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

20. Medium Cool (1968)

Medium Cool

The late 1960’s was a most difficult time for the big Hollywood studios. All of them seemed to be out of touch with the youth culture sweeping the country at the time and either seemed to produce totally out of it white elephant movies or desperately out of it “hip” movies. It would take Solomon to figure out which were worse. However the studios were open to greenlighting films which under other circumstances would never have seen the light of day.

One of the studios hardest hit by the time was Paramount and most of the films made there in the second half of the 60s are head scratchers indeed. However, even though the vast majority were flops at the box office some were wonderfully searing follies. Among these films is Medium Cool, one of the most subversive films ever turned out by a major Hollywood studio.

The film was the pet project of Haskell Wexler, an Oscar winning cinematographer (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who took on the roles of writer and director for this film. He was (and is) also one of Hollywood’s most devoted liberals (some say radical).

The plot, which is loosely structured, concerns a cameraman (Robert Forrester)for a major TV news division who is passively looking on while photographing many of the rather distressing national events which took place in the U.S during 1968 (including the infamous riots at the National Democratic Convention that year, which turned out to be more volatile that even Wexler had anticipated).

He learns some disturbing facts concerning his news division and the FBI and also commences a relationship with an abandoned mother (Verna Bloom) and son (Harold Blankenship) from the Appalachians.It all dovetails with national events for a crushing finale.

This film was never going to be a moneymaker and any sensible executive would have known that but this was also, if only this once, the real thing. Combining fiction with documentary footage and technique, Medium Cool (a title taken from a quote concerning the TV medium by Marshall McLuhan) caught one of the most traumatic cultural moments in recent U.S history all too knowingly.


21. America, America (1963)

America, America (1963)

It’s hard to believe that the great stage and film director Elia Kazan’s best period in the American film industry actually lasted a bit less than twenty years. He debuted with 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and had a number of promising hits during the balance of that decade, though he felt the films to be conventional studio assignments. He came into his own in the 1950s and started well in the 60s but his streak came to a crashing halt after the release of his most personal film ever, America, America.

The film is a dramatized version of the story of the journey to America by Kazan’s uncle,Stavros Topouzoglou, from his native Turkey, which is presented as a most oppressive place. Kazan originally presented the story as a novel and this film was to have been the first film in a trilogy.

However, though there was critical acclaim and award nominations for this labor of love, the public didn’t really respond. Part of this may have been due to Kazan casting mostly unknown actors, principally Greek actor Stathis Giallelis in the all important lead role (a character who appears in every scene of the film).

The plot details how the uncle survived several violent episodes dictated by ethnic and class oppression by order of those in power and how he also survived homelessness, hunger and dire poverty in order to finally get to a his promised land, where he becomes a shoeshine boy but now has the promise of something better for his future.

Many cynical and jaded Americans may well forget in the present day how much hope and potential so many immigrants have had and still have when coming to a country where they feel they will at least get an even chance in life. Kazan created this film with skill and passion and once more pulled off the feat of endowing a film with deep emotion and not have it come across as overdone. It was a fitting closing to his great era.


22. Don’t Look Back (1967)

Don’t Look Back (1967)

D.A. Pennebaker is a giant among U.S documentary filmmakers. He was always able to look at his subjects dead on and get closer and go deeper than virtually any of his contemporaries. He also had a lifelong passion with music and the musicians and singers who create that music (a magnum opus is 1968’s Monterey Pop).

It seems fit that he was the one who managed to gain access to the elusive Bob Dylan, an artist held in virtually holy esteem by critics and public alike for several years and who is still counted among the greatest influences on pop/rock/folk music in the U.S.

Don’t Look Back follows the singer-songwriter and such satellites as the fine singer Joan Baez (once a flame, by then a smoking ember) and the poetic 60s troubadour Donovan (who seems to rightly sense that the new kid is putting an end to his time at the top) though a three week tour of the U.K in 1965.

The film’s chief value is the exploration of the nature of a performing genius. Like many touches with genius, Dylan is a bundle of contradictions. He both does and doesn’t realize how talented he is since he is alternately uncomprehending of the fact that others don’t possess his insight and talents then high handed because they don’t. He is self assured to the point of arrogance yet too magnetic and fascinating to discard or dismiss.

Dylan desperately tried to crash the movies but he didn’t really translate well to the medium. This would prove to be his finest cinematic hour.


23. David Holzman’s Diary (1967)

David Holzman’s Diary (1967)

This….well, non-documentary is a delightful item. Director Jim McBride, a budding documentary filmmaker (now a successful director of fiction based products) wanted to dramatize the facets of his life. Instead of making a documentary about himself he created the fictional David Holzman, a young man who wishes to be a documentary filmmaker.

David (writer L.M. Kit Carson in an acting role) has talent, maybe, but also can’t seem to quite get it all together. As he goes about trying to make a documentary about his life he resorts to filming…well, everything, but everything about his life.

He films his arguments with girlfriend, what he hears on the news, what he watches on TV. He seems to think it will all be interesting to the public. He couldn’t be more wrong. This film wonderfully demolishes the cinema-verite school of documentary so popular in the 60s and also predates the “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap by about two decades.


24. Faces (1968)


In the current film world, an “indie” film can mean anything from a multi-million dollar effort that just happened not to be released by a major studio to a film financed with someone’s maxed out credit cards. Today the later is much more easily achieved than in an earlier era where “indie” almost always meant a film cobbled together with a multi-hundred dollar budget. One of the seminal father-figures of the American indie scene was John Cassavetes,who could have written the book on sparsely budgeted indies.

Cassavetes was a promising actor who could have had a big mainstream career but wanted to direct. After directing the fascinating Shadows in 1962 (which had about the budget of a home movie) he tried to bend to the mainstream way but the two films he created, Too Late Blues in 1961 and A Child is Waiting in 1963, didn’t please anyone, especially the director.

He and wife Gena Rowlands, who would subsequently be his frequent lead actress, went to work in TV, B-movies,A-movies (such as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby) in order to earn the money to create an indie film on a decent budget. The film, shot largely in their home, was Faces.

Like many Cassavetes films, Faces concerns turbulent domestic relationships in middle class America. The lead couple, a somewhat well off businessman and his wife (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) has dried up long ago but other, non-amatory, interests keep them joined together.

As a release, he has another life on the side with a beautiful, vividly alive woman (Rowlands), while she goes out with the girls and, one night, picks up a most lively young man (character actor Seymour Cassel, wildly miscast but most entertaining)with distressing results.

The film is shot in the style of a documentary and the dialog came out of improvisational sessions the director held with the actors (though they did not, as many believe, make it all up on camera as they went along). This was pure Cassavetes, as he did not like to obey formulaic dramatic rules and tropes but wanted to get to some realistic truth and hit a nerve with the viewer. The film was a hit by indie standards and launched him on a career of doing it his way (not that it was ever easy).


25. Bullitt (1969)

Bullitt (1968)

Film snobs quite often look down on action thrillers as mere commercial products. While it is true that there is no such thing as an art house action thriller, making a good example of the genre takes talent as much as making any other worthwhile film. One of the best is Bullitt from British director Peter Yates and featuring the man whose picture should be next to the entry for “cool” in the dictionary, Steve McQueen.

The actor plays one of his trademark iconoclastic characters, a San Francisco cop who is being used as a dupe in a really quite twisty plot involving a deceptively underhanded politician (Robert Vaughan). The plot is well constructed and the actors, including female lead Jacqueline Bisset, do quite well (especially McQueen) but everyone who has ever seen this film principally remembers one thing.

This highlight is what may be the best car chase ever put on film. Speed addict McQueen did some of his own driving and, combined with the skillful work of the director, editor, and stunt co-ordinators, the sequence is a veritable work of art. The film also benefits from the dark and ambiguous feeling lurking around the country and its films in those times that there was never a win over the bad guys, just a beating back for a while and that much came at a great price.


26. Nashville (1975)

Nashville (1975)

The apex of director Robert Altman’s golden age of semi-improvised, dialog-overlapping, ensemble quirkiness is this milestone film which looks at the U.S on the eve of its bicentennial from the vantage point of denizens of the capital of country music.

The country is also preparing for an election and one of the people coming to town is one Hal Philips Walker (heard from a sound truck roaming the streets and blasting his speeches but never seen). Walker is an independent candidate from something called the “Replacement Party” and mostly spouts empty rhetoric.

This seems to be about what most of the cast of two dozen characters deserves since nobody much seems to be interested in the issues affecting the country in lieu of making or hoping to make hit music, hooking up, getting one over on somebody, or just floating around. Sadly, the free-floating chaos will attract violence of a peculiarly American type to the one serious artist in the groups of clowns.

Altman was always a great director for being able to look at the way average people truly live and think and while he may have some fun at their expense he never despised them for being themselves. His ultimate lesson with this film is that while the country may have fallen into a junky, somewhat trashy, and frivolous place with little moral compass, the citizens still have the ability to endure and survive.

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.”