Right around 1928, cinema as we knew it died. The Golden Age of Hollwood, the Babylon epoch of early film, the gilded, star-powered, epic-heavy, silentera was over. The last few silent films still trickled out into theaters, and the odd silent would continue to come out in the future, but everyone in the industry in 1928 knew that talkies were the future. The first-ever 100% talking feature film — Lights of New York — came out in July 1928. In December of that year, In Old Arizonabecame the world's first full-length talkie shot outside of the controlled confines of a movie studio (we wrote about it in more detail at the beginning of this year).
And yet, Lights of New York and In Old Arizona do not crack the Flickchart Top 10 for 1928. They were forerunners of a new era, the first movies of their kind. But being new does not necessarily mean being great, as anyone who chooses to read about the best films of 90 years ago surely realizes. When the movie industry switched from silent to sound, it hit a reset button on an established art form, and filmmakers took a while to develop a new visual/aural language that could stand the test of time as gracefully as the best products of the old paradigm.
Therefore, the 10 best films of 1928, the year silents became obsolete, are all silent movies. It's the last time that would ever happen.
Here they are:
One of two Josef von Sternberg movies on this list, The Docks of New York is a grimy, steamy story of love in the gutter. In the first few minutes we are treated to pornography (or what passed for it in the 1920s), drunken seamen, a marital separation, and a suicide attempt. Nothing was off-limits to filmmakers in 1928, years before the censorship of the Production Code went into effect, and von Sternberg took full advantage of the fact. As his career progressed he would become associated with baroque production design and eye-catching sets, and these are present in Docks of New York in a limited way: ramshackle bars and rooming houses are stacked atop each other as debris-choked waters lap at the edge of the frame and toxic mists waft through the air. The plot doesn't stop long to let you take it in, though; in quick order there's an impromptu wedding on a crowded dance floor, a murder, and three arrests. The movie ends too soon, after just one wild night with the sailors and prostitutes of von Sternberg's New York, but the sleazy world he creates has such thrilling emotional tides that you'll surely want to dive in again. - David Conrad
Remember this bit of movie trivia to impress your friends: the first ever recipient of the Best Actor Oscar was the German actor Emil Jannings. He frequently worked with director Josef von Sternberg, including in this picture in which he plays a former general from Czarist Russia. The film is a melodrama that slowly reveals how an aristocratic Russian military leader found himself working as an actor in 1920s Hollywood. The fates of Russian aristocrats after the 1917 communist revolution forced them into genteel exile in Europe and America has stimulated the Western imagination from the beginning, and the concept has inspired many movies, but few are as downright sad as The Last Command. Jannings' character lost more than his country in the revolution: he lost his love, his wealth, his health, and ultimately his sanity. The movie's memorable finale hinges on a rather unlikely circumstance in which the ex-general lands a role in a film being directed by another Russian expatriate, a former revolutionary; in the film's defense, Hollywood in the 1920s was full of foreign directors, including von Sternberg himself, who was Austrian. The director tries to make a mockery of the general by having him reenact a major military defeat for the cameras. The way Jannings plays the climactic scene, though, carries his character into the realm of the sublime, and secured Jannings a proud place in Oscar history. It was not until 2011 that another actor (Jean Dujardin, The Artist) would take home a Best Actor Oscar for a silent performance. - David
Each of silent cinema’s three major comedians is represented by a film in this top ten, and while Speedy isn’t Harold Lloyd’s very best film, it’s definitely in the top echelon and a great argument for why he deserves his place in the pantheon alongside Chaplin and Keaton. The world is speeding up in 1928, but not for Pop Dillon, who runs the last horse-drawn streetcar in town. Speedy (Lloyd) is sweet on Pop’s granddaughter, and when he finds out a streetcar magnate is attempting to buy out Pop to form a monopoly, he puts all his wiles into keeping Pop’s business safe. Lloyd is his usual cheerful go-getter here, working a series of short-lived jobs but always optimistic about the next one — and always ready to sacrifice his livelihood for his love of the Yankees. After a memorable stint as a cab driver during which Babe Ruth has a cameo, the climactic sequence has Speedy drive Pop’s streetcar pell-mell through the city to avoid the magnate’s goons. Like all of Lloyd’s climactic chase scenes, it is thrilling and dangerous and also funny, and it makes you wonder why he, along with Buster Keaton, isn't ranked among Hollywood's greatest action heroes as well as its greatest comedians. - Jandy Hardesty
This film, an under-appreciated entry in the Universal horror pantheon, is representative of several of the key transitions happening in the medium during this era. We are seeing gothic expressionism evolving into classical horror. It is a silent film, but was released with a soundtrack containing pseudo-synchronized sound effects. We are witnessing the the gradual transformation of people with physical disfigurements from objects of exploitation to subjects of genuine artistic empathy. All of these factors and more were in flux in Hollywood at the time, and as a result, to modern eyes the film can read as an incomplete realization of any one of them. That's not the film's fault; it is meticulous in its setup of the various antagonizing forces that surround our unfortunate hero Gwyneplain, But the real fascination of this movie is observing the genesis of so many later film styles and techniques and tropes, and how they were spawned here by smashing together light and dark, sadness and smiles, horror and melodrama. All of these emotional building blocks of storytelling get fused together here in groundbreaking ways, and birthed many of the core concepts and tropes that would fuel the coming sound era. Most modern viewers discover this film by learning that it was the inspiration for the Joker's original character design in the Batman comics, but its impact goes far beyond its terrifying and heartbreaking title character. This film is a black, sticky gem, not to be missed. - Douglas van Hollen
Most people today remember Lillian Gish for her work with controversial silent film director D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation), or for her late-career appearance alongside Bette Davis in 1987's The Whales of August. Those were just the bookends of a 75-year career in which she was a film and television mainstay. Her talent and popularity meant that she was one of relatively few silent-era stars to transition to sound with hardly a hitch, and once the TV era began she was able to move with ease between the big and the small screen. The Wind by influential Swedish director Victor Sjöström marks the end of the first stage of Gish's storied career as "the First Lady of American Cinema"; it was her last silent, and one of her strongest. In it she plays a Eastern woman out of her depth in rural west Texas. Her trepidation about the harsh life she has chosen manifests itself as literal fear of the dusty wind that blows ceaselessly, albeit silently, throughout the film. She enters an unhappy marriage and suffers greatly from both her literal environment and her social environment, but Gish, though always frail-looking, did not play weak women. She remains upright, as she would offscreen through all the looming changes in the American entertainment landscape. - David
Americans often want to stand out from "the crowd." They want to be somebody, to make a name, to become famous. To be a contender and not a bum. And yet, at the same time, Americans love the everyman. We admire the stoic and steady toiler, the unsung hero, the silent majority. There is a tension in our culture involving "the crowd": do we fit in, or do we stand apart? Cinema tends to gravitate towards the unusual, towards loners, towards "others," but occasionally a film will celebrate those who choose to remain with the flock. Probably the most famous is Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, which teaches George Bailey that he's really a lucky man after all despite never leaving his small town in search of adventure. Years before that American classic, though, the director King Vidor told much the same story in 1928's The Crowd. In it, a young man arrives in New York City looking for fame and fortune. Instead he finds a wife and kids, bills to pay, and in-laws who don't like him. Like his spiritual descendant George Bailey, the man at the center of The Crowd suffers disappointment and tragedy and contemplates suicide, but at the end he takes a look at the people around him — a forgiving wife, a loving child — and realizes he doesn't have it so bad after all. By the final reel he has fulfilled a noble destiny, just not the one he expected when he started out. As he sits watching a stage show, the camera pulls back to reveal the crowd around him until his face is indistinguishable from the rest of the spectators. The movie screen becomes a kind of mirror for the theatrical audience in which we see ourselves not as a bunch of separate individuals, but as members of a group sharing a common experience. There is achievement in that. - David
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Buster Keaton's final independent film; more on that classic next. Early in 1928 he signed a contract with MGM, a decision he later lamented because it stripped him of the creative freedom he had enjoyed for the past decade. That decision would prove to be his creative and personal downfall, yet he still managed to produce at least one more true classic — the fourth most-beloved of all his films, by Flickchart metrics, after The General, Sherlock Jr., and the aforementioned Steamboat Bill. The Cameraman may have been a struggle for Keaton to make due to the many new pairs of hands meddling in his process, and it may feature more dialogue intertitles than Keaton wanted to use, but its 75 minutes are just as packed with physical gags as any other film he ever made.
The Keaton protagonist was a small, accident-prone, slightly effeminate man living in a world full of big, brusque, uncaring brutes who would as soon push him into the gutter as look at him. They're always stepping on his dropped dimes, laughing at his misfortunes, and crowding his girl. But his resourcefulness and indomitable (though often hangdog) spirit always helped him acrobatically surmount his obstacles, best his foes, and win the favor of his leading lady. In this film, Keaton is a scrappy photographer with an antique hand-crank movie camera just trying to get close to Sally the receptionist at an MGM newsreel office in New York (a bit of meta-humor) and maybe get some decent footage in the process. When rival gangs turn a Chinatown street festival into an all-out war, he gets more than he bargained for, and acquires a monkey sidekick in the process (monkeys were extremely popular in 1920s cinema, for some reason; see the image for The Circus below). Of course, he triumphs in the end. It's too bad Keaton himself couldn't do the same in the studio system and sound era of the 1930s. - Tom Kapr
All the major silent comedians had a persona that they cultivated through most of their films: Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Lloyd’s slightly nerdy all-American, and Keaton’s stoic man against the world. Keaton was more comfortable putting this basic persona into highly-individualized characters than the other two comics. Most of Chaplin’s films can be read as different amusing situations in which The Little Tramp finds himself, and Lloyd's go-getters are functionally indistinguishable from each other. But Keaton’s train engineer in The General, his projectionist in Sherlock Jr., and his steamboat scion in this film are clearly not the same characters, despite sharing the same personalities. This character is a fish out of water, having grown up in the east and now coming west to join his father on the river. Not only does he know nothing about boats or rivers, but he’s rather preppy and effeminate as well, which frustrates his manly-man father to no end. At this juncture most movies would have Keaton eagerly try to please his father or rebel against him, but in Steamboat Bill, Jr. he really does neither; he gamely tries to do the boat thing, but he’s clearly not going to be defined by his father’s expectations either by meeting them or flouting them. The main conflict is actually between the father and a rival captain, whose daughter Buster just happens to love. There are tons of great little comedy sequences here, like the captain trying to get a good captain-y hat for his son while Keaton always winds up with his signature porkpie hat, but the climax of course is the famous storm sequence, which is magnificently full of death-defying stunts played for comedic effect. Honestly, I’m fairly sure silent comedians were even more adept stuntmen than their specifically action-oriented contemporaries like Douglas Fairbanks. That house falling down while framing Keaton neatly in the window? They actually did that! Had anything been an inch off, this could’ve been Keaton’s last film. That’s just crazy. - Jandy
In Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography — appropriately titled My Autobiography — The Circus is one of the few films Chaplin barely mentions. Understandably so, since The Circus was the hardest production of Chaplin’s career. The film took two years to finish, parts of the film had to be reshot because of poor film handling, and a fire destroyed the main set. As if that wasn’t enough, Chaplin’s second wife filed for divorce during this time, and Chaplin had to pay the government back taxes, a combined blow that cost him millions of dollars. But maybe most importantly, the most famous silent film star of all-time started shooting The Circus in 1926, a year before The Jazz Singer introduced partial sound to cinemas in 1927. In 1928 when The Circus finally wrapped production the first full-talkies hit theaters, so the troubled film would turn out to be Chaplin’s last fully-silent film.
Despite all this, The Circus became one of the highest-grossing silent films of all time and arguably one of Chaplin’s finest works. It features all the heart, humor, and kindness that characterize Chaplin’s movies and might contain the most striking example of The Tramp's outlook: he’d rather improve the world at large than seek personal success, regardless of what happens to him. In The Circus The Tramp has his heart broken but still fights for the happiness of the woman he loves. Similarly, despite all the pain The Circus caused Chaplin, he still put out one of the finest silent comedies of all time, and it remains a powerful illustration of the joy that Chaplin gave to the world. - Ross Bonaime
Jean Cocteau once said of The Passion of Joan of Arc that it’s like “a historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece plays almost as if the director somehow found a time machine and captured the real 15th-century trial and execution of Jeanne d’Arc in all its unrelenting and brutal pain. Writers Dreyer and Joseph Delteil used the actual trial transcripts for their film, and Dreyer’s use of empty space rather than artificial sets makes The Passion of Joan of Arc feel authentic in every way.
But its Maria Falconetti, in maybe the greatest acting performance of all time, that makes The Passion of Joan of Arc a bracing and harrowing experience ninety years after its release. Dreyer’s unflinching close-ups on Falconetti show every pore, every hair, and every tear. The result is horrific and staggering, as both beauty and darkness combine with a claustrophobic camera that doesn’t allow the viewer to look away from the torture on display. Dreyer makes the viewer almost complicit in the acts, as Falconetti seems to look to us for some saving grace.
With a phenomenal lead performance and gorgeous directing taking its cues from German Expressionist tactics, Dreyer turns the trial of Jeanne d’Arc into of the all-time great horror films as we witness a matter of faith becoming a life or death situation. - Ross
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David has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He loves foreign films, westerns, war flicks, and has read nearly every word J.R.R. Tolkien ever wrote. David lived in Japan for three years and is always eager to talk about it. Follow him on Twitter at @davidaconrad or email him at email@example.com.