When the Motion Picture Academy looked at 1938, it gave its Best Picture award to Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You. That's a fine film, but I can think of five that are finer:
1. Porky in Wackyland
Directed by Bob Clampett
Written by Warren Foster
The most manic, dense, and Daliesque of Warner's classic cartoons.
2. La Bête Humaine
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Renoir and Denise Leblond, from a novel by Emile Zola
Movie historians classify this as "poetic realism." To me it's a full-fledged film noir, even if it technically appeared a few years too early to qualify.
3. The Lady Vanishes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Sidney Gilliatt and Frank Launder, from a novel by Ethel Lina White
My favorite of Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood pictures.
4. Port of Shadows
Directed by Marcel Carné
Written by Jacques Prévert
I like Children of Paradisewell enough, but I've never comprehended the cult around it. When it comes to Carné/Prévert pictures, I prefer curious, character-driven crime stories like this one.
5. Bringing Up Baby
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde
Cary Grant decides to go gay all of a sudden.
6. You Can't Take It With You
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Robert Riskin, from a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Who says there was no counterculture in the '30s?
Directed by John Cromwell
Written by John Howard Lawson with James M. Cain, from a novel by Henri La Barthe
Hollywood's take on Pépé le Moko can't equal the film that inspired it, but it still has many pleasures to offer.
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, from a play by Philip Barry
"When I find myself in a position like this, I ask myself: What would General Motors do? And then I do the opposite."
9. Les Disparus de St. Agil
Directed by Christian-Jaque
Written by J.H. Blanchon, from a novel by Pierre Véry
Start with a textured, well-observed, sometimes comic portrait of some boys at a boarding school. Cross that with a Gothic tale of secrets, hidden passageways, and disappearing children. And everywhere, suffusing everything, let there be the specter of an approaching war.
10. If I Were King
Directed by Frank Lloyd
Written by Preston Sturges, from a play by Justin Huntly McCarthy
The Adventures of Robin Hood is an entertaining picture, and you'll find it down in the honorable mentions. But if you watch just one rebel-outlaw-hero movie made in 1938, go for this one.
11. Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard)
12. They Drive By Night (Arthur B. Woods)
13. Quadrille (Sacha Guitry)
14. Goonland (Dave Fleischer)
15. The Chess Player (Jean Dréville)
16. Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné)
17. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (Mark Donskoy)
18. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, William Keighley)
19. Cotillion (Joseph Cornell)
20. Merrily We Live (Norman Z. McLeod)
And finally, a shoutout to Fritz Lang's You and Me. I don't know if it's "good"—Lang himself called it lousy—but how wonderfully weird it is to see a movie start like a light Capra comedy and then veer into Threepenny Opera territory.
Of the films of 1938 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in J'Accuse, Mollenard, and Let's Go Up the Champs-Élysées.