Best Silent Movies

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the best silent movies of all time in the gallery below.

Not seeing your favorite movie? It’s probably in a different genre! Check out the full list here.

Transition to Talkies: ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927) – Alan Crosland

OK, the first ever talkie obviously isn’t silent, but it just felt right to include Al Jolson’s flick as a bonus slide in this category to show the exact moment that silent movies opened their mouths — and out came talk.

Lost to History: ‘The Homesteader’ (1919) – Oscar Micheaux

Also before we begin, it’s important to note that a landmark of film history is sadly lost forever. Oscar Micheaux became the first Black filmmaker with his black-and-white silent film “The Homesteader,” the first of 44 films produced under the short-lived Lincoln Motion Picture Company.

30. ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902) – Georges Melies

This is the perfect place to start in understanding the building blocks of cinema, as a group of astronomers go on an expedition to the Moon.

29. ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903) – Edwin S. Porter

Thomas Edison produced this early filmmaking feat. It made audiences flinch in fear when an outlaw gunman fired a pistol straight into the camera.

28. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) – Rupert Julian

Lon Chaney was arguably the biggest star of the silent era, from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to “The Phantom of the Opera.”

27. ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1920) – Robert Wiene

This pioneer of German Expressionism featured a somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt, who later played Major Strasser in “Casablanca.”

26. ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ (1924) – Raoul Walsh

Douglas Fairbanks became a screen icon thanks to this early version of the Aladdin story, featuring groundbreaking special effects for magic carpet rides.

25. ‘The Big Parade’ (1925) – King Vidor

This silent World War I epic was the highest grossing movie in history upon its release and held the record until “Gone With the Wind” 14 years later.

 

24. ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924) – F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau’s directorial prowess was on full display with symbolic costumes and pioneering camera moves, as Emil Jannings’ aging doorman is fired from his luxurious hotel and forced to face the scorn of society.

23. ‘The Red Balloon’ (1956) – Albert Lamorisse

This virtually silent short won the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short with a whimsical tale of a boy and his magical red balloon in the streets of Paris.

22. ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ (1943) – Maya Deren

Maya Deren pioneered experimental filmmaking with this silent flick.

 

21. ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (1929) – Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí present 17 minutes of surreal imagery, most famously a blade slicing an eyeball.

20. ‘Nanook of the North’ (1922) – Robert J. Flaherty

Arguably the first feature-length doc featured an Inuk man surviving the Canadian Arctic.

19. ‘The Artist’ (2011) – Michel Hazanavicius

This Best Picture winner had the guts to make a silent movie in the 21st century, following a silent movie star who meets a young dancer amid the transition from silent to talking pictures — with one of the cutest dogs ever.

18. ‘The Crowd’ (1928) – King Vidor

After the epic sweep of “The Big Parade,” Vidor went the opposite route to show the common struggles of an ordinary urban man.

17. ‘Wings’ (1927) – William Wellman

The very first Best Picture winner features incredible tracking shots that put even modern movies to shame.

16. ‘Greed’ (1924) – Erich von Stroheim

Before playing Max in “Sunset Boulevard,” Eric von Stroheim directed this silent western about a lottery jackpot ruining the lives of the three greedy people.

15. ‘The Gold Rush’ (1925) – Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin directed himself as a gold prospector in the Klondike, dong a famous “dance of the rolls” with his house teetering on a cliff.

14. ‘Playtime’ (1967) – Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati was the Charlie Chaplin of ’60s France, as his silent character Monsieur Hulot curiously wanders around a high-tech Paris.

13. ‘Safety Last!’ (1923) – Fred Newmeyer

Arguably the most iconic image of the silent era is Harold Lloyd dangling from the hands of a clock in this comedy classic.

12. ‘Sherlock Jr.’ (1924) – Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton’s daydreaming projectionist climbs up into the movie screen in the opposite of “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

11. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915) – D.W. Griffith

Morally reprehensible yet technologically groundbreaking, D.W. Griffith’s silent epic was the first full-length feature film as we know it.

10. ‘Intolerance’ (1916) – D.W. Griffith

Guilty over the “Birth of a Nation” backlash, Griffith next told four parallel tales of intolerance through the ages — Babylon, Judea, Paris and America — all while Lillian Gish rocks the cradle of humanity (take that Mary Pickford).

9. ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928) – Carl Theodor Dreyer

From its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography to its powerful central performance, Carl Theodor Dreyer brilliantly shows Joan of Arc in her trial and execution for heresy.

8. ‘City Lights’ (1931) – Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin will bring you to tears as his penniless Little Tramp wins the heart of a Blind Girl who can’t see that he is poor.

7. ‘Metropolis’ (1927) – Fritz Lang

Not only did female robot Maria inspire the look of C3PO in her iconic coming to life, Fritz Lang’s futuristic silent classic was a searing social commentary about class divides between the blue-collar workers and the wealthy city planners.

6. ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) – F.W. Murnau

Max Schreck delivered an iconic performance as the titular Dracula in F.W. Murnau’s horror classic of German Expressionism.

5. ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925) – Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein almost single-handedly invented the Soviet montage, particularly the legendary Odessa Steps sequence featuring a baby carriage dangerously plunging down the stairs.

4. ‘Sunrise’ (1927) – F.W. Murnau

Winner of “Best Artistic Picture” at the original Academy Awards, F.W. Murnau uses creative dissolves throughout this allegorical tale about a man fighting the good and evil within him, as manifested by a love triangle in the peak of the silent era.

3. ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929) – Dziga Vertov

Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov pioneered early docudrama and travelogue techniques, following a man around a city with a film camera to document urban life with dazzling creativity.

2. ‘The General’ (1926) – Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton’s greatest role came upon a moving train, performing his own daring stunts with precision timing down the tracks.

1. ‘Modern Times’ (1936) – Charlie Chaplin

My favorite silent film is this swan song to The Little Tramp, as Chaplin opens with a symbolic dissolve from sheep to people, battles a conveyor belt like “I Love Lucy,” endures a haywire feeding machine, delivers his first spoken words (not in English) and makes a final walk into the sunset.

Check out the other genres below!

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