#36 (tie) – Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang

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Futurama. The prototypical mad scientist Rotwang shows off his mechanical hand and his mechanical-man to Joh Frederson, the effective ruler of Metropolis, the dystopic society created by director Fritz Lang.

Above ground, a towering, glittering city filled with a pleasure-seeking elite. Below ground, the tenement colony of workers who operate the massive machines that drive the city above. Metropolis (1927) is the story of a young man and woman who try to break down the divide between the classes in the name of love and common humanity. But little of that matters, because the film is foremost a canvas on which director Fritz Lang creates some of cinema’s most enduring images and characters. The most expensive silent film ever made, Metropolis represents ground zero for cinematic science fiction — even more so than A Trip to the Moon. Every cinematic dystopia from Blade Runner to Akira to The Matrix owes a debt to Metropolis‘ title city. The novel Frankenstein may have created the mad scientist, but it is the performance of Lang regular Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the fiendish inventor Rotwang that serves as the model for every deranged scientist to come. And Metropolis‘ most famous creation, the Machine-Man, was effectively cinema’s first robot (and served as direct model for C-3PO in Star Wars). In all, Metropolis is a simplistic take on class conflict, but one told on a grand scale and with a visual inventiveness that has kept it relevant and eye-popping for over 85 years. (150 min.) Continue reading

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#154 (tie) – The Gold Rush (1925), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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That’s usin’ yer head. Charlie Chaplin gives a boost to his prospector pal as their cabin teeters on the edge of a cliff in The Gold Rush, a “dramatic comedy” set in the snows of the Klondike.

The Gold Rush (1925) marks the earliest Sight & Sound entry by inarguably the most famous figure of the silent era: Charlie Chaplin. More than just a shabbily dressed clown, Chaplin was a true pioneer of early cinema and a rampant perfectionist. He didn’t just write, direct, and star in his films, he got involved in everything, even writing some of the musical scores. The Gold Rush serves as a decent introduction to his most famous persona, the irrepressible loser the Little Tramp, whose waddling gait, bowler hat, cane, and toothbrush mustache are basically synonymous with Chaplin. In this comedic adventure, the Little Tramp makes his way into the mountains of Alaska during the gold rush days of the 1890s. Seeking to strike it rich, he instead runs afoul of a desperate murderer and a surly, burly prospector. Foiled in his mining efforts, the Little Tramp falls for a high spirited young woman back in town, only to be teased and humiliated by her and her friends. But don’t worry, things come together nicely — in a death-defying sort of way. In the opening credits, Chaplin calls The Gold Rush a “dramatic comedy,” and given its strong currents of pathos and romance that serves as very apt description. (95 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – Napoleon (1927), dir. Abel Gance

Napoleon (1927)

Able was I… Napoleon surveys the rain-soaked aftermath of his assault on a British garrison during the siege of Toulon in Abel Gance’s silent epic on the youth and early career of the famed French military commander and emperor.

For a time he was the most feared and powerful man in the world, he gave his name to an era of history, and he was a character in both War and Peace and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But before he would command hundreds of thousands of troops and be crowned an emperor, he would first need to win a snowball fight. At least that’s how it all starts in director Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon. The massive, sprawling film spends over five hours (in the version we watched) documenting the early years of Napoleon’s rise to power, beginning with his days at school and moving through the first years of the French Revolution, the siege of Toulon, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s courtship of and marriage to Josephine, and his invasion into Italy. The film features a remarkable array of cinematic techniques and innovations to tackle the incredibly complex story of not just a remarkable man but also the fate of a nation in transition. Perhaps Gance’s most famous innovation in Napoleon was the first use of a widescreen format, which he accomplished by utilizing three cameras which would simultaneously film scenes that would then be projected onto three linked screens. Unfortunately unavailable on DVD, Napoleon is tricky to track down but it presents truly remarkable spectacle on a scale most movies can only dream of. (310 min.) Continue reading

#84 (tie) – Greed (1924), dir. Erich Von Stroheim

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“Open up and say, ‘Meh.'” Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed strives to tell the story of ordinary working class people corrupted by a winning lottery ticket. The film makes strong use of real life locations instead of the usual Hollywood sets.

Pretty much from the beginning, Hollywood has been a factory for producing glitz and glamour — attractive people engaged in impossibly amazing stories meant to entertain the masses (and turn a profit). Greed (1924) was an attempt by Austrian-born director Erich Von Stroheim to run against the grain of the system to produce a down-to-earth story that would tackle the unpleasant lives of some rather unpleasant people. Adapting the late 19th century realist novel McTeague, Von Stroheim steered clear of the artificial opulence of Hollywood to film on location at the actual places mentioned in the novel — including the scorching Death Valley, California. He also cast actors who are decidedly not among the beautiful people, wanting to have his characters portrayed by individuals who would suit the working class environments in which the story takes place. But that does not mean Von Stroheim was content to have the film look as everyday as its sets and actors; Greed utilizes numerous unusual techniques for the period, including selective bursts of color, chiaroscuro lighting schemes, montage editing, and deep focus cinematography (16 years before The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane). But Greed is perhaps most famous for its epic length. The first cut was over 9 hours, but was eventually slashed down by the studio to just over 2 hours without Von Stroheim’s approval (he disowned the final cut). The excised 6-plus hours of the film still remain unaccounted for and are considered by many to be the holy grail of cinema. (140 min., 239 min. in TCM reconstruction) Continue reading

#5 – Sunrise (1927), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Love is blind, careless. The Man and The Wife rekindle their love and stroll right into traffic in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which makes use of innovative visual techniques to tell a modern day fairy tale.

After a number of big hits in Germany, director F.W. Murnau was enticed to come to Hollywood, given a massive budget, and promised complete creative control. The result of this deal was Sunrise (1927), the highest ranking silent film on the Sight & Sound list. The story of Sunrise is very simple: a farmer is seduced by a woman from the city and convinced to kill his wife. He finds himself unable to commit the murder and instead falls in love with his wife all over again during a day out in the big city. But to tell this fable Murnau employs a number of innovative visual techniques, impressive and elaborate sets, and some of the first use of sound in a major motion picture. For most of the silent era the camera remained static, or perhaps a few tracking shots were possible; in Sunrise the camera flies over tables and marshes, freed from prior constraints. It was also the first movie to have a musical score attached to the film, enabling the syncing of music and even some sound effects to the action on screen. At the first Academy Awards, Sunrise won the Oscar for Best Creative or Artistic Film, an award that has not been handed out since. (95 min.) Continue reading

#59 (tie) – Sherlock, Jr. (1924), dir. Buster Keaton

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Excitebike. No stranger to close calls, Buster Keaton hurtles forward on a driver-less motorcycle to rescue his beloved in Sherlock, Jr.

We have already yammered about a few early films that incorporated impressive dream sequences or dream imagery, but none of those movies have the relentless comedic energy of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. This 1924 silent comedy features Keaton as a cinema projectionist who literally leaps into the movies to fulfill his dream of being a detective. After falling asleep in his projection booth, Keaton’s dream-self enters the movie screen and begins a series of bizarre adventures that push the boundaries of early filmmaking and involve a number of inspired comedic set pieces — including perhaps the craziest motorcycle chase ever caught on film. Because it is all a dream, Keaton is able to throw away all pretense to reality and not let logic or physics get in the way of a good gag. Sherlock, Jr. may lack the grand scale complexity of Keaton’s triumph The General (1926), but the danger and derring-do of that later film can be found here in spades (Keaton actually fractured his neck doing one Sherlock, Jr. stunt). And as with any decent silent comedy it ends with a nice bit of romance… um, sort of. (45 min.) Continue reading

#127 (tie) – The Last Laugh (1924), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Pride cometh… Emil Jannings stars as a man defined by his job at a luxury hotel, who loses everything when old age leads to a humiliating demotion in F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh.

Some people live for their work, even when it isn’t the most groundbreaking or vital of gigs. In F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924), Emil Jannings plays a man whose entire life is defined by his job as the doorman of an upscale hotel. His doorman uniform isn’t just the symbol of his occupation, but serves as a marker of distinction and eminence in the working class apartment block where he lives with his niece. As the day laborers shuffle off to work each morning, Jannings can glide through the tenements like a general surveying the troops. But when the aging doorman loses his position, his world crumbles down around him, leaving him humiliated, fearful, guilt-ridden, and ridiculed… at least until an unexpected series of events befalls the poor man. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund’s silent drama/comedy tells a simple story through striking sets and compositions, inventive camera movements, and (almost) a complete lack intertitles, creating a new language of cinema in the process. (90 min.) Continue reading