My Favorite Movies: 1928/1929
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Rules of my favorite movies blog:
- All entries must be one-hundred words or less in length
- 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.
Honorable Mention: Street Angel (Borzage)
Borzage, Gaynor, and Farrell work together again in another lower-class romantic drama, this one perhaps not as memorable 7th Heaven, but still compelling in its tenderness and melodrama. Full of strong images, even if it's the weakest of the three films the trio worked on.
Honorable Mention: Spies (Lang)
One of Lang's epics, like Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, a modern-set film about crime and intrigue. It functions well with grand sets and tension, all under a broader, more political climate. It isn't a major work of Lang's but it's one of his better silents.
Honorable Mention: October: Ten Days That Shook the World (Eisenstein)
One of my favorite Eisenstein films is this one: a work commissioned to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the Revolution. It's a sort of historical epic, with the kind of rapid editing and patriotism you would expect from the guy. Propagandistic, but exciting and interesting as a document.
Honorable Mention: The Fall of the House of Usher (Watson/Webber)
One of two totally incoherent adaptations of the Poe story in 1928 (Epstein in France made the other). This one is shorter, more hallucinatory. Multiple exposures, a fixation on stairs, kalleidoscopic imagery; it isn't a faithful adaptation, but I dig it as a document of architecture and light doing battle.
Honorable Mention: Storm Over Asia (Pudovkin)
My favorite Pudovkin feature is the story of a Mongol and descendant of Ghengis Khan who resists European movements in Eastern Asia. Its focus on natural geography, cultural dignity, and a wild, atmospheric ending make it a pretty enjoyable watch, propaganda and all.
Honorable Mention: The Man Who Laughs (Leni)
Based on the Hugo novel, this film concerns the romantic life and vengeful motivations of a man who has been scarred with a permanent smile. Veidt's central performance is wonderful, and the film supports it with some moody, expressionistic melodrama.
Honorable Mention: West of Zanzibar (Browning)
A sweaty, weird-ass Browning film starring a vengeful, parapalegic magician played by (the always excellent) Lon Chaney who goes to Africa and manipulates a tribe to help exact revenge. Its colonialist trappings and noteworthy setting allow it to do some pretty fun stuff. Almost too flamboyant to be in poor taste.
Honorable Mention: Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton)
Buster's clowning about a big ol' paddleboat in a film about family legacy. I don't think it's as well written as some of Keaton's other films, but the third act storm sequence is one of his best setpieces, and home to what is probably his most iconic stunt/gag.
Honorable Mention: The House on Trubnaya (Barnet)
An energetic Soviet comedy revolving around a noisy apartment block. I've always like Barnet's direction, his warmth and the grace with which he treats his characters. This one is fast-moving and funny; my favorite part being when the film rewinds to tell the story of a wandering duck.
Honorable Mention: The Little Match Girl (Renoir)
An early surreal fantasy from the master of Poetic Realism, Jean Renoir. It's a pretty wonderful adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story, full of neat camera tricks and special effects. It's unlike the rest of Renoir's work, but still beautiful in its own way.
10. The Eleventh Year (Vertov)
One of Vertov's poetic documentaries, this one commemorating the ten-year anniversary of the revolution and looking forward to 'the eleventh year'. It documents the creation of a river-side power station, with footage of groundwork, construction, mining, and other various forms of labour. This one is less rapid than his other films, with more conceptual, beautiful uses of multiple exposure and split-screen. It's the first film of Vertov's that seems to pass beyond representation and into poetic experimentation. Layering images of work sites and exposing water over the houses by the river doesn't serve the film's proposed purpose, but it's beautiful.
9. The Seashell and the Clergyman (Dulac)
Purely surreal and formally inventive, The Seashell and the Clergyman is a bewildering portrait of lust and jealousy. It's about a priest and alchemist, who's obsessed with the wife of an army general. It's presented in weird art-deco environments with little in the way of a coherent plotline. Despite this, the characters feel deeply illustrated through unusual visual choices: weird angles, stylized performances, different recording speeds. It's pent-up and frustrating, but also very lyrical. It predates Un Chien Andalou, and yet it's rarely mentioned despite being the better surreal and sexual puzzler.
8. A Girl in Every Port (Hawks)
Hawks is one of great directors of friendship, with his films frequently exploring group dynamics with a fluency unlike any other director. This film starts off following the adventures of a traveling sailor trying to get laid in different coastal towns. Eventually he gets in a fight over a woman with another sailor. They feud for a while, but through their rambunctiousness become good friends, which transforms the film in a sincere and valuable buddy picture that lays its dramatic stakes on the future of their friendship and personal happiness. It's a neat movie, and an important early Hawks film.
7. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg)
A visual stunner, this shadowy Von Sternberg film is centered on a rough-edged coal-stoker for a steam ship that spends his off time in a smoky bar near the docks. A down on her luck prostitute attempts to drown herself one night, and the stoker saves her. What develops is a surprising ugly duckling romance revolving around the ability to maintain optimism when things get rough. George Bancroft's dirtied, foolhardy, but still rough as hell performance is one of the most notable of the era, and the photography is astoundingly vivid and dense. It's Von Sternberg's greatest silent effort.
6. Crossroads (Kinugasa)
The first Japanese film to show up! Crossroads is the story of a brother and sister living in the slums; the brother is blinded in a fight over a woman and the sister attempts to care for him despite their desperate circumstances. Kinugasa directs with a wild flair and surprising sensitivity: unique camera movements, asynchronous cutting, and double exposures serve the story, which is partly told non-linearly. Even with its flamboyant trappings, my favorite sequence comes in stillness, a profound moment of shared closeness as they sit together. The brother blind, and the sister watching the roof leak.
5. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
A daring, intense adaptation of the transcripts of the trial of Joan of Arc by one of the most important filmmakers of the period. The film is told mostly in close-up, full of all sorts of unique visages and a fascination with facial expression. Falconetti gives a searing, unforgettable performance as Joan, and the film's ability to maintain such an emotional forward momentum in what is ostensibly a conversation piece is pretty astounding. Its modernity, its ability to still feel so soulful, so spiritually violent, is why it endures so wonderfully.
4. The Wedding March (Von Stroheim)
One of Von Stroheim's greatest and most complete films about a prince army officer romancing a lower-class woman despite his culture of opulence and honorific titles. Von Stroheim plays the lead with surprising sensitivity, especially compared to his other films. As a director, he pays immense detail to inter-character communication; the looks they trade, how they interact physically---the performances make it a real joy to spectate. Watching Von Stroheim flirt with his love interest while mounted on a horse, or seeing them embrace underneath a tunnel of apple blossoms are unforgettable sequences. Sweet and tragic.
3. Lonesome (Fejos)
A faced-paced, beautiful film about a pair of naive, lonely city dwellers who both decide to go to Coney Island on their own and wind up meeting. It's an astoundingly fluid, exuberant film (replete with gorgeous color sequences) save for some awkward dialogue which might be expected from the time period, but I found sort of charming in the way it seemed to mirror the characters' own naivety. The bustling, crowded beach is its own character, with its own arc that interferes with the two leads in unique ways. There are some stunning color sequences too, it's a beauty.
2. The Cameraman (Keaton/Sedgwick)
One of Keaton's final features that displayed his directorial talents, The Cameraman is one of Keaton's most beautiful and strange films. For one, it feels more dramatic, with Buster's heartbreak and confusion being more deeply felt than usual. It's also crazier from one sequence to the next, with pool shenanigans (the dressing room scene is some of the best low-stakes slapstick ever), a monkey, a gang war, and speedboats. It almost comes across as a wild, reflexive work of madcap comedy; a film that provides while also reminiscing about itself, partly expressed through Buster's in-story job as a filmmaker.
1. The Wind (Sjostrom)
One of Sjostrom's very best films, The Wind tells the story of a young woman who moves to the desolate West, where it's said that the wind drives women insane---though of course the wind seems to represent societal and psychological pressures. Sjostrom has spent most of his career using nature to reflect psychology, and his dealing with a plot that literally details that notion is marvelous. Lillian Gish plays the lead, and it's one of her best performances. It's a synthesis of performance, photography and storytelling; a complete film with a distinct, foreboding sense of place and tone.
Honorable Mention: Un Chien Andalou (Dali/Bunuel)
Probably the most famous piece of avant garde cinema, this film is still as puzzling and carnal as ever, with its weirdly sexual and violent images and misleading title cards. I've always enjoyed its free associations, its snap-cuts in and out of weirdness, and its ability to disturb.
Honorable Mention: La Perle (d'Ursel)
A lesser known avant garde short, a focused, dreamlike trip into the male psyche and perception of/attraction to women. It's at once a trip back to somewhere familiar and a trip to the unknown, through pastoral spaces and through hallways cramped with Irma Vep from Les Vampires. Very weird.
Honorable Mention: The New Babylon (Kozintsev/Trauberg)
A standout Soviet film of its time; one that looks outward, to the commune of Paris instead of at its country's own history and happenings. It's still very socialist, but I like the French setting! Great photography, flashy editing, and wonderful production values make this a kind of forgotten classic.
Honorable Mention: The Lighthouse Keepers (Gremillon)
A claustrophobic, nearly abstract film set in a lighthouse, as two lighthouse keepers battle their solitude and the elements as one of them succumbs to rabies. The film is obsessed with its own vertical spaces and the gleaming, rotating lamp that all the drama orbits. Unique.
10. Arsenal (Dovzhenko)
Dovzhenko is a very curious Soviet filmmaker from this time, one who still made films that could fit into the rigid, ideological framework needed to be produced in such an environment, but more often then not they ended up as humanistic, avant-garde odyssies. Arsenal is the story of a factory uprising during the Russian revolution, but its attention meanders, to the people, outside of reality, from pacifism to the unfortunate need for violent conflict. It's not an easy film to parse, it clearly demands a lot, but I think it's beautiful and challenging.
9. Blackmail (Hitchcock)
Hey it's that guy, Hitchcock! By now he had already made a couple of notable silent films, but his first venture into sound (or not, there's also a silent version of this film) is his first great picture in my mind. It's the story of a woman killing a rapist in self defense, then gets blackmailed after she covers up her involvement instead of reporting it. It's the earliest film in Hitchcock's catalog that bristles with the tension he's known for, and it builds to a typically lurid and exciting Hitchcockian climax. It's damn good, and anticipates his impending masterpieces.
8. Les Oursins (Painleve)
Jean Painleve is a little-known documenter interested in sea life who made films for decades. His films are hugely enjoyable; marked by a pointed curiosity and excellent photography, and this short, which investigates the functions of two different types of urchins, is one of my favorite early works of his. The precision and beauty of the ahead of its time macro photography is both illuminating and abstracting, fully expressing the weirdness of these creatures. It's a wondrous combination of art and science, capitalizing on audience fascination in both informative and aesthetic terms.
7. Hallelujah (Vidor)
Vidor's Southern-set musical with an entirely black cast showcases not just the overlooked talents of African American actors, but also remains one of the most coherent and thoroughly enjoyable early musical experiences in film. It features the folk song and dancing one might expect from such a locale, but it also exists in a Southern Gothic headspace, with money, doomed love, labor, and religion all clashing with one another. Vidor's sure-handed direction, good performances from actors with musical talent, and the film's original outlook make it essential.
6. Regen (Ivens)
Joris Ivens is one of the greatest experimental documentary filmmakers ever, and the guy has a hell of a career that dates back to early shorts like this one. It translates to 'Rain', and that's exactly what it's about, chronicling a period of rain in Amsterdam; how it effects the crowds, the many surfaces, the already standing water in the canals. It captures weather as a kind of brief, universally transformative period of time, which both reveals and hides what it touches. The film's simple rhythms and careful attention make it a relaxing, pleasant watch.
5. Applause (Mamoulian)
With his first feature film, Mamoulian made probably the biggest leap in sound film, and overshadowed many early sound films that would follow it. The story of an aging vaudeville performer and her daughter she wants to keep away from show business which progresses predictably, though sincerely. Mamoulian's craft is what makes it so great though: tracking shots, split screen, multiple exposures, unconventional angles, on-location shooting---it's all being done, and with the bulky technology that made it the hardest to do.
4. Finis Terrae (Epstein)
A beautifully shot elemental docudrama set on the French coast. It details the working lives of two pairs of seaweed gatherers who work off of a rocky chain of islands, collecting algae and then burning it for its valuable ash. The drama is simply detailed, with little emphasis on characterization, but the film has a timeless, poetic quality to it thanks to beautiful locations and unique visual decisions. Shots of the ocean or coastline are often in slow motion, even when intercut with the characters, as if emphasizing the looming, eternal presence and power of nature. An underrated gem.
3. A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith)
The sort of film I wasn't aware the British could make. It's the story of a jealous hairdresser who falls for a manicurist in his salon who is already interested in a customer. It treats his jealousy as unhealthy while still sympathizing with his case of unrequited love, which is admirable. The photography is excellent, with beautiful closeups and POV shots that detail character psychology in smart ways. It isn't just a deeply felt drama, but also a sly self-realization as to silent film's inevitable end, as evidenced in a really beautiful sequence set in a theater playing a 'talkie'.
2. Lucky Star (Borzage)
A rich, breathtaking romance about a lonely young woman who works for her strict mother, and sparks a relationship with a worker who returns from war disabled. Farrell and Gaynor are just amazing here, and Borzage's direction is practically flawless. His attention to physical movement, how these characters look at each other and interact, the sparse, impactful photography---this is one of my favorite looking/staged silent films. I'm sure some people might find the ending dubious, but in a thematic sense I love it, this movie got me good. It also has my favorite hug ever filmed (pictured).
1. The Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov)
Vertov's crowning achievement; a film about modern life, but just as much about its own construction, this film drives through itself with gorgeous photography and impeccable editing. It's not just a celebration of... well everything happening, but it seems overjoyed, celebratory that the camera exists to document, fragment, reintroduce reality. There's a thundering musicality to this film, which begs to be approached the same way, to simply be taken by the rhythm and shape of its images as they fly along. A towering achievement of not just experimental film, but of visual culture.
1928 and 1929 were such a rich, transitional period for film. Experimentation was really the name of the game, and so many masters and future masters contributed greatly to film form, or helped move sound film into more compelling areas. For the next few years, film in the larger sense stumbled a bit, but there are still a bunch of really great movies that fell between the cracks.
Recommendations, compliments, and complaints are all welcome!
As much as I love Sjostrom I just have to say that "The Man with a Movie Camera" are one of my absolute favourite films/documentaries from the entire 1920's era. Its something raw... strong and really impactful of this film. Vertov really manages to catch every side of the russian society of the time. Its such a shame that its hard to find the film with the original soundtrack anywhere. I still remember first time I saw this and how it struck me with awe. Even though the beginning creeped me out a little with the seats moving. At university I actually wrote a 10 page analysis on this film and the opening line was "The title really sums it all up so perfectly, As a viewer we get to follow Vertov on this journey in the making of a film about making a film".
I could go on for ages about this film and its impact it had on me and my interest in film as a medium, but I think I kinda have made that clear haha!
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The first time I saw The Man With a Movie Camera, it was blind and alone. I didn't know anything about it other than it was an important silent film, and I saw it at a theater with the Alloy Orchestra performing their soundtrack live.
It's definitely confounding at first. There's that sense of "What exactly am I seeing here? What is this about?", but after a few minutes you learn to stop resisting it.
Anyways, I love almost all of the movies in these two top 10's. Very, very good years.
yeah it really is something extra! I totally agree that these top 10s are amazing all way through! I kinda miss this old way of making films.. it was something more.. genuine about the whole process and result that is a different world from days action packed blockbusters