1922 Ten Best Movies

nosferatuF.W. Murnau scores three films in this year’s list, which says something about A) how many 1922 movies are available to be seen, and B) how deep this filmmaker’s talent was. The Number One is Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Most silent films have vanished because of indifference and the vagaries of film preservation; Nosferatu was supposed to be destroyed because of legal proceedings from the Stoker estate. Fortunately, a few rogue prints survived, and Murnau’s utterly eerie film – indeed a symphony of horrors – still lives.

The other two films display, to a lesser but still evocative degree, the ability of Murnau to deepen the field of the movie frame, to create a world that extends out through the back of the screen. Forget the flat proscenium of the live theater; Murnau blows that out.

The second-best film is also from Germany: Fritz Lang’s crime epic, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, a stupendously intricate portrait of a society under the spell of a master string-puller. Of all the sinister messages emanating from 1920s Germany, none delivers the dire prognosis quite as completely as this one. Next to these top two titles, the other films look positively relaxed. With the proviso that there are undoubtedly films of this year that deserve to be mentioned that are outside the reach of see-ability right now, here are the best of 1922:

1. Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)

2. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Fritz Lang)

3. Cops (Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline)

4. Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim)

5. Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty)

6. Grandma’s Boy (Fred C. Newmeyer)

7. Phantom (F.W. Murnau)

8. Pay Day (Charlie Chaplin)

9. The Burning Soil (F.W. Murnau)

10. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen)

The three big comedians are all represented with classic stuff (Grandma’s Boy is a Harold Lloyd picture), to the exclusion of star vehicles for Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford – but sorry, that’s how I roll. Nanook, Flaherty’s famed film of Inuit life, still has shivery moments, and a way of seeing the world that is just as strong as Erich von Stroheim’s orchestrated decadence. Not that there’s anything wrong with orchestrated decadence.

Movie Diary 12/15/2008

faustFaust (F.W. Murnau, 1926). As is the case with so many movies I’m revisiting for an upcoming German cinema lecture series, I hadn’t seen this in at least twenty years, which is another way of saying it seems almost completely new. If it weren’t for a few second-hour longeurs, this movie would surely be regularly invoked, so to speak, with Nosferatu and The Last Laugh in ol’ F.W.’s upper tier. (Sunrise has a tier of its own.) The scenes of Mephisto appearing at the crossroads and then taking Faust on the flight over the German landscape show off Murnau’s rare twin gifts: meticulous craft and also a wild Romantic vision. He’ll give us a lot to talk about at the series.

Yes Man (Peyton Reed, 2008). Maybe. (full review 12/19)

Movie Diary 11/30/2008

They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948). This movie never loses its tender edge or its very specific kind of intimacy. And Gun Crazy, great as it is, owes it a nod.

The Haunted Castle (F.W. Murnau, 1921). This is a well-done mystery, but somehow in the next year Murnau would make the leap to Nosferatu. Either he needed more than the gimmick plot here, or something amazing was put in his mueslix. (Choice gray-market DVD footnote: This one soberly offers an FBI Warning at the beginning, then reveals the Turner Classic Movies logo bug twice during its running time. Nice try.)

Nobel Son (Randall Miller, 2007). From the director who brought you Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing…no, I don’t ever want to type that title again. (full review 12/5)

Movie Diary 11/24/2008

burningsoil3Der Brennende Acker, aka Burning Soil (F.W. Murnau, 1922). Did Paul Thomas Anderson watch this before making There Will be Blood? Because aside from the spectre of an oil derrick in the middle of the “Devil’s Field,” there are some powerful shots of people dominating screen space that might have come straight out of PTA’s latterday opus.

Lake City (Hunter Hill, Perry Moore, 2008). Rebecca Romijn as a small-town cop, Dave Matthews as a hardass drug runner. One could be forgiven for anticipating the arrival of Leslie Nielsen at any given moment. (full review 12/12)

Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains (Gonzalo Arijon, 2007). Turns out one more version of the Uruguayan footballers and their grisly survival is not overkill. (full review 12/5)

Movie Diary 11/23/2008

Tartuffe (F.W. Murnau, 1925). A condensed version of the Moliere play, with Emil Jannings as Tartuffe, is presented as a film-within-a-film premise. Jannings is a massive dark shape, moving around in the frame like an unwelcome cloud; Murnau uses him in a near-supernatural way, as he uses Max Schreck in Nosferatu, except that Tartuffe is fat and dark and the vampire is slim and pale. I suppose coming between The Last Laugh and Faust in Murnau’s career, this one can’t help but feel minor — still, you always have the sense of a director making an impeccable decision about how each shot should land.

Madame DuBarry (aka Passion, Ernst Lubitsch, 1919). Court intrigue and star power (Jannings is Louis XV, Pola Negri is Madame DuBarry) make a useful combination in Lubitsch’s first big international success.