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Tag Archives: Teinosuke Kinugasa

The Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2017

My Blu-ray/DVD consumption has waned somewhat in the wake of my subscribing to FilmStruck but I was still able to easily cobble together a list of my top 10 favorite home video releases of 2017 (plus 11 runners-up). Enjoy:
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10. A Page of Madness/Portrait of a Young Man (Kinugasa/Rodakiewicz, 1926/1931, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
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Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good example of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story about the goings on in a mental hospital. The plot has something to do with a man getting a job as a janitor in the same asylum to which has wife has been committed in order to be near her but I’ve never fully grasped exactly what is going on, which for me is part of the appeal; I just give myself over to the dreamlike imagery. Silent Asian films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-narrative film like this all the more valuable. Flicker Alley has done cinephiles a huge favor by creating a new HD transfer of a 16mm print only one source removed from the original camera negative. While there are limitations to the image quality, it’s still a vast improvement over the only previous home video release — a fuzzy VHS tape that came out way back in the 1990s. Also included, the silent experimental American film Portrait of a Young Man, directed by one Henwar Rodakiewicz, which is well worth a look.

9. Despite the Night (Grandrieux, 2015, Matchbox DVD)
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Philippe Grandrieux’s unique brand of transgressive but poetic cinema stands as one of the high-water marks of 21st century European art. His latest masterpiece, Despite the Night (Malgre la Nuit), didn’t receive U.S. distribution but fortunately turned up for a single screening in Chicago last year with Grandrieux in attendance. The film’s emotionally wrenching story involves a young Englishman’s search for his missing ex-girlfriend in the shadowy underworld of Parisian porn and prostitution rings but the thematic darkness, and we’re talking black as midnight on a moonless night, is also perfectly counter-balanced by the visual splendor of some of the most transcendent passages in modern movies; I am particularly fond of the lyrical use of superimposition, recalling the syntax of the silent-film era, in a scene where Roxane Mesquida sings in a nightclub. Matchbox Films in the UK put out this bare bones DVD over the summer, which, although not as ideal as the extras-laden Blu-ray release this film deserves, is still a must-own for Grandrieux fans in the English-speaking world.

8. 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol (Chabrol, 1992-1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
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Seven years after his death at the age of 80, Claude Chabrol remains the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors in the U.S. in spite of the fact that it is easier now than ever before to see his work – thanks especially to the Francophile distributor Charles Cohen who, in a span of a few short years, has released 10 of Chabrol’s features via his Cohen Media Group shingle. The latest of these releases, 3 Classic Films By Claude Chabrol, bundles together three movies made by “France’s Alfred Hitchcock” between 1992 and 1997, long after his supposed critical and commercial peak of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Yet calling these films “classics” is by no means a stretch even if the most well-known title in the bunch, the Isabelle Huppert-starring comedic-thriller The Swindle, is also the most trifling. Betty is a dark, rich character study featuring an amazing performance by Marie Trintignant in the title role (not long before her tragic real-life murder) as well as the final collaboration between Chabrol and his longtime leading lady (onscreen and off) Stephane Audran; and L’enfer, which Chabrol adapted from a famously abandoned project by Henri-Georges Clouzot, remains one of the most psychologically acute depictions of jealousy ever committed to celluloid. The transfers of all three films are great and the supplements, including commentary tracks for two of the films by Chabrol experts Wade Major and Andy Klein, as well as a lengthy interview between critic Kent Jones and actor Francois Cluzet, are most welcome.

7. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, 1974, BFI Blu-ray)celine-and-julie-go-boating-1974-003-celine-and-julie-in-wardrobe-makeup-00n-q0s-ORIGINAL
Jacques Rivette’s beloved “persona-swap” movie, his most comedic and playful foray into what he called the “house of fiction” and one of the high points of improvisational filmmaking ever made by anybody, finally receives its long-awaited A/V upgrade via the British Film Institute’s remarkable new Blu-ray. Based on a restoration of the film’s original 16mm elements, the colors are now tighter than ever before while film grain is beautifully preserved — at times giving the image the quality of a pointillist painting. But the irresistible central performances — by two actresses with pointedly contrasting styles (the theatrically trained Dominique Labourier and the natural-born movie star Juliet Berto) — have always been and still are the main draw. Adrian Martin’s new audio commentary track is jam-packed with interesting insights, from his pointing out the identities of various cameo performers (e.g., Jean Eustache) to discussing the film in relation to feminism, queer studies, Commedia dell’arte, Alice in Wonderland, and films like Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models and Vera Chytilova’s Daisies. This is one rabbit hole I am always happy to go down.

6. Tout va Bien (Godard/Gorin, 1972, Arrow Blu-ray)ToutVaBien04_igrande
The most accessible film from Jean-Luc Godard’s least accessible period — his “Dziga Vertov Group” collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin from 1968 to 1972 — Tout va Bien saw the master returning to something resembling a conventional plot and characterization (as well as collaborating again with movie stars in the persons of Jane Fonda and Yves Montand) while also not abandoning his interest in Marxist ideology and Brechtian distancing devices. Tout va Bien shows the difficulty of balancing one’s personal and professional lives through its depiction of a married couple (Montand is a documentary filmmaker, Fonda a reporter) assigned to cover a workers’ strike in a sausage factory. Some sources claim that Gorin was the film’s nominal director but its most daring cinematic conceits — constructing the factory on a giant “dollhouse”-like set (a la Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man) or capturing a riot in a supermarket with an epic lateral tracking shot — bear the unmistakable stamp of the author of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. Among the extras in Arrow’s incredible Blu-ray package are the Dziga Vertov Group’s feature-length essay film Letter to Jane, a vintage Godard interview on film, a new Jean-Pierre Gorin video interview, a trailer, a lengthy booklet featuring newly translated writings about the film and more.

5. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015, Grasshopper Blu-ray)
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The newly formed Grasshopper Films has rapidly become one of the most important distributors of independent and foreign films in the U.S., filling a void by scooping up important titles that other distributors aren’t likely to touch. One case in point is Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which made my year-end best-of list when Grasshopper released it theatrically in 2016 and has now been followed up with this splendid Blu-ray, the first of Hong’s many films to be released on the format. As with nearly all new, digitally shot films, the transfer here perfectly reproduces its theatrical presentation so the real value lies in the copious extras: among them are Lost in the Mountains, a 30-minute Hong short from 2009 that stands as a mini-masterpiece in its own right, a great 25-minute video introduction by Dan Sallitt, a critic and filmmaker whose smart, talky rom-coms show a kinship with Hong’s work, and a 20 minute press conference with Hong and leading lady Kim Min-hee from the film’s Locarno premiere. More like this, please.

4. Anatahan
(Von Sternberg, 1953/1958, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
anatahanJosef Von Sternberg’s fiercely independent final feature is one of cinema’s most sublime swan songs. Filmed in Japan with an entirely Japanese cast speaking untranslated Japanese dialogue, but featuring English narration by Sternberg himself, this tells the fascinating true story of a group of Japanese marines stationed on a remote island in the Pacific who refuse to believe that the Empire has been defeated in WW2. After maintaining a facade of their military routine for years, the soldiers eventually discover a lone female inhabitant on the island, the beautiful “Queen Bee,” who soon roils jealousy and desire in their hearts. Sternberg knew how to use black-and-white cinematography as expressively as anybody so it is a major treat to finally see the film’s exquisite interplay of light and shadow in such an outstanding HD presentation as this. Included are two separate cuts of the film, the 1953 theatrical version and the 1958 director’s cut, the latter of which features considerably more nudity and eroticism.   

3. Bunuel: The Essential Collection (Bunuel, 1964-1977, Studiocanal Blu-ray)
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This impressive new Bunuel box from Studio Canal UK collects most of the Spanish master’s great late works: his final six French films plus the French/Spanish co-production Tristana. The titles making their Blu-ray debuts are: The Diary of a Chambermaid (whose depiction of a nationalistic and anti-semitic France on the eve of WW2 looks timelier than ever in the age of Le Pen and Trump), The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty. Belle de Jour is included in a sparkling new 50th anniversary restoration that bests all previous releases (including Criterion’s), and the set is rounded out with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Bunuel is on my personal Mount Rushmore of directors and I’m glad that Studio Canal UK has made these titles available. If only an American distributor would follow suit (and release the films of his great Mexican period as well). It’s a crime that the filmography of cinema’s preeminent Surrealist filmmaker is harder to access now than it was during the VHS era, especially when a charlatan like Alejandro Jodorowsky is enjoying a new wave of popularity among young cinephiles.

2. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 (Various, 1931-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)
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The Criterion Collection’s second volume of Martin Scorsese’s “World Cinema Project” is even more impressive than the first. The purpose of the project is to restore and release treasures of global cinema from countries whose film industries lack the resources and finances to carry out the restorations themselves. The only one of the six titles here that I had seen previously was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s incredible debut, the “exquisite corpse”-game/documentary Mysterious Object at Noon, although the best reason to buy the set is the gorgeous new restoration of Edward Yang’s Taipei Story, a key work of the Taiwanese New Wave starring and co-written by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The biggest surprise of the bunch for me was Lino Brocka’s Insiang, a landmark of Philippine cinema (the first movie from that country to screen in competition at Cannes) that successfully melds melodrama tropes with social realism; I enjoyed it so much I screened it in a recent World of Cinema class where it went over like gangbusters. Rounding out the set are the visually stunning Russian film Revenge, the experimental Brazilian film Limite, and the Turkish neo-western Law of the Border, all of which I was very glad to see. Let’s hope this Criterion/World Cinema Project collaboration continues for many more releases.

1. Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (Lynch, 2017) – Paramount Blu-raypeaksOf course this is number one. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s expectation-shattering third season of their game-changing television show was the cinematic event of the year, and the “18-hour movie” got the home-video release it deserved via Paramount’s Blu-ray box set. The image quality of the episodes is better on these discs than it was when they were aired by Showtime over the summer (with blacks, in particular, being noticeably richer) but what really amazes here are the plentiful bonus features, especially the ten half-hour behind-the-scenes “Impressions” documentaries directed by someone named Jason S. Although I could have done without Mr. S’s faux-Herzgogian philosophical voice-over narration, the footage he managed to capture of David Lynch at work on set, including many moments of Lynch corresponding very precisely with his actors during key scenes of the shoot, is absolutely thrilling to watch and invaluable in terms of understanding the director’s process. Now bring on season four.

Runners-Up:

The Before Trilogy (Linklater, 1995-2013, Criterion Blu-ray)
Black Girl (Sembene, 1966, Criterion Blu-ray)
Casa de Lava (Costa, 1994, Grasshopper Blu-ray)
Daughter of the Nile (Hou, 1987, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
Jeanne Dielman (Akerman, 1975, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, 1991, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Melville: The Essential Collection (Melville, 1956-1972, Studiocanal Blu-ray)
Ophelia (Chabrol, 1962, Olive Films Blu-ray)
Othello (Welles, 1952, Criterion Blu-ray)
They Live By Night (Ray, 1948, Criterion Blu-ray)
The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (Godard/Chabrol/Gregoretti/Horikawa, 1964, Olive Films Blu-ray)

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A Pre-War Japanese Cinema Primer

For most of the past year I’ve been on a big Japanese cinema kick, and that includes checking out a healthy dose of movies made there before the Second World War – a period much less well known than what was to come afterwards. Thanks to recent efforts by enterprising home video distributors like The Criterion Collection, it has become much easier to plumb what Dave Kehr has aptly described as the “oceanic depth and diversity” of this rich era in Japanese film history. Western cinephiles can now profitably study previously unknown directors like Hiroshi Shimizu (and directors known primarily for their more famous later movies like Mikio Naruse) alongside the great early work of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Once again, I am by no means an expert when it comes to this period (and of course I’m at the mercy of what distributors have deemed worthy of making available with English subtitles) but here is a list of pre-war Japanese films that have, in one way or another, knocked my proverbial socks off.

A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

I Was Born, But . . . (Ozu, 1932)

The silent era continued in Japan for many years after it ended in the United States. Therefore a lot of the best Japanese films of the 1930s were silents, including this powerful tragicomedy by the great Yasujiro Ozu. The pointed social satire shows how two young brothers lord it over the other neighborhood children but are humiliated when they discover their own father has to kowtow to his boss at work. Like a lot of early Ozu movies, this was loosely remade later in the director’s career – as the equally great Good Morning in 1959.

Apart from You (Naruse, 1933)

Mikio Naruse had perhaps the most dynamic visual style of any Japanese director of the pre-war era. The penchant he showed in his early films for frequent camera movement and rapid cutting is evident in Apart from You, a masterful silent melodrama about a boy being raised by a single mother who works as a geisha to support him. The boy’s anger and shame over his mother’s profession lead him into a life of delinquency until the mother’s friend, a younger geisha played by the lovely Sumiko Mizukubo (“the Sylvia Sydney of Japan”), takes him to visit her own impoverished family to illustrate that “everyone has her reasons.”

Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

A Story of Floating Weeds (Ozu, 1934)

A traveling kabuki troupe on the verge of packing it in passes through a town where the troupe’s leader had a love affair many years before. The reunion between the actor and his former lover – and their illegitimate teenaged son (who believes his father to be an “uncle”) – raises the ire of the actor’s current mistress, who jealously plots her revenge. An early masterpiece by Ozu that foreshadows many of the themes and visual motifs of his more famous later work.

Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

The Only Son (Ozu, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

Osaka Elegy (Mizoguchi, 1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi is my favorite Japanese director and Osaka Elegy is a good early example of his genius. It tells the story of a female switchboard operator who is forced into a life of prostitution in order to pay off the debts of her father. Ironically, she is ostracized by her family for becoming a “fallen woman” even though the sole aim of her self-sacrifice was to save them. Mizoguchi combines immaculately choreographed long takes with a characteristic empathy for the plight of his heroine, which is seen as inextricably bound to the strict and hypocritical social codes of the time.

Sisters of the Gion (Mizoguchi, 1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s second movie of 1936 also tells what might be termed a prototypical feminist story of oppression although the focus here is on a pair of women, geishas eking out a living in the red light district of Kyoto. The older of the two “sisters” supports a broke boyfriend while the younger hatches a scheme to lift them up into a more comfortable existence, a plan that results in tragedy. Clocking in at a mere 69 minutes, this jewel of a film features excellent performances and an unforgettably despairing ending.

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.


Top 25 Films of the 1920s

25. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Russia, 1925)

The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being told to eat maggot-infested meat), which causes them to mutiny and kill their commanding officers. When the ship docks in the port city of Odessa, the revolutionary fervor spreads to their comrades on land until the White Russian army is called in to crush the rebellion. The ensuing massacre is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in film history, a frenetic, rapidly edited montage that purposefully breaks the rules of classical editing in order to convey an overwhelming impression of violence and chaos. Whenever you see a shot of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs in a T.V. show or movie, this is what’s being referenced.

24. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

23. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, USA, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

22. Variety (Dupont, Germany, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

21. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)

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20. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

19. 3 Bad Men (Ford, USA, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

18. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

17. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)

In 1968′s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

16. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

15. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928)

14. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)

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My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (This is perhaps best exemplified by a sublime ending suggesting that the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

13. Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, USA, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

12. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

11. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

10. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

9. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ‘em and leave ‘em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

8. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodrama with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

7. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

6. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)

Dziga Vertov’s radical experimental/documentary hybrid shows “a day in the life” of Moscow circa 1929 although the film had been shot over a period of several years in multiple cities including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The strobe-effect editing is mind-blowing even by today’s standards (the average shot length is less than three seconds) and the film is so densely packed with ideas that even after dozens of viewings, it still has secrets to reveal. But this is more than a “city symphony” film; it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of filmmaking, showcasing the talents of not only Vertov but his brother Mikhail Kaufman (the cinematographer who also frequently appears on screen as the title character), and his wife Yveta Svilova (the editor and the film’s true hero). The result is a film that playfully calls attention to the filmmaking process and its almost magical ability to record and transform reality.

4. Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, USA, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

3. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

2. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)

1. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.


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