Free Online: 10 of the Greatest Silent Films of All Time

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:

  1. Sun­rise (F.W. Mur­nau, 1927)
  2. Man with a Movie Cam­era (Dzi­ga Ver­tov, 1929)
  3. The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Drey­er, 1928)
  4. Bat­tle­ship Potemkin (Sergei Eisen­stein, 1925)
  5. The Gen­er­al (Buster Keaton, 1926)
  6. Metrop­o­lis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
  7. City Lights (Char­lie Chap­lin, 1931)
  8. Sher­lock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
  9. Greed (Erich von Stro­heim, 1923)
  10. 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 Cam­eraBelow, 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, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 10 Great­est Films of All Time Accord­ing to 846 Film Crit­ics

100 Free Silent Films: The Great Clas­sics 

The Pow­er of Silent Movies, with The Artist Direc­tor Michel Haz­anavi­cius

Hol­ly­wood, Epic Doc­u­men­tary Chron­i­cles the Ear­ly His­to­ry of Cin­e­ma

535 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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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