Forget abput best and worst. The real power of movies is that they can change the way we thinkg and feel -- and the impact can last a lifetime.


May 17, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Remember your first?

For me, it was "Mary Poppins." Definitely "Mary Poppins." My distant but distinct memory is of me and Darcy Gibson, my lifelong best friend, attending "Mary Poppins" in Des Moines, Iowa. We were 4 years old.

As the audience streamed in, we realized something was missing: C.J., Darcy's 2-year-old brother. Darcy's mother dispatched us to look under seats and headed for the lobby. Suddenly, we heard laughter coming from the front of the theater. There, a tiny head could be seen, bobbing over the first row. It was C.J., marching back and forth across the stage in front of the screen, to the approbation of the crowd.

A tough act to follow. "Mary Poppins" dazzled us with its flying umbrellas, spoonfuls of sugar, nice nannies and other screen magic. But forever after, the wonders unleashed by the movie have been inextricably linked to C.J.'s impromptu preamble.

That moment -- when a little boy bridged the space separating the watchers from the watched -- encapsulated what happens when movies work best: We are astonished, enchanted, edified. Voids are filled that we didn't know we had. C.J.'s performance also underscored a fact all but lost in the age of the VCR: Movies are better when they're seen with a crowd.

This reminiscence was prompted by the news that on June 16 the American Film Institute will announce what it deems to be "the greatest 100 American movies of all time."

The AFI, a 30-year-old organization dedicated to advancing and preserving the cinematic arts, provided a list of 400 titles from which to choose. The criteria for nomination were that the films be fictional and more than 60 minutes long; that they be in English and feature significant American contribution; that they have enjoyed critical recognition; that they have won major awards; that they have been popular over time; that they have historical and cultural significance. (The list is clearly Hollywood-centric: no documentaries, short films or experimental movies allowed.)

The AFI invited 1,500 filmmakers, critics, historians and industry executives -- not to mention the Clintons and the Gores -- to vote on what is sure to become a canon of the American cinema. (AFI didn't ask, but we'd like your input, too. On Pages XX and XX is a ballot with the 400 nominees. Choose 100 or fewer from that list and send it to us. We'll announce Baltimore's choices when AFI announces its choices.)

The 100 films picked will surely be respectable in every way, as are the nominees. And therein lies a problem. Some of the most important movies of my life -- and I'm sure in yours -- had an impact completely out of proportion to their artistic or technical merits. These are the movies we love for no good reason other than that we saw them at crucial times of our lives, and they gave us the things we needed most.

Take "Mary Poppins." By the AFI's criteria, this too-sweet and illogical trifle would never be considered great. But if I were voting, how could I ignore the movie that introduced me to the movies?

So much of a movie's power derives, not from its technical sophistication or artistic genius, but simply from who and where and with whom you were when you saw it. They are the firsts -- the films that magically reached beyond the screen to touch the viewer. They may seem silly or stupid or just plain bad today, but once they astonished.

Consider a core sample taken from the greatest films of my life:

"Bambi" -- It taught me and generations of other children that nothing is more cathartic than a good cry (and that no one could mess with the fragile emotional life of a 6-year-old like Uncle Walt).

"My Little Chickadee" -- An otherwise forgettable Western, starring Mae West and W.C. Fields, taught me the crucial life lesson that timing is everything and that, more than anything else, comedy endures.

"The Wizard of Oz" -- The first movie I saw more than once, introducing me to the cinema as a place of serial pleasures and deeper readings.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" -- The first movie that featured children who resembled ones I actually knew, and maybe even was myself -- wise, cruel and liberated from false sentimentality.

"Dark Victory" -- The first time I heard an audience laugh at what was supposed to be tragedy. Bette Davis played a doomed heiress ("I'll have the prognosis negative!"), who dies one of the most bathetic death scenes since Camille. I've been a camp follower ever since.

"His Girl Friday" -- This must have been on during an afternoon when I was home sick from school. Watching Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant crack wise with the electric energy of the newsroom as a backdrop commenced a lifelong romance with newspapers and newspaper movies.

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