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.

Top Ten Movies: 1967

1967 Le Samourai

What a year for French cinema! While those wunderkinds of the New Wave continued to hack away at the content and form of film, one even going so far as to disown the medium, you had seasoned veterans producing some of their most distilled and finest work. And distilled is exactly the word I’d use to describe Robert Bresson’s Mouchette and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, both lauded masterpieces that produce a certain kind of purity in their directors’ visions. The same could also be said about Belle de Jour, a movie that has always struck me as the Buñuel film to initiate one unfamiliar with his sensibilities, foot fetish and all. But it is Jean-Pierre Melville’s lean and stoic crime drama that nabs the top spot with its astonishing balance of both quiet urgency and its counterintuitive weariness. Melville, caught between the French pre-war traditional method of filmmaking and its enfants terrible successors, always seemed to mirror a combination of the two. With Le Samouräi, he just so happened to also produce his most stylish and iconic gangster movie of them all. And in Melville’s world, that kind of detail makes every bit a difference.

1. Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville)
2. Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel)
3. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
4. Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
5. Playtime (Jacques Tati)
6. Accident (Joseph Losey)
7. Weekend and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard)
8. Point Blank (John Boorman)
9. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy)
10. Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg)

Even American films began to exude with an invigorated youthfulness that had rubbed off from overseas. Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank, the former initially orchestrated to be directed by Francois Truffaut, brimmed with an energy knowingly produced by French gangster movies like Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player, movies themselves influenced by, what else, but older American gangster pictures. I guess we Yankees just didn’t know how good we had it. But we did have Cool Hand Luke, an Americana piece of classical craftsmanship that beats out another peer amongst its class, El Doroado.

Those that just missed the cut include Mike Nichols’ little known comedy The Graduate (have you heard of it?), which unfortunately conventionalizes in its second half when it should have jabbed deeper into the Braddock-Mrs. Robinson affair. D.A. Pennebaker showed the world that Bob Dylan could be a not so very nice guy in Don’t Look Back, and Robert Blake gave the performance of a lifetime in In Cold Blood, eerily foretelling a future all too familiar to his movie’s character. Then there’s Shirley Clarke’s fly-on-the-wall Portrait of Jason, which, along with David Holzman’s Diary and Titicut Follies, makes for an astounding case of exceptional documentaries that emerged in 1967 – if Diaries could be considered that.

Czechoslovakia had the breathtaking Marketa Lazarová and The Firemen’s Ball, Sweden gave us the *ahem* mature I Am Curious (Yellow), and Brazil offered up the spellbinding Terra em Transe. More great French films included Éric Rohmer’s La Collectioneuse and Godard’s La Chinoise (which makes three!), while Britain bestowed the… what would you call it? Somber? Somber cinematic year with an underrated and still clever comedy, Bedazzled, that, come to think of it, could take a spot on the top ten any day of the week. Now where do I sign?

Next time it will be the year 1995. “There’s a snake in my boot!”