The best teen movies reflect modern youth culture and alter it—they transform the vernacular, fashion, and the trajectory of the genre itself. They are original and smart (even mid-dick joke). Some are raunchy comedies, some are stark dramas, some defy classification, but all are unflinchingly honest (even mid-dick joke). Though they very seldom win awards, the best teen movies usually compel repeat viewings and somehow seem to intuit the needs and tastes of generations to come. Here are 15 of the decade’s most memorable explorations of all the intrinsic charms and traumas of teendom.
Most likely to influence future filmmakers: Brick (2005)
Writer-director Rian Johnson overhauled the teen genre, the noir, and blew everyone’s mind by setting this brilliant whodunit in a high school. The dialogue is tight and heavily stylized, borrowing from 1940s hardboiled slang, and the engrossing detective plot is fueled by all of the mean and dirty social politics of high school.
Most likely to cause a lot of ill-advised sweater fondling: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
All right, so almost everyone in the cast is over thirty but this endlessly quotable parody of all of those late 1970s, early 1980s camp movies like Meatballs and Little Darlings is the ultimate (penis-in-vagina), dick cream coated love letter to the teen genre.
Most likely to be seen as the defining moment of Mandy Moore’s acting career: Saved! (2004)
Set in a Christian high school, this subversive comedy tackles teen pregnancy with just as much wit and sensitivity as that other, slightly more infamous teen pregnancy movie, while also offering a daring commentary on homophobia and religious hypocrisy. Unexpected performances by erstwhile teenybopper Mandy Moore and everyone’s favorite one-kid-army, Macaulay Culkin, are added treats.
Most likely to make your mom laugh: Mean Girls (2004)
Not only is Mean Girls one of the most hilarious and accurate cinematic depictions of just how shamelessly evil teenage girls can be to each other, but it also initiated the current Tina Fey-is-paragon-of-all-things-funny period. Mean Girls is such an effective comedy because the subject is timeless—as long as there are high schools, mean girls will be slinking down those locker-lined hallways. In slow-motion.
Most likely to be the reason why the song “Butterfly” never dies: Orange County (2002)
Orange County has something that no other teen movie in the history of the genre can boast: An inexplicable, almost surreal dance number set to the rock-rap tune of Crazy Town’s “Butterfly.” This thoughtful comedy about an aspiring writer also features a dreamy surf-rock soundtrack, Jack Black at his Jack Black-iest, and cameos by Kevin Klein and Ben Stiller.
Most likely to be referenced on the DVD/Blu-Ray cover of every quirky comedy for the next ten years: Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
As much as I adore this movie I must admit that I’m glad that all of that rampant Napoleon Dynamite quoting has died down—when your mom says, “Your mom goes to college,” in that dopey, Kip voice you can’t help but reevaluate a few things. But with its subdued tone and exaltation of awkwardness, Napoleon Dynamite opened up so many possibilities for the genre and for film in general.
Most likely to be called the unsung hero of this decade’s teen movies by me right now: Sugar and Spice (2001)
Sugar and Spice may very well be the unsung hero of this decade’s teen movies. It’s a comedy about cheerleaders and popularity and teen pregnancy, like a few others on this list, but it has the added bonus of a Point Break-esque heist plot. One of the cheerleaders also happens to be Conan O’Brien obsessed (and a woman after my own heart).
Most likely to be called superbad even though it’s supergood: Superbad (2007)
Superbad is hysterical, that’s a given, but it’s also surprisingly touching and that, I think, is what distinguishes it from all of the throw-away sex romps released in recent years. Can you think of anything more precious than Jonah Hill carrying Michael Cera to safety? The answer is, no. No, you cannot.
Most likely to beget more sequels than Godzilla: Bring It On (2000)
A courageous look into the cutthroat world of high school cheerleading, Bring It On stars Kirsten Dunst in her most cheerleaderly role to date and was nominated for three Academy Awards (no, not really). It’s difficult to tell if Bring it On is actually any good or if we’ve all just been beaten into submission by the programming aces over at the TBS and USA networks, who’ve decided (possibly even arbitrarily) to air this movie every Saturday morning. Regardless, you can’t deny the cultural impact of a movie that has spawned four—yes, four!—straight to DVD sequels.
Most likely to inspire steadfast (but kind of irrational) devotion: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)
Almost everyone who came of age in the late nineties—self included—worships Empire Records (a movie about a bunch of kids who work, and I use the word “work” loosely, in the world’s most whimsical record store). Though I’m sure very few of the movie’s devotees would ever admit it, Empire Records is obscenely mediocre. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist—like Empire Records—is the sort of innocuous, meandering teen comedy that will undoubtedly become a cult favorite.
Most likely to inspire steadfast (and totally warranted) devotion: Ghost World (2001)
Ghost World, oh, how you cut to the core of me! This dark comedy adapted from an alternative comic of the same name, chronicles the aimless, post-high school existence of two best friends and the slow disintegration of their childhood bond. Enid and Rebecca, played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson (before she was the bankable, mega-star that she is today) revel in their otherness, celebrate the strange, and as a result, have become cynical, misfit-girl icons.
Most likely to reveal a new layer of awesomeness every time it’s watched: Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko is science-fiction, it’s a metaphysical thriller, it’s a social satire, it’s set in the 80s, so it’s a period piece, but it’s also about a strange, brooding teenager who is pathologically incapable of dealing with high school. Released a mere eight years ago, Donnie Darko has already achieved cult status and proves that movies with teenage protagonists can be just as varied and thought provoking as anything else out there.
Most likely to be historically significant: Elephant (2003)
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which is in part based on 1999’s Columbine high school massacre, isn’t the kind of movie that you need to watch more than once. It’s so poignant, so sobering that it sticks with you long after it’s over. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or, Elephant resists conventional narrative techniques yet has this eerie, almost documentary quality. Ultimately, it is an artful articulation of the horrifying reality of high school shootings.
Most likely to be unjustly ignored by most end-of-the-decade lists: Igby Goes Down (2002)
Though Igby Goes Down was met with almost universal praise when it was released in 2002, I fear that it may be overshadowed by movies like Juno and its protagonist unfairly lumped in with all of those prototypical Holden Caulfield characters. But Igby Goes Down is—and I’m going to try and be as articulate here as I can—really, really good and deserves a spot on this list. The dialogue is often sickeningly clever and Kieran Culkin delivers an inspired performance as the titular sarcastic, wealthy teen, desperate to break free from his eccentric family.
Most likely to confuse future human beings: Juno (2007)
Has a movie ever been so universally celebrated and—paradoxically—reviled? Well, whether you want to admit it or not, this indie comedy about a hyper-articulate pregnant teen was paradigm shattering. It also solidified Michael Cera’s place within the pantheon of teen movie gods, won first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody an Oscar, and may very well be—dare I say it?—this decade’s definitive teen movie. But how will it be regarded years from now? Will all of the pop culture laced dialogue be impenetrable to future generations? Will some kid twenty or thirty years down the line hear Juno say, “It’s Morgan Freeman, got any bones that need collecting?” and think that Morgan Freeman was in The Bone Collector when it was actually Denzel Washington? Only time will tell.