i kept the idea in the back of my head and planned to do a post on it some day, and some day was catalyzed when i followed a link to some movie site that joel posted on my wall and saw some other dude's list of the best movie of each decade. i decided that my opinions were just as good as his, and here you go.
intolerance by d.w. griffith
any list of the best movies of the 1910s that i could find is made of up only three movies: birth of a nation, intolerance, and broken blossoms, all by griffith. birth of a nation, while noteworthy in establishing a lot of cinematic rules, is so infamously racist that even including it on a list can make you look like a racist. broken blossoms, while alright, is also astoundingly offensive: the protagonist is a chinese man played by a white guy who wore a rubber band around his head under his hat to pull his eyes narrow and the film's alternate title is "the yellow man and the girl." intolerance was griffith's apology for birth of a nation and, while being three hours and silent, really ain't that bad. i actually kind of enjoyed it (that we provided our own commentary throughout the film helped.)
the general by buster keaton
this was actually the hardest decade to pick from, and not for lack of options. i'm still tempted to list dreyer's the passion of joan of arc, as it could easily be considered the best silent film ever. i used to cite sunrise at the greatest of the era, which is also justifiable. and after seeing the restored version of metropolis last summer, i'm pretty much blown away by that, too.
in the end, though, there's no one better than buster.
the rules of the game by jean renoir
yes, 1939 is considered the greatest year in hollywood ever. but the last time i watched the wizard of oz, it was just, weird. and gone with the wind? miserable, depressing, and scarlet really bugged the heck out of me. the rules of the game, however, is layered and complex without being dry or convoluted. it's light and brilliant, interweaving stories of the hypocritical upper and lower classes, and even has the director (the best character in the movie) running around in a bear suit for a while. let's see scarlet o'hara do that.
fritz lang's M and the marx brothers' duck soup are also seriously great.
casablanca by michael curtiz
because it's as perfect as a movie can be, that's why (dean duncan, i refute your refutations of this movie.) only one other movie could arguably encompass everything that we love about the movies (see 1980s). the stars a beautiful and cool, the dialogue is funny, clever, and quick, the side characters are lovable, and the moments are timeless. on top of all that, the movie does the impossible: as my friend working at the local video store in high school described it, whether you're in love with someone or completely bitter towards it all, this is the perfect movie for you.
singin' in the rain by stanley donnen
sigh. really, i would put the seventh seal and seven samurai above this one if i were doing a top 10 of all time list, but i wanted to change things up and this just as good as any subtitled chess game. delightfully happy and fun, more quotable lines than anything else on this list (at least in my life), and dancing so joyous i rarely watch it without dancing along myself (natalie, i'm still sorry for that one time....) heck, there isn't a tougher audience than my sister and she loves it.
2001: a space odyssey by stanley kubrick
"if it can be thought, it can be filmed," kubrick is quoted as saying. this movie pushed down the boundaries of cinema, stepping into the infinite, so to speak, and expanding what a movie could show, convey, and be. no other movie has encapsulated all of time, humanity, and existence within itself before, and very few have even bothered to try (although i've heard very good things about tree of life, and it better come to town soon....) 2001 exists on another level from just about any other film.
runners up: lawrence of arabia and psycho, but nothing can beat 2001.
the godfather part II by francis ford coppola
one of the great debates in filmdom is the godfather part I vs part II question. either answer is acceptable: part I has marlon brando, while part II has robert de niro. in the end, part II reaches further, bookending all that happened in the first one. there are so many lines, characters, and moments (including the the whole sequence with don fanucci) that are now the stuff of cinematic legend.
along with apocalypse now, another worthy contender, mr. coppola pretty much ruled the seventies.
raiders of the lost ark by steven spielberg
yes. it is everything that we love about the movies ("movies", not "cinema" or "film") and all that they mean to america. there is the rugged hero, fighting embodied evil, chasing after adventure, vulnerable but always cool under pressure. treasure, adventure, exotic locations, car chases, fun sidekicks, mystery, danger, and even some laughs. nothing embodies america in the movies like raiders of the lost ark.
yes, my favorite movie, fanny and alexander, is here, too, but raiders is more universal.
pulp fiction by quentin tarantino
rare is it that a shift in cultural paradigms can be so clearly identified, but this changed everything. characters who were as cool as they were complex, dialogue that demanded multiple viewings to learn it all, fractured stories that were terrifyingly unexpected, music that heightened the feel of the screen, this had it all and redefined with raw power what movies could be. it created waves and ripples that are still flowing today, but nothing has been like the one that started it all.
notable: fight club, for embodying the psyche of the day (literally) and for tapping that nerve to wake up.
wall-e by andrew stanton
because irrational love defies life's programming.
we already talked about this, remember?