Monday, April 26, 2010

Best of the Decade - The Twenties

As we get our bearings and adapt to writing 2010 on all our checks and paperwork we realize it's a unique change of guard. A new decade. Now no one considers 1990 to be part of the 80's, so let's just set up right now for our purposes that a decade spans from the 0-9. Now before I had quite finished my research on 2009 I started brainstorming my ten best of the decade and realized limiting myself to ten films would be a little tough. In the name of procrastination I've elected not to clutter the internet with another best of the 2000's list for now. I still have a little more research for 2007-09 to finish, even though I have enough worthy candidates to make a top 50 without much struggle. So to buy myself some time, I plan on devoting a separate blog entry to each decade's best films starting with the 20's.

Now certainly there was a desire to perhaps start sooner than that. I've probably seen somewhere close to 150 films from the 1910's, but ironically I wouldn't say that qualifies me to voice my opinion on the subject. Sure in a previous blog post I came to the conclusion that 50 films should be enough for a top ten, but the 1910's pose a few problems. For starters it is a very inconsistent decade. Most historians will agree this is the decade that saw most traditional forms of editing and narrative storytelling evolve to a standard that's still being followed today. Sure the style of films have constantly been adapting, but the blueprint for a feature film in continuity style emerged sometime between 1913-1917 or thereabout. For this reason the number of feature length films is rather low for the period, considering most of the films I've seen from 1910-1914 are shorts or one-two reel films. Now a film should not be discriminated against for length, but for the sake of a top ten list I think I should make the requirement of being a feature film.

Before we get too far off topic, let me quickly make "my" definition of a feature film for the purposes of not only this list, but each best of the decade list to follow. A feature is a film of considerable length (at least 45 minutes for a silent film), which also happens to be a work of fiction. This might sound like a lame definition of a feature, but I'm sure anyone reading this has an innate conception of what a feature length film is and doesn't need to read me trying to redefine anything. Now of course there are plenty of feature length documentaries aren't there? What about a film like Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North? A landmark of documentary and a veritable textbook for what the genre could do for decades. Sure today's research may show that Flaherty took a few liberties, and brought back a few old rituals for the purpose of making his film a little more exotic (a practice he would continue throughout his career), but I can't get behind the film as a work of pure fiction. You'd think this would have been worked out by now, but Michael Moore is still making people question what a documentary is with his colorful presentation of the facts he's compiled. Now you may think it's once again a fiction fan hating on the work of documentary filmmakers and neglecting them from the big kids table, but well I've made the exclusion for two main reasons. First, documentary is its own unique animal. Not so much apples to oranges, as it is apples to carrots. They are not so closely linked and categorizing them the same would seem to open up a world of problems, which also brings up the question of what to do with say a more epic scale mini-series style of documentary like Ken Burns Civil War or his Baseball film. The second reason for the exclusion is much easier to explain, it simply makes my list easier. Every decade has plenty of films worthy of being included in a top ten, and call it cheating, but leaving out documentaries simply makes compiling the list a little easier (same goes for short films).

Now more and more hybrids would pop up later in film which makes defining the genre even harder (if documentaries are a genre at all), but that's a problem I'll address as needed, and when limited to ten films a decade, it might not ever be needed. So back to subject in question, I've elected to put just ten films from each decade. Of course not all decades are created equal. Limiting myself to ten films from the 60's was a serious act of contrition, but at the risk of redundancy a limit had to be placed. I recognize that reader fatigue could easily set in if you exceed the allotted ten film limit that was set up so many years ago that no one is truly sure who to blame. As readers we're used to critics providing a top ten list at the end of each year (and even a top ten of the decade). Anytime a critic deviates from this procedure as a reader you almost involuntarily roll your eyes and think someone is cheating with you, and can't simply take a stand and be decisive. After all if someone is looking at your list for the purposes of finding a recommendation, a top ten list is easy. Check the films out and if motivated it won't take long to sift through. When you start upping that list to 20, 50, or 100 the motivation to check out everything will start to wane. The other benefit of limiting yourself to ten films is that you eliminate the errors of omission more often than not. People realize that when limited to only ten films (especially for a decade) that you can't really complain why a certain film didn't make the list because of the small number of films you can put. After all just because a film doesn't make a top ten list doesn't mean it isn't a great film. Now to bring back that proverbial chicken and egg, why not just list all the great films and forgo the limitations of labels and number restrictions? Well we already went over that, and at some point in time the foot needs to be firmly put down. So ten it is, and for each decade no matter how hard I try, I'll limit it to just ten films (although don't raise your fists in anger if I include an entire trilogy).

So with all that (un)necessary exposition shall I get to the list? I think personally its a little lame to make lists of this kind alphabetically or chronologically, so I'm going in order of my personal preference. I'm giving no credence to status or reputation, after all how can the canon ever evolve if no one is willing to throw a few new contenders in every now and then? So what's a countdown if we don't start from the bottom?

10. For Heaven's Sake (1926) US Sam Taylor

It's hard to mention the films of the 20's without mentioning the "big three" of American comedy; Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Sure there were plenty of other great comedians, Max Linder, Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle, and so on, but for the purposes of over simplifying the history of screen comedy settling on these big three is common practice. Now discovering the films of Harold Lloyd was one of the more enlightening cinematic experiences of the past decade and the fact that they're readily available on DVD is worth it's weight in gold. Now the issue of auteur is always an interesting one when dealing with silent comedians. Lloyd like most of the bigger stars of the time formed his own production company and was responsible for the majority of the creative decisions in his work. By nearly all accounts Lloyd's ego was far less demanding than Chaplin and was open to input from nearly anyone with a good idea. Sam Taylor (who was one of Mary Pickford's favorite directors) got his start working with Lloyd as a writer and eventually as a director. He had a hand in directing some of Lloyd's best known films including the more famous Safety Last and The Freshman. When watching all of Lloyd's restored films however it was this somewhat overlooked gem from 1926 (sandwiched between The Freshman and The Kid Brother) that made me laugh the hardest and seemed to capture the essence of Lloyd perfectly. It's said that Lloyd disliked the film personally and the fact that he owned the rights to all his films might explain why it was kept out of circulation so long. However it is one hilarious gag after another, and like Chaplin's best work also finds a way to make a few jabs at high society and the honor and flaws with people from the other side of town.

9. The General Line/Old and New (1929) - USSR Sergei Eisenstein

Far less known and analyzed that pretty much all of Eisenstein's silent features is a film that is as troubled as any he would produce. The film's production was troublesome and when filming was stopped so Eisenstein could make Oktober, by the time he returned to it Leon Trotsky and his ideas of the collectivization of agriculture had fallen out of favor with the party. Even in two different versions (Old and New was the one initially released in theaters, The General Line was the restoration more closely resembling Eisenstein's concept) the film packs a tremendous punch. Eisenstein wasn't content to rest on his previous triumphs and was forever pushing the limitations of what could be done with montage. Some of the scenes in this film make Potemkin look like a film school project by comparison. Of particular note to some Western audiences is this is the only one of his silent films that tends to emphasize individuals, focusing largely on one family and their perseverance through this difficult process. Rather than shameless propaganda this film is compassionate art and for me says much more about rural life than Dovzhenko's better known Earth. Simply put I find this to be Eisenstein's most moving film, and one that you can watch with a fresh pair of eyes, unfortunately Potemkin seems to have been bludgeoned to death by over analyzing film professors.

8. Metropolis (1927) - Germany Fritz Lang

Well my first two offerings on this list may have seem unlikely candidates, but when it comes to science fiction and silent German films Lang's epic is the elephant in the room. This has had the unfortunate circumstance of being horribly overexposed and overanalyzed several times. The film seems to get restored every few years in a more complete version forcing historians and critics alike to reevaluate it and hopefully come to a closer understanding of what Lang’s true vision was. Personally I wasn’t too impressed the first time I saw the film, but that could probably be blamed more on the public domain copy I saw. In the early 2000’s the film was properly restored and re-released in a few theaters. That version got a DVD release and upon this viewing I suddenly “got it”. Perhaps all I needed was for the film to clean up a little bit, but the film really does deserve it’s praise. Now I’ll have to eagerly await the most recent restoration prompted by new found footage in Argentina, which has been restored and shown a few times, just hasn’t made it’s way to my neck of the woods. Perhaps Lang’s silent masterpiece, could get even better? As it stands it’s still considered the mother of all science fiction and the final triumph of a soon to be depleted German film industry.

7. Variety (1925) - Germany E A Dupont

So Metropolis might be the last great silent German masterpiece, but that was the final cherry on a very decadent sundae that produced a rather solid decade of unique cinematic treasures. Ewald Andre Dupont is not a name that commonly comes up when discussing the great wave of German directors who all at one point in time made their way to American soil. Of course most film textbooks will make a big point about Murnau, Lang, Pabst, and even Weine and Lubitsch but Dupont joined his fellow countrymen in Hollywood. Unfortunately for him his career never really came close to topping this. Inexplicably at the date of this post his only film available on DVD is his British film Piccadilly which was his final silent feature. Perhaps part of the problem with Variety is that there are so many versions floating around, the German one featured a backstory where Emil Jannings leaves his wife for the woman who eventually leaves him for a much younger and better lover. Killing an unfaithful wife was somewhat justified by Hollywood standards, but apparently not killing an unfaithful mistress. Either way the film transcends its rather melodramatic plot with some incredibly eventful subjective camera work (which has been referenced constantly in virtually every circus film made after). Dupont deserves some credit for making the eternally awful Jannings watchable and even sympathetic here.

6. The Gold Rush (1925) - US Charlie Chaplin

When discussing screen comedy it is nearly impossible to leave Chaplin out. In his prime he was the most recognizable public figure in the world and it’s hard not to admire what he was able to do, all with a supreme sense of independence. A jack of all trades, Chaplin was responsible for nearly every detail of his films and this is perhaps his finest pure comedy. In some ways this was a bit of a comeback for Chaplin who slowed his pace dramatically in the 20’s. It had been two years since his last feature, A Woman of Paris which although well loved by critics and fellow filmmakers it was quite polarizing for his fans. So Chaplin returned to comedy and acting in a fashion only he could. He set out to make what was then the longest and most expensive comedy, much of which was shot on location. He even took a page from his more daring contemporaries with a few hair raising death defying stunts. It’s hard to imagine what this film was like at the time considering how many of its jokes have been taken and reused ad infinity. Perhaps the only way is to find a young child whose never heard of the Three Stooges or Looney Tunes and see what they think, I guarantee they’ll be rolling in laughter. Chaplin may have reached further, but I don’t think he ever came close to making as perfect a comedy as he did here.

5. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) - US Buster Keaton and Charles Riesner

Some debates among critics will never ever be resolved. Among the oldest is Keaton vs. Chaplin. Now there’s no denying that in his day Chaplin was the more popular figure, and Chaplin certainly had the most enduring career making excellent films of his own accord into the 50’s (I tend to avoid his 60’s work). However despite Keaton’s shorter reign, he easily produced as many great comedies as Chaplin did in the several decades that followed. Now I don’t tend to solve this endless debate (I’m team Keaton in case anyone’s wondering), but simply to talk about the man’s films. Now in a top ten list like this some films may seem representative of a bigger picture. There are several Keaton films that could easily take Steamboat Bill Jr.’s place here on this list. The Navigator, Sherlock Jr. and the typical representative The General all would be suitable here. They all represent different but similar facets of Keaton’s persona. However I’ve always been fond of Steamboat Bill for a few reasons. One, it was his last independent production, sure The Cameraman was a good film, but made at MGM it was a last gasp before Keaton was subjugated to endlessly awful projects. You have to admire that final swan song, and Keaton pulled no stops if he was giving up independent production. Above all else you can’t avoid the hurricane sequence which remains one of the finest pieces of film in any genre, and makes me wonder why Hollywood studios still insist on using CGI for everything, even trees for crying out loud. This is the perfect representation of Keaton’s star, the out of place little man who eventually adapts to his surroundings and thrives unlike his previous tormentors, plus you throw a variation on the old Romeo and Juliet affair and you pretty much have a perfect silent comedy.

4. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) - France Carl Theodor Dreyer

Everyone likes to say “I told you so”. Sometimes our favorite films today were hated, panned failures upon their initial release. We can laugh as the films that were so well liked seem dated and overrated. However it has been known to happen on occasion that critics get it right. Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc was nothing short of a phenomenon nearly everywhere it played. Hailed by some critics as the greatest film made, it seemed like the perfect film to point to when someone needed to demonstrate cinema as a valid art form (something that still needed to be proven all those decades ago). Dreyer’s film didn’t just stand up to the best European films, it stood up to the finest operas, novels, and paintings making a case for film to be considered a serious art. It was the final triumph in a pan-European film movement that sought to collectively compete with Hollywood. Unfortunately sound came, artistry took a few steps back, and language barriers made the dream of a unified European cinema take a backseat to national identities. Dreyer’s pacing is still radical and the thought of composing a film in just close-ups, rapidly cut along with title cards that are transcripts of the trial still packs a punch today. The film isn’t just an anomaly in cinema it also is unique for it’s director. Dreyer would completely abandon this rapid fire style and become the first great transcendental filmmaker with his roving camera, extremely slow pacing, and deep focus compositions. Perhaps Dreyer knew he couldn’t top this so he didn’t even try.

3. The Man With the Movie Camera (1929) - USSR Dziga Vertov

Wait a second, hold on there buddy. You said there weren’t going to be any documentaries on any of your lists, what’s going on here? Well if that thought is running through your mind lets go back to a definition of what a documentary is. Vertov was a documentary filmmaker, but unlike anyone else. At heart he was an experimental filmmaker who constantly pushed the very definition of film language and the thought of constructing a film of images. This film belongs in a string of unique films of the late 20’s commonly referred to as “city symphonies”. Vertov’s film isn’t even the first, but it’s easily the best. More so than Eisenstein’s, Pudovkin, or Dovzhenko’s films this is the most extreme example of what montage could do if left completely unchecked. With no subject other than a city over the course of a day, Vertov constructs a nearly indescribable cacophony of clashing images, cutting, super impositions, and compositions that could effectively “blow your mind”. A timeless work that could easily stand as the finest pure experimental feature of any era, and one that shows that sometimes all you need is a camera to make a movie, no actors, no story, just a man with a movie camera.

2. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) - US F. W. Murnau

This film can’t come as much of a surprise to anyone reading this list. I’m sure most readers were expecting it at some point and I’m sure I’ll draw some ire for not having it topping the list. Murnau emerged in the 20’s as one of the cinema’s true artists. A director who could shift from genre to genre and was just as adept at constructing brilliant fantasy worlds as telling a simple love story. Sunrise was the first and possibly only great fulfillment of the German-Hollywood marriage. Calling this an American film always seems a bit misleading, but if Fox was after a little prestige, they did no better than recruiting Murnau. Unfortunately his subsequent films wouldn’t come close to topping this, and tragically Murnau died before his time. Due to negligence his follow up, Four Devils is available only as a few stills, but from most surviving reviews it paled in comparison. Sunrise is one of the simplest and truly beautiful films ever made. The characters don’t even get names in this film just archetypes. I’d say even the hardest heart has to feel something when George O’Brien falls in love with his wife all over again when they visit a wedding in the city. Equal parts endearing and innovative this is some amazing cinema, and wouldn’t be too out of place on top of a “greatest films” list. Not just a Murnau show, credit has to be given to O’Brien and Janet Gaynor for their incredible sympathetic performances, without which I doubt this film would have stuck around as long.

1. Napoleon (1927) - France Abel Gance

Surprised? I’d like to believe everyone knows who Abel Gance is, but sadly his name still doesn’t seem to pop up as much as some of his German and Soviet contemporaries. For some reason the majority of French Impressionist films have been secluded to vaults and archives and haven’t seen the light of day in decades. Gance finally got a little love on DVD with restorations of J’Accuse and La Roue (a much better known film of his), however neither film is anywhere near as good as Napoleon. The ultimate culmination of Gance’s innovations this is a full scale epic that is nearly impossible to take in on one viewing. There is just so much going on here it could hurt your brain. Gance belongs alongside Griffith and Godard as one of cinema’s greatest innovators. Sadly his place in film history is constantly overlooked, but 20 minutes into this epic and I challenge you to say anyone of his silent contemporaries was as inventive. Gance didn’t stop there however he made a near seamless transition into talking pictures where he made some of the most sophisticated soundtracks of his time. Perhaps Gance was too ahead of his time, that it’s taken the rest of cinema decades to pick up on what he was up to here. The film was a failure and Gance had to put his next 5 installments of Napoleon’s life on the shelf. In the early 80’s Napoleon was given a royal rediscovery where a whole new generation was able to see just what this criminally overlooked pioneer was able to do with one of cinema’s largest canvases. There is no way I can overstate the importance and brilliance of this film and it’s creator, and perhaps one of these decades it’ll get a proper Region 1 DVD release.