Nobody said robots and giant explosions weren’t entertaining. But as we’ve grown into the sometimes functional human beings that we currently are, we’ve come across certain films that have truly “spoken to us”–that focus on the sorts of issues that we can identify with all too well. Here are some of the finest (in no particular order) from the past quarter century:
1. Dead Poets Society (1989)
The 1989 classic is perhaps best known for its ode to Carpe Diem, the Latin aphorism translating to “seize the day.” Robin Williams was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of english teacher John Keating, who used poetry to teach the boys of an elite prep school the value of critical thought.
2. Dazed And Confused (1993)
Matthew McConaughey’s breakout role was a good one. Also featuring, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich and more, Dazed And Confused follows a bunch of teenagers on the last day of school in the summer of 1976.
3. Adventureland (2009)
Those who grew up in the Long Island suburbs will have a special connection with this one, a fictional take on a real run-down theme park with the same name. The story of a kid who’s forced to take a shitty summer job in order to save up for grad school. We learn that the thing about shitty summer jobs, is that they oftentimes turn out to be anything but.
4. Whale Rider (2002)
Whale Rider focuses on a culture you probably haven’t had too much interaction with–the Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Kahu Paikea Apirana is a 12-year-old Maori girl who wants to become the chief of the tribe. She butts heads with her grandfather, who believes this is a role reserved for males only. Life lessons occur throughout this visually thrilling masterpiece.
5. A Bronx Tale (1993)
Robert DeNiro and Chazz Palminteri play opposing father figures for Francis Capra, as Capra slowly befriends Palminteri’s crew of mobsters. A rough around the edges classic that brilliantly tackles themes of family, loyalty, and relatively morality.
6. Slacker (1991)
The term “slacker” defined Generation X malaise that permeated the early 90’s grunge youth. Richard Linklater’s breakout film is one of the weirdest you’ll ever see (it’s a series of interrelated vignettes with no real plot to speak of), meaning that it really explores and tackles what it means to pursue whatever it is you want to pursue, societally backed or otherwise. Linklater followed this critical success with another one that’s already been praised on this very list–Dazed and Confused.
7. Varsity Blues (1999)
James Van Der Beek’s memorable line “Playing at West Canaan may have been the opportunity of your lifetime…but I don’t want your life!” aptly sums up the generational divide a lot of these types of movies are based on. Varsity Blues was remarkably ahead of its time when it came to football; particularly in terms of how it dealt with concussions and long-term mental health issues. Not to mention, that Ali Larter whipped cream pie will forever life in infamy.
8. Frances Ha (2013)
Noah Baumbach’s critically-adored charmer is a black and white tale of a young person struggling to achieve any trace of stability within the unforgiving creative world of New York City. Like most of Baumbach’s films, it manages to say something worthwhile in a way that’s also grounded in real, but unmistakable humor. You’ll want to be Greta Gerwig’s best friend.
9. The Kite Runner (2007)
The film adaption of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, The Kite Runner focuses on Amir, a well-off boy from one of Kabul’s wealthiest neighborhoods, who is completely overwrought with guilt after abandoning the son of his father’s servant. It takes place during a tumultuous time in Afghani history, dealing with Soviet military intervention and the rise of the Taliban.
10. Take Me Home Tonight (2010)
Arguably the most overlooked “pleasant surprise” on this list, Take Me Home Tonight is a party-oriented 80’s throwback movie that came out in early March. Meaning, it had no business being good.
Yet, the combination of a great cast (Probably the best performance of Topher Grace’s career, Dan Fogler seems too good to be living in Jonah Hill’s shadow, and Teresa Palmer, Ana Faris, and Chris Pratt are all outstanding), a story that doesn’t try too much, and highly applicable #postgrad themes make for a very sound movie. The message here is “even if you have no idea where you’re going, just take a shot somewhere.” It’s also got a killer soundtrack.
11. Superbad (2007)
How to somehow pull off a party. The desperation and pressures that come with loss of sexual innocence. A friend named McLovin. Superbad is a keeper.
12. This Is England (2006)
This Is England tells the story of a troubled kid growing up in early 80’s England who befriends a group of skinheads. It deals with the tremendous pull of subcultures, and the notions of family and belonging in a truly fascinating–and slightly heartwrenching–manner.
13. Boyz n The Hood (1991)
Boyz n the Hood tells the story of a group of friends growing up in South Central Los Angeles, historically one of the most violent and drug-riddled areas of the country. The movie has been deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress, and it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
14. Waiting (2005)
Life has its fair share of Crude Awakenings. Waiting is the rollicking story of the inner workings of your everyday American restaurant chain, uniquely honing in on the hopes and dreams (or lack thereof) of its employees. Among the many valuable lessons Waiting teaches us, perhaps the most valuable of all is that if you talk shit to a waiter, you will definitely be sorry.
15. Mean Girls (2004)
In addition to being the subject of half the GIFs on the internet, Mean Girls was a 2004 movie that thoroughly dealt with the trails and tribulations of surviving the ruthless jungle known as high school.
16. The Life of Pi (2012)
Ang Lee’s visual stunna stole the show at the Oscars last year. The scene above–in which Pi daringly confronts the Bengal tiger–aptly demonstrates why.
17. Almost Famous (2000)
If you ever bring this film up to a group of people, they’ll probably respond with some sort of un-distilled adulation. One of those movies that brings out the soft spot in everyone. And rightfully so.
18. The Squid and The Whale (2005)
In addition to sporting a stellar cast (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, and a young Jessie Eisenberg), Noah Baumbach’s second film on this list is also one of the darker (but undeniably profound) coming of age epics. The title is based on the giant squid and sperm whale diorama and the museum of Natural History.
19. Clueless (1995)
Clueless, which based on a Jane Austen novel called Emma, satirizes American notinos materialism and superficiality through the lens of an overprivileged Beverly Hills Barbie. This all happened before Alicia Silverstone started feeding her baby mouth to mouth. Paul Rudd crushes it.
20. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
This Sofia Coppola is one of those that you won’t be able to stop thinking about for days, possibly weeks. It’s about a bunch of dudes who become obsessed with a group of reclusive sisters who are kept out of site by their religious, strict parents after one of them commits suicide.
21. Garden State (2004)
Zach Braff’s directorial debut, with the help of Natalie Portman, made over $35 million at the box office on a mere $2.5 million budget. The film follows an actor/waiter who returns to his hometown following the death of his mother, and is based on Braff’s real life experiences.
22. Clerks (1994)
Kevin Smith’s breakout film tells the story of a typical day in the lives of two New Jersey store clerks and the cast of characters they interact with. The versatility here is arguably what’s most impressive–Smith’s ability to transition from crude fart jokes to deep philosophical tangents is arguably second to none, which is certainly on full display here.
23. The Spectacular Now (2013)
One of the biggest pleasant surprises of 2013. There’s a lot of terrible out in the world, and this is a wonderful temporary retreat. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley should be dazzling for quite some time.
24. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
This Wes Anderson gem is about two twelve year-olds who fall in love, make a pact, and run away into the Wilderness. Authorities look for the two while a brutal storm brews offshore. Odd, in a most genuine and heartwarming kind of way.
25. Good Will Hunting (1997)
“Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions based upon…” Classic scene from one of those movies that will forever withstand the test of time.