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From 'It's a Wonderful Life' to 'Shrek,' families share their favorite films

By JACK GARNER | Gannett News Service

Movie buffs define themselves by the movies they watch. But what movies define you and your generation for folks of another age? What films should you show your children — or your grandparents — to help them understand you?

Think of movies (or TV shows) that would make great gifts or items to bring to a family gathering that say: “This is me. These are the times in which I came of age. These best express our generation's attitudes at that time.’’

Veteran actress and one-time Oscar winner Celeste Holm didn’t hesitate when asked. The 84-year-old actress picked "It’s a Wonderful Life," Frank Capra’s holiday tale from 1946 in which a young man (Jimmy Stewart) discovers he’s of much value to the folks who know him. She says it sums up the beliefs and hopes of her generation.

Alan “Brother Wease’’ Levin, the heavily tattooed 56-year-old host of a morning radio show in Rochester, N.Y., has been to all three Woodstock music festivals and loves motorcycles. “Of course,’’ he says, “It’s 'Easy Rider'.’’ A true child of the '60s, he believes the Dennis Hopper-Peter Fonda rock ‘n’ roll road flick defines him.

Jim Healy, 34, whose job is programming films for audiences at the George Eastman House film archive in Rochester, gives the question considerable thought:

“I've always been dubious of ‘coming of age’ movies, probably because the ones that were offered to me as a teenager (‘The Breakfast Club,’ ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’) are trite and hardly represent exciting filmmaking. I've seen others that knocked me out like ‘American Graffiti’ and ‘Diner,’ and especially, Fellini's ‘I Vitelloni,’ but they aren't the ones people my age hold up as landmarks. (Sadly, ‘Breakfast Club’ has earned that status).

“If I had to identify something that I felt accurately spoke to my generation and was made with a bit of style and personality, I'd point to Richard Linklater's ‘Slacker’ and ‘Dazed and Confused.’ Both succinctly capture how freeing it can be to be a person with ideas, but Linklater's honesty reminds us of how terrifyingly isolating it can be too, especially in a pervasively anti-intellectual atmosphere.’’

When it comes to recommending things to take to family gatherings, Nicole Guindo, wife, business owner and mother of three in suburban Philadelphia says she places “The Wiggles” and “Sesame Street,” videos on the list for kids ages 6 months to 3 years old.

“That’s what my kids like and it keeps them entertained,” says Guindo, 34. She also favors Bill Cosby’s “Little Bill” and “Fat Albert” video series for kids between 4 and 8.

“I used to love ‘Fat Albert’ when I was a kid,” she says. “What I liked about ‘Fat Albert’ is it always had a moral at the end of the show and it taught about not to lie, it talked about honesty, emotion. It was like a life learning tool.”

The movie “Drumline” is on the top of her list for those between the ages of 9 and 12 and “I probably would want to bring a movie about slavery,” for teenagers. “I don’t know if I would get ‘Roots’ because that’s too long.” So she says instead she’d recommend HBO’s recent documentary “Unchained Memories, Readings from the Slave Narrative,” a series of accounts of former slaves read by famous actors. “Beat Street,” and “Rappin’” are also good for teenagers who think rap only dates back to Tupac and Biggie, she says.

For those in her age group and beyond, “I find that people of my race and economic background … being African American and middle class, really enjoy those Tyler Perry plays” such as “Madea’s Family Reunion,” ”Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” or “I Can Do Bad All by Myself.” All are available on video or DVD from tylerperry.com.

“I can relate to them, and the characters in the plays. I actually know people like that. I have relatives like that,” she says laughing. These plays deal hilariously with the pitfalls and joys of life in the black community.

“My grandmother, who is 68, she likes “To Kill a Mockingbird," with Gregory Peck,” Guindo says.

“She also likes the Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier movies from the '60s and '70s and she likes anything with Humphrey Bogart.”

“She also likes the old karate movies starring Bruce Lee. That’s something that appeals to people across the board and across races, too.”

Others in their 20s say they’d recommend films like “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,” “Clueless,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Goonies,” the new “The Adventures of Indiana Jones” DVD set, and of course, such television perennials as “Frosty the Snowman.” Surprisingly, “Dirty Dancing,” and “Shag” also make the list.

Now, here’s what a 58-year-old long-time film critic, and movie buff recommends to give as a gift or share during your holiday reunion so younger and older generations can understand the influences on a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s:

— "American Graffiti," a film so true to my adolescence I thought Ron Howard was spying on me.

— “On the Waterfront,” a film of raw emotions that unleashed the greatest actor of our time ­ Marlon Brando ­ and also demonstrated the potential of art to move people and to take a stand.

— "The Graduate," the definitive comedy about the generation gap, a key component of life in the ‘60s.

But I’d also turn other generations — especially the young — onto a few TV gems of my youth, recently released on DVD. They include the collected works of Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, solid precursors of the hilarious anarchy so admired on “Saturday Night Live” and so many modern comedy films; as well as Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners,” the ‘50s domestic sitcom that paved the way for so many modern TV shows, up to and including “The King of Queens’’ and “Everybody Loves Raymond.’’ (It’s also a great reason to catch the stellar performances of the newly deceased Art Carney).

And just for fun, I’d also show the now-available original “Ed Sullivan” variety shows in which Elvis and then the Beatles made their premieres in the United States. They’re remarkable time capsules that help viewers understand how earth shaking the new music was.

So now you’ve got the idea. Think about the films that say something about you. And tell your older and younger relatives and friends to do the same. Then gather round for a holiday viewing party.

Gannett News Service staff contributed to this story.