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Can the Story of Hollywood Be Told in Just 10 Films?

Can the Story of Hollywood Be Told in Just 10 Films?

Almost every film fanatic has a list of favorite films, but is it possible to sum up the history of the movies with a short list of the essentials? Robbie Collin of The Telegraph had a slightly less difficult task in using only ten films to illustrate the history of Hollywood, from the silent era to the superhero age. Collin chose to eschew obvious picks like “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo” and “The Godfather” in order to use slightly less canonical movies (emphasis on “slightly”). The films are, in order:

“One Week” (1920), Buster Keaton
“It Happened One Night” (1934), Frank Capra
“Stagecoach” (1939), John Ford
“Out of the Past” (1947), Jacques Tourneur
“An American in Paris” (1951), Vincente Minnelli
“Point Blank” (1967), John Boorman
“The Conversation” (1974), Francis Ford Coppola
“Back to the Future” (1985), Robert Zemeckis
“Pulp Fiction” (1994), Quentin Tarantino
“The Dark Knight” (2008), Christopher Nolan

Collin’s list is bound to bring out the nit-picker in everyone (mine: I love “Back to the Future” but picking anyone other than Spielberg to represent the blockbuster era is insane). But given the task to reduce each era to one or two films, he’s done an excellent job of picking films that could conceivably represent them, from the postwar malaise of “Out of the Past” to the ’70s paranoia of “The Conversation.” And while the crank in me would love to pick something other than a comic book movie for the 2000s (“There Will Be Blood,” “25th Hour”), Nolan’s middle Batman film does capture both the mood of post-9/11 America and the height of the superhero genre before it became exhausting. 

The highlight of the list is the least canonical of the bunch: Keaton’s short film “One Week.” The film isn’t mentioned as frequently as masterpieces like “Sherlock Jr.” or “The General” but perhaps the best encapsulation of the simple but blissful spirit of Hollywood’s first couple of decades. Collin’s choice to pick a short film is a canny one, too: even with the existence of epics like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” four or five years before “One Week,” it makes sense to start the narrative of film with a crawl before the walk.

In the joyous, flawless “One Week” (1920), Keaton and Sybil Seely play a newly-wed couple who build their own house – which, thanks to a packing-crate mix-up, ends up like something sketched by Escher. The film brilliantly captures the fear and excitement of making your own way in the world, and the moment the finished house is revealed provides one of the funniest shots in all of cinema. It’s a film exploding with energy and youngness, and cinema’s perfect chapter one.

Finally, in the spirit of playing semi-contrarian, here’s a list of ten films that illustrate the other side of the coin in each of those eras, the depression to “It Happened One Night’s” uplift and the fizz to “The Conversation’s” gloom. Thankfully, no one actually has to choose between the two.

“Sunrise” (1927), F.W. Murnau
“I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932), Mervyn LeRoy
“The Awful Truth” (1937), Leo McCarey
“The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” (1947), Preston Sturges
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), Don Siegel
“The Producers” (1968), Mel Brooks
“Sleeper” (1973), Woody Allen
“Blue Velvet” (1986), David Lynch
“Toy Story” (1995), John Lasseter
“I Heart Huckabees” (2004), David O. Russell

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