Thursday, December 21, 2017

2017 National Film Registry

Every year, the Library of Congress chooses 25 films to be entered into the National Film Registry selected "for their historic, artistic, and/or aesthetic importance."

The selection is always diverse, eclectic, sometimes questionable, but does reveal a grand swath of the types of films that can be made with enough money, talent, or just plain passion to see it come to the light of the projector. This year, we have the usual home movie collections, the historically interesting (but crumbling) archival footage, bows to inclusiveness with female and Latino directors, as well as the headline grabbers: films by Cameron, Nolan, Wilder, Hawks, Lee, Kazan, a Disney film, the one movie of Stanley Kubrick's that he didn't like, two by director Richard Donner, two starring Kirk Douglas (age 101 this year) at his best, and two films about sinking boats.

These lists are always such a polyglot of sources that there will always be something to quibble about—heck, I don't like Titanic but it would be foolish not to include that particular film on our Nation's National Film Registry. I have more questions about the selection of Die Hard and The Goonies over that.

As usual with these things, the Library's comments are printed in blazing white in their governmental Helvetica font, and my comments are appropriately dull gray in my standard "Critical Verdana" font.


Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) (1951)Based on the infamous 1925 case of Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins, who became trapped underground and whose gripping saga created a national sensation lasting two weeks before Collins died. A deeply cynical look at journalism, “Ace in the Hole” features Kirk Douglas as a once-famous New York reporter, now a down-and-out has-been in Albuquerque. Douglas plots a return to national prominence by milking the story of a man trapped in a Native American cave dwelling as a riveting human-interest story, complete with a tourist-laden, carnival atmosphere outside the rescue scene.  The callously indifferent wife of the stricken miner is no more sympathetic: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.” Providing a rare moral contrast is Porter Hall, who plays Douglas’ ethical editor appalled at his reporter’s actions. Such a scathing tale of media manipulation might have helped turn this brilliant film into a critical and commercial failure, which later led Paramount to reissue the film under a new title, “The Big Carnival.”

One of my favorite films, probably because it was such a box-office bomb. In my little piece on Ace, I tried to explain why it didn't generate an audience when the previous year's Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard did:  The screenplay, by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, has its ink mixed with venom (the most quoted line is from Minosa's wife (Jan Sterling): "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons."), but it's no worse than the cynical lines from Wilder's previous film, Sunset Boulevard. The difference is Wilder's not looking at the easily-satirized egotism of Hollywood, he's looking at us, and the American capacity to make a buck while wallowing in tragedy. Ace in the Hole is before its time, before the mawkishness and the trivial pursuit of the 24 hour news cycle made the trend easier to spot.

And there's one other thing: Sunset Boulevard's dispassionate cynic was William Holden, "the golden boy," whose snide wise-cracks passed for intelligence. Here, he's Kirk Douglas, who is a more energetic performer, and so that constant cynicism is seen as more of a constant attack that just seems mean-spirited. And where Holden's self-loathing seemed somehow relaxed and noble, Douglas's is never less than actively self-destructive. It's a smarter, more satisfying performance that doesn't try to be likeable, or a wolf in sheep's clothing, but audiences found it repellant (as well they should!). They didn't want their movie-heroes (or anti-heroes) to be too unlikable. So, even though there is no redemption for this character, and no happy ending in sight, the crowds stayed home from The Big Carnival.

That doesn't stop it from being the classic that it is, of Billy Wilder (who famously said "You're only as good as your best movie") in his prime.



Boulevard Nights (1979)    “Boulevard Nights” had its genesis in a screenplay by UCLA student Desmond Nakano about Mexican-American youth and the lowrider culture. Director Michael Pressman and cinematographer John Bailey shot the film in the barrios of East Los Angeles with the active participation of the local community (including car clubs and gang members). This street-level strategy using mostly non-professional actors produced a documentary-style depiction of the tough choices faced by Chicano youth as they come of age and try to escape or navigate gang life (“Two brothers…the street was their playground and their battleground”). In addition to “Boulevard Nights,” this era featured several films chronicling youth gangs and rebellion — “The Warriors” (1979), “Over the Edge” (1979), “Walk Proud” (1979) and “The Outsiders” (1983). The film faced protests and criticism from some Latinos who saw outsider filmmakers, albeit well-intentioned, adopting an anthropological perspective with an excessive focus on gangs and violent neighborhoods. Nevertheless, “Boulevard Nights” stands out as a pioneering snapshot of East L.A. and enjoys semi-cult status in the lowrider community.     


Die Hard (1988) In this now-classic slam-bang thriller, Bruce Willis s
tars as a New York cop who faces off, alone, against a team of terrorists inside a high-tech, high-rise Los Angeles office tower. Gripping action sequences and well-crafted humor made this film a huge hit and launched Willis as a major box-office star. Alan Rickman, as witty insouciant terrorist and “exceptional thief” Hans Gruber, serves as Willis’ memorable foe. Because the film is set during the Christmas season, many people now consider “Die Hard” a necessary part of their annual holiday viewing, a counterpoint to other holiday staples such as “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Oof. Probably the oddest choice of the bunch, but you can't deny its popularity. I remember seeing the first trailer for Die Hard and when the first glimpses of Bruce Willis came on there was some audience hooting. In fact, the first poster for the film didn't highlight his name or feature a picture—Willis was having a tough time parlaying his TV success on "Moonlighting" into movies, his previous films having bombed—and the studio hedged its bets. But, when the film came out, Willis was one of its joys and his reactions to the ludicrous predicaments he found himself in were pitch-perfect. Plus, Alan Rickman knew how to make himself detestable as the villain of the piece. Add to that John McTiernan's no-frills, all-thrills style of Predator film-making, the dexterous on-set changes to the script, and the long-in-development project (Roderick Thorp's novel "Nothing Lasts Forever" was published in 1979, as a sequel to the author's "The Detective.") and the film became a box-office smash. 
"..come out to the Coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..."
Dumbo (1941) Disney’s charming, trademark animation finds a perfect subject in this timeless tale of a little elephant with oversize ears who lacks a certain confidence until he learns — with the help of a friendly mouse — that his giant lobes enable him to fly. Disney’s fourth feature film gained immediate classic status thanks to its lovely drawing, original score (which would go on to win the Oscar that year) and enduring message of always believing in yourself.

If I have two golden memories of Disney from my childhood, they are Pinocchio and Dumbo, both with their own little morals for small humans: "always let your conscience be your guide" and "the very things that held ya down are gonna carry ya up." That's the thing about Disney movies—they're about odd-balls and square-pegs, even the princesses. It's no wonder Tim Burton keeps coming back to them (he's directing a live-action version of Dumbo, as we speak) for their tales of finding your niche, despite what the Wisdom of the Tribe says. Disney has always preached inclusion, heavy-handed though it can be (the crows? one of whom is named "Jim?" yet they provide the feather that inspires Dumbo to fly...), while at the same time, they have the audacity to scare the popcorn out of you by showing how viscerally cruel the world can be. They are a tender combination of mawkish sentimentality and abrasive severity, knowing that children are thrilled by both.  It's amazing we're not all bi-polar.


Field of Dreams (1989) Iowa farmer Kevin Costner one day hears a voice telling him to turn a small corner of his land into a baseball diamond: “If you build it, they will come.”  “They” are the 1919 Black Sox team led by the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson. Although ostensibly about the great American pastime, baseball here serves as a metaphor for more profound issues. Leonard Maltin lauded “Field of Dreams” as “a story of redemption and faith, in the tradition of the best Hollywood fantasies with moments of pure magic.”

W.P. Kinsella's novel "Shoeless Joe" was a winsome fantasy that became a best-seller and won awards for its Canadian author. Phil Alden Robinson did some swift maneuvering—changing out James Earl Jones for a character based on reclusive (and litigious) author J.D. Salinger (Kinsella thought it only fair because Salinger had used the name "Kinsella" in one of his short stories). It is also the last screen appearance of Burt Lancaster

My favorite story about Field of Dreams centers around what sells in books and what sells in movies. It was filmed under the same name as the book "Shoeless Joe," but the studio thought such a title might give the wrong impression of poverty and hobos and not of baseball and nostalgia, so they changed the title of the film to Field of Dreams. Its star, Kevin Costner,was incensed. He called Kinsella. "They want to change the title for the movie!" "What do they want to call it?" Kinsella asked. "'Field of Dreams!' Can you imagine a more generic, lackluster title?" And Kinsella was silent for awhile, just listening to Costner's arguments. Finally, Kinsella spoke up: "You know, "Shoeless Joe" wasn't the title I wanted for the book—the publisher suggested it because he thought my title was too generic and lackluster." 

"What was the original title?" asked Costner. 

"Dream Field" was Kinsella's reply. 


Great story.



4 Little Girls (1997) An important documentary concerning America’s civil rights struggle, “4 Little Girls” revisits the horrific story of the young children who died in the 1963 firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Director Spike Lee first became interested in the story as a student at NYU when he read a 1983 New York Times Magazine article by Howell Raines. Lee combines his experience in fiction filmmaking with documentary techniques, sensitively rendered interviews, photos and home movies to tell the story. The timing of this production was important due to the ages of the key witnesses and relatives and the need to refresh viewers’ memories regarding a dark period in U.S. history.

Spike Lee had already established himself as a feature film director—a popular one and a successful one, as well—when he decided to lend his talents to another film format—the documentary.  The story of the 16th Street Baptist bombing was initially pursued as a feature, but Lee became convinced that telling the story "on the record" was the way to bring about the most powerful message. With money from HBO, which had started to branch out into making new features and series, he made 4 Little Girls, with the intention to get on-camera living witnesses to those events. The result is galvanizing. Lee's reputation as a film-maker convinced family members to talk "to get the facts right," and he does that, but he also makes the film burn with an outrage that might have seemed a bit more manipulative if he hadn't done it "straight up." It only enhanced his reputation and he has made other documentaries, in particular, his amazing 4 part series "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" about the events of Hurricane Katrina, that have become THE source for documenting such events. 


Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection (1920s-1930s) Longtime Corpus Christi, Texas, residents Antonio Rodríguez Fuentes (1895-1988) and Josefina Barrera Fuentes (1898-1993) were very active in their local Mexican-American community. Their collection of home movies — mostly from the 1920s and shot on 9.5 mm amateur film format — are among the earliest visual records of the Mexican-American community in Texas and among the first recorded by Mexican-American filmmakers. As with the best home movies, the images provide a priceless snapshot of time and place, including parades, holidays, fashions and the rituals of daily life. The beautiful images also reflect the traditionally fluid nature of the U.S.-Mexico border. The collection is a joint project between the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.  


Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)   Winning the 1947 Academy Award for best picture and considered daring at the time, “Gentleman’s Agreement” was one of the first films to directly explore the still-timely topic of religious-based discrimination.  Philip Green (Gregory Peck), a Gentile, is a renowned magazine writer.  In order to obtain firsthand knowledge of anti-Semitism, he decides to pose as a Jew.  What he discovers about society, and even his own friends and colleagues, radically alters his perspective and throws his own life into turmoil. Director Elia Kazan masterfully crafts scenes that reveal bigotry both overt and often insidiously subtle. The film was based on a book by Laura Z. Hobson.

It's no secret that the movie studios at the time of Gentleman's Agreement were run by Jews. Why the topic of anti-semitism wasn't addressed earlier is a mystery. Perhaps it was concern about "stirring the pot and making things worse." At least that's what was said to the one non-Jew, Darryl F. Zanuck—a Dutch Protestant—who made the movie of Laura Hobson's novel about a reporter, Skyler Green (Gregory Peck) assigned by a weekly to write about anti-semitism ("For or against?" asks a scientist played by Sam Jaffee later in the film). Green struggles with his approach, moving to New York for the job with his family, and wooing the niece of his publisher (played by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn's Dorothy McGuire). He decides to pose as Jewish—but he's not, so he has no history of prejudice, it will all be new to him, not established and not a part of his life. "You aren't insulated yet" says his Army buddy Dave Goldman (played by fellow leading man John Garfield, who just wanted to be part of the movie). There's a theatricality to the thing (Moss Hart wrote it), and even though there are places where Peck is as relaxed as he's ever been in a part, there are moments of stolidness with him and McGuire. Garfield is impeccable, as is Celeste Holm (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). There's some speechifying, but the way the screenplay attacks all sides of the problem—that societal "restrictions" against Jews are never stated outright (they're "policies", or "practices"), that it makes it very tough to fight...except by intolerance for the situation and exposing it to the light of day. The Hollywood community awarded Gentleman's Agreement its Best Picture Oscar and Kazan his first Oscar for directing. (I ended this summary from my Elia Kazan post with "Not sure why, but this groundbreaking film hasn't been added to the National Registry." Problem solved.



The Goonies (1985)   The fingerprints of executive producer Steven Spielberg visibly mark every second of “The Goonies,” with the plot sporting a narrative structure and many themes characteristic of his work. Spielberg penned the original story, hand-selected director Richard Donner and hired Chris Columbus (who had written the 1983 “Gremlins”) to do the offbeat screenplay. With its keen focus on kids of agency and adventure, “The Goonies” protagonists are Tom Sawyeresque outsiders on a magical treasure hunt, and the story lands in the continuum between where “Our Gang” quests leave off and the darker spaces of Netflix’s recent “Stranger Things” pick up.

Not being a big fan of the film (I was older than 12 when it debuted), I, at least, knew of it—it was filmed nearby in Astoria, Oregon—and (once it settles down from its frenetic beginning) have a grudging admiration for its goals—combine "Our Gang" with "The Marx Brothers" and set them on a "Hardy Boys" adventure. It was a Steven Spielberg story, written by Chris Columbus and directed by Richard Donner, and it ultimately takes on the same accomplishment that To Kill a Mockingbird managed—to show suburban kids learning that sometimes you have to look past your experience and your surface perceptions to see the soul of another individual...and their value. With The Goonies, you have to look a little deeper than the earlier Robert Mulligan film to see that kernel of truth, but it is there, you have to do some serious spelunking, though.


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) Though it would be Spencer Tracy’s last film and the second film for which Katharine Hepburn would win an Academy Award for best actress, even these movie milestones are somewhat overshadowed by the then-novel plot of the 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Hepburn and Tracy play an older married couple whose progressiveness is challenged when their daughter (Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s real-life niece) brings home a new fiancé, who happens to be black. Celebrated actor Sidney Poitier plays the young man with his customary on-screen charisma, fire and grace. 

"But would you want your daughter to marry one?" was an oft-heard reduction of the civil rights era, back in the Jurassic era. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? stacked the deck by casting Sidney Poitier as the "one," to which the answer could only rationally be: "Are you kidding? Who wouldn't?" That the family dealing with this "social issue" is headed by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn—their last movie together as Tracy died six months before the film's release, 17 days after filming the last scene—doesn't hurt. What I thought was great was that the film showed Poitier's movie-parents being against the marriage, too. The topic might seem as quaint and antiquated as, say, oh, racial prejudice, however, that recessive gene never seems to be entirely eradicated from the species. At the time of filming 17 states in the U.S. still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books. Six months before the film came out, Loving v. Virginia, which upheld such laws, was overturned by the Supreme Court. The film's title has become a catch-phrase and been remade as a comedy (Guess Who?) in 2003, and Jordan Peele's 2017 film, Get Out, can be seen as a horror movie re-styling.  

Up until her death, Katharine Hepburn would not watch the movie, fearing the painful memories she would re-live while making it with her long-time love.


He Who Gets Slapped (1924)   One of the earliest “creepy clown” movies, “He Who Gets Slapped” was the first film produced completely by the MGM studio, though not the first released. The film features Lon Chaney in a memorable role as a scientist who is humiliated when a rival and his wife steal his ideas just as he is to present them to the Academy of Sciences. He then becomes a masochistic circus clown where the highlight of his act is being repeatedly slapped. One of many stand-out scenes occurs during a circus performance where Chaney spots those who betrayed him and tries to call them out, but his fellow clowns are doing their normal crowd-pleasing routine of slapping him in the face. Filled with nightmarish vignettes, this landmark film from the silent era was directed by Victor Sjöström (newly arrived from Sweden and using an anglicized last name of Seastrom) and also features Norma Shearer and John Gilbert, each on the cusp of stardom.  

The first fully-produced film by what is now known as Metro-Goldwyn and Mayer (and the first bearing the "Leo the lion" logo, borrowed from Goldwyn), He Who Gets Slapped begins with the epithet "In the grim comedy of life, it has wisely been said that the last laugh is the best." Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) plays an evolutionary scientist who, just at the realization of his theories, has his work stolen by his benefactor, who also runs off with his wife, humiliating him. He joins a Paris circus as a clown named "He—who gets slapped" performing (as a bitter title cards says) "for the idle, the ignorant and vicious." Sounds like any customer service job. But the crowd seems to love his performance, getting slapped by every member of the circus company. The film also stars Norma Shearer and John Gilbert as two circus love-birds, who may have everything ruined by monied dilletantes. Director Victor Sjöström lays on the irony very thick, and has a way of undercutting everything—the musical director is a drunk, he contrast-cuts the crowd and circus clowns doing the same thing, and he clown-interstitials between segments are vaguely creepy, if effective.
Lon Chaney without his make-up
Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street (1905) This early actuality film documents New York City’s newest marvel, the subway, less than seven months after its opening. However, the film is not as simple as it first appears. It required coordinating three trains: the one we watch, the one carrying the camera and a third (glimpsed on the parallel track) to carry a bank of lights. The artistic flair is the vision of legendary cameraman G.W. “Billy” Bitzer.


La Bamba (1987) “La Bamba” is a biopic of the life of rock star Ritchie Valens, rock’s first Mexican-American superstar. Directed by Luis Valdez, “La Bamba” (the film draws its name from Valens’ signature song) charts Valens’ meteoric rise as a musician and his tragic death at age 17 in a 1959 plane crash, along with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.  Lou Diamond Phillips stars as the late Valens. The film’s success not only reinvigorated interest in Valens’ brief but notable musical legacy, it also brought the title tune back to the charts (in a cover version by Los Lobos) 28 years after its first appearance.

I'm not sure I believe in the myth-making of La Bamba (as I don't believe in the myth-making of The Buddy Holly Story), and the short life of Ritchie Valens may be as sanitized as the movie portrays—Christ, the kid never made it to his 18th birthday , so how much trouble could he get into?—but, he was a galvanizing presence on-stage one hears and Lou Diamond Phillips manages to convey his joy in performing. Still waiting for the "Big Bopper" movie, though.



Lives of Performers (1972) Yvonne Rainer was born in San Francisco in 1934. At a very young age, Rainer’s father introduced her to films and her mother introduced her to ballet. She moved to New York in 1956, where she studied dance at the Martha Graham School while also learning ballet at Ballet Arts. Much like other choreographers of her era, Rainer sought to blur the stark line separating dancers from non-dancers. Her work has been described as “foundational across multiple disciplines and movements: dance, cinema, feminism, minimalism, conceptual art and postmodernism.” “Lives of Performers” has been characterized as “a stark and revealing examination of romantic alliances … the dilemma of a man who can’t choose between two women and makes them both suffer.” 


Memento (2000) This innovative detective-murder, psychological puzzle (and director Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film) tells its story in non-linear stops and starts in order to put the audience in a position approximating the hero’s short-term amnesia.  Guy Pearce tries to avenge his wife’s murder but his anterograde amnesia forces him to rely on sticky notes, tattoos and Polaroids. Nolan recounts, “My solution to telling the story subjectively was to deny the audience the same information that the protagonist is denied, and my approach to doing that was to effectively tell the story backwards … so the story is told as a series of flashbacks which go further and further back in time.” According to Nolan, he frequently intercut between the black-and-white “objective” sequences and “subjective” sequences in color. The goal was to show the conflict between how humans see and experience objective versus subjective and the complex relationship between imagination and memory.
As opposed to the scrambled editing structure of FollowingMemento has a diabolical editing scheme, going two linear directions at once, forward and backwards: the black and white sections heading for the future, and the color sections retreating to the past. It tells the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance-fraud investigator, who we learn suffers from anterograde amnesia--he can't make new memories--due to injuries suffered in a home-assault which killed his wife. Despite the fact that he forgets what he's learned in his investigation every five minutes, he attempts to hunt down the second man in the assault for revenge. Because of his condition he's forced to leave clues to himself via instant Polaroid's, tattoo's, and notes, and depends on the help of accomplices Natalie (Carrie Ann-Moss) and Teddy (John Pantoliano) to form a through-line in his unstable quest. The film begins with a murder, and it ends with another one, and we are left with the scenario of a human loose-cannon, pursuing his empty clues whereever they may lead.

It's a fascinating idea for a film, and the conceit is a great one. Not unlike a classic murder mystery played backwards, with all the clues that have been building, revealing the actual events at the end to the viewer. Unfortunately, the ultimate effect of the film is not revelation but helplessness-there is no satisfaction gained from the answer, only a sense that there is no mystery, just random acts of violence. One feels hoodwinked.

And ultimately, like Following, the film would be pointless if not for the backward chronology; if it weren't for that construction, the film would be completely unsatisfying, and, like the classic murder mystery chronology, or any film whose weak story-line is propped up by starting with the consequences, the manipulation of time is its one strength.

Still, its an interesting experiment. And the performances by Pearce, Moss and Patoliano are expert in themselves, Pearce, revealing all that he can know at any given time, and Pantoliano and Moss being deliberately obtuse, not to reveal too much.


-Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Considered the “quintessential” Howard Hawks male melodrama by many, “Only Angels Have Wings” stars Cary Grant as the tough-talking head of a cut-rate air freight company in the Andes. Grant has a dangerous business to run and spurns romantic entanglements, fearing women blanch at the inherent danger. Displaced showgirl Jean Arthur arrives and tries to prove him wrong. Along with sparkling dialogue from Grant, Arthur and renowned character actor Thomas Mitchell, “Only Angels Have Wings” captivates with dazzling air sequences featuring landings on canyon rims, vertiginous ups and downs and perilous flights through foggy mountain passes.

This is one of my favorite films, to the point that if I encounter it on TV, you might as well not even contact me, as I'll be lost in it for a couple hours. It made my list of Anytime Movies because of it...that link here.  Some of it follows:

Hawks directed all types of movies, many of them classics of their genre: westerns (Rio BravoRed River); mystery/noir (The Big Sleep); adventure (To Have and Have NotHatari!) and comedy (Bringing Up BabyHis Girl Friday). He even produced one of the first truly classic science fiction films (The Thing! [From Another World]), and an iconic musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Despite the genre, and despite the decade in which it was produced each film is unmistakably a Hawks film – a group of men (and women, but usually men) of diverse talents must come together to achieve a singular goal, be it to drive a huge herd of cattle to Missouri, or contain the alien threat, or capture a live rhinoceros, or get the bad guy to the Marshall (alive if possible) or ferry the refugees to safety, or find the dinosaur clavicle, or land a millionaire.

Conflict is achieved by introducing a newcomer to the mix who doesn’t understand the synergy of the group and who must learn “the code” to belong, and that keeps the group in cohesion. And so much the better if they do it without talking about it much.

That’s the Hawks formula, and he was able to create enough variations in the design that his films all seem different, even though they’re always telling the same basic story—a story that’s a metaphor for movie-making.


Why -Only Angels Have Wings out of all those classics? It is the ultimate Hawks movie. Watch any of those others and you’ll hear similar lines and see similar situations, but in Angels, everything is distilled to the basic essence of the tale to become the best Hemingway story Hemingway never wrote. Distilled? The majority of the film takes place in one set! For this band of professionals, the goal is to fly the mail from the port city of Barancca through a narrow passage in the Andes utilizing one of a number of prop aircraft, all in need of repair. The men realize they’re merely links in a chain getting the mail…or a doctor…or a shipment of nitro-glycerin…to its destination with the threat of death flying right alongside. So hazardous is the job for these civilian-pilots that their base is a revolving door for the new blood who have to prove themselves. It’s "The Right Stuff” twenty years before Tom Wolfe popularized the phrase.

It’s all done so economically, so breezily and with so little in the way of “action” that one may get through the entire movie before realizing that mostly everybody just talked…without really coming out and saying what they mean. Everything is shot at eye-level. There’s nothing fancy in the camera-work. The story is the King, and everyone is working towards making it work…like professionals.



The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
Having virtually established animation as a viable medium through films such as “Little Nemo” (1911) and “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914), newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay produced this propaganda short (combining animation, editorial cartoon and live-action documentary techniques) to stir Americans into action after a German submarine sank the British liner RMS Lusitania in 1915, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. McCay was upset with the isolationist sentiment present in the country and at his employer, the Hearst newspapers chain. It took McCay nearly two years working on his own to produce the film, debuting a year after America entered the war. Nevertheless, this is a significant film historically and a notable early example of animation being used for a purpose other than comedy. In his seminal “American Silent Film,” William K. Everson called the film “a wartime film that was both anti-German propaganda and an attempt to provide a documentary reconstruction of a major news event not covered by regular newsreel cameramen. The incredibly detailed drawings of the Lusitania, intercut with inserts of newspaper headlines relative to the notable victims, and strongly-worded editorializing sub-titles concerning the bestiality of the Hun, make this a fascinating and seldom-repeated experiment.”


Spartacus (1960) Even among the mega epics being produced by Hollywood at the time (such as “The Ten Commandments” and “Cleopatra”), “Spartacus” stands out for its sheer grandeur and remarkable cast (Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov), as well as for Stanley Kubrick’s masterful direction. The film is also credited with helping to end the notorious Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s – its producer, Douglas, hired then-blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to author the script, which was based on a book by another blacklisted author, Howard Fast.


Kirk Douglas kicked Anthony Mann off his "religious epic without Jesus" after a week of shooting, and hired Stanley Kubrick, who he'd just worked with on Paths of Glory,  to take over. A bit like throwing Christians to the lions, the indie-minded Kubrick had to contend with entrenched studio personnel and bickering bitchy stars--not the least of whom was the producer who'd hired him. Still, Kubrick did right by his boss by off-setting the rebel-slave romanticism of Dalton Trumbo's script with the cold and ruthless efficiency of the Romans in action. The battles and training sequences are brutal (they'd be echoed in Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket) and brilliantly realized, and Kubrick creates an indelible character in Woody Strode's Draba without a single line of dialog. But he couldn't touch Trumbo's screenplay (Douglas wanted to make a point of staying faithful to the black-listed writer's script) and the experience left Kubrick convinced that Hollywood was not the place he wanted to work--and he'd only take on projects where he had complete autonomy. Completely in charge, he would begin to take enormous risks, and his first project—Lolita—was designed to do exactly that.


Superman (1978) Director Richard Donner’s treatment of the famous superhero was not the first time the character had been on the big screen. Kirk Alyn played the role back in a 1948 serial and George Reeves appeared in both theatrical and TV versions in the 1950s. However, for many, Christopher Reeve remains the definitive Man of Steel. This film, an “origins” story, recounts Superman’s journey to Earth as a boy, his move from Smallville to Metropolis and his emergence as a true American hero. Beautiful in its sweep, score and special effects, which create a sense of awe and wonder, “Superman” — as the tag line reads — makes you “believe a man can fly.”

For a movie that promised "You'll believe a man can fly" it couldn't be more elephantine. The movie's all over the map, but moves at such a clip, you're not allowed time to notice. There's the austere Krypton section that ladels on the tragedy with Marlon Brando playing it absolutely straight. There's the Smallville segment with Glenn Ford, and an America so archetypal that they had to film it in Canada. And then there's the loopy Metropolis section, as Superman (who seems to enjoy the effect he has on ordinary mortals) must battle the nefarious Lex Luthor (Gene Hackmanclearly enjoying playing comedy) and his curiously buffoonish aides-de-camp (Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty). The thing should fly apart at the seams, but Donner's rock-solid direction, Stuart Baird's don't-blink editing and John Williamsanthem-pumping score keeps the momentum going so the thing never touches the ground. It's a little bit of a miracle, the most obvious of which is Christopher Reeve's rather self-deprecating Superman.

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) Charlotte Zwerin’s insightful documentary of the jazz pianist-composer Thelonious Monk blends together excellent interviews with those who knew him best and riveting concert performances, many shot in the 1960s by Christian Blackwood. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, Stephen Holden noted, “Charlotte Zwerin’s remarkable documentary … reminds us again and again that Monk was as important a jazz composer as he was a pianist.”

Produced by Clint Eastwood, who is a worshipful icolyte of Monk, Charlotte Zwerin's film stays right where it should, unswervingly focusing on the artist with a maximum of recorded footage of him playing and a minimum of talking head interviews and a complete absence of such heads expounding on "significance".  Who needs that? The priorities are clearly on the man and his music and showing those split-second moments of creativity that flash and swerve at a rapid clip that just make you wonder where they might have come—from the individual genius of someone who knew everything that he could know about his instrument and never felt constrained to color within the lines. 


Time and Dreams (1976)   Created in 1976 by Mort Jordan, a student at Temple University, “Time and Dreams” is a unique and personal elegiac approach to the civil rights movement. The filmmaker has described “Time and Dreams” as a personal journey back to his Alabama home, where he contrasts two societies: the nostalgia some residents have for past values versus the deferred dreams of those who are well past waiting for their time to fully participate in the promise of their own dreams. Through vignettes and personal testimonies, the film portrays Greene County, Alabama, as its people move toward understanding and cooperation in a time of social change.  

Titanic (1997) James Cameron’s epic retold the story of the great maritime disaster and made mega-stars of both its leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Their upstairs-downstairs romance transported the audience to another world and time via spectacular sweeping scenes in the bow of the ship and beyond. The film cost $200 million to produce, leading many to predict a historic box office disaster, but “Titanic” became one of the top-grossing films of all-time and a cultural touchstone of the era.  Newsweek’s David Ansen spoke of how Cameron managed to fulfill expectations for the film: “When Cameron’s camera pulls back from a closeup of the exuberant DiCaprio at the bow of the ship and lifts to peer down from the sky at the Titanic passing majestically underneath, you feel the kind of jaw-dropping delight you felt as a child overwhelmed by the sheer size of Hollywood’s dreams. ‘Titanic’ is big, bold, touchingly uncynical filmmaking.”

A lot of people like Titanic. I'm not one of them. One can't argue with the skill and dedication behind it (on everybodys' parts) and one couldn't argue with the idea of "doing something different" with the event, which has figured in so many productions in film and the stage that all the legends have been hashed and re-hashed time and again.  But...let's face facts. You would think that one of the great sailing disasters with all the souls enmeshed in the circumstances would be sufficient to make a story...but, no, Cameron had to gin up the triangle love story that culminated in one of the silliest moments of over-kill I've seen on film.  While The Titanic is sinking—and remember, this might be dramatic if you focused on what was happening with more of the passengers, other than the group who gather at the Captain's table for a luxurious dinner—Cameron supposes and presents a chase and running gun-battle through the main dining room while it is three feet under water.  I remember thinking, "The f@©%ing ship is sinking...isn't that enough?"  Apparently not.  For someone who did such meticulous research and recreation to "get it right," this is the ultimate example of rearranging deck-chairs.  Titanic exposes the best and worst of Cameron's work: meticulous craftsmanship, with horribly "thick" writing. At least he had the great good sense to cast Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet as the disaster-crossed lovers, who managed to find ways to float the most leaden of dialogue.


And, in its depiction of an after-life and the reuniting of the lovers across time and tide, it is Cameron's most unabashedly romantic movie (and they all are, to a certain extent...except for Piranha 2).  There's a lesson there, and Cameron's focus on the love-story undoubtedly created Titanic's unsinkable box-office success. In fact, it was the top-grossing film of all time...until Cameron made another movie.

To Sleep with Anger (1990) Beginning with his UCLA student film, the austere neo-realistic “Killer of Sheep,” director Charles Burnett has carved out a distinctive and exalted niche in American independent cinema. Burnett often sets his films on a small scale but deftly explores universal themes, including the power to endure and the rewards and burdens of family. Critic Leonard Maltin called “To Sleep with Anger” an “evocative domestic drama about the effect storyteller/trickster (Danny) Glover has on the various members of a black family. More than just a portrait of contemporary black society, it’s a story of cultural differences between parents and children of how individuals learn (or don’t learn) from experience, and of how there should be no place for those who cause violence and strife.”

I have yet to cross paths with this film—maybe its inclusion in this year's crop of honorees will make it more available for watching...it DID get a proper  restoration in 2015 and The New Yorker's Richard Brody championed it last year in an article about it and its failure to be recognized for any Oscar nominations in 1990, not even for Danny Glover's much-remarked upon performance as a creepier combination of Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner and Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. When you look at the reviews for it back then (as opposed to what has recently been written), the results are mixed (Roger Ebert: "There are some good things in this movie and too much time in between them,") but time has been kind to it. Definitely on my list to see.


Wanda (1971) Film and TV actress Barbara Loden wrote and directed this affecting and insightful character study about an uneducated, passive woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, where the cinema verite-like film was shot. The title character possesses critically low self-esteem, leaves her kids and husband and then drifts aimlessly into a series of one-night stands and a dangerous relationship with a bank robber. Today, many consider this low-budget study of loneliness and personal isolation one of the finest works of independent cinema during the 1970s.

Barbara Loden may be a name largely forgotten, but she was an actress of the highest caliber, opening in Arthur Miller's "After the Fall" on Broadway, and for a superior television production of "The Glass Menagerie" (with Shirley Booth, Hal Holbrook and Pat Hingle—a great cast!), she was an actress who seemed to express a lifetime of disappointment with her eyes. The tale goes that while on a safari, she was given $100,000 to make a film. She wrote a script (which was turned down by every director she showed it to, including her husband Elia Kazan) and directed it, with an eye toward the visual and not for dialog. I love movies like that, and she quite effectively shows a woman without self-esteem wandering through a Pennsylvania small-town landscape, that is being mined of its resources as much as she is. If the movie falters a bit with a contrived crime story in its last half, that's fine. It is a harrowing movie of lost potential and lost hope, where one could say one is drifting if the burdens of a lifetime being beaten down weren't so heavy. 


With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain (1937-1938)This advocacy documentary about the Lincoln Brigade was shot during the Spanish Civil War to raise funds for bringing wounded American volunteers home. Some 2,800 Americans enlisted in the International Brigades to fight against fascism in defense of the Spanish Republic. The film was directed by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Herbert Kline and additional photography was provided by Jacques Lemare and Robert Capa. This film is held at New York University’s Tamiment Library and is part of a vast collection of materials in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive.

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