#14 Nanook of the North (1922)

Robert J. Flaherty, the “father of the documentary,” created the first true documentary with his Nanook of the North – a film that explores the lives of the Inuit of Northeastern Canada, most specifically one “Eskimo” named Nanook who tragically died two years after filming but had become a worldwide sensation. What is most beautiful about this film is the story of its genesis – that there was a real version of 30,000 feet of film that tragically burnt up with the accidental flick of a cigarette ash, and Flaherty felt so passionate about his subjects that he headed back into the wilderness to reshoot the entire documentary. That is not without controversy, however, since the new version is made up of performers, situations, and an overall execution that seems to be entirely (or at least mostly) scripted and performed rather than shot naturally.

A short digression. We actually watched the Documentary Now season 1 episode 2 about “Kunuk” and really enjoyed it. We only knew a small piece of the connection to this film – I mean, anyone with any small exposure to a significant education is at least aware of it – and actually watching the film was a really eye-opening experience having watched the satire of it first. Watch Documentary Now. Fred Armisen and Bill Hader are geniuses.

So what we have left is a film that generally covers a great deal of material that may not be entirely real – but as Schneider’s book observes, “if Nanook’s beaming face as he warms his son’s hands is part of an act, then he was simply one of the great screen performers in history.” It is less about what is obviously not real, but what is so very real that makes this film spectacular.

We watched Nanook of the North on Criterion (#33), and it was a surprising early Criterion release with few special features and even a different logo. It was interesting to see how far they’ve come! The short Harvard interview with Flaherty’s wife parroted a great deal about what was already written about the film, but it was a nice addition to the DVD.




I enjoyed this film. It is somewhat strange to look at a historical document with such a bizarre history and examine both of its fiction and nonfiction contributions to early filmmaking. Still, this piece showcases big cultural observations about a family in the throes of a violent environment. They still struggle, they still push for survival, they still work hard to make the most of their lives that are all they know. While some of what is in the film seems like strange directed-blackface-parody (for whatever reason, the scene with the record player really rubbed me the wrong way in terms of its infantile and bizarre direction in what I can only hope was fiction when Nanook bit the record…maybe I’m wrong), the majority of it showcases some beautiful little poignant moments.

What I am most impressed with is the story about how the film came to be and Flaherty’s dedication to making something genuine and never before seen in the world. While nonfiction adventure writing had been the norm since the beginning of time, this new format truly forced Flaherty to be on scene with all of his equipment and to edit together thousands of feet of footage – an entire first draft of which was tragically destroyed. His dedication to his subject and telling the story he set out to tell as a life mission is as inspiring as it gets, especially considering the world that he was portraying was literally a harsh, desolate wasteland.

A film as beautiful as it is legendary, Nanook of the North sets the bar high for every documentary that followed.


While the history behind this movie is somewhat strange, this was a fascinating film. It follows an Inuit family  living in Canada through their daily lives. While some of the scenes are clearly staged or set up, the men and women featured in the film are taking us through their own personal realities – hunting to ward off starvation, creating shelter, teaching and carrying on traditions with their children. It was fascinating to watch how  Nanook and his companions hunt for fish and giant walrus, and how resourceful they had to be to keep from literally freezing and starving to death.

The real star of the movie may have to be the Malamute dogs and puppies who work with the family. The feature prominently as they work to pull the family’s sled of supplies and as they guard the igloo. They also apparently love to snuggle up with the Nanook’s infant. Nanook even  builds a baby puppy igloo –  inside their big igloo. Youtube has nothing on this early adorable animal cuteness. I also really enjoyed watching how Nanook and his family built an enormous igloo on the spot while they were out on a hunting expedition ( I have always wanted to build a real igloo). Finally, as in several of the films on our review list, the setting plays a huge role in this movie. It portrays the Hudson Bay area as  savage,  fierce and almost completely unspoiled.

#43 La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

Considered in many circles to not only be the greatest Joan of Arc film ever made but one of the greatest films ever made, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc “reinvents the world from the ground up” in a silent masterpiece of visual emotional gravity (Schneider). Using highly abridged and reworked transcripts from the actual inquisitions and trial of Joan, the tight camera angles, terrifying beauty of the performer’s faces, and clear references to the brutality and irrationality of World War I, this film is a true masterpiece that will continue to spellbind audiences with its melancholy humanness.

We watched this film on Criterion, #62, although you can watch the film in its entirety legally online in many places and would just need to add your own score. The haunting score on Criterion, Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light” is a spectacular addition if you have the chance to see it.



This was an early film that I heard murmurings about in the past, but really had no jumping excitement to run out and grab. The story of Joan has always been something that has captivated me, however, and this year alone I have probably consumed at least two books on the subject including Mark Twain’s novel that he considered to be his best work. Various images from the prints and box seemed familiar to me, but besides that there wasn’t much context. I saw the Criterion at the library, and knowing it was on our list I grabbed it. I am so happy I did, and Criterion’s gorgeous print and brilliant pairing with Richard Einhorn’s score immerses one in a beautiful and destructive alternate reality for eighty-two minutes.

Striking sets, completely ahead-of-its-time camerawork, and Renée Falconetti’s morally and emotionally shattering performance all work in concert to evoke maximum emotional carnage. Essentially, the film is a series of impeccably framed, gorgeous, high-contrast faces performing an interrogation of Joan. As the film progresses, the entire range of human emotion is presented by these truly captivating countenances. What the film is visually is where the perceptive value of the digital restoration (and mastery of the camera) really makes every pore, every puddle of tears, every shock, and every blissful gaze pop off the screen and made me feel wholly sympathetic and empathetic to all of the characters in the piece – most notably Falconetti’s. While many elements of the execution of the film lend themselves to absolute worship in performance, it is Falconetti’s Joan that is truly one of the greatest performances ever recorded, all the more surprising considering this was only one of two roles she ever played on film having been primarily a theatrical actress. As a theatrical actor myself, I am incredibly impressed. Many performances try to be what this is, and I couldn’t help thinking of Hathaway’s I Dreamed A Dream in Les Miserables (which I didn’t particularly care for) attempting an uncanny impression of Falconetti’s Joan… But after seeing this, and after seeing many actresses attempt rapturous despair, it is clear that I haven’t seen anything like this. There’s simply nothing close.

What I found to be the most amazing about this entire piece isn’t even the script, direction, and execution, but the story behind why we’re even able to watch it at all. For a piece like this to be a commercial flop that is lauded by critics in the early days of cinema is not a story that is unique to Passion, however, to be solely printed on nitrate stock and virtually disappear from the face of the earth for sixty years and then miraculously re-emerge from a janitor’s closet in an insane asylum before its demolition in 1981 makes this reel the stuff of legend. Everything stood in the way of this piece’s genesis, from political and cultural upheaval from the French insisting that Dreyer couldn’t do the story any justice to the seven million franc price tag of the authentic set. Still, Dreyer wrote and directed an amazing piece that is sincerely a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is even more interesting that there are a variety of places on the Internet where one can legally watch the film for free (save for the lack of soundtrack and subtitles) and almost enjoy the piece as a gift to the world.

Simply put, one of the greatest films and performances I have ever seen, and I am grateful it still exists to be able to experience it.


I can’t say I was very eager to watch this movie.  After viewing, I can say this movie is truly a  must-see film.  The performances (it is a silent, black and white film) are expressive and hard to describe.  The actress that plays Joan can say more with her eyes than many great performers have been able to express with all the words.  The set and costumes are minimal and do not distract from the actors.  In place of words, the narrative of the story is moved along with extreme close-up shots of the actors’ performances, and jerky quick transitions.

One analysis I read of the movie pointed out that the director purposefully did not create continuity with the shots of the film –  when a scene cuts back and forth between two characters speaking the background, setting and props do not match up scene to scene.  This was to provide the audience with a sense of disorientation similar to how his character Joan was feeling in the movie.  The director also  shot and re-shot scenes multiple times – sometimes spending hours on just one scene.  He had the actors perform in uncomfortable situations (kneeling on rubble for hours) in order to obtain perfect facial expressions.  When the original film was thought completely destroyed by fire, the director was able to almost completely re-create the film a second time using the multiple additional takes every scene.

A must see – I have never seen anything like it!

#27 The Phantom Of The Opera (1925)

A rickety film mired in legal, funding, and central errors, The Phantom of the Opera is best known for “enshrin(ing) one of the greatest bits of melodramatic acting in silent cinema, Lon Cheney’s impeccably dressed lovelorn, violent ghoul genius” (Schneider). Having been presented in a variety of formats (with two different orchestrations, with some dialogue, with some technicolor, without, and at different lengths of a final cut), we watched one that the distributor touted containing the original cuts, music, and technicolor sequences. The film was full of easy scares, terrifying dark corners, and was a pleasure to watch even though there are major holes in the production itself.


This is a public domain film, and you can watch it in its entirety through the Wikimedia Commons here:


This is another example of a film in which the history of the production may be even more interesting than the movie.  In 1925 three cuts were made of the original film.  Two were quickly lost.  In 1929, 40% of the film was re-shot with available cast members.  Most interesting, In 2012, it was determined that an “accidental 3-D” version of the film existed.  It was discovered that almost all of the original film was shot using two cameras placed side-by-side.  When synched together it creates a “3-D” like effect.

Also notable is the practical effects created by Lon Chaney’s make up and costume.  Even today, no one is completely certain of exactly how he created his starling “Phantom” look, with a significant amount of speculation over how he was able to “disappear” his nose for the look.

The movie itself definitely has some “hammed” up over acting and melodramatic cue cards, but other parts, like the underground lair of the Phantom and the music throughout the film make it a unique and memorable movie.


A beautiful score undercuts this gorgeous early filmmaking enterprise that easily far surpasses many of the early films that we have watched in its scale, production value, and overall execution. While there isn’t much that can be said about my experience that completely discounts my thirty-five years of today’s modern filmmaking, it is clear that this film was able to achieve many things that prior films hadn’t even attempted. This is likely due to the backing of the studio and a tremendous amount of money injected into the piece, ushering in the new business of Hollywood as we know it today.

The costumes, the music, the sets, the makeup, everything came together to make a masterpiece of early visual filmmaking in a long, feature-length horror romance. Audiences at the time were evidently terrified of what they saw, and for good reason – the impossible makeup and terrifying sets kept secret throughout the production and into the showing of the film (and it is rumored that when Cheney’s legendary makeup and costuming was finally revealed that some moviegoers were sent screaming into the streets).

I thought the most notable scene was the Bal Masque in Technicolor and the techniques surrounding the water in the gigantic sets at the end of the film. Quite an achievement overall, and a pleasure to watch. It didn’t feel like it was as long as its runtime, and the beautiful orchestration, the mystery around every corner, and precise and expensive execution was a testament to something really special as both a narrative and a historical document.

This will likely be one of the films based on a book that I will not be reading the book. I have heard it is garbage, and that the interpretations are a much better execution of the narrative than the original narrative is – but what this film lacks in narrative (and apparently it lacks less than the book, which isn’t saying much), it easily makes up in a production that creates awe and wonder at its scale and well-executed, albeit cheap, thrills.