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The first film I watched this year was a documentary called "These Amazing Shadows," a look at the work being done by the National Film Registry, and a celebration of the impulse behind the creation of the annual list.
For those of you not familiar with it already, each year, the Registry picks films that are "works of enduring importance to American culture, that reflect who we are as a people and as a nation." This year, anything released between 1897 and 1999 was eligible, and with this year's choices, the registry now stands at 600 titles. That's since it was created in 1989, and as with every year, the list of titles chosen includes some obvious choices, some eccentric choices, and some films you probably have never heard of, making for a typically heady mix.
I love that they've included "The Matrix," which will probably end up being one of the most influential films released since I started writing about movies. It seems with each passing year to cast a larger and larger shadow over pop culture, and I'm wondering if the Wachowskis will ever be able to equal the impact that movie made on audiences and filmmakers alike.
Here's the full list of new films added to the Registry, as well as the explanation sent out as part of today's press release, followed by my own thoughts on each title in italics.
2012 National Film Registry
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Considered to be one of the best westerns of the 1950s, “3:10 to Yuma” has gained in stature since its original release as audiences have recognized the progressive insight the film provides into the psychology of its two main characters that becomes vividly exposed during scenes of heightened tension. Frankie Laine sang the film’s popular theme song, also titled “3:10 to Yuma.” Often compared favorably with “High Noon,” this innovative western from director Delmer Daves starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in roles cast against type and was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.
There's a strong emphasis on pointing out highlights from the studio system, the gems that were slipped by, sometimes unnoticed or underappreciated at the time, and it's something that the Registry does particularly well. There are very few of their classic Hollywood choices that I've disagreed with. "3:10 To Yuma" is a strong, simple movie, told with a quiet urgency, and is a solid addition to the library.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Director Otto Preminger brought a new cinematic frankness to film with this gripping crime-and-trial movie shot on location in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where the incident on which it was based had occurred. Controversial in its day due to its blunt language and willingness to openly discuss adult themes, “Anatomy” — starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick — endures today for its first-rate drama and suspense, and its informed perspective on the legal system. The film includes an innovative jazz score by Duke Ellington and one of Saul Bass’s most memorable opening title sequences.
Yep. Pretty much a perfect summation of the film's strengths. I don't love Preminger across the board, but this one's undeniable.
The Augustas (1930s-1950s)
Scott Nixon, a traveling salesman based in Augusta, Ga., was an avid member of the Amateur Cinema League who enjoyed recording his travels on film. In this 16-minute silent film, Nixon documents some 38 streets, storefronts and cities named Augusta in such far-flung locales as Montana and Maine. Arranged with no apparent rhyme or reason, the film strings together brief snapshots of these Augustas, many of which are indicated at pencil-point on a train timetable or roadmap. Nixon photographed his odyssey using both 8mm and 16mm cameras loaded with black-and-white and color film, amassing 26,000 feet of film that now resides at the University of South Carolina. While Nixon’s film does not illuminate the historical or present-day significance of these towns, it binds them together under the umbrella of Americana. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, this amateur auteur seems to juxtapose the name’s lofty origin—‘august,’ meaning great or venerable—with the unspectacular nature of everyday life in small-town America.
Never heard of it until now, but it's an evocative description, and based on the mission statement of the Registry, this sounds like exactly the sort of thing it was designed to feature, giving them equal weight with everything else on the list.
Born Yesterday (1950)
Judy Holliday’s sparkling lead performance as not-so-dumb “dumb blonde” Billie Dawn anchors this comedy classic based on Garson Kanin’s play and directed for the screen by George Cukor. Kanin’s satire on corruption in Washington, D.C., adapted for the screen by Albert Mannheimer, is full of charm and wit while subtly addressing issues of class, gender, social standing and American politics. Holliday’s work in the film (a role she had previously played on Broadway) was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actress and has endured as one of the era’s most finely realized comedy performances.
If you're not familiar with this one, Holliday is indeed outstanding in it, and the real heartbreak is knowing that Hollywood never really figured out what else to do with her. She was a force of nature, a presence who worked better in a live theater than on a film set, but that was more a failure of the writers and directors who she worked with than of Holliday.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Truman Capote’s acclaimed novella—the bitter story of self-invented Manhattan call girl Holly Golightly—arrived on the big screen purged of its risqué dialogue and unhappy ending. George Axelrod’s screenplay excised explicit references to Holly’s livelihood and added an emotionally moving romance, resulting, in Capote’s view, in “a mawkish valentine to New York City.” Capote believed that Marilyn Monroe would have been perfect for the film and judged Audrey Hepburn, who landed the lead, “just wrong for the part.” Critics and audiences, however, have disagreed. The Los Angeles Times stated, “Miss Hepburn makes the complex Holly a vivid, intriguing figure.” Feminist critics in recent times have valued Hepburn’s portrayals of the period as providing a welcome alternative female role model to the dominant sultry siren of the 1950s. Hepburn conveyed intelligent curiosity, exuberant impetuosity, delicacy combined with strength, and authenticity that often emerged behind a knowingly false facade. Critics also have lauded the movie’s director Blake Edwards for his creative visual gags and facility at navigating the film’s abrupt changes in tone. Composer Henry Mancini’s classic “Moon River,” featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer, also received critical acclaim. Mancini considered Hepburn’s wistful rendition of the song on guitar the best he had heard.
Great in many ways, embarrassing in a few key ways, "Breakfast At Tiffany's" is, more than anything, a spectacular record of a charismatic movie star at the very height of their power. Audrey Hepburn is bewitching in the role, no matter what the compromises of the script. Mickey Rooney's role is a horror show, no doubt about it, and offensive enough that it taints the movie, but Hepburn… and Pepard's so pretty in it… and "Moon River"… and I get it.