The era of silent cinema was one of the most creative periods in human history. In not much more than 30 years, a new visual vocabulary was invented, explored to the fullest and even deconstructed. Genres formed as the medium was used for entertainment, politics, education, propaganda and experimentation. The challenge of visual storytelling without sound pushed filmmakers to find new ways to tell stories and communicate ideas.
This list is an attempt to highlight the best silent films, not the most historically significant ones. That’s not to say there’s not overlap, or that historical context can’t play a part in greatness, just that it wasn’t a sole qualifying factor. There are plenty of gems and highly influential titles not on this list, and you never know what will rise up from an archive somewhere, so don’t be afraid to explore. And if you have a chance to see a silent film in the theater with live accompaniment, take it.
100. Mest’ kinematograficheskogo operatora (The Cameraman’s Revenge) (1912)
Director: Vladislav Starevich
Come for the tale of jealousy and infidelity, stay for the animated dead insects. Polish-Russian animator Vladislav Starevich had a wry sense of humor and a talent for turning little pests into big-screen stars. And so this delightful short features straying beetles, exotic dragonfly dancers and pushy grasshopper cameramen. Starevich satirizes the still-young film industry with a clever story, but the real fun is in his miniature sets and tawdry bugs.
99. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1920)
Director: Robert Wiene
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari brought German Expressionist film to full view with art direction that’s every bit as dark and twisted as the story it tells. Set in an environment full of askew streets, warped roofs and staircases that travel at impossible angles, no film has the same spooky feel as this tale of a mysterious doctor and the sleepwalker he uses as a murder weapon. While the film’s influence is immeasurable, its visuals were more a catalyst for ideas than a target of direct imitation. This is partly because the look is so out there, and partly because the graphical set design could have lent itself more to the film medium—the painted-on shadows and canvas backdrops can make it seem as if the characters are walking on plywood theater stages rather than through a demented cityscape.
98. Norrtullsligan (The Nortull Gang) (1923)
Director: Per Lindberg
Whether in 1923 or today, it’s rare to see a film about a strong-willed, independent woman and her likeminded friends. There are no flappers or scandals, just discussion of what life is like for these Swedish women, including workplace harassment, judgmental family members and wage disputes. The film even gets away with some pretty long intertitles—generally a big no-no—because the first-person voice’s deadpan humor is so bewitching. The only drawback is the final act’s love story, which maintains the tone, but undermines some of the best themes that came earlier.
97. Suspense (1913)
Director: Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley
Lois Webber would go on to make several social-message features, some reflecting rather skewed, but nevertheless deeply held worldviews, but her purest cinematic punch is Suspense, a 10-minute collaboration with her husband, Phillips Smalley, that provides exactly what the title promises. The film crosscuts between a woman under siege by a tramp and a husband hurrying home to save her, if he can avoid the police. The inventive camera work ratchets up the tension more effectively than even D.W. Griffith did at the time. What’s most satisfying, though, is how Weber and Smalley distill one of the most primal feelings cinema can offer.
96. Foolish Wives (1922)
Director: Erich von Stroheim
There are plenty of silent dramas about social scandal, but few come with Erich von Stroheim’s coy sense of humor. The famous description of the writer/actor/director as “the man you love to hate” is only problematic in that it’s not all that easy to hate the dastardly fellow, even as he uses his charm to seduce a rich, married woman and siphon her money. In Foolish Wives, he plays Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin—or at least a con-man using that name—who lives in a swank castle in Monaco with two con-women who are his lovers and/or cousins. As would happen throughout von Stroheim’s career, the film was drastically edited down prior to release—by at least four hours to get it just short of two—but the abridged work still shows his love for mischief and bold flare. (One character is even reading a book entitled Foolish Wives, written by Erich von Stroheim.)
95. Prästänkan (The Parson’s Widow) (1920)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Lots of superlatives can be use to describe Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, but “charming” doesn’t often end up on the top of the list. That changes when you watch this sweet folk comedy about a new priest who is obligated, by the rules of a small village, to marry his predecessor’s widow. There are two problems: 1. The priest already has a cute, young fiancée whom he has to hide instead of marry. 2. Word on the street is that the widow is a witch. Dreyer’s deep compassion for the human condition comes through in the lovers’ failed covert meetings and the priest’s ill-advised attempts to trick his wicked, old wife.
94. La Sirène (1904)
Director: Georges Méliès
The most-shown Georges Méliès films are his short (though not for the time) narrative efforts, A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The impossible Voyage (1904). While those films are loaded with fun details and ambitious special effects, there’s something to be said for the cinema pioneer’s pure magic films, which are purely about film trickery. The most endearing is La Sirène, which starts off with what look like fairly typical stage magic tricks that then get more and more remarkable. The magician himself even changes into a different person for a bit. Then an aquarium leads us to get acquainted with a lovely mermaid, who has her own plans of transformation. The rapid-fire transitions add to the charm, as Méliès tries to cram as many wonders as possible into his spectacle.
93. Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Director: Leo McCarey
In the wrong hands, Charley Chase’s schtick can get old pretty quick, but the short Mighty Like a Moose shows just how funny the actor could be. Chase and Vivien Oakland play Mr. and Mrs. Moose, a married couple who were perhaps drawn together by mutual unattractiveness. She has a gigantic nose, and he has ridiculous teeth. But when they both have corrective surgery without telling the other, they each realize they can do better and set out to have an affair—which each other, as both are unrecognizable with their new good looks. The farcical premise is silly, of course, but director Leo McCarey commits to it fully and refuses to let either character off the hook, sustaining the laughter long after the concept should have grown stale.
92. Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919)
Director: Mauritz Stiller
Sir Arne’s Treasure floods the screen with haunted memories, deep regrets and a dreaded sense of whatever the Scots called karma 450 years ago. When the Swedish film industry shifted its focus from quantity to quality in the late teens, the country’s films started displaying some of the richest visuals anywhere. Director Mauritz Stiller had the time he needed to capture the essence of this tale of a Scottish mercenary who falls in love with the only surviving daughter of the family he robbed and murdered. Watch the way the camera snakes around the tower in the prison escape sequence early in the film, or the intimidating ghost sequences that fill the hero with dread.
91. The Water Magician (1933)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Better known for his later films like Ugetsu (1953), Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi found his voice early on. He crafted this bleak romance with a rich sense of people and place—in this case a troupe of touring performers in provincial Japan. Irie Takako is captivating as the title character, a performer trying to pay her long-distance love’s college tuition, during good times and increasingly bad ones. Japanese silent film includes the tradition of the benshi, a live storyteller who would describe details of the story and recite dialogue while music played. It makes for a unique—if sometimes overly wordy—way to experience a film.