When the Motion Picture Academy looked back at 1929, it gave its Best Picture award to The Broadway Melody, a thoroughly unexceptional film. Not that there were many exceptional films 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 six of the top 20—were made in the United States. And only one of those six 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, of course, the Soviets were censoring subversive art. This Georgian mixture of slapstick, surrealism, and anti-statist satire—the same combo later 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 montages ever set to celluloid.
Directed by King Vidor
Written by Wanda Tuchock, Ransom Rideout, Richard Schayer, and Marian Ainslee, from a story by Vidor
The first great American musical.
Directed by Marcel Carné with Michel Sanvoisin
A wonderful wordless documentary about a working-class weekend resort.
6. 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."
7. 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.
Written and directed by Alexander Dovzhenko
A war movie that sometimes feels like an antiwar movie—which is impressive, given that the conflict in question is the Russian Civil War and the film was made in the Soviet Union. That sort of subtlety wouldn't persist for much longer either, though Dovzhenko was more adept than most Stalin-era filmmakers at slipping things past the censors.
9. Big Business
Directed by James W. Horne with Leo McCarey
Written by McCarey and H.M. Walker
Laurel and Hardy's guide to good customer relations.
10. The Skeleton Dance
Directed by Walt Disney
Disney before it was Disneyfied.
11. The New Babylon (Grigorii Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg)
12. Diary of a Lost Girl (Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
13. Les Mystères du Château de Dé (Man Ray)
14. Tusalava (Len Lye)
15. Hyas and Stenorhynchus (Jean Painlevé)
16. The Hoose-Gow (James Parrott)
17. Brumes d'Automne (Dimitri Kirsanoff)
18. H2O (Ralph Steiner)
19. Black and Tan (Dudley Murphy)
20. La Perle (Henri d'Ursel)
Of the films of 1929 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Woman in the Moon.
And that's it for this batch of historical movie lists. If fate allows it, we'll be back for more in December.