When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1934, it gave its Best Picture award to Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. This is one of those rare years where the prize at least arguably went to the right movie. But on my list, another film edged it out:
1. The Black Cat
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by Ulmer and Peter Ruric
This isolationist fable is Ulmer's best feature, the best film to star Karloff and Lugosi together, and perhaps the purest example of a picture that claims to be based on a Poe story while ignoring Poe's plot entirely.
2. It Happened One Night
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Robert Riskin, from a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams
There's a lot to love in this movie, but it's the "Flying Trapeze" scene that's closest to my heart.
Directed by Jean Vigo
Written by Vigo and Albert Riéra, from a story by Jean Guinée
Romance on a floating Cornell box.
4. The Thin Man
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, from a novel by Dashiell Hammett
"Ever heard of the Sullivan Act?" "Oh, that's all right, we're married."
5. The Scarlet Empress
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Written by Eleanor McGeary
A thoroughly ludicrous drama, and I mean that in the best way possible.
6. Granton Trawler
Directed by John Grierson
One movie that didn't make it into this top 10, though it might have squeezed into an honorable mentions list if I'd included one, is Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran. Like Flaherty's film, Grierson's documentary about a Scottish fishing boat is a lyrical look at lives lived close to northern Europe's waters. But while Flaherty's film is a romanticized recreation of the way people lived long before the movie was made, this at least attempts to show us what fishermen were experiencing in 1934.
7. The Mascot
Written and directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz
The Nightmare Before Christmas of the '30s.
8. Crime Without Passion
Written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
The Hecht and MacArthur script from this year that gets the most attention now is Twentieth Century. But while that early foray into screwball comedy is fun, I think this crime story is more memorable—and it opens with one of the most stupendously strange montages of Slavko Vorkapić's career.
9. The Man Who Knew Too Much
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, Edwin Greenwood, A.R. Rawlinson, and Emlyn Williams
Will I lose my cineaste card if I say I prefer the Doris Day version? This is good too, though.
10. We Live in Prague
Directed by Otakar Vávra
A late entry in the city-symphony cycle.
I'm not going to post a full list of honorable mentions this time, but I will give a shout-out to Manhattan Melodrama, the movie John Dillinger died to see.
Of the films of 1934 that I haven't watched, I'm most interested in The President Vanishes and Viva Villa!