Sunday, July 5, 2009

Miscellaneous Musings: Silent and Deserving

Miscellaneous Musings – My Favorite Silent Films of All Time

I recently glanced at Wes Singleton’s list of his favorite films of all time ( I say glanced because I apparently overlooked a key word, and because I did, I posted an extremely unnecessary comment. (I also misspelled a rather easy word as I was writing the comment; that’ll teach me to try to write on only five hours sleep). I enjoy looking at his blog because he always has interesting things to say about the films he sees and about film in general. His list of favorite films was a list of films that most people would agree are great and worthy of being seen by future generations of moviegoers. After reading his list though, I wondered about the purpose of lists such as his. It seems as if lists of people’s favorite films are beginning to all look alike, but isn’t the point of making a list to encourage people to watch films they might not normally have watched? Do people really need a list to get them to watch Raging Bull? Perhaps they do, but it seems to me that one of the responsibilities of those people fortunate enough to review films for a living is to introduce lesser known films to their audience and to challenge the idea that there are only so many truly great films out there. Two reviewers who frequently do this are Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times and Mick LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle.

In my second comment to Wes’s list, I wrote that my list of favorite films would probably start with F.W. Murnau’s 1927 movie Sunrise, a film that does in fact show up on many people’s lists of the top 100 films of all time. I have seen this film several times, and each time, I’m amazed by how involved I get in it. I’ve tried to get people here in Taiwan to watch the film, but each time, my suggestion has been met with the same negative comments about its age and lack of color. When I don’t hear those comments, I usually get what at first glance seems like a positive response. It usually starts with, “What a great idea! It sounds good.” These statements, though, are quickly followed by the ominous, “I’m just not in the mood for a silent film today.” And so once more a great film is bypassed in favor of a more recent piece from Hollywood like Juno or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I believe the audience for silent films is shrinking, and while there will always be a segment of movie buffs for whom silent films remain interesting, I have become concerned recently that many film distribution companies are not seeing silent films as a good investment. As evidence, just try to find a silent film on Blu-Ray. It’s close to impossible. So here – for what it’s worth – is a list of some of my favorite silent films of all time. Some of them I have reviewed in more detail on this blog. My hope is that one or more of them sounds interesting enough for you to look for at your local video store.

My Favorite Silent Films of All Time (in random order)

Sunrise (1927) – It’s a very simple story. A man from the countryside has grown bored with his wife and is having an affair with a woman from the city. She wants him to come to the city with him, but the man doesn’t know what to do about his wife. The woman from the city has a solution: kill her. However, the film takes an amazing turn, and instead of being a movie like Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, it becomes a story of redemption and rediscovered love.

Also recommended by Murnau: Tabu (1931) and Nosferatu (1922)

Destiny (1921) – A woman has three chances to save the man she loves from Death. It’s amazing and heartbreaking.

Also recommended by Fritz Lang: Metropolis (1926)

Strike (1924) – While The Battleship Potempkin makes many people’s list of the greatest films of all time, Sergei Eisenstein first film remains my favorite of his. It’s the story of a group of workers who go on strike after there is an accident at the plant they work at. The film was made at a time when striking was viewed as being unpatriotic and when the local police were often in the pocket of big business. Striking, therefore, meant putting your life on the line. The final scene in Strike is utterly shocking.

The Navigator (1924)
The General (1927)

The Love Light (1921) – Starring Mary Pickford, The Love Light is the tragic story of a woman who rescues a man from drowning and nurses him back to health, only to discover later that the man is a German spy responsible for the deaths of many men from the village. Oh, and did I mention that she is pregnant with the spy’s child? The film is powerful, and Pickford is amazing in the role.

Peter Pan (1924)

Ben-Hur (1926) – Lost in the gushing praise for William Wyler’s 1959 remake is the fact that the original is far superior. The film has a better pace, Judah’s violent nature is not sugar-coated, and the film’s climax is far more moving.

A Story of Floating Weeds (1934)

City Lights (1931) – I am indebted to my father for making me sit down and watch all of Charlie Chaplin’s films as a child. They were being shown on the Disney Channel back then, something that I doubt happens these days. If not for him, it would have been years before I was willing to see what may be the best combination of drama and comedy ever put on film. It also has one the most perfect endings of any film since.

Also recommended by Chaplin: all of them but if you can only choose one, The Gold Rush (1925)

The Toll of the Sea (1919) – A retelling of Madame Butterfly starring Anna May Wong. Even though we know how the film will ultimately end, it remains touching and contains what may have been Wong’s greatest performance.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – Carl Dreyer’s film is quite simply one of the most impressive and emotionally exhausting films ever made.

Pandora’s Box (1928)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Broken Blossoms (1919) – This is one of the first films to hint at interracial love, and it remains a powerful look at discrimination, spousal abuse, and the quest for revenge.

Also recommended by D.W. Griffith: Intolerance (1916)

J’Accuse (1919)

Four Sons (1928) – John Ford’s look at the heavy price a German family pays for Germany’s decision to enter the First World War. It is both sweet and tragic.

Also recommended by John Ford: 3 Bad Men (1926)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) – The first full-length animated film was also a fascinating and often humorous look at a man trying to rescue the woman he loves from a rather evil man.

The Cry of the Children (1912) – A short by the Thanhouser Company about child labor.

Wings (1927)

As always, I welcome your thoughts on the matter.

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