The 100 Best Silent Films of All Time

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70. Strike (1925)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein

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While Sergei Eisenstein is best known for his theories on and use of montage, Strike is most engaging for its dazzling camera trickery. Eisenstein shoots reflections, brings still photos to life and dramatically captures the ill-fated attempt of workers to rise against their exploitative employers. Of course, he still gets in his trademark pointed editing, such as juxtaposing the strikers with the rich factory heads who are “considering” the workers’ demands.


69. Hard Luck (1922)
Directors: Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline

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Sometimes failing at life includes failing at ending your life. That’s the problem Buster Keaton’s character faces in Hard Luck. He hangs himself from weak trees, jumps in front of cars that turn out not to be cars and just plain can’t find a way to put himself out of his misery. Note that the wonderfully absurd finale isn’t included in the Kino blu-ray of Keaton’s shorts, but is on the UK Masters of Cinema release and, oddly, Kino’s own Keaton Plus DVD.


68. Show People (1928)
Director: King Vidor

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Marion Davies is sadly better known as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress than for her great comedic performances. (Let’s not talk about people’s odd tendency to expect Citizen Kane, which was merely inspired by the life of Hearst, to be more accurate than most biopics that are actually about real people.) No director brought out the magnetic personality that made Davies the life of Hollywood parties better than King Vidor. He made two films with Davies in 1928, The Patsy and Show People, and she’s utterly lovable in both of them. Show People arrived as the silent era was ending, and provides an inside look at the Hollywood studio system (with all the required cameos) and the divide between comedy and high art. As an actress who gets her start in slapstick before becoming a dramatic star, Davies gets to send up various acting styles while always showcasing her own personality.


67. Speedy (1928)
Director: Ted Wilde

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Speedy is Harold Lloyd’s most consistently fun and effortlessly likable film. Take away the marquee race-against-time finale through New York City, and you’re still left with the misadventures of a good-natured boy who just can’t seem to hold onto a job. The romance between Lloyd and his girlfriend (the fantastic Ann Christy) is sweet, and since the film begins after their courtship, has a different dynamic than the typical love story. Oh, and Babe Ruth isn’t too shabby either.


66. Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) (1917)
Director: Victor Sjöstrom

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A few short years after starting in film, Victor Sjöström made an essential work that shows off both his love for bold, dynamic compositions and his wide range as an actor. Adapted from the Henrik Ibsen poem, the film follows the life and hardships of a sailor who loses his family, then later comes back in contact with the person responsible for his tragedy. The themes of revenge, forgiveness and redemption would continue throughout Sjöstrom’s career, but they’re particularly deep-felt here.


65. The Gold Rush (1925)
Director: Charles Chaplin

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The Klondike gold rush made the perfect setting for Charles Chaplin’s tramp to run wild. Chaplin took all the motifs he could find from adventure novels, melodramas and other stories of the northern frontier, tossed them in a blender and served up a collection of what would become his most famous scenes. He finds humor in peril—with a suspenseful teetering cabin scene, as well as starvation (when he famously makes a meal of his boot) and of course finds time to show off with his dancing roll scene. However, no one has succeeded in finding any humor in the atrocious voiceover Chaplin added to the 1942 rerelease. Be sure to watch the original version. For a more serious take on the Klondike hardships, see Clarence Brown’s The Trail of ’98 (1928).


64. The Cameraman (1928)
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward Sedgwick

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Buster Keaton’s first film at MGM would also be the last one on which he was allowed to work the way he wanted with the crew he’d assembled during the previous eight years. That gives The Cameraman a bit of a bittersweet feel when it’s not making you laugh your ass off at a Chinatown riot or wowing you with a long take following Keaton up and down an apartment building’s stairs. Keaton (and many of the other silent comedians) liked to improvise scenes with a crew of gagmen, feeling out and adjusting scenes until they were just right. Shooting on location allowed Keaton to do this one last time before pre-planning and fixed budgets took the magic out of the process.


63. The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Director: Raoul Walsh

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Douglas Fairbanks threw all his resources and energy into making sure The Thief of Bagdad was a rousing piece of entertainment from start to finish. The Arabian Nights fantasy boasts lavish art direction (the costly castle Fairbanks built for Robin Hood was redesigned for the new setting), gorgeous visuals and thousands of fellow actors and extras who bring the fantasy to life. And of course, Fairbanks is in the middle of it all, making everything tick with his elastic gymnastics.


62. L’Hirondelle et la Mésange (The Swallow and the Titmouse) (1920)
Director: André Antoine

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A hybrid documentary-narrative, The Swallow and the Titmouse beautifully records the life of a barge captain and his family as they work the river in Belgium and northern France. Little-known French director André Antoine (credited as simply “Antoine”) had a short-lived career, but thankfully left behind these images of life on the barges and in seaside towns, including a sea-goers parade. The structure almost anticipates 2001: A Space Odyssey, as it first calmly acquaints us with a way of life before letting the tense drama unfold.


61. Blackmail (1929)
Director:   Alfred Hitchcock  

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Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film was also his last silent, as Blackmail was made in both formats. While the sound version is known for Hitchcock’s experiments with the new technology (most famously a scene that emphasizes the word “knife”), the silent version flows much smoother. And Donald Calthrop’s performance of the blackmailer feels even creepier with just his face and body language doing the job.

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