Movie Review – These Amazing Shadows

For lovers of film, you owe it to yourself to watch this. A love letter to the medium of cinema, its power and influence over all our lives, and the lives of those who’ve come before us.


– Summary –

Director :  Paul Mariano + Kurt Norton
Year Of Release :   2011
Principal Cast :  Various.
Approx Running Time :   90 Minutes
Synopsis:   Tells the history and importance of The National Film Registry, a roll call of American cinema treasures that reflects the diversity of film, and indeed the American experience itself.
What we think :  For lovers of film, you owe it to yourself to watch this. A love letter to the medium of cinema, its power and influence over all our lives, and the lives of those who’ve come before us.

My mate St Pauly over at 1,2,3 WTF? didn’t so much suggest this documentary to me, as extoll the fact that if I didn’t watch it, I didn’t love film. Dude was right on. These Amazing Shadows is a love letter to movies, to cinema and the historical context in which it sits. Easily the 20th century’s great art-form, film has been the constant throughout my life, and countless others around the globe since the medium came along at the end of the 1800’s. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, growing up in rural Australia where our local “town hall” screened movies so irregularly, I can recall each one with perfect clarity. Phar Lap. The Man From Snowy River. The Santa Claus Movie. The Gods Must Be Crazy. Alby Mangel’s World Safari series. The 80’s fantasy films I adored (The Neverending Story, The Last Starfighter, The Goonies, Star Wars et al), the Disney films, the advent of the modern “blockbusters” of the 90’s, when CG became the fashion and Independence Day blew up the world at the same time it blew my mind – cinema has held a special place in my, your, our hearts for generations. These Amazing Shadows looks at the American National Film Registry, it’s mandate to collect films of cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance, and the role it plays in providing a history not only of American cinema, but America itself.


IMDb Synopsis “What do the films Casablanca, Blazing Saddles, and West Side Story have in common? Besides being popular, they have also been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” by the Library of Congress and listed on the National Film Registry. These Amazing Shadows tells the history and importance of The Registry, a roll call of American cinema treasures that reflects the diversity of film, and indeed the American experience itself. The current list of 525 films includes selections from every genre – documentaries, home movies, Hollywood classics, avant-garde, newsreels and silent films. These Amazing Shadows reveals how American movies tell us so much about ourselves…not just what we did, but what we thought, what we felt, what we aspired to, and the lies we told ourselves.”

Chris Nolan8

These Amazing Shadows isn’t so much a documentary as it is a reflection on film history, and the preservation of art. Much like The Louvre in Paris collects and preserves painting and sculpture, much like the Smithsonian in Washington collects artifacts and documents of national importance, the National Film Registry of America is tasked by – and funded by – US Congress to preserve films of particular significance. When you think about it, this is a mammoth duty. What makes a film significant? Is it its popularity, cultural or otherwise? Is it controversial? Is it important because of who made it, or who stars in it, or its relevance to a period of time?


The NFR doesn’t only choose Hollywood blockbusters or period dramas, which is what I thought prior to watching this film. Instead, it chooses all manner footage, from “home movies” of historical importance (a movie made in the 30’s, showing a rural township in Alabama I think, gave us a glimpse into that particular time and place, now lost to all but memory) to short films involving education on how to survive an atomic blast (ha ha), and which paint you should buy to prevent your house from being incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. In fact, so many films, short subjects and other material has been selected by the NFR since it’s inception in 1988, I was surprised by how much here I hadn’t seen. I even remembered the “Let’s all go to the lobby” short which played between double features at the local cinema I frequented on holidays during the summers by the sea!


Perhaps the most salient information I gleaned from this film is the alarming skewing of female directors in the modern film industry – a well documented fact made all the more prescient by the acknowledgement that prior to the 1930’s studio system, almost 80% of the directors in the film industry at the time, as well as many of the writers and editors, were women! Nowadays, you could count the number of successful female directors on one hand, but back in the early 1900’s, the exploding film industry allowed women to direct their own movies! Amazing! Whatever would they think of next? Female soldiers? Pshaw!


This is a film that could have gone for four hours, and I still wouldn’t be bored watching it. The examination of some of the Registry’s more controversial inclusions, particularly DW Griffith’s racially abhorrent The Birth of A Nation, are given some detailed motivation, while context is provided for some of the less known works within the organization’s purview. At barely 90 minutes, I felt somewhat shortchanged at the end, as if I was given an appetizer instead of a main meal. What there is in this film is well presented, with a variety of talking heads (including Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Nolan, George Takei, and John Waters, among others), and plenty of archival footage from the vast array of material within the Registry; it’s done in such a manner as to make you almost wistful that you don’t watch nearly enough movies. So much stuff here I’d love the time to spare to watch.


If you’re a fan of cinema, a fan of the art of moviemaking, you could do a lot worse than give These Amazing Shadows 90 minutes of your time. It’s a wonderful, soothing, elegant documentary about an important body within America’s societal recording of history. With much of Hollywood’s early silent films and even early sound films lost forever (a startling statistic says that roughly half of all silent films produced in America during the early years are now completely lost – imagine the outcry if somebody suddenly lost all Michael Bay’s films!), preservation of this important art-form has never been more important. And a film such as this can only do more to make sure it stays the focus for future generations to enjoy.





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4 thoughts on “Movie Review – These Amazing Shadows

  1. Wasn't it a pleasure, though? And I agree with you whole heartedly…90 minutes is not nearly enough to cover the NFR and the films they protect. The subject merits a deeper and more in depth investigation, to be sure. Thank you for not letting my admittedly pretentious tweet put you off a wonderful viewing opportunity!
    My recent post WTF: 28 Days Later (2002)

    1. Ha ha, cheers bud. To be honest, if somebody made a multi-part documentary series about this subject, I'd be dead keen to see it. 90 minutes – nowhere near enough time, they only barely scratched the surface.

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