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Lord of the Rings, Return of the Jedi deemed culturally significant by Library of Congress

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On top of the blockbusters, the National Registry is also getting more diverse

Gandalf standing next to a brown horse in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Photo: New Line Cinema

The National Film Registry, a list of movies deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, is making room for blockbusters. This year’s inductees include Star Wars Episode VI - Return of the Jedi, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and WALLE, which means that they will be “recommended for preservation by those holding the best elements for that film,” according to the Library of Congress’ mission statement. And, while it is not a designation of the best movies in the way that Oscars are, it is a declaration from the Library of Congress that these movies “reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.”

The sci-fi and fantasy classics, all of which received widespread critical and commercial acclaim at their release, add some star power to a list of lesser-known films that likely need more of a boost. But the placement of big-budget classics offers some corrective to what Marvel President Kevin Feige recently called “genre bias,” a sense that superheroes, robots, and hobbits might make a movie less palatable to Academy Award voters and the critical community.

It’s hard to argue that any of these movies received much in terms of a negative bias —Fellowship of the Ring is part of the trilogy that eventually won Best Picture. Of the major films on this list, Wes Craven’s Nightmare arguably had the longest journey, typically more defined by Robert Englund’s horrifying Freddy rather than its vast cultural appeal. The Registry’s list of horror movies features many classics, but still lacks the depth of some of its other genres.

Freddy Krueger’s razor claw emerges from the bathtub between two female legs in A Nightmare on Elm Street
Freddy is now “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”
Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Of course, it’s not just horror and sci-fi movies that have biases against them. There are racial, gender and sex-based, and political biases against movies, and the Registry’s aims to challenge that history as well.

Joining the 2021 roster of inductees is Howard Alk’s 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, which challenged the official narrative surrounding the death of leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party. There’s Cheryl Dunye’s 1988 movie The Watermelon Woman, which has gained acclaim as the first feature-length narrative film written and directed by out Black lesbian about Black lesbians. And there’s Michael Shultz’s influential Cooley High, a movie about Black high-schoolers in Chicago that influenced Spike Lee, among others.

There are also the biases of time, which can mean that “older movies” all get painted with the same brush. But not every film from the early days of cinema is a Charlie Chaplin comedy, and that’s likely why the Registry highlights movies like The Flying Ace, a 1926 silent movie with an all-Black cast about a World War I veteran who returns home to start a job as a railroad detective.

Between the big movies and the smaller treasures are a number of other classics, ranging from The Long Goodbye starring Elliot Gould to the Talking Heads’ legendary concert movie Stop Making Sense. Hopefully, from concert movies to silent movies to horror, next year’s list will continue to deepen Registry’s understanding of the American film experience.

Here’s the full list of this year’s National Registry inductees:

  1. Ringling Brothers Parade Film (1902)
  2. Jubilo (1919)
  3. The Flying Ace (1926)
  4. Hellbound Train (1930)
  5. Flowers and Trees (1932)
  6. Strangers on a Train (1951)
  7. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
  8. Evergreen (1965)
  9. Requiem-29 (1970)
  10. The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971)
  11. Pink Flamingos (1972)
  12. Sounder (1972)
  13. The Long Goodbye (1973)
  14. Cooley High (1975)
  15. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)
  16. Chicana (1979)
  17. The Wobblies (1979)
  18. Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983)
  19. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  20. Stop Making Sense (1984)
  21. Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987)
  22. The Watermelon Woman (1996)
  23. Selena (1997)
  24. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
  25. WALLE (2008)