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Stephen King on his favorite movies from the past 15 years and why they matter

Stephen King
Image credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY AMY GUIP

Stephen King on his favorite movies

(Author's note: I'm sorry you have to wait two weeks for part 2, but if you can deal with ''Kill Bill'' in two parts and ''The Lord of the Rings'' in three, I think you can deal with this. -- Steve)

Of course movies matter. But, you might ask, do movies really matter? Do they matter the way great books do, or great plays like ''King Lear''? This ephemeral medium that you can look right through, and that burns in an instant if you touch a match to it? That rots away in 30 years if not carefully cosseted and cared for? That happens before you in a constant now, and allows for no going back or stopping to think, and that is -- unlike stage plays -- always exactly the same?

My answer is you bet your sweet round fanny. Oh, not all of them matter. Not even very many. I've kept a movie log since 1994, and I can remember almost nothing about 95 percent of the films in it. What, for instance, was ''Demon Knight'' about? I don't have a clue. Or ''The Run of the Country''? Same deal. I have a vague memory of ''Rumble in the Bronx'' but couldn't tell you who was in it if you held a gun to my head.

Yet 50 years later I can still remember the sense of dismay I felt when Bambi's mother was killed, leaving the pore little feller all alone. I was a single-parent child myself, and I spent many long nights after lights-out thinking about Bambi and wondering what would happen to me if something happened to my mother. I still remember the simple power of the film's most potent line: ''Man was in the forest.''

I remember laughing so hard I wet my pants the first time I saw a ''Little Rascals'' short. It was Buckwheat who did it. Buckwheat just wiped me out. I don't know if that's racist or not (probably it is), but I do know it's the truth.

I remember my first screen crush -- not Annette Funicello twisting on the beach with Frankie Avalon, but Kim Novak and William Holden in ''Picnic.'' I remember understanding, as if in a burst of bright light, that people gripped by strong passion might do any irrational thing at all. But mostly I remember wishing with all my heart that I were William Holden.

I remember ''The Hustler,'' with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, the first movie without monsters, shooting, or slapstick comedy to entirely fill my mind and heart. It was the one that made me understand that good acting could change lives, and great acting might be able to change the world.

''The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'' is a film I've written about too often to rehash here; suffice it to say that I was astounded by the sheer size of things, and by the outrageous tricks of pacing that Sergio Leone tried...and pulled off, more often than not.

''Night of the Living Dead'' has been around so long that it's become the cinematic equivalent of a knock-knock joke, but I still remember the pure horror I felt the first time I saw the little girl stabbing her mother to death with a garden trowel. What I remember thinking as I watched those crazy shadows bounce around at the whim of a swinging lightbulb on the end of an electrical cord is ''I'm in the hands of a lunatic, and he will stop at nothing to scare me.'' I've never in my life been more frightened in a movie theater.

These life-changing movie experiences became less frequent as I grew older, and for a while I had an idea that Billy Bob Thornton's brilliant parable ''Sling Blade'' might be the last time I'd ever have one. Then came Clint Eastwood's ''Mystic River,'' which is one of the best three or four films I've seen in the last 30 years.

It's ''Mystic River'' and ''Kill Bill'' I want to write about next time. By then those of you who want to see these films will have done so, and I won't need to listen to a lot of childish natter about ''spoilers.'' (How I've come to hate that whining word.) Each is remarkable in its own way, and one is a classic. We'll get to the reasons why anon; for now, here's a list of good films I've seen during the last 15 years. I've put an asterisk beside two -- just two, mind you. These are the great ones -- for me, at least.

''The Usual Suspects''...''Fargo''...''There's Something About Mary''...*''Sling Blade''...''Frequency''...''The Matrix''...''Stir of Echoes''... ''American Beauty''...''Wonder Boys''...''The Sixth Sense''...''High Fidelity''... ''L.I.E''....''In the Bedroom''...''Cinema Paradiso''...''Iris''...*''Mystic River.''

Chew on those, and we'll finish our discussion of why movies matter next time, okay?

We received 8,505 responses to our First Annual Hollywood Babble-On Competition. Twelve winners were randomly selected, and each will receive a signed copy of Stephen King's ''Wolves of the Calla.'' The winners are: Kimberly Ann Ayala, Sauk Village, Ill.; Steven Brounell, Lake Worth, Fla.; Lisa M. Burns, East Haven, Conn.; Dale R. Bye, Minneapolis; Jim Nassivera, Washington Crossing, Pa.; William Radtka, Massillon, Ohio; Thomas S. Randklev, Decatur, Ga.; Rebecca Richardson, Boscawen, N.H.; Francesca Schwenkbeck, Buffalo; Glenda Storm, Studio City, Calif.; Chris Swick, Saginaw, Mich.; Barbara Zwickey, Amherst Junction, Wis.

Part 2 of this column will appear in issue #739 (Nov. 28). The Pop of King will run in #740, and then resume in every third issue.

Originally posted Nov 05, 2003