The Top Five Films of 1941

The voting rules for the 1941 Academy Awards state that films must be “released during the calendar year of 1941 and/or first publicly exhibited (previews excluded) in the Los Angeles District before January 12, 1942.” As a result, a film like Ball of Fire, which didn’t open until January 9, 1942, can still get four nominations alongside the films actually released in 1941. So today, we look back on the year—and eleven days—of movies, and count down the five best films of 1941, with some honorable mentions at the end.

5. Ball of Fire

Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and all the crazy professors of "Ball of Fire"
Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and all the crazy professors of “Ball of Fire”

From our review: “Somewhat of a take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Ball of Fire centers on linguist Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), one of eight professors who have been holed up for years in a New York townhouse working away on their own encyclopedia. When Potts realizes his research on American slang is completely out of date, he ventures out into the world to study people on the street. In a club, he meets the perfect subject—fast-talking dancer and girlfriend of a mobster, Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). When she comes back to the townhouse to help with his research, everything is thrown into chaos, and some wildly entertaining screwball fun ensues.”

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4. The Little Foxes

Bette Davis in "The Little Foxes"
Bette Davis in “The Little Foxes”

From our review: “Each of Wyler and Davis’ collaborations let them grow as artists. Jezebel lets Davis play a spoiled brat who redeems herself in the film’s close, and has nice period atmosphere, but feels minor next to [The Letter and The Little Foxes]. The iconic opening scene of The Letter instantly eclipses Jezebel, as we see Davis viciously empty a revolver into a man. The Little Foxes feels like a culmination of these two films, a far more elegant costume drama that allows Davis to play a character who is not just unlikeable, but truly rotten.”

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3. Hellzapoppin’

One of the many madcap scenes from "Hellzapoppin'"
One of the many madcap scenes from “Hellzapoppin'”

From our review: “How does one even begin to describe a movie like Hellzapoppin’? It’s a play within a proposed movie within a movie, based on a Broadway hit—and packed from start to finish with fourth-wall breaks, inventive visual effects, and sight gags that would put Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker to shame. Oh, and it’s a musical. Or at least the play within the movie within the movie, and the movie within the movie, are musicals.”

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2. The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet in “The Maltese Falcon”

From our review: “It’s one of the earliest—if not the first—true film noir films, one that made one of the most iconic actors a full-fledged star. Its sharp script, perfect cast, and droll humor are all just icing on the cake of one of the very best films of the decade, let alone the year.” 

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Rent it on iTunesAmazon / Google Play

1. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”

Since it’s widely considered the greatest film ever made, simply calling Citizen Kane the best film of 1941 seems both obvious and an extreme understatement. At this point, what can one say about what may be the most overly dissected movie ever? Only the obvious: every element of Orson Welles’ film comes together to create a picture that feels a decade ahead of its time. From the screenplay’s nonlinear structure, to Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography, to Welles’ towering performance, Citizen Kane is one of the few movies that could come close to living up to a label as ludicrous as “the greatest film ever made.”

Buy it on Blu-ray / DVD
Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

Honorable Mentions (alphabetical)