Thursday, July 15, 2010

100 years, 100 films Bonus Features: The Twenties

Welcome to the 100 years, 100 films Bonus Features. This is where I sum up the decade I have just concluded watching, and also give a "Top Ten" list of films from that decade. I didn't do this section when I finished the teens because, quite frankly, I couldn't think of ten films I had seen that were worthy to go on a "Top Ten" list. I could think of ten films that were, "pretty good, I guess," but even then that was only if I included short films. And I didn't think a "Top Ten" list should have shorts, or movies I didn't like all that much.

So, with that out of the way: The Twenties.

This was the decade where the art of the silent film was mastered, perfected, and then ruthlessly tossed aside in favour of a product that was, at the time, significantly worse. Sound films eventually became great, obviously. But at first, well, I can't imagine people not being a little pissed off at the visual tedium, the slower pace, the diminishing of emotional power. Fortunately these problems didn't last too long, but they lasted long enough.

I guess this is my way of saying that you aren't going to find The Jazz Singer on my "Top Ten" list. As influential and important as it may have been to the evolution of cinema, it was just, well, kind of crummy. So, to the list.

10. Metropolis (1927). This isn't my favourite Fritz Lang movie, or even my favourite Fritz Lang movie from the twenties, but it holds a certain level of nostalgia for me, because it was the first silent film I ever saw. Also, you know, it's pretty damn good.

9. The Gold Rush (1925). Charlie Chaplin can be very funny, or cloyingly sentimental, or both. In this, his funniest movie, he manages to largely avoid the cloyingly sentimental side, without actually removing the heart of what made The Tramp such an endearing character.

8. Waxworks (1924). Paul Leni's German Expressionist film is two-thirds of a masterpiece. The movie is three stories linked with a framing device about waxwork dummies. The first two stories (about Caliph of Baghdad and Ivan the Terrible) are incredible. The third one, about Jack the Ripper, is cool-looking, but makes no sense, feels tacked on, and is just generally pointless. It's a shame that this otherwise excellent film ends on such a bum note, because otherwise, this film would be even higher on this list.

7. The Freshman (1925). So, yeah, if you hadn't guessed by now, this list is going to be pretty heavy on the American Comedy and the German Expressionism. But what can I say? These were the two greatest schools of film making at work in the twenties. I can't imagine someone watching The Freshman and not being charmed by Harold Lloyd's little dance of greeting. I also can't imagine someone watching the dance and not thinking that it was one of the most ridiculous and hilarious things they've ever seen.

6. The Three Musketeers (1921). I already reviewed this movie, so I won't say much about it, except to say that in my initial review I complained about the ham-fisted symbolism. With the passage of time, the symbolism has passed from my mind, but what remains is Fairbanks' insane intensity.

5. Sunrise (1927). I couldn't decide whether to put this on the list, or F. W. Murnau's also brilliant Nosferatu. I do like this film better, but then again, I only saw this film recently, and maybe the passage of time will make it seem worse, or something. Then I thought, nah, fuck it, this movie was incredible, and if anything the passage of time will make this film move higher up the list, not lower down.

4. The Battleship Potemkin (otherwise known simply as Potemkin) (1925). Sergei Eisenstein's film is so highly praised that I almost felt the need to leave this film off of this list, as a sort of, "screw you, filmic establishment!" but I decided not to because, well, it's a really damn good movie.

3. Safety Last! (1923). Harold Lloyd's best film features one really elaborate gag (the famous climb up the side of the building) and one gag of such simple brilliance that I laugh every single time I think about it. I won't spoil it for you, but it's Harold's brilliant way of hiding from his landlady. Amazing stuff.

2. Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922). This film is long (almost four hours), but it is also incredible, so it's worth it. Fritz Lang's first "Expressionist" film plays with all the themes and motifs that he would later become so famous for, but does it with such exuberance and energy that it is better than anything else he ever did. Or at least, better than anything else he did that I've seen.

1. Sherlock Jr. (1924). Buster Keaton's bizarre and brilliant surrealist slapstick fantasy doesn't work on the brain like a regular comedy. It lulls you into a dream state, and amazes you with its incredible mastery of visuals. You laugh, but you're not quite sure why, or at what. You just sit there, amazed that this film is allowed to exist. One of my favourite films of all time.

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