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10 More Films That Define This Generation?

by Christopher Campbell
October 2, 2010 2:31 AM
22 Comments
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Every other review and movie site has made some sort of reference to "The Social Network" being a film that defines this generation. Some are arguing against the claim, but it's still an idea that's out there on people's minds. Having finally seen the Facebook-origins tale, I'm more in agreement that it is very representative and reflective of at least the zeitgeist of the group known as the Generation Y (aka the Millennials, Generation Next, the Net Generation, and the Echo Boomers). It's hard to say why without insulting an entire population of Americans born over a fifteen year period, so let's just say it gets that group of people who grew up with the Internet, social media and a dwindling concern for and interest in privacy.

But what do we mean when we say something defines a generation? What makes "Rebel Without a Cause," and "The Breakfast Club" define their generations? Is it something that is marked by the people or something that marks them? Is it something that best exemplifies or best interprets or best generalizes? I believe it should be something popular, but not something too popular. In an attempt to figure it out, I've come up with a list of other possible films that define this generation. I should note that I am not a member of this generation, so I very well could have it pegged all wrong. Please do correct me wherever applicable.


1. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001)

It's not just one of the favorites of the generation. The first 'Harry Potter' movie, joined by the rest of the franchise, is also the best coming of age story of the past decade. You could argue that it's more J.K. Rowling's novels which define the group, and you'd be right, but the adaptations are almost equally significant. Partly there's the factor of this generation growing up alongside the series' stars, partly there's the outer effect the overall franchise has had on American culture, especially as viewed negatively by certain conservative groups (watch the docs 'Jesus Camp' and 'We Are Wizards' for some cinematic address of that context), and partly because it has dictated much of the entertainment produced since the success of the first installment. Even "The Social Network" itself at times feels like a magic-less version of Potter's early storyline, with Jess Eisenberg/Mark Zuckerberg in the Harry role and Andrew Garfield/Eduardo Saverin as Ron. Of course, Harry cools his head, but there is a moment in "Chamber of Secrets" where he almost could have gone a different direction and exploited all his friends for an exclusive Hogwarts-based social networking site.

2. "Twilight" (2008)

There may not have been the "Twilight" movies without the prior success of the "Harry Potter" series, but there's just no leaving it off this list. When asked what Generation Y is all about, a friend answered "blowjobs, the Internet and vampires." Sounds about right. I think "The Social Network" has the bjs down, and obviously the Internet, but there are no (literal) bloodsuckers. So here you go, Twi-hards, another list with your favorite franchise represented.

3. "American Pie" (1999)

I don't know that anyone in real life has ever masturbated with a pie or a flute -- at least nobody would admit to it, I hope -- but there are a number of things in this sex comedy, the "Porky's" of its generation, that seem to either ring true or have caught on. Webcam voyeurism/exhibitionism, the term MILF, and the gross-out genre in general, while not originating with the "American Pie" movies, are all things I associate with both this film and this generation, for better or worse. Also, as much as I'm not a huge fan, I do appreciate that "American Pie" featured actors and actresses that looked the age and physical consistency of actual high school kids. None were too jocky or too nerdy or too pretty (at least no domestic students); they didn't all completely or necessarily represent stereotype classifications, and that's something the majority of this generation's teen movies has done better compared to the stark categorization indicative of the John Hughes era.

4. "Easy A" (2010)

It may for the most part be a rip-off of other recent teen movies like "Mean Girls" and "Saved!" and it especially took its main concept from a minor subplot in "American Pie," but "Easy A" is more representative of this generation because of how dependent it is on that referencing and feeding off of past works rather than giving us something fresh and new. A teen movie that defines this generation can only be something that strives to be one of those that defined the prior generation ("The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Pretty in Pink") while misunderstanding how to be inspired rather than being a total copycat. This slightly fits with Internet ventures -- both the way Zuckerberg may have flat out stolen the concept of Facebook from the "Winklevi" and the way the site is just a redo of MySpace which is a redo of Friendster -- except that with web companies, the idea is always to slightly copy but make better. That's not the case with movies.

5. "We Live in Public" (2009)

I've already had friends disagree with me on this, but Ondi Timoner's documentary about Internet pioneer Josh Harris is also about the generation he ushered in and pretty much foresaw the direction of. Yes, it also defines a part of the prior generation and its early naivete with regards to the web, and it's primarily set in the '90s and early '00s and that Web 1.0 era -- the Millenials are all about 2.0 and beyond and have no idea what it was like for the Internet to invade life, since it always existed for them. But Harris was also ahead of his time and, in spite of his age (he barely makes the cut for Generation X, let alone Y), fits in with this generation better than he does his own group. Actually, in "The Social Network," Zuckerberg reminded me a whole lot of Harris.

6. "Al Franken: God Spoke" (2006)

Outside of their computers, this generation has mostly depended on comedy programs and figures like Jon Stewart for news and political influence. We saw how problematic that was in the 2004 race, and this underrated doc from Chris Hegedus (wife and partner of D.A. Pennebaker) and Nick Doob documents the times perfectly while following future senator Al Franken back when he was just a funny political commentator.

7. "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004)

And of course Michael Moore's hugely successful -- in dollars if not influence -- film belongs here, too, for the political culture of this generation. The documentary represents not just the electoral atmosphere of the first real important presidential race for the group (some may have made it to polls in 2000, but barely) but also the most defining event for the Millenials, September 11th, and its aftermath.

8. "Night at the Museum" (2006)

I'm including this Ben Stiller comedy because its script is like a high school report that uses Wikipedia (in its earlier, less trustworthy days) as a sole source for information. One of the most generalized and factually questionable blockbusters in recent years, at least as far as family films that can easily corrupt kids' intelligence, it is symbolic of the laziness of research in the Internet age (not that I'll deny looking at the site for info on these movies, Generation Y and other things). My generation had similar historical inaccuracies in pop culture form with stuff like "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," but that movie didn't mean to represent an actual institution of great integrity (NYC's Natural History Museum). It was about slacker time travelers who wish they had the bounty of information, right and wrong, available on the world wide web. Speaking of how Wikipedia links to this generation, have we had a film yet that reflects the modern increase in plagiarism in schools and on the web? Someone get on that, if not.

9. "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999)

My generation had the original "Star Wars" trilogy. The next has the prequels, and that's too bad. But it goes to show how this generation has little identity of its own that isn't based on the stuff that defined previous groups (see "Easy A" above) and which is also of shoddier quality. Perhaps I could have included a remake of some sort here instead. But given George Lucas' apparent intent to bring this franchise around again and again for each generation, it must be recognized. I guess the Generation Z just gets the whole series in 3-D, and then who knows the next group, whatever they will be called (we've run out of letters. Generation AA?), will get. Perhaps episodes VII, VIII and IX? And maybe the tables will turn and quality will be restored. We can only hope.

10. Reader's Choice

This list wouldn't properly evoke this generation without letting the people themselves spout their opinion or vote on the outcome. And yes, I admit I'm just being kind of lazy and indecisive, but I also want to let readers pick the, or another, film they think best defines them. Is it "The Social Network"? Or any of these films I thought about including: "Napoleon Dynamite," "An Inconvenient Truth," "Toy Story 3," "Shattered Glass," "Juno," "Brokeback Mountain," "Spider-Man," "Superbad," "High School Musical," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "John Tucker Must Die"? Pick one of these or any other film from the last fifteen years -- not necessarily something you loved, but something you thing captures your generation as a whole -- and let me know in the comments.


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22 Comments

  • Aaron | January 26, 2014 1:31 AMReply

    Harry Porter is no definition of my gen and so is Night at the museum. Fight Club, Shaun of the dead, will get my vote.

  • dsjdsndsfdsf | July 8, 2011 7:31 AMReply

    I would say this list is pretty accurate, but it is definitely more representative of the younger members of Gen Y. I personally never went through a "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" phase because I was never interested in fantasy and I was already out of college when the latter came out. I was also a bit too old to relate to "Juno" when it came out, and "Napoleon Dynamite" is a tad too quirky for my taste ("Juno" is a quirky as I get). Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty solid list. Relax, people! Lists are supposed to generalize. Of course it's impossible to make an all-inclusive, all-encompassing list that would be representative of everyone's experience, but this is a pretty good attempt.

    The movies I grew up with were "Toy Story", "The Matrix", "American Beauty", "Scream", "Scary Movie", "Star Wars" (the '90s version), "American Pie." Plus, a lot of mid-to-late '90s movies. I'd say at the time "Mean Girls" spoke to people my age in the same way "Easy A" probably speaks to the younger members of Gen Y. I also liked "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "An Inconvenient Truth" when they came out.

  • Jason | April 22, 2011 9:51 AMReply

    I'd go for the Disney Renaiisance films and the Toy Story trilogy.

  • Typical American | October 8, 2010 6:45 AMReply

    For me, the films that have best defined my generation in terms of actual depiction of human life (as opposed to merely listing the content most watched in that life) are the films of Angela Schanelec. Odd that the most accurate depictions I have come across of our generation are from a German filmmaker depicting German youth in films which had perhaps a few festival showings at most on this side of the Atlantic. By the same token, I think that this fact speaks the loudest as the defining stamp of our generation: the universality of global culture, united by that American pop culture which is devoured across the globe, which is entirely bereft of truthful self-reflective material and almost entirely insulated from others across the world who share the same life experiences, living conditions, and, increasingly, language. Thus it is the strange case that the lack of viewing those films which would show the collective disconnect our own generation is the most significant example of our global generation's collective disconnect and uniformity. We are all equally disconnected from the world at large. Facebook allows us to connect across the globe, but most people barely leave their bedrooms, literally and figuratively. And they're certainly not all computer geniuses on the verge of becoming billionaires attending the most elite university in the country inhabited by a slew of caricatures.

    Your list seems to present the idea that our generation is aesthetically superficial, emotionally stunted, and intellectually lazy - but I posit that the worst goes unmentioned: the lack of self awareness of all the preceding points.

  • Ben | October 5, 2010 10:46 AMReply

    Woah. Woah. This is so inaccurate. I'm 23, so I'm a part of "this" generation. I'd say the films that define this generations would include Fight Club, Garden State, Lost In Translation and Superbad. This list reads like it was written by a Gen Xer who is angry that they're aging. Or a Gen Xer who is a little out of touch.

    I mean, which would you say is more generation defining: Back To The Future, or Dirty Dancing? If I said Dirty Dancing, well, the feeling you're feeling? That's how I feel when you list Twilight and Night At The Museum.

  • Christopher Campbell | October 5, 2010 10:33 AMReply

    Hmmm, Back to the Future and Dirty Dancing both reflect that overbearing nostalgia for the 50s and 60s that permeated the 80s, but I think BTTF does a better job of remarking on how my generation is not only the offspring but also the cultural product of that earlier generation. Then again, DD does it, too, maybe in the way that it feels like it could be set in the time it was made. It's more of a blurring or overlay of eras and generations instead of a direct dealing with the two times. Hard to say, but I wouldn't care which you'd consider the more defining film.

  • emilie123 | October 4, 2010 10:37 AMReply

    IMO, Toy Story 3 should have been right up there instead of an afterthought.

  • abby_wan_kenobi | October 4, 2010 8:14 AMReply

    "But I guess I also see that applying in a negative way, partly because I’m such a cynic and see some of the reflection being in Shaun and Ed’s flaws."

    I think Shaun and Ed's flaws are an important element . In a reality tv world, your flaws are as important as your achievements. And since your life is preserved immortally on the net, you have to learn to live with your flaws and mistakes publicly. No romantic notions.

  • Christopher Campbell | October 4, 2010 7:50 AMReply

    I love the idea of Shaun of the Dead being a defining film for this generation. But I guess I also see that applying in a negative way, partly because I'm such a cynic and see some of the reflection being in Shaun and Ed's flaws.

    Still it's an interesting idea to think of, this generation that could have continued in a very 90s slacker fashion that has been forced to suddenly wake up/grow up or requires that kind of unwanted or unexpected incidence. If it were an American movie there'd be more to say on its application as a post-9/11 story, that concept of being thrust into a new era necessitating new heroism and/or responsibility.

    I'm just writing as I'm thinking, but I can see this being developed further.

  • abby_wan_kenobi | October 4, 2010 5:30 AMReply

    This is interesting - As a 25-year-old (at the older end of the Millenial Generation), I think the list says more about how young people are perceived than how we actually are. Apparently we love magic and vampires. Also we're either really political or really shallow.

    In fairness, I haven't seen The Social Network yet, so I can't speak to that, but others on the list seem more like fads than classics. Certainly Harry Potter has some lasting panache (a la Star Wars), and maybe Twilight will too, but these are films and stories that are *popular* not necessarily defining.

    I'd abandon the documentaries too, they might speak to a moment in time, but they can't define a generation.

    Shaun of the Dead might have my vote. It doesn't take itself seriously, the hero is a beta-male, and it never loses track of the trivial day-to-day struggle even while the characters fight the undead. I think the adventure, fantasy and violence speaks more to the Millenials - a sense that we're in unexplored territory. There's no roadmap for life in the internet age. I think that's what speaks to us in the fantasy films, but our lives aren't epic, they're mostly the tedium - facebook and twitter updates about breakfast.

    Nonetheless, we're the early explorers of the digital age. Louis & Clark with iPhones. And really, GPS and webcams and Wii aren't any more the stuff of science fiction that zombies, am I right?

    Isn't that a nicer way to think of us?

  • Byrd | October 4, 2010 4:58 AMReply

    Fight Club beats up all these movies, pours old motor oil on their lawn and then turns the fat from their mother's liposuction into soap while whipping them with a car antenna

    And I think you've mistaken "generation defining" for "popular".

  • Christopher Campbell | October 3, 2010 10:36 AMReply

    @Debra

    You are saying that people of this generation say Slumdog defines it/them? Did they say why?

    And I did ask. The whole list is a long question.

  • debra burke | October 3, 2010 8:47 AMReply

    It appears you didnt have time for your own research, maybe you should try wikipedia?
    Your opinions vary from "im not sure" to Twilight". Twilight, really?
    You seriously missed a great opportunity to expand on where "Social Network" starts. This generation and its amazing many facets are unique, disturbing, global, confusing and raw, but most of all this generation is about "real".
    Go out on the street, talk to this generation, and then maybe you will have an opinion worth respecting. I hear "Slum Dog Millionaire", but then , I asked.

  • Jenn | October 3, 2010 4:30 AMReply

    Really good list! I never read others comments because most people don't bother commenting unless they want to b*tch and moan, but I would gather there are a lot of whiners about Twilight being so high on the list. Get over it!

  • B | October 3, 2010 2:28 AMReply

    Twilight??? HELL NO! I think that belongs to the next generation.

    Harry Potter should've been all 7. It's the story that define's our generation.

    Readers Choice - either Toy Story 3, Superbad, Eurotrip, Youth in Revolt, HSM, Juno or Napoleon Dynamite.

  • Abel | October 2, 2010 5:05 AMReply

    I kinda feel there should have been a place for The Matrix or Fight Club, or atleast American Beauty.

  • Sam Brooks | October 2, 2010 4:57 AMReply

    As somebody who isn't a fan of Juno, I would say that it is kind of representative of my/our generation. Self-reflexive, put-on quirkiness that I think defines the movie. I also think it started a rather unfortunate trend in films, and film fans.

  • Jason | October 2, 2010 4:45 AMReply

    Also, I'd add Avatar, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Hurt Locker and The Dark Knight.

  • Jason | October 2, 2010 4:42 AMReply

    These movies make me realize I hate my generation :(

    As much as I didn't enjoy a lot of the movies, they do define our generation. Box office results + pop culture effects don't lie. Considering half produced at least one sequel, one brought generations together (star wars) and one defines this generations current political beliefs (far 9/11), it does cover it very well.

    Like I said, I hate my generation and the fact that these movies fit the bill so well. Good list.

  • Christopher Campbell | October 2, 2010 4:24 AMReply

    So tell me what choice you'd pick instead!

  • Dan | October 2, 2010 4:19 AMReply

    I agree with none of these choices haha - u lost all credibility somewhere between Harry Potter and Night at the Museum

  • Keil Shults | October 2, 2010 3:22 AMReply

    Makes me wonder if anyone under 25 realizes how vapid the culture they've grown up in has been. This generation doesn't even seem to have much curiosity about the music and (especially) movies from prior generations. While the film industry hasn't been as soulless and mind-numbing as the music of the past 15 years, it's still sad to see some of the films that have been most popular with the younger crowd. At least we've had Harry Potter, Pixar, LOTR, and some good comic book films to balance things out.

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