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Nostalgia wins out in movie survey

Are movies really better than ever? Or don't they make 'em like they used to?

The results of our "100 Years, 100 Movies" survey indicates that Times readers believe modern Hollywood hasn't lived up to its past, with Gone With the Wind (1939) emerging as the winner, followed closely by Casablanca (1942) and The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Overall, voters showed more respect for age-old classics than contemporary works, with only five of the top 20 finalists initially released after 1970.

Today's filmmakers possess more money and technology to create, and have a wider span of cinematic history to imitate, to annually crank out a higher number of movies than ever. Motivation increases in relation to higher ticket prices and home video profit potential.

How can they fail to make better movies?

They haven't. Movies have improved in many regards, but our very personal definitions of "better" haven't fully adapted to a shifting cultural landscape. Some people insist that our best days in many respects are behind us.

One reason that "better" rarely changes is our affectionate urge for nostalgia. There probably won't be a more beloved movie than the first one that made you say "wow."

For many moviegoers, including the largest portion of our survey respondents, that movie was Gone With the Wind. It was the first "event movie" that had it all: big stars; a sprawling story line based on history, with colorful characters; strong audience awareness, thanks to Margaret Mitchell's novel; plus wide-screen and full-color cinematography.

Victor Fleming's film was as adventuresome in its time and essence as Pulp Fiction or Boogie Nights are today. Just easier to digest.

Another factor that can't be ignored is a persistent generation gap in tastes. We didn't ask for readers' ages, but clues in handwriting, personal memories and awareness of vintage movies strongly suggest the replies tilted toward senior citizen demographics.

This is a segment of moviegoers who often write, call or otherwise voice distaste for what they perceive as excessive profanity, nudity and violence on-screen. They'll confess to walking out of a theater at the drop of an "f-word," which means they've missed, or reflexively resisted enjoying, some very fine films.

And they forget that Gone With the Wind, especially Rhett Butler's climactic kiss-off line, was risque material that almost incited censorship in 1939.

On the other hand, younger audiences are more likely to choose the last movie that made them say "wow." Usually, all it takes is something flashier than the previous thrill ride. Their sense of cinematic history generally hasn't evolved yet, because there's so much immediate pop culture for them to absorb.

Besides, black-and-white cinematography is so uncool.

Bay Point Middle School eighth-grader Charles Dickens, one of four confirmed adolescents who answered the survey, said the exercise inspired him to conduct a school newspaper project among classmates.

An early leader in Dickens' balloting is last year's horror hit I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Neither of the surveys approaches good science, so we're left with our own questions to debate, depending on the perspectives we've developed in the dark.

Can you imagine what pop entertainment Cecil B. DeMille would have created had computer-generated imaging been available 40 years ago? Perhaps DeMille is a greater genius than George Lucas because he parted the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments without the techno-wizards at Industrial Light&Magic.

Do you think Quentin Tarantino would be making movies if America still lived in a 1950s mind-set, without graphic violence and profanity on screen? Maybe his ear for pulp fiction dialogue is keen enough that Bogart would have loved him in cleaner times.

Can you imagine why Planet of the Apes and Dead Poets Society received Top 50 support, despite their relative lack of Hollywood posterity? Or how D.W. Griffith's antique Birth of a Nation continues to garner praise, even after charges that the film glorified the Ku Klux Klan? Why does Out of Africa make the Top 50 and Taxi Driver doesn't? Where's Chinatown?

And, to be honest, isn't there something deliciously weird in the fact that Alfred Hitchcock's sinister Psycho and the ultimate holiday movie, It's a Wonderful Life, finished in a dead heat for eighth place?

There aren't any incorrect answers, because one of the greatest joys of watching movies is that it allows you to be 100 percent right in your personal opinions. It's no coincidence that most compliments I receive about film reviews in the Times begin with the words: "I don't always agree with you, but . . ."

That's the idea. We aren't supposed to always agree about films. All you can do is wisely sample as many of the art form's varied choices as possible. Movies are better than ever, but you won't know for certain unless you try something new.

Or something old.

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