‘Artist’ begins revitalizing silent film

by David Dixon

A silent motion picture released this year might not sound like a sleeper hit, but “The Artist” might be able to pull off the impossible. Filmed in black and white, it is a romance about George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent screen actor whose career goes down the drain when motion pictures with sound are introduced. He falls in love with Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an actress who is well on her way to becoming a rising star in the new medium.

Critics and audiences have been captured by the charm and lead performances in “The Artist.” Dujardin won an award for best actor earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival.

In an early review at the Toronto International Film Festival, Roger Ebert said, “I had great admiration for the film as a whole, and so did the audience in the big Elgin Theater, which was possibly the warmest crowd I’ve been in at Toronto since the premiere of “Juno” … I would not be surprised if it’s a significant box office success.” Scott Feinberg, a blogger for hollywoodreporter.com, praised director Michel Hazanavicius saying, “The fact Hazanavicius has not only made a silent film in the sound era, but has made a great one, and done so no less than 82 years after talkies first hit, is an absolutely unparalleled achievement, and one that I believe will be cheered by many members of the Academy.”

To get prepared for this underdog crowd-pleaser, there are several essential and underrated silent movies that will appeal to cinema lovers. They are timeless treasures that deserve to be viewed by a modern audience.

Information about “The Artist” can be found at weinsteinco.com/sites/the-artist.

“Silent Movie”

Why it matters: Similar to “The Artist,” this aptly named film was made at a time when only talking pictures mattered. Mel Brooks, the influential mind behind “Young Frankenstein,” “The Producers” and “Spaceballs” created a comedy that salutes movies from the early 20th century, while still maintaining his irreverent sense of humor.

Brooks stars as Mel Funn, a once-popular director who believes his comeback is creating a silent picture. While no one believes in this project at first, Mel thinks he can manufacture a hit if he gets famous performers Burt Reynolds and James Caan to appear in it.

Because there is only one word of dialogue in the entire script, “Silent Movie” is not as popular as some of Brook’s other comedies, but it is still hysterical entertainment. It pokes fun at a somewhat dated genre, yet features a modern style of pure goofiness.

“Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages”
Why it matters: After the debacle caused by the racist overtones of his previous film “The Birth of a Nation,” America’s first great filmmaker D.W. Griffith offered a public apology in the form of his groundbreaking epic “Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.” The film interweaves four different storylines from four separate centuries to demonstrate the terrible consequences of intolerance and hatred through human history. Griffith crosscuts between the different stories — a technique he innovated — to center the action around morality while setting a new standard in lavish production. Griffith also pioneered the multi-plot story structure that greatly influenced the work of Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.

“City Lights”
Why it matters: The gifted Charles Chaplin directed, wrote, edited and starred in “City Lights,” a classic comedy where the homeless Tramp becomes infatuated with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). The Tramp attempts to work at several menial low-paying jobs so he can raise enough money to help the girl get an operation that could potentially help her regain her sight.
Though there is plenty of Chaplin’s classic slapstick throughout “City Lights,” the movie is most appealing because of its well-constructed love story. Achingly bittersweet, many viewers have cried in the final scene because of the story’s poignancy. It is a recommended film for anyone who loves the silver screen.

“A Trip to the Moon”
Why it matters: Without “A Trip to the Moon,” story-driven films as audiences know them would be unrecognizable. Nearly 70 years before Neil Armstrong made one small step for man on the lunar surface, magician-turned-director Georges Méliès’ 14-minute movie depicted human travel to the moon and demonstrated a film’s ability to visually represent any idea no matter how fantastical. Presaging the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Méliès combined animation and in-camera special effects to tell a story about space explorers who encounter hostile aliens and, in the process, created one of the first sci-fi action movies in history. The film is currently streaming on YouTube.

“Modern Times”
Why it matters: Chaplin’s satire of a poor job market during the Great Depression contains brief moments of dialogue, but is still primarily a silent picture. In another acclaimed piece of filmmaking,
Chaplin’s classic character, the Tramp, attempts to find work after getting fired from an assemblyline.
Jokes about drugs, communism and poverty are still as shocking and funny today as they were in 1936. This Chaplin feature has consistently maintained a ranking on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years 100 Movies list because it contains timeless themes regarding the struggle of finding a job combined with hilarious adventure.

“Battleship Potemkin”
Why it matters: Director Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin” is the benchmark of propaganda filmmaking. Created to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the failed sailors’ mutiny on the titular battleship, Eisenstein transforms the rebellion into the first act of the communist overthrow of the Russian tsar. However, the main reason for watching is the famed Odessa Steps sequence that depicts a massacre of unarmed civilians by tsarist Cossacks. The widely influential sequence has been recreated in films as diverse as “The Godfather,” “Titanic” and “Inglourious Basterds,” and stands as a testament to silent film ingenuity. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”
Why it matters:  Aside from being one of the greatest horror films of all time, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” also predicted a deranged tyrant’s rise to power in Germany nearly 20 years before the start of World War II. Dr. Caligari is a psychiatrist who commands a sleepwalking patient to commit murder. After the death of his friend, protagonist Francis attempts to stop Caligari at all costs, but not everything depicted onscreen is as it seems. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” has one of the first twist endings in film history. The twisted sets of “Caligari,” designed to reflect the psychological state of the characters, greatly influenced American film noir and, subsequently, the films of Christopher Nolan, David Lynch and the Coen brothers. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.

Why it matters: Arguably the greatest achievement of the silent era, director Fritz Lang’s epic addresses class and social structure in a special-effects driven sci-fi love story that continues to resonate to this day. “Metropolis” depicts a futuristic dystopian city where the wealthiest individuals rule from skyscrapers while the workers live in squalor underground. When the city manager discovers that his son has fallen for a labor organizer, actions are taken to crush the worker uprisings and subdue his son while potentially destroying the city. Everything from “Star Wars” to “Blade Runner” is deeply indebted to “Metropolis.” The film is currently streaming on Netflix.

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