1930 Ten Best Movies

Movie year 1930 ought to belong to Josef von Sternberg, who made two of the top three pictures and was off and running on the string of fascinating films made with Marlene Dietrich. But I am compelled to go with something else at #1 this year, a movie that gets close to the essential joys of the cinema. (Sternberg got burned by the Crop Duster in 1934 and 1935, too, coming in at #2 both years. Sorry.)

The #1 is Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a movie that probably sounds like a film-school chore but actually is a beautiful film-for-film’s sake demonstration. It could sound deadly in synopsis: peasant humor, collectivist message meant to illustrate great glory of Soviet state, sequence hinging on the arrival of a tractor. But the movie is infused with human and bodily pleasures, leaving behind any narrowly ideological or propagandistic limits. And when a man dances alone on a road in the moonlight, you know why movies were invented.

Sternberg and Dietrich merely turned out The Blue Angel (in two versions, German and English) and their first Hollywood collaboration, Morocco. The director turned his actress into a figure of film style, draped his images in nets and laces and melancholy, and confronted audiences with a worldly attitude about the charged romances he was depicting. And then there’s the rest of the best films of 1930:

1. Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko)

2. Das Blaue Engel (Josef von Sternberg)

3. Morocco (Josef von Sternberg)

4. L’age d’or (Luis Bunuel)

5. All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone)

6. City Girl (F.W. Murnau)

7. The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)

8. Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra)

9. The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks)

10. The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau)

The Capra title is a favorite, a strange, forceful low-budget title with a blazing performance by Barbara Stanwyck. The Big Trail is an early widescreen experiment that gave John Wayne an early lead role; if the movie hadn’t been a box-office disappointment, the Duke might’ve been an A-movie star much earlier than it turned out. But the movie is gorgeous.

Other nice things: The Bat Whispers, a delightful mystery-comedy directed by Roland West (and another widescreen experiment), Hitchcock’s Murder!, Rene Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris, and the neo-realist People on Sunday, a German “indie” made by a gang that would become a nucleus of Hollywood emigre talent in the decade to come: Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, Eugene Schufftan, Curt Siodmak. Also the Marx brothers had Animal Crackers, an urgent study of the hunting of African animals in pajamas.

Soloist Fighting Earth, Shall We? (Weekly Links)

My raft of reviews from the Herald this week.


You must become Fado.

Fados. “If Sinatra had gotten lost in Lisbon.”

The Soloist. “Greyhounds who like to run.”

Fighting. “Vertebra-crunching brawls.”

Earth. “Running out of synonyms for astonishing.”

Sugar. “Uniquely American spaces and stories.”

The Informers. “All coked up and no place to go.”

Shall We Kiss? “As French as Freedom Fries.”

Examined Life. “Agreeably casual discourse.”

Movie Diary 4/18/2009

The Reality of Hell (Creflo Dollar Ministries). Happened upon this on a religious station while channel-surfing. It’s a ten-minute video embedded into a sermon by Creflo Dollar, an experienced huckster whose God-money conglomerate is called World Changers. This amazingly sadistic short film depicts a young woman who slips into Hell after some kind of injury, a torture-porn sequence straight out of a Saw film. The woman writhes in a slimy little space, her mouth bound in a trendy S&M style, rotting creatures screaming, chains rattling, big red-eyed demon lurking around. I have to admit the “gotcha” ending works pretty well. This is a more technically sophisticated version of the filmstrips the nuns showed us in third grade, which were fairly simple renditions of people wading chest-deep through what looked like red-hot lava and a lake of fire. What a recruiting tool Hell is! The Creflo Dollar sermon, titled “The Reality of Hell,” can be found from the list on this page of his website, here; the scareshow begins around the 16:30 mark, and, as Rev. Dollar says, is “very close to what the Bible describes.”

Search for Beauty (Erle C. Kenton, 1934). Holy God Almighty, this is a weird movie. Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino (she’s unrecognizable) are perfect athletic specimens who unwittingly help Robert Armstrong and James Gleason set up a fitness empire as a ruse to titillate people. Of course the movie itself is not at all doing the same thing. Some great lingo and a startling final joke.

Earth (Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, 2007). I don’t care how nonchalant you are about nature documentaries, this one (gummed up a bit with cornball James Earl Jones narration) will have you gaping. If you have ever wondered what it would look like if lions attacked an elephant at night, and even if you haven’t, this will blow your mind. I wrote in my notes while watching the movie: “Look at all those fucking caribou.” Because there are a lot of caribou here, people.

Lemon Tree (Eran Riklis, 2008). The director and star of The Syrian Bride reunite for another parable about the current-day Israel-Palestine troubles. It helps that the star in question is Hiam Abbass. (full review 5/1)