Each year, under the National Film Preservation Act, 25 films at least ten years old are entered into the the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for conservation. These films are deemed by the librarian as well as members of the National Film Preservation Board to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. The final inductees each year are selected from a list of thousands of possible candidates nominated by the public.
The finalists this year were announced Monday and include such cinematic milestones as The Dark Knight (2008), The Blues Brothers (1980), Shrek (2001), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Grease (1978), and more.
Should you be interesting, starting at 5 p.m. PST on Tuesday, TCM will screen a selection of the motion pictures named. Hayden will join TCM host and film historian Jacqueline Stewart to discuss the films.
A look at this year’s list, with descriptions supplied by the Library of Congress:
The Battle of the Century (1927)
This classic Laurel & Hardy silent short (two reels, ca. 20 minutes) has been unseen in its entirety since its original release. Its comic bits include a renowned pie-fighting sequence where the principle of “reciprocal destruction” escalates to epic proportions. Battle offers a stark illustration of the detective work (and luck) required to locate and preserve films from the silent era. Only excerpts from reel two had survived for many years. Leonard Maltin discovered a mostly complete nitrate copy of reel one at the Museum of Modern Art in the ’70s. Then in 2015, film collector and silent film accompanist Jon Mirsalis located a complete version of reel two as part of a film collection he purchased from the estate of Gordon Berkow. The film still lacks brief scenes from reel one, but it’s now almost complete, comprising elements from MoMA, the Library of Congress, UCLA and other sources. It was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with Jeff Joseph/SabuCat. The nearly complete film was preserved from one reel of 35mm nitrate print, one reel of a 35mm acetate dupe negative and a 16mm acetate print.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, then best known for their star turns on Saturday Night Live, took their recurring Blues Brothers sketch to the big screen in this loving and madcap musical misadventures of Jake and Elwood Blues on a mission from God. An homage of sorts to various classic movie genres — from screwball comedy to road movie — The Blues Brothers serves as a tribute to the duo’s favorite city (Chicago) and a lovely paean to great soul and R&B music. In musical cameos, such legends as Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker ignite the screen.
“Having The Blues Brothers chosen to be included in the National Film Registry is both a great honor and a delightful surprise,” said director John Landis. “The film is the result of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s genuine passion for rhythm and blues and our mutual love for these great African American artists and the city of Chicago.”
Aykroyd added that he and Belushi’s widow, Judy, “are exhilarated to see the performances of the African American musical stars in The Blues Brothers film formally treasured for all time by the people of the United States. We feel grateful at being participants in making the movie and for this most worthwhile cultural preservation initiative.”
Billed as a “sociological photodrama, this tells the story of a naive young woman in a narrow-minded town who journeys to New York to become a star but faces disillusionment when she learns that sex is demanded as the price for fame. Ida May Park, director and scenarist of Bread, was among more than a half-dozen prolific female directors working at the Universal Film Manufacturing Co. during the period in which Los Angeles became the home of America’s movie industry. Park directed 14 feature-length films from 1917-20, and her career as a scenarist lasted until 1931. She reasoned that because the majority of movie fans were women, “It follows that a member of the sex is best able to gauge their wants in the form of stories and plays.” In an essay Park contributed to the book Careers for Women, she stated that women were advantaged as motion picture directors because of “the superiority of their emotional and imaginative faculties.” In the two surviving reels of Bread, one of only three films Park directed that are known to survive, she displays an accomplished ability to knowingly vivify her protagonist’s plight as her character fends off an attacker and places her frail hopes in a misshapen loaf of bread that has come to symbolize for her the good things in life.
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
“The best Wim Wenders documentary to date and an uncommonly self-effacing one, this 1999 concert movie about performance and lifestyle is comparable in some ways to Latcho Drom, the great gypsy documentary/musical,” wrote film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. “In 1996, musician Ry Cooder traveled to Havana to reunite some of the greatest stars of Cuban pop music from the Batista era (who were virtually forgotten after Castro came to power) with the aim of making a record, a highly successful venture that led to concerts in Amsterdam and New York. The players and their stories are as wonderful as the music, and the filmmaking is uncommonly sensitive and alert.”
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
This tells the story of a man (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) trying to make it into heaven who’s sent back to Earth for one last shot at redemption. Released by MGM in the same year as Fox’s Stormy Weather, this adaptation of a 1940 Broadway musical marked the directing debut of Vincente Minnelli, whose gift for ingeniously blending in dazzling musical numbers is on full display. Lauded at the time for showcasing an all-Black cast in a major Hollywood film when many theaters in the U.S. were still segregated, the film also sadly demonstrates their limited film opportunities and the compromises they had to make. These notable concerns aside, Cabin remains a glittering cultural record of outstanding Black talent (Anderson, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram) of the era.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Though based on the book by Anthony Burgess, it took an eye and a mind like director Stanley Kubrick’s to bring this film to life. Set in a not-so-distant future that is equal parts dystopian and cartoonish, Clockwork remains as it always was: disturbing, controversial and startlingly unsettling. Malcolm McDowell (in his most legendary role) stars as Alex DeLarge, the demented, de facto leader of a gang of boys — sporting bowler hats, canes and codpieces — who wreak havoc over what was once England. But as evil as Alex is, when he’s caught and subjected to a type of state-sanctioned crime-aversion therapy, his “treatment” turns out to be far more brutal than any of the crimes he’s committed.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s dark, enduring creation first flew onto the screen in a 1943 B-movie serial and would return to theaters several times in treatments both camp and action-oriented. But Christopher Nolan’s evocative work reinvented the already vast Batman mythos thanks in no small part to its two intense, now legendary, lead performances: Christian Bale as the titular character and Heath Ledger in a remarkable, Oscar-winning take as The Joker. Set in a dark, modern-day Gotham City, The Dark Knight is a visual feast of memorable set pieces, screenwriting flair and characters and situations imbued with a soul and a conscience. “Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, The Dark Knight goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind,” wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. The theme of a world turned upside down by fear and dystopian chaos resonates eerily well in the pandemic havoc of 2020.
“This is not only a great honor for all of us who worked on The Dark Knight, this is also a tribute to all of the amazing artists and writers who have worked on the great mythology of Batman over the decades,” said Nolan.
The Devil Never Sleeps (1994)
Early one Sunday morning in July, the filmmaker receives a phone call informing her that her beloved tio (uncle) Oscar Ruiz Almeida has been found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in Chihuahua, Mexico. His widow has declared his death a suicide. Most of his family, however, cry murder and point to a number of possible suspects: his business partner, his ranch hand, the widow herself. In The Devil Never Sleeps, Lourdes Portillo returns to the land of her birth to find out exactly who her uncle was and to investigate the circumstances of his death. She explores “irrational” as well as “logical” explanations, searching for clues on both sides of the border and in the history of her family. Old tales of betrayal, passion, lust and supernatural visitation emerge as we follow the filmmaker deep into the life of a community in the homeland of Pancho Villa. The film exposes the loves and hatreds of a Mexican family convulsed by the death of one of its members. The emotions that Portillo captures in her particular blend of traditional and experimental techniques bring out the nuances of Mexican social and family order. Poetic, tragic, humorous and mythic, The Devil Never Sleeps crosses the borders of personal values, cultural morés and the discipline of filmmaking itself. It is a key film by a Latina filmmaker.
Freedom Riders (2010)
In 1961, more than 400 people from across the nation, black and white, women and men, old and young, challenged state-sanctioned segregation on buses and in bus terminals in the Deep South, segregation that continued after the Supreme Court had ruled the practice to be in violation of interstate commerce laws. Some 50 years later, Freedom Riders, a two-hour PBS American Experience documentary made by Stanley Nelson, charted their course in considerable depth as they faced savage retaliatory attacks and forced a reluctant federal government to back their cause. The riveting story is told without narration, using archival film and stills and, most engagingly, testimonies of the Freedom Riders themselves; journalists who followed their trail; federal, state and local officials; white Southerners; and chroniclers of the movement including Raymond Arsenault, whose book inspired the documentary. The film takes viewers through many complex twists and turns of the journey with extraordinary clarity and emotional force. The courage and conviction of the Freedom Riders, ordinary Americans willing to risk bodily harm and death to combat injustice nonviolently, will inspire later generations who watch Nelson’s eloquent film. Nearly 50 full interviews conducted for the project are now available in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting here.
This tuneful, loving tribute to 1950s America — perhaps more romanticized than accurate — was first staged on Broadway in 1972 and would run for more than 3,000 performances before closing in 1980. In 1978, the production was brought to the big screen with the addition of a few fresh songs and a cast including newly minted superstar John Travolta and pop/country chanteuse Olivia Newton-John. Energetically directed by Randal Kleiser and loaded with beloved tunes like “You’re the One That I Want,” “We Go Together,” “Summer Nights,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Greased Lightin’,” Grease became the film of the year. It has never really left, becoming a staple for local and high school productions, Broadway revivals and a live TV adaptation in 2016. Grease is still the word.
“The cast and crew of Grease have remained close for the past 40 years,” said Kleiser. “We are all honored to be included in this year’s National Registry selection.”
The Ground (1993-2001)
The films of Robert Beavers are exceptional for their visual beauty, aural texture and depth of emotional expression. His work occupies a noble place within the history of avant-garde film, positioned at the intersection of structural and lyrical cinematic traditions. They seem to embody the ideals of the Renaissance in their fascination with perception, psychology, literature, the natural world, architectural space, musical phrasing and aesthetic beauty. The Ground uses seemingly simple components — the sun-baked landscape of a Greek island, the blue waters of the Aegean Sea and images of a man chiseling stone — to conjure the fundamental experience of holding something close to one’s heart.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
That great Hollywood staple, the “war movie,” got a major reinvention in Bigelow’s riveting and uncompromising look at contemporary warfare. Following the work of a Baghdad-based explosive ordnance disposal team, The Hurt Locker strips away sentiment — and politics — to focus its camera on the rampant, second-by-second dangers and ethical dilemmas of modern-day soldiers. Jeremy Renner leads the skillful cast as a detonation expert for whom war seems a little too “normal.” The film won the Academy Award for best picture, and Bigelow received the Oscar for best director, the only woman so honored.
Born in New York City, Dash is a filmmaker, music video and commercial director, author and website creator. Her film studies began in Harlem in 1969 and led her to the American Film Institute and UCLA, where she made The Diary of an African Nun (1977), which was based on a short story by Alice Walker and won a student award from the DGA. Her critically acclaimed short Illusions later won the jury prize for best film of the decade from the Black Filmmakers Foundation. Created for her MFA thesis at UCLA, Illusions is set around World War II and explores the nature of Hollywood racial politics, fantasy and the illusion of racial identity.
The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Director Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel tells a story of relationships between Chinese-American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers. The four mothers meet weekly to play mah-jongg, tell stories and reminisce. The richly layered plot features key themes including the often-complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, assimilation into a far different culture, wistfulness for aspects of former lifestyles, the intersections between past and present and the strong bond of family ties between generations who grew up in vastly different circumstances.
“I could have never imagined after reading a few chapters of Amy’s manuscript that eventually became The Joy Luck Club book that my dream of its adaptation would result in a movie that is still talked about decades later,” said producer Janet Yang. “When people tell me — and so many from so many cultures have — that the movie helped heal a rift with their family, I am immensely gratified, and it reminds me of the power of the moving image.”
Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
A milestone in film history, this 6 1/2-minute picture marks the debut of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character as he continually disrupts a cameraman trying to film a soapbox derby car race. A contemporary review in The Cinema noted, “Kid Auto Races struck us as about the funniest film we have ever seen. When we subsequently saw Chaplin in more ambitious efforts, our opinion that the Keystone Co. had made the capture of their career was strengthened. Chaplin is a born screen comedian; he does things we have never seen done on the screen before.”
Lilies of the Field (1963)
From 1950-80, Sidney Poitier ranked among the top American movie stars (No Way Out, Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, The Defiant Ones, Raisin in the Sun, Paris Blues, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). In Lilies, Poitier has another of his classic roles in which he plays an itinerant worker who helps refugee East European nuns build a chapel in Arizona. The nuns cannot pay him but implore him to do the work by citing various Biblical verses. Poitier, for his part, is moved by their plight but also wants to demonstrate his skills as an architect and builder. The film serves as a parable highlighting mutual respect via common purpose, the austere Arizona desert landscape, the impoverished nuns and a man they believe God sent to help them. For his portrayal, Poitier became the first African American to win the best actor Oscar.
“Lilies of the Field stirs up such great remembrances in our family, from the littlest Poitiers watching a young and agile Papa to the oldest — Papa Sidney himself!” Poitier said in a statement with his family.
Losing Ground (1982)
One of the first features directed by an African American woman, Collins’ film tells the story of a marriage between two remarkable people at a crossroads in their lives. Losing Ground centers on the experiences of Sara (Seret Scott), an African American philosophy professor whose artist husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), rents a country house for a month to celebrate a recent museum sale. The couple’s summer idyll becomes complicated as Sara struggles to research the philosophical and religious meaning of ecstatic experience … and to discover it for herself.
The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)
The subject of drug addiction has been addressed in Hollywood films many times, dating to the silent era (Kevin Brownlow’s seminal Behind the Mask of Innocence chronicles these amazing early productions). But few dared to be as honest, blunt or graphic as this Otto Preminger treatment, which featured Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. Sinatra stars as the heroin-addicted hero who, having gotten clean while in prison, now struggles to remain “straight” after release. The Oscar-nominated Sinatra is a raw nerve in his unvarnished portrayal of a junkie, most memorably in his brutal withdrawal scenes. Along with its still topical subject and powerful storytelling, the film is further enhanced by its eye-popping Saul Bass opening-credits sequence and Elmer Bernstein’s remarkable jazz score. Critic Dave Kehr has noted that the 1955 adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel is “something of a crossroads movie, suspended between the swirling expressionism of Preminger’s early career and the balanced realism that would later become his forte.” It was preserved by the Academy Film Archive in 2005 with funding from the Film Foundation and Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege (2006)
Produced and directed by Puhipau and Joan Lander of Na Maka o ka ‘Aina, this documentary about the dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii examines the development vs. ecological preservation battle between scientists who use its summit as an astronomical observatory and Hawaiians who want the mountain preserved as a cultural landscape sacred to locals.
For a few years beginning in the late 1940s, Lupino, Hollywood’s only female director of the period, made a series of distinctive films that spoke to the public’s desire, she stated, “to see something that fits in with their own concepts of the way people actually live in the world and the problems they must meet and overcome.” In Outrage, an unblinking examination of the traumatic effects of rape on a vulnerable young woman, Lupino, an actress of consummate grace and power, masterfully employed sound and silence, light and shadow, depth of field and cutting, camera movement and careful framing to cinematically capture the psychological impact of her character’s shattered world. Inspired by a question that Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini posed to her at a party — “When are you going to make pictures about ordinary people, in ordinary situations?” — Lupino, along with husband Collier Young, associate producer Malvin Wald and cinematographer Archie Stout, created a series of low-budget impactful films with newfound talent, like Mala Powers, star of Outrage. Lupino’s films, Martin Scorsese has observed, “addressed the wounded soul and traced the slow, painful process of women trying to wrestle with despair and reclaim their lives.”
Even by DreamWorks standards, the charm and magic of Shrek seemed extraordinary upon its initial release almost 20 years ago — and its power has yet to diminish in the intervening years. With this story of a green-skinned, solitude-loving ogre who embarks on a noble quest, alongside his new friend, a lovable donkey, the film manages to be both a sendup of fairy tale tropes and an affectionate tribute to them. Entertaining and emotionally impactful at levels to be appreciated by children as well as adults, Shrek was a mega-hit upon its release and has been followed by three enchanting sequels, a TV holiday special and a Broadway adaption. Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz lead the strong voice cast.
During the 1910s, female directors played a prominent role in the development of film as an art form. Chief among them was Lois Weber, who was recognized alongside directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Her films often touched on controversial social issues such as poverty and contraception. In a 1913 Photoplay interview, Weber spoke of her desire to create movies “that will have an influence for good on the public mind.” Wrote film historian David Bordwell: “In this short, a wife and her baby are alone in an isolated house when a tramp breaks in. As the wife tries to keep the invader at bay, her husband happens to telephone and learn what’s happening. He scrambles to return home. He steals an idle car, and its owner, accompanied by police, race after him. We cut rapidly between the besieged mother and the husband’s frantic drive as he is in turn pursued. Just as the tramp is about to attack the wife, the husband bursts in, followed by the police. The family is saved. This is the plot of Suspense, co-directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley. If the plot sounds familiar, it’s probably because you know that one of D.W. Griffith’s most famous films, The Lonely Villa (1909), tells the same basic tale. So Weber and Smalley are reviving an old idea. Their task is to make it fresh. How they do so has been studied in depth by Charlie Keil in his book Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking, 1907-1913.”
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
With this film, director Melvin Van Peebles touched off a wave of imitative Black features, few of which matched his startling originality and fierce attacks. The story of a male “performer” at a ghetto bordello and his run from the law, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song shrewdly mixes commercial ingredients and ideological intent. “It would be difficult to underestimate Melvin Van Peebles’ achievement in producing, directing, writing, scoring and starring in this film, not to mention financing it with the salary he had earned while directing Watermelon Man (1970),” wrote Steven Higgins in Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of the Museum of Modern Art. “Not since Oscar Micheaux had an African American filmmaker taken such complete control of the creative process, turning out a work so deeply connected to his own personal and cultural reality that he was not surprised when the white critical establishment professed bewilderment upon its release. Filled with enough sex, rage and violence to earn it an X rating, the success of the film depends less on its story of a superstud running from the police than it does on its disinterest in referencing white culture and its radically new understanding of how style and substance inform each other.” MoMA has preserved the film from its original camera negative.
Often called the “Black Woodstock,” this documentary from Memphis’ Stax Records stands as far more than simply a great concert film. Wattstax chronicles a renowned 1972 Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum concert and celebrates a Black community’s rebirth after the tragedy of the Watts riots a few years earlier. Richard Pryor’s knowing monologues frame and serve as a Shakespearean musing on race relations and Black American life alongside the incisive comments from people on the streets. Wattstax also features dazzling music highlights from artists such as Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers, capped by Rufus Thomas dancing the Funky Chicken in hot pants.
With Car and Camera Around the World (1929)
Filmed from 1922-29, this documented the expeditions of Walter Wanderwell and Aloha Wanderwell Baker, the first woman to travel around the world by car. The couple, along with a crew of volunteers, crisscrossed dozens of countries in a caravan of Ford Model Ts, filming people, cultures and historical landmarks on 35mm film. Learning the filmmaking craft along the way, Aloha served as camera assistant, cinematographer, editor, actress, screenwriter, interpreter, driver, negotiator and, at times, director. The Academy has preserved edited and unedited shots from With Car and Camera Around the World in addition to a few sequences and outtakes from other films, including The Last of the Bororos (1931), The River of Death (1934) and To See the World by Car (1937).
What do you make of this year’s selection of films to make it into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry? Are there any films in particular you are happy to see get the “forever” treatment? Which films do you think don’t quite deserve the historic honor? And which films would you bestow the honor upon if given the opportunity? Sound off in the comments below and let me and the rest of the movie loving world know your thoughts!