To simplify a quite complicated enough matter I will stick to English language films in this post and provide a follow up post with foreign language picks later. Also I will restrict myself to one film per decade, starting from the 1920s.
In no instance am I suggesting that any one of these films is universally loved by every single movie aficionado, such a thing is impossible. And as will quickly become obvious, I have not picked any films lacking broad appeal. I merely mean to say that to the majority of those people to whom movies are more passion that diversion, these films are highly esteemed.
Truth be told that I'm basing these guesses (for that is what they truly are) on no research or study at all save that done unwittingly in reading about, hearing about and talking about movies for many years. What I believe distinguishes the films I have chosen is that they are all unique stories not limited by traditional story telling techniques. They are all presented with either great verve or an especially light touch or a stylish one. That is, they are each damn good movies that defy or mix genres.
More so than usual, given the subjective nature of this task, I invite your comments.
20's Sunrise (1927). The positioning and movement of the camera have been done just as good but never better. German director FW Murnau crafted a beautiful story of a young couple whose marriage is threatened by a vamp and then a storm. The silent aspect of Sunrise (it was one of the last of the silent films) is particularly critical because there are few words on the screen to interrupt Murnau's grand visual experimentation.
30's City Lights (1931). Talking pictures were well into their fourth full year when Charlie Chaplin made another silent movie. Of all the nerve! But you wouldn't want City Lights with so much as a word uttered. Pathos has never been done better. The humor is on a par with the best of his earlier comedies. It is thus simple enough to lump City Lights with those earlier films, but the ending scene alone (one of the greatest closing sequences in any film) separates it from the pack.
40's The Third Man (1949). Carol Reed made some fine films before and after but nothing to approach this masterpiece. It is one of the most visually stunning films ever made. Post war Vienna looks utterly fascinating. The story is far beyond the garden variety noir or mystery and is matched not only by the performances of stars Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles but by a wonderful, if anonymous, supporting cast.
50's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Audiences come for the bravura acting and stay for Elia Kazan's direction. Then they come back again to watch that amazing cast. Brando and Vivian Leigh give some of filmdom's most memorable performances but Kim Hunter and Karl Malden are not to be missed either. The performances and the screenplay based on the Tennessee Williams play are done justice by Kazan's expert direction.
60's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). "Print the legend." John Ford made a lot of Westerns that are among the very best of the genre. This is one of them. There is so much more here than the good guy versus bad guy showdown. The story has the heft of Ford's best films with John Wayne at his best and Lee Marvin at his most sinister. The gravitas of Jimmy Stewart is also key.
70's Mean Streets (1973). A far cry from Martin Scorcese's recent efforts. His films of the last decade or so are glossy, slick productions. Mean Streets, his initial hit, is comparatively a rough first draft. But what a first draft! It's very rawness was admired upon its debut and still is today. While it set the tone for later Scorsese efforts it can stand alone as an important gangster picture.
80's Do the Right Thing (1989). Spike Lee's fearless challenge of racism makes more recent films such as the regrettable Crash(2006) look like bed time stories. There are neither heroes nor villains and certainly no stick figures in this story of one hot summer day in Brooklyn. There are also no easy answers but an invitation to ponder some of life's complexity.
90's Fargo (1996). The Coen Brothers have gradually convinced audiences that they are among the world's premier filmmakers and Fargo was an important point in their argument. Fargo is a sad, funny, tragic, exhilarating film filled with wonderful performances. Quirky has been done to death the past couple of decades, but Fargo is quirky with purpose. Frances McDormand starring turn is to be cherished.
00's Match Point (2005). Woody Allen directed some of the great comedies of the modern era, this is not one of them. Match Point is an ultra sophisticated crime/drama/romance/thriller. There's nothing to distinguish this as an Allen film other than the fact that it is really good.
Others: The Lady Eve (1941), Battleground (1949), The Crowd (1928), A Serious Man (2009), The Last Picture Show (1971), The Getaway (1972), Raging Bull (1980), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Sunset Blvd. (1950) and The Searchers (1956).
Coming up next, foreign language films loved by film lovers.