3. “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”, F.W. Murnau (1927)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Murnau Sunrise

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

dir. F.W. Murnau scr. Carl Mayer cin. Charles Rosher and Karl Struss with George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston

In 100 words: The greatest of all silent movies is this universal tale of love and redemption that verges on simplistic were it not for the beautiful humanity that its makers have imbued within every frame. Sunrise does not even bother giving a name to its characters, just pronouns, but Murnau uses his brilliant expressionistic style to subtly highlight a romance rekindled or to suggest the overwhelming feeling of being lost in a big city. The freedom of his camera to move and to create such poignant images during the era made this an even more stunning accomplishment. Gaynor and O’Brien are unimprovable.

Other Movies for Context: One of the great masters of cinema, F.W. Murnau made other invaluable contributions to film, including the landmark horror film Nosferatu (1922), the social realist The Last Laugh (1924), and the great documentary-like Tabu (1931).

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15. “Seven Chances”, Buster Keaton (1925)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Seven Chances

Seven Chances

dir. Buster Keaton scr. Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell cin. Byron Bouck, Elgin Lessley with Buster Keaton, T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards

In 100 words: The greatest comedy is a silent movie made in the 1920s made by one of its most distinguished artists. Keaton’s unfathomable genius and inventiveness shines through in this movie that’s so daring and reckless, that one can feel an unexpected jolt of thrill, a tinge of suspense, and a lot of humor and relief from watching him go through one crazy stunt after another. He’s so committed physically even as his magnificent face retains its trademark deadpan. Hilarious from start to finish, but the second half is particularly stunning, especially the centerpiece chase–the most perfect comic set piece ever.

Other Movies for Context: Unmatched excellence in physical comedy and deadpan wit. Interestingly, I think of Jackie Chan, who, like Keaton, crafted laugh after laugh out of the most dangerous stunts (and even broke bones because of them!). I think of Drunken Master (1978), Rumble in the Bronx (1995), and Rush Hour (1998).

21. “The Crowd”, King Vidor (1928)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list

The Crowd

The Crowd

dir. King Vidor scr. King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver cin. Henry Sharp with Eleanor Boardman and James Murray

In 100 words: Arriving right at the edge of German expressionism and two decades before neorealism, Vidor’s Crowd feels out of place with contemporary films. Released at the end of the Roaring Twenties, it’s a cynical portrait of the American Dream, showing the plight of one man among the mob with ambition but somehow incapable of living up to his promise. Vidor balances every bit of hope or happiness with failure or tragedy, and also shows a realistic take on a marriage, refusing any trace of sentimentality. Heightened expressionist images and documentary-like shooting add formal rigor while performances feel modern, specific, and touching.

Other Movies for Context: Vidor’s a well-known populist director who has inspired other later generation of directors like Vittorio de Sica, who uses this movie as inspiration for the climax of his Umberto D. and to make Bicycle Thieves. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) also takes a crucial image from this, the one with the long take into the office building full of like-minded and similar looking drones. Vidor’s own film Stella Dallas (1937), starring the magnificent Barbra Stanwyck who gives such a perfect performance in there, has similar populist ideas.

60. “Sherlock, Jr.”, Buster Keaton (1924)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Sherlock Jr

Sherlock, Jr.

dir. Buster Keaton scr. Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell cin. Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley with Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly

In 100 words: Keaton’s hilarious silent film is the best movie about the movies and their ability to enthrall audiences. The narrative is pretty standard, but the execution is superb. Keaton is a master of expressive body languages, and his control of his droll facial expressions is exquisite. He uses them to execute incredible pratfalls and give stellar reaction shots. But the centerpiece of this movie is the real treat: in a stunning use of montage and display of visual wit, Keaton dreams that he enters the movies and is transported through different scenes—probably the most astounding visual effect I’ve ever seen.

Other Movies for Context: Keaton is a legend, but his most well-known picture, The General (1926), feels sluggish to me, although I see what other people see in it. When I think of this movie, I think a lot about The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Woody Allen’s gorgeous and moving film about a girl who falls in love with the leading man onscreen. It’s a must-see.

92. “The Docks of New York”, Josef von Sternberg (1928)

Part of the 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Docks-of-New-York

The Docks of New York

dir. Josef von Sternberg (1928) scr. Jules Furthman, based on The Dock Walloper by John Monk Saunders cin. Harold Rosson with George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova, Mitchell Lewis

In 100 words: On purely stylistic grounds, Docks more than earns its spot on this list for its genius framing of characters, its unparalleled use of light, shadows and mist, and its set decoration, lending a mythic quality to the waterfronts of New York. But what makes the film truly great is that within its exquisite skin is a common love story told with unabashed romanticism in the face of extensive forces keeping the couple apart: von Sternberg’s deliberate pacing allows the audience to soak in the love affair, while his expressionistic images unveil psychology. Compson’s breathtaking performance is the cherry on top.

Other Movies for Context: Josef von Sternberg is known primarily for being an exquisite stylist and his films are some of the most extraordinarily gorgeous films I’ve ever laid eyes on. I’m personally looking forward to watching The Blue Angel (1930) and Morocco (1930), but the other two I’ve seen are stunning: Shanghai Express (1932), which features Marlene Dietrich’s most iconic shot and the legendary Asian-American badass Anna May Wong, and The Scarlet Empress (1934), which may be his most grand and lavish film, but the history nerd in me is offended by its comically hilarious historical inaccuracies.