The B+ Movie Guide: Part I

In May of 2012, Colin said I should make a list of movies that need to be seen, because he felt there were huge gaps in what he’d seen, and wanted something to do. The idea was that I’d make up a list, as “homework” for him, and he’d use that as things to watch.

So we came up with a giant list of 500 movies that worked, and Colin went about finishing it. And now that it’s finished, we’re gonna write it up. Because you don’t watch a giant list of movies without documenting that you did it.

We’re going through the entire list, little by little, for posterity’s sake. And here’s the first set:

We begin the list with the 20s. We didn’t pick anything before 1920, and as I said yesterday, there’s at least one movie from every year all the way through 1999. We’re gonna throw out all the silent movies in one go, which conveniently takes us through the 20s and allows us to start with 1930 tomorrow.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - 21

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)


Awesome. Probably intro film student stuff, but I love how fucked up and German expressionist it is. It’s public domain, so a lot of the copies aren’t great. They never fully remastered this one. But the sets are terrific, and you get early Conrad Veidt. Plus one of the early examples of twist endings. (3)


I watched this one pretty late in my progress, and I think I would have been better off leading with it. This is one of those movies that’s so heavily referenced in later film as a road map German expressionism and horror that I felt silly waiting as long as I did to spend the 71 minutes watching it. And it’s on YouTube, so at that point you’ve really got no excuse. This film resonated with me primarily because of its aesthetic value, and how it represents the German influence on Hollywood. That connection is probably more borne out with Murnau doing Nosferatu (there was some similar imagery between Schreck and Veidt, too) and then emigrating to the US, where he hits us with Sunrise. But Caligari has some of the most brilliant sets of that era, and I thought back to it the last time I watched Stagecoach and noticed how deftly Ford used the expressionist look during the final sequences and shootout in Lordsburg. This is one of those movies that you really should watch if you haven’t, because it’s awesome, and it’s eating your vegetables. But 71 minutes is pretty much a single baby carrot.  

The Kid - 13

The Kid (1921)


Chaplin. The Kid. It’s essential. It might be his best movie. This is definitely the one that holds the most emotion. The part where they try to take the kid away — and Chaplin wrote the score! There are also a lot of really weird moments in this (angels?), but obviously it’s essential. (2)


I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen this once I watched it. The other Chaplin stuff I’d seen had me thinking that he was a primarily comedic actor, and his skill in that regard isn’t really up for debate. This is the real tearjerker of his that really set him apart from Keaton in my mind. I think it also showcases something that I’ve always loved about movies from the 20s and 30s, which is when they give you characters who have very little, but derive genuine joy in the very simplest gifts that life has to offer. When Chaplin and the Kid sit down to dinner after a day of window-breaking, Chaplin ladles out some unidentifiable food onto their plates in the middle of this bare room, but they’re clearly content. They have the meal, which is to say, they have each other. Their satisfaction with life in each other’s company is what makes it so devastating when the Kid is crying for Chaplin from the back of a truck as they try to take him away — they will truly have lost everything. Newer movies trying to replicate this often fail because they try to overemphasize the poverty or really hit you over the head with lines like, “As long as we’re together…” This movie is pretty perfect, and I might put it at the top of my list for Chaplin.

 Nosferatu - 35

Nosferatu (1922)


Not essential, but definitely culturally classic. Great images here, great moments of suspense. I don’t even have Dracula on this list because of this. Because this is the best version of Dracula they’ve made. (Not the most iconic, because Bela Lugosi takes that.) But in terms of that story, this is the best. (2)


This struck me as pretty essential, given the imagery, the Murnau context and the Max Schreck performance. I was all over this movie, despite generally straying away from horror. It’s scary from start to finish, particularly with the famous staircase shadows, which I can’t unsee. But it’s also got the doorway scene, the ship scene, and my favorite — Schreck in the window across the way. I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would. 

Our Hospitality (1923)


Keaton. We added this one later to get 1923 on the list. But on its own, its one of the most impressive Buster Keaton movies. The stunts he does in this — that waterfall sequence — holy shit. The single most impressive silent comedian. Chaplin was a better storyteller, but in terms of physical comedy, they don’t get any better than Keaton. This is the one, for those who forget specific Keaton plots — he meets a woman and goes to marry her, but he realizes their families are essentially the Hatfields and McCoys. So her family spends the rest of the movie trying to kill him. (3)


What a great movie this was. The stunts are magnificent, first of all. It gets better and better as the movie continues, to the point where by the end I was wondering how Keaton was still alive. Keaton’s the guy who takes a single premise or a single prop and gets like 20 minutes out of it. The last major portion of this movie is a chase sequence that becomes a rescue sequence in which every stunt and gag focuses on a rope tied to him. It gets him into trouble, but then it saves him. He somehow uses it as a weapon, but then it knocks him down somehow. And after like 10 minutes, he’s still finding more stuff to do with a rope tied to himself. If you weren’t convinced that Keaton was a stunt genius, this movie should do it. The other thing was that I watched this after seeing The General, and all the train scenes in this had me rolling. Keaton’s deadpan face as this derpy 1840s train chugs along at like 2 mph and gets somehow messed up every 30 seconds. On top of all this, there’s the great storyline of a guy who doesn’t care at all about an old family rivalry and has to try to court this girl as her brothers and father are trying constantly to murder him. 

The Last Laugh (1924)


We added this one last-minute, to make sure we had a film from every year. The other choice from this year was Greed, but I didn’t want to make Colin have to sit through all four hours of that. The Last Laugh is a much more accessible film, and at this point, neither is particularly required viewing, unless you’re delving into the silent era for classics. The beauty of this movie is — told entirely through images and not intertitles. I think there’s one intertitle in the entire film and that’s it. Plus, Murnau, and Emil Jannings, who was the actor of the silent era. There’s a reason he won the first Best Actor Oscar. He was the quintessential thespian of the silent era. (3)


This was a sad movie that decided to end in a way completely unlike anyone might have expected. It’s not even a twist ending — a twist implies that it was intended from the start, and this was more like, “Hey, I know we’ve come this far on this trajectory, but now that we’re here…what the hell?” I already knew I loved Murnau, and had heard plenty about Emil Jannings, but I ended up being more into two things: the story, and the facial hair. Jannings has the best facial hair in this movie. But the story is about the doorman at this amazing hotel, whose self-worth is wrapped up in that identity. When he loses it, he loses everything else with it. It’s a movie about depression, wounded pride and the passing of time. Great movie. 

The Battleship Potemkin - 124

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)


Obviously. It is what it is. The Odessa Steps sequence is something everyone should see. Plus you get to watch it and be like, “Wow, De Palma basically just ripped it entirely for Untouchables.” Plus, Soviet Montage. This is the kind of movie that works well with a lecture. Its essentialness is implicit, though. The title says everything you need to know. (2)


There were a few movies on the list that felt like propaganda, and a few more that actually were propaganda. I’m not sure that’s a distinction you can really make, but when you compare this to Sergeant York, you think about where to draw the line and there’s not really any question here. I enjoyed it because the Soviet revolution is an interesting time, about which a drillion movies have been made. This was the first that I saw starring guys who probably participated in the real deal. The beginning of the movie is in-your-face allegorical with the rotten meat and tyrannical officers, not to mention the priest and doctor, who are killed to drive home the metaphor. But once you get past all of that, there’s a lot of great cinematography — the steps sequence above all. Not quite Man With a Movie Camera, but enough to convince me that Soviet cinema from the 20s is worth checking out.

The Gold Rush (1925)


Chaplin again. The Gold Rush. Chaplin has about six movies that must be seen by everybody. He’s one of those guys whose stuff translates, even without words. You can show this to a child and they can enjoy it. The other note I made in my original article is — these are the unquestionably essential ones, and if you’ve seen these, move onto the other ones that aren’t as remembered, because they’re just as good. (Thankfully, we can get to those in a few weeks.) (2)


This was one of those middle-of-the-road-amazing Chaplin movies, which is to say that it wasn’t quite The Kid in terms of distilled storytelling, nor was it The Great Dictator in terms of message, but as an entertaining film with unbelievable gags and impressive stunts, it’s up there with the best of them. I think it should be remembered as one of his best, if only because he managed to take a story that wouldn’t otherwise have the elements to grab you emotionally and inject it with an amazing performance. If you haven’t seen the roll dance, go watch that right now. I know that other actors did similar things before The Gold Rush, but nobody did it like Chaplin. It’s one of those scenes where you can picture Robert Downey Jr. doing it in Chaplin and receiving the applause and admiration of everyone on set.

The Phantom of the Opera - 62

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)


I assume everyone needs to see some version of that movie, and this one, to me, is the best. Lon Chaney is a fucking boss. Seeing this shit on the Film Series with the live orchestra there changed my motherfuckin’ life. That shit was fucking incredible. They released a two-disc version of this a few years ago, where the entire film is tinted and toned by location. That’s the one I saw. I prefer that version, because the color brings a cohesiveness to it. And it makes that Bal Masque sequence in color really just pop. That scene on the roof was one of the mot terrifying images I’ve ever seen in movies, and I didn’t see it for the first time until I was 18. (2)


I’m going to go on record saying that the Wishbone version of Phantom of the Opera is pretty solid, but once you’ve seen that, you should probably watch this. I also watched the tinted version, and the Bal Masque sequence and following roof scenes were indeed terrible to behold. This is also a story that lends itself to silent film more than some others, despite the obvious musical context. The scenes featuring characters searching for trap doors or walking through the opera house are so much better served without dialogue that would have sped things along too much. And that face. Just about every 20s horror movie has at least one shot of the scary face in makeup, held for effect. They need to bring that back.

The General - 12

The General (1926)


This might be the single best movie of the silent era. Or maybe it’s just my favorite. (Well… Phantom of the Opera…) But man, Buster Keaton — if you see any movie by this man, see this one. It is perfect. The stunts he pulls off with this train – the beauty of him is that you can see everything about the stunts. So you are aware of the danger that can happen if he screws it up. And he lets things develop. I can rattle off like twelve different stunts from memory. I remember writing a paper on this junior year, and it was that semester where Colin basically lived in my room, and he ended up watching it with me, because I was just watching it on repeat. Mostly because it was so good. (2)


This was my first Keaton experience, before I knew what he was about. Those stunts Mike mentioned — they’re all worth it. And it’s sort of like what I was talking about with Our Hospitality, how Keaton was able to take one thing and extract from it more stunts and gags than anyone would expect and land them all perfectly. Only this time, instead of a rope tied to him for the last portion of the film, he’s using the train for the whole movie. The only way that I can really put it is, the way you admire a magician for being able to manipulate a deck of cards effortlessly and make them do whatever he wants, that’s how you look at Keaton in this movie. Except instead of a deck of cards, it’s a massive steam locomotive.


Metropolis (1927)


Probably just essential for people. And if not, it’s up there for film buffs. Just because. The images from this one have essentially been copied in every dystopian future movie that came out. They’re really impressive. Definitely on a list of top ten most important films of the silent era. (2)


This is pretty essential. Just as The Kid captured poverty and love the way new movies usually fail to, this movie hits the class struggle utopia trope better than most movies do today. I watched Elysium (don’t ask me why) and spent a good part of it wondering why it had to be more Dredd than Metropolis. Maybe I’m just a cantankerous old man, but I feel like the heart’s gone out of Dystopia these days. Story aside, it’s a massive visual achievement. The scale of the city is provided with clever angles on a miniature model, and the chase sequences are helped by skillful editing. The whole movie feels like an exercise in visual storytelling on an unprecedented scale, but drawing on only the most basic of fundamentals.

Sunrise - 48

Sunrise (1927)


This is one I’d totally call essential for film buffs. The other unofficial first Best Picture winner. Wings won for Outstanding Production, and this won for Most Artistic Production. It’s absolutely beautiful, and perfect. A must-watch for those considering drowning their wives. And it has a drunken pig! (2)


The drunken pig. Yes. But also, wife drowning seems to be a running theme in this list. This is one of those movies that started with a simple plot and a premise that I wasn’t really buying into until it completely won me over. In a way, the way that the couple enjoy themselves and rekindle old love reminded me of Make Way for Tomorrow, which also gave me the idea that something bad might happen to them. All in all, a beautiful film about appreciating the people around you, and a poignant reminder of what can happen to ordinary people, despite our better intentions.

Wings - 118

Wings (1927)


It’s Wings. First Best Picture winner and all that. You probably don’t need to see it. But it’s fun. World War I fighter pilots and shit. Probably intro film level, though. (3)


I love aviation history and dogfighting sequences, so I was all over this movie from the start. There’s something a lot more exciting about a movie like Wings because you know there are dozens of actual pilots flying around in crappy planes that could give out at any moment. And then on top of everything, you’ve got a Gary Cooper cameo that starts him off in Hollywood, and Clara Bow as the goofy girl-next-door who gets caught topless and has to resign as an ambulance driver. That’s quality stuff, folks. Mostly, though, this is one of those classic 20s stories where you begin with like three or four characters, know from the start how things should be with all of them, and then spend the next two hours or so watching that all unfold in spectacular fashion.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)


Intro film stuff. It’s amazing. Most people wouldn’t care for it, but it is really great. But the average filmgoer wouldn’t give a shit about it unless they were trying to become very film cultured. If you want to be better than the schmucks, you don’t need it. If you want to impress real film people out of nowhere, you should see it. That’s one where, if they don’t expect you to know it, and you do, it surprises them. They have to stop treating you like an idiot when you mention that. (Obviously you know which people I’m assuming you’re talking to.) But it’s really great. It’s basically one actress on screen in close up for the whole movie. (3)


What a movie this was. I’d never seen anything like it, and I don’t know if I ever will again. For sure, when I discussed the list with people and mentioned this movie, they always changed the subject or trailed off. Having seen it now, I can say that I’m probably good never watching it in its entirety again, but that said — wow. It’s like two hours of closeups on her face with no makeup and the occasional tear. And every once in a while, they’ll go back to the line of old, fat French guys in robes who menace her and laugh at her misfortune. I watched 20 minutes, thought I was going to buckle, but kept going and was eventually super into it. And the best part is that there’s really no major developments, and we all know how it ends. 

Man with a Movie Camera - 58

The Man With A Movie Camera (1929)


Entertaining, because of all the film tricks, but it’s mostly for people who are film student-oriented. It’s kind of boring, since there’s no plot, but technically, it’s incredible. (2)


This movie blew my mind, because it was breathtaking to watch. I’m not super film student-y, but all the different ways this guy found to shoot Soviet Russia in the 1920s was brilliant. There are also times when you can easily forget about the camera tricks because you’re so taken in by the images of everyday life in the Soviet Union of that time. It’s really sort of a documentary, but not in the traditional sense. I put it on expecting to zone out like I was watching someone’s never-ending travel slideshow, and that’s exactly what it is, but I watched this more closely than some 1970s thrillers. It’s exciting to see them experimenting with this relatively new medium, trying to figure out what they can do and how it affects our perception. 

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Final Thoughts:


I’m kinda surprised The Jazz Singer didn’t make it on this list. Maybe because I knew you’d seen it? I’m sure Birth of a Nation didn’t make it because we made the conscious decision to start from 1920. The Crowd is another one I probably could have added, but wasn’t as essential, since if I wanted to go deep into silents, I could have. And if we’re getting into other major silent film stuff — Intolerance, The Big Parade, Greed, Pandora’s Box, Napoleon. Those are just more off the top of my head. Mostly my big takeaway from the logistical side of things is — The Jazz Singer should have made it on here. If we’re talking essential movies for the film buff/person interested in the history of film, that’s the one that I’d have put on. That is, also, assuming that we’re making a list of “the” essential movies, and not just a list for a friend. Otherwise, with the “one a year” parameters, I think I did a pretty solid job of providing a solid overview of the era and the really important films and people.

And, of course, if you want to get into the pre-features era, there’s a whole slew of movies you can see. But that’s a whole other list and set of films. That’ll be by request only. (And we’re talking like, from Lumiere all the way to Birth of a Nation. Three minute silents and old school Edison movies.)

And to get into the ratings thing briefly — now that we’re in the middle of it, I’m treating them thusly: 1 is for see it. 1s are reserved for the “how have you made it this far without seeing this” movies. 2s are for “if you’re into movies and call yourself a film buff, you need to see this.” 3s are for either “film student essential,” “culturally essential,” “important for certain historical reasons” (which lends itself to film student, but not always) and “it’s just really awesome and I think everyone ought to see this.”

Caligari, The Last Laugh and Joan of Arc are only essential if you want to be a student of film. Even if you’re into movies, you aren’t gonna be judged too harshly on your not having seen them. Caligari is the closest to broaching “2” territory, but I don’t think you need to go and see it if you’re into film. I think it’s more if you’re studying film history that Caligari becomes essential. Last Laugh is purely for film students and people deep into it. Joan of Arc is definitely film student stuff. You need to really want to sit down and watch that movie to get something out of it. But if you’re doing this list, you’re that person, so it’s fine.

The Man with a Movie Camera is only essential if you’re a film buff, because all film buffs should see it. It feels like a 3, but it’s not. Because of all the reasons Colin said. Sunrise is a 2 because if you love movies, you’ll love it. Hugely important, even though you might consider it a 3. Metropolis speaks for itself, and honestly the only reason it’s not a 1 is because it’s silent, and you don’t expect people to have seen silents. The General is totally a 2 because it’s Buster Keaton’s best. It’s the same with the Chaplin ones on the list. You see those if you love movies. Phantom of the Opera, everyone should see if you like movies because it’s iconic and terrific. Potemkin is like Metropolis. I consider essential movies to be the same as when people ask if certain athletes are hall of famers. Say the name. Does it sound like an essential movie? Metropolis. Battleship Potemkin. The answer is yes.


I really didn’t expect to enjoy the 1920s as much as I did. I went into this list with too few silent films under my belt and the idea that I’d slog through them the way most people watch artsy foreign films. This part of the list made me appreciate minimalism and artistic limitations more than ever before. Watching new movies, I now find myself advocating for less of everything visual, rather than more.

I do think The Jazz Singer should be on here from a general list perspective, but I also wouldn’t have removed anything from this decade. Wings feels essential as the first Best Picture winner, and I would keep everything else, for that matter.

As for everything pre-1920…I think we’re pretty clear on sticking to our semi-arbitrary guidelines. I have no problem with starting in 1920 and leaving the older stuff to a later list. This is a great place to start, chronologically. 

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More movies tomorrow.

One response

  1. I watch The Gold Rush with my students. They love it!

    July 9, 2015 at 2:11 am

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