1928 Ten Best Movies

spione3A banner year for the big guns of silent cinema, and a duke-out for the #1 slot. It’s a close call between Carl Theodore Dreyer’s intense depiction of the spaces and faces involved in a martyr’s death, and Fritz Lang’s awesome cataloging of a master criminal’s incredible reach. While The Passion of Joan of Arc deserves its secure place as a classic, Spies is even more alive on screen, boasting the prototype for many James Bondian adventures to come and one of the great endings in movies. (Joan will be one of the main topics in an upcoming lecture of mine; see details here.)

One caveat to the list: I ran out of time to watch Josef von Sternberg’s Docks of New York, even though it’s been sitting in my stack for months. So I may have to amend the ten. But for the moment, here are the best of 1928:

1. Spies (Fritz Lang)

2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodore Dreyer)

3. The Circus (Charlie Chaplin)

4. The Wind (Victor Sjostrom)

5. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner)

6. The Crowd (King Vidor)

7. The Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim)

8. Oktober (Sergei Eisenstein)

9. Speedy (Ted Wilde)

10. Street Angel (Frank Borzage)

Directing credits don’t always tell the whole story, and just because Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd didn’t take credit on Steamboat Bill and Speedy doesn’t mean they weren’t the actual guiding forces behind those wonderful films. Chaplin was never shy about taking credit, and The Circus, while not attempting the emotional heft of The Gold Rush or City Lights, contains a series of blissful sight gags. You know it’s a strong year for movies when a masterpiece such as The Crowd falls to #6; this movie is at least as influential as any other on the list. And while Falconetti is rightly famous for her concentrated performance in Joan, she’s matched by Lillian Gish giving her all in The Wind, a stunning work that has been growing in reputation for the last 20 years or so.

Some terrific movies barely missed the tally: White Shadows of the South Seas, a gorgeous shot-on-location picture; The Cameraman, another Keaton film, not always mentioned in his best work but hilarious nevertheless (and featuring one of the great movie monkeys of all time); nice early efforts by future Hollywood giants, Submarine (Capra) and A Girl in Every Port (Hawks); Vidor’s Show People and Sternberg’s Last Command; Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs; and a fascinating Martin and Osa Johnson travelogue, Simba.

Next week: 1966.

Movie Diary 11/10/2008

spione33Spies (Fritz Lang, 1928). In January I begin a multi-part history of early German cinema, so re-visiting some classics is on the agenda now. Lang’s ability to collapse screen space (and time) is fully in bloom, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s performance helped spawn a dozen Bond villains to come (although he’s more fun than any of them).

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962). Prepping for a talk about Lawrence this coming Sunday. Seeing the movie on the small screen, with the overwhelming spectacle reduced to a manageable size (i.e., not on the vast screen of Seattle’s Cinerama theater), I was struck at how the political material sticks out. Appropriately enough, one sees a different angle on this film depending on how it’s watched, and in this case the chess match of a Middle East entanglement was much to the fore.