Today the Librarian of Congress announced the 2019 additions to the National Film Registry, a list of films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” that are earmarked for preservation by the Library of Congress. These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring importance to American culture. They reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.
This year’s inductees include:
Milos Forman directed this deeply absorbing, visually sumptuous film based on the lives and rivalry of two great classical composers — the brash, youthful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the good, if not truly exceptional, Antonio Salieri. Based upon Peter Shaffer’s highly successful play, which Shaffer personally rewrote for the screen, “Amadeus,” though ostensibly about classical music, instead shines as a remarkable examination of the concept of genius (Mozart) as well as the jealous obsession from less-talented rivals (Salieri). In an Oscar-winning performance, F. Murray Abraham skillfully lays bare the tortured emotions (admiration and covetous envy) Salieri feels for Mozart’s work: “This was the music I had never heard…It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God. Why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?”
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Before Stonewall, 1984
In 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. After years of harassment, this infamous act proved a tipping point and led to three days of riots. The Stonewall riots are credited with launching the modern gay civil rights movement in the U.S. Narrated by Rita Mae Brown, “Before Stonewall” provides a detailed look at the history and making of the LGBTQ community in 20th-century America through archival footage and interviews with those who felt compelled to live secret lives during that period. Elements, prints and a new 2016 digital cinema package are held in the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project Collection at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Body and Soul, 1925
One of the truly unique pioneers of cinema, African-American producer/director/writer/distributor Oscar Micheaux somehow managed to get nearly 40 films made and seen despite facing racism, lack of funding, the capricious whims of local film censors and the independent nature of his work. Most of Micheaux’s films are lost to time or available only in incomplete versions, with the only extant copies of some having been located in foreign archives. Nevertheless, what remains shows a fearless director with an original, daring and creative vision. Film historian Jacqueline Stewart says Micheaux’s films, though sometimes unpolished and rough in terms of acting, pacing and editing, brought relevant issues to the black community including “the politics of skin color within the black community, gender differences, class differences, regional differences especially during this period of the Great Migration.” For “Body and Soul,” renaissance man Paul Robeson, who had gained some fame on the stage, makes his film debut displaying a blazing screen presence in dual roles as a charismatic escaped convict masquerading as a preacher and his pious brother. The George Eastman Museum has restored the film from a nitrate print, producing black-and-white-preservation elements and later restoring color tinting using the Desmet method.
Boys Don’t Cry, 1999
Director Kimberly Peirce made a stunning debut with this searing docudrama based on the infamous 1993 case of a young Nebraska girl who elects to live as a transgender man, but is brutally raped and murdered (along with two other people) in a small Nebraska town. Released a year after the killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, the film brought the issue of hate crimes clearly into the American public spotlight. Sometimes compared to Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” “Boys” raised issues that are still relevant 20 years later: intolerance, prejudice, the lack of opportunity in small towns, conceptions of self, sexual identity, diversity and cultural, sexual and social mores. New York Times’ critic Janet Maslin lauded the film for not taking the usual plot routes: “Unlike most films about mind-numbing tragedy, this one manages to be full of hope.” Several things helped create that result, particularly the performance of 22-year-old Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar as the trans Brandon.
A hilarious, in-your-face, bawdy-yet-provocative look at two sardonic young slackers (Dante and Randal). One toils as a New Jersey convenience store clerk while his alter-ego video store friend works when the mood strikes him. At 23 years old, Kevin Smith made his debut film for $27,000, reportedly financed by selling his comic book collection and using proceeds from when his car was lost in a flood. This sleeper hit helped define an era, grossed over $3 million, achieved prominent cult status among Generations X to Z, and easily garnered the most public votes in this year’s National Film Registry balloting. Critic Roger Ebert described “Clerks” as “utterly authentic” with “the attitude of a gas station attendant who tells you to check your own oil. It’s grungy and unkempt, and Dante and Randal look like they have been nourished from birth on beef jerky and Cheetos. They are tired and bored, underpaid and unlucky in love, and their encounters with customers feel like a series of psychological tests.”
Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980
The exceptional life of country music legend Loretta Lynn is traced in this classic biopic documenting her unlikely ascent as a child bride from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, to superstar singer and songwriter. Never shying away from Lynn’s professional and personal struggles, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” helped set the standard for every musical biography that has followed it. Sissy Spacek earned an Academy Award for her deeply heartfelt and true-to-life performance in the lead role. She is matched by her co-stars Tommy Lee Jones as Lynn’s husband “Doo” and Beverly D’Angelo as Lynn’s mentor, the late Patsy Cline.
Employees Entrance, 1933
During the bleak era of the Depression, film studios scrambled to find various types of “escapist” fare to take people’s minds off their hard life struggles and get audiences into theaters: musicals, lighthearted comedies and melodramas with big stars. “Employees Entrance,” a superb pre-Production Code film about the machinations in a New York department store, effectively captures real urban tensions during the Depression. Key is Warren Williams’ devastating characterization of the store’s general manager, whose system shows not a trace of the smiling manager. He’s always superb as a charismatic, shyster professional, is obsessed with being successful, callously dismissing longtime, non-productive employees and demanding that his assistants not succumb to women. Warner Bros films of the 1930s are renowned for being fast-paced, quickly made, relatively short features (55-75 minutes) with whip-smart dialogue. “Employees Entrance” remains one of the studio’s best.
Based on the Broadway play and also staged under the title “Angel Street,” MGM’s “Gaslight” is the story of a Victorian woman who is slowly going mad — or is she? Ingrid Bergman won her first Oscar for her spellbinding performance in the lead role while Charles Boyer skates the precarious edge between romantic hero and devious villain. They were ably assisted by Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty and, in her film debut, Angela Lansbury as a cockney maid. Expertly directed by George Cukor, the film remains as suspenseful as the day it was made, just as the term “gaslighting” remains firmly within our cultural lexicon.
The Fog of War, 2003
Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara is the sole focus of documentarian Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, a film that not only analyzes McNamara’s controversial decisions during the first half of the Vietnam War, but also his childhood upbringing, his education at Berkeley and Harvard, his involvement in World War II, and his later years as president of the World Bank. Culling footage from almost 20 hours of interviews with the Secretary, Morris details key moments from McNamara’s career, including the 1945 bombing of Tokyo, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and President Kennedy’s suggestions to the Secretary that the U.S. remove itself from Vietnam. Throughout the film, the 85-year-old McNamara expounds his philosophies on international conflict, and shows regret and pride in equal measure for, respectively, his mistakes and accomplishments.
I am Somebody, 1970
Madeline Anderson’s documentary brings viewers to the front lines of the civil rights movement during the 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike, when black female workers marched for fair pay and union recognition. Anderson personally participated in the strike, along with such notable figures as Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, all affiliated with Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Anderson’s film shows the courage and resiliency of the strikers and the support they received from the local black community. It is an essential filmed record of this important moment in the history of civil and women’s rights. The film is also notable as arguably the first documentary on civil rights directed by a woman of color, solidifying its place in American film history.
The Last Waltz, 1978
Martin Scorsese’s documentary is a homage to the epic 1976 Thanksgiving farewell concert by The Band at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Performances include Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, the Staple Singers, Emmylou Harris and others. As Robertson recounts: “We had to play 21 songs with other artists, going from Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell. …We played this five-hour concert and we didn’t make a mistake.” Some believe this concert marked the beginning of the end of the classic rock era.
A New Leaf, 1971
Elaine May became the first woman to write, direct and star in a major American studio feature with “A New Leaf.” Critics loved the comedic confrontations of the film’s two cartoon-like eccentrics, played with uncommon understatement by May, as a socially inept but wealthy botanist heiress, and Walter Matthau as a conniving and murderous misanthrope in pursuit of her fortune. Their encounters reminded reviewers of the droll sensibility that made the legendary Mike Nichols and Elaine May satiric sketches created years earlier for nightclubs and records so appealing. For “A New Leaf,” May drew on classic Hollywood comedy traditions of Depression-era screwball comedy and slapstick. Despite a failed lawsuit by May to have her name removed from the credits because the released version did not match her vision of the film, audiences flocked to it and the film has become a cult classic. May’s conflicts with Hollywood studios continued, eventually ending her career as a feature film director in 1987. After recently winning a 2019 Tony Award for best actress in a play, she has been slated to direct a new feature film at age 87.
Old Yeller, 1957
Stories of boys and their dogs have long been fodder for films and books, but none has ever resonated more strongly with the public than this 1957 adaptation of the Fred Gipson novel. Produced by Disney, which knew how to touch the hearts of moviegoers with both laughter and tears, the beloved film was directed by Robert Stevenson and stars Fess Parker, Dorothy McGuire and Tommy Kirk. Few movie endings have ever proved as emotionally affecting as the conclusion of “Old Yeller.”
The Phenix City Story, 1955
Film noir comes to Alabama in this ripped-from-the-headlines tale in a film based on notorious real-life 1954 events, Albert Patterson is an attorney trying to clean up his mob-controlled town — Phenix City, aka “Sin City, U.S.A.” — and is killed while running for state attorney general. Tight, tense and graphic for all 100 of its minutes, the film has been lauded for being both stylish and for its semi-documentary style. Noted B-movie director Phil Carlson crafted this low-budget, violent shocker, using innovative camera work, which unnerved audiences not accustomed to seeing so much on-screen violence. In real life, the infamous murder quickly led the state to break up the crime syndicate, and Patterson’s son eventually became state attorney general and the governor of Alabama. The 87-minute film was also released in a longer version, which included a 13-minute newsreel.
Eschewing the rah-rah fiction of many Hollywood war movies, always-fearless director Oliver Stone created “Platoon” based upon his own experiences in Vietnam. Stone intended the film to show the malignancy of war and to serve as an important counterpoint to earlier heroic depictions of the Vietnam conflict, most notably John Wayne’s “The Green Berets.” Actor Charlie Sheen stands in for the real-life Stone, ably assisted by a cast including Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. The memorable soundtrack features visceral, haunting use of Samuel Barber’s elegiac “Adagio for Strings.”
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Purple Rain, 1984
By 1984, Prince was already being hailed by critics and fans as one of the greatest musical geniuses of his generation. This post-modern musical secured his place as a movie star and entertainment legend. Largely autobiographical, “Purple Rain” showcased the late, great showman as a young Minneapolis musician struggling to bring his revolutionary brand of provocative funk rock to the masses. The film’s soundtrack includes such decade-defining tracks as “When Doves Cry” and the title song. The film’s multi-platinum soundtrack previously was named to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.
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Real Women Have Curves, 2002
Before gaining stardom a few years later in the TV series “Ugly Betty,” 18-year-old America Ferrera made her film debut and gained notice from critics in this coming-of-age tale as an impossible-to-resist Latina teen trying to fulfill her dreams while navigating the transition to adulthood. Charming and funny, the film (thanks to director Patricia Cardoso) avoids heavy-handedness by taking a refreshingly subtle look at themes including mother-daughter relationships, the immigrant experience, the perception of feminine beauty and body standards.
She’s Gotta Have It, 1986
The distinct voice and cinematic talent of Spike Lee first became evident thanks to this indie classic. “She’s Gotta Have It” tells the story of a confident, single black woman (in itself something of a breakthrough) pursued by three different African-American men — and who isn’t sure she wants any of them. More than 30 years later, this landmark work remains as vital, vibrant, charming and streetwise as it was at first release, a harbinger of Lee’s enduring and visionary career as filmmaker. Lee also appears in the film as the memorable Mars.
Sleeping Beauty, 1959
The story of the sleeping princess Aurora, awakened by a kiss, already was widely known to theater audiences. But Disney transformed this timeless fable from the original Charles Perrault fairy tale (“The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood”) and The Brothers Grimm (“Little Briar-Rose”) by tweaking plot elements and characters (such as the number and role of the fairies), as well as with the film’s magnificent score. Along with its vivid images and charming details, the film introduced movie audiences to one of Disney’s most enduring villainesses — Maleficent (voiced in the 1959 film by Eleanor Audley). “Beauty” was the last of classic animated fairy-tale adaptations produced by Walt Disney, whose influence suffuses the film.
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Zoot Suit, 1981
Innovative in its presentation, which is largely a filmed stage play, director Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” relates the real-life story of Los Angeles’ 1942 “Sleepy Lagoon Murder” and the racially charged “Zoot Suit Riots” that occurred in its wake. A highly stylized musical, the film nevertheless retains the power of its source material. Daniel Valdez, Edward James Olmos, Charles Aidman and Tyne Daly make up the cast while the music is supplied by Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero, considered the father of Chicano music, among others.
Also added to the registry: Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island, 1903, George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, 1937, Becky Sharp, 1935, Girlfriends, 1978, My Name Is Oona, 1969.