23 Movies Worth Saving (From the First 23 Years of My Life)
With the Library of Congress’ recent announcement of the 25 films being added to our National Film Registry for 2009, I was inspired to look back over some of the films that haven’t yet been included. In doing so, I noticed there are many films from my lifetime that deserve eventual recognition. The National Film Preservation Board selects up to 25 films each year to be included in the Registry, so I have selected 23 yet unselected films from my lifetime (one for each year) that I would like to nominate for 2010… in fact, I’ve actually submitted my list of nominations to the National Film Preservation Board, as they encourage the public to do. More info on this can be found at their website.
This list of 23 films spans my lifetime, which means they fall between my year of birth (1978) and the new cut-off year which is 10 years back (2000). This is NOT a list of the 23 films from this period I consider to be “the best” — Each film on this list I found to have been socially, historically, artistically or technologically significant, making it worthy of inclusion in our National Film Registry. (If you don’t see any foreign films on this list, calm down… there’s a reason for that.)
* The image of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK at the head of this article is an honorable mention, but I have to admit… it was very difficult to exclude the film from my list.
COMING HOME, directed by Hal Ashby (1978)
COMING HOME is a significant film about a turbulent chapter of our American history. Its a story about an injured Vietnam War veteran returning home who finds re-acclamation into civilian life difficult. The topic is one we still feel today, both for Vietnam veterans and new veterans of more modern wars as well. This film does an amazing job of illustrating that hardship, winning Jon Voight and Jane Fonda Academy Awards for their wonderful performances. COMING HOME also garnered a slew of other Oscar nominations including supporting actor and actress, writing, directing, editing and even best picture. It was also nominated for the prestigious Palm d’Or, or Golden Palm award, at the Cannes Film Festival. While its clearly an anti-war film, not including COMING HOME in the Registry would be a terrible snub in the faces of our country’s war veterans.
NORMA RAE, directed by Martin Ritt (1979)
NORMA RAE is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a factory worker in a cotton mill and a mother who works long and hard for minimal earnings, but becomes involved in the labor union in an effort to make things better for everyone in her shoes. This is a powerful film that tells another very American story, addressing another still very contemporary issue that has had something of a shift in focus in recent years. Sally Field gives a great performance as the working mom and won an Academy Award. The film also received nominations for best picture and writing and also was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The film co-starred Beau Bridges and Ron Leibman.
COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, directed by Michael Apted (1980)
Whether you’re a fan or not, country music is an integral part of our musical culture, a purely American creation and has influenced other genres of music as much as it’s been influenced by genres preceding it’s birth. While the hay day of country music seems to be in the past, Loretta Lynn was not only one of the most popular and successful country artists, she was also an important cultural figure as one of the first female superstars of country music. COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER is a biographical film of Loretta Lynn’s life, including the frequent controversy she had conjured by pushing the envelope in a genre of music not accustomed to such topics and issues like birth control. Sissy Spacek delivers a grand performance as Loretta Lynn and earned an Academy Award for her role. The film co-stars Tommy Lee Jones and Beverly D’Angelo, was directed by Michael Apted and was nominated for Academy Awards in art direction, sound, writing, editing, cinematography and best picture.
* I know many of you will be upset that I chose this over EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but believe me… it wasn’t easy. EMPIRE STRIKES BACK would definitely be my #2 pick.
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, directed by Louis Malle (1981)
Louis Malle is a fantastic filmmaker, and while he may be a Frenchman, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE is an American film through-and-through. Before there was Jerry Seinfeld and “the show about nothing” Louis Malle conjured up this intriguing and philosophical cinematic conversation piece that can be called the original show about nothing. Tapping into the wonderful minds of American theater director and actor Andre Gregory and American writer and actor Wallace Shawn, this quasi-documentary film captures the two friends’ and colleagues’ musings about theater and life in general, but also allows the viewer to contrast Shawn’s modest humanism with Gregory’s New Age theories with an intelligent charm and humor.
BURDEN OF DREAMS, directed by Les Blank (1982)
Despite the fact that BURDEN OF DREAMS is a film that chronicles Werner Herzog, a German filmmaker, and his experience making a film in South America called FITZCARRALDO, this powerful and monumental documentary from American filmmaker Les Blank details the pain and agony of an artist pursuing his vision at all costs. Les Blank is not well known amidst the average American public, which is a sad and unfortunate truth, given his films are amongst the best documentaries ever made. Another of Blank’s films called GARLIC IS AS GOOD AS TEN MOTHERS is already recognized for preservation on the National Film Registry, but stopping at just one would be misguided. This is easily one of the best films about filmmaking and one of the most truthful and shocking accounts of the artistic process.
A CHRISTMAS STORY, directed by Bob Clark (1983)
Love it or hate it, A CHRISTMAS STORY is easily one of the most recognizable and beloved holiday films ever made. More than this, it’s a wonderfully rich fictional testament to an era of our cultural past. For those of us born post-1950’s this movie serves as a sort of time machine, taking us back to our parents’ and grandparents’ time, giving us a glimpse into the way things were. It’s difficult to argue the validity of influence a film such as this has (and continues to have) on our culture, given that year after year, retail outlets are filled with toys, games and decorations commemorating the movie, there are Hallmark ornaments, there is even an annual 24-hour marathon of the film on cable television. If that’s not proof this movie deserves it’s place on the Registry, I don’t know what is.
STOP MAKING SENSE, directed by Jonathan Demme (1984)
Considered by many to be one of the greatest rock concert movies of all time, STOP MAKING SENSE was filmed over three nights, chronicling concert performances by the band Talking Heads during their tour promoting their album SPEAKING IN TONGUES. The film, directed by Jonathan Demme, is acclaimed as the first movie made entirely using digital audio techniques. This movie is a truly enjoyable audio/visual experience featuring great music and innovative design. STOP MAKING SENSE deserves it’s place in the National Film Registry along side WOODSTOCK, but the same could also be said about GIMME SHELTER and THE LAST WALTZ.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB, directed by John Hughes (1985)
This may seem like an odd choice to some, but director John Hughes’ has had an enormous influence on an entire generation of American movie watchers and THE BREAKFAST CLUB is easily the most significant. A story of five teenagers, all from distinctly different backgrounds and high school circles, stuck in detention together and forced to talk to one another as a way to entertain themselves. In the process, they reveal each others’ flaws and qualities and realize they’re not so different after all. This is THE film that defines an era of teenagers in America during the 1980’s and remains an influence on generations that followed. A film that has had so much of it’s essence incorporated into the minds of a generation must be preserved as a document of a decade in our cultural heritage.
PLATOON, directed by Oliver Stone (1986)
Oliver Stone’s remarkably accomplished film about the Vietnam War in my opinion is his best work of cinema. The film features a short list of early performances from rising young actors like Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp and Foreest Whitaker as well as seasoned veterans like Keith David, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. It’s a tale of a young man recruited into the war who struggles when confronted with the horrific realities of the war. Emotionally engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking, this is perhaps one of the two best films about the Vietnam War and the toll it took on it’s soldiers, making it worthy of preservation.
FULL METAL JACKET, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1987)
Stanley Kubrick’s gritty, somewhat lightly satirical film about the Vietnam War would be the other greatest film on the subject. I would love to say it’s better than Oliver Stone’s PLATOON, but that difficult to say because they are two very different films. Some would even say that FULL METAL JACKET is two films in one, separated into the first and second half. The satire I speak of shows up primarily in the second half, and is subtle at best, but the first half truly shines as a dark and honest portrayal of boot camp and training of soldier’s preparing to go into brutal jungle warfare. Kubrick constructed a film that deals with very ugly and unsettling images and topics, but does so in a way that we laugh at the horrors, perhaps intending to show how we’ve become desensitized to the horrors of war. In my opinion, a shoe-in for preservation.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, directed by Martin Scorsese (1988)
When looking at my options for 1988, I came upon Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and thought to myself, what American films have had such a controversial effect on our culture prior to this film’s release? Aside from maybe THE EXORCIST, I couldn’t think of anything from my lifetime that has divided our culture so strongly, causing a line to be drawn in the religious sand resulting in the film being banned in some circles. Willem Dafoe is brilliant at portraying Jesus Christ in a story telling his life from his own point-of-view, a sort of “what if” approach to what he may have felt and experienced being free from sin but also being tormented by all the same temptations as any other human being. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, this film is a beautiful testament to the struggle of doing what’s right and conquering one’s weaknesses in the face of temptation.
THE ABYSS, directed by James Cameron (1989)
Few filmmaker’s have single-handily had such a profound influence on the technological evolution of cinema as James Cameron. in 1989, THE ABYSS was light years ahead of it’s time both for the early CGI accomplishments employed in the first contact scene and also for the techniques used in filming the underwater scenes, in which Cameron had a massive water tank constructed so that the scenes could literally and realistically filmed underwater. Cameron would follow this up two years later with yet another stunning cinematic achievement in TERMINATOR 2, but it’s this initial experiment with technology that set the bar and transformed James Cameron into a filmmaking wizard, opening the doors for other filmmakers to pursue their own visions once restrained by technological limitations.
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, directed by Tim Burton (1990)
This was a tough year for significant American films. With DANCES WITH WOLVES and GOODFELLAS already accounted for by the Library of Congress for preservation, there wasn’t an abundance of films remaining to choose from with an air of significance. While MILLER’S CROSSING, THE GRIFTERS and JACOB’S LADDER are all very fine films, I ultimately found the most worthy remaining film from this year to be EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. While this was Tim Burton’s fourth feature film, and not by any means his most financially successful project, I still feel this remains his most accomplished artistic outing. In addition, this was the film that first put Johnny Depp on the map, sending him on his way to becoming one of the most prolific young American actors of his generation. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS also tells a fantastic story of social behavior in America with a fairy tale twist.
HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE, directed by Fax Bahr (1991)
HEARTS OF DARKNESS is a documentary that is more significant for what is has captured than it is strictly for how it was made. The film depicts one of our most accomplished, yet under-appreciated filmmakers at work on what can easily be considered his most trying cinematic venture… APOCALYPSE NOW. Francis Ford Coppola is a master filmmaker and is an example of an artist determined to see his vision realized no matter what. It’s difficult to question the validity of his work, considering four of his films have been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, this from a filmmaker still actively making films. This documentary captures every emotion, every little detail of the creative process from the moments of success to the darkest moments of depression and perceived failure.
MALCOLM X, directed by Spike Lee (1992)
Considered by many to be one of director Spike Lee’s best films, also widely considered the best cinematic depiction of the man’s life and work, MALCOLM X is a powerful biography that puts an era and a historical figure in our political and social past into modern minds. Denzel Washington does a brilliant job portraying this controversial activist, helping to make this film a key example of how film should be appreciated and a tool for education and social awareness as much as it is for entertainment. I actually struggled over whether to choose this film or go with Michael Mann’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS, an equally powerful film about another controversial historical event, but I found that MALCOLM X represented an element of cinema that has yet to be recognized significantly by the National Film Preservation Board.
JURASSIC PARK, directed by Steven Spielberg (1993)
Steven Spielberg has become the poster child for film lover’s who grow up watching and loving movies and are lucky enough to become a celebrated filmmaker in their own right. While others will predictably claim ET: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, JAWS or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as his most significant contribution to cinema, I would argue that JURASSIC PARK is equally significant. The film was made in 1993, a time when CGI was still a technology of the future, still being developed and refined. Aside from Cameron’s THE ABYSS, this film was the most important milestone in the development of modern filmmaking as we know it today. Never before had audiences experienced anything quite like this very real journey into the seemingly impossible, bringing to life on the big screen a story that seemed only possible in our imaginations. Fortunately, Spielberg never allowed his child-like fascination for movies and his imagination dwindle and we have him and the crew to thank.
PULP FICTION, directed by Quentin Tarantino (1994)
PULP FICTION is a film loved by many, but it also has it’s nay-sayers. I could sit here for hours talking about how it’s director Quentin Tarantino’s best film and how it won an Academy Award for best writing and won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but none of that is what I consider the most important element of my argument for the preservation of this modern American classic. There are those who choose to criticize Tarantino for borrowing too much from other films and filmmakers, but to use the word “borrow” is perhaps an incorrect tactic. What Tarantino has done with PULP FICTION has been to preserve the ideology and the culture of various cinematic eras and styles as it’s been filters through his own creative mind. In a sense, this film is a fascinating Cliff’s Notes to cinema on the fringe, great music and pop culture. Tarantino is what I would call the film historian of the future, the expert who is self-educated rather then being run through the PhD mill of collegiate graduate and doctoral studies. PULP FICTION has become a testament to this new form of film historian, colorfully becoming the poster child for a new respect and appreciation for the love of film.
APOLLO 13, directed by Ron Howard (1995)
Director Ron Howard has given us many big Hollywood movies… some good and some not so good, but none have been as culturally significant as APOLLO 13. The film tells the true story of the astronaut crew that faced death while attempting to save a historic 1969 space mission. This was a film popular both with general audiences and critics alike and featured a stacked house of quality actors including Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton. The film also became an acclaimed technological feat for it’s success in portraying the zero-gravity environment in which the astronauts lived. Amidst the film’s many awards were two Oscars for editing and sound mixing and seven additional Academy nominations, won Ron Howard Directors Guild of America award for directorial achievement and appears on two of the AFI’s Top 100 lists. Without much debate, APOLLO 13 is the best film to date about our space program and should be preserved as such.
THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLINT, directed by Milos Forman (1996)
Larry Flint is a man not well liked by many, hated by even more, but has had a monumental role in securing our rights to free speech and has assisted greatly (and unintentionally) in the ongoing battle against censorship. On the surface, such a pornographer wouldn’t seem to be such an important figure in our American culture, but director Milos Forman does a fantastic job of digging in and revealing the legal battle in which Larry Flint fought as more than just a sensational grudge match between two sides of a moralistic debate. The film captures the essence of why this event in our history was so crucial and what it means below the surface of being the publisher of Hustler magazine versus the Supreme Court. Woody Harrelson does a fine job portraying the eccentric and uninhibited Larry Flint and the film remains a useful tool for educating a mature audience about the very nature of free speech in America.
THE ICE STORM, directed by Ang Lee (1997)
Who would have thought such a poignant portrait of the unspoken side of the 70’s in America could have been captured by the director of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON? Ang Lee would later capture another relatively unknown aspect of our American history in 1999 with RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, but this film stands out both culturally and artistically as a masterpiece. Featuring a fine cast of Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood, this film tells the story of a suburban middle-class family of the decade experimenting with the drugs, sex and alcohol popular at the time but find their lives spiraling out of control as a result. Beautifully directed and photographed, the film draws the viewer into these lives and forces us to watch with a slight sense of voyeurism. This is a stellar achievement at revealing the darker underbelly of the common American life, a side we rarely take a serious look into for fear we may recognize something all too familiar.
AMERICAN HISTORY X, directed by Tony Kaye (1998)
AMERICAN HISTORY X is a story of redemption. The significant difference is that it’s a story of a man (Edward Norton) formerly ruled by his hate and racism, influenced by his time in prison and his conscience to convince his younger brother (Edward Furlong) not to follow the same path, speaking from experience. This is a powerful drama about racial tensions and the draw of the neo-Nazi movement on certain white Americans who feel disenfranchised and blame African-Americans. In reality, this neo-Nazi movement is nothing more than gang-style terrorism that inevitably leads to it’s members being killed or imprisoned and this is the story of one brother that will do anything to keep the other from realizing that fate. A well-told story enhanced by great performances and thoughtful direction from Tony Kaye makes this film an under-appreciated work of cultural significance that deserves preservation for future generations.
THE MATRIX, directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski (1999)
1999 was a year full of outstanding films, making it rather difficult to narrow my choice down to just one movie. This year in cinema brought us AMERICAN BEAUTY, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE INSIDER, THE SIXTH SENSE, THE INSIDER, MAGNOLIA, THREE KINGS and FIGHT CLUB… just to name a few. However, with all of these amazing movies to choose from, and despite my little inner demon telling me not to choose the film, when push comes to shove… no movie was nearly as influential and pivotal this year than THE MATRIX. No other film from this year has had the technological influence of THE MATRIX, which has also permeated our cinematic culture through imitation and parody as much as it’s groundbreaking special effects and highly philosophical and intelligent science-fiction story.
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, directed by Darren Aronofsky (2000)
America is a country known for many things, but not all of them are positive in nature. If there’s one vice we’re especially guilty of it’s addiction. As Americans, we have a general trend of living our lives driven by some form of addiction and that’s a vice that comes in an infinite variety. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is based on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr. and was directed by Darren Aronofsky. The film is an unflinching and vivid depiction of our addictive culture, focusing on the story of four different people as they struggle with their own addictions and become entrapped and entangled in their own individually warped and delusional versions of reality, haunted by the torment of being out of control and helpless to their addictions. Ellen Burstyn received an Academy nomination for her performance while Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans all delivered incredible performances as well. This being his second feature film, Aronofsky broke out and became a hot name in Hollywood but has not strayed from his desire to make intelligent films over crowd-pleasing popular cinema. Not only is this a significant cultural commentary, it is also an amazing artistic achievement, having burned imaged into the minds of viewers and introduced original music composed by Clint Mansell and performed by Kronos Quartet that continues to be recycled in various multi-media venues to this date.