The 100 Best Silent Films of All Time

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90. A Trip Down Market Street (1906)
Directors: The Miles Brothers

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If A Trip Down Market Street were utterly ordinary, it’d still be fascinating for providing a glimpse into life in San Francisco just days or weeks before the 1906 earthquake and fire devastated the city. But it’s not ordinary. It’s like a carefully choreographed ballet as the camera, mounted on a street car, travels 13 minutes from 8th Street to The Embarcadero. If you told me that the hundreds of people seen crossing the street by foot or vehicle were all actors hitting their marks, I’d believe you. There doesn’t seem to be much traffic control in the city beyond hoping people slow down and dodging them if they don’t. To experience that moment in time is a real treat, and one that isn’t possible for any similar moments that happened prior to the movie camera’s invention.


89. The Boat (1921)
Directors: Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline

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There’s a gag in The Boat in which the hero launches his boat, and it immediately sinks. It seems simple enough, but Buster Keaton actually went through several attempts and engineering adjustments before getting the shot right. If it had sank any other way, it wouldn’t have been funny, he said. That level of commitment to a few seconds of a movie embodies the ethos of the best silent comedy: It may seem on the surface to be pure silliness, but a great deal of thought, strategy and effort went into maximizing the audience’s laughter. The Boat is characteristically loaded with both great humor and great physical comedy—including Keaton trying to stay oriented as his boat is battered around in circles.


88. Il Fuoco (The Flame) (1916)
Director: Giovanni Pastrone

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It’s probably unfair to call Pina Menichelli’s character in Il Fuoco a prototype of the “vamp” or femme fatale characters who would come later. There’s nothing proto- or typical about her strange owl-esque performance as a woman with the power to seduce and destroy a young artist. Director Giovanni Pastrone is more famous for his Roman epic Cabiria (1914), but for all that film’s impressive grandeur, it can’t compete with the heartache and chills that the smaller-scale Il Fuoco generates.


87. The Nail in the Boot (1932)
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov

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Now famous in cinephile circles for lush visual works like The Cranes are Flying (1958) and I Am Cuba (1964), Mikhail Kalatozov’s reputation might go back further if Stalin’s regime hadn’t repressed his films. His rural documentary Salt for Svanetia (1930) and war drama The Nail in the Boot were both banned for favoring “formalistic aestheticism” over “dialectical materialism.” Luckily, the films survive and we can now see this story of a soldier failing in his mission because of poorly made footwear in all its formal and aesthetic glory. Both the army sequences and, somehow, even the courtroom scene at the end burst with passion and flare.


86. Dragnet Girl (1933)
Director: Yasujir? Ozu

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Yasujir? Ozu isn’t generally thought of as a gangster film director, but that’s not the only thing that makes Dragnet Girl so interesting. Ozu pays tribute to the American genre, but doesn’t strictly adhere to it. He creates a weird sort of hybrid setting that’s like an American Japan, and populates it with characters facing genuine moral dilemmas. Working with high stakes, Ozu makes a film that’s more urgent in plot than his familial dramas, but no less artful.


85. The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (1927)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock  

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Alfred Hitchcock’s films before The Lodger had plenty of his characteristic inventive camerawork and playfulness, but this is the one where he overtly hits the themes that he’d explore throughout his career: suspicion of people close to you, public mania, fear of the police. Telling the story of a sexy-but-dangerous lodger, whom our heroine suspects may be Jack the Ripper, Hitchcock builds upon clues and doubts, while making Ivor Novello’s character increasingly intriguing.


84. The Docks of New York (1928)
Director: Josef von Sternberg

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Josef von Sternberg is best known for his seven sound films with Marlene Dietrich, but his visual prowess was most at home in the silent medium, allowing him to find warmth and humanity in his actors’ faces. The way he photographs Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute in The Docks of New York is remarkable. Each crack of hope or despair catches the light perfectly. George Bancroft plays a sailor who rescues the woman while he’s on shore leave, but seems destined to abandon her like all the men who have come before. Compson’s resigned demeanor adds to the stirring poignancy.


83. Dans La Nuit (In the Night) (1929)
Director: Charles Vanel

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Starting with documentary-like realism at a coal mine before transforming into a noir-ish tale of murder and betrayal, Charles Vanel’s Dans La Nuit uses those shifting forms to illustrate just how quickly our lives can change in spirit and meaning. Vanel cast himself as both a betrayed husband and the lover who cuckolds him, adding to the film’s disconcerting qualities while showcasing an amazing range on both sides of the camera. Sandra Milovanoff’s performance as the young wife whose whose view of life is torn asunder provides further empathy and asks us to grapple with moral ambiguity.


82. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
Director: Fred Niblo

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We’re all now well familiar with stories of epic movies with prolonged productions and out-of-control spending, but Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ set a high bar early on. The movie brought in more money than any film before it, but still couldn’t recoup its expenses. Yet somehow, after going through multiple directors and lead actors, the film turned out as grandiose as promised—a stirring drama that may be a bit uneven, but nevertheless delivers when it counts. The pirate attack and chariot race represent the ideal cinematic spectacle, pulsating with pure excitement.


81. The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein

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It’s hard to say what Sergei Eisenstein’s most famous film influenced more: the Soviet spirit or film course syllabi. While the novelty of the film’s montage may be a bit overstated (Abel Gance—and he’s not the only one—played gleefully with rapid editing in La roué a couple years beforehand, and many U.S. films were cutting together exciting action sequences at the same time), there’s a genuine excitement and urgency in this workers’ rallying cry.

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