26 Great Movies from National Film Registry You Need To Watch (Part I)

7. El Norte (1983)


Though some (many somes) may not like it, there are a number of transplanted Americans (mostly Mexican) who are living in this country without…well, proper certification (OK they’re illegal).

This situation has been addressed with increasing urgency in recent years due to the perceived drain on public systems such as schools and medical facilities supposedly caused by these immigrants, who often work in jobs which pay them under the table due to their lack of legal U.S identity, thus precluding them from paying into such systems.

Though this situation receives much present day discussion it has been going on for a long time. One of the very first films to address this is El Norte from director-co-writer Gregory Nava.

The film, told in three parts, traces the events,some far more pressing than others, which lead a brother and sister to leave their troubled home in Guatemala and journey through Mexico to El Norte (the north), their name for the U.S. They enter illegally since they can not wait through the official process for immigration and find life in the shadowy world of illegal immigrants to be almost as dangerous and grueling as the life that they left behind in their homeland.

Partially funded by the non-profit U.S TV network PBS, El Norte was a deeply appreciated indie hit and was one of the first independent films to receive an Oscar nomination (for best original screenplay). This selection reflects a very real part of American life, even if it is not a popular one.


8. Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

One of the most interesting recent movements in the world of vintage films, certainly the study of Hollywood films, is the fascination with what is now known as the “pre-code” era, the three and half years between the Stock Market crash of October 1929 and implementation of the Catholic sponsored Legion of Decency’s coerced enforcement of their religiously based and very narrow strictures regarding what could be shown and said in motion pictures.

Many interesting films were shuttered in vaults, supposedly forever, since the censor’s office forbade any reissue of them (even after the Legion lost its bite, several films remained in the vaults mostly due to the licence holder’s inertia).

Since a large number of these films were long unseen and mentioned in few histories of film, most were unknown entities and some are now on their way to becoming classics after finally being seen again. One artist whose work has benefited from the re-review is the wonderful Ernst Lubitsch.

Lubitsch has never exactly been neglected but some of his best works were from the saucy period under discussion. Though he was a fine enough artist to traverse the coming of the Code, his subsequent films weren’t quite the same. Perhaps the very best of these earlier works (maybe the best of his films ever) is Trouble in Paradise.

The famed “Lubitsch Touch”, which consisted of handling the most raucous of material in a most delicate, imaginative and continental of ways and was perfect for this tale of two unrepentant, but most elegant, thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins).

The plot has the two meeting in a movie-Heaven version of Venice just after the man has pulled off a big robbery (with ever quizzical Edward Everett Horton as victim). Realizing they are each other’s kind of people, they go off to a happy life in Paris (with no hint of matrimony) until the man gets the idea to fleece the ultra-wealthy widow of a perfume manufacturer.

The widow turns out to be a young and sexy former fortune hunter (Kay Francis) and the female half of the pair fears, with some justification, that the male half plans to mix pleasure with business. Also, the dupe from Venice is one of her would be suitors! It all plays out with such finesse, class and style that it makes one curse the coming of the code all the more vehemently.


9. Chan is Missing (1982)

Chan is Missing (1982)

Minorities have never had the easiest of times in the mainstream motion picture industry. For many years, if a minority character was portrayed at all then he or she was usually written and played in a stereotypical manner.

Asians, particularly Chinese, always seemed to be wise old servants quoting Confucius or the vilest of villains (the long running Fu Manchu series is a good example of this) if not delicate and beautiful maidens doomed by their love for the occidental hero (shades of Madam Butterfly), until World War II, when they all became evil.

While not the largest of minority groups in the U.S, there is a substantial percentage of Chinese Americans, particularly on the west coast. One of the best and most realistic films ever to be created about this group is director Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing, a film he made by begging and borrowing $22000 in order to create (and even in 1982 those weren’t big movie bucks).

The story is a cod mystery about two average guys looking to find the elusive Chan (and, yes, the name was chosen in order to evoke memories of classic age movie sleuth Charlie Chan, who was never played by anyone of Chinese extraction). The two simply want some money the mystery man owes them and they travel hither and yon to get it. They don’t find Chan, but it doesn’t matter for they get satisfaction and the viewer gets an excellent view of Chinese-American life.

Wang smartly allowed the film to be shown only at festivals, campuses, art houses and,eventually, PBS and got his money back, received some fine reviews, made a name for himself, and gave his people something of a true cinematic face.


10. House of Wax (1953)

House Of Wax (1953)

Technical innovations aren’t truly things which enter into the realm of art and yet they do affect how a cinematic artist will create a work of film art. The introduction of sound, color and wide-screen have allowed many creative film directors, designers, cinematographers and technicians to further explore the boundaries of their art form.

The emergence of 3D (stereo optic photography used to produce a three dimensional effect on film) in the 1950s was thought to be fad used in combating the menace of television and it did prove short lived then but has returned in recent and calmer years for use by serious directors such as Martin Scorsese,James Cameron, and Ang Lee (and had been used by no less a director than Alfred Hitchcock back in 1954!).

While the newer wave of 3D films will have to wait until they are old enough to qualify for the Registry, one of the prime examples from the first great wave has been chosen. In 1953 Warner Brothers, a studio which selected 3D for a number of major productions (the first 3D films had mostly been low budget efforts using the process as a novelty sales point), chose to remake its 1932 horror-thriller hit The Mystery of the Wax Museum, which was considered permanently lost at the time.

The basic plot of a insane wax sculptor, badly disfigured in the fire which destroyed his beloved figures and who kills those unlucky enough to resemble those statues and encases them in wax was kept.

However, while the original was a contemporary piece the remake was reset in the Victorian era and removed the mystery structure and overabundant comedy relief of the original. The first version had also been a bit experimental, having been shot in the early two-strip Technicolor process.

Though the plot held up well and Vincent Price, in his first major horror film role, was a memorable villain, the 3D effects were the big selling point with a scene involving a street peddler selling paddle balls being the high point. Oddly enough, many who were relying on memories of the original found the new version inferior but the first film was rediscovered in the early 1970s and the quality of the two versions turned out to be surprisingly close, with version two now being the preferred one by many.


11. Atlantic City (1980)

Atlantic City

Some nationalities such as the Germanic ones tend to do well in Hollywood while others, such as the Gallic ones, mainly the French, traditionally don’t fare as well.

A good case in point is the American career of the noted French director Louis Malle. His record in his native land was golden indeed but when he decided to conquer Hollywood the results were uneven to say the least (his effort at U.S success largely had to do with marrying American actress Candice Bergen).

However, when he went the more independent route in the U.S then the results were more promising. His best U.S film and one of his best films period was the independent French-Canadian production Atlantic City.

The film is set during a critical moment in the historic city’s history. A faded beachfront resort town which only came fully to life during the hosting of the Miss America pageant each year was regearing to become the first city on the eastern seaboard to allow legalized gambling.

The past and future of the city are represented in (mythological) Janus fashion by the film’s two main characters, faded minor mob member Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) and the woman he watches from his apartment window as she cleans herself with lemons every night, Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon).

It seems that Sally’s odd act is an attempt to rid herself of the smell of the oyster bar where she works while learning to become a female blackjack dealer (at a time where there were none in America). She hopes to blow town and head for Monte Carlo.

Sally’s sleazy, drug dealing husband (Robert Joy) shows up with lots of stolen cocaine and her pregnant sister (Hollis McLaren) in tow and ends up involving her and Lou in an elaborate, crisscrossing plot which has moments of comedy and some action but never loses a deep feeling for the two dreamers at the film’s core who, like the city, are clinging to dreams of faded glory and hope for the future.


12. Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

It’s doubtful that there was ever a bigger nonconformist working in the mainstream Hollywood system for any length of time than Nicholas Ray.

Though Ray’s own life seemed to be one giant rebellious gesture, his film’s were rebellious enough in and of themselves. He was always drawn to society’s outcasts, especially troubled youth (his best remembered film being 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause). However, he also created what many consider the most subversive western ever to be made in Hollywood, Johnny Guitar.

One of the film’s most unusual traits is the fact that the two central characters are exceptionally strong willed women. Near a small Arizona town which is torn over the coming of the railroad to the area, masculine Vienna (Joan Crawford, a long ways away from her most glamorous days) owns and runs the local saloon, which is built into a mountain like a predecessor of the works of Frank LLoyd Wright.

She’s investing in land which will make her rich when the railroad arrives. Her heated rival is the repressed, witch-like Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who represents the sector of landowners who do not want the railroad come and enclose them. She stirs the crowd up against Vienna mainly be pointing out that Vienna is a newcomer.

Into the mix comes the title character (Sterling Hayden), an ex-lover of Vienna who has put away his guns and now sings and plays his guitar. Things are coming to a head but it looks like Vienna will be doing the handling. (An all female gunfight will be involved.)

The plot was only meant to be taken but so literally. The film is really more of an allegory about the politically repressive era in which it was made (the McCarthy-Blacklist era). In the film those who live freely (Vienna and Johnny) and who may be different, if only due to being newcomers, are castigated and those who bank all passion and insist on conformity (Emma and her henchmen)are destructive.

Ray uses the unusual settings, quirky color schemes and subversion of sexual stereotypes to represent a world out of order. That he pulled it off using a B studio best known for John Wayne westerns (Republic Pictures) and employing an actress who was the epitome of the Old Hollywood star system (and Crawford loathed the finished film) was a miracle.


13. Days of Heaven (1978)


When writer-director Terrence Malick returned to filmmaking after exactly twenty years with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, much of Hollywood beat a path to his doorstep asking to be allowed to participate in the film.

The joke of it all is the fact that the famously cerebral (he is a Rhodes scholar) and reclusive Malick had only directed two previous films (1973’s Badlands and film under review)which had pleased some critics though not all (Pauline Kael was infamously in the dissenting camp) and hardly a member of the paying public. However, the two films look better and better each year.

Days of Heaven, widely hailed as one of the most gloriously visual films ever made (thanks to cinematographer Nestor Almendros) looks more and more to be an American classic. Set in the pre-World War I era, three unlucky urban dwellers, Bill (Richard Gere), his sweetheart Abby (Brooke Adams) and his younger sister Linda (non-professional adolescent actress Linda Manz, whose extensive narration largely carries the plot) flee to the Texas panhandle after violence prone Bill gets into trouble.

There, working as wheat harvesters, they cross paths with a wealthy farmer (actor-playwright Sam Shepard) who seems to be dying of sheer austerity but who takes a shine to Abby. Abby and Bill decide to lure him into a marriage on the hope he will soon die. However, fate has other twists (realistic ones) in store.

The plot and acting are actually among the least of it in this film. The look and feel of the film, which easily conjures a time and spirit of place long gone dominate. Though much of the film was actually shot in Canada (famously shot in the much desired “magic hour” period) and it exerts a spell over the viewer as if a true glimpse of a seminal period of American life has been achieved.

Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film,cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years.”