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The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
When “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” was restored for DVD release in 2004, the New York Times called it “a story of black insurrection too strong for 1973.” Based on a controversial best-selling 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee and with a subtly effective score by jazz legend Herbie Hancock, the film presents the story of a black man hired to integrate the CIA who uses his counter-revolutionary training to spark a black nationalist revolution in America’s urban streets. Financed mostly by individual African-American investors, some commentators lambasted the film for its sanctioning of violence and distributor United Artists pulled the movie from theaters after a successful three-week run. Others appreciated its significance. Washington Post journalist Adrienne Manns, a former spokesperson in the black student movement, argued that the film “lends humanity to persons who are usually portrayed as vicious, savage, sub-humans – the street gangs, the young people who have in many cities terrorized the communities they live in.” New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby commented, “The rage it projects is real.” Ivan Dixon, the film’s director known for his roles in “Hogan’s Heroes” and as the lead in “Nothing But a Man” (1964), believed that the film did not offer “a real solution” to racial injustice, but projected instead “a fantasy that everybody felt, every black male particularly.”
Never seen it. Never heard of it. Sounds amazing.
They Call It Pro Football (1967)
Before “They Call It Pro Football” premiered, football films were little more than highlight reels set to the oom-pah of a marching band. In 1964, National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle agreed to the formation of NFL Films. With a background in public relations, he recognized that the success of the league depended on its image on television, which required creating a mystique. “They Call It Pro Football,” the first feature of NFL Films, looked at the game “in dramaturgical terms,” capturing the struggle, not merely the outcome, of games played on the field. Written and produced by Steve Sabol, directed by John Hentz and featuring the commanding cadence of narrator John Facenda and the music of Sam Spence, the film presented football on an epic scale and in a way rarely seen by the spectator. Telephoto lenses brought close-ups of players’ faces into viewers’ living rooms. Slow motion revealed surprising intricacy and grace. Sweeping ground-to-sky shots imparted a “heroic angle.” Coaches and players wearing microphones let the audience in on strategy and emotion. “They Call It Pro Football” established a mold for subsequent productions by NFL Films and has well earned its characterization as the “Citizen Kane” of sports movies.
Never seen it. Never heard of it. Sounds amazing.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Told largely with revealing news clips and archival footage interspersed with personal reminiscences, “The Times of Harvey Milk” vividly recounts the life of San Francisco’s first openly gay elected city official. The film, which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, traces Harvey Milk’s ascent from Bay Area businessman to political prominence as city supervisor and his 1978 assassination, which also claimed the life of San Francisco mayor George Moscone. While illuminating the effect that Milk had on those who knew him, the film also documents the nascent gay rights movement of the 1970s. The film, with its moving and incisive portrait of a city, a culture and a struggle—as well as Harvey Milk’s indomitable spirit—resonates profoundly as a historical document of a grassroots movement gaining political power through democratic means.
I've written here before about this one, and I think it's a great, significant record of a time and place, and a great example of how film can serve as a living memorial for the departed.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
During a short-lived period following the success of such youth-oriented films as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate” and especially “Easy Rider” in the late 1960s, Hollywood executives financed—with minimal oversight—a spate of low-budget, innovative films by young “New Hollywood” filmmakers. With influences ranging from playwright Samuel Beckett to European filmmakers Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette and Michelangelo Antonioni, one such film was the minimalist classic “Two-Lane Blacktop.” The film follows two obsessed but laconic young operators of a souped-up 1955 Chevy (singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) as they engage in a cross-country race with a 1970 Pontiac GTO, whose loquacious, middle-aged driver (Warren Oates) continually reinvents his past and intended future. The drivers’ fixation on speed, mastery and competition is disrupted when a 17-year-old drifter (Laurie Bird) joins their masculine world and later leaves them in disarray. Director Monte Hellman and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer allow audiences time to absorb the film’s spare landscapes, car-culture rituals and existential encounters, and to reflect on the myth of freedom that life on the road traditionally has embodied.
This one seems to be carrying the torch for the much-celebrated '70s revolution in film as far as this year's entries on the Registry, and "Two-Lane Blacktop" is absolutely perfect as an example of what the best of the era's filmmakers were trying to do. Personal, experimental, with elements of exploitation film language used in service of a genuine yearning to express something new, something real. Monte Hellman doesn't get the same amount of press as many of the other filmmakers who were turning out important work at the same time, but this film is a titan, and should be acknowledged as one.
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1914)
Harriet Beecher Stowe published her great anti-slavery novel in 1852. Adapted for the stage in 1853, it was continuously performed in the U.S. well into the 20th century. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was frequently adapted to movies after 1900, but always with white actors in the lead roles until this version, said to be the first feature-length American film that starred a black actor. Sam Lucas—actor, musician, singer and songwriter—had become famous in the 19th century for his performances in vaudeville and minstrel shows produced by Charles Frohman. In 1878, Frohman achieved a breakthrough in American theatrical history when he staged a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” featuring Lucas in the lead role. Thirty-six years later, Lucas was lured out of retirement by the World Producing Corp. to recreate his historic role on film and, in the process, set an important milestone in American movie history.
Obviously important, this is one of those films more people know by title than by actual experience. I've never seen it. I've seen clips, I know what it is generally, and I know it was significant in terms of the conversation about slavery in American art. I think it's also important in terms of looking at the art of adaptation from one media to another. In this case, the film was made in no small part to capture the performance by Sam Lucas on film, since it was legendary from his theatrical run. Compare that to "Dracula," where Lugosi had to really fight to earn the right to play the part that he had played so successfully on stage, and you can see a shift in the attitude about how and why to adapt something.
The Wishing Ring; An Idyll of Old England (1914)
Director Maurice Tourneur, called by film historian Kevin Brownlow “one of the men who introduced visual beauty to the American screen,” arrived in America in 1914. Previously, he was as an artist (assisting sculptor August Rodin and painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes), actor and innovative director in French theater and cinema. Tourneur’s third American film, “The Wishing Ring,” was once believed lost until Brownlow located a 16mm print of the film in northern England. The print subsequently was copied to 35mm by the Library of Congress as part of an effort funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to preserve America’s film heritage. At the time of its initial release, the film was admired for its light and pleasing cross-class romantic story, its fresh performances and the authenticity of its “Old England” settings—although it was shot in New Jersey. Historians of silent cinema have lionized the film since its rediscovery. William K. Everson praised its “incredible sophistication of camerawork, lighting, and editing.” Richard Koszarski deemed it “an extraordinary film – probably the high point of American cinema up to that time.”
And they round it all out with one more title that I obviously will need to see at some point now that I've read about it.
Thanks to the inclusion of it on the Registry, and thanks to the inclusion of all the other titles on this list, there is a stronger chance that they'll be available in some form. Maybe some day we'll see a streaming channel run by the Registry, a Netflix-like service where you can see any of those 600 titles in their most pristine form, permanently preserved and made accessible to anyone. That certainly seems like the sort of thing that our shifting media landscape seems perfect to feature.
So tell me… what do you guys think of this year's list?