My Favorite Movies: 1920/1921
Ringedwithtile last edited by Ringedwithtile
Rules of my favorite movies blog:
- All entries must be one-hundred words in length or less.
- Entries are to be ranked in a descending order.
- Every year, save for 1915-1919 must be a top 10.
- Honorable mentions may be included, but they must be less than or equal to fifty words in length.
A short disclaimer:
These lists aren't some be-all-end-all. There are obviously a lot of films that I've missed, but I have spent and continue to spend a good amount of effort seeing the really notable stuff from any given year if it is possible for me. These lists are just the opinions of someone who has spent a little too much time watching movies.
SO HERE'S THE THING:
This was initially a list for films from 1920-1924, because I liked the idea of moving a half-decade at a time. So I formatted the whole thing, and at the end, even wrote my thoughts about the blog maybe being too long.
Turns out I was right! I hit the character limit. So instead I've decided to pair down the blog, so I'll be covering two years at a time.
Also, Buster Keaton is my favorite of all American filmmakers in case any reader is wondering why there's so much of his stuff. Get used to it, he doesn't disappear until the next decade.
10. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robertson)
Though a famed, oft-filmed novel, it's actually a pretty tough adaptation to pull off. Robertson's direction encapsulates the dark, sinister tones of the material, but also, smartly, focuses in on faces. Barrymore is very good in the lead role, and the main reason for this film showing up on my list. I don't know if it's as good as some later adaptations, but for its time it's still an effective creeper.
9. The Golem (Wegener/Boese)
A staple of early German film, The Golem is a societal commentary on race relations, wherein a large sculpture is animated in order to battle antisemitism, only to spiral out of control. The production design is pronounced and exaggerated (though not as heavily as a film a little lower down), and Wegener, also who co-directs, carries the imposing physique and strangeness needed to play a role like the Golem.
8. L'Homme du Large (L'Herbier)
Similar to A Man There Was, this is the story of a patriarch living alone on a rocky island, but this one spends much more of its time investigating the man's family, especially his selfish son who's responsible for much of the tragedy. This was directed by modernist Marcel L'Herbier, and its visual style definitely reflects it. There is an emphasis on visual experimentation: saturated tinting, heavy light and shadow, cropping and overlaying images, and even unique title cards. I don't think it's all too successful, but its formal daring definitely makes it worth seeing.
7. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Weine)
If the eccentricity and style of German Expressionism were to be represented by a single film, it'd be this one. A surreal, constructed portrait of madness that's earned an unmovable spot in the canon. I don't think it has a whole lot to say, but it's certainly stylistically interesting, with its jagged sets and shadows, and self-conscious storytelling. Its visual style alone makes it one of the most notable films of its year and a staple in film textbooks around the world.
6. Convict 13 (Keaton/Cline)
Here's the first of many Buster Keaton films in this (and the next) blog. It's a fun caper film about a goofball golfer who gets falsely imprisoned via a costume switch. It features a number of Keaton's vaudeville influenced gags (the ball-on-a-rope finale), but also his fascinations with deadpan and the absurd (a vendor throwing packages of peanuts to other prisoners as they spectate Buster's hanging). It's a fun watch, even if it isn't one of his best shorts.
5. The Penalty (Worsley)
Lon Chaney is an excellent actor, and this demented role is one of his best. He plays a legless crime lord plotting revenge against the doctor who amputated his legs when he was a child. It is a compelling early portrait of the criminal underworld, but more importantly it's one of the first dramatic films I can think of that's entirely owing to its lead performance. Although a simple character, Chaney's commitment makes Blizzard real through his faithfully represented physical handicap and his devilish charisma. I love Chaney, and this is more than worth watching just for his talent.
4. Neighbors (Keaton/Cline)
One of Keaton's simplest and most enjoyable short films. A sort of Romeo and Juliet portrait of warring families wherein Buster falls for the girl on the other side of the fence to the dismay of both families. The fence is a character itself in Neighbors, heavily contributing to many funny physical gags. The movement and experimentation isn't just lateral but also vertical, with several gags involving the windows of the tenement buildings as well. It's lean, smart and funny on a moment-to-moment basis like every comedic short should be.
3. Way Down East (Griffith)
Griffith has always been an excessive director, and suppose this film falls in line. It's overpopulated and well over two hours, but it displays his romanticism better than any of his other films. It's a story of a poor girl who's brought into high society and tries to find truth and love in an unfamiliar, uncaring environment. Lillian Gish is excellent in the lead, and Griffith really knows how to keep his intensity at a slower pace. It may not be as grandiose as some of his other films, but it's just as rousing in its own, intimate way.
2. The Parson's Widow (Dreyer)
An early comedic feature from one of the most portentous of all directors; this one really caught me off guard. It's about a young man who gets the job of a deceased parson in a small village only to find out that he's forced to marry the old, craggy widow who's rumored to be a witch. Dreyer's visual fixations: faces, sun-drenched windows, architecture, and religious fortitude all play a role, but with a much lighter touch. It's a very authentic, eventually tender film with great photography and a charismatic lead performance. Somehow one of my favorites from Dreyer.
1. One Week (Keaton)
Buster's first flat-out masterpiece. It's a beautiful, simple premise that allows Keaton not only to display his impressive physical abilities, but also his excellence in staging, his obsession with physical space and architecture, and his wonderful, underrated photographic skills. It's about a pair of newlyweds whose house blueprints get sabotaged, and they end up building an absurd, practically cubist house where everything is in the wrong place. It's full of inventive gags, has one of the most iconic finales in silent film, and displays everything that makes Keaton a genius. One of my favorite shorts.
10. Tol'able David (King)
A box office hit for its time, Tol'able David is the story of a small farming family that's terrorized by criminals, and impaired to the point that the youngest, naive son of the family is the only one left able bodied to protect and provide for them. Though it doesn't seem to promote much other than macho silliness, it's a tense, nicely produced film with still startling violence. I like its sense of place, and I think Henry King is a really underappreciated filmmaker, even if this isn't one of his best films.
9. The Blot (Weber/Smalley)
Filmmaking and editing pioneer Lois Weber (best known for her cross-cut short Suspense) co-writes and co-directs this unique portrait of a suburban family. I'll be honest, I only saw this once some years ago, but I remember being struck by its sincerity and its tonal weirdness. I remember how faithfully suburbia was captured. I remember a roast chicken being a prolonged fixture of the plot. I mostly remember it for being pleasant and idiosyncratic, which are two of my favorite qualities in film.
8. Manhatta (Sheeler/Strand)
A documentary short of nicely composed shots of New York. It's created in awe of the great city, which makes it compelling in the context of the year it was made, but also today, now that New York looks drastically different. It's a city of bustling crowds, bleeding smokestacks, and large imposing buildings that dwarf the people walking the streets. One of my favorite things about older films is how they capture and represent their space in time, and that's all this film is.
7. Seven Years Bad Luck (Linder)
The French Max Linder, who had been around for years before this film, transitioned to America and made a couple of pretty fun shorts. This one is about an engaged, superstitious Max who is afraid to marry after breaking a mirror. The opening of the film is pretty brilliant, featuring a fake mirror gag as his servants attempt to hide the fate of his shattered mirror; it anticipates the Marx Brothers in its physical and conceptual brilliance. The back half is a little flimsier, but still this is one of Linder's most fun pictures.
6. The Playhouse (Keaton/Cline)
One of Keaton's most iconic films, if just for its flair. It's about a worker at a playhouse, doing odd jobs and helping out with the performing variety show. What's most notable is the opening: a dream sequence in which Buster plays everyone in and watching the show. He's the orchestra pit, the dancers, the people in the opera boxes. It's a level of directorial commitment and technical skill not normally employed by the silent clowns. It is almost at odds with the rest of the film, which is a fine display of Buster's vaudeville abilities and not much more.
5. The Goat (Keaton/St. Clair)
Buster gets framed. He is pursued by the police. About as bare bones as Keaton got, but he uses this plot to experiment with pacing and gags that bend the fabric of his film world. Buster escapes using multiple means of transportation, disguises his self, poses as art, and even crushes a man with a bunch of rocks and leaves him for dead. It's a weird one, but it moves quickly and has a neat finale.
4. The Kid (Chaplin)
Chaplin migrates to feature filmmaking with this, one of his most sweet and iconic efforts, about the tramp's escapades with an abandoned child. Unlike a lot of Chaplin's previous work, The Kid is more dramatic, tackling themes of child endangerment, legal custody, and parental regret. Still, Chaplin's good-natured physical and situational comedy is in its prime, making this one of the Tramp's best outings.
3. The High Sign (Keaton/Cline)
One of Keaton's simplest shorts, about a man who enters a shooting gallery only to fall into the schemes of the dastardly gang that owns it. After faking a display of his shooting skills, he's hired by both the gang to kill a target, and his target as a bodyguard. Keaton's performing abilities are fully taken advantage of here, as he relays a dramatically tense and ironic plot beautifully. Each setpiece is nicely paced, and every bit as dynamic and pliable as one would expect from Keaton, with a hell of an action scene to cap it all off.
2. The Wildcat (Lubitsch)
Lubistch's silent farces are all enjoyable, but The Wildcat might be the high-point of this rotation. It's about the kidnapping of an officer by a group of bandits, and one of the leaders of whom, a wily woman named Rischka, falls for their bounty. It's a simple story, but, like several of Lubitsch's other silent comedies, it's wildly eccentric. Lubitsch plays with framing here in a literal sense, using shapes to iris-off parts of the image and present the story in a suitably mischievous way. Rischka's cool as hell and the movie's a flamboyant, energetic watch.
1. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom)
One of Sjostrom's best films, this one concerns death personified. It's New Year's Eve, and death's duty for the next year falls on the last person to pass before midnight. This premise is framed in stories told by characters, flashback, and through the protagonist's own experiences. Sjostrom's craft has never been more mystical and ambitious, using double exposures to evoke spirits and dingy streets and interiors to faithfully represent lower-class living. It's a still startling expression of how we confront guilt, regret, and responsibility.
So that's the first entry of the 20's. Good news is I've written up my lists for 1922, 1923, and 1924 as well, so the next blogs will be coming down the line a little quicker. Recommendations, compliments, and complaints are all welcome!
Oscillator last edited by
The Phantom Carriage is on my to-watch list. Really looking forward to it!