Welcome to the all-time greatest collection of Generation X movies ever assembled. Or as I like to call it: My so-called listicle.
The genesis of this totally tight compilation began last week in Lincoln Square, after I caught a screening of Before Midnight, the third installment in Richard Linklater's warmly fascinating travel-romance serial. You're probably aware that the first film in that series, 1995's Before Sunrise, is often cited as a quintessential example of Generation X cinema. But I rather think that's due more to Ethan Hawke's goatee and Julie Deply's flannel wraparound than it is to Linklater's penchant for generational rendering.
That got me thinking: What movies do best encapsulate Generation X? What filmmakers have been most successful at capturing the cynical, scruffy nihilists who came of age in the shadow of the suffocating, idealistic baby boomers?
For consensus, I turned to Google, as one does, but the more I scrolled through search results for "Best Generation X Movies," the more I came across the same old crusty musings on The Breakfast Club, or Say Anything, or movies starring the two Coreys. And then there were the vociferous references to Ben Stiller's Reality Bites, an undeserving fixture on virtually every Gen-X movie list out there. Yes, it's a decent treatise on 1990s slackerdom, and yes, the cast looks deliciously Gen X, but it's not a great piece of cinema, folks. Please revisit it in this century if you don't believe me.
So left without a list of truly era-defining Gen-X flicks, I decided to create one myself. The films below are zeitgeisty in the way that Rebel Without a Cause and Easy Rider are zeitgeisty. They don't just depict a generation. They capture it. And for a generation whose very name signifies the unknown, that's not an easy trick to pull off -- at least not without looking like a total lamestain.
The pioneering Penelope Spheeris did no less than give birth to Gen-X cinema with this micro-budget masterpiece about runaway punk rockers who take up squatting residence in an abandoned home in Southern California. The film's lousy performances are largely forgivable seeing how the ensemble cast is made up of actual punks and not actors. By the way, this entry is not to be confused with the aforementioned Linklater's 1997 adaptation of Eric Bogosian's play of the same name. I know it's confusing, but that one had a capital U.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
As I already stated, John Hughes's classic character study of five disparate high school detainees is on every Gen-X "Best Of" movie list out there. But it belongs on them, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a neo-maxi-zoomed something or other.
River's Edge (1986)
Released at the peak of Reagan-era discontent, this cold-blooded indie gem from Tim Hunter flawlessly interprets the particular brand of suburban estrangement that plagued the demographic that would soon be known as Generation X. Written by Neal Jimenez when he was still a college student, the plot revolves around a group of undisciplined (and mostly unsupervised) California high-schoolers who try to protect their sociopathic friend from the authorities after he goes around bragging that he brutally murdered one of their classmates. The film keenly escapes the trap into which so many penned-by-adults teen movies fall. The teenagers depicted herein have no rational motives, no meditative tangents, no perceptive insights. In other words, they're just like you were -- except, well, you probably never killed anyone.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Though it has much more of a moral center than River's Edge, John Singleton's intense portrait of teenage life in gang-ridden South Central Los Angeles did for urban plight what the former did for suburban disaffection. Singleton was barely 22 when he started shooting the movie. Upon the film's surprise success, he earned a Best Director Oscar nomination -- the first African American and youngest person ever to do so. This is no mindless, shoot-em-up gangster flick. The subtle, contemplative genius behind this entry is encapsulated at the end of the film, during a silent glance between Cuba Gooding Jr. and his onscreen father, Laurence Fishburne, who believes, incorrectly, that his teenage son just took part in a vengeance-fueled hit job. So much could have been said here, and yet Singleton, being the introspective Gen Xer he is, understands that what matters most is what's left unsaid.
Another common entry on Gen-X movie lists, Cameron Crowe's charming-but-flawed dramedy about the lives and loves of 20-somethings in grunge-era Seattle is relevant today mainly as a time capsule for anyone who feels nostalgic for the age of flannel and combat boots. But I defend its inclusion here because Crowe, an astute rock 'n' roll connoisseur, had the foresight to see the significance of the Seattle sound long before the rest of the country caught up with him. Though the film was released at the height of grunge fever in late 1992, it was completed more than a year earlier, before most Americans even knew where the Space Needle was. In fact, Warner Bros. delayed the release of Singles because no one at the studio knew quite how to market it. But once Nirvana's Nevermind shot to the top of the pop charts, suddenly old Crowe was looking a wee bit finger-on-the-pulsey.
Larry Clark's unflinching look at Manhattan misfits gone wild is like a Gen-X swan song. Written by the renaissance man Harmony Korine when he was still a teenager, the movie represents a kind of changing of the guards between late-model Xers and early Millennials. (We still called them Gen Y back then.) Featuring a cast of unlikable, drug-doing, cat-kicking hooligans, this movie makes you feel dirty because, bitches, that's what great art does. Hell, even when you're older, not much matters.
Dear, Generation X: It's time to grow up and stop shooting smack. With Love, Danny Boyle. Seriously, I think this is probably the most optimistic movie ever made about a generation whose defining cultural touchtone was the O.J. Simpson verdict. Ewan McGregor's Mark Renton, the unrepentant junkie and uncompromising hard head, steals a sack full of money, leaves his tattered youth behind, and chooses a normal life. It's a decision every Gen Xer must face -- in a manner of speaking. Today, with most Gen Xers in their 30s and 40s, the cohort is as diverse in status as it is in taste. Some Xers are running multibillion-dollar tech companies. Some are still traipsing about in a faded blue jeans and a permanent bedhead. And some are doing both. More power to you, Larry Page.
Christopher Zara is the author of Tortured Artists, from Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the twisted secrets of the world's most creative minds, published by Adams Media.