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Jon Eig

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The National Film Registry Scorecard

Posted: 12/20/2012 9:05 am

It's that time of the year for "best of" lists. Most of them are recaps of the 2012, but I am always more intrigued by the Library of Congress's annual selections for the National Film Registry. Since 1989, panels of experts have selected 25 films per year to add to this list. The net they cast is wide, covering all types of film, recognized for cultural, historical, or artistic significance. Of the 25 films selected this year, ten could be considered either documentary or experimental films. That leaves 15 narrative movies, mostly features, and mostly from the Hollywood system. There are several shorts as well, and several from outside the Hollywood mainstream. Let's rate how well the experts did with those 15:

No Brainers

Anatomy of a Murder: How was Otto Preminger's searing examination of the American justice system left off the list for so long?

Dirty Harry: Definitive representative of American film's newfound fascination with more graphic violence and profanity that emerged in the late '60s and early '70s. And a key film in the development of the iconic Clint.

A League of Their Own
: One of the best female ensembles in American film.

The Matrix: Super cool. Even subtracting points for its convoluted sequels, this was groundbreaking.

Slacker: Definitive representation of ... whatever. Indie is cool.

A Christmas Story
: Not my cup of tea, but I am not prepared to fight its legion of passionate fans, most of whom, in my experience, are not kids.

Sons of the Desert
: Laurel and Hardy already have two movies on the list, but they are both shorts. They deserve at least one feature, and I would go with this one over Way Out West.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door: Along with Nothing But a Man and Killer of Sheep, this helps fill in a missing part of American film -- the independent Black Cinema. Spook, directed by the under-recognized Ivan Dixon, is a good film, and the story of its quick disappearance after its initial release is an instructive piece of cultural history.

Could Go Either Way

3:10 to Yuma: This is a good, old-fashioned Western. Good story. Professional on all accounts. But there are already at least 18 Westerns on the list, and if you count the hybrids (Gene Autry, Rin Tin Tin, Mel Brooks) there are even more. Six of them, all arguably more significant than Yuma, are, like Yuma, from the 1950s. It's the Hall of Fame argument. Yuma's good, but is it great? To me, no. Leave Yuma at the station.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: Big dilemma. Audrey Hepburn is a huge star, but she really did not make great movies. Holly Golightly may be her most famous role, but the movie, owing to its times, is a serious sanitization of Truman Capote's book, and though charming at times, is not all that close to being a great movie. I'd watch Charade fifty times before watching Tiffany's, and I'd argue Two For the Road is a better Hepburn film. Leave it off.

No, Please

Born Yesterday: Like Breakfast at Tiffany's, this is on the list for one reason: its lead actress. Judy Holliday is a marvel, but the movie is leaden and mostly unfunny. Due to an understandable love of Holliday, this has become one of the most overrated of American comedies.

Two Lane Blacktop: I know there are some people who consider the image of the sports car cruising America's vastness to be inspirational, and this to be a more honest movie than Easy Rider. But most of us consider it to be really, really slow. And boring. And opaque. On the other hand, if you are looking for a movie in which Dennis Wilson and James Taylor barely grunt, this would be your choice.

The Obscure

Okay, I haven't seen the other three, but I am familiar with all of them. Two of them, Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Wishing Ring, are from 1914, and both have good arguments for inclusion. But the final movie, Parable, has the best argument. This short, made in 1964, depicting Jesus as a carnival clown, was both praised and condemned by Christians. Generally, the condemnation came from leadership and praise came from the people. In the end, the praise won out. It calls attention to under-represented elements in American film -- namely independent, spiritually-based cinema. As with the aforementioned Killer of Sheep, this inclusion may well spur people to go seek out this kind of movie. And isn't that the whole point of such list?

That's 11 out of 15, or on my calculator, 73 percent. C+. Passing, but maybe we can do better in 2013.

 
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