#102 (tie) – Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible

C.C.C.People Power. Tsar Ivan Groznyy absorbs the will of the people as they march to beg his return to the thrown in one of countless powerful images from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I.

Sergei Eisenstein is one of the great directors. A pioneer of montage editing, inventive camera placement, and rousing action set pieces, Eisenstein was also a deeply cerebral filmmaker and a Marxist deconstructionist of film technique who put together some of the best theoretical pieces on movies ever written. In many ways he represented the leading edge of experimental Russian cinema in the cultural renewal that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. But like many of his contemporaries, things didn’t go so well for the director after Stalin came to power, and his film output dwindled. Still, with World War II raging and the Soviet Union suffering the brunt of the casualties, Eisenstein was called on to create a series of films meant to inspire the Russian people against the Germans. The director set out to craft a trilogy about Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of all Russia, using the 16th century monarch as a representation of the supreme power of the State and a symbol of unity for the Russian people. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Ivan Groznyy, 1944) was considered a triumph upon its release, and features some of the most stunning visuals found in any film, as it tackles the opening years of Ivan’s reign from his coronation to his first major victory over the scheming nobility. But Eisenstein’s success was short-lived. Though Part II was finished, it did not meet the approval of Stalin, who forbade the film from being released. Stalin also pulled the plug on the production of Part III, of which little footage has survived. Eisenstein passed away not long after. (99 min.) Continue reading

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#2 – Citizen Kane (1941), dir. Orson Welles

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Bet you five you’re not alive if you don’t know his name… Orson Welles (left) and Joseph Cotten star in Citizen Kane, a portrait of the life and times of a towering newspaper magnate. For 50 years the film topped the Sight & Sound poll and remains one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

By the time he was 25 years old, Orson Welles was already acknowledged as a theatrical genius and radio drama innovator. When Hollywood came calling, Welles was given an unprecedented deal for a first time filmmaker in the days of the studio system — complete creative control over all aspects of production. At the age of 26, he directed, co-wrote, and played the title role in Citizen Kane (1941), generally considered one of the best movies ever made — if not the best. Loosely based around the life of yellow journalism tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane tells the story of the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, a fabulously wealthy businessman and newspaper publisher who never finds fulfillment in his riches. More specifically, the movie follows an attempt by a reporter to decipher the meaning of Kane’s cryptic dying word: “Rosebud”. Citizen Kane freely jumps back and forth through time, abandoning narrative convention as it examines Kane’s life through interviews with former friends, lovers, and associates. And it looks gorgeous as it does so, deploying extreme camera angles, brilliant use of light and shadow, and deep focus photography to chart an elaborate course through the big, complex life of a big, complex man. (119 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Vampyr (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

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Dead or alive. Allan Grey, or perhaps just a dream self, stares through a coffin window. Such stark lighting and inventive camera angles work to create a nightmare world of danger and confusion in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.

If there is a difference between horror and suspense, it might might be said to come down to a question of opacity. Horror shows its hand; suspense keeps it hid but implies strongly. But perhaps more importantly, suspense isn’t necessarily meant to scare so much as to create a mood, an atmosphere in which anything — probably the worst anything — can happen. Despite featuring an undead blood sucker, a malevolent doctor, and a one-legged murderer, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) can’t really be said to be a horror film. It does, however, create a morbidly grim atmosphere that also manages to playfully tap into the realm of dreams and nightmares. The film is awash in strange lighting schemes, misbehaving shadows, off-kilter angles, and unorthodox performances, the sum of which create a picture that engages even as it strains comprehension. Vampyr is a movie of details more than a movie of scares, but its deliberate pace and bravura camerawork create a compact world of hypnotic beauty and grimy tension. (73 min.) Continue reading

#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

#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

#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

#117 (tie) – Nosferatu (1922), dir. F.W. Murnau

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Stranger in the night. Count Dracu… er, I mean, Count Orlok haunts the minds and plagues the bodies of his shipbound victims in a scene from the silent horror film Nosferatu (1922).

Nosferatu has long been considered a horror movie staple, and it is the earliest film on the Sight & Sound Top 250 list by German director F.W. Murnau. Between 1922 and his untimely death in an automobile accident in 1931, Murnau produced four movies now considered by critics to be among the very greatest ever made, with his 1927 film Sunrise (#5) being the highest ranked silent film on the list. Nosferatu was the first attempt to bring Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the silver screen, but it was filmed without securing the rights from the author’s estate. Consequently all of the characters have different names and some story details were changed in the hopes of avoiding a lawsuit (it didn’t work, they were sued and most prints of the film were destroyed as a result). So while it is a familiar story, Nosferatu gives it a spin all its own and produces one of the most iconic villains of cinema — the hideous bloodsucker Count Orlok. (92 min.) Continue reading