Thursday, February 17, 2011

Paul's Cinema Chronology: Film Until the 1950s

Today I’m debuting a new feature, which I’ll call Paul's Cinema Chronology unless and until I think of something better. The idea is for me to write about the movies I’ve seen in a given year. If I have any specific thoughts on the year I’ll give them, although I doubt I’ll have many. The plan is to list all of the movies I’ve seen from that particular year, then give a top and maybe bottom five with a brief explanation (only a couple of sentences), and finally to mention any notable films from that year that I haven’t yet seen.

Obviously this will be a long-running series, but it won’t be quite as bad as it might sound. For the first few installments I’ll be conglomerating the years; until the late 90s I usually have seen only a handful of movies from any given year. The plan is to cover everything up to 1950 in this first (and probably shortest) entry, then have one each for the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I’ll probably do two to cover the 80s, and then one that covers the first half of the 90s before I get to year-by-year. Also, the point of this isn’t any sort of essay on how a particular time period affected film history. I might possibly write a few things, as I mentioned above (about a particularly interesting Oscar race, for example), but for the most part this is strictly about me. So there.

The Beginning: Film until 1950.

What I’ve seen:

Moscow Clad in Snow
Man With a Movie Camera
All Quiet on the Western Front
City Lights
Gold Diggers of 1933
Modern Times
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Citizen Kane
A Matter of Life and Death
It’s A Wonderful Life
The Third Man
All The King's Men
21 total.

The Best of What I've Seen:

5. All Quiet on the Western Front (top 100)- It shouldn't surprise anyone that parts of this movie can feel a bit dated, but considering it was a war movie produced a decade before World War II, it holds up more than adequately. Of course, calling Western Front a 'war movie' is a misrepresentation. It is instead a stridently antiwar movie, and has more than a little in common with films like Platoon. The almost hockey approach to the early scenes--which seem laughable to a modern audiences--actually serve to make the rest of the film even more devastating and effective. And make no mistake, this is not an optimistic movie, and it has one of the most unambiguously bleak endings in the history of film. There's a reason that people still remember this movie, more than eighty years after its release.

4. Bambi (top 100)- One of the best-known early films, Bambi is fundamentally entertaining, but is also emotionally affecting to a degree that many animated movies struggle to achieve. What's more, it is surprisingly sophisticated for a film originally aimed at children, and features one of the most enduringly famous cinematic tragedies in the death of Bambi's mother (oops, spoiler alert), which remains a masterpiece of understated storytelling. Disney's fourth full-length story, the studio has yet to surpass it nearly seventy years later if one doesn't include Pixar's contributions.

3. Casablanca (top 100)- Watching Casablanca now is strange experience due entirely to how much of the movie's dialogue has inserted itself into American pop culture over the past 70 years. But strange as listening to it is at times, there is a reason that this movie is such a beloved classic. With a cast of memorable characters, a poignant and touching plot, and a hell of a script (clearly), Casablanca earns all the praise it's gotten as one of cinema's first great anti-romances.

2. Fantasia (top 100)- I am not alone in considering Fantasia a singular artistic achievement. Its blend of beautiful music with short pieces of matching animation was, in a word, inspired. Other than the inferior (but still good) sequel released in 2000, we've never seen anything else quite like it. I am of the opinion that Fantasia is the best 2D animated film to ever be produced in the United States. It is, simply, a masterpiece.

1. Citizen Kane (top 100)- What can I say about Kane that hasn't been said, and more eloquently? Even beyond the litany of technical innovations that Orson Wells pioneered in it, Citizen Kane is a singular accomplishment. A compelling examination of a tremendously interesting character, Wells' opus has earned all the praise heaped on it over the years. While it isn't my favorite movie of all time, it is still undeniably great, and is the best movie from before 1950. Or at least, the best that I've seen.

What I Haven’t Seen: So, so many. This period covers the very inception of film in the late 19th century through the so-called golden age of Hollywood. The U.S. alone produced many thousands of films during these decades, including a huge number of classics. And I just haven’t seen many of them. A few particularly egregious oversights include Birth of a Nation, Metropolis, The Jazz Singer, The Battleship Potemkin, Gone with the Wind, and The Maltese Falcon. And that’s really just the beginning. I’m embarrassed now. Let’s move on.

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