"But Mr. Monkey," I hear so often on the street, "while it's true our lives rise and fall on the rhythms of your wonderful prose poetry, a movie blogger can never aspire to the status of cultural icon without posting an end-of-the-year top ten list." And even as I'm running away, I'm thinking, yes, it's probably true, I must write an end of the year top ten list. So as the decade of the 'Naughties comes to a close, I give you a list of the ten best movies I not just mentioned but wrote full essays about this year (thus the absence of The Kid, Safety Last, Sherlock Jr., Metropolis and many other).
As always, my choices are a reflection of my values and are in no way binding on the universe as a whole.
In chronological order and suitable for mounting on your refrigerator door:
The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)—Loosely based on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Thief of Bagdad is the tale of a pickpocket who falls in love with a princess and who then sets off on a fantastic adventure to prove himself. With the graceful and athletic Douglas Fairbanks at its heart, The Thief of Bagdad is as fluid as a ballet while at the same time serving up a rip-snorting yarn filled with the best special effects 1924 could offer. The American Film Institute voted The Thief of Bagdad the ninth best fantasy movie of all time, the only silent film on the list, and along with City Lights, one of only two silent movies on any of the AFI Top Ten lists. In my opinion, it was the best fantasy movie made before The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and was probably the best action-adventure movie made before 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The Gold Rush (1925)—A 72-minute comedy about a gold prospector in the wilds of Alaska, chock full of laughs, action and some of the most inventive bits of business ever committed to film. I mean, there is something pretty entertaining about watching a man eat his own shoe. This is also the movie that introduced two oft-imitated bits, the one where a starving man thinks his partner is a chicken and the one where Chaplin spears two dinner rolls with forks and does a little soft-shoe with them under his chin. Throw in a little romance, an attempted murder and a happy ending and you've got the recipe for a real good time.
The General (1926)—Not only is it one of the greatest comedies ever made, The General, which [Buster] Keaton wrote, directed and starred in, is also an action film that puts most of its modern counterparts to shame. Based on an incident from the American Civil War, the story—about a lovelorn engineer who finds himself battling spies who hijack his train—features a spectacular chase involving two, then three speeding locomotives, daredevil stunts, explosions, burning bridges, comic mishaps, sight gags, split-second timing, all while Keaton woos the girl. Keaton's famously understated reaction to the chaos around him—he was known as "The Great Stoneface"—only adds to the modern feel of the production.
Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927)—Directed by the great F.W. Murnau, who had previously helmed such classics as Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, Sunrise starts out as a silent era film noir with a beautiful temptress from the city persuading a handsome young farmer to murder his wife then becomes a surprisingly touching story of reconciliation and redemption. The exaggerated story is a prime example of Expressionism, an artistic style that appealed to emotions rather than intellect and influenced not only movies but also painting, literature and even architecture.
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)—The Passion of Joan of Arc, with its tightly-framed close-ups and unadorned emotions, is quite frankly something I'd never seen before in a silent movie—or any other movie, for that matter—an impossible, anachronistic artifact that proves once again that our forefathers were much more modern that we currently dream of being. More importantly, though, the movie reminded me that telling a story in such a simple and straightforward manner, letting the chips fall where they may, can uncover truths about human nature so eternal that even an eighty year old film based on a nearly six hundred year old historical event can be as relevant and timely as this morning's news. That, I think, is one of the hallmarks of true art, an ability to speak across generations in a unique and unforgettable way. Or leaving all that aside, it's just a great, very watchable movie.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)—This Buster Keaton comedy is a classic fish-out-of-water story, the reunion of a ukelele-playing, college-educated fop (Keaton) with his strapping, working class father (Ernest Torrence). In the course of the seventy-minute story, Keaton contends with shipwrecks, hurricanes and an unreasoning prejudice against French berets to win over his father and get the girl. The most unforgettable sequence of Steamboat Bill, Jr., perhaps the most famous single sequence of Keaton's career, is the one where a cyclone blows a house over onto Keaton, who only misses being killed because he miraculously happens to be standing right where an open attic window allows him to pass right through. Keaton always dismissed talk of his greatness—"How can you be a genius in slapshoes?"—but there's no doubt in my mind, or anyone else's these days, that a genius is exactly what he was. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert calls him simply "the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)—In adapting the novel for the screen, writers George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews retained the story's focus on the boys who fought and died in the war rather than on the generals and politicians who sent them, a focus that gave the book so much of its power. Director Lewis Milestone made the significant and risky decision to cast young unknowns in the primary roles—and not in a J.J. Abrams, populate-the-bridge-of-the-Enterprise-with-GQ-pretty-boys sort of way either. These are boys, raw recruits who soil their underwear during their first patrol, kids who've never been away from home, never had a drink, never so much as kissed a girl. Played by grown men, you might feel regret at their deaths, but you'd never get the same sense of how much is lost, how much of even the most basic aspects of life they've missed out on as when these parts are played by boys. The effect is tragic and poignant even now almost eighty years on.
City Lights (1931)—Released more than three years after The Jazz Singer's premiere ushered in the sound era, Charles Chaplin's City Lights represented both the peak of the actor-director's brilliant career and a definite exclamation point marking the end of the silent era. A sublime romantic comedy, City Lights was arguably the greatest silent movie ever made, a huge worldwide hit and, along with Buster Keaton's The General, the movie I would recommend to anyone who has never seen a silent movie and is wondering what all the fuss was about. The romance is as delicate as the flower the Tramp carries around with him throughout the movie, and if there's one thing I prize in a romance, it's delicacy. Still, what City Lights mostly is, is funny. Fully fifty-seven of the film's eighty-three minute running time is devoted to comedy, and even those moments of tenderness with the girl are usually punctuated with a laugh—the first meeting, for example, concluding with a dash of cold water in the Tramp's face as the girl rinses a flower pot. A masterpiece of comic timing and invention, on my short list of history's great comedies, great romances, and well, great movies, period.
Le Million (1931)—A musical comedy about a struggling artist, in debt to his landlord and every shop owner in town, who discovers he has won the lottery—if only he can find the ticket. He remembers it's in the pocket of a jacket he left with his fiancee, but she's given the jacket to a beggar on the run from the police and soon everybody is scrambling to get their hands on that jacket. Director René Clair gets great mileage out of the deference we pay to money and the people who have it regardless of their worth as human beings, and we laugh at the contortions of the shopowners to ingratiate themselves to a man they had just minutes before been chasing through the streets. The story is tight and precisely put together, the songs and dialogue are witty and memorable, and the resulting comedy is as light and frothy as a glass of cold champagne.
M (1931)—Fritz Lang's M is a masterpiece of psychology, not just the psychology of child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in a performance that launched his career), but the psychology of the audience as well. Using nothing much more than sound and shadows, Lang created a genuine sense of suspense and horror by exploiting a basic fact of human psychology, that we are most afraid of what we can't see. Indeed, the most explicit act of violence Peter Lorre does in M is to the orange he surgically skins with a switchblade. Had it been just an exercise in style, M would still be one of the most effective thrillers ever made, but Lang is interested in more than just a resolution to his police procedural, instead shifting the focus to a study of vigilantism and mob rule. In so doing, Lang raises questions about the balance between freedom and security, justice and efficiency, and the rule of law and the rule of the mob, that are still relevant today. If you watch carefully, you realize nothing much has changed—we've just moved the proceedings to cable television.
Happy New Year!