When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked at 1931, it gave its Best Picture award to Cimarron, a mediocre western that aspires to be an epic. It isn't on my list.
1. Bimbo's Initiation Directed by Dave Fleischer
Betty Boop: Final Secret of the Illuminati.
2. Monkey Business Directed by Norman Z. McLeod Written by S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone
We'll get to a real Maurice Chevalier movie below, but first let's pause to praise the Marx Brothers' attempts to impersonate the man.
3. M Directed by Fritz Lang Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou
Instead of quoting a line from the film, I'll invoke the sound of Peter Lorre whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King."
4. Le Million Directed by René Clair Written by Clair, from a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand
One of the first great movie musicals.
5. La Chienne Directed by Jean Renoir Written by Renoir, from a novel by Georges de La Fouchardière
A man exploits a woman who exploits another man. In the end they all lose.
6. Frankenstein Directed by James Whale Written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley
"Now I know what it feels like to be God!"
7. À Nous la Liberté Written and directed by René Clair
"Work is mandatory. Because work means liberty."
8. The Smiling Lieutenant Directed by Ernst Lubitsch Written by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, from an operetta by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann
This is Maurice Chevalier's show, but let's give a special kudo to George Barbier, who plays the ruler of a tiny European kingdom like a father-in-law who wandered in from an American sitcom.
9. The Threepenny Opera Directed by G.W. Pabst Written by Béla Balázs, Leo Lania, and Ladislaus Vajda, from an operetta by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
With his seedy settings and menacing camera, Pabst creates a vivid movie landscape. That isn't really the best way to present Brecht's agitprop, which is supposed to intrude into our world rather than invite us into a world of its own. But the clash of styles is fascinating enough to be interesting in its own right, particularly when a great Kurt Weill score is part of the package.
10. Night Nurse Directed by William A. Wellman Written by Oliver H.P. Garrett with Charles Kenyon, from a novel by Grace Perkins
This list should have a ludicrous pre-Code melodrama in it, and this enjoyably insane story will fill the role nicely.
Bubbling under: I don't have a full roster of honorable mentions for 1931, but I'll give a friendly shoutout to Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde and Dave Fleischer's Mask-a-Raid. Of the movies of 1931 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in The Criminal Code.