Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Top Ten Films of the Decade - The 1920s

Well, here it is: after seven posts and a whole lotta re-watching of films, I've reached the final top ten list. This was a hard decade simply because of the era; sadly, not a lot of films from this period still exist and fewer still are on video or DVD. Still I did the best I could and managed to come up with, I think, a very good list.

Without further ado:

The 1920s

10 - The Jazz Singer - Directed by Alan Crosland - It's justly remembered as the first film with sychronized dialogue, or the first "talkie", even if it is largely a silent film. Still, it caused a sensation upon its release and pretty much slammed the coffin door on the silent era. Beyond that, there is much to love about this film. First off, it stars Al Jolson, one of the greatest popular entertainers ever. Second, it is a moving and quintessential story of American life, with Jolson's character struggling against the pulls of the American dream of fame and fortune vs. old world culture and tradition. It's entirely appropriate that this is an immigrant story, which is perhaps the most purely American type of story of them all. There are some dated qualities to the film of course, none more repugnantly outdated than the casual racism of the blackface routine, but if you can put that into its historical context, there is much to enjoy.

9 - The Big Parade -King Vidor - Vidor directed this moving and powerful war film about an idle young man who joins the army to fight in WWI, befriending men outside his class and falling in love with a French girl. It was a monumentally successful film upon its release, eventually become the highest grossing film of the silent era. It is also one of the first unflinching looks at modern war, and is amazing in how it succeeds in not having any agenda other than humanism.

8 - The Battleship Potemkin - Directed by Sergei Eisenstein - A nakedly overt propaganda film depicting a dramatised version of a bloody uprising by Russian sailors against Tsarist oppression, Eisenstein also created one of the most influential films of all time in terms of editing. His use of montage to create a specific emotional response literally changed the grammar of film forever, and Eisenstein, along with DW Griffith, is one of the men who actually created the stylistic tools of cinematography and editing that we still use to this day. The Odessa Steps sequence is one of the most admired, and most imitated, sequences ever filmed.

7 - Haxan - Directed by Benjamin Christensen - It's a brilliant example of how fluid the concepts of genre were in the early days of film; Haxan is part documentary, part horror film, part exploitation, part repudiation of superstition. During the silent years, the documentary form was seen as equal to the fictional form, and this film merged the best of both worlds into one strange, wholly original piece of entertainment. It can still creep you out and educate, even to this day, and indeed the intervening years have given its strangeness a more artistic sheen than ever.

6 - Nanook of the North - Directed by Robert J. Flaherty - It was long considered to be the first full-length documentary ever made, but now, after revelations regarding the staging of many of its scenarios, it has become tainted by deception. This only serves to make the film more fascinating and reinforces it as one heck of an engrossing tale. It depticts the life of an Inuit couple in the Canadian artic, and it does so with remarkable aplomb. The fact that it seems to give audiences what they want to see rather than the reality of the situation is yet another fascinating aspect.

5 - Sunrise : A Song of Two Humans - Directed by FW Murnau - The great expressionist director Murnau made his masterpiece with this stunningly stylized tale of the battle between pastoral life, with its simple morality, and urban living, with its modern temptations. Filled with beautifully stylized and expressive set pieces, design and camerawork, it's one of the little gems of film; a strange, operatic, non-realistic film that works from sheer virtuosity.

4 - Metropolis - Directed by Fritz Lang - Perhaps the most influential science fiction film until Blade Runner, Metropolis is seminal for its use of visual effects combined with the still fresh use of art deco design, and most impressively, for its prophetic vision of the future. It takes place in a huge city-state; an urban dystopia where the workers toil in dissatisfaction for a capitalist ruling class. Hugely critical of mechanization, capitalism and urbanism, the film is never less than astounding in its innovation and scope.

3 - The General - Directed by Buster Keaton - He was the superb craftsman of silent comedy. Chaplin may have been the more nakedly emotional genius, but Keaton was more interested in the medium of film itself. Pushing the limits of his body and the limits of stunts of the time, Keaton creates a sublimely funny and at times frankly astounding tour de force of physical comedy and slapstick sequences. Everything that is done in the film is done on the day, without the help of elaborate camera tricks, and the sheer audacity of Keaton's drive to find the funniest set piece is breathtaking to behold.

2 - The Passion of Joan of Arc - Directed by Carl Theodor Dryer - The film is a dichotomy; at once both a medieval passion play, and also an innovative piece made in the still new art form of film. Its focus on the use of faces to tell the story of Joan of Arc pioneered the effective and stark power of the close up as a narrative and emotional tool. It has a stunning amount of power and impact, provided not just by Dryer's superb direction, but also by the incredible performance of Falconetti as Joan. It may be one of the most purely brilliant pieces of film acting ever captured, and it holds up exquisitely today.

- The Gold Rush - Directed by Charles Chaplin - It's filled with so many classic Chaplin moments that they defy listing. Suffice to say, this may be his funniest film, and it is also the best in its balance of pathos, tenderness and sidesplitting comedy. There's not much more to say, except that Chaplin's legendary perfectionism pays off perfectly, creating a true classic.

Well, that's it. I hope you all found it somewhat fun, and not a colossal bore. Here's the earlier posts, for those who want to go through the decades:








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