When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked at 1941, it gave its Best Picture award to How Green Was My Valley, a cloying "quality" movie from John Ford, who's at his worst when he tries to do something like this. It isn't on my list.
1. Citizen Kane Directed by Orson Welles Written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz
I don't think it's the best movie ever made, or even the best movie directed by Orson Welles. But I'm not enough of a contrarian to deny that it's the best movie of 1941.
2. The Maltese Falcon Directed by John Huston Written by Huston, from a novel by Dashiell Hammett
"I've no earthly reason to think I can trust you, and if I do this and get away with it, you'll have something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I've got something on you, I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't put a hole in me some day. All those are on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant -- I won't argue about that -- but look at the number of them. And what have we got on the other side? All we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you."
3. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break Directed by Edward F. Cline Written by W.C. Fields
Fields' funniest film. That's saying a lot.
4. The Sea Wolf Directed by Michael Curtiz Written by Robert Rossen, from a novel by Jack London
This is as good as Edward G. Robinson gets. That is also saying a lot.
5. Meet John Doe Directed by Frank Capra Written by Robert Riskin, from a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, Sr.
Someday I'll write a long article contrasting this dark satire with Elia Kazan's overrated A Face in the Crowd. They're both about manipulative media fakery, but Meet John Doe has a much more sophisticated take on the autonomy of the audience.
6. Hellzapoppin' Directed by H.C. Potter Written by Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson
Between this and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, it was a great year for pop surrealism.
7. Lambeth Walk—Nazi Style Directed by Charles A. Ridley
Take some simple footage of Nazis on the march, then remix it to make them look like ridiculous toy soldiers. Result: the greatest war propaganda short ever made.
8. The Wolf Man Directed by George Waggner Written by Curt Siodmak
This isn't the last good movie in the Universal Monsters series, but it is the last essential one. Unless you count Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
9. Ball of Fire Directed by Howard Hawks Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
"It's as red as The Daily Worker and just as sore!"
10. The Lady Eve Directed by Preston Sturges Written by Sturges, from a story by Monckton Hoffe
This one narrowly beat out Sullivan's Travels for a spot in the top 10 because that "cockeyed world" speech at the end of the otherwise excellent Sullivan gets on my nerves. But if you want to count them as a tie and give this slot to a Preston Sturges double-header, that's fine with me.
11. Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges) 12. Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock) 13. Tortoise Beats Hare (Tex Avery) 14. Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen) 15. The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle) 16. Among the Living (Stuart Heisler) 17. Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen) 18. Ladies in Retirement (Charles Vidor) 19. The Iron Crown (Alessandro Blasetti) 20. The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood)
A bonus award to Victor Mature, who had big roles in two movies bubbling under my top 20: The Shanghai Gesture, a gloriously mad mess that has become a cult favorite, and I Wake Up Screaming, a curious quasi-noir that really ought to be a cult favorite. Mature plays rather different characters in that pair of pictures, but he plays them the same way: as a sleazy version of Cary Grant. That's just as great as it sounds.
Of the movies of 1941 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Man Made Monster.