As far as the arts go, film is one of the youngest disciplines around. In contrast to literature, theatre, music, and visual arts, its history can only credibly be said to span under 200 years. But in less than two centuries, the craft and evolution of film has transformed by leaps and bounds.
Some of this exponential growth and progress can be attributed to the rapid change of technology in the same time period, which roughly correlates from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the present day. Advances in technology have made going to the movies an increasingly immersive experience. From early attempts to capture human motion via the technology of a Victorian-era children’s toy to the IMAX theaters of today, which can make an audience feel it’s right there—on a sinking ship, for example—the history of film can in part be chartered by how close filmmakers have come to capturing the experience of real life with their cameras and other forms of simulation.
Other advances in film over the course of its short lifespan can be attributed to changing social norms and mores. Whereas once films may have been used to promote an official worldview or simply convey information—consider the trip the King and Queen of England took to India and recorded in the Edwardian era in a two-hour special to be shown back home—films today often take quite a different tack. From "Apocalypse Now," depicting the horrors of the American engagement in the Vietnam War, to the Oscar-winning "Parasite," which conveyed the simmering class tensions that exist below the surface of much of modern life, films often exist to explicitly or implicitly critique the power structures of the societies in which they are produced.
Stacker compiled a list of 100 iconic moments of movie history from historical records, cultural critiques and retrospectives, and film historians to look at some of the most important milestones in the history of the cinematic arts.
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In 1833, a Belgian physicist and Austrian geometrist independently invented versions of a Victorian parlor toy for children called the Phenakistoscope that gave the world its first taste of live animation. The popular toy relied on a spinning cardboard disk, a reflective mirror, and a viewfinder with which to view the moving image.
1874 was a watershed year for the evolution of the moving picture, as the planet Venus was captured on film. French astronomer Pierre Janssen used a large camera system to track Venus’ transit over Japan and would replicate the achievement several years later when the same planet tracked over Algeria.
In 1878, photographer Eadweard Muybridge became the first person to capture what we would recognize today as a moving picture. Muybridge had been commissioned to document the phenomenon of horses’ hooves leaving the ground all at once, and he developed a device called the Zoopraxiscope to prove it with his forward-motion images of a horse galloping across the ground.
French inventor Louis Le Prince filmed what would become the oldest motion film to survive to present day. The moving images were captured in 1888 in a garden in northern England, and show men and women in high Victorian dress moving about their days.
In 1891, the National Federation of Women’s Clubs screened a clip of a man passing a hat back and forth in front of himself at Thomas Edison’s laboratory. The showing was the first time American audiences were introduced to motion pictures.
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The first actors in a motion picture made their debuts in 1893 in the silent film "Blacksmith Scene," in which a blacksmith works a piece of metal with his two assistants. The catch? The blacksmiths weren’t blacksmiths, but rather employees of the Edison company, which made the film.
The first commercial movie theater opened its doors in New York City in 1894, showing Kinetoscope films to audiences. The theater was run by the pioneering Holland Brothers, who opened the store with 10 machines.
In 1895, an early film projector called the “phantoscope” was invented by Charles Francis Jenkins, a Dayton, Ohio native who worked on the device with a colleague. That year, he partnered with a businessman to bring the projector to an exposition in Atlanta, where crowds marveled at their ability to watch films as a group.
Considered the first female director, Alice Guy-Blaché developed the concept of narrative film in the 1890s and early 1900s. Guy-Blaché was originally a photographer before the owner of her photography studio shifted his focus to films, bringing her on board to work on development.
[Pictured: Still from the film “Two Little Strangers.”]
In the first of what would become many adaptations of Shakespeare plays for the screen, "King John" was adapted in 1899. The film clocks in at less than two minutes long and uses only the final dramatic death scene from the play.
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The film that some consider the world’s first sci-fi motion picture was released in 1902. "A Trip to the Moon" chronicles exactly what its title suggests, and features a group of astronomers who are shot from a cannon onto the moon.
Audiences today likely think of films as lasting an hour or more, but this wasn’t always the case. Many of the earliest films were quite short. But in 1906, the first feature-length film was released, with "The Story of the Kelly Gang" enrapturing audiences for a full hour and 10 minutes.
In 1907, cultural critics who may have previously confined themselves to writing about theater or art turned their focus to cinema. The trade publication Variety produced two reviews that year of the movies "An Exciting Honeymoon" and "The Life of a Cowboy."
[Pictured: Still from the film “An Exciting Honeymoon.”]
Music is such an important part of film these days that it has its own category at the Academy Awards. But it wasn’t until 1908 that movies had music at all, when "The Assassination of the Duke of Guise" became the first movie to ever have a soundtrack written specifically for it, by composer Camille Saint Saens.
Today, aerial shots are par for the course in movies. But this was hardly so in the early years of film. In 1909, the first movie was shot from an airplane—another emerging technology—when the Wright brothers flew a newsreel camera crew over Rome.
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Today, Hollywood is synonymous with the film industry. That legacy began in 1910, when D.W. Griffith made the movie "In Old California," the first to be shot and produced in Hollywood, California.
[Pictured: D.W. Griffith on the set of the film ‘“Intolerance.”]
A 1912 British documentary clocking in at a little over two-and-a-half hours showed audiences the journey of the Queen and King of England through India. "The Pageant Procession" was one of the first features to be shown in color and brought audiences along with the royals to Calcutta and Delhi.
A foundational woman director made her feature debut in 1914. Lois Weber, a pioneering female auteur, adapted "The Merchant of Venice" for the screen, becoming the first American woman to feature-length film in the process.
Animated feature films are staples today, but this wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until 1917 that the Argentinian director Quirino Cristiani animated the feature film "El Apostal," ushering in a new genre.
The cinematic technique of “breaking the fourth wall” refers to the subversion of the convention that the actors must behave as though there is no audience; it is often indicated by actors speaking directly to audiences. The first use of this technique appeared in the 1918 film "Men Who Have Made Love to Me."
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16mm is still beloved by indie filmmakers today for its grainy, intimate texture. The film was introduced by the Kodak company in the United States in 1923.
Early films were silent, but that began changing in the 1920s. In 1927, "The Jazz Singer" became the first film to use recorded dialogue, which it accomplished using the “Vitaphone” recording system.
The most famous film awards in the world held their first ceremony in 1929. The Academy Award for Best Picture was given to "Wings" from director William A. Wellman.
Technologies collided in 1930 in Alfred Hitchcock’s "Elstree Calling." The film was the first to show a television set.
Film festivals are ubiquitous today, from Sundance to Cannes. The first film festival took place in 1932 with the Venice Film Festival.
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The word "Technicolor” is often used today to describe something vivid, but it was initially a film process that was first used in full-length animation in 1932. Animation powerhouse Disney debuted "The Flowers and the Trees" in Technicolor that year.
Films are all over television today and widely accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. The earliest harbinger of today’s easy access came in 1933, when the first movie was shown to people in their homes on their television sets.
Cel animation is a technique in which each slide of a film is drawn by hand. The epic fairytale "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was the first feature to get this treatment in 1937.
One of the most iconic sentences in film history was uttered in 1939 when Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara that he “doesn’t give a damn” what happens to her at the end of "Gone With the Wind." The line is taken from the end of Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name.
The next year, that same film made history at the Academy Awards. Actress Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1940, becoming the first African-American to do so.
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The beloved children's book "The Wizard of Oz" was adapted to film and released in 1939. The film is still legendary for its on-set mishaps that were never edited out of the film before it was released.
A key part of going to the movies is being immersed in the experience. Disney made that easier in 1940 with the release of "Fantasia," which featured full surround sound using its Fantasound system.
The beloved classic "Casablanca" was released in 1942 at the height of World War II. The romantic tale features one of the most famous lines in cinema when Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman, “We’ll always have Paris” before saying goodbye to her forever.
Disney signaled that it wouldn’t shy away from upsetting material in 1942. That year, the innocent deer and titular character Bambi had to watch his mother die, right along with audiences.
The first set of twins won an Oscar in 1943. The award went to Julius and Philip Epstein for Best Adapted Screenplay of the film "Casablanca."
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Expectations couldn’t have been higher for the first adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel in 1946, and filmmakers delivered. The adaptation of "Great Expectations" won multiple Oscars and is ranked #5 on the British Film Institute's list of the greatest films of all time.
The famous film festival Cannes held its first edition in 1946. One purpose of the festival was to bring tourists back to Europe after the devastation of World War II.
"It’s a Wonderful Life" is still a mainstay for families at Christmastime. The 1946 film features an angel sent from heaven to show a dejected businessman how different the world would be if he had never been born.
Eight years after Hattie McDaniel claimed her prize, the first African-American man won an Oscar. James Baskett was given the gold in 1948 for his portrayal of “Uncle Remus” in Disney’s controversial "Song of the South."
The first British film festival was held in 1948. The British Academy Film Awards were established that year as that country’s answer to the Oscars.
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One of the most beloved musicals of all-time debuted in 1952. Gene Kelly starred in the film "Singin' in the Rain," and the scene of him doing just that is one of the most famous in film history.
The budding Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe gave the world one of the most famous moments in film history in 1955. Filming "The Seven Year Itch," Monroe stepped atop a subway grate in a dress and was captured by photographers as a gust of air blew the dress up seductively over her body.
"On the Waterfront" gave the world another bravado performance from a young Marlon Brando in 1954. The most famous line in the movie would go on to be one of the most famous in film history: “I coulda been a contender!”
Director Alfred Hitchcock is best known for the icy blondes who populate his films, and many of his most famous features were made in the 1950s. "Rear Window" is one of the most celebrated, in which Grace Kelly plays girlfriend to Jimmy Stewart, an injured photographer who believes he witnessed a murder while recuperating.
Another famous blonde of the era, Marilyn Monroe starred in 1959’s "Some Like It Hot." Today, the film is widely considered one of the greatest comedies of all time.
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The film "Ben-Hur" tested audience patience in 1959, clocking in at almost four hours long. The bet paid off when fans around the world flocked to see the movie, which won multiple Academy Awards.
Until 1960, showers were largely thought of as serene affairs. That all changed with Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller "Psycho," in which a shower forever turned into a place of potential horror.
Italian cinema reached its apogee with the release of Federico Fellini’s "La Dolce Vita" in 1960. The story of a philandering photographer wandering around Rome was a box-office hit and won awards around the world.
In-flight features are a mainstay during air travel today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1961, the airline TWA debuted films onboard, screening "By Love Possessed" with Lana Turner.
Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe died in 1962 of an apparent overdose at 36, but conspiracy theorists have speculated her death was related instead to an affair she had with President John F. Kennedy.
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The famous character James Bond began his life in film in 1962. His first movie, "Dr. No," features the charismatic spy investigating the death of an intelligence chief in Jamaica.
Many movie theaters today show more than one movie at the same time, a concept which premiered in 1963. Businessman Stanley H. Durwood developed a theater in Kansas City that was designed to show two films at once.
One of the most famous couples in film history released a blockbuster film in 1963. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s "Cleopatra" was chock full of the couple's glamour and drama.
A flock of birds was just a flock of birds before 1963. But that year, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller "The Birds" introduced audiences to the horrifying concept that birds, particularly in high numbers, might be provoked into gruesome attack.
The first interracial marriage in a feature film didn’t happen until 1964. That year, "One Potato, Two Potato" showed a white woman and a Black man turning a friendship into love.
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"The Sound of Music" debuted in 1965 and has arguably been the most successful musical film ever made. It received rave reviews upon release and won the hearts of audiences around the world.
IMAX has enabled audiences to immerse themselves in movies more than they would be able to by merely staring at a simple screen. The technology was developed in 1967 and typically requires stadium seating for audiences to be able to get the full effect.
The risque "Graduate" was the hit of 1967. The story of an older woman and a younger man was beloved by audiences and critics alike, and features the famous song “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel.
The world was engulfed in conflict and protest in 1968, and the film of the year reflected that. "Rosemary’s Baby," directed by Roman Polanksi, featured a young pregnant woman convinced a satanic cult is conspiring against her and her baby.
The film "Midnight Cowboy" became the first and last X-rated film to win the Academy Award in 1970. The controversial rating was due to the film’s nudity and depictions of prostitution and queer sexuality, which were considered shocking at the time.
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One of the most iconic film scenes in movie history debuted in 1972. In "The Godfather," a producer refuses to acquiesce to a mob request and wakes up to find the severed head of his prize horse in his bed.
1973’s "The Exorcist" is considered by many to be the scariest film of all time. In its most famous scene, an exorcism is performed, which was based on the true recorded events of an exorcism at a psychiatric hospital.
Today’s vanguard of celebrity journalism first appeared on newsstands in 1974. People chronicled the comings and goings of film celebrities, their dramas, divorces, and romances, much as it does today.
Film as a part of popular culture reached new heights with "Jaws" in 1975. Universal aired commercials for "Jaws" before its premiere and got the film booked in over 500 theaters for opening weekend, which set a record.
In a harbinger of the Blockbuster era to come, the first movie was released on VHS in 1976. "The Young Teacher," a South Korean film, was the first to make its way into audience homes on demand.
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The juggernaut "Star Wars" franchise opened in 1977. "A New Hope" is famous not just for its visual effects but also for its use of merchandising tie-ins, including statues and toys, to generate excitement around the film.
One of the most iconic movie openers of all time stunned audiences in 1979. Francis Ford Coppola’s "Apocalypse Now" opens to the strains of The Doors’ “The End” as helicopters fly over burning rice paddies in Vietnam, encapsulating the ethos of the decade.
Computer-generated images are integral to films today, but the first such use didn’t happen until 1980. That year, the film "Looker" featured a CGI character called Cindy.
The swashbuckling Harrison Ford introduced audiences to Indiana Jones in 1981. In the first film in the franchise, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Ford is an intrepid archeologist tasked with saving a religious relic from a band of Nazis.
A tiny alien won the hearts of audiences around the world in 1982. In "E.T. the Extra-terrestrial," the titular character’s most famous scene is arguably the one in which he attempts to phone his home planet.
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Classic film buffs had a good year in 1984 when the Criterion Collection was released with a cinema lover's cornucopia of extra features, including interviews with directors and scholars. Today, the offshoot Criterion Channel is a stand-alone streaming service offering access to thousands of classic films and add-ons.
Aviators and flight suits got a new lease on life thanks to the 1986 film "Top Gun." In the movie, Tom Cruise immortalizes the phrase “need for speed,” which has remained as popular as aviators and jumpsuits in subsequent years.
"Tin Toy" became the first animated feature to win an Academy Award in 1988. Director John Lasseter was also a co-founder of the studio Pixar, which is famous today for its animated films.
Perhaps the most beloved film about film of all time, 1988’s "Cinema Paradiso" features a particularly unforgettable denouement. The filmmaker protagonist watches all of the scenes of kissing and love that were originally censored out of the Italian films of his childhood at the titular cinema where he originally saw them.
In 1991, the film adaptation of "Beauty and the Beast" made history. It was the first animated film in the history of the Oscars to be nominated for Best Picture.
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The first film was streamed over the Internet in 1991. "Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among Bees" tells the disorienting tale of a man who claims bees implanted him into a bee television, causing him to lose his concepts of space and time.
The first film to be made entirely with CGI was released in 1995. "Toy Story" tells the tale of a group of toys that come to life and get into a series of misadventures.
"Romeo and Juliet" got a stylish makeover in 1996. Director Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation featured a soundtrack with Radiohead and Garbage, as well as breakout roles for Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The undisputed king of the film world in 1997 was "Titanic." The movie clocked in at over three hours, won 11 Oscars, and smashed box-office records.
To the delight of storm-chasers everywhere, "Twister" made history in 1997. That year, the tornado-centric film became the first ever available on DVD.
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Perhaps the most iconic hair moment in film occurred in 1998. In that year’s "There’s Something About Mary," an unusual substance spikes Cameron Diaz’s hair into quite an unusual shape.
In the year 2000, the pace of technology was clipping along, and film was no exception. That year, the Coen Brothers’ "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was color-corrected entirely by digital means, a first for a feature-length film.
Anime, the distinctive style of Japanese animation, notched a serious win in 2001. An anime film called "Spirited Away" won the award for Best Animated Film at that year’s Oscars.
In 2002, Eminem helped make history when his song “Lose Yourself” became the first rap song to win Best Song at the Oscars. The song was part of the film the rapper also acted in, "8 Mile," based on his life.
Technology available to average citizens was making significant strides by 2004, and this was reflected in the era’s films. In a documentary made that year, "Voices of Iraq," a filmmaker distributed 150 lightweight cameras to people in Iraq at the height of the American invasion and asked them to tell their stories.
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Not since the tabloid and public obsession with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had so much attention been paid to a celebrity couple as was paid to “Brangelina” in the years following 2005. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie met on set while Pitt was married to Jennifer Aniston, and a very public divorce and high-flying, activist lifestyle for Brangelina ensued.
Several years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, depictions of the event began showing up in film. 2006 was a significant year for such films with the release of "World Trade Center" and "Flight 93."
In 2007, the first legal streaming service for films and television launched. Netflix today is also its own production and distribution company, producing original work along with streaming the work of others.
The War on Terror and its questionable use of torture were still at the fore of pubic consciousness in 2009. That year, Kathryn Bigelow’s "The Hurt Locker" took home the Oscar for Best Picture, despite, or perhaps because of, its famously unvarnished look at the violence of the War of Iraq. Bigelow also became the first woman to ever win Best Director.
In 2009, a 3D film became the highest-grossing film of all time. This milestone was achieved by James Cameron's "Avatar," the first ever to surpass all 2D movie sales. It spent a decade as the highest-grossing film of all time.
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Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular "Hunger Games" series of novels was turned into a film in 2012. It was massively successful at the box office and later on DVD, where it was the top seller of the year.
Perhaps the most popular children’s movie of the millennium, "Frozen" debuted in 2013. The animated film, which tells the story of princess sisters, has spawned a sprawling franchise, including an ice show and a sequel.
Super-celebrity Jennifer Lawrence became famous for more than her acting at the Oscars in 2013. That night, the actress tripped on her way up the stage to collect her award for Best Actress, which seemed to only make audiences love her all the more.
Fans of dark fiction were in for a treat in 2014. That year, the popular thriller "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn was released as a film that disturbed audiences every bit as much as it captured their interest.
The 2014 Oscars featured nothing less befitting of the moment than a selfie. Ellen DeGeneres corralled a group of celebrities including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Lupita Nyong’o into a shot which promptly crashed Twitter’s entire website.
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Audiences were ready to have their boundaries pushed by 2015. That year, E.L. James’ infamous novel "Fifty Shades of Grey" was adapted for the screen, sparking intense interest and controversy in equal measure.
Perhaps the most epic Oscars screwup of all time occurred in 2017. That year, presenters of the Best Picture award Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly proclaimed "La La Land" the winner; the real champion was later revealed to be "Moonlight."
The Marvel comics franchise has been lucrative throughout film history, and in 2018 it achieved an important milestone. "Black Panther" was the first Marvel film to feature a predominantly Black cast, and it smashed multiple records.
Meant to restrict minors from the audience, an R-rating naturally makes it more difficult for a film to do well at the box office. "Joker" became the first R-rated film in history to surpass $1 billion at the box office in 2019.
When the South Korean film "Parasite" won the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it made history. The film was the first non-English-language film to take home the Academy’s top award.
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