Which American Films Deserve to Be Preserved in Perpetuity?

filmmaker shooting smoky scene

A production still from These Amazing Shadows. Independent Lens will rebroadcast this entertaining documentary on Christmas Eve. Check local listings.

Last night, Anatomy of a Murder was on cable into the wee hours, and since I couldn’t sleep thanks to a combination of a touch of the flu and the raging storm outside, I curled up on the couch next to my yellow Lab and watched.

I expected sleep to get the better of me long before it was over at 4:30 a.m., but the gripping courtroom Otto Preminger drama would have none of that. The 1959 classic is one arguably Preminger’s best film, and probably one of the best movies of its genres ever made. There’s no leaving that film ‘til the closing credits.

So this morning, a bit groggy, I sat down to write about the Independent Lens rebroadcast of These Amazing Shadows, which airs on Christmas Eve (check local listings). It’s a delightful, engaging documentary about America’s most beloved films and their preservation by the Library of Congress.

poster-these-amazing-shadowsThese Amazing Shadows explores the process of how these films are selected and why it’s critical to preserve the nation’s celluloid history. Thanks to the 1988 National Film Preservation Act, each year the Librarian of Congress – with input from the public and advice from the National Film Preservation Board – names 25 films to the National Film Registry. These cinematic treasures are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. They must be at least 10 years old to be nominated. The oldest film is from 1897.

This year’s selection of films was just announced, and that brings the number of Registry films to a nice, round 600. Guess which film is high on the list? Hint: It’s high on the list in part because it’s in alphabetical order. Another hint: I didn’t mention the Preminger film only because I’m hallucinatory with fatigue.

If you guessed Anatomy of a Murder,  bravo! Looks like I’m not the only one riveted by this real-life-based drama. Among the other films selected for the 2012 National Film Registry are Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Dirty Harry (1971), and the Laurel and Hardy favorite, Sons of the Desert (1933).

Here’s a complete list of Registry films so far. Are your favorites on there? If not, tell us what films you think should be selected. You can really let your voice be heard, and nominate your favorite films for next year. Your opinion does count. Check out this list of some beloved American films not yet selected for the Registry for some ideas if you’re coming up blank.

Remember, the films don’t have to be considered the greatest films ever in order to be on the list. “These films are not selected as the best American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring importance to American culture,” says Librarian of Congress James M. Billington. “They reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.”

Independent Lens recently asked These Amazing Shadows filmmakers Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton which two films they think should make the list. Mind you, this was before the latest list was mentioned. Turns out Mariano chose one that actually made the list last week.

Mariano wanted to see The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) chosen, “because it speaks to and represents such an important historical time and cultural movement in our society.” That wish came true with last week’s announcement. He also hopes Two for the Road (1967) can make a future list, “because it is one of my all-time personal favorite films, starring Audrey Hepburn and directed by a master…Stanley Donen, who (although he already has two films on the Registry) deserves a third.”

Ken Norton would like Key Largo (1948) to be selected, “because it is a story that offers moral complexity and moral decisions in ways that are mostly absent from contemporary films. The beautiful performances by Edward Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and many others combined with John Huston’s fine direction produces a melodrama of great atmosphere and humanity that easily satisfies the National Film Registry’s standards of cultural, historical and aesthetic value,” Norton says.

His other top selection is The Princess Bride (1987). “It’s one of those films that has had a huge impact on a particular generation – the so-called Millennial Generation – and has also become part of pop culture in general (it’s endlessly quotable seemingly for all occasions),” says Norton. “Its cultural and aesthetic value comes from the combining of classic romantic adventure storytelling with a wit and wicked edge rarely seen and successfully pulled off.”

Tell us: Which films would you want to be preserved in perpetuity?

Be sure to tune in to Independent Lens on Dec. 24 for the rebroadcast of These Amazing Shadows. And if you want to take a super challenging film quiz (Even Roger Ebert had a tough time with it!), check out our really hard film IQ quiz.






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  • dross23

    Maria, Thanks for the coverage of the 2012 National Film Registry and the awesome documentary “These Amazing Shadows.” Hope you and all of your readers will send nominations for the 2013 Registry to dross@loc.gov. Remember, a film must be at least 10 years old and “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

    • Maria Goodavage

      I am excited that regular ol’ people like me have a vote. :) Thanks for the email address to make it even easier!

  • http://twitter.com/OfTwoMindsFilm Of Two Minds

    Hello to all at Independent Lens…I had the great pleasure of co-writing and editing THESE AMAZING SHADOWS with Paul and Kurt, and have gained a great new appreciation for the film preservationists keeping these dreams alive!

    Here are some personal picks I would love to see on the NFR list:

    JUST IMAGINE (1930)

    Lost in the glow of classics like METROPOLIS and THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, this film from the early days of the sound era is the weirdest possible combination of screwball comedy, sci-fi and romance…with very impressive futuristic design elements that compare well to those other classics. Featuring a pre-Tarzan Maureen O’Sullivan and Swedish vaudeville staple Ed Rendel, this world of tomorrow has an atmosphere full of laughing gas, and includes a completely unhinged voyage to Mars, a planet whose towers looks amazingly close to the design of the Emerald City of an OZ yet to come.

    NO DOWN PAYMENT (1958)

    The dark underbelly of Eisenhower-era optimism and conformity, exposed in the booming suburbs of Southern California. This early Martin Ritt film predicts his later social realism, and features a bracing performance by Joanne Woodward as a troubled housewife and a completely surprising role by the late Tony Randall as a man on the edge. The film captures the simmering undercurrents of the angst and claustrophobia that would become the social upheavals of the 1960s, and breaks down the gauzy nostalgia of the 50s.


    This Oscar-winning short by documentarian Ben Shedd witnesses the amazing realization of one of man’s oldest quests…self-powered flight. Dr. Paul MacCready and his team embody the best of an era of American do-it-yourself dreamers that had since led to an age of tiny computers, private space flight and much more, but the simple grace of that soaring homemade pedal-plane speaks to a special moment in time when anything seemed possible.

    • Maria Goodavage

      Doug, These look like absolutely terrific films. I am going to head to Le Video (San Francisco) as soon as possible to rent these. Just Imagine looks especially intriguing and fun! Thanks for your great recommendations!