When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1941, it gave its Best Picture award to How Green Was My Valley, a cloying "quality" movie from John Ford. (The first rule of watching a Ford film: The more it's visibly trying to be artistic, the less likely it is to be good art.) That one 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 to be made 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
Humphrey Bogart never looked or sounded as bleak as he did saying, "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
This is 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.
In this movie's landscape of mutating memes, isn't just the audience that has a life of its own. The fictions that were supposed to manipulate that audience turn out to be beyond anyone's control too.
Directed by H.C. Potter
Written by Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson
Between this one and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, it was a great year for pop surrealism.
7. Schichlegruber: Doing the Lambeth Walk
Directed by Charles A. Ridley
YouTube avant la lettre.
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 the great Sullivan's Travels for a spot in the top 10 because I wince a bit at that "cockeyed world" speech at the end of Sullivan. But if you want to count them as a tie and call this slot 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. The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle)
15. Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen)
16. Among the Living (Stuart Heisler)
17. Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen)
18. Ladies in Retirement (Charles Vidor)
19. The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood)
20. The Iron Crown (Alessandro Blasetti)
Plus a bonus award to Victor Mature, who had big roles in two pictures 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 Cary Grant. That's just as great as it sounds.
Of the films of 1941 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Swamp Water.