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It’s that time of year again where the National Film Preservation Board has made its annual announcement of which films are being added to The National Film Registry.
For those unfamiliar with the project, each year up to 25 films are selected for preservation in the Library of Congress. Each film must be at least 10-years-old, they do not have to be feature length and they do not have to have received a theatrical release.
This year’s list includes:
This may be the craziest year yet for films I haven’t seen! I only count five on my “seen” list, which leaves me an awesome 20 to track down and give a shot.
Any movies on the list that confuse you? The press release below includes a section of why each film was chosen.View Press Release
Acting Librarian of Congress David Mao announced today the annual selection of 25 motion pictures to be named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. These films, which epitomize the diversity and richness of the nation’s cinematic heritage, have been identified as motion pictures that deserve to be preserved because of their cultural, historic or aesthetic importance.
“Selecting a film for the National Film Registry recognizes its importance to cinema and America’s cultural and artistic history,” said Mao. “The registry is an invaluable way to advance public awareness of the richness, creativity and variety of our nation’s film heritage.”
Under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act, each year the Librarian of Congress names to the National Film Registry 25 motion pictures that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. The films must be at least 10 years old. The Librarian makes the annual registry selections after conferring with the distinguished members of the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) and Library film staff, as well as considering thousands of public nominations. The public is urged to nominate titles for next year’s registry at the NFPB’s website.
In addition to advising the Librarian of Congress on the annual selection of titles to the National Film Registry, the board also provides counsel on national preservation planning policy. “The National Film Preservation Board focused much of its attention this year on the recognition of photochemical film as a distinct medium. Emerging digital technologies offer many alternative opportunities, but the board encourages the preservation of film on film. Film remains the best existing archival medium and the board encourages archives and rights-holders to continue to preserve titles on film as they have done in the past,” NFPB issued in a statement.
Spanning the period 1894-1997, the films named to the registry include Hollywood blockbusters, documentaries, silent movies, animation, shorts, independent and experimental motion pictures. This year’s selections bring the number of films in the registry to 675, which is a small fraction of the Library’s vast moving-image collection of 1.3 million items.
The 2015 registry includes such iconic movies as the 1997 film-noir crime classic “L.A. Confidential,” starring Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey; “Top Gun,” the 1986 adrenaline-charged Navy drama, starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis; the 1959 melodrama “Imitation of Life,” starring Lana Turner; and director Ivan Reitman’s 1984 horror comedy “Ghostbusters,” starring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.
“Making ‘Ghostbusters’ was one of the great joys of my life,” said Reitman. “It’s an honor to know that a movie that begins with a ghost in a library, now has a spot on the shelves of the Library of Congress. It’s humbling to be part of a collection of extraordinary films that I have loved all my life.”
One of the more contemporary films on this year’s list is director Frank Darabont’s 1994 movie based on a Stephen King novella. “I can think of no greater honor than for ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ to be considered part of our country’s cinematic legacy,” said Darabont. “I express my deepest thanks to all those who chose it for inclusion in the National Film Registry. …and most of all to the audiences who embraced our movie and have kept it alive all these years.”
Also on the list of significant films is one of the earliest film recordings and the oldest surviving copyrighted motion picture, which was produced by Thomas Edison’s team of inventors. Recorded in 1894, “The Sneeze” became synonymous with the invention of movies. Other films on the list that feature pioneering cinematic techniques are the 1906 “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” and Disney’s 1937 “The Old Mill.”
The documentaries and shorts named to the registry include “Portrait of Jason,” an exploration of a gay hustler’s life in his own words; Su Friedrich’s 1990 autobiographical tale about the schism between a daughter and her father, “Sink or Swim”; and “The Story of Menstruation,” a 1946 Disney-produced film seen by nearly 93 million women and girls over two decades.
The silent films selected this year include “A Fool There Was” (1915), starring one of cinema’s first vamps, Theda Bara; Douglas Fairbanks 1920 swashbuckler “The Mark of Zorro”; and “Humoresque,” the 1920 story of the rise of a Jewish immigrant to violin virtuoso. Another addition to the list is the Spanish-language version of Dracula from 1931, which was shot concurrently with the English-speaking film starring Bela Lugosi.
In 2013, the Library of Congress released a report that conclusively determined that 70 percent of the nation’s silent feature films have been lost forever and only 14 percent exist in their original 35 mm format.
The Library’s National and International Outreach Service Unit (NIO) National Programs Directorate manages and provides staff support for the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board, the National Recording Preservation Board and the National Registries for film and recorded sound. This constitutes part of NIO’s broader mission to administer the public-facing programs and activities of the Library of Congress with the mission of “broadening awareness and use of the Library and its resources through outreach and external partnerships.”
Many titles named to the registry have already been preserved by the copyright holder, the filmmaker or archives such as the Library of Congress, Academy Film Archive, George Eastman Museum, Museum of Modern Art or the UCLA Film and Television Archive. In cases where a selected title has not already been preserved, the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation works to ensure that the film will be preserved by some entity and available to future generations, either through the Library’s motion-picture preservation program or through collaborative ventures with other archives, motion-picture studios and independent filmmakers. The Packard Campus is a state-of-the-art facility where the nation’s library acquires, preserves and provides access to the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of films, television programs, radio broadcasts and sound recordings. It is home to more than 7 million collection items.
Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. It seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its vast collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its website at loc.gov.
Being There (1979)
Chance, a simple-minded gardener (Peter Sellers) whose only contact with the outside world is through television, becomes the toast of the town following a series of misunderstandings. Forced outside his protected environment by the death of his wealthy boss, Chance subsumes his late employer’s persona, including the man’s cultured walk, talk and even his expensive clothes, and is mistaken as “Chauncey Gardner,” whose simple adages are interpreted as profound insights. He becomes the confidant of a dying billionaire industrialist (Melvyn Douglas, in an Academy Award-winning performance) who happens to be a close adviser to the U.S. president (Jack Warden). Chance’s gardening advice is interpreted as metaphors for political policy and life in general. Jerzy Kosinski, assisted by award-winning screenwriter Robert C. Jones, adapted his 1971 novel for the screenplay which Hal Ashby directed with an understatement to match the subtlety and precision of Sellers’ Academy Award-nominated performance. Shirley MacLaine also stars as Douglas’s wife, then widow, who sees Chauncey as a romantic prospect. Film critic Robert Ebert said he admired the film for “having the guts to take this totally weird conceit and push it to its ultimate comic conclusion.” That conclusion is a philosophically complex film that has remained fresh and relevant.
Black and Tan (1929)
In one of the first short musical films to showcase African-American jazz musicians, Duke Ellington portrays a struggling musician whose dancer wife (Fredi Washington in her film debut) secures him a gig for his orchestra at the famous Cotton Club where she’s been hired to perform, at a risk to her health. Directed by Dudley Murphy, who earned his reputation with “Ballet mécanique,” which is considered a masterpiece of early experimental filmmaking, the film reflects the cultural, social and artistic explosion of the 1920s that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Ellington and Washington personify that movement, and Murphy—who also directed registry titles “St. Louis Blues” (1929), another musical short, and the feature “The Emperor Jones” (1933) starring Paul Robeson—cements it in celluloid to inspire future generations. Washington, who appeared with Robeson in “Emperor Jones,” is best known as “Peola” in the 1934 version of “Imitation of Life.”
Dracula (Spanish language version) (1931)
Before the advent of sound, the only significant difference between films seen by domestic audiences and foreign ones was the language of the subtitles, which could be adapted for each market. When talkies arrived, American studios began shooting foreign-language versions for international and non-English-speaking domestic markets, generally at the same time they filmed the English versions. In one of the most famous examples of this practice, a second crew—including a different director and stars—shot at night on the same sets used during the day for the English version of the Bram Stoker classic starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. In recent years, the Spanish version of the film, which is 20 minutes longer, has been lauded as superior in many ways to the English one, some theorizing that the Spanish-language crew had the advantage of watching the English dailies and improving on camera angles and making more effective use of lighting. Directed by George Melford (best known for the Valentino sensation “The Sheik”), the Spanish version starred Carlos Villarías (billed as Carlos Villar) as Conde Drácula, Lupita Tovar as Eva Seward, Barry Norton as Juan Harker and Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield.
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)
Based on noted illustrator Winsor McCay’s popular comic strip that ran in the New York Evening Telegram from 1904 to 1914, this short fantasy comedy by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter employed groundbreaking trick photography, including some of the earliest uses of double exposure in American cinema. Porter used camera sleight-of-hand to create the hallucinatory dreams of a top-hatted swell (Jack Brawn) who, after gorging himself on Welsh rarebit, is beset by dancing, spinning furniture and mischievous imps. To create the dream effects, he used a spinning camera and moveable set pieces, along with multiple exposures. Stop-motion and matte paintings added to the film’s whimsical appeal. Porter, who joined Thomas Edison’s company in 1899 and advanced the special effects pioneered by Georges Méliès, completed the seven-minute film in nine days at a cost of $350, which is about $10,000 today. The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film has preserved the film.
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975)
Created over the course of a decade by Thom Andersen, a onetime UCLA film student, this documentary delves into the work of the man whose pioneering studies and concept of persistence of vision led to the development of motion pictures. The film looks at Eadweard Muybridge’s personal and professional struggles, and examines the philosophical implications of his sequential photographs, or zoopraxographs, as he called his studies of animal locomotion. Andersen re-animates the images Muybridge originally presented on a zoopraxoscope, a predecessor of the projector. The documentary features cinematography by Morgan Fisher, a script by Fay Andersen, music by Mike Cohen, biographical research by Robert Bartlett Haas and narration by Dean Stockwell. When the PBS affiliate set to broadcast the film declined the completed piece, Andersen ultimately sold his work to New Yorker Films, which recognized Andersen’s unique voice as a cultural commentator and helped launch his career. In the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum described the production as “One of the best essay films ever made on a cinematic subject.” The UCLA Film & Television Archive, in consultation with Thom Andersen, did the preservation work on the film.
Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894)
One of the earliest film recordings and the oldest surviving copyrighted motion picture, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (Jan. 7, 1894) is commonly known as “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” or simply “The Sneeze.” W.K.L. Dickson, who led Thomas Edison’s team of inventors, took the images of fellow engineer Ott enacting a snuff-induced sneeze. In March 1894, Harper’s Weekly magazine, which requested the pictures, published a sequence of still images taken from the film. “The Sneeze” became synonymous with the invention of movies although it was not seen as a moving picture until 1953 when 45 frames were re-animated on 16 mm film. The full 81 frames published in Harper’s Weekly were never seen as a movie until 2013 when the Library of Congress made a 35 mm film version. In this new complete version, Fred Ott sneezes twice.
A Fool There Was (1915)
The phenomenal success of “A Fool There Was”—based on a Rudyard Kipling poem and a subsequent play—set off a publicity campaign unparalleled at the time centering on its star, an unknown actress bearing the exotic name of Theda Bara. Bara was promoted as “the woman with the most beautifully wicked face in the world” and became filmdom’s quintessential “vamp,” enticing male pillars of society to relinquish family, career, respectable society, and even life itself, while yearning to remain under her entrancing spell. With such ego-shattering commands as “Kiss me, my fool,” Bara’s destructive powers appealed to women as well as men. “Women are my greatest fans,” Bara stated, “because they see in my vampire the impersonal vengeance of all their unavenged wrongs.” Bara retired from the screen four years later after starring in some 40 films, establishing a new genre, and helping Fox studios become an industry leader. Only one other film from her heyday is known to exist as well as two she made during an attempted comeback in the mid-1920s. The film has been preserved by Museum of Modern Art Department of Film.
One of the most popular, quotable films from the past three decades and a touchstone of cultural reference, “Ghostbusters” can also easily be seen as a loving homage to those earlier wacky horror comedies from Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope and others. Three lapsed science academics (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) set up shop to handle the underappreciated (and never-ending) task of ferreting out ghosts, and will not rest until the paranormal becomes New York normal once more. These days, the trio would find a home in reality TV, but, given the era, they must prove their bona fides through clever publicity and satisfied customer word-of-mouth. Leading this Gotham firm in the fight against ever-present slime, is sleazy, yet charming, Bill Murray who brings a breezy air of can-do insouciance to the job of dealing with a rogues gallery of malevolence, including puffed-up existential threats such as the Marshmallow Man. Murray takes regular time outs from spirit-chasing to romance brainy cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), who becomes a channeler of the demon Zuul. The infectious insanity of “Ghostbusters” makes it a favorite film of the ‘80s.
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Writer-director Preston Sturges probably was the only filmmaker in Hollywood in the 1940s who could satirize the worship of war heroes and mothers during wartime. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times credited the success of this film to its “sharpness of verbal wit and the vigor of visual expression” and the ability of Sturges to temper “irony with pity.” Nominated for an Academy Award for the best original screenplay category, “Hail the Conquering Hero” follows the foibles of a would-be war hero dismissed from active duty because of chronic hay fever and enlisted by a group of Marines to return home as the war hero that he has pretended to be in letters to his mother. The lightning-paced plot that develops upon his return offers Sturges—a budding “Hollywood Voltaire” in Crowther’s eyes—myriad opportunities to spoof corruption in small town politics as well as the propensity to idolize the military. The great French critic André Bazin called this film “a work that restores to American film a sense of social satire that I find equaled only … in Chaplin’s films.”
Based on a story by Fannie Hurst, “Humoresque” presented to mainstream American audiences a sympathetic portrayal of immigrant Jewish life through its vivid details of street life and rituals, and a riveting performance by Yiddish Theatre actress Vera Gordon, “seemingly a character from life, living,” rather than acting, as a New York Times reviewer observed. Although it was not the first film to dramatize the acculturation experiences of recent Jewish refugees from Russian massacres, “Humoresque” became a great screen success, inspiring Hollywood to produce many other films set in the Lower East Side’s tenements during the ensuing decade. In this, his first hit film, director Frank Borzage sympathetically treated faith and love—in this case “mother love”—with the utmost solemnity, in a manner that admirer Martin Scorsese has commented “makes him so unfashionable now.” Having solidly established its setting and characters through its many poignant and atmospheric touches, the film “touches the deep places of the heart,” as one Variety reviewer wrote, and makes its audience believe that prayers are answered and that love can restore health.
Imitation of Life (1959)
Film melodrama comes in many variations, but director Douglas Sirk’s style of domestic melodrama is marked by stylized interiors and use of mirrors, where the role of photography is crucial, with exquisite use of primary colors and camera angles to convey emotion and mood. During the 1950s, the Universal team of Sirk, producers Ross Hunter and Albert Zugsmith, cinematographer Russell Metty and composer Frank Skinner, released a series of glossy, often deliriously flamboyant “women’s picture” melodramas, including “All That Heaven Allows,” “Magnificent Obsession,” “Written on the Wind” and “Imitation of Life.” The often-lurid plots in these films may have seemed laughable and unrealistic, but the emotional impact on audiences packed a wallop that led to major box-office bonanzas for Universal. Sirk’s last American film, “Imitation of Life,” is based on the Fannie Hurst novel about two mothers (one white and one African-American) and their daughters (one white and one who wishes to pass for white). Sirk’s 1959 version (with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as the mothers) offers a telling contrast to the more restrained melodramatic style used by John Stahl in the 1934 version (previously selected for the registry), starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. One can also spot in Sirk’s film fascinating glimpses at the evolving social standards and mores the country had undergone in the 25 years that elapsed between the two films, particularly in the characters of Moore and her daughter Susan Kohner. However, New York Times reviewers did not note much difference in the two versions. The paper’s 1934 reviewer called the film “the most shameless tearjerker of the fall” while Bosley Crowther’s 1959 review proved little different: “It is the most shameless tearjerker in a couple of years.” Sirk’s version ends with Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World” during the penultimate funeral scene and daughter Susan Kohner begging forgiveness while hugging her dead mother’s casket.
The Inner World of Aphasia (1968)
This empathic and often poetic medical-training film features a powerful performance by co-director Naomi Feil as a nurse who learns to cope with aphasia, the inability to speak as a result of a brain injury. Feil, a social worker whose career has focused on communicating with language-impaired patients, produced this film and dozens more with her husband Edward Feil. In the film, the patient’s inner thoughts are heard through voice-over as she struggles in frustration to overcome her disability and to connect with her caregivers. The Council on International Non-theatrical Events (CINE) awarded “Inner World” its top honor, the Golden Eagle. More than 47 years later, the film is still being screened by media artists and independent filmmakers who appreciate its innovative artistic qualities.
John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946)
The African-American folk hero John Henry was probably based on an actual person who worked on the railroads around the 1870s. The legend began to appear in print in the early 20th century, but emerged early on as a popular folk song. Akin to other such rugged folk heroes as Paul Bunyan, John Henry is said to have worked as a “steel-driving man,” hammering a steel drill into rock and earth to build tunnels and lay track. According to legend, his prowess was measured in a competition against a steam-powered hammer. John Henry won the race against “Inky-Poo,” only to collapse and die, hammer in hand. Stop-motion animation pioneer George Pal created this short film after the NAACP and Ebony magazine criticized his offensively stereotyped Jasper series of cartoons. The magazine later praised “John Henry” as the first Hollywood film to feature African-American folklore in a positive light and to treat its characters with “dignity, imagination, poetry, and love.” Highly popular during its time, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. It has been preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
This well-crafted and suspenseful story, directed by Curtis Hanson, teams a trio of incompatible cops who ultimately bring down a corrupt police department and political machine. Hanson and Brian Helgeland adapted the James Ellroy novel and together they successfully interpret film noir’s dark and seamy allure for new audiences. Detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) an in-it-for-himself type, Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), who believes in bending the law to enforce it, and Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a straight arrow whose self-righteousness alienates him from his colleagues, all possess some deep-rooted sense of honor that draws them together to untangle the film’s web of corruption that climaxes in its virtuoso choreographed shootout. The cast is rounded out by Danny DeVito as the film’s occasional narrator and reporter for “Hush-Hush” magazine, Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake look-alike call girl, and James Cromwell as the duplicitous chief of police. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti infuses this homage with a Technicolor richness seldom seen in noirs of the 40s and 50s.
The Mark of Zorro (1920)
Douglas Fairbanks was gifted not only with a winning smile and athletic prowess, but also with keen insight. Aware that post-World War I audiences had grown weary of the romantic comedies that had made him a star, Fairbanks adapted his persona to create a daring hero and established himself as an icon of American culture. Under the name Elton Thomas, Fairbanks penned the screenplay for his first swashbuckler, portraying Don Diego Vega who has recently returned to California from Spain. Upon finding a despotic governor (George Periolat) persecuting the local inhabitants, he first poses as a preening fop to divert suspicion, then dons a cape and mask to defend the downtrodden armed with a razor-sharp sword and leaving behind his signature “Z” to taunt the evil Captain Ramon (Robert McKim) and his henchmen. The film, directed by Fred Niblo, also stars Marguerite De La Motte and Noah Beery. The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film has preserved the film.
The Old Mill (1937)
This cartoon, produced by the Walt Disney Company as one of its Silly Symphony entries, depicts a community of animals—mice, doves, bats, bluebirds and an expressive owl—battling a severe thunderstorm that nearly destroys their home in an abandoned windmill. Directed by Wilfred Jackson, the film acted as a testing ground for audience interest in longer form animation as well as for advanced technologies, including the first use of the multiplane camera, which added three-dimensional depth. It also featured more complex lighting and realistic depictions of animal behavior that would be perfected in “Snow White,” “Fantasia” and “Bambi.” The dazzling imagery was complemented by Leigh Harline’s compelling orchestral scoring inspired by a Strauss operetta. In “The 50 Greatest Cartoons Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals,” edited by historian Jerry Beck, Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston recalled, “Our eyes popped when we saw all of The Old Mill’s magnificent innovations—things we had not even dreamed of and did not understand.” The film won an Academy Award for best animated short in 1937, and the studio won an Oscar for its revolutionary camera.
Our Daily Bread (1934)
During the heart of the Great Depression, as the nation’s capital experimented with New Deal programs to solve the nation’s ills, most Hollywood productions remained escapist. A radical exception to the rule, King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread,” faced the problem of unemployment head-on by dramatizing an experiment in cooperative farming that proposed pooling resources collectively as an alternative to individualistic competition for jobs. After all the studios passed on his idea, Vidor financed the film himself with borrowed funds. Criticized for its purportedly socialist ideas and also for its seemingly fascistic traits, “Our Daily Bread” remains a document that embodied political contradictions that marked widely divergent contemporary assessments of the New Deal itself. In its widely acclaimed climactic ditch-digging sequence, the film presents images celebrated muscular working-class manhood that also marked public art of the period, which addressed anxieties about the masculinity during times of economic crisis.
Portrait of Jason (1967)
In one of the first LGBT films widely accepted by general audiences, Shirley Clarke explored the blurred lines between fact and fiction, allowing her subject, Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne), a gay hustler and nightclub entertainer, to talk about his life with candor, pathos and humor in one 12-hour shoot. Clarke originally envisioned Jason as the only character, but she subsequently revealed: “When I saw the rushes I knew the real story of what happened that night in my living room had to include all of us [the off-screen voices. her crew and herself], and so our question-reaction probes, our irritations and angers, as well as our laughter remain part of the film.” Bosley Crowther of “The New York Times” described it as a “curious and fascinating example of cinéma vérité, all the ramifications of which cannot be immediately known.” Legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman called it “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.” Thought to have been lost, a 16 mm print of the film was discovered at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in 2013 and has since been restored by the Academy Film Archive, Milestone Films and Modern Videofilm.
Two staples of 1960s cinema—evil organizations and the wasteland of suburbia—combine to drive this sinister tale about the perils of seeking a second chance, a life do-over. Bored with his banal marriage and unexciting daily grind, banker John Randolph meets the representative for a mysterious company offering the “too-good-to-be-true” opportunity to erase his current Scarsdale existence for a makeover in the guise of Malibu painter Rock Hudson. Headed by grandfatherly scion Will Geer and master-of-the-hard-sell executive Jeff Corey, “The Company” takes care of everything surrounding Randolph (in his new Hudsonesque persona) with business reps and human “seconds,” in order to smooth his transition to a new life and keep him from spilling the lucrative-but-dark corporate secret. His new identify seems idyllic, but Randolph chafes with unease and demands a return to his now fondly remembered past average life. With no intention of imperiling its advertising message and humming assembly-line template for reborn humans, the company has a “third chance” plan in mind for Randolph: he learns “you can’t go home again,” in the wry words of a New York Times reviewer quoting Thomas Wolfe. Director John Frankenheimer crafts a memorably creepy sense of foreboding in “Seconds,” aided immensely by the black-and-white cinematography, disorienting camera angles and lenses of cameraman James Wong Howe, as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score. Critic David Sterritt lauds “Seconds” as “the third and crowning chapter of what’s now known as Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy” following “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May.”
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
From a modest start as a critical success, but something of a commercial bust upon initial release, “The Shawshank Redemption” now often rates as the top film in Internet Movie Database polling. Like many Stephen King novels and stories, it was adapted to film, but, as some critics have noted, the best movies have arguably resulted from the non-horror part of King’s literary output (such as the novellas “Stand by Me” and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”). Banker Tim Robbins is wrongly convicted of the double murder of his wife and her lover. However, he spends much of his prison sentence beset by guilt over whether he contributed to her infidelity and consumed by the knowledge that he had seriously contemplated murdering her. Eventually, Robbins decides he must “get busy living or get busy dying” and plots a meticulous, long-term plan for escape. Critics have struggled at times to explain the immense public affection for “Shawshank,” but perhaps it’s due to the poignant Thomas Newman score and most importantly the moving character portrayals and deep friendship between inmates Robbins and Morgan Freeman, highlighting the abiding resilience of the human spirit.
Sink or Swim (1990)
In this autobiographical tale told in voice-over by a teenage girl (Jessica Lynn), Su Friedrich relates a series of 26 short vignettes that reveal a subtext of a father preoccupied by his career and of a daughter emotionally scarred by his behavior. Black-and-white film clips of ordinary daily activities illustrate Friedrich’s poetically powerful text to create a complex and intense film. Of this work, which garnered numerous festival awards, Friedrich wrote, “The issue for me is to be more direct, or honest, about my experiences, but also to be analytical. ‘Sink or Swim’ is personal, but it’s also very analytical, or rigorously formal.” Friedrich’s films and videos have been featured in retrospectives at major museums and festivals, and she has received both Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships. Michael Zyrd wrote in Senses of Cinema: “The textures, cinematic and emotional, of Friedrich’s work are both private and highly mediated, embodying an aesthetic style and range of concerns that make her one of the most innovative and accessible artists currently working in the dynamic tradition of the modernist American Avant-Garde.”
The Story of Menstruation (1946)
Sponsored by Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kotex, this title was produced by the Walt Disney Company through its Educational and Industrial Film Division. Distributed free to schools and girls’ clubs with an accompanying pamphlet titled “Very Personally Yours,” the film used friendly Disney-style characters and gentle narration to “encourage a healthy, normal attitude” toward menstruation. Although a few such educational filmstrips were available before World War II, this version was seen as more progressive than previous offerings and, according to advertisements in “The Educational Screen,” it replaced superstitions with “scientific facts” and dispelled “embarrassment.” Some contemporary scholars, however, take issue with the approach. Sean Griffin of Southern Methodist University’s Division of Film and Media Arts and author of “Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out” suggests that Disney’s abstract representation of the body “‘bleaches’ the more ‘unsavory’ parts of the lesson, such as making the menstrual flow white instead of red.” According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls,” approximately 93 million American women, mostly teenagers, viewed this film between 1946 through the late 1960s.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968)
William Greaves worked at the intersection of many cultural focal points, including as an original co-host and producer of the landmark “Black Journal” public television series. He, however, is perhaps best known for his prolific work as a documentary film director and producer. He was associated with more than 200 productions during his career. His best-known film, “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” faced a strange, lengthy road to recognition. As recounted by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, Greaves shot the film in 1968 and completed production in 1971 in hopes of a debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but was turned down. The film then spent two decades unseen before being rediscovered by a Brooklyn Museum curator who premiered it at a retrospective of Greaves’ voluminous work in cinema. Its acclaim grew and caught the attention of a later champion, actor/director Steve Buscemi. The film is a unique 1960s’ time capsule, a telling look at the myriad tensions involved in film creation—a film on the making of a film—with three camera crews recording different parts of the process and personalities involved (director, actors, crew, bystanders). Though Greaves is undoubtedly the film’s visionary auteur—notable for an African-American filmmaker in the 1960s—it is truly a film made collectively by Greaves and his multi-racial crew, whose staging of an on-set rebellion becomes the film’s drama and its platform for sociopolitical critique and revolutionary philosophy. Filmed entirely on location in New York City’s Central Park, with a score by Miles Davis, Greaves’ film serves as a vivid tabloid of this heady historical era and a memorable document of this creatively prosperous period of American independent filmmaking. The New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott lauded the film’s creativity and imagination: “It is one of the great New York films, one of the great experimental films, one of the great ’60s films, one of the great black films—just one of the great films, period, largely because it remains so fresh, so radical and so hard to assimilate more than 45 years after it was made.”
Top Gun (1986)
Though a wag might be tempted to call this Tony Scott film “The Testosterone Chronicles,” the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production actually comprises a deft portrait of mid-1980s America, when politicians promised “Morning in America Again,” and singers crooned “God Bless the U.S.A.” The U.S. Navy, for one, did not complain: applications to naval aviation schools soared in part as a result of this relentless, pulsating film famed for its vertiginous fighter-plane sequences. Scott, always most at home when crafting slick, visually arresting action-set pieces with distinctive flair, delivers on all fronts. Among others, director Christopher Nolan has highlighted “Top Gun” for the clear influence of the film’s celebrated visual style on future filmmakers. Tom Cruise here graduated to the top echelon of in-demand actors, aided by his good looks, cocky attitude, omnipresent smile, and brazen attempts to woo and secure steamy personal time with (at first amused and later swooning) civilian instructor Kelly McGillis.
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Actor Jimmy Stewart collaborated with director Anthony Mann on eight films during the 1950s. Most renowned was an influential series of five taut, psychological Westerns from 1950-55 revolving around themes of hidden secrets, vengeance, shifting personal morals and concepts of heroism. The movie “Winchester ’73” launched their partnership. Film historian Scott Simmon calls “Winchester ‘73” “the La Ronde of Death, as opposed to the love that keeps the Schnitzler play in motion,” and “the film where a gun is more of an object of worship than in any other American film.” Ironically, in light of current debates about gun-carry rights, it’s fascinating that even in this most gun-obsessed of movies, nobody is allowed to carry a gun in town. But for a man caught out in the desert without ammo, he has not “felt so naked since the last time I took a bath.” Stewart’s obsessive quests are to avenge the death of his father and pursue a Winchester rifle as it moves from one owner to the next, changing everyone into whose hands the gun briefly passes, and culminating in a justly-famous shootout amidst steep, rocky terrain.