Highlights of the National Film Registry 2021
Every year the Library of Congress selects a new class of films to be preserved for all-time as a part of the National Film Registry. These are movies which have been deemed historically, artistically, or culturally important to our nation’s cinematic heritage. 2021 as twenty five new films now stand side by side with the likes of Casablanca, Back to the Future, Dracula, Snow White, City Lights and the Wizard of Oz. This year we have a nice mix of big fan favorites, often overlooked gems, and certified classics.
The Flying Ace (1926): With so few prints of this film still in existence it comes as a relief that the Library of Congress will now preserve this movie forever. One of the stand-out pictures of the “race film” era, the Flying Ace features an all African-American cast led by Laurence Criner as Capt. Billy Stokes, an ace fighter pilot during the First World War turned railroad detective. When the company payroll is stolen he is thrust into action and when his top suspect has an aircraft of his own, Stokes has to take to the air again. Years later this movie inspired the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen which led to the forging of a new generation of African American heroes.
Hellbound Train (1930): Eloyce and James Gist were not filmmakers they were evangelists, but they realized the power this new growing artform held. They decided to use the power of cinema to spread their message. The incredibly early example of a Christian scare film, showcases a number of people engaging in sin while Satan (who comes off as surprisingly eerie thanks to the aging of the film) steers a train loaded with souls to Hell. Beyond the actual narrative, the Gist’s captured what life was like in African American communities during this era. During a time of Jim Crow, this no doubt dispelled a number of stereotypes white audiences may have held.
Strangers on a Train (1951): One of the great masterpieces from the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock. A successful tennis player wanting out of his troubled marriage and a psychopath who hates his father meet on a train. After a talk, the psycho convinces his new acquaintance to commit a “swap murder”. He would take care of the promiscuous wife of the tennis player, while the athlete would take care of his father. Given that they were strangers to each other, nobody would be able to tie them to the respective murders. Of course things do not go as planned and the smooth-talking psycho plans to ruin the life of his train-riding compatriot. Strangers on a Train stands as a gripping masterpiece and showcases Hitchcock at the top of his game.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962): One of the great groundbreaking films of the psychological horror genre, which played on the real rivalry of its stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Years ago “Baby Jane” Hudson was a child star on vaudeville but she had nothing on her sister Blanche, a movie star until an “accident” left her wheelchair bound. Now they are old women living in a dusty old mansion with Blanche at the mercy her resentful sister. Jane launches a campaign of psychological abuse and torment against her sister keeping her locked in rooms and trying to feed her rats. As her power over her more successful sister grows, the former child star descends further into insanity.
The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971): During the Civil Rights movement, Fred Hampton rose to prominence as a leader in the Black Panthers which naturally put him at odds with authorities on both a local and federal level. In 1969 he was killed during a raid conducted by the Chicago PD with secretive assistance from the FBI. In 1971 Howard Alk and Mike Gray sought to explore the life of Hampton as well as a the conspiracy to murder him made at the highest level. This powerful documentary not only profiles one of the leaders in the fight for equality but also shows how far our government is willing to go to maintain a broken social system.
Sounder (1972): In a time when African American cinema was built around low budget action, horror, and crime films, this adaptation of a book by William H. Armstrong gave moviegoers a powerful and emotionally gripping saga of a family of sharecroppers struggling to make it. Through the eyes of young David Lee we see that his father is arrested for stealing food in order to keep them fed. While he is locked away the responsibility of carrying the Morgan family falls on his mother Rebecca (portrayed in a tour de force performance by Cicely Tyson). When David Lee decides to set out in search of his father he learns about himself and what he is capable of accomplishing. This heartfelt classic easily stands as one of the greatest films of the 1970’s and my full Retro Review of it can be read HERE.
Pink Flamingos (1972): When it comes to fearless, counterculture, clever, “trashy”, controversial cinema few are on the level of the great John Waters. As the first part of his “Trash Trilogy” Pink Flamingos is nothing short of a cult classic. Starring Waters’ frequent collaborator and cult cinema icon Divine plays the “filthiest person alive” and decides to infiltrate the underground of Baltimore under the alias of Babs Johnson. She ends up in a trailer with a clan of eccentric deviants and what follows is a trip down the rabbit hole of cinematic hilarious depravity as John Waters not only pushes the envelope but shoves it off a damn cliff.
The Long Goodbye (1973): Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Phillip Marlowe returned to the big screen and proved he was just as cool of a character in the 70’s as he was in the era of the film noir thanks to the legendary Robert Atlman. Returning from an abrupt trip to Mexico with his friend, Marlowe learns this friend not only committed suicide south of the border but is the prime suspect in the murder of his wife. Strangely his latest case looking for a client’s missing husband, has ties to his friend’s suicide bringing new layers to an already complex situation.
Return of the Jedi (1983): It all led to this, the grand climax of the Star Wars saga (or so we thought for many years). After saving Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt; Luke, Leia, Lando, Chewie and the droids rejoin with the Rebels who have a chance to strike a devastating blow against the Empire by destroying a new Death Star with the Emperor himself onboard. While the others join the military assault on the Imperials, Luke’ conflict with his father Darth Vader finally comes to a head with the fate of the galaxy at stake. Even if there was never a prequel trilogy, Disney trilogy or expanded universe Return of the Jedi stands as a satisfying conclusion to the saga George Lucas masterminded.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Wes Craven’s horror masterpiece made an entire generation afraid to go to sleep. Iconic final girl Nancy and her friends all begin having the same nightmare of a burned man with a razor glove stalking them. As this terrifying man begins to slash the teens to pieces while they slumber helplessly, Nancy learns that this man is Freddy Krueger a child killer the parents of Elm Street burned to death. Now Freddy has returned to take his revenge on the children of those who killed him. In an era of slasher movies focused on gore and T&A, NOES was a scary cerebral film which elevated itself above many of the others in this genre and made a pop culture icon out of Freddy Krueger.
The Watermelon Woman (1996): This indie film from the creative mind of writer/director/actress Cheryl Dunye may have been small but it made a big impact. Cheryl works at a video store where she is fascinated with the often untold stories of black actresses from the 30’s and 40’s often forced into roles of stereotypes. One in particular is Fae Richards who was credited simply as “Watermelon Woman” in a film, inspiring Cheryl to make a documentary about Richards’ life. Cheryl finds evidence that the actress was in a same-sex relationship with a director. As the aspiring documentarian learns more about the life of her hero her relationships in her personal life grow far more complicated and tense. This charming flick deservedly became a critical hit but its frank and realistic depiction of LGBTQ relationships earned scorn from conservative circles and even a narrow-minded member of congress. Striking a blow for equality and being a fantastic film, the Watermelon Woman deserves its spot on the National Film Registry.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): Once thought unfilmable, director Peter Jackson proved everyone wrong when he brought JRR Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece to the big screen. In this first installment of the series, the dark lord Sauron is returning and all he needs is his One Ring to truly conquer Middle Earth. This powerful band of gold has ended up in the unlikeliest of hands, those of the Hobbit Frodo Baggins. As the forces of darkness descend on him Frodo along with his friends Sam, Merry and Pippin seek help from the wizard Gandalf. Seeing the need to unite in the face of Sauron’s threat the Fellowship of the Ring is assembled to help Frodo destroy the ring. With Orcs pursuing them and strife within the group can the Fellowship succeed in saving Middle Earth? To say Lord of the Rings changed the game in fantasy cinema is an understatement and even twenty years (I know….I know) after the fact the influence of this film is still felt.
WALL-E (2008): Leave it to the genius animators at Pixar to make a movie where the protagonist is a small lonely robot who communicates via sound fx and make it one of the most beloved movies of the 21st century. On an earth ravaged by pollution the thankless job of cleaning up our mess falls the small long-suffering robot WALL-E while humanity takes to the stars. When the sleek EVE arrives, WALL-E is smitten with her while all she is concerned about is finding signs of habitable life on the planet. He stows away with her on the luxury spaceliner where the human race has become a sluggish and lazy race. But WALL-E naturally charms whoever he encounters and becomes the unlikely hero of the day. True WALL-E has a message, but it never preaches nor beat people over the head with it, instead the filmmakers allow it to naturally come across through this masterpiece of a film. On a side not feel free to check out a critically acclaimed book where a certain handsome and charming writer for this site contributed the chapter about WALL-E which can be purchased HERE.