The 100 Best Silent Films of All Time

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80. Jenseits der Straße (Harbor Drift a.k.a. Beyond the Streets) (1929)
Director: Leo Mittler

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The problem with a lot of silent German (and U.S.) “street films” is that they’re so intent on showing the dark side of society that the movies just become one long barrage of terrible things happening to some poor girl who doesn’t deserve any of it. What sets Harbor Drift apart is that its assortment of characters start in the gutter, and see a chance, in the form of a valuable necklace, to get out. Mittler makes the expected critiques of the class divide, but he also gets deeper into the dark side of human nature with keen expressionistic flare.


79. 7th Heaven (1927)
Director: Frank Borzage

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A melodrama of the highest order, 7th Heaven sends you to the heights of romance, then into the trenches of war. Janet Gaynor gave two pure, indelible performances in 1927, as the country wife in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and in this film as a long-suffering woman who finds love in a spirited street cleaner (Charles Farrell) before war separates them. Proving that the Academy doesn’t always get things wrong, she won the first Best Actress Oscar—for both films as well as Borzage’s Street Angel (1928), as the rules were bit different at the time. Borzage pulls off some glorious shots, like the camera traveling up the stairs of a humble but high Parisian apartment, but some of his most moving moments are the simplest, like when the two lovers speak to each other while they’re miles away from each other.


78. Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Director: Clarence Brown

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Greta Garbo and John Gilbert had so much chemistry that you could have shot them waiting in line at the DMV and it still would have oozed with sex appeal. But with director Clarence Brown and cinematographer William Daniels working alongside them, there’s enough erotic energy to power the planet for 20 years—if only we could figure out how to harness it. Brown and Daniels use matches, fireplaces, moonlight through a rainy window and even a church window to emphasize the ill-fated yet irresistible relationship. Garbo’s fellow Swede Lars Hanson also deserves attention for his nuanced performance as the third point in the story’s love triangle, but with those two stars, he’s never going to get it.


77. A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Director: Anthony Asquith

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This thriller taps into the darkness of the human soul, depicting jealousy and violence when a love story doesn’t go the desired way. But it also refuses to paint its villain as a monster, instead putting doubt over the degree of malice meant in his jealous actions. Director Anthony Asquith is full of visual invention, finding brilliant cues into flashbacks and creating a chilling atmosphere throughout, excelling in particular when a romance’s outcome becomes clear at a movie house. (The film was made during the transition to sound, and the musicians stop playing for the talkie.)


76. Battling Butler (1926)
Director: Buster Keaton

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The least grandiose Buster Keaton feature has no train wreck, no cattle stampede, no army of brides. It instead showcases Keaton’s human assets as an actor and director. While never one to ask the audience for sympathy, he still elicits support in his ill-advised endeavors. Keaton and his cameramen’s work with deep-focus cinematography is used not only for comedy but for emotion, such as when the hero’s lady disappears from view out his car’s rear window.


75. Gösta Berlings saga (The Saga of Gosta Berling) (1924)
Director: Mauritz Stiller

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The golden age of Swedish silent cinema ended with a bang via this this epic tale of a drunken priest’s redemption. Mauritz Stiller conjures a series of defining moments in Gosta Berling’s life, including sex scandals, wolves, fire and romance, with a level of grandeur that recalls Gone with the Wind. Lars Hanson carries the film with his fiery eyes and bravado exchanges with costars, including Gerda Lundquist and Greta Garbo (in her first film).


74. The Cook (1918)
Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

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While the known existing prints The Cook are missing some footage, it still stands out as Roscoe Arbuckle’s best two-reeler, zipping along with gags, knife tricks and plenty of physical humor. Arbuckle’s hands are as fast as a magician’s as he sprinkles in a five-fingered ballet amidst the organized chaos. He also does some actual dancing, imitating Theda Bara in Salomé.


73. Happiness (1934)
Director: Aleksandr Medvedkin

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To watch a Soviet silent comedy, you must be prepared for some zany surreality. I don’t know how or why, but from My Grandmother (1929) to The House on Trubnaya Square (1928) to The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), these U.S.S.R. laughers reliably go off the rails, then tie the rails in a knot for good measure. With Happiness, Aleksandr Medvedkin delivers plenty of oddity as a hapless farmer struggles to find his place in society, even after his horse-wife finds hers. But Medvedkin also reigns the film into a better-shaped and tighter-focused narrative than most of his contemporaries, making this the most successful work of the genre.


72. The Last of the Mohicans (1920)
Director: Maurice Tourneur

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The Last of the Mohicans signifies a passing of the torch. Director Maurice Tourneur fell ill while filming it, and his longtime assistant and apprentice, Clarence Brown, directed a part of it on his behalf. Tourneur was already a visual master, and Brown would of course go on to a storied career, famously making Greta Garbo a star. (See No. 78.) Here, Tourneur and Brown craft an epic tale of men pitted against each other and nature’s elements, with shots of the intimidating, mountainous nature that would make John Ford jealous.


71. Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Director: Winsor McKay

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Gertie the Dinosaur toyed with cinema’s potential in two novel ways: animation and augmented live presentation. Cartoonist Winsor McKay was as much a showman as a pioneer, so when he went on the road with his work, he presented people with Gertie, his trained pet dinosaur. He’d stand on stage and order the plucky, not always completely obedient dinosaur around, asking the audience to encourage it to do tricks. Whether you watch the short with intertitles or with someone playing McKay’s part, the real charm is in the incorrigible character.

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