“The cinema has no boundary; it is a ribbon of dream.” – Orson Welles.
Originating as a mere carnival attraction in its first iteration, cinema has always held the capacity to shock and surprise with constant innovations that keep audiences coming back for more. Capturing the sheer spectacle of awe, early cinema relied on such metamorphosis as viewers quickly got bored of seeing scenes of simple motion and everyday actions, craving the imagination and stories of popular literature.
“My invention, (the motion picture camera), can be exploited… as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever,” Auguste Lumière, a pioneer of early cinema, stated, unbeknownst how truly wrong he was. Upon the invention of the movie camera, cinema was destined for commercial greatness, with the limits to its potential truly exponential since the dawn of its existence.
Such rapid technological advancements have seen cinema progress from the rudimentary flickers of the zoetrope to the gigantic spectacle of IMAX 3-D, where whole worlds can be sculpted from the power of digital animation. In its over 100-year existence, the medium has changed and adapted for better or for worse, innovating with every new decade with the help of pioneering visionaries including Georges Méliès, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick and many more.
Whilst the whole landscape of cinema has helped to sculpt its eventual form; we have picked out just one film from every decade of cinematic history that has been integral in driving the medium forwards.
The most important film from every decade of cinema history
1870s – The Horse In Motion (Eadweard Muybridge, 1878)
The very first motion picture film is a case for debate, with many recognising Arrival of a Train by the Lumière brothers as the first of its commercial kind, though just under twenty years before its release, Eadweard Muybridge would give the world The Horse in Motion.
A groundbreaking technological feat, the film was accomplished using multiple cameras and multiple images that were later stitched together in a single motion picture. Made to settle a scientific debate about whether all four of a horse’s hooves are off the ground when it is galloping, the film was able to settle the discussion by showing, only for a moment, a horse seemingly in flight.
While the film settled the debate, it also made way for the more important discovery of motion pictures.
1880s – Roundhay Garden Scene (Louis Le Prince, 1888)
Ten years after Eadweard Muybridge’s revolutionary discovery, Louis Le Prince set out to create the world’s first motion-picture film that relied on video footage instead of several images.
The oldest surviving film in existence, Roundhay Garden Scene, is a short film, minuscule in fact, at just 2.11 seconds in length showing four figures dancing erratically around a garden. Showing actual consecutive video action, the French inventor Louis Le Prince had given birth to a technological innovation that would forever change the landscape of photography and popular entertainment.
1890s – Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Louis Lumière, Auguste Lumière, 1896)
As cinema became the latest technological breakthrough, inventors and photographers clamoured to be the first to take advantage of the revolution, with French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière taking their short documentary, Arrival of a Train to several public screenings.
A short film at just 50 seconds, Arrival of a Train simply shows a steam locomotive approaching the French coastal station of La Ciotat. A single, unedited take, the film shows the train arriving at the station and passengers departing and arriving to board the train. Perhaps the most famous aspect of the film is attached to the urban legend that several audience members ran away from the screen when the film was screened as they thought a train was really about to hit them.
In reality, this was probably because the only notion of motion pictures being projected was in a Camera Obscura that showed a nearby reality from a distorted perspective.
1900s – A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
At the turn of the new century, the true potential of the cinematic medium had been realised, and filmmakers were beginning to utilise its versatility to bring revolutionary visions to life, none more so than Georges Méliès’, A Trip to the Moon.
One of the earliest and most successful examples of commercial filmmaking, the film was an international success upon its release and was extensively pirated across the world as a result. Known for its surprising length (15 minutes was a triumph at the time), its revolutionary special effects and quality production value, A Trip to the Moon would inspire countless filmmakers to develop their narrative masterpiece with no bounds to their imagination.
Following a group of astronomers who travel to the moon in a cannon-propelled capsule, explore its surface and meet a group of aliens, Georges Méliès’ film showed unprecedented ambition and technological scope way beyond its years.
1910s – Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
In the 1910s, filmmakers and audiences began to recognise that cinema no longer had to be restricted to the rudimentary simplicity of the medium’s birth, as more complicated stories started to creep into the fold.
Cabiria from Giovanni Pastrone was among the first to revolutionise the medium truly and is often considered the very first historical ‘epic’. It follows the war between Rome and Carthage and the small child caught in the middle of the feud. Joined by D.W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation that promoted several racist ideals, though undoubtedly pioneered early cinema, such films helped to create a foundation on which the rest of the decade would grow.
Stretching the limits of the medium even further was Intolerance, the follow-up to The Birth of a Nation that expanded upon the efforts of the earlier decade to bring a three-hour epic that intercuts between four different timelines. A truly impressive feat of artistry considering its historical context, Griffith’s innovative film provided a basis for filmmakers to consider theme and tone over narrative, with the film having a significant influence on the films of the equally pioneering Sergei Eisenstein.
1920s – Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Having witnessed the great innovations that came with 1910’s cinema, the following decade became defined by one of sheer experimentation, with seemingly endless limits to the possibilities of the medium after seeing such epics from the likes of D.W. Griffith and Giovanni Pastrone.
Cinema’s biggest leap forward came in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer, the very first film to be released with audible dialogue marking a significant milestone for the artform that was now open to endless possibilities. As influential as the film would later become, the industry would take many years to catch up and seize the potential of the ‘talkies’, with The Jazz Singer being merely a novelty in the 1920s, a time when silent cinema was still thriving.
Instead, whilst Nosferatu provided the very first compelling horror film in 1922, and Sergei Eisenstein helped to modernise the medium with the artistic innovations of Battleship Potemkin, it was Metropolis from Fritz Lang that would have the greatest impact on the incoming film boom. Possibly the most visionary film cinema had ever seen at this point in its lifespan, there’s a timelessness to Lang’s vision that remains inextricably tied to the art movements of the time. As a result, Metropolis is suffused with a genuine sense of experimentation and artistic greatness, embracing dynamism, current technology and frenetic creativity to become one of the most influential films of all time.
1930s – The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
Defined as a period of great technological innovation, the 1930s saw some of the most critical milestones in the industry’s history, promoting the advancements of ‘talkies’ in cinema and embracing a whole new world of technicolour. Whilst it was often technology that held back fantastical films of old from reaching their true potential, in the new decade, cinema saw a brand new creative streak.
Becoming one of the most significant films in the history of Hollywood in 1939, Gone with the Wind remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time (when adjusted for inflation) and once again refined the limits of cinema with its epic tale starring Clark Gable. Two years earlier, in 1937, Disney would also start their extraordinary rise to success with the revolutionary hand-drawn animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Though significant films of the decade, neither can compare to the meteoric success of The Wizard of Oz, a film that defined contemporary cinema by introducing technicolour to the medium. Though colour films had existed long before its release, with A Visit to the Seaside, an eight-minute colour short film predating Oz by 31 years, it was the effect that Victor Fleming’s 1939 film had on the industry that would make it a timeless classic.
Stepping into the vibrant land of Oz was a real-life illustration of Hollywood evolving from the rigidness, monochrome of the past into the colourful promise of the fantastical future.
1940s – Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
If the 1930s consolidated many of the innovations of cinema that we know and recognise today, then the 1940s built upon such changes with remarkable proficiency, as cinema became a popular art form across the world even during the Second World War from 1939 – 1945.
Ramping up production of their animated classics, Disney followed up their groundbreaking debut feature with the likes of Fantasia and Bambi, whilst Hollywood flourished with romance and the stylish beauty of film noir from Double Indemnity, Casablanca and more. Overseas, European cinema was blossoming too, with Italian neorealism taking off thanks to filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini with their innovative works, Rome, Open City and Bicycle Thieves.
Whilst each of these aforementioned films worked to well define the 1940s; none still holds as much enduring power as Citizen Kane, a film still regarded as one of the greatest of all time, that culminated each cinematic breakthrough of the time and harvested a brand new type of film. Filling its runtime with deep-focus photography, intricate overlapping dialogue, flashbacks and an unreliable narrator, director Orson Welles created an unprecedented dialogue of modern cinema.
Exploiting the resources that mid-century Hollywood had to offer, Citizen Kane offered a viewfinder into the future of cinema, with filmmakers worldwide copying the breakthroughs the masterpiece made.
1950s – Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1958)
Expecting a euphoric rise in cinema in the decade following the war, Hollywood, in reality, experienced a tumultuous time as inflation and labour unrest boosted domestic production costs, making filmmaking an expensive game.
With the advent of television in the late 1940s, Hollywood entered the new decade with serious competition from companies trying to grab the attention of audiences from the comfort of their own living rooms. Clamming for a solution, the industry turned to more naturalistic, socially conscious films that attempt to deal with real-life issues, with Stanley Kubrick making the anti-war film Paths of Glory and Sidney Lumet addressing racism with 12 Angry Men.
In addition, Hollywood tried to distance itself from its small-screen rivals by transitioning from the then-standard 1.37:1 ratio to wider formats that invited grander epics. Welcoming such lavish epics as The Robe, a film that became the first to be filmed in anamorphic widescreen, as well as The Searchers from John Ford that bookended a familiar sight of the old west with the meaningful slam.
Whilst such films certainly helped to buoy the industry through a tricky period, it was John Cassavetes’ film Shadows that would have the most impact on the industry, albeit shaking its foundations to influence the near future. Made on a shoestring budget and a 16mm camera, Cassavetes made a film totally outside of the studio system, a feat that had never been done before, making it a pioneer of the emerging New American Cinema movement. Arguably the very first indie movie, Cassavetes demonstrated that the backing of a particular studio was no longer necessary to make an award-winning film, and neither was expensive, bulky camera equipment.
1960s – Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
A decade of fun, fashion, rock ‘n’ roll and dramatic social change, cinema worked to reflect such a significant cultural transition, loosening up as the traditional Hollywood studio era would soon come to close.
A major period of change and disruption for western cinema, 1963 represented the worst year for US film production in fifty years, with only 121 feature films released to 361 foreign releases in the same year. With this came the influence of international cinema, with British films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Goldfinger each making a significant impact overseas, along with their European counterparts.
Whilst American cinema went through a period of struggle, French cinema was enjoying a flourishing, frenetic time of great change, with the New Wave movement redefining national cinema for a new generation. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was integral in welcoming in such a change, despite the existence of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alan Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, released many years earlier.
Typified by a youthful rebellious attitude that embraced dynamic, fast-paced filmmaking, Breathless represented a truly modern film. It has influenced multiple filmmakers since its release, such as Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, who were both flourishing throughout this period. Utilising jump-cuts and innovative camera techniques, Breathless suffused a cool, irreverent charm that would herald in a new era for unconventional filmmaking.
1970s – Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
After the celebrated introduction of the French New Wave into cinema’s worldwide, America wished to follow suit, with loosening restrictions on language, adult content and sexuality, allowing them to follow this through.
Leaving the archaic studio system behind, American cinema was renewed, refreshed and inspired by the growth of ‘free love’ that was emanating through contemporary culture. Allowing the industry to be freer and to take more risks as the stiff movie moguls of the past died out, such a transition gave way to some of the most prolific filmmakers in movie history, including the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg.
Dubbed the Movie Brats, these filmmakers didn’t learn their trade in the strict setting of the early 20th-century studio system, but instead worked their way through film school, taking in the history of filmmaking one movement at a time. These revolutionary filmmakers became known as some of the most influential of the decade, creating The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Star Wars, respectively.
This renaissance of Hollywood identity was built on bigger, more significant film projects, with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws illustrative of this major shift as it became the first recognised blockbuster. Masterfully made, Jaws became the highest-grossing film in movie history upon its release, earning more than $100 million in rentals, with Hollywood quickly taking notice of the film’s significant success and unprecedented popularity.
1980s – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
If cinema wasn’t considered ‘big business’ before the 1980s, it certainly was now, as the decade quickly consolidated the massive gains of the 1970s to capitalise on the commercial filmmaking opportunities to come.
Characterised by the ‘high-concept’ film, with spectacular yet simple plots, with striking marketing that extended from posters and TV adverts to T-Shirts and lunchboxes, popular blockbusters began to be churned out by the industry, leading to consistent success. Action-packed, loud and exciting, the decade was defined by the likes of Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Aliens and Die Hard, with each film being heavily marketed with merchandise deals quickly lining the shelves of department stores across the world.
Taking advantage of modern evolutions in CGI, as well as famously using practical effects, the success of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back simply cannot be ignored, with the film representing a major milestone in the future of filmmaking. Welcoming in the concept of the big-budget blockbuster franchise, the second instalment of the series was released amid a buzz of excitement and would later provide the blueprint for how later big-budget films are watched, consumed and marketed.
As cinema became increasingly more commercial, sidelining the artistic integrity of past decades, Star Wars became representative of such endemic industry change.
1990s – Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)
Building on from the increasingly commercial industry of cinema that flourished in the 1980s, the ’90s became an era defined by money, mega spending and special effects as the industry swelled under the weight of its own self-created grandeur.
As production costs spiralled to unprecedented heights and CGI made its own remarkable innovations, cinema began to churn out some of the most peculiar films ever made as directors toyed with newfound technological inventions. Such made way for the likes of the groundbreaking science fiction action film The Matrix, alongside indie-made marvel The Blair Witch Project and the frenetic success of Pulp Fiction from Quentin Tarantino.
Director James Cameron also made significant gains in the decade, with his 1997 film Titanic becoming both the most expensive film ever made at $200 million and the highest-grossing film of all time, raking in $1.8 billion worldwide. Though impressive, the spectacular bank-breaking epic was more of an inevitability at the time for an industry that was rapidly evolving, becoming ever-more influenced by grand budgets and unprecedented profits.
For its sheer technological innovation, it was Pixar’s delightful animation that would prove to have the biggest effect on the future of the industry, becoming the very first feature film ever made entirely on computers. Demonstrating the sheer possibility of digital technology at the border of the 21st century, Toy Story shifted cinema from celluloid to the domain of digital, forever changing its makeup.
2000s – Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
After over a century of cinema, the new millennium promised great technological change for the industry that would build on the innovations of the 1970s and work to move away from the identity of the early film industry.
Overwhelmed by the ascendancy of technology from the rise of the internet to smartphones to affordable flatscreen televisions, the 2000s was a whirlwind of change and innovation. As the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix competed for your attention, cinema matched the excitement of the era with such grand spectacles as Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings and War of the Worlds.
Typifying such an era was James Cameron’s blinding extravaganza Avatar that pioneered the spectacle of modern cinema with a film that became the highest-grossing film of all time, and the first to ever cross the $2 billion mark. More important than the remarkable profit of the film itself was the 3D revolution that Avatar brought with its arrival, demanding audiences watch the film wearing the bulky glasses to receive the ‘full 21st-century experience’.
Proving enormously successful, the technology was rolled out worldwide with what felt like every film being released coming out in 3D, an experiment that would eventually prove to be somewhat of a gimmick. Though 3D films are still released to this day, the timing of Avatar’s release caught the inspiration and optimism of the new millennium and suggested a new reality for the future of the industry.
2010s – The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)
Confirming the new technological, commercial identity of Hollywood, the 2010s continued the success of the previous decade whilst navigating the revolutionary nature of Video-On-Demand that would dramatically change the way consumers watched cinema.
With the relative disappearance of DVDs came a switch to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Now TV and more, with multiple platforms being developed to accommodate the tastes of each and every movie fan. The strength of the big-screen experience was beginning to be drained away, as the ease of watching a film in one’s front room, or indeed in the bedroom, or even on the daily commute became too irresistible for audiences.
The solution was, bizarrely, to bring the small-screen experience onto the big screen, serialising cinema to make each instalment a necessity before you were to experience the next film in the ongoing series. Disney and its Marvel studios were undoubtedly the first to pioneer such a revolutionary model, with its 2012 release of The Avengers being something of a series one finale of its contemporary innovations.
Providing a demand for movie ‘universe’ that encompassed merchandise, linked films, streamable TV content, video games and much more, the Marvel brand has built into a genre in and of itself, forever changing the makeup of modern cinema.
It’s difficult to even comprehend the future of modern filmmaking without seeing the vision of a big red Marvel logo slapped on the front, or indeed the glittering lights of the struggling, yet powerful, Star Wars brand.
Whilst taste for such films is certainly strong; there’s evidence that interest in these franchises is waning as the business and financial decisions behind each film become ever more transparent. In a decade currently defined by the crippling coronavirus pandemic that has restricted the production of big-budget filmmaking, it was the likes of Netflix’s TV series Tiger King, Squid Game and The Queen’s Gambit that thrived in the absence of cinema.
Since then, the industry has begun to find its feet once more, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet providing the first ray of hope for the industry in 2020 before Denis Villeneuve followed up with his intellectual blockbuster Dune.
With female filmmakers beginning to see far more opportunities for success behind the camera as well as directors and screenwriters from diverse backgrounds, the future of the industry looks promising. Though with streaming services, television series and even video games now vying for audiences attention, cinema will have to continue to innovate to remain relevant, with Marvel looking like the pioneers of such sustainability.