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The 10 Best Films From The Pre-1920s
My Top 10 Favorite Films From The Pre-Classical Era Of Cinema
I don’t think its even debatable that the least watched and least well-known films in recorded history are those that came out during the pre-classical era of cinema - movies released before the roaring twenties. Between the oldest recognized film in The Movie Database released in 1874 to 1919, the medium of film evolved from a second-or-two clip you can watch through a kinetoscope to theatrical presentations on a projector screen for the masses to enjoy. While estimates are ~90% of movies from this era have been lost to time, there are more than a few that have survived, and a few of those have stood out as key films in the medium’s existence. Having sat through a handful of them myself, here are my personal top ten favorite choices for movies that came out during this dawn for cinema.
10. Cabiria (1914)
In at number ten, we kick off the countdown with an Italian epic that inspired D.W Griffith to bring the “blockbuster” to American shores and my favorite overall film from 1914 in Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria. This two and a half hour flick spans time and has locations across the globe. It features production design that astounds and will have you caring about the fate of our heroes until the final scene. This is an incredibly influential film that has gone on to be criminally underseen.
9. Dante’s Inferno (1911)
In at number nine we have yet another Italian film, and my favorite overall movie from 1911 in Dante’s Inferno from directors Francesco Bertolini and Giuseppe de Liguoro. This was a massive hit for its time and to this day is for my money, even a century-plus later, the best film adaptation of the Devine comedy. Its got amazing production design and special effects that for its time were incredible to behold. This is also the oldest proper feature-length film to get an A-tier rating from me.
8. The Vampires (1915)
In at number eight we have what is easily the best and most well-known of French director Louis Feuillade’s serials and my overall favorite from 1915 in The Vampires. This series is an edge-of-your-seat crime film that follows a devious criminal group and the detectives trying to apprehend them. It also features arguably the first great villain in cinematic history in the accomplice to the chief “Vampire”, Irma Vep. I should note that the title is a bit misleading as the vampires are the names given to the criminal group, they’re not actually the living dead type of vampires.
7. A Trip To The Moon (1902)
in at number seven is my favorite film from 1902 and arguably the first ever truly mainstream movie classic, and the one that has stood the test of time the most out of any movie on this list in French director and all-around medium pioneer Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon. Featuring the first truly iconic scene in cinema’s history, this short fifteen minute film features space travel, battles with aliens, and an amazing climatic chase scene.
6. The Impossible Voyage (1904)
In at number six we have my favorite overall film from 1904 and another Méliès short in The Impossible Voyage. This has just as many amazing special effects and shots as A Trip To The Moon but I think in an even grander scale with the Sun this time getting the highlight scene. This is a twenty minute film that has us travel mountains, the sky, the stars, and even under the sea itself.
5. The Kingdom Of The Fairies (1903)
Entering the top five is my personal favorite from Méliès’ revolutionary filmography in 1903’s The Kingdom Of The Fairies. This is a pretty typical “save-the-princess” story which features a grand adventure and a big bad witch to upend at the end. Its a little under twenty minutes long but with its short time showcases fantastical realms and the adventure of the rescue party is a fun watch.
4. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
But my favorite overall film from 1903 comes in at number four in the iconic The Great Train Robbery from the Edison movie labs’ Edwin S. Porter. If A Trip To The Moon is cinema’s first iconic mainstream classic, this is America’s first one. This twelve minute short has us follow a deadly group’s holdup of a train as we also follow along with the events that lead to their apprehension. The final scene is one of the most well-known clips in the medium’s existence.
3. True Heart Susie (1919)
Now we enter the top three with an A+ rated film for me in 1919’s True Heart Susie. As influential to American cinema as the controversial D.W Griffith was, this is the first of just two films of his that made this list. This is probably the most simple tale of all the movies on this list as we follow farm girl Susie and her years of longing after her neighbor and his inability to see what he means to her. Its a warm-hearted feel-good romance story with melodramatic twists that knows what it is and doesn’t apologize for it. Featuring the legendary silent star Lillian Gish in the lead role to boot.
2. The Doll (1919)
In at number two we have my favorite overall film from 1919 and another A+ rated flick for me in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Doll. A delightful romantic-comedy that sees a young man try to fake a marriage through a life size and realistic doll - only for the doll to actually be the toymaker’s daughter in disguise! Its a funny film with heart that will make you feel good and have you smiling by the end.
1. Intolerance (1916)
And my top film from the pre-1920s goes to my oldest S-tier rated film for me in D.W Griffith’s epic and legendary The Birth Of A Nation from 1915 - I’m kidding. As important as that film is to American cinema and Hollywood’s history and as much as its a must watch for its epic scale and as a look into the racist attitudes that were openly accepted back then, Griffith’s greatest movie should be considered to be 1916’s Intolerance. Featuring the greatest and most epic production design in cinema’s history with the inclusion of the Babylon set that reportedly was miles wide and stood unused for years after. An ambitious three hour plus film that has us follow multiple stories through multiple timelines, this is the definition of what an epic film should look like. Its an amazing feat that every aspiring filmmaker should watch and isn’t just my favorite film from before the twenties, but one of my all-time favorite films period.