by Marty Demarest

When you start to name "classic" films, it's easy to include the big pictures like Citizen Kane, Casablanca and even color movies like The Godfather. They were made with such a weighty sense of purpose that even a casual or disinterested viewer can tell that something important is happening up on that silver screen. The problems start cropping up when you get to later, popular successes. Is The Matrix a classic? What about Big? And how do we react to a film as obviously dated yet still apparently timeless as Ghost?

For the third year in a row, AMC Theaters has answered those questions with a festival devoted to what it decisively calls "classic" films. Running a trio of movies every weekend in October, AMC's festival is screening some of the biggest films from the late 1950s to the late 1990s.

More than just art house favorites or Academy Award darlings, the films on AMC's lineup were often just as financially successful as they were critically praised. It's only their occasionally dated subject matter and visual style that has kept them from a more elite crowd's appreciation. But don't worry about that: at $2.50 admission for each film, the elite crowd doesn't have the last word.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey kick things off this Friday night with Dirty Dancing, 1987's escapist romance that gave audiences the hope that they, too, could be good dancers and still survive a star-crossed relationship. It's not Romeo and Juliet -- hell, it's not even West Side Story -- but somehow it works. The weekend continues with two other fantasies. On Saturday, the Audrey Hepburn star-vehicle Breakfast at Tiffany's will introduce another generation to Holly Golightly, film's archetype for almost every role Julia Roberts has ever played. And anyone who hasn't seen Alfred Hitchcock's thriller masterpiece North by Northwest -- along with probably everyone who has seen it -- will want to show up on Sunday.

On the next week's lineup, AMC does the Inland Northwest a service by bringing Bruce Lee's Kung-Fu classic Enter the Dragon back to the big screen. Anyone raised thinking that Jackie Chan or Chow Yun-Fat are the masters of martial arts movies should show up and receive an education. And with Quentin Tarantino's next film Kill Bill a tribute to Kung-Fu history, film lovers of all stripes may want to witness the charismatic and dynamic Lee define the genre. Saturday's The Princess Bride hardly needs any introduction, being one of the '80s films that has found its way to a popular contemporary audience. Likewise, Sunday's screening of The Goonies, which is sure to draw nostalgia-buffs out of the woodwork to witness one of the last great live action special effects extravaganzas.

The festival's third weekend begins darkly, with Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Cold War comedic masterpiece Dr. Strangelove. Simultaneously a film that defined its own era and timelessly satirized war for any generation, Strangelove hangs together largely through the virtuosic performance of Peter Sellers in three roles. Next up is West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein's brilliant Shakespeare musical update with Jerome Robbins innovative choreography. Concluding the third weekend is 1984's Best Picture Academy Award winner, Amadeus. Telling the story of Mozart's death at the hands of a jealous, mediocre composer, the film is kept from being an academic exercise by Mozart's glorious music and several phenomenal acting jobs.

Wrapping things up on the 25th, the festival's final weekend starts with 1984's top-grossing film, Ghostbusters. Hated by New Yorkers due to the months of traffic blocked during the movie's filming, Ghostbusters' story of a team of wryly funny paranormal investigators led by Bill Murray was adored by almost everyone else. But nobody seems to hate the festival's penultimate film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Not only is it the reason that Matthew Broderick will always have work, but it's a perfect portrayal of what it felt like to be young in America in the 1980s, and the pleasures of indulging, has guaranteed it cult status rarely attained by a film so young. Ending things is Titanic, still the biggest-grossing film of all time, and the perfect conclusion to the festival's running theme of love in the face of adversity.

With half of the films drawn from the 1980s, some might argue that it's a little early to start naming these pictures "classics." But the fact is that the 1980s were 20 years ago, and somebody has to start nominating the films that will be passed on to a new generation of movie lovers who might otherwise never encounter them. In addition, most of these pictures were made in an era when people were widely beginning to realize that movies were more than a passing diversion -- that they are a valid art form with lasting impact. Instead of needing repair and remastering, the films of the '80s are well preserved -- the products of a generation that realized that it wanted to keep these things around for a while. Thankfully, AMC is taking them out of storage.

Check the AMC schedule in The Inlander for showtimes each week this month.

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
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