1. The Great Train Robbery – Along with A Trip to the Moon, the most famous of the early, early silent films, and generally credited as the first film Western and the greatest film by pioneer director Edwin S. Porter. The story couldn’t be simpler: bandits hold up a train, a posse is formed, the bad guys are killed in a shootout. The film’s most audacious moment is its last, a non-diegetic medium shot of a bandit firing his gun directly into the camera, one of the most oft-imitated images in film, you can see it reenacted again and again, from Sylvia Sydney in Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets to Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. But that’s not its only canny use of developing technique. There’s a subtle double exposure composite shot in the opening scene and again on the train, some actual camera movement (short tilts and pans in the woods) and cross-cutting of the kind that would form the basis of modern continuity editing. Compare George Méliès’s tableaux style where the entirety of a scene plays out in one shot, then the next scene takes place in another location, later in time. Porter instead cuts within a location within a scene and between actions at different locations occurring at the same time. This system, which allows for much more dynamic and diverse story-telling possibilities than the Méliès system, was refined over the next few years and forms the foundation of all modern editing.
2. The Kingdom of Fairies – Even more ambitious in scope and design than A Trip to the Moon, this is the ultimate in Méliès epics. At every level of production, the film is stunning. The story is pretty basic: princess is kidnapped by evil witch, prince journeys to the rescue, lots of magic items and fancy movie tricks ensue (including some breath-taking and hilarious underwater scenes). It’s not as much a step forward as it is a consolidation of the advances Méliès had already made over the previous years (double exposure, multi-plane set design, stop-motion effects, fanciful costumes and tinting, etc). So while it isn’t the cinematic milestone that The Great Train Robbery is, it is still absolutely gorgeous.
3. The Infernal Cakewalk – George Méliès and a bunch of demonic girls dancing, in hell. The short the proves that not only does the Devil have all the best tunes, he’s a slick dancer as well. Some great special effects, including Satan’s Detachable Limbs and some flying fireballs. I like to think this is what John Lithgow was imagining when he banned dancing in his town.
4. Jupiter’s Thunderballs – A hilarious Méliès take on the Greek/Roman gods, with Jupiter using a fancy thunderbolt wand to create some Muses, dance with the pretty girls, turn the thunderbolts into an umbrella, turn the girls into statues, then blow everyone up, along with himself. Literally fantastic, with the best title of the year.
5. The Life of an American Fireman – The title pretty much says it all. Edwin Porter shows the life of firemen, from resting at the station (thinking of home in a comic strip-inspired thought balloon) to sliding down a pole and fighting a fire. The most interesting thing here as that Porter hadn’t quite settled on the kind of continuity editing that we still use today, and that he utilizes in The Great Train Robbery). Instead, he shows the entirety of the action from inside the burning apartment, then cuts back in time, where we see the same action from the street outside the building. It wouldn’t take long for Porter to abandon this experiment in favor of intercutting between scenes along a consistent timeline, using editing to move through space rather than time, but this experiment is an interesting dead-end.
6. What Happened in the Tunnel – A cute little joke film from Edwin Porter for the Edison company. Nothing special, only a little racist, I guess.