The Best Movie from Every Year of the 1940s, According to Letterboxd

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The Best Movie from Every Year of the 1940s, According to Letterboxd

The 1940s was a remarkable decade for cinema, especially when it came to the American film industry. By the start of the 40s, sound in cinema had been established for the past dozen or so years, and filmmakers had gotten used to the opportunities that dialogue brought to the medium. Silent films may have been all but dead by 1940, but the talkies were thriving like never before and tended to be considerably more advanced and complex than the dialogue films of the 30s.



Some of the most acclaimed movies of all time came out in this decade, and plenty still hold up fantastically well to this day. The following movies represent some of the best of the 40s, according to users on the film-related social media site Letterboxd, and are presented below, in chronological order of release year.

10 ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940)

Letterboxd Rating: 4.3/5

Charlie Chaplin had been in the filmmaking business for decades before 1940, but proved he could still push boundaries and make something profound with The Great Dictator in 1940. It’s notable for dealing with the rise of fascism and the start of World War II, itself being made and released while the global conflict was in its early stages.

RELATED: The Best War Movies of All Time, Ranked

Chaplin portrays two characters, including a dictator of a fictional country called Tomainia, with said dictator being a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, and the fictional country representing Germany. It’s a bold film that’s as funny as it is darkly satirical and quite moving, standing as one of the legendary filmmaker’s greatest movies.

9 ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

Letterboxd Rating: 4.2/5

A movie that needs no introduction, and if anything, it’s a little surprising that Citizen Kane “merely” has a rating of 4.2/5 on Letterboxd, which is still high enough to qualify it as 1942’s best on the site. It’s a groundbreaking drama film frequently held up as an all-time great work of cinema, and certainly one of the medium’s most influential movies.

It centers on Charles Foster Kane, beginning with his death – and mysterious final words – before a series of flashbacks depict his life, which was one full of staggering highs and tragic lows. Orson Welles directed, acted in, and co-wrote the legendary movie, which undeniably stands as one of the great feature film debuts in cinema history.

8 ‘Casablanca’ (1942)

Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund looking at each other in Casablanca
Image via Warner Bros.

Letterboxd Rating: 4.3/5

Romance films don’t get much more iconic than Casablanca, a classic in every sense of the word that stands alongside The Great Dictator as a World War II movie made while the war was still being fought. It revolves around two past lovers being reunited in the Moroccan city of Casablanca who then become forced to make difficult decisions because of their circumstances and the ongoing global conflict.

It’s one of the most well-written movies of all time, filled with engaging dialogue, a large cast of memorable characters, and an iconic final scene that still packs an emotional punch more than 80 years later. Few films of this age have held up so gracefully with the passing of time, making Casablanca an absolutely essential piece of cinema from the 1940s.

7 ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - 1943

Letterboxd Rating: 4.2/5

An epic British film that’s a romance movie, war film, and dramedy all in one, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp might not be quite as popular as other acclaimed movies of the 40s, but it’s just as deserving of attention. It was made by the iconic directing duo of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, and stands as one of their very best efforts.

RELATED: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ & Other Movies Set During World War I

Much of it’s concerned with the First World War, following a soldier named General Candy (not Colonel Blimp, surprisingly), with a particular focus on his various tumultuous relationships during his life as a soldier. It’s a compelling movie that stays interesting throughout its lengthy 163-minute runtime, and remains one of the most essential classic British movies of all time.

6 ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck standing behind a door as Fred MacMurray stands in the door way in Double Indemnity
Paramount Pictures

Letterboxd Rating: 4.3/5

A film noir movie that has one of the best femme fatale characters of all time in Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity is also perhaps the most essential film within its genre. It’s about one man getting wrapped up in a plot to murder the husband of an emotionally manipulative woman, with expectedly bleak consequences that follow such a plan.

It takes characters who are tortured and/or morally dubious and follows a series of events that spiral out of control in a perfectly orchestrated fashion. It’s an ultra-satisfying work of film noir and a highlight of Billy Wilder‘s filmography (which is truly saying something, considering how many all-time classics the filmmaker made).

5 ‘Brief Encounter’ (1945)

Two people look at each other through a train window in 'Brief Encounter'

Letterboxd Rating: 4.3/5

An early Palme d’Or winner at Cannes and one of the best bittersweet romance movies of all time, Brief Encounter still hits hard emotionally decades on from release. It looks at what happens when a married woman meets another man she instantly falls for, with the two clearly loving each other, though ultimately being held apart by societal conventions of their day.

It explores the ups and downs of love, and does so in a way that was just as resonant upon release as it is when watched in modern times, all these years on. Love is a universal theme, after all, and Brief Encounter seems to understand this – and explore said theme – better than just about any movie of its era, staying powerful for what may well be a not-at-all brief eternity.

4 ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946)

Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life
Image via Paramount Pictures

Letterboxd Rating: 4.4/5

Perhaps the definitive Christmas movie and one that’s held up for numerous generations at this point, It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday classic in every conceivable way. It’s about a man realizing the value he has in life after going through some hard times, being shown the terrible things that would’ve happened in his hometown had he never existed to influence the goings-on there.

RELATED: The Best Frank Capra Movies, Ranked

It’s a warm-hearted and life-affirming movie, and is home to perhaps the greatest James Stewart performance of the actor’s long and accomplished career. It’s also a highlight within the body of work of its director, Frank Capra, who made numerous other American classics, particularly during the 1930s and 40s.

3 ‘Out of the Past’ (1947)

Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey and Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

Letterboxd Rating: 4.1/5

A film starring screen legends Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas (one of the first big roles for the latter), Out of the Past is a classic film noir/thriller movie. It’s paced fantastically and still leaves an impact long after its release, and tells an engaging story about one man who’s forced to confront dark secrets from his past; ones he’d spent years trying to bury.

It’s a tense, consistently suspenseful viewing experience, and feels overall dynamic and exciting like few other crime/thriller movies of the 1940s manage to be. For those wanting a good entry point to the world of film noir, both Out of the Past and the aforementioned Double Indemnity make for ideal introductions.

2 ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948)

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes
Image via General Film Distributors

Letterboxd Rating: 4.4/5

One of the most visually stunning movies of the 1940s would have to be The Red Shoes, which is a movie about passion, perfectionism, and obsession. It follows a ballerina who’s torn between romance and her desire to perfect her craft, which leads to a great deal of emotional distress and eventually self-destruction, as her world seems to slowly collapse around her.

It’s not a horror movie by any means (Black Swan, however, is, and explores a comparable premise), but it gets into the head of its lead character in a surprisingly effective manner. It’s a deliberately paced yet ultimately absorbing watch, and features some of the most creatively filmed sequences of its decade.

1 ‘Late Spring’ (1949)

Two women sitting, one on a chair and one on the floor
Image via Shochiku

Letterboxd Rating: 4.3/5

A Yasujirō Ozu classic that also ranks as one of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa‘s favorite movies, Late Spring is one of the most compelling family dramas of all time. It’s about a young woman who cares for her father after the death of her mother/his wife, and the way she finds satisfaction in life while others around her continually pressure her to find somebody to marry.

The times and cultural attitudes that gave Late Spring its premise may have changed, but it’s still an incredibly compelling movie from a dramatic perspective. It’s understated and moving, featuring great performances and the empathy one would expect from Ozu, who often proved surprisingly skilled at making small-scale, everyday stories feel remarkably impactful on the big screen.

NEXT: The Best Movie from Every Year of the 1950s, According to Letterboxd

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