanting ensemble giving us the best film of the entire decade.
most underrated: Gunga Din from George Stevens influences everything in the adventure/action genre from Indiana Jones to Butch Cassidy, 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon. The sublime chemistry between the three leads here (Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is easily worthy of a top 1000 of all-time slot and the TSPDT consensus can barely fit it into the top 2000 (currently at #1877)
most overrated: Only Angels Have Wings from Howard Hawks. I love this film so it pains me to put it here. Cary Grant, Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur have rarely been better. Yet, the TSPDT consensus has it at #233 and I can’t find a spot for it in the top 500.
gem I want to spotlight: The Roaring Twenties is Raoul Walsh’s second best film (White Heat) and nobody ever talks about it. It has Walsh’s trademark brisk editing and features more than stellar performances from Cagney and Bogart.
trends and notables:
- 1939 is a behemoth of a year. It is often cited as Hollywood golden year and it is warranted- the year is easily the best of the era. For example, Stagecoach is the 3rd best film of 1939 but it’s 5th of the entire decade. Only Angels Have Wings is 10th of the year here and 40th for the entire decade on my top 100 of the 1930’s list and so on.
- Young Mr. Lincoln (one of three 1939 films for Ford) isn’t on my current top 10 of 1939. That’s unreal. It would be in or near the top 5 of any other year from the 1930’s with maybe one other exception.
- The depth is there, too 1936 also gave us 30+ archiveable films for the first time ever but we’re well into the 30’s here (36 right now) with our overall archive count and there are top 5 of the year quality films at the bottom of a top 10 and top 10 quality films that can’t find a spot at all in the top 10
- The 1940’s would not fully continue the momentum of 1939 but we also had a war breaking out and happening in much of the world.
- Victor Fleming and the auteur theory (or counter-theory) are front and center as he directs both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Credit for them isn’t the same as say Renoir directing his two masterpieces—Selznick and Cukor had a big hand in Gone With the Wind
- there are shots and sequences still relevant and referenced today from 1939. The door opening going from a black and white world to one of color in The Wizard of Oz (used in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, First Man), the crane shot here in Gone With the Wind is tied to both say Intolerance and The Lord of the Rings— Ford’s flying tracking shot in on John Wayne introducing him as the Ringo Kid has been used by Scorsese in so many films (including rushing in on Ray Liotta face in Goodfellas)
- It is a great year of archiveable debuts. Maureen O’Hara leaps off the screen in both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jamaica Inn. 1939 gives us the first archiveable film for William Holden in Golden Boy. Rita Hayworth will absolutely make you say “who is that?!?” in Only Angels Have Wings and Joan Fontaine starts her impressive career with The Women and Gunga Din. Last, but certainly not least, the great Laurence Olivier starts his storied career in Wuthering Heights. There is no apprenticeship here for Olivier- he comes out looking like one of the best actors in the world right away.
best performance male: A magnificent year of films yields a multitude of strong performances here. There is nobody better than Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind. He was dubbed “the king of Hollywood”- and it is fitting he’d lead the way in Hollywood’s great year. The Rules of the Game is more of an ensemble piece on the male actor side, and The Wizard of Oz doesn’t really have a male candidate either so after Gable you have to go with Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a very worthy #2 this year. Other good options that can’t be ignored include John Wayne in his star-making performance in Stagecoach and Cary Grant – strong in two of the best ten films of the year. I’m also going to give a mention for the great Thomas Mitchell. His 1939 is uncanny. He’s in five archiveable films in 1939—that’s amazing in itself. But, get this, he’s in four of the top ten films of the year. Now he’s not in much of Gone With the Wind and if you take him out of it, not much changes, but the other three (led by Stagecoach)—he’s invaluable to.
best performance female: It’s even harder to pick the best female performance of the year. I’ve changed my mind a few times already prior to writing but I’m going to go with Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Her performance here is deserving of its iconic status. Clearly though the biggest debate in 1939 in this category with Garland is Vivien Leigh who gives one of the best performances of the decade in Gone With the Wind. If you asked me tomorrow I may very well go with Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara over Garland—haha. In almost any other year Nora Gregor gives the best female performance of the year for her work in The Rules of the Game or even Jean Arthur– both in Mr. Smith and Only Angels Have Wings.
- The Rules of the Game
- Gone With the Wind
- The Wizard of Oz
- The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
- Smith Goes to Washington
- Gunga Din
- The Roaring Twenties
- Le Jour Se Leve
- Only Angels Have Wings
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|Babes in Arms- Berkeley||R|
|Dark Victory- Goulding||R|
|Destry Rides Again- G. Marshall||HR|
|Dodge City- Curtiz|
|Drums Along the Mohawk- Ford||R|
|Golden Boy– Mamoulian||R|
|Gone With the Wind- Fleming||MP|
|Goodbye Mr. Chips- S. Wood||HR|
|Gunga Din- Stevens||MS|
|It’s a Wonderful World- Van Dyke||R|
|Jamaica Inn– Hitchcock||R|
|Jesse James- H. King||R|
|Le Jour Se Leve- Carne||MS|
|Love Affair– McCarey||R/HR|
|Made For Each Other – Cromwell||R|
|Mr. Smith Goes To Washington- Capra||MS|
|Of Mice of Men- Milestone||R|
|Only Angels Have Wings- Hawks||HR/MS|
|Son of Frankenstein- V. Lee||R|
|The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Thorpe||R|
|The Four Feathers– Korda||HR|
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame- Dieterle||R|
|The Oklahoma Kid- Bacon||R|
|The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex- Curtiz||R|
|The Roaring Twenties- Walsh||MS|
|The Rules of the Game- Renoir||MP|
|The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum- Mizoguchi||MS|
|The Wizard of Oz- Fleming||MP|
|The Women- Cukor||R|
|They Made Me a Criminal- Berkeley||R|
|Wuthering Heights- Wyler||HR|
|Young Mr. Lincoln- Ford||HR|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
If you could single out the best year and the best decade in film, what would it be?
i hadn’t seen rules of the game before and recorded it a couple weeks ago on tcm but didn’t feel like watching but finally saw it last night. when it was done i just said wow. the characters are so interesting and the visuals are so perfect. the screenplay is masterful and the music and just every turn the story takes. just wow. i used to call every movie i saw a masterpiece or the best ever (haha) but the more i see the better i get at judging films. i don’t know if this is the best movie ever made, i still think that 2001 and maybe metropolis are better but the jaws on the floor reaction is the same i had after seeing singing in the rain for the first time.
@m. You should see M (1931), since it’s from Lang and i think it’s better than Metropolis.
The 30s were largely an artistic regression from the heights achieved by the silent film of the 1920s, but 1939 is the year sound film really comes of age as an artform. A truly special year.
aldo thank you. i’ve seen m and it is a masterpiece in my opinion. i love the aesthetic of the film how it feels like a silent film interupted occasionally by words and whistles. peter lorre is an amazing actor and this film did all this before zodiac and any other serial killer film really, it is an original. it also raises an important question, about how to treat someone like lorre who can’t help their crimes and about taking law into your own hands. i still prefer the biblical imagery and allegorys and the ultimate human camaraderie that transcends class division. also the characters freder and freder jr and the assisstant and some of the imagery (the worker’s swishing back and forth single file) is about as good as it gets. aldo, i’m just wondering, how do you feel about metropolis do you think it is a masterpiece. thank you
I am pretty sure that Metropolis is a masterpiece, a film far ahead of its time, highly influential and to think that a few years ago this movie was lost, a disgrace, imagine, most of the silent movies were lost, there could be many lost masterpieces.
@aldo have you seen rules of the game? if so what do you think of it. particularly what did you think of renoirs performance as octave. amazing
Very good page, there are so many good images this year, what is the shot of the year for you? in 1937 you mention Lang, but if you had to choose?
@Aldo- thank you. Yeah- I’m not sure 1939 has one that stands above the rest. There are so many as you said. Forced to choose? Give me the landscape in Gone With the Wind I guess.
It’s a great year for acting, so I’m not saying it should be one of the choices, what do you think of Renoir himself acting in The Rules of the Game? I really enjoyed his performance and found it to be the best in the movie.
@Graham- Renoir is great, right? I don’t have a problem if someone wants to include him with the group here among the best of the year.
I notice you have moved Stagecoach just above The Wizard of Oz. I would struggle shifting TWoZ down past #3 but I can’t exactly say it’s unreasonable either if Stagecoach is the one taking its place. Just a stacked year for movies all round.
If you do a top 10 male performances of the decade list will Gable in (Gone With The Wind,It happened one night),Chaplin in (Modern Times,City Lights) and Peter Lorre in M make the top 10?
@Anderson- I haven’t done a top 10 male performances of the decade list but at a glance I feel like all five of these performances would be on there
Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby has to be in there too.It’s certainly one of his best performances.
@Anderson- 100% agreed with you here
I watched rules of the game for the first time and I have to say that I didn’t see anything yet that made me understand why TSPDT consensus has it at 4 behind 2001, Vertigo and Citizen Kane. I enjoyed it and found it funny and entertaining and I can see why it’s important but what makes it one of the greatest films of all time? After watching 2001 for the first time I was mind blown and reading interpretations for the whole week. This I just found to be a good old movie. I’ve only seen it once but I would like to know what I’m missing in this classic film.
@James Robbins – here is an article on a group of film critics picking one film which is considered an all time classic that they do not enjoy
One critic chose The Rules of the Game and had the following to say:
“Everyone loves Jean Renoir’s ‘The Rules of the Game.’ Everyone but me. It ended up as #4 in the recent Sight & Sound poll. And over 800 critics can’t possibly be wrong, can they? TSPDT puts it even slightly higher, at #3. There are loads of quotes about it by famous directors: Bernardo Bertolucci claimed it was the best movie he’s ever seen. Truffaut said it’s ‘The bible for all true film lovers. This is the movie of movies.’ Robert Altman claimed he learned how to make film by watching it and Paul Schrader witnessed that it was ‘quick, spiritual, innovative and entertaining. For me there’s no better film.’ However all testimonies in the world can’t talk you into loving a movie you’re just not attracted to. I just can’t see what everyone else appears to see. If it’s funny, I don’t laugh. If it’s entertaining, I struggle to stay awake. When you start noticing things such as the fact that not only the women, but also the men have trimmed eyebrows, you know there’s something that doesn’t work for you. I’m not particularly proud over my disliking of this movie, considering its reputation among cinephiles. But I’ve sworn an oath to always, always be honest in my writing. So I’m putting it out there: ‘The Rules of the Game’ is a 1/5 stars movie in my world and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”
I think for every dedicated film appreciator there is at the very least, one highly decorated film that for whatever reason just doesn’t connect with them. For me, it’s Star Wars and Lord of the Rings although it may be more an aversion to Fantasy (although I actually enjoy Harry Potter). I am not saying they are not extremely well made, they just don’t do it for me but at the same time I would not argue for a second against their merit as films.
I agree with you there about having some films not quite connect with you and I feel that way about several classic films (Pulp fiction is one for me but I still understand it’s significance and what makes it great). Rules of the game I feel like I just don’t even see anything besides maybe some impressive camera work for 1939 that gives it artistic merit.
Haha, well I wouldn’t quite rate it 1/5 but I’m glad to see im not the only one who doesn’t understand it’s greatness
@James Trapp- thanks for sharing this- I had not seen this and this is a fascinating read
Have you ever thought of including Margaret Hamilton for The Wizard of Oz? I know is one of the best years for female performances, but I still think that she is simply wonderful?
@RujK- Good note here- I like this. Thanks.
Isn’t Jean Gabin in Le Jour Se Leve worthy of a mention?
@M*A*S*H- I do not have him on the page- but certainly will take a look upon next revisit and update if warranted