The National Film Registry: 25 Titles for 2016

National Film Registry

At 3:13 a.m. on December 14, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and National Film Preservation Board Coordinator Stephen Leggett posted a list of the 25 movies inducted into the National Film Registry for 2016. Though these annual additions are not anticipated with the same excitement that surrounds the Golden Globe or Oscar nominations, they represent a yearlong dialogue among filmmakers, historians, archivists, critics and other film lovers who treasure cinema history and its preservation. Ms. Hayden affirmed the importance of this selection of movies from all genres and periods, stating, “Motion pictures document our history and culture and serve as a mirror of our collective experiences. The National Film Registry embraces the richness and diversity of film as an art form and celebrates the people who create the magic of cinema.” (Appointed by President Obama,  Hayden is the first woman and the first African-American appointed as Librarian of Congress; this past October meeting of the NFPB was Hayden's first. )

Here (in alphabetical order) are 2016's entries:

  1. Atomic Café, The (1982)
  2. Ball of Fire (1941)
  3. Beau Brummels, The (1928)
  4. Birds, The (1963)
  5. Blackboard Jungle (1955)
  6. Breakfast Club, The (1985)
  7. Decline of Western Civilization, The (1981)
  8. East of Eden (1955)
  9. Funny Girl (1968)
  10. Life of an American Fireman (1903)
  11. Lion King, The (1994)
  12. Lost Horizon (1937)
  13. Musketeers of Pig Alley, The (1912)
  14. Paris Is Burning (1990)
  15. Point Blank (1967)
  16. Princess Bride, The (1987)
  17. Putney Swope (1969)
  18. Rushmore (1998)
  19. Solomon Sir Jones Films, The Rev. (1924-28)
  20. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
  21. Suzanne, Suzanne (1982)
  22. Thelma & Louise (1991)
  23. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)
  24. A Walk in the Sun (1945)
  25. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

With these additions, the National Film Registry now includes more than 700 titles. The first list, announced in 1989, included The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo, Sunrise, Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind and Nanook of the North, a sampling of the wealth of cinema awaiting acknowledgement and preservation. Five of the titles chosen in 2016, among them Steamboat Bill, Jr., are from the silent era, a short period that has been consistently represented on the list every year.

Steamboat Bill Jr

The latest silent-film selections also include D.W. Griffith’s short The Musketeers of Pig Alley, a seminal work that lays claim to being the first “gangster” film. It stars 19-year-old Lillian Gish, who made more than a dozen movies in 1912, her first year acting for Mr. Griffith. A restored version of The Musketeers of Pig Alley (featuring a piano score by Ben Model) can be viewed through Jan. 13 on the Museum of Modern Art website. (If you want to view it after that date, check out this lower-rez version on YouTube.)

The other silent films chosen by the board in 2016 were Life of an American Fireman, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Rev. Solomon Sir Jones Films.

The NFPB has 44 members and alternate members from varying disciplines — academic, archival, critical and historical — and also includes some current filmmakers. Among the latter,  Stephanie Allain and I represent the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences; Caleb Deschanel and Bradford Young represent the ASC and the International Cinematographers Guild; Martin Scorsese and Chris Nolan represent the Directors Guild of America, and Richard Wesley and Howard A. Rodman represent the Writers Guild of America. The current chairman of the board is the American Film Institute's John Ptak, who succeeded the late, beloved Roger Mayer.

We make our selections through several rounds of balloting, followed by an open discussion at the Library of Congress in October. The board’s mandate states in part:

As its primary mission, the Board works to ensure the survival, conservation and increased public availability of America’s film heritage, including: advising the Librarian on the annual selection of films to the National Film Registry, and counseling the Librarian on ongoing development and implementation of the national film preservation plan.

With the 2016 announcement, the board also included a statement about the crucial importance of preserving film on film:

The National Film Preservation Board continued to focus much of its attention this year on the recognition of photochemical film as a distinct medium. Emerging digital technologies offer many alternative opportunities in capture and exhibition, but the board encourages the preservation of film on film. It also applauds those efforts in education and exhibition that stimulate an appreciation of the work of the archives in preserving our classic cinema. 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.

This statement is critical to film-preservation efforts, as there is still no truly archival digital system that has the lifespan and proven reliability of motion-picture film.

I was pleased that several titles I have recommended for years were voted into the registry in 2016. This was especially true of John Boorman’s first American film, Point Blank, an avatar of the embryonic American New Wave that was to swamp the studio system within a few years.

Point Blank

Point Blank anticipated many of the editorial and sound techniques of America’s maverick and auteurist cinema of the 1970s. Its stunning hard-light cinematography by veteran Phil Lathrop was both a retro nod to the black-and-white noir work of Nick Musaraca and John Alton and a harbinger of films like Chinatown. The scene showing Lee Marvin walking through a passenger tunnel at LAX contains many of the New Wave tropes to come:

Several titles selected in 2016 were nominated many times in the past, including Porter’s Life of an American Fireman, which can be found in multiple iterations on YouTube. Here is one with a limpid piano score:

Also added to the list in 2016 was Robert Downey Sr.’s darkly sardonic satire Putney Swope, with Arnold Johnson as the title character hell-bent on disrupting the status quo — not a bad analogue for what may face us after Jan. 20. Here is a short mashup of some of the film’s one-liners:

Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun is a modest war movie with little of the large-scale action featured in many World War II films of the era. There is lots of footage of grunts walking, chatting and thinking; Pfc. Windy Craven’s voice-over letter to his sister is one of my favorite memories. (Milestone also directed an iconic war film, All Quiet on the Western Front, which was selected for inclusion in the registry in 1990.) The title song for A Walk in the Sun, sung by African-American bass/baritone Kenneth Lee Spencer, anticipates the title ballad for High Noon in its narrative and dramatic richness. Here is the title sequence with its all-star-cast vignettes:

One of rewards of being on the NFPB is seeing how obscure film materials can find a place in the registry because of their historic and cultural significance. Many of these are brought to our attention by Library of Congress staff and researchers. Last year this sense of discovery was the case with a group of 16mm home movies made by a Baptist minister, Solomon Sir Jones, in Oklahoma during the 1920s. He started making them just two years after the infamous Tulsa Race Riots. The films have been preserved by the Yale University Beinecke Library, whose website describes the project as follows:

Yale University’s collection of Solomon Sir Jones films consists of 29 silent black-and-white films documenting African-American communities in Oklahoma from 1924 to 1928. They contain 355 minutes of footage shot with then-new 16mm cameras. The films document a rich tapestry of everyday life: funerals, sporting events, schools, parades, businesses, Masonic meetings, river baptisms, families at home, African-American oil barons and their wells, black colleges, Juneteenth celebrations and a transcontinental footrace. Jones also documented his travels.

A copy of the footage has also been deposited in the National Museum of African-American History & Culture, which has posted this 10-minute excerpt:

Another surprise was the 1916 feature-length adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which also draws upon plot elements from the author’s Mysterious Island. The multi-skein plot, which crosscuts among three stories (one aboard the submarine Nautilus, one on the ocean floor and one on a tropical island), is too confusing to recount. This Capt. Nemo bears no resemblance in look or behavior to James Mason of the classic 1954 Disney telling. Instead, director Stuart Paton cast actor Alan Holubar as a geriatric, emaciated, Santa Claus-costumed Ahab bent on avenging the disappearance of his daughter, who was (as we see in a lush, India-set flashback near the end of the movie) a potentate named Prince Dakkar. When Nemo discovers that his lost daughter is a wild child on the island, his reunification with her is so stressful that he dies, and the submarine goes to a watery grave.

There are several versions of this silent film on YouTube, and the one without any score has the best resolution. If the feature-length silence is too daunting, you can see the significant underwater sequences of coral beds, giant mackerels, sharks and sailors in diving costumes starting at the 30-minute mark. Nemo assembles his shipwrecked “prisoners” and shows them the underwater vistas through the submarine’s “magic window.” This movie was an elaborate production for the modest and then new Universal Studio, and the Indian temple scenes of the last act are every bit as ambitious as those of Lubitsch’s 1922 magnum opus, The Loves of Pharaoh.

The Library of Congress provides some background information for each of the 2016 additions here.

The road to inclusion in the National Film Registry is full of the anomalies of any juried or judged ranking. Another film selected for 2016, The Atomic Café, seems not just a nostalgic record of Cold War standoffs, but also a cautionary, still relevant warning of the dangers of nuclear saber rattling as we approach a turnover in our nation's top executive office. The decision to include The Breakfast Club in the NFR might lead one to wonder about The Big Chill, still not included, as both films are considered important generational anthems.

My own wish list includes two films released in 1963: Kenneth Anger’s visionary and hallucinatory gay motorcycle epic Scorpio Rising and Martin Ritt’s Hud, starring Paul Newman. As different in style and theme as you can possibly imagine, it seems to me that these two films represent two poles of the American male psyche.

It's also worth noting that the titles selected for the National Film Registry do not represent an elitist’s harvest — the Library of Congress also solicits nominations (up to 50 titles) from the moviegoing public. You can find the nomination form for 2017 here and a helpful list of “notable” titles not yet nominated here. Join in the process of preserving our cinema history.

East of Eden

NEXT: The Academy's Foreign-Language Film Shortlist

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