Top Ten Movies: 1929

man-with-a-movie-camera

A popular observation about silent films was that they had reached their peak by the time sound was introduced. Recently watching Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde Man with a Movie Camera, it’s hard to argue with such a case. Often found on countless “greatest movie” lists, including the always reputable Sight and Sound poll, this culmination of the “city documentary” genre exceeds in just about every boundary imaginable. As Soviet montage formalism, Man’s impressive in its seamless control of actuality and subjectivity. As nationalistic propaganda, it deviates from parading any set of forced ideals and focuses on people. As a silent film in general, it tells the story of a whole nation without a single intertitle. Add to it its ingenius use of self-reflexivity, allowing to see a day in a life of an unnamed city and then watching as, brace yourself, the editor pieces the film for us to watch as an audience in the actual movie, and you’ve got a master at hand orchestrating a well-maneuvered requiem to a medium we had already bid farewell. So at #1 Man with a Movie Camera goes.

1. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)
2. Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel)
3. Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. Lucky Star (Frank Borzage)
5. A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith)
6. Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst) and Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst)
7. Hallelujah (King Vidor)
8. The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch)
9. Spite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton)
10. The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst)

You want to talk about unprecedented, Luis Buñuel did to experimental cinema in less than twenty minutes what few, if any artists in that vein, could claim in a career’s lifetime. Then there are those films that treaded the fine line between silence and sound. I’ve had the fortune of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail on the big screen with Anny Ondra driven mad by the word “knife.” It is said that a silent version of the film exists, but I can’t imagine its delivery being just as impactful. A Cottage on Dartmoor mirthfully plays with a scene mocking sound at a movie theater that’s as scathing as Chaplin’s jabs towards talkies in City Lights and Modern Times. But other than that, Asquith’s glum thriller is anything but playful. Vidor’s Hallelujah and Lubitsch’s The Love Parade take leaps and bounds by becoming some of the very first musicals in film, all the while directors like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage presented works that were nothing less than masterpieces of the silent movement.

Those titles that just missed the ranks include a twofer from Dudley Murphy. Both St. Louis Blues and Black and Tan are exceptional in conveying just what exactly the blues and jazz meant respectively at the time, not to mention becoming cinematic landmarks on music history by preserving in film the enigmas that were Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington. Erich von Stroheim had his problem picture Queen Kelly, with Gloria Swanson taking control midway and unfortunately losing focus, and The Marx Brothers debut was forever embedded in nitrate with The Cocoanuts. Notable performances (apart from Louise Brooks cementing a mother of a legacy in one year alone) include Helen Morgan in Rouben Mamoulian’s remarkably fluid Applause, Anna May Wong overseas in E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly, and Gary Cooper in Victor Fleming’s Wolf Song and The Virgininan. My argument for the latter being that while Cooper wasn’t the most versatile actor around, he had the poise and disposition of what I always found myself to believe was a true movie star. So there you go.

Next time: 2006.

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Top Ten Movies: 1952

Singin' in the Rain

When you think of the movies chances are you probably conjure up images in your mind that include Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman bidding farewell one foggy night at the end of Casablanca. Or Cary Grant running for his life while a crop duster tries to gun him down in the middle of nowhere in North by Northwest. But there’s no denying that among these iconic scenes also stands Gene Kelly’s eponymous dance number in Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, it is rumored that during this exhilarating and now quintessential musical sequence, Kelly himself was battling a fever of 103 °F. But you’d never guess it! The minute the film begins it never lets go of its wondrous and buoyant momentum. Here was a prime example of what the Hollywood studio system could produce, a high-budgeted technicolor spectacle with stars, songs, and a happy ending. More often than not, it succeeded in telling a good story along with it all. But with Singin’ in the Rain the system got something more. It got a film that dealt with the trials of the motion picture industry transitioning to sound while in the real world Hollywood was desperately trying to survive a new and imposing competitor: Television. So musical numbers from forgotten movies were reintroduced, historical events were loosely incorporated, and the whole industry watched as a film steeped in its own celluloid past provided sheer fun and good laughs in a landmark that all other musicals continue to aspire to achieve today. Not surprisingly, over sixty years later, Singin’ in the Rain still provides those good laughs, as funny and joyous as they were in 1952. 

1. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly)
2. Othello (Orson Welles)
3. Europa ’51 (Roberto Rossellini)
4. The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
5. The Quiet Man (John Ford)
6. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin)
7. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)
8. The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray)
9. Casque d’or (Jacques Becker) and The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir)
10. Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls)

As fragmented as Orson Welles’ Othello is, it’s this same crude element – due to a complicated production history – that enhances the movie’s brooding temperament, not to mention its brilliant use of wide angle lenses to create a cavernous space of veils, bars, and shadows. Then there’s the spiritual odysseys embarked by the leading actresses in Europa ’51 and The Life of Oharu, which allow their films to transcend into a sanctified realm not often found in the cinema, a true rarity that makes a case for the movies as a medium that can attain a higher level of aesthetic beyond their entertainment value. The same can also be said about Akira Kurosawa’s heartbreaking portrayal of what extraordinary results can come out of one dying man’s compassion for others. John Ford returned to his native land to shoot one of his most strikingly lush non-westerns, while Nicholas Ray rodeoed his way down to ranch country in The Lusty Men to dabble in Ford’s mastered genre.

Those that just missed the ranks include Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D., which, along with Europa ’51, demonstrated that Italian Neoralist films, although waning by early 1950’s, still had some brilliant titles left in their influential movement. Gérard Phillipe channeled his inner Errol Flynn in Fanfan la Tulipe, and Gary Cooper duked it out on his own for a showdown of the ages in High Noon. René Clément had the devastating Forbidden Games, while Fritz Lang delivered two great genre pictures, Rancho Notorious and Clash by Night. Add a couple of other classic westerns – Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sky – some taut B-noirs – Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential – and 1952 is beginning to look like quite the strong year for American cinema.

Next week: 1987. Offering a swan song of a movie as beautiful to watch as it to listen… to the dialogue that is. Melodic, like an old Irish standard. 

Top Ten Movies: 1926

1926 The General Buster Keaton’s The General is still a wonder to behold. It doesn’t attempt to procure any particular acclaim outside of entertaining, and yet today it’s considered a masterpiece of the silent era. There’s no high concept theme sermonizing about the “human condition” or sophisticated cinematic techniques commenting on the plot and/or characters. It just tells a good story and chugs along. Like its homegrown protagonist, it’s the film’s charm and deceptively simple approach that makes it such a unique and delightful experience. Which really could be said about the work of any of Keaton’s contemporaries (see Harry Langdon in The Strong Man). They made the laughs look far much easier than what they really were, often breaking a couple of bones along the way. And when they got it right, well… how else could one describe their movies but sublime. And that The General is, standing out in a somewhat tepid year for film.

1. The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton)
2. 3 Bad Men (John Ford)
3. The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström)
4. Faust (F.W. Murnau) and The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger)
5. Mother (Vsevolod Pudovkin)
6. The Strong Man (Frank Capra)
7. Moana (Robert Flaherty)
8. The Black Pirate (Albert Parker)
9. Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff)
10. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)

3 Bad Men is one of John Ford’s best, skewing the lines between corrupt authority figures and noble criminals long before directors like Anthony Mann or Sam Peckinpah revised the genre. And this is Ford we’re talking about! In the nineteen-twenties! Then there’s Lillian Gish at a culmination in her career. While other actresses scrounged for the kewpie doll/gamine roles, Gish was busy challenging herself with each new film, enriching her body of work by continuously expanding the boundaries of her craft and paving the way for other great American movie actresses to come (à la Bette Davis and Meryl Streep).

But Gish does get quite the stiff competition from Greta Garbo, who’s luster is equally as bright in Flesh and the Devil. That film makes it on the list just over a handful of other strong contenders. But I’ve got to learn to have a little self-control, especially after cramming The Adventures of Prince Achmed in there with another gloriously visualized German classic. So Flesh and the Devil has to stick it out on its own at the number ten spot.

Those that did miss the cut include Teinosuke Kinugasa’s feverish A Page of Madness and Ernst Lubitsch’s jazz age extravaganza So This is Paris; the latter based on a couple of hilarious skits I discovered online in an otherwise hard-to-find comedy. Mary Pickford had Sparrows, which has one of the most touching scenes involving an orphan and an apparition that captures the pathos of the moment just right, and Rudolph Valentino bids farewell with The Son of the Sheik. Then there’s Raoul Walsh’s boisterous What Price Glory?, one of Harold Lloyd’s self-proclaimed “gag pictures,” For Heaven’s Sake, and the criminally underrated Beatrice Lillie laughing it up in Exit Smiling. And where’s Chaplin? Perhaps he needed to take a break after climbing up the Klondike.

Next week: 1973. Has anybody seen my cat?