Silent films had a respectable showing, as it were, on Sight & Sound magazine's last big critics poll. The votes, cast to determine the greatest motion pictures of all time, placed three silents among the top ten overall: F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, and Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. These, of course, also rank at the top of Sight & Sound's separate list of the ten greatest silent films of all time, which came out as follows:
- Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
- Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
- Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
- The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)
- Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
- City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
- Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
- Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1923)
- Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1928) and Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
Though all of these pictures came out within the seemingly short 15-year span between 1916 and 1921, they represent a wide cinematic diversity: in form, in theme, in genre, in place of origin (of both the films and the filmmakers), in sensibility, in aesthetics. You probably recognize all of their names, especially if you've taken a film studies course, and you may think of them all as familiar, but how many have you watched? Even we avowed cinephiles have a way of tricking ourselves into believing we've seen all the most important movies in their entirety, when in reality we know only about, albeit sometimes a lot about, their place in the history of cinema and their currents of influence that flow into films made today.
But thanks to the internet, we can catch up with ease. Given the age of works from the silent era, most of them have passed into the public domain. You can therefore watch almost all of the top ten greatest silent films of all time, as selected by the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll, for free, online, right now. Some you can even watch right here, without leaving Open Culture: at the top of the post, you'll find Sunrise. Just above, we've featured Man with a Movie Camera. Below, The Passion of Joan of Arc. To watch the others, simply click their linked titles on the list. After you've enjoyed everything from Murnau's German-Expressionist-by-way-of-Hollywood romance to Keaton's epic comedy to Buñuel's surrealist procession of still-troubling visions, you'll not just know where many modern cinematic techniques came from, you'll feel how they've evolved over the decades. All of the films listed above appear on our list of Great Silent Films, part of our larger collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.