We can argue all day and night about the merits of this year’s Oscar darling The Artist. I liked it and you can read my take on it here. One thing that’s not up for argument, however, is that the movie’s relative popularity gives cinephiles, critics, and teachers the perfect opportunity to capitalize on it, highlighting movies from the silent era for people who may have never seen a film from that period. Where to start? The Guardian yesterday blogged some suggestions–“The top five silent films to shout about”–for those of you wanting to wade in a little further. Five picks doesn’t really do it justice, of course, but the choices are good and it’s hard to go wrong with Sherlock Jr. and The Last Laugh, both essential movies. And I love that they included Guy Maddin’s masterful short The Heart of the World from 2000.
I’m no silent film scholar by any means, but I do have some favorite movies from that era. This is a purely subjective, off-the-top-of-my-head list… not meant as anything authoritative. If I were pressed, I’d say my favorite silent film is Abel Gance’s masterpiece Napoléon from 1927. This rarely screened epic is a sprawling achievement and if you’re lucky enough to see Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of it later this month in Oakland, you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
Excluding that, though, I’d go with the following five films for my own great silent five list:
Der Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), directed by Paul Wegener & Carl Boese.
German Expressionistic horror film based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel, which was itself based on the Judaic legend of a mighty clay avenger mystically conjured to destroy those who tyrannize the Jewish inhabitants of the Prague ghetto.
Sherlock Jr. (1924), directed by Buster Keaton.
I have to add it to my list as well. The scene above is a justifiably brilliant moment of fantasy, physical comedy, and sly meta-commentary/self-reflexivity that is as incisive, simple, and clever as anything Charlie Kaufman has ever done.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), directed by FW Murnau.
One of the great movie moments from this period. Visually impressive, this tragic melodrama focuses on a poor farmer (George O’Brien) who gets romantically involved with a swinging city girl (Margaret Livingston) and agrees to murder his faithful wife (Janet Gaynor) so that he can be with his new lover. This film has many memorable scenes and the clip above is one of them. The editing and cinematography are simply incredible here and throughout the entire movie. Sunrise gets better and more nuanced with every viewing.
Tumbleweeds (1925), directed by King Baggot.
This is a rollicking good Western starring William S. Hart, who was known for adding a bit of cowboy authenticity into his performances and films, unlike many of the other silver screen range-riders like Tom Mix and others. Is it a great movie? No. But it’s entertaining and this sequence is fantastic–an intricate and dangerous action scene reenacting the legendary Oklahoma Land Rush.
The Call of Cthulhu (2005), directed by Andrew Leman.
This homage to silent films is based on the cosmic horror story by HP Lovecraft. It’s nicely done. There are so many legitimate silent films to put on this list–Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (I couldn’t find any clips) or his other films from those years or Wings or any of Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbucklers–but I couldn’t resist this one. It’s great fun and evokes the mood of the story rather well.