The Movies that Define Each Decade from the 1930s to the 2010s

by Kali Tuttle

Since Al Jolson first came on the screen nearly ten decades ago with the words “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” film has been a major part of our culture. Movies shape how we define ourselves and the world around us. The best movies can be instigators of change and beacons of awareness.

Each and every movie has some sort of cultural impact. Some films make greater splashes than others — The Godfather (1972) is infinitely more memorable than Space Mutiny (1988) — nonetheless, all movies have an impact.

Every decade has one film that really defines it — one that is identifiable with the decade itself. Today, I plan to take a stab at just what those movies may be. From the 1930s to the 2010s, I bring to you the most impactful movies of each decade!

1930s: Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind is technically still the highest-grossing movie of all-time (if you adjust for inflation, as you should). It was one of the first truly epic movies to come to the screen. The cast included heavyweights at the time like Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and Olivia de Havilland. In a decade when movies seemed to be the only respite from poverty and war, Gone with the Wind captivated audiences worldwide. From its eye-popping Technicolor to its emotional romance, it was destined to be a hit from its inception. The only thing concerning about this film is the slight (maybe more than slight) racism it contains, considering that it takes the side of the South in the American Civil War.


Image via Variety

1940s: Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca starred two of the most sought-after movie stars of the decade: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It was no surprise that the film would become an instant fan-favorite. Casablanca is a beautiful story of romance, war, betrayal, and heartbreak. It was perfect for its decade; it was during a time when the world was really beginning to feel that betrayal and heartbreak in all its turmoil. From the moment the screen comes to life, the audience is captured in an entrancing tale of two lovers separated by time and circumstance, determined to help each other at all costs. The heroic yet somber theme has stood the test of time to make Casablanca a classic among film connoisseurs and amateurs alike.


Image via New York Post

1950s: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Arguably the best musical of all-time, Singin’ in the Rain is a fantastic depiction of the transition from silent movies to “talkies.” Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor are a joy to watch. Singin’ in the Rain has some of Gene Kelly’s best choreography, making the dance scenes absolutely mesmerizing. With memorable songs like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Good Morning,” and “Make ’em Laugh,” this film has found a place in the hearts of many. It showcases some of Hollywood’s best qualities: its fun-loving atmosphere, its musical and artistic talent, and its ability to bring together beautiful people to create beautiful films.


Image via NBC Los Angeles

1960s: Psycho (1960)

Out of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, I would have to say that Psycho is by far the best. It’s eerie, suspenseful, and ultimately disconcerting to watch — everything a good horror/thriller/mystery should have. Of course, Psycho would not be what it is without one important element: Anthony Perkins. Perkins’ depiction of a psychopath — boyish charm on the outside, cold-hearted killer on the inside — is one of the best I’ve ever seen on screen. Psycho truly started the decade off with a bang in a Hollywood soon free of the Hays’ code and freedom to explore any and all subjects. Psycho is one of the best horror films of the 60s and of all-time.


Image via IMDB

1970s: The Godfather (1972)

Gangster movies are like the puppies of the film world — everyone loves them. From The Untouchables (1987) to Goodfellas (1990), people love a good shootout with plenty of blood and cursing. We have The Godfather to thank for that. This is the O.G. gangster film. The stellar cast, the haunting theme, the brashness with which the violence is approached — every element of this film is crafted to make it perfect. No one will ever be able to recreate the specific atmosphere that Francis Ford Coppola created with The GodfatherThe film is a pioneer among movies in every genre and is the perfect way to begin a decade that really pushed the envelope for film content.


Image via The Variety

1980s: The Breakfast Club (1985)

I think there are more thought-provoking films that came out of the 80s, but I don’t think any of them truly define the decade as well as The Breakfast Club. It carved out a certain niche for the emerging young adults of the generation. The Breakfast Club was meant to break stereotypes at the time (though by now the film itself is a stereotype), and it accomplished that goal for that generation of angsty teens. Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony Michael Hall were the best choices for their roles; their gift for ad-libbing and emotional appeal helped make The Breakfast Club into the classic that it is. It’s a classic popular kids vs. the less popular kids dynamic that populated 80s filmdom.


Image via Hollywood Reporter

1990s: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction‘s gratuitous sex and violence blazed a decade of even more gratuitous sex and violence. With this film, Quentin Tarantino truly jumped into the Hollywood scene and became the household name he is today. It really tested that line between too much and just enough shock value to attract audiences but not repulse them. By some miracle, it found the perfect balance between the two and other films like Face/Off (1997) and Blade (1998) followed in Pulp Fiction‘s bloody footsteps. Tarantino’s film is a leader among Hollywood for its boldness and ability to offend and attract audiences.


Image via CNN

2000s: The Dark Knight (2008)

Christopher Nolan is an amazing director. Every film he makes has a purpose — nothing is just thrown out there for the money. His Batman franchise is the only Batman that I will accept, as he truly captures the masked crusader’s dark nature and the more mature themes of the series. The best film in Nolan’s trilogy is by far The Dark Knight. Christian Bale as Batman and Heath Ledger as the Joker is a dream team. The Joker’s wicked sadism and sociopathic manner is beautifully portrayed and the action is heart-pounding. Everything about The Dark Knight is beautifully-executed — the lighting, the score, the pacing, the cinematography. It’s the pinnacle of what film should be.


Image via Mental Floss

2010s: Inception (2010)

Yet again, another Christopher Nolan film defines the 2010s. Inception enraptured the world with its twists and turns. To this day, I still am not completely sure I know what’s going on at any given point during the film. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio — who deserves more than just one Oscar — Inception takes us on a dizzying journey through the dream world that will leave you reeling by the end. The special effects alone in this film are insanely good. Adding that to thought-provoking dialogue, some pretty crazy action scenes, and great acting by a talented cast, we see that Inception was designed to be a smash hit.


Image via Hollywood Reporter

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and Kali @tuttle_kali.

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on the most impactful movies of each decade? Comment down below!

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Anonymous January 1, 2021 - 3:24 pm

More like the most mainstream movies of every decade… Face-palm.

I Watched '365 Days' and Have Many Questions | MovieBabble July 1, 2020 - 10:03 am

[…] family’s business is more admirable, but to what extent? Are they into olive oil like in The Godfather? Is it drugs? Do they only kill 50% of the people they come across? Was he a staunch believer in […]

The Animation Commendation August 17, 2019 - 11:06 am

I’d pick Back to the Future for 80s.

Brian Connor August 13, 2019 - 1:06 pm

The 80s wishes it was summed up with The Breakfast Club. It was Wall Street. Greedy, Venal, poisonous. Reagan, Thatcher.

shehannemoore August 13, 2019 - 6:22 am

Excellent choices and reasoning.

nostaligicitalian August 12, 2019 - 10:38 pm


Nick Kush August 12, 2019 - 5:33 pm

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