Great films selected for the National Film Registry

As happens every December, the National Film Registry adds 25 films to its list of movies that have historical, artistic, or cultural significance. This year, the new honorees include a Star Wars flick, two concert films, and the beginning of The Lord of the Rings.

Here’s the list in chronological order, from 1902 to 2008. I haven’t seen all of these. Some I’ve seen decades ago and don’t remember them much. So I’m only writing about the films that I can honestly
write about.

Ringling Brothers Parade Film (1902)

Jubilo (1919)

The Flying Ace (1926)

The Norman Film Manufacturing Company made movies with Black casts and for African-American audiences. All but The Flying Ace are lost. This run-of-the-mill, extremely low-budget murder mystery disappointed me. The cast lacked talent and charisma, except for the hero’s one-legged comic-relief sidekick. He could outrun most two-legged villains and bicycle as fast as a car (and no, I’m not going to describe one-legged bicycling). The movie redeems itself—somewhat—in the final chase. I give it a C+.

Hellbound Train (1930)

Flowers and Trees (1932)

I like this short Disney cartoon, but it’s no masterpiece. What makes it important? It was the first three-color cartoon. Before that, color movies lacked the color blue. (I don’t grade shorts.)

6. Strangers on a Train (1951)

One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychopath (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his philandering wife, while the psycho thinks he’s owed a murder. I give it an A.

7. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

8. Evergreen (1965)

9. Requiem-29 (1970)

10. The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)

Documentary filmmakers sometimes get more than they wished for. Howard Alk and Mike Gray were filming the rise of Black Panthers in Chicago when its founder, Fred Hampton, was shot dead in his bed during a police raid. Alk and Gray then turned their documentary into an examination of an extrajudicial execution. I haven’t seen this 1971 film, so I’m not giving it a grade.

11. Pink Flamingos (1972)

12. Sounder (1972)

13. The Long Goodbye (1973)

Screenwriter Leigh Brackett and director Robert Altman updated Raymond Chandler’s novel and put Philip Marlowe into the 1970s. Marlowe (Elliott Gould) still lives in a crummy apartment, but now he has a bunch of hippie chicks next door, constantly offering him brownies. The movie starts as a comedy, with Marlow trying to find the only cat food his feline will eat, but it soon turns into a labyrinth of fear and violence. A not-yet-famous Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up briefly. I give it an A-. Read my Blu-ray review.

14. Cooley High (1975)

15. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)

16. Chicana (1979)

17. The Wobblies (1979)

18. Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983)

The final chapter of the first and best Star Wars trilogy manages to merge the fun of A New Hope and the darkness of The Empire Strikes Back. The first half hour gives us a fun subplot where a more mature, more confident Luke gets to buckle his swash. It climaxes with three simultaneous fights: one of these is so much fun you can ignore that it’s ridiculous. Another is a revisit of the first film’s climax. Finally there’s the moral struggle where the issue isn’t who can kill their enemies but who can master their emotions and turn away from violence. It closes with the happiest of endings. I give it an A-, although I have to wonder which version of the film will be restored and saved. I’d vote for original. You can read my thoughts on the whole trilogy.

19. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

20. Stop Making Sense (1984)

Great films can affect you in different ways. Some make you laugh, cry, or think. But the Talking Heads concert movie, Stop Making Sense, makes you want to jump out of your seat and dance (problematic when you’re in reserved seats and you’re expected to keep a distance). More than any other concert film I’ve seen, Stop Making Sense is a visual experience. The band is constantly dancing, moving in strange ways that look like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Read my A+ appreciation.

21. Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987)

22. The Watermelon Woman (1996)

23. Selena (1997)

24. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

25. Wall-E (2008)

Andrew Stanton and Pixar made a courageous movie. When Disney finances your big-budget family entertainment, it takes guts to look closely and critically at our consumer culture, obesity, and planetary destruction. Making an almost dialog-free film also took a fair amount of backbone. WALL-E wimps out in the third act–which is both disappointing and probably inevitable–and while that diminishes Stanton’s achievement, it doesn’t destroy it. Read my full review and my report on the Sound of Wall-E . I give this exceptional cartoon a A-.