When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1929, it gave its Best Picture award to The Broadway Melody, a thoroughly unexceptional film. Then again, there weren't that many exceptional films in general coming out of Hollywood that year. The sound era was just beginning, which meant there were a lot of awkward pictures produced by people who basically had to learn to make a movie all over again. Even their better efforts tended to be uneven: The Love Parade is enjoyable, for example, but it has lapses in areas as basic as the pacing of the dialogue.
The result? Usually these lists are dominated by American entries, but this time just three of my top 10 -- and just five of the top 20 -- were made in the United States. And only one of those five is a feature.
1. The Man With a Movie Camera Written and directed by Dziga Vertov
The high point of the experimental Soviet cinema of the '20s. In just a few short years Stalin would be enforcing the idiotic artistic dogma of Socialist Realism and movies like this would effectively disappear.
2. My Grandmother Directed by Kote Mikaberidze Written by Mikaberidze and Giorgi Mdivani
Even before Socialist Realism came along, of course, the Soviets were censoring subversive art. This Georgian mixture of slapstick, surrealism, and anti-statist satire -- the same combo on display in Brazil and Death of a Bureaucrat -- was suppressed almost immediately and didn't reemerge until the '70s.
3. A Cottage on Dartmoor Directed by Anthony Asquith Written by Asquith, from a story by Herbert Price
A silent psychological thriller about a crime of passion and its aftermath, featuring some of the most brilliant montage sequences ever set to celluloid.
4. Hallelujah! Directed by King Vidor Written by Wanda Tuchock, Ransom Rideout, Richard Schayer, and Marian Ainslee, from a story by Vidor
The first great musical.
5. Nogent Directed by Marcel Carné with Michel Sanvoisin
A wonderful wordless documentary about a working-class weekend resort.
6. Pandora's Box Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst Written by Ladislaus Vajda, from two plays by Frank Wedekind
If I could run a TV network for just a day in December, I would broadcast this under the title The Jack the Ripper Christmas Special.
7. Un Chien Andalou Written and directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali
Buñuel would later denounce "that crowd of imbeciles who find the film beautiful and poetic when it is fundamentally a desperate and passionate call to murder."
8. Big Business Directed by James W. Horne with Leo McCarey Written by McCarey and H.M. Walker
Laurel & Hardy's guide to good customer relations.
9. The Skeleton Dance Directed by Walt Disney
Disney before it was Disneyfied.
10. The New Babylon Written and directed by Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg
Like My Grandmother, this Shostakovich-scored tale of the Paris Commune ran into trouble with the Soviet censors. Its subject may have seemed suited for Communist agitprop, but it didn't take extraordinary perception to see that the film was far more anarchist than Bolshevist at heart.
11. Diary of a Lost Girl (Georg Wilhelm Pabst) 12. Les Mystères du Château de Dé (Man Ray) 13. Tusalava (Len Lye) 14. Hyas and Stenorhynchus (Jean Painlevé) 15. The Hoose-Gow (James Parrott) 16. Brumes d'Automne (Dimitri Kirsanoff) 17. H2O (Ralph Steiner) 18. Black and Tan (Dudley Murphy) 19. La Perle (Henri d'Ursel) 20. Everything Turns Everything Resolves (Hans Richter)
Of the movies of 1929 that I haven't seen, the one that interests me the most is John Grierson's Drifters.