When the Motion Picture Academy looked back at 1927, it gave away not one but two Best Picture awards. "Best Production" went to Wings, a dull drama about World War I. "Best Artistic Quality of Production" went to a much better movie, F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. That one's on my list—but it isn't at the top:
1. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
Directed by Walter Ruttmann
Written by Ruttmann, Karl Freund, and Carl Mayer
A day in the life of a city.
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou, from a novel by von Harbou
Trivia: In 1984 this dystopian science-fiction story was rereleased with a "modern" soundtrack, featuring Pat Benatar, Billy Squier, and the king of Eurodisco, Giorgio Moroder. Only advanced students of late 20th century kitsch should watch that version.
Written and directed by Abel Gance
Featuring the best snowball fight in film history.
4. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Written by Carl Mayer, Katherine Hilliker, and H.H. Caldwell, from a novella by Hermann Sudermann
This was a strong year for great movies with ridiculous subtitles.
5. The End of St. Petersburg
Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin with Mikhail Doller
Written by Nathan Zarkhi
It's propaganda, but it's dynamic and inventive propaganda. It wouldn't be long before the Soviets stopped even doing that.
6. A Wild Roomer
Directed by Charley Bowers and Harold L. Muller
Written by Bowers, Muller, and Ted Sears
These days it's hardly controversial to claim that Buster Keaton was better than Charlie Chaplin. But I'll go out on a limb and say that Charley Bowers, the most surrealist of the silent clowns, was better than Chaplin too.
7. The Kid Brother
Directed by Ted Wilde with J.A. Howe, Harold Lloyd, and Lewis Milestone
Written by Howard Green, John Grey, and Lex Neal, from a story by Wilde, Neal, and Tom Crizer
Harold Lloyd was also better than Chaplin.
8. The Unknown
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Waldemar Young and Joseph Farnham, from a story by Browning
"Hands! Men's hands! How I hate them!"
9. Fluttering Hearts
Directed by James Parrott
Written by Charley Chase and H.M. Walker
By the end of this two-reeler, William Burress has taken to dressing like a woman, Oliver Hardy has had a sustained flirtation with a mannequin, and Charley Chase has completely failed to get the girl.
10. The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Eliot Stannard, from a novel and play by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Hitch's first hit, a riff on the Ripper.
11. R-1, a Form-Play (Oskar Fischinger)
12. Emak-Bakia (Man Ray)
13. Combat de Boxe (Charles Dekeukeleire)
14. Bed and Sofa (Abram Room)
15. Long Pants (Frank Capra)
16. The Battle of the Century (Clyde Bruckman)
17. L'Invitation au Voyage (Germaine Dulac)
18. Should Second Husbands Come First? (Leo McCarey)
19. Walking from Munich to Berlin (Oskar Fischinger)
20. The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni)
Do not ask me where The General is, OK? The General debuted on December 31, 1926. It was the #1 movie on my 1926 list. If it had come out on January 1 instead, it would be #1 here.
Of the films of 1927 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in The Diplomatic Pouch and Six et Demi, Onze. And I suppose someday I should sit through 7th Heaven: I'm not a big Borzage fan, but a lot of people love this movie and maybe it'll be the one that wins me over.
When the Motion Picture Academy looked back at 1937, it gave its Best Picture award to a formulaic biopic called The Life of Emile Zola. You won't find that one here:
1. Pépé le Moko
Directed by Julien Duvivier
Written by Duvivier, Henri La Barthe, Jacques Constant, and Henri Jeanson, from a novel by La Barthe
The Casbah Autonomous Zone.
2. Grand Illusion
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Renoir and Charles Spaak
"Frontiers are an invention of men. Nature doesn't give a hoot."
3. Night Must Fall
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Written by John Van Druten, from a play by Emlyn Williams
This atmospheric crime story's origins as a play are obvious but not overwhelming: It is dialogue-heavy but never too talky, placebound without seeming stagy.
4. Nothing Sacred
Directed by William Wellman
Written by Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner Jr., and Budd Schulberg, from a story by James H. Street
The secret origins of Oliver Stone.
5. The Awful Truth
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Viña Delmar and Sidney Buchman, from a play by Arthur Richman
"I've seen your picture in the paper and wondered what you looked like."
6. Make Way for Tomorrow
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Viña Delmar
That title—Make Way for Tomorrow—is about as bitterly ironic as Old Hollywood could get.
7. Un Carnet de Bal
Directed by Julien Duvivier
Written by Duvivier, Henri Jeanson, Yves Mirande, Jean Sarment, Pierre Wolff, and Bernard Zimmer
A widow tours her love life's garden of forking paths.
8. The Great Garrick
Directed by James Whale
Written by Ernest Vajda, from his novel
Imagine a Truman Show–style scenario where virtually everyone surrounding the protagonist is actually an actor. Now imagine that they all come from the Jon Lovitz "Master Thespian" school of acting.
9. Stage Door
Directed by Gregory La Cava
Written by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller, from a play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman
It isn't as famous as the year's other aspiring-actress story, William Wellman's A Star is Born, but it's much, much better.
10. Easy Living
Directed by Mitchell Leisen
Written by Preston Sturges, from a story by Vera Caspary
Like many Sturges stories, this is stuffed with jokes about class, convention, hypocrisy, and mistaken identity.
11. The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)
12. Pearls of the Crown (Sacha Guitry, Christian-Jaque)
13. On the Avenue (Roy Del Ruth)
14. Mr. Fantômas (Ernst Moerman)
15. Désiré (Sacha Guitry)
16. Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich)
17. The Old Mill (Wilfred Jackson)
18. Stand-In (Tay Garnett)
19. Even—As You and I (Harry Hay, Roger Barlow, LeRoy Robbins)
20. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand)
Of the films of 1937 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Harvest.
When the Motion Picture Academy looked back at 1947, it gave its Best Picture award to Gentlemen's Agreement, arguably the worst movie ever to win the prize. It stars Gregory Peck, dripping with even more sanctimony than usual, as a gentile journalist who goes undercover as a Jew so he can describe how anti-Semitism feels first-hand. (Presumably no actual Jews were available to write the article.) It's a sign of how careless the screenwriters are that so much of the anti-Semitism he encounters isn't first-hand; he just hears about it from other people. Still more of it consists of someone not realizing that Peck is supposed to be Jewish and saying something bigoted in his presence, an experience he had surely already endured before he started his research. The only difference is that now he can respond by claiming to be Jewish himself, and then everyone feels a little awkward, and then it's on to another adventure.
Peck's character has a young son who disappears for long stretches of the narrative, appearing only when the story requires it. His absences may be hard to explain but his constant presence would be worse, since the boy turns in one of the most grating child-actor performances in Hollywood history. The reporter himself is supposed to be a brilliant wordsmith, but for most of the picture we never actually hear any of his work—a wise choice, since there obviously weren't any good writers on hand to produce it. When we finally do hear a passage, it's completely banal, though it's supposed to be searing and heartfelt.
The sad thing is that there really was an effective indictment of anti-Jewish prejudice in theaters that year: Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire, a solid film noir about an anti-Semitic murder. It isn't quite good enough to make it into my top 20—a few scenes are too heavy-handed for my taste—but it's thousands of times better than the picture that beat it at the Oscars.
End rant. Begin list:
1. Out of the Past
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Geoffrey Homes, from his novel
Peak Robert Mitchum.
2. The Lady from Shanghai
Directed by Orson Welles
Written by Welles, from a novel by Sherwood King
"George, that's the first time anyone ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer, you'd be flattered."
3. It Always Rains on Sunday
Directed by Robert Hamer
Written by Hamer, Angus MacPhail, and Henry Cornelius, from a novel by Arthur La Bern
"I give you my word I haven't got it. By my life. By Sadie's life. The baby's life." "Your life will do."
4. Nightmare Alley
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Written by Jules Furthman, from a novel by William Lindsay Gresham
One of the seediest noirs of the '40s, full of phony psychics, carnival cons, and marrow-deep corruption.
5. Odd Man Out
Directed by Carol Reed
Written by F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff, from a novel by Green
If the IRA Movie qualifies as a genre, then this dark thriller is the standard by which every other effort, from The Informer to The Crying Game, should be measured.
6. Black Narcissus
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Written by Powell and Pressburger, from a novel by Rumer Godden
Like many of the Archers' movies, this one finds something pagan and inexplicable at both the edge of the world and the core of the self.
7. The Red House
Directed by Delmar Daves
Written by Daves, from a novel by George Agnew Chamberlain
I was home from college one Christmas break, mildly annoyed at a professor's habit of finding Freudian symbols in virtually everything we read. "I'll bet I can 'discover' a Freudian meaning in anything," I told myself. "Why, I'll bet I can impose one on this random movie I've never heard of that's about to come on TV." And then I watched this tale of a man whose daughter is just entering puberty, a man who becomes enraged at the thought that she and her boyfriend will start to explore the deep dark woods near his farm. He's afraid, he says, that she'll discover the red house in the middle of the deep dark woods, and oh how he's haunted by the screams from the red house in the middle of the deep dark woods. Just to top it off, in the end we learn— but no, I won't give away the ending. I'll just say I came away with new respect for my prof.
8. Daisy Kenyon
Directed by Otto Preminger
Written by David Hertz, from a novel by Elizabeth Janeway
This turns the stuff of pure soap opera into an intricately nuanced story about three-dimensional people.
9. Hue and Cry
Directed by Charles Crichton
Written by T.E.B. Clarke
In the streets and bombed-out ruins of post–World War II London, kids create their own secret culture.
10. Dreams That Money Can Buy
Directed by Hans Richter
Written by Richter, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder, Josh White, Hans Rehfisch, and David Vern
A surrealist anthology.
11. Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
12. King-Size Canary (Tex Avery)
13. The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir)
14. Motion Painting No. One (Oskar Fishchinger)
15. Body and Soul (Robert Rossen)
16. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (Preston Sturges)
17. The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz)
18. Fireworks (Kenneth Anger)
19. A Double Life (George Cukor)
20. The Cage (Sidney Peterson)
Of the films of 1947 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Gran Casino and They Made Me a Fugitive.
When the Motion Picture Academy looked back at 1957, it gave its Best Picture award to a David Lean epic called The Bridge on the River Kwai. That's a good movie, and you'll find it on my list—but not at the top:
1. What's Opera, Doc?
Directed by Chuck Jones
Written by Michael Maltese
With American efficiency, the Ring Cycle is gagged up and slimmed down to seven minutes of film.
2. Paths of Glory
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson, from a novel by Humphrey Cobb
Possibly the least sentimental antiwar movie ever made.
3. Wild Strawberries
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
"Me and my wife are dependent on each other. It is out of selfish reasons we haven't beaten each other to death a long time ago."
4. The Seventh Seal
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Shortly after Bergman passed away, I was in an ER awaiting an appendectomy. A previous patient had left the room's soundless TV tuned to Turner Classic Movies, which was paying tribute to the director by broadcasting The Seventh Seal. So now I can tell people that when I went to the hospital, I saw Death hovering above my bed. And that I got a good laugh out of it.
5. Sweet Smell of Success
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Written by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Ordets, from a novelette by Lehman
This treats Walter Winchell with all the affection that Citizen Kane had for William Randolph Hearst.
6. Throne of Blood
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni, from a play by William Shakespeare
The best of the celluloid Macbeths.
7. Witness for the Prosecution
Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Wilder, Harry Kurtz, and Larry Marcus, from a play by Agatha Christie
I won't claim this as a libertarian movie, but libertarians should enjoy anything that allows the great Charles Laughton both to disobey doctor's orders and to battle the prosecutorial state.
8. The Bridge on the River Kwai
Directed by David Lean
Written by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, from a novel by Pierre Boulle
Another study in primate pack behavior from the man who wrote Planet of the Apes.
9. Night of the Demon
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Charles Bennett and Hal Chester
The American cut is called Curse of the Demon. Watch the British original if you can—both versions were damaged by the producer's oafish interference, but the American edition was mangled more.
10. Decision at Sundown
Directed by Budd Boetticher
Written by Charles G. Lang, from a novel by Vernon L. Fluharty
"If you'd been tending bar as long as I have, you wouldn't expect so much out of the human race."
11. An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey)
12. N.Y., N.Y.: A Day in New York (Francis Thompson)
13. Three Little Bops (Friz Freleng)
14. Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)
15. The Transposed Heads (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
16. The Bachelor Party (Delbert Mann)
17. The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher)
18. The Sound of Jazz (Jack Smight)
19. 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Daves)
20. Rhythm (Len Lye)
Of the films of 1957 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in I Am Waiting and The Devil Strikes at Night.