Why I’m watching all 775 films on the National Film Registry

What is the National Film Registry?

The National Film Registry is a selection of some of the most important films ever made. The Registry began in 1989, as a result of an act of Congress. Each year, a team of filmmakers and film scholars selects 25 films to be added. Currently, there are 775 films on the Registry.

In order to be added to the NFR, films must fit two criteria: first, they must be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” And second, they must be at least 10 years old. However, most films that get added to the Registry tend to be quite a bit older than that. For example, out of the 775 films currently on the Registry, only 19 of those films are less than 25 years old. Likewise, while the rules don’t prohibit international films from being added, one of the chief purposes of the Registry is to recognize and preserve American films. I am not currently aware of any international films that are included in the Registry (but I also haven’t seen most of the films, hence why I started this project).

The NFR contains a WIDE variety of films, including popular blockbusters (like Star Wars, Back to the Future, and The Lion King), and Oscar winners (like Casablanca, The Godfather, and Schindler’s List). But it doesn’t limit itself only to films that most people would consider “traditional movies”, it also contains short films, cartoons, documentaries, experimental films, home videos, newsreel footage, test footage, and it even has one music video (take a guess as to which music video you think it is, and then click here to see if you were right.) A few other interesting tidbits: the longest film on the Registry is 8 hours and 5 minutes, while the shortest film is just 5 seconds. The oldest film is from 1891 and the most recent is from 2005.

Why am I doing this?

A few years ago, I decided to watch all of the Best Picture winning films. As I started to come close to completing that task, I started to think about what other list of movies I could tackle next. Call me a nerd, but I’ve been interested in lists for as long as I can remember, especially actionable lists. Do all of X, read all of X, collect all of X, watch all of X, etc. That’s why I’ve attached the name “completist” to this project. However, to be honest, for every “completist” project that I’ve been successfully able to finish, there are probably ten or more “completist” projects that I’ve abandoned. But, I think this time might be a little bit different.

As I began researching the films in the Registry, I noticed that while the vast majority of the films are easy to find, some of them (about 25ish) are rather difficult to get ahold of. Because I tend to also be a perfectionist, I didn’t want to dive into such a huge undertaking without a plan, so I began extensively researching those hard-to-find films.

And I found them. In various film archives across the country. That I will have to physically travel to if I want to view them. And that’s when it occurred to me: I don’t think anyone has ever done this before. I think I have a legitimate chance of being the first person ever to watch all of the films on the Registry. These archives tend to be open to the general public, though a couple of them require you to be working on some kind of research (which is why I’m also writing a book, in case this whole endeavor wasn’t already foolish enough, but I’ll get to that later). So if someone else had gone through this process of finding and viewing all of these films, I feel like there should be some kind of record of it. And I haven’t been able to find any.

The only other possible scenario that I can think of is *if* each member of the board who selects each year’s inductees is required to view all 25 films before inducting them, and *if* there is someone who has been on the board since its inception in 1989, then maybe that person (or small group of people) has seen them all. But even if that’s the case (and I don’t think it is), then I’d be the first person outside of the selection board to have seen all of them, and even that still seems like quite an accomplishment.

So might I fail in this task? Possibly. But I’m also in no rush to complete it. Slow and steady wins the race (or whatever other cliché you prefer). I recognize that the sheer amount of movies on the Registry (and the fact that more get added every year) means that this will likely take me at least a decade (probably more) to finish. And I plan to use that time to save up for the various trips around the country I’ll need to make. (I’ll probably save the trips until I’m nearly finished, partially because it’ll be more dramatic, but realistically because there is a good chance that more films will be added to the Registry that are only available in those specific archives, and there’s no sense having to make a trip twice.)

How you can follow me on my journey:

I have three primary ways that I plan to document my efforts.

The first is this blog, which I will use to write overviews of all the films as I watch (or rewatch) them.

These blog entries will be adapted into a book, where it will be easier to peruse the entries for each film. That book will be updated in sync with this blog (and as such, it is currently very much a work in progress), and you will be able to access it by clicking here. Also, if you’re like me, and you prefer being able to manipulate data in a spreadsheet, I’ve created a spreadsheet that details how you can find every film in the Registry. (It also notes how you can help me, if you feel so inclined.)

Lastly, you can follow me on social media. I plan to make brief one minute videos about each film that will cover what they’re about and why they’re on the Registry. I will post these videos on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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