Conventional wisdom picks 1939 as the greatest year for the Hollywood film industry. A good case also can be made for 1974, according to film studies professor Eric Wasserman in a recent "Akron Beacon Journal" article. The same article said an “Entertainment Weekly” film critic praised 1984 while others promoted films from 1977, 1994, and 1999.
But 2009 was the year that actually produced the best movies. That’s assuming box office receipts reflect popularity and popularity reflects quality—substantial caveats. Regardless, films like “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and “Blazing Saddles” (1974) have gained respect over the years for their abilities “to inform and more importantly inform American movie culture” as well as for being box office champs of their respective years.
Though “Avatar” (2009) has had only five years to influence American culture, its use of 3-D film revolutionized the production and display of movies and television. And in terms of domestic gross receipts, “Avatar” (2009) displaced “Titanic” as the all-time box office champ.
But gross receipts from movies have inflated wildly over the years. When adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the all-time champ with earnings of over $1.6 billion in 2014 dollars. “Avatar” comes in 14th on that list; “Blazing Saddles” ranks 49th according to Box Office Mojo.
Film’s cultural influence cannot be restricted to one movie from one year, however. 1939 also produced “The Wizard of Oz,” “Ninotchka,” “Stage Coach,” and “An Affair to Remember,” to name a few, while 1974 had “Chinatown,” “The Conversation,” “The Godfather: Part II,” and “Young Frankenstein.” All are memorable films, certainly, but is their influence a function of their enduring popularity? Or does it reflect film lovers' cultural nostalgia?
Looking over the years in terms of adjusted box office receipts, only 1973 and 1977 produced more than two films (three in each year) that remain on Mojo’s all-time top 200 list. 2013 had four films on that list, and 2012 had six. 2009 also had six films make the list. Besides “Avatar” they included “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Up,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” and the “Hangover.” Altogether these six films grossed over $2.4 billion, roughly $80 million more than the 2012 bunch.
What do these figures prove? Perhaps nothing. An interesting sidelight, though, is that the much-maligned “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace” ranks seventeenth on this list. The cartoonish Jar Jar Binks and the mischievous Anakin Skywalker appealed somehow to American movie audiences in 1999, an audience that has grown more ethnically diversified since then, especially when world-wide grosses are thrown into the mix. Since theater receipts represent approximately one-fourth of movie income and online streaming promises to overtake theater revenues by 2018, determining cultural influence by income alone becomes an impossible task. Certainly, it makes judging Hollywood’s best year an exercise better reserved for academics and bean counters than for film lovers.