I was in college when Donnie Darko came out. Just about everyone around my age had that one friend who would not shut up about this film, how it was deep and mysterious. I didn’t get around to watching this film until the end of 2016, 15 years after its release. I’ll admit, on my first viewing, I wasn’t that impressed. There seemed to be too many loose ends and unexplained mysteries for me to take it seriously. I’m revising my review after a second viewing, not because I’ve figured out the many mysteries here, but because I think I’ve figured out why they’re in there. Is this a great film? I won’t say it’s one of the best on my list, but it’s unique and thought-provoking, to say the least.
Written and directed by Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is an independent sci-fi film that takes some serious risks. Some of them pay off, and some of them don’t, but this is markedly different than most other films out there, sci-fi or otherwise. There’s also a lot of depth lurking underneath the surface of this film, although some of it is buried a little too deep to make sense of. Is it brilliant? Is it nonsense? I think that’s really open to interpretation. That said, I’ll give you my take on it.
“Telekinesis… thought to be the ability to move… or to cause changes… in objects… by force of the mind…?”
Growing up, I’d been turned off to the horror genre for a few reasons. Horror films in general never really felt deep, emotionally speaking, and were full of stereotypes. They also seemed to revel in misogyny and weak female characters. 42 years after its release, Carrie is still a breath of fresh air. Directed by Brian De Palma (Scarface, Dressed to Kill) and starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, this was a landmark horror film that wasn’t content to stick to simple characters and situations. The character of Carrie White was painfully real and vulnerable, but strong in her own way, and the emotional core of the movie was raw and powerful. And, unlike most horror films, women run the show here—despite a gratuitous opening scene, there are some pretty empowering scenes here, as well as some open discussion of the hardships of being a woman. It honestly feels a bit dated today, but the tension and sense of dread hanging over the whole film is as heavy today as it was in 1976 and this still holds up as a classic and very influential horror film.
“I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.”
Teen movies usually paint with a pretty broad brush, trying to capture the feeling of youth for as many people as possible. I look at other films like Say Anything or The Breakfast Club and I feel like most of us can relate to what was going on. The Perks of Being a Wallflower breaks this mold by showing us a very distinct subculture of intellectual misfits trying to figure out life while surviving high school. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the novel on which this is based, as well as Wonder) and starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, this is a sharp departure from the feel-good teen movies I grew up with in the 80s and 90s. Depression, abuse, and trauma are just a few of the subjects touched on, and these things have marked each of the main characters, although the film makes a great effort to show that hurting people still manage to live mostly normal lives. This is a different kind of teen movie that probably doesn’t have the wide appeal of some of the others, but it’s a beautiful story that hit pretty close to home for me. I absolutely loved this film.
“What I really want to do with my life—what I want to do for a living—is I want to be with your daughter. I’m good at it.”
Scruffy underdog wins the heart of the most popular girl in school. That’s a story that played out a lot in the 80s and 90s, but Say Anything manages to go deeper than most other films that follow this formula. Directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) and starring John Cusack and Ione Skye, this film is simultaneously a teen love story and a metaphor for Generation X coming of age. It was for Gen X what The Graduate was for Baby Boomers and what Lady Bird was for Millennials: a chance for them to define their relationship with the previous generation, on their terms. The 80s were a time of great financial growth and security, but also rampant corporate greed and some unscrupulous actions, and Gen X had become old enough to say something about it. But it’s also a great teen love story with emotional depth and humor. Is this the perfect teen movie? If not, it’s awfully close.
“Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody.”
The 90s were a great time for apathy and cynicism. I graduated from high school in ‘99, and let me tell you, we hated everything. Ghost World, an indie art house film directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Bad Santa) and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, took that 90s angst and injected it with a bit of Existential angst. It’s equal parts Daria and Waiting for Godot. It’s a biting satire not only of the world of the 90s, but also of the angry counterculture that sprang out of it, showing that even all those people who said that everything sucked also sucked. Sardonic, darkly funny, and vaguely depressing, this film is edgy in a way that many other films try to be, and it dares to push further into that territory than any other film I’ve seen.
Cultural revolutions happen when a generation gets old enough to get their ideas out into the world. The baby boomers had their revolution in the 60s and 70s. Gen-Xers like me had ours in the 90s. Well, guess what? We’re due for a new revolution for the Millennials. Over the next 5-10 years, we’re going to start seeing media through the eyes of Millennials. Leading the charge in this revolution is the brilliant Greta Gerwig with her directorial debut, Lady Bird. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, this film neatly encapsulates the gap between Millennials and Generation X, as well as the frustrations that Millennials faced in adolescence. It’s also a sweet, funny, and touching story about a daughter growing up with an overbearing mother. This film works equally well as a coming of age story and a metaphor for the coming of age of an entire generation, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Millennial anthem than this film.
“The dream I must have had, I can never recall. But… the sensation that I’ve lost something lingers for a long time after I wake up.”
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m typically not a fan of anime, just like I’m typically not a fan of horror movies. But some movies, like Psycho and The Shining, are so good that they rose above the trappings of the horror genre. Your Name is a movie that rises way, way above the trappings of your typical anime. Directed by Makoto Shinkai (The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), this is the only anime movie to out-gross Spirited Away, which was a classic I’ve reviewed before. It’s one of the best love stories I think I’ve ever seen. There is a touch of the supernatural in this, but rather than that being the focus, it serves to enhance the drama and romance in the film that remain the focal point. This is a beautiful story beautifully told, and the fact that it’s an anime actually makes it better—that format tells the story better than any other would. Anime skeptics take heart: you will probably like this film.
“Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.”
I’ll be honest: I initially didn’t want to include The Karate Kid on this list. Directed by John G. Avildsen (Rocky) and starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, and Elisabeth Shue, it follows the underdog formula popularized by Rocky, but brings it into the 80s with the now-familiar stereotypes: the everyman teenage boy, the evil bully, the sweet girlfriend, the parent who just doesn’t get it. On paper, it looks very cliche and much like the sea of other 80s teen movies. I didn’t want to like it. But on a recent viewing, I realized that The Karate Kid has actually aged very well. The dialogue, while cheesy at times, has moments of clarity and humanity to keep the movie grounded. The villains are surprisingly well-written in the end (especially with some of the deleted scenes). Daniel is just such a likable character that it’s very hard not to like him. Even the martial arts aspects are very down-to-earth and not overdone (with a few notable exceptions from sensei Miyagi). If you can look past a bit of 80s camp and stereotyping, this is a real gem of a movie that still holds up well today.
“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”
There are teen movies that are simply about teenagers, and there are teen movies that define universal teenage experiences. The Breakfast Club, directing by John Hughes (Home Alone, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and starring a host of 80s teen stars, is one of the latter. This movie not only defines and portrays universal teenage experiences, but it shows teenagers discovering that many of the things they thought were unique to them are, in fact, shared amongst all of them. Admittedly, this movie will probably not be mind-blowing for anyone over 30; but younger folks, especially those in high school and college, may walk away with some new insight into life. It shows that, no matter who you are, there are no good guys or bad guys in life—there are only people with different experiences, different outlooks, with probably a lot more in common with you than you think, and anyone can choose to be good or bad no matter where they are in life.
“Hawaii. All right, that’s good. That’s hard to trace, I guess. Wait… you changed your name to… McLovin?”
Two teens go on a minor quest to score with some girls. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that’s been done to death in film. What sets Superbad apart isn’t an original idea, but excellent execution. Directed by Greg Mottola (Paul, Adventureland) and starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, this is a highly accurate representation of high school life, and it is hilarious. And despite its often raunchy humor, the ending is actually fairly sweet and heartwarming. This is a stand-out film in the teen genre that will be remembered as a classic.