One of the first great film images: the rocket landing in the eye of the Moon in George Méliès' A Voyage to the Moon (1902)

Back in January, I decided to write a several part series on the history of the Academy Awards which turned out quite nicely for the blog.  The final post, my personal ranking of the Best Picture nominees is far and away the most successful post we’ve ever had on the blog.  But the main reason I wrote it (aside from a plethora of Oscar knowledge and the desire to write about it) was that most places that talk about the Academy Awards do it in terms of years instead of categories.  I felt there was a space to be filled in providing for context in terms of each category.  I feel there’s a kind of gap there as well when it comes to talking about film, year by year.

Sure, there are books that talk about individual film years.  There is the great DK book, Cinema Year by Year, which has gone through several iterations or DK’s equally wonderful (but not as heavy) The American Film Institute Desk Reference.  There are also books like Inside Oscar or Tom O’Neill’s Movie Awards.  But those latter two focus more on the actual award winning films at the time and the former two give you a lot of context (and pictures – the Year by Year is a wonderful coffee table book and the AFI a great reference book), but not a lot of depth.  My hope is to talk a bit about each year and try to capture the kind of details you won’t find in any particular book (the same way I tried to do in my last series – the top 100 directors – namely the fact that I ranked each director and assigned a point structure).

To that end, I’m going to try and include things in each year, some of which I have gathered from other sources, some of which are my own thoughts, and some of which are unique collations – ways in which I have chosen to interpret and define certain data.

So, what exactly does that mean?  Well, here are the things which I try to include in these various entries:

  • My Top 10 of the year
  • The Academy Award winners (the major awards – Picture / Director / Acting / Writing)
  • The “consensus” award winners for the major categories (based on awards from all the major groups) – these won’t start until 1932 because before 1932 there were only the Oscars
  • The “consensus” Top 5 of the year (from TSPDT top 1000 list)
  • Top 5 of the year based on Awards points (not just the Oscars, but also critics, BAFTA, guilds, Globes, BFCA)
  • any AFI Top 100 films or Ebert Great Movies
  • a capsulized review of the film year
  • one film I feel is particularly overlooked

Because so much of what I write is in comparison with how the Academy Awards viewed things, I keep things aligned with the Academy Awards years.  What this means is that the first post will encompass the years after feature films began (I start with 1912) but before the Oscars began (1927).  Then, there will be several combined years, until the Oscar began aligning with the calendar year in 1934.  I do this for a few reasons, but the most prominent is that the Oscars are the oldest, and still the most distinguished, of all the film awards groups and people talk about things in reference to the Oscars.  Also, that way, I can keep films locked in one calendar year and while I might mention a film like The Third Man in the year it was released (1949), for the purpose of all the lists, it will only appear on those in the year it was Oscar eligible (1950).  For films that were never Oscar eligible due to various Academy rules, I talk about them in the year they were released in the United States.

So what else does that leave to talk about here?  Well, the very early years, before the advent of feature films (I use 1912 as the starting point because Richard III, the oldest surviving feature film was released in 1912), there were a remarkable number of developments.  For all intents and purposes, film began in 1891 with the invention of the Kinetoscope but really, more specifically on January 7, 1894, when Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze was filmed, the first film to ever be lodged for copyright at the Library of Congress (on January 9, 1894).  But film didn’t remain simply the purvey of Edison for long and the French, specifically Antoine Lumiere and Georges Méliès, were quick to leap on the technology.  By the end of the next year, Lumiere had opened a paying Cinématographe in Paris.  In 1897, Méliès, opened his own studio and the Pathé brothers were not far behind.  Things were the same in America with the start of Biograph and Vitagraph.

But it was in September of 1902, that Méliès released his greatest achievement: A Voyage to the Moon, a film that tested the boundaries of everything about the new film industry.  It was 13 minutes long, had numerous special effects had taken three months to shoot and had cost 10,000 francs.  But it was a major achievement and it is still studied and revered today (just see the Smashing Pumpkins video to “Tonight Tonight”).

The next year came Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which is the essential starting point for narrative American film and is also still studied today (I first saw both films in class in college).  Porter, Méliès and Pathé continued to be the major players for the next decade.

The big innovation came in 1906 with the premiere in Australia of the first ever feature film, the 70 minute long The Story of the Kelly Gang, which sadly no longer survives except for a few short clips.  Ned Kelly also made use of real props as the filmmakers borrowed Kelly’s actual armor from a museum to be used in the film.

By 1911 we had the beginnings of the industry that people would recognize today.  D.W. Griffith had gone to Hollywood and begun filming short films for Biograph there and the studios had begun to form.