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Purple Rain, Amadeus, She’s Gotta Have It and Clerks — this year’s biggest public vote-getter — plus seven films directed by women, including Boys Don’t Cry, are among the latest cinematic treasures chosen for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, it was announced Wednesday.
The list of 25 films picked to be preserved for future generations also includes Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Gaslight (1944), like Boys Don’t Cry starrer Hilary Swank featuring an Oscar-winning best actress performance (by Sissy Spacek and Ingrid Bergman, respectively), and another timeless classic with a great leading lady, Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Four feature documentaries made it — Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody (1970), Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978), Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg’s Before Stonewall (1984) and Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003) — as did Platoon (1986), directed by Oliver Stone; the silent film Body and Soul (1925), starring Paul Robeson; Becky Sharp (1935), starring Miriam Hopkins; Zoot Suit (1981), directed by Luis Valdez; and that classic tearjerker, Old Yeller (1957).
Under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act, the Librarian of Congress each year names 25 motion pictures to the National Film Registry that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. The films must be at least 10 years old.
The 2019 selections span a century of filmmaking — 1903 to 2003 — and bring the number of films in the registry to 775. All the picks are made in conference with members of the National Film Preservation Board and others. Also considered this time around were more than 6,000 titles nominated by the public. (Nominations for 2020 will be accepted through the fall here.)
“The National Film Registry has become an important record of American history, culture and creativity,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement. “Unlike many other honors, the registry is not restricted to a time, place or genre. It encompasses 130 years of the full American cinematic experience — a virtual Olympiad of motion pictures. With the support of Congress, the studios and other archives, we are ensuring that the nation’s cinematic history will be around for generations to come.”
This year’s films helmed by women include Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999); A New Leaf (1971), which made Elaine May the first woman to write, direct and star in a major American studio feature; Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves (2002), starring America Ferrera; Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978), starring Melanie Mayron; and Gunvor Nelson’s My Name Is Oona (1969).
“Twenty years later, it still feels like a miracle that Boys Don’t Cry got made,” Peirce said. “I fell in love with Brandon Teena and his desire to live and love as himself in a time and place where that was impossible. I felt a powerful conviction to bring Brandon to life onscreen, so audiences would love him as I did and share my horror at his rape and murder. To our amazement, the world embraced Brandon.
“It is meaningful to me as a filmmaker, genderqueer and person that the Library of Congress has recognized Boys Don’t Cry. This moment is a culmination; unimaginable and wonderful.”
Here’s a look at this year’s selections, with descriptions supplied by the Library of Congress:
Milos Forman directed this deeply absorbing, visually sumptuous best picture winner 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 on Peter Shaffer’s highly successful play, which Shaffer 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?”
Noted producer Paul Zaentz: “When Amadeus was released, Milos Forman, Peter Shaffer and the Saul Zaentz Co. received hundreds of letters from parents who had to drag their teenage children to the theater, and after the movie their children demanded to go to a record store to purchase recordings of Mozart’s music.”
Becky Sharp (1935)
Hopkins had a long and successful movie career, appearing in many classics, including Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. However, it is as this film’s titular heroine that she received her only Oscar nomination for best actress. Based on Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, Becky is the story of a socially ambitious woman and her destructive climb up the class system. The movie merits historical note as the first feature-length film to use the three-strip Technicolor process, which, even today, gives it a shimmering visual appeal. The lengthy, complicated restoration process of Becky Sharp by the UCLA Film & Television Archive marked one of the earliest archival restorations to garner widespread public attention. Partners in this painstaking effort included the National Telefilm Associates Inc., Fondazione Scuola Nazionale di Cinema, Cineteca Nazionale (Rome), the British Film Institute, The Film Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Paramount and YCM Laboratories. More information can be found here.
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, which 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 pioneers of cinema, African-American producer, director, writer and 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 and regional differences, especially during this period of the Great Migration.” For Body and Soul, renaissance man Robeson, who had gained 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)
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 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 pic 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 Swank as Brandon.
This is 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, 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 more than $3 million, achieved prominent cult status among Generations X to Z and easily garnered the most public votes in this year’s registry balloting. 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. Spacek earned an Oscar 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.
“It means the world to me that the world will know that Coal Miner’s Daughter has been acknowledged as an important and lasting film,” director Michael Apted said. “For a young British director to be given the reins to capture what was truly a deep American subject was beyond rewarding.”
Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)
On July 9, 1903, cinematographer Alfred C. Abadie recorded this short actuality for the Thomas A. Edison Co., which first sold the film of immigrants arriving in New York under the title Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island. The Edison sales catalog called it “a most interesting and typical scene” of the location already well-known as the place where the U.S. government officially processed immigrants. Between 1892-24, millions came to Ellis Island from across Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. Running a little more than two minutes, the Edison film, in three shots, records a ferryboat docking and dozens of passengers stepping onto Ellis Island and parading past the camera in orderly fashion. Ranging in age from elders to infants, most carry a variety of bags, bundles and baskets. Many similar images from the era have become familiar in documentary depictions of American immigration, but Edison’s film, made in the first decade of motion pictures, was the first to record the now-mythologized moment. The footage can be viewed here.
Employees Entrance (1933)
During the bleak era of the Depression, 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, 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 to 75 minutes) with whip-smart dialogue. Employees Entrance remains one of the studio’s best.
The Fog of War (2003)
In his documentary, idiosyncratic filmmaker Morris interrogates Robert Strange McNamara, who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as secretary of defense. Educated and trained as a systems analyst for large organizations, McNamara at age 85 re-examines his fateful role as one of the prime U.S. architects of the Vietnam War. Recounting as well the U.S. incendiary bombing campaign during World War II against 67 Japanese cities that resulted in mass civilian deaths, his role at the Ford Motor Co. in implementing safety features and the defusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis through an empathetic understanding of the enemy, The Fog of War is structured by 11 lessons Morris has drawn from McNamara’s remembrances and ruminations. Historians and reviewers have both praised the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary for revealing in a riveting manner the moral complexities and unresolved nature of McNamara’s understandings and criticized it for its selective presentation of the events discussed.
Based on the Broadway play and also staged under the title Angel Street, the MGM classic is the story of a Victorian woman who is slowly going mad — or is she? Bergman won her first Oscar for her spellbinding performance in the lead, 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.
George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute (1937)
C. Allen Alexander, an African American surgeon from Michigan, convinced George Washington Carver to allow him to shoot 16mm color footage of the famed botanist and inventor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Alexander wisely shot the film using gloriously resilient Kodachrome, ensuring the colors remain stunningly vibrant and rich. The 12 minutes of fascinating amateur footage include scenes of Carver in his apartment, office and laboratory as well as images of him tending flowers and displaying his paintings. Also included is footage of a Tuskegee Institute football game and the school’s marching band and majorettes. The National Archives has digitized the film as part of its multiyear effort to preserve and make available the historically significant film collections of the National Park Service. The footage can be seen here.
On its release, Stanley Kubrick described Weill’s film as “one of the most interesting American films he had seen in a long time.” A fiercely independent, single New York photographer (in a marvelous performance by Mayron) aspires beyond doing bar mitzvahs and weddings and struggles with relationships and city life after her best friend and roommate moves out to get married. Weill critiques the historically prevalent notions of women, marriage and motherhood and the difficulties in pursuing an alternative lifestyle. The film uses deft observation of minor intimate vignettes (one has Mayron’s Susan making a boyfriend pass the “mumps” test) to capture the life of a single woman trying to make a career during the Gloria Steinem-esque era of sexual freedom and the responsibilities and dangers that entails.
I Am Somebody (1970)
Anderson’s documentary brings viewers to the front lines of the civil rights movement during a 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 Jr.’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 also is 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)
Scorsese’s documentary is a homage to the epic 1976 Thanksgiving farewell concert by The Band at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Performers include Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Staple Singers and Emmylou Harris. As The Band’s Robbie 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 didn’t make a mistake.” Some believe this concert marked the beginning of the end of the classic rock era.
My Name Is Oona (1969)
Born in Sweden in 1931, Nelson moved to the U.S. in 1953 before moving back to Sweden in the early 1990s. She taught at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1970-92, influencing a generation of new filmmakers. She carved out a distinctive niche in underground avant-garde American film during the 1960s and ’70s, though Nelson strongly prefers the term “personal cinema.” Much of her work during this period concerns perceptions of feminine beauty. In My Name Is Oona, she paints an expressive portrait of her 9-year-old daughter’s flowing, dreamlike interactions with the forces of nature via experimental techniques such as the superimposition of fleeting images, dynamic editing and slow-motion cinematography. The sublime effect provides a lyrical, 10-minute look into the non-linear, vivid, sometimes wild or scary world of childhood memory and imagination, as well as a child’s halting steps toward self-realization.
A New Leaf (1971)
Critics loved the comedic confrontations of its 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 May-Mike Nichols 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 it has become a cult classic. May’s conflicts with Hollywood studios continued, and she stopped directing features in 1987. After winning a 2019 Tony Award for best actress in a play, she’s slated to direct a new 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 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 this one.
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 (John McIntire) is an attorney trying to clean up his mob-controlled town — Phenix City, aka “Sin City, U.S.A.” — but 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 Karlson crafted this low-budget, violent shocker and used innovative camerawork, which unnerved audiences not accustomed to seeing so much onscreen violence. In real life, the 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 also was released in a longer version, which included a 13-minute newsreel.
Eschewing the rah-rah fiction of many Hollywood war movies, the always fearless Stone created Platoon based on 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. 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.”
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 postmodern 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 multiplatinum soundtrack, named to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2012, includes such decade-defining tracks as “When Doves Cry” and the title song.
“All of us strived to create a film that would capture the attention of what we believed at the time was a small audience. None of us expected this longevity,” said Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli. “We simply worked hard every day to get it right, and this honor is a testament to the music, story and characters that were created by all of us so many years ago.”
Added actress Apollonia Kotero: “As a young Latina actress, being cast in Purple Rain was the opportunity of a lifetime. Roles for women that looked like me were scarce in the ’80s. Prince was never afraid of taking risks. He created a melting pot of cultures and racial interactions within his purple worlds. … Prince would be thrilled [about the registry induction].”
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
Before gaining stardom a few years later in the ABC series Ugly Betty, 18-year-old 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, Cardoso’s film 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 stars Tracy Camilla Johns in he story of a confident, single black woman (in itself something of a breakthrough) pursued by three African American men — and she 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. 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). Along with its vivid images and charming details, the movie introduced audiences to one of Disney’s most enduring villainesses — Maleficent (voiced here by Eleanor Audley). Sleeping Beauty was the last of classic animated fairy-tale adaptations produced by Walt Disney, whose influence suffuses the film.
Zoot Suit (1981)
Innovative in its presentation, which is largely a filmed stage play, Valdez’s film 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, it nevertheless retains the power of its source material. Daniel Valdez, Edward James Olmos, Charles Aidman and Tyne Daly star, while the music is supplied by Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero, considered the father of Chicano music, among others.
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