My Favorite Movies: 1915-1919
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.
Why start at 1915?
The easy answer is that it's a landmark year. Feature filmmaking was still a young concept and it was solidified in America on this year because of the financial and cultural success of one of the films I'll be mentioning. This does not mean that I will be excluding short films (there are a number of short films on these lists), but rather that I wanted a year to start on that I wouldn't have to pad; I've already reduced the first five years I'm writing on to five films a piece because of this desire.
This also does not mean that there weren't excellent films---masterpieces made prior to 1915. I do not want to undersell the excellence of the Lumieres, Porter, Melies, and the earlier works of many of the filmmakers featured in this blog, but at the same point I needed a jumping off point. 1915 seems to make the most sense to me.
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.
5. Assunta Spina (Bertini/Serena)
Assunta Spina is a rather ordinary film in some senses. It's based on a play: a kind of lover's tragedy centering on jealousy and commitment. It's also one of the first films around to really focus on building a coherent sense of realism. Performances are surprisingly restrained, with shots that linger on gesture and posturing as opposed to over-the-top emoting. What lingers with me most, however, are the lovely landscapes. Even the simplest of scenes are photographed against the sprawling Mediterranean coast. Definitely an overlooked gem worth seeing for its handsome presentation.
4. Regeneration (Walsh)
Hollywood, of course, has a long history of crime films, and one of the most important Hollywood filmmakers in this genre (or just old Hollywood in general) is Raoul Walsh. This is one of his first films, and it's a pretty standard outing in terms of plot: lifetime gangster is redeemed through honest woman. But the craft and especially the authenticity of the work is what makes it so enjoyable today. It's a surprisingly sophisticated movie, one that feels more in line with the films made two decades after it.
3. Birth of a Nation (Griffith)
One of the most influential films ever made, Birth of a Nation has a deservedly dubious reputation. Its premise involves a race war that culminates with the KKK, represented as heroes, vanquishing a black populace that has overthrown senate. It's an immeasurably racist work, but it also a formally brilliant, exciting one. Its use of editing and directorial techniques work together to form beautiful cross-cutting and shot sequencing that's leagues ahead of anything else made prior. Like it or not, it's a titan, an unavoidable force of influence on cinema as a whole.
2. After Death (Bauer)
Bauer is an overlooked director, and almost certainly the best pre-Soviet Russian filmmaker. After Death is one of his strongest and most representative works: a portrait of a reclusive man who becomes obsessed with a stage actress. This film is one of the first to successfully capture a broken mental state, focusing on the character's driving passions instead of their symptoms. Bauer's clean, smart visual style results in a number of striking images, especially in the reality-breaking back third. A film without much of a reputation, but one with uniquely modern outlook.
1. Les Vampires (Feuillade)
Feuillade's opus, this multi-part French serial is easily one of my favorite films from any era. It concerns itself with a dastardly group of criminals (the titular 'Les Vampires') being hounded by an honorable journalist and his crafty coworker. It moves like an old comic strip or radio show, with each episode revealing a little more about the criminal organization, full of kidnappings, trap-doors, secret messages, and chases. It's one of the great early portraits of a city as well, with the streets, roofs and interiors of Paris on full display. A genuine masterpiece.
5. One A.M. (Chaplin)
This is one of Charlie Chaplin's early shorts, devoid of his iconic Tramp character. He assumes the role of a drunkenly impaired socialite attempting to go to bed after a night out. Chaplin exhibits a beautiful sense of restraint both in direction and performance. Though it does, like most slapstick, amount to a series of gags, they're all low-stakes and all work to describe and take advantage of the space. It's a great case of a rising filmmaker making the most out of a simple premise.
4. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (Emerson)
One of the strangest films of its era, this comedic short is about a wacky drug-addled detective named 'Coke Ennyday' played by Douglas Fairbanks who tries to bust a crime ring. The drug use is ridiculous in this one, with Coke shooting cocaine, chugging laudanum, and even using his hypos to subdue criminals. It's played in broad, demented strokes, full of absurdity and mischief, which is part of the reason why it's endured. It's one of the best examples of a pre-code film; an uninhibited, mad relic.
3. Hell's Hinges (Swickard)
The western was an important part of American film for a long time, perhaps the most American of all film. This early effort about a minister and his sister attempting to convert a lawless frontier town is surprising in its clarity and romanticism. Given that the manicured, studio-style was becoming more popular, it's great to see a film set in the old, dusty West that really captures it genuinely. Undoubtedly one of the best early westerns.
2. Intolerance (Griffith)
This might be Griffith's greatest film, a multi-period epic about grace being challenged by societal forces. Set in the modern day, Renaissance France, the time of Christ, and Babylonian times, Griffith cuts between these with profound visual rhythm. The thing is, these stories don't have a whole lot to do with one another, but they're each so ballsy, and are executed with insane scale and panache. The Babylonian segment is especially incredible with its humongous sets and central battle sequence. A work of uninhibited hubris and madness that holds up far better than The Birth of a Nation.
1. Judex (Feuillade)
Back-to-back masterworks from Feuillade. This one is also a crime serial, but one that eschews many of the attitudes and storytelling devices found in his previous films. The mysterious machiavellian force is the hero of this story, and this force is distinctly anti-capitalist, with the plot focused on the kidnapping of a crooked banker. Flowing underneath the class battle are the unavoidable ties and importance of family, which slowly develops as the dominant theme of the work. The city and rural areas are also beautifully contrasted with stellar photography. An excellent film by any measure.
5. The Adventurer (Chaplin)
Primarily a chase film, this one concerns Chaplin's tramp as an escaped convict avoiding police and getting drawn into a bourgeois love triangle. It's a simple premise, but Chaplin inflates it to a couple of very distinct and smartly drawn setpieces. The first of which, set on a steep cliff-face near the water I especially like for its momentum and lovely locations. Chaplin's sweetness and clever staging continue to develop, making The Adventurer one of his most enjoyable short films.
4. Easy Street (Chaplin)
Chaplin's best film of the year, however, was this excellent slapstick comedy. Again, it features the tramp, this time as a newly hired beat-cop assigned to the worst street in town, ruled by a muscle bound brute who extorts and terrorizes the locals. Chaplin showcases his ingenuity, building a simple street intersection into both a sensitively drawn communal hub and a playground for movement and physical comedy. Chaplin's sweetness imbues the picture without falling into heavy sentimentality (a common trap for Chaplin), making it one of his essential films of any length.
3. Satan's Rhapsody (Oxilia)
A brief retelling of the Faust myth, this time with a female protagonist who wishes for her youth. In plot it's fairly standard, but the photography and visual pacing are great, capturing the lavishness and romanticism of living a fruitful but doomed life. What sticks in my mind most are the opening, wherein Mephisto emerges from a painting, and the ending where he claims the soul of the protagonist. Beautiful color work here as well, both in tinting and, in these bookending sequences, painted on.
2. The Dying Swan (Bauer)
This film, about a ballerina whose heart is broken and who becomes a muse for a death-obsessed painter, is Bauer's best film I've seen. It's a strange, heartbreaking film about artistic inspiration with well-realized characters and impressive cinematography; and I found moments of it stunning. Many films tell us something a character does is magical or profound, but few make us feel it. When the ballerina performs the titular dance, the crux of the entire film, alone on a stage in an unbroken wide shot, it's astounding. One of the best films of its decade.
1. A Man There Was (Sjostrom)
Adapted from an Ibsen poem, this short feature is one of the first films I would consider an overwhelming work of emotion and visual poetry. It's a simple film about a man trying to provide for his family, but it twists into a moral tragedy that carries the bleak, cathartic pathos that the Swedish dramatists are known for. The photography is just excellent, mostly set and shot on the turbulent, rocky coasts of Sweden. Sjostrom, who directed the film, gives a wonderful lead performance as well. It's an astounding, moving work that holds up beautifully.
Honorable Mention: Tih Minh (Feuillade)
Another impressive crime serial from the French master, though this one is not quite as strong as some of his ones that came before. It's solid a crime story, but its leaning on orientalism was a bit of a turn-off for me.
Honorable Mention: I Don't Want to Be a Man (Lubitsch)
A charming little gender-bender from romantic comedy maestro Ernst Lubitsch. Not the most progressive film in terms of gender roles, but it's nicely directed and like so many other Lubitsch films, it discusses sex with warmth and intelligence. Pleasant enough to be worth mentioning.
5. The Sinking of the Lusitania (McCay)
Animation pioneer Windsor McCay used a lot of time and money crafting this animated short, which, as the title suggests, represents the infamous war crime that killed over a thousand people. McCay renders the sinking almost in real time, with a keen eye for detail. The tragedy isn't captured on a personal level, but on a large scale, with wide shots of the ship slowly dying like a wounded beast. It's a still affecting, original piece of early animation.
4. The Blue Bird (Tourneur)
Directed by Maurice Tourneur (father of genre legend Jacques Tourneur), this early fantasy based on a then popular stage play occupies a similar phantasmagorical space as the works of Melies. It's about a pair of children voyaging through a dream space in search of a blue bird, being led about from several fantastical environments by a fairy. The material is sentimental and somewhat crude, but the craft is so lovely it legitimizes even its most treacly moments---like when the two children come across a cottage that houses their deceased family members. It's a still charming fantasy flick.
3. Shoulder Arms (Chaplin)
A medium length comedy from Chaplin about the first world war of all things. It's a surprisingly grim atmosphere that Chaplin conjures up, but it's alleviated through his usual excellent slapstick. It's a weird combination, but Chaplin's camera is fixated on the absurdity of the war, on trench living and being unable to see your combatant. The scale of the film is a good deal larger and more intricate than the films he had made prior, and it anticipates his feature work that would soon follow.
2. The Outlaw and His Wife (Sjostrom)
Again borrowing from a Swedish dramatist, Sjostrom directs and stars in another great feature about the struggle of the human spirit in law and nature. It's the landscapes I remember most in this one, with mammoth cliff faces, stormy seas and just all around great location photography. It carries an authenticity uncommon for its time, a modern, elemental authenticity that informs and heightens the drama.
1. A Dog's Life (Chaplin)
One of my favorite films from Chaplin, this is a film without a gimmick---without a contrivance which thrusts the Tramp into some unfamiliar job or situation. In this one, the Tramp is just the Tramp, and his situation and spirit is bolstered by a kindred spirit; a stray dog. It should be noted that I have a soft spot for dogs, but even excusing that, this is one of Chaplin's most nuanced, most deeply-felt comedies. Chaplin's gags are more refined here and it's clear to see his burgeoning humanism. Probably his best short film.
5. The Oyster Princess (Lubitsch)
This is the year Lubitsch really came into his own. A wacky comedy about an authoritative oligarch and oyster baron who plans to marry off his spoiled daughter. Lubitsch's inventive style which merges the critical and the celebratory is applied here to the opulent upper class of the early 20th century. Ostensibly a farce, but one presented with lovely production values and a broader silliness that Lubitsch might not commonly be known for.
4. Sir Arne's Treasure (Stiller)
The elemental moral tales from Sweden continue in this chilly portrait of guilt. It's about a group of Scottish mercenaries who break out of military prison and murder a respected family for the patriarch's (apparently cursed) treasure. One daughter survives and is later courted by one of the murderers, who she fails to recognize. It's an engaging plot held together by its period detail and mounting tension. Like other Swedish films of the time, there's a heavy emphasis on place---the desolate North which is contrasted by freezing exteriors and warm, claustrophobic interior spaces. A still engaging tragedy.
3. Blind Husbands (Von Stroheim)
For those who don't know, Erich Von Stroheim is one of the most interesting figures of silent cinema. Very few of his films weren't interfered with to some degree, and almost all of them are excessive and over-ambitious in some sense. This, his first film, about a fiendish adulterer taking advantage of a woman while she is vacationing with her husband in the Alps, is a lot of fun. Von Stroheim plays said adulterer with maniacal charm, and his visual direction is also excellent, capturing the mountainous terrain and merging it with the drama of the story.
2. South (Hurley)
A woefully underappreciated early documentary about explorer Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated voyage to Antarctica, which led to his team being stranded in the ice for nine months. The crazy thing is a filmmaker was with them, and documented the journey. South seems far more fixated on the strangeness of the space and the people and animals within it than it does with the difficulty of survival, which is weirdly comforting. It's really well photographed for the time, and has an earnestness and spirit that's really warm and infectious.
1. The Doll (Lubitsch)
This, however, was Lubitsch's best film of the year---and mainly because it's just so insane. It's about a young suitor who is pressed to marry, but decides to marry a mechanized doll instead of a real woman. The production design is super stylized and always winking, with heavy theatricality. How the film looks and moves is almost a joke itself. Lubitsch, however, is widely known for his commentary, and this film really probes the male fascination/fear of female sexuality in a smart and wacky way.
There you have it! Recommendations, compliments and complaints are welcome! If you're interested in a similar, more verbose blog series about my favorite games I've got one of those too that starts from 1985.
*banner image courtesy of flower_arrangement
Very interesting and inspiring list!
I am a big sucker for Chaplin and his visual language. Even without a word being spoken he still managed to show more emotions than modern film! Nothing today comes close.
Somehow I had completely missed "A Man There Was". After reading your short text about it I feel that I owe it to myself to find this film and watch it!
I would also like to add "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1916) to your list! It is differnt. As a diver myself I can also appreciate the shots of fish etc extra much when you think about what time this was filmed.
I hope you continue with your list! I know that I want to see more!
Yes! I've seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's got some very strong production design and some cool photography but it didn't reach me as much as the other films from the same year---though it has been a few years since I've seen it.
I'm glad you enjoyed my blog! I really love film, and any time my praise can gravitate someone towards a film I love or find interesting it makes the time feel worth it. I plan to keep this blog series going, but I've got a few films to track down from 1920-1924 which is the next entry, so it'll probably be up some time later in July.
flower_arrangement last edited by flower_arrangement
Haven't had a chance to go through this properly as I'm on a crazy work all nighter, just wanted to say this is a phenomenal start to the blog, tons that is new to me, and I work as a film researcher amongst other gigs! So glad to see Lubitsch on the list, never thought I'd see him mentioned here, that puts paid to my assumptions; the EZA community has already surprised me and continues to regularly, it's so refreshing compared to the usual gaming forum fare.
Can't wait for you to hit 1928 just to see if you mention one of my favourite films of all time.
You've put me in mind of The Story of Film: An Odyssey by Mark Cousins. Would love to start talking about some of the connections and links between very different films across time as this goes on. Quick question, you've got documentary in with narrative drama, any plans to include purely art film / avant garde work at all? Viking Eggeling, Maya Deren, Hollis Frampton, Peter Tscherkassky et al
Thank you! And yes, there will be a good deal of experimental and non-narrative cinema going forward, especially once we hit the mid-20's, when film really intersected with the art scene. I love every facet of cinema, and I think my following blogs will reflect that even more given how exponentially the medium grew in following decades.
But yeah, I dig it all, dude!
flower_arrangement last edited by
Amazing! Have you read the late A.L. Rees' A History of Experimental Film and Video? If not I highly recommend it, I think you'll love it.
ObbyDent last edited by
As a film major this thread (hopefully a series?) has me salivating.
Thanks! And yes, I plan to continue doing these. The next one will have twice as many films though, because I'll have a top 10 for each year.
Oscillator last edited by
I highly recommend Intolerance. Fantastic production values, :sunglasses: