1923 Ten Best Movies

Another early-’20s list limited by the availability of what’s see-able these days. Like other years around it, 1923 contains serious attempts to define the way the cinema could be an art form in step with the other legitimate arts and not merely a disreputable distraction for the uncouth. Thus in the U.S. Chaplin makes an art film, A Woman of Paris, that leaves the Tramp offscreen and by god actually succeeds in being a masterwork; and in France the pre-Napoleon Abel Gance mounted a colossally serious (sometimes laboriously so) epic of rails and quasi-incestuous anguish and Sisiphysian lifecycles, La Roue.

But in the end I give the edge to Buster Keaton, whose Our Hospitality is decidedly less serious but almost seamless in its grace, structure, and humor. The “other” comic genius of the time, Harold Lloyd, released one of his most famous pictures, Safety Last, a delightful movie that nevertheless allows us to firmly state that Chaplin and Keaton fully deserve to be in a league of their own, with everybody else in comedy at least one level down. But Lloyd is still brilliant. The ten best movies of 1923:

1. Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone)

2. A Woman of Paris (Charlie Chaplin)

3. La Roue (Abel Gance)

4. Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor)

5. The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille)

6. Three Ages (Buster Keaton)

7. Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison)

8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley)

9. The Grub Stake (Nell Shipman, Bert Van Tuyle)

10. The Pilgrim (Charlie Chaplin)

Keaton had a good year, with The Balloonatic and The Love Nest also in release. I saw The Covered Wagon (James Cruze) once upon a time, but if it left an impression back in my teen years (when silent films were a curiosity to be considered along with those movies where you had to read the words in English at the bottom of the screen), it’s gone now. And if you ever get a chance to see The Grub Stake, a wild Alaskan adventure from one of the celebrated women filmmakers of the era, don’t pass it up.

1926 Ten Best Movies

If the Internet Movie Database says that The General opened at the end of 1926 and belongs to that year instead of its often-cited release year of 1927, who am I to argue? It gives us a towering #1 for the year, whereas The General would need to play second fiddle to Sunrise in a 1927 accounting.

Buster Keaton’s most acclaimed feature looks as though it might have been made much earlier – not because of a lack of sophistication, but because the sets, costumes, and locations are convincingly tuned to the Civil War. It’s all so marvelously balanced, the comedy, suspense, romance, historiana; balanced like a man sitting on a locomotive gear that slowly begins to move.

1926 offers up Murnau’s ambitious Faust, an imaginative spectacle that nearly sustains its high level of invention throughout; he was certainly setting the bar for young pups like Alfred Hitchcock, who’d earlier hung around the set of Murnau’s Last Laugh and learned his lessons – Hitchcock’s third finished feature The Lodger indicated a future master stepping up. There was also an auteur waiting to emerge from spud-faced Harry Langdon’s hit comedy The Strong Man, as Frank Capra debuted with a film that in some ways weirdly looks forward to It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile, Garbo was doing her thing (Flesh and the Devil was one of her defining early successes), the Soviets were doing their thing (Mother is out of the playbook on every level), and Leni Riefenstahl was kicking off her career with a death-defying role in a jaw-dropping German “mountain film” (The Holy Mountain). The ten best of 1926:

1. The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman)

2. Faust (F.W. Murnau)

3. The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjostrom)

4. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)

5. The Strong Man (Frank Capra)

6. Mother (V.I. Pudovkin)

7. The Holy Mountain (Arnold Fanck)

8. Moana (Robert Flaherty)

9. Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown)

10. Secrets of a Soul (G.W. Pabst)

The last one sneaks in because of its zany Expressionist approach to psychoanalysis; not a great movie, but a great look at what ambitious movie-makers were interested in trying out.  It nips out some very enjoyable star vehicles: Son of the Sheik (Valentino), The Black Pirate (Fairbanks), The Temptress (Garbo). There’s much more of 1926 I have yet to see, but the #1 should be solid.

1924 Ten Best Movies

Some very big movies at the top this year, as though ambitions suddenly crested and brought forth epics. The makers of these epics happen to be the names you’d want to see attached to large projects – Lang, Murnau, Stroheim, Ford – testing the boundaries of the medium see how they would hold. (In the case of Erich von Stroheim, the boundaries held, with a vengeance, but that was quite an act of stretching.)

Stroheim’s epic was Greed, that maddest of long-form schemes, which might have been ten hours (or more) long, but was severely cut before its release. Interesting to think of how film history might have been different if it had been released in super-long form and been a hit – what other grand projects might have been hatched? John Ford settled the West in The Iron Horse and Fritz Lang told the great mythological story in Die Nibelungen, films that (along with Lang’s Dr. Mabuse a couple years earlier) laid down the conventions for about half the genre pictures that would follow. Murnau’s great opus, The Last Laugh (originally Der letzte Mann), is not an epic, but its technical reach and its assumption that film is an art form make it as big as any epic.

And yet the Number One is a small movie, lasting less than an hour, and a comedy. In this case, perfection trumps ambition, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is just about perfect: a tribute to imagination, and a keen observation about film itself (Keaton plays a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams his way through a series of film scenarios). And it’s funny. The best films of 1924:

1. Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton)

2. The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau)

3. Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang)

4. Greed (Erich von Stroheim)

5. The Navigator (Buster Keaton)

6. The Iron Horse (John Ford)

7. Strike (Sergei Eisenstein)

8. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch)

9. Girl Shy (Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)

10. He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjostrom)

Two Expressionist gems come close: The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene), and Paul Leni’s Waxworks, both supernaturally-oriented. Girl Shy is a wonderful Harold Lloyd comedy; hard to pick between that and Hot Water, also a classic Lloyd. As usual with these things, it’s difficult to peg the actual date of some films; Strike is often listed as a 1925 release. But that’s also the release of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, so we’ll let Strike have its moment here.