Film is a medium that has multiple interpretations and meanings, which is one element that makes it so interesting. I tend to see cinema is a mirror of our reality. As a way for us to convey our deepest emotions and inner thoughts through images and celluloid. Like life itself, a film can be exciting, poignant, bleak, thrilling, horrifying or anywhere in between.
Of course, some movies use this bridge to describe reality better than others. Some don’t even try to blur the line, while others just aren’t made well at all. This is why there is a significant difference between good movies and bad ones. It is also why people keep track of the greatest films of all time.
Now I will attempt to throw my hat into the ring by creating my list for the greatest movies ever made. I’ve racked my brain and resources, thinking of every movie that I considered great in one way or another, which made it stood out from other works of cinema. In the end, I was able to come up with 225 films, all from a different range of eras and countries, made by a wide assortment of filmmakers.
There are a few things which should be known on what I’m about to present. First of all, I will be presenting these by decade, along with a few thoughts on each interval of time. Along with that, there will be clips to accompany each film that I can find.
Second, these are what I consider the greatest works of film. I will give a brief description for each film, explaining why it belongs here. As such, there will be films that others may adore and cherish but just don’t make it on my list.
Third, this is an incomplete list. I have not watched every film ever made, nor have I even watched every well-received movie ever made. One of my policies on film criticism is to not talk about a movie that I’ve never watched. To save criticisms and judgment for after a film is finished.
So if you feel I missed a particular film, it’s most likely because I either haven’t seen it or feel that it isn’t all that special. I will do my best to remain objective with this, but I’ve always believed that it’s impossible to be completely objective with cinema. Like telling a joke, if a film doesn’t work, it doesn’t work for that particular person and there is little that can be done about it. So please, if you have reservations with me or what I have to say, know that this is merely my opinion.
Greatest Films of the 1920s:
Watching films from the 1920s is an incredibly interesting process nowadays. This is due to the majority of well-known films from this era being silent, relying entirely upon images and the emotions on the actors faces to tell the story. This is part of the draw of silent cinema, as this opens up a world of possibilities for ways to tell the story.
It can also be a hinderance, because filmmakers back then did not hold the same moral and filmic values that we do. Some movies just don’t translate well, while others are timeless classics that show they don’t need sound to tell a good story. It’s really about how they use their lack of noise and their presentation. For example, every film listed below is an excellent example of not only silent cinema, but moviemaking. There are a diverse range of stories, each with a unique way of telling their tale, while others have cinematography or techniques that are still impressive to watch. Such is the power of silent films.
"The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari" (1920)
This is the height of the German Expressionist era, where reality seems warped and dark, as well as the characters. In a story where a mad doctor uses hypnotism to get others to commit crimes for him, the setting of a small German town works wonders, especially when you’re unsure of what is real or not. Effectively using color filters to add atmosphere, it also works as a thriller when the main character is dubious of his own actions and what really lies in the doctor’s cabinet.
“The Kid” (1921)
Ah, Charlie Chaplin. Always finding that perfect ground between comedy and drama to convey a multitude of just the right emotions. This is one of Chaplin’s first attempts at a full-length feature film, rather than his usual shorts, and it is one of his best, where his classic persona, The Tramp, takes it upon himself to raise an abandoned child. This works so well because of a very young Jackie Coogan, who plays the kid, and his relationship with Chaplin. He’ll mimic the Tramp but still laugh at his crazy antics, all with the most innocent of looks. The film hits all the right notes and remains a great example of Chaplin’s work.
The first film attempt at telling the story of Dracula, without ever mentioning the word “vampire.” This film works so well because of atmosphere alone. Because of the lack of sound, the film relies on its striking cinematography and landscape of Nosferatu’s castle. Just his stance and shadow alone is enough to give me nightmares. And because of the lack of vampire, the film keeps you guessing what Nosferatu really is. Is he a bloodsucking creature of the night? Or is he an eccentric pale-faced weirdo who loves to kill?
“The Battleship Potemkin” (1925)
I’ll freely admit that I don’t exactly care for this one, as the story is nothing groundbreaking and I can’t remember anything about the characters. This one makes the list because of how it revolutionized the way in which films were shot and edited. Sergei Eisenstein, the film’s director, always pushed the boundaries of what a film could do. Before this film, most filmmakers would shoot with the actors in the center of the frame and end the shot when it had served its purpose. Eisenstein would focus on the specific body parts, like the head or hands, and make many quick cuts to signify a characters’ thought patterns. This may seem like nothing now, but we owe many filming techniques to this film, whether we know it or not.
“The Gold Rush” (1925)
Another Chaplin piece, this one being a bit more ambitious than “The Kid.” This time, the Tramp travels to Alaska in the hopes to strike it big by finding gold deep in the wilderness. What is most memorable about this one are the set pieces and the large variety of gags that come from it, including scenes where the Tramp must eat his own shoe and does a wonderful dance with two pieces of bread. Though this may not be as touching as “The Kid” or as funny as other Chaplin works, this one is certainly memorable for defining just who the Tramp is.
Wow, this film looks amazing. Right from the opening scene with the devil’s wings closing around an enormous city, only to be saved by the light of a gigantic angel, I can’t help but be impressed. Not to mention, the story of an angel and demon fighting over a man’s soul is simplistic yet right at the core of the human struggle between good and evil. Faust, the man whom the deities are fighting over, wants to do the right thing with the power given to him, but is overcome by his own greed and pride. The film works with both its story and cinematography to make for an experience that won’t be forgotten.
“The General” (1926)
Buster Keaton is one of the greatest entertainers of all time. The man perfected silent comedy, with his stone faced approach to any situation and an athletic ability that might only be matched by Jackie Chan. “The General” is his best work, because not only does it have a plethora of excellent comedy, but also has an intriguing story of reclaiming lost love during the Civil War. Plus, Buster Keaton taking down an entire fleet with just his train. But let’s be honest, we all know he would have won the war anyway.
This film does something that I thought was impossible. It tells a compelling and heartfelt love story, without ever saying a word. I don’t mean because its silent, but because there are large breaks in the film where the two romantic leads never say anything to one another. These two, who had drifted apart and the husband attempting to kill his spouse for another woman, merely spend time together and relearn why they fell in love through each other’s company. Shots were the two smile at one another go a long way in this innovatively shot romance.
Other than a film that we’ll look at in the 1930s, I consider “Metropolis” the greatest silent film and is certainly one of the crowning achievements of science-fiction filmmaking. Nearly every shot of this film is impressive and breathtaking. You really get an understanding of the landscape and scope of this futuristic world, whether the future means improvement or deterioration. “Metropolis” is able to find the best of both silent worlds, by doing what “Faust” did with its cinematography and the thrill and suspense of “The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.” Furthermore its emotional core and message still speaks true nearly 90 years later, making the film even more powerful than Fritz Lang intended.
As I said, the 1920s can be an interesting watch these days, since silent cinema can really shine through and surprise you, or it can leave you unimpressed and wanting more. This is mostly due to being around so many great films that differ from the ones that stand out in 1920 and growing up with a different set of values. Still, there are plenty of films that have stuck around and still continue to entertain audiences to this day, for one reason or another.