Any film fanatic worth his or her salt knows of the National Film Registry, which annually since 1989 has deemed select American films worthy of being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." What many may not know is just how the registry came to be, and "These Amazing Shadows" sets out to provide three lessons in one: the history of the National Film Registry, a brief history lesson on film preservation, and a broad overview of milestones in American cinema. On two counts it wholly succeeds, leaving film preservation underrepresented, while the history lesson quickly turns into a finely produced and enjoyable commercial for the registry.
Established by Congress and overseen by the Library of Congress, the National Film Registry actually began as a response to the controversial colorization process slapped on films acquired by Ted Turner in the 1980s. "These Amazing Shadows" begins with this infamous moment in film history and quickly enters a semi-shill mode, bombarding viewers with mission statements and platitudes regarding how important the National Film Registry is, setting a tone that partially recovers but winds up making what could have been a fascinating look at American film history into a tedious see-saw of fact vs. advertising. Once the sloppy origins are taken care of, some of the same people shamelessly shilling one minute quickly shift gears and provide viewers with an engaging insight as to what exactly meets the registry's mission statement of ""culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Even for the most knowledgeable filmgoer, "These Amazing Shadows" is a treat, if only to serve as a reminder of the great works of art America has produced over the decades. As the obvious picks are taken care of, insightful details of less obvious choices come to the forefront and we see, that politics are politics, even when it comes to the movies. Squeezing its way in between are segments with the registry's archivist and nuggets of true film history take the spotlight. Lost films are discussed as well as rediscovered prints of pre-code and censored films of decades gone by. Truth be told, I could have watched an entire feature on just this aspect, especially if the ability to discuss non-American produced films was an option, because, at the end of the day, the strict tie to the National Film Registry leads for some huge omissions on the historical spectrum.
Ultimately "These Amazing Shadows" is a solid feature that attempts to include viewers of all backgrounds. The few artificial moments were the focus becomes more advertisement than edutainment are slightly detrimental, but the gems within are worth coming back to. The whole affair is very quickly paced and in the grand scheme of things, the less than 90-minute runtime is more of a detriment than a blessing, as the film history of America is not a subject glossed over, but if it had to be, "These Amazing Shadows" does a solid job, rendering the old AFI specials even more irrelevant than before.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is above average looking during the interview segments, but really shines when film clips are brought in; thankfully the aspect ratio shifts accordingly and almost every clip has strong color, solid contrast, and striking detail. The interview segments only suffer from a slightly warm look, but in the grand scheme of things aren't as crucial as the films themselves.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track holds up quite nicely with clear, crisp sound in both interview segments as well as other footage, with the original score that pays homage to other famous scores sounding richer than your usual documentary tracks. English subtitles are included.
The most fascinating and valuable bonus feature is "Lost Forever" a 30-minute documentary focusing solely on film preservation, which also serves as a mini-lesson on film stock. It's in many ways more interesting than the main feature. Rounding out the extras is "Live from Prague" which focuses on the original score, "These Amazing Shadows at Sundance," and a series of outtakes, which include slightly extended interviews with some famous Hollywood faces.
Mostly a history lesson, "These Amazing Shadows" is an enjoyable run through American film history with a few detours for special topics and the occasional PSA for the National Film Registry. The "Lost Forever" bonus feature is a pleasant surprise, taking the spark of interest on film preservation generated in the main feature and providing greater insight into an incredibly important facet of filmmaking and preservation. Recommended.