In a previous post, I kicked off my series on Gen-X pop culture with a piece about MTV (ICYMI, you can read it here: https://peanut-butter-and-julie.com/2021/03/05/talkin-bout-my-g-g-g-generation-x/). Today, I’ll take a look at some of the most iconic Gen-X movies.
When I began working on this piece, I didn’t really have a specific cut-off year in mind. But once I finished my first draft and realized the latest year here was 1999, it just seemed perfect. After all, once Gen-Xers started turning thirty, we became culturally irrelevant; the Millenials were waiting in the wings to have the youth culture torch passed to them.
That’s not to say there aren’t fantastic movies from this century. I rank Almost Famous, Memento, Ocean’s Eleven, Arrival, Zodiac, Up, Burn After Reading, Catch Me If You Can, American Hustle, Shutter Island, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and Inside Man as some of my all-time favorites. But the majority of movies that helped shape Gen-X – and vice versa – were released in the 20th century.
By the way, my first draft was more than twice this length, so at some point, keep your eyes peeled for another volume – and give me your suggestions in the comments!
Without further ado, here are some of the most significant films of the Gen-X era.
- John Hughes oeuvre
For better or worse, no single filmmaker did more to define Gen-X cinema than John Hughes. Hughes himself was a boomer but he found a way to tap into the Gen-X zeitgeist as none of his contemporaries could, and in the process, created some of the most iconic films of the 1980s. After spending time in the advertising business, Hughes went to work for National Lampoon magazine and parlayed that into screenwriting. His script for National Lampoon’s Vacation, based on a story he wrote for the magazine (“Vacation ’58”), was optioned by Warner Brothers. The film was a success and garnered Hughes a three-movie deal with Universal.
Hughes’ directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, was released in 1984, and though it has aged poorly (the casual racism and rape jokes have made it unwatchable for me), it was a must-see for me at the time. The Breakfast Club, Hughes’ follow-up, has aged much better; my husband and I watched it again recently and it still holds up quite well (though I will say I sympathize much more with Vernon in my adulthood, which led me to discover that at the time The Breakfast Club was filmed, Paul Gleason was eight years younger than I am now). Weird Science was never my favorite anyway, and I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched it in a long time. I doubt it has held up very well either, but that Oingo Boingo theme song still slaps.
Hughes also wrote the scripts for two films that were directed by Howard Deutch, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful (Pretty in Pink is a personal favorite, largely due to my long-standing crush on Andrew McCarthy and that killer soundtrack). The final teen film that Hughes himself directed, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, was released in 1986; by that point, Hughes was ready to move on to more adult-oriented fare. But his legacy as the king of ’80s teen comedies was sealed. Hughes died in 2009 of a heart attack, at the age of just fifty-nine, and a generation mourned.
Fun fact #1: John Cusack was originally hired to play The Breakfast Club‘s bad boy John Bender but Hughes eventually recast the role with Judd Nelson because Cusack didn’t look threatening enough.
Fun fact #2: Pretty in Pink originally ended with Andie and Duckie together. Test audiences lost their minds and a new ending – with Andie choosing Blane – was commissioned. By the time the reshoot was scheduled, Andrew McCarthy was starring as a Marine in a play and had shaved his head for the role. So he was given this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad wig.
If you’ve ever said “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw” or “I love my dead gay son”, you’re definitely a Gen-Xer. Heathers, Michael Lehmann’s endlessly quotable, pitch-black comedy, stars Gen-X poster child Winona Ryder as Veronica, the only non-Heather in her clique at Westerburg High School. When Veronica meets J.D. (Christian Slater), the sociopathic new kid in town, all hell breaks loose. Upon its release in 1988, Heathers bombed (pun intended), earning only $1 million. But the film found an audience on home video and went on to become a cult classic.
Fun fact: Screenwriter Daniel Waters wrote the script with Stanley Kubrick in mind to direct the film. The cafeteria scene at the beginning of the film is an homage to the barracks scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Waters was unable to get the script to the famously private Kubrick and turned to Michael Lehmann, whom Waters had met through a mutual friend.
- Reality Bites
Reality Bites was one of the first films to be written and directed by Gen-Xers (Helen Childress and Ben Stiller, respectively). Its coming-of-age theme is universal, but the dialogue is all Gen-X. Winona Ryder stars as Lelaina, a recent college graduate and aspiring filmmaker learning to navigate adulthood along with her closest friends Troy (Ethan Hawke), Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), and Sammy (Steve Zahn). The whole “Will they, won’t they?” thing gets a little old; it’s obvious from the beginning that Lelaina and Troy will end up together (and frankly, they’re both kind of assholes anyway). Garofalo and Zahn steal every scene they’re in; I particularly love the poignant sequence where they anxiously get their first AIDS tests (a Gen-X rite of passage). One of my favorite things about Reality Bites is the soundtrack, which features retro jams like “My Sharona” and “Tempted” as well as songs from artists like Crowded House, Lenny Kravitz, and U2.
Fun fact: According to Childress, the title isn’t meant as a play on the phrase “reality sucks”; while writing the script during the 1992 election season, Childress kept hearing the term “sound bites” and came to think of Lelaina’s short films as “little bites of reality”.
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist
The year 1982 – “the summer of Spielberg” – was dominated by these two box office behemoths, released just a week apart in June. My generation just couldn’t get enough of them. I saw both of these films multiple times during their initial release, and have watched both countless times in the intervening years. Forty years later, the magic of these two movies still has the power to thrill, delight, terrify, and move me.
Fun fact #1: Both films have their roots in an unproduced screenplay called Night Skies, which Spielberg conceived as a horror sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg was contractually obligated by Universal Pictures to not direct another movie while E.T. was in development, and brought in Tobe Hooper. Hooper, who directed one of the most iconic horror films ever (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), wasn’t interested in the sci-fi elements of Night Skies and suggested to Spielberg that they make a ghost story instead.
Fun fact #2: Steven Spielberg discovered Heather O’Rourke while eating lunch at the MGM commissary; O’Rourke and her mother were there with Heather’s older sister Tammy, who had a role in Pennies from Heaven. After he finished his lunch, Spielberg approached the family; Heather was signed to Poltergeist the following day. The runner-up for the role of Carol Anne Freeling, Drew Barrymore, was offered the role of Gertie in E.T. instead.
- Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent, darkly comic ode to 1950s hardboiled crime novels blew into the 47th Cannes Film Festival like a hurricane. Pulp Fiction won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, on its way to becoming the most buzzed-about (and best) film of 1994. Tarantino, like a lot of the directors on this list, is actually a boomer, but his sensibility is all Gen-X. Coming off the success of his feature-length debut Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino was given an $8.5 million budget and a creative blank check. After winning the Palme d’Or and opening the New York Film Festival, Pulp Fiction was given a wider release than most indie films (about 1,100 screens). While it wasn’t the highest-grossing movie of 1994 (it finished the year in tenth place), it was one of the most profitable, earning more than $200 million worldwide. Come Oscar time, Pulp Fiction raked in seven nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (John Travolta), Best Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Best Supporting Actress (Uma Thurman), Best Film Editing, and Best Original Screenplay.
Fun fact: Quentin Tarantino has explicitly stated that the briefcase is a MacGuffin (“an object, device or event that is necessary to the plot and motivation of the characters, but insignificant or irrelevant in itself”), but that didn’t stop fans from speculating about its contents. One popular theory suggested that the briefcase contained Marcellus Wallace’s soul, which film critic Roger Ebert dismissed as “nothing more than a widely distributed urban legend given false credibility by the mystique of the Net”.
- Star Wars trilogy
Star Wars was the first blockbuster film whose box office success was fueled in large part by Generation X. The oldest Gen-Xers were twelve years old when Star Wars (we didn’t call it “Episode IV” or “A New Hope” at the time) was released, and many of us were in our teens by the time the trilogy concluded. We coveted the tie-in merch and built the Legos. We dressed up like the characters for Halloween. Any cylindrical object became a lightsaber. I’ll admit that I wasn’t particularly into Star Wars at the time; I just didn’t see the big deal (I have come to regard the series more highly in my adulthood). But my disinterest aside, there’s no question Gen-X was responsible for making Star Wars a box office monster and a cultural icon.
Fun fact: George Lucas took story inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress, in which two peasants agree to escort a man and a woman across enemy lines, not realizing that the man is a general and the woman is a princess.
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Cameron Crowe, another boomer, wrote the defining film of the Gen-X era. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by Amy Heckerling and adapted from Crowe’s book of the same name, was based on Crowe’s experiences as an undercover reporter at Clairemont High School in San Diego. The characters in Fast Times feel like fully-formed people rather than teen-movie stereotypes; they grapple with real-world problems such as jobs, relationships, and sex. The cast – predominantly unknown at the time – was a “who’s who” of future movie stars, including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and Nicolas Cage (billed under his birth name, Nicolas Coppola).
Fun fact #1: In 1981, Cameron Crowe began dating Heart’s Nancy Wilson (the two were married in 1986). Heart recorded a song called “Fast Times” that was supposed to appear on the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack but it wasn’t used in the film. Heart included the track on their 1982 album Private Audition. Wilson herself appeared in Fast Times as “Beautiful Girl in Car”.
Fun fact #2: Andy Rathbone, whom Crowe befriended while attending Clairemont, was the basis for the Fast Times character Mark “Rat” Ratner. Rathbone went on to write more than fifty books in the …for Dummies series, beginning with Windows for Dummies in 1992.
- Back to the Future
Back to the Future was the biggest movie of 1985, by a pretty large margin; it ruled the box office all summer long. It held the top spot for eleven non-consecutive weeks, and was still in the top ten in its twenty-fifth week of release. I personally saw it three times in the theater (it was playing at the Campus Theater in Ann Arbor and my friends and I LOVED to hang out on and around campus). Director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale conceived of the idea for BTTF back in 1980; they were turned down more than forty times by studios who didn’t think the film could compete with the raunchy teen sex comedies popular at the time. After the success of 1984’s Romancing the Stone, Zemeckis secured a $15 million budget from Universal. BTTF went on to earn a total worldwide gross of almost $400 million. It also received five Oscar nominations and launched a franchise that includes two sequels, an animated television series, theme park attractions, a video game, and a stage musical.
Fun fact #1: In the first draft of the screenplay, Doc Brown’s pet was a chimpanzee named Shemp. A studio exec asked the creators to change it because films with chimps never did well, and Shemp became a dog named Einstein.
Fun fact #2: Although Michael J. Fox was the first choice for the role of Marty McFly, Fox was contractually obligated to Family Ties at the time, and the creators had to move on or risk the studio backing out of the deal. Zemeckis wanted C. Thomas Howell for the role, but the studio pressured him to cast Eric Stoltz. Five weeks into filming, it was obvious to everyone that Stoltz was not the right fit for the part; Stoltz himself told a crew member that he wasn’t a comedian and didn’t understand why he’d been cast. Zemeckis convinced the studio to do whatever it took to get Fox and to give him an additional $4 million to extend the shoot. Filming with Fox began on January 15, 1985 – less than six months before the film’s scheduled release date. For three months, Fox spent his days on the Family Ties set and his nights and weekends filming BTTF.
By the way, Fox’s hiring necessitated the recasting of Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer. At five feet, seven inches, Melora Hardin is two inches taller than Fox. The film’s female crew members overwhelmingly agreed that Marty should not be shorter than his girlfriend, and Hardin was replaced with the five-foot, four-inch Claudia Wells. Just seventeen years old at the time, Hardin was understandably devastated.
- Fight Club
Another iconic Gen-X film directed by a boomer (David Fincher was born in 1962), Fight Club feels like the apex of Gen-X cynicism. I’ll admit that I hadn’t yet read the Chuck Palahniuk novel on which the film is based and mostly saw Fight Club because of how much I’d loved Fincher’s previous two films, Seven and The Game. I was wholly unprepared for how deeply Fight Club would inhabit me. I empathized with The Narrator’s insomnia and his desire to feel something other than depression and apathy, his need to “destroy something beautiful”. Fincher did a brilliant job satirizing toxic masculinity and rampant consumerism and told a damned entertaining story in the process; in doing so, Fincher accomplished the rarest of feats – a movie that’s better than the book.
20th Century Fox execs HATED the movie and didn’t know how to market it. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it received a polarized response. Christopher Goodwin, writing for The Australian, opined that “Fight Club is shaping up to be the most contentious mainstream Hollywood meditation on violence since Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.”
Fun fact #1: For the film’s first fight scene, Fincher instructed Edward Norton to actually hit Brad Pitt but didn’t warn Pitt. Fincher, a perfectionist who tends to film multiple takes, used the first take of this scene in the finished product.
Fun fact #2: The Dust Brothers composed the excellent electronic score, but they weren’t Fincher’s first choice. Fincher was looking for an artist who’d never scored a film before and initially pursued Radiohead; Thom Yorke, exhausted from promoting the band’s 1997 album OK Computer, declined. Yorke went on to compose the music for 2018’s Suspiria and his bandmate Jonny Greenwood has famously collaborated with Paul Thomas Anderson on five films, earning an Academy Award nomination for 2017’s Phantom Thread (and another one this past year for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog).
- The Brat Pack – The Outsiders, Red Dawn, St. Elmo’s Fire
In addition to most of the John Hughes films discussed above, the so-called Brat Pack starred in several more iconic ’80s films. The term “Brat Pack” was coined for a 1985 article in New York magazine. Two popular movies from that year – The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire – were referenced in the article, thus the Brat Pack is generally defined as actors who starred in one or both of those films. Among its members are Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson (all three of whom starred in both of the aforementioned films), as well as Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, and Demi Moore.
Technically speaking, most of the members of the Brat Pack are young boomers (the notable exceptions are Ringwald and Hall; Robert Downey Jr. and Charlie Sheen, sometimes cited as Brat Packers, are also Gen-Xers, having both been born in 1965). But the films they starred in – films like The Outsiders, Red Dawn, The Breakfast Club, and St. Elmo’s Fire – were Gen-X touchstones.
“Brat Pack” was meant derogatorily, of course; the word “brat” conjures up images of bad behavior. I don’t remember what they’d done to earn the moniker – perhaps they (gasp!) partied too hard, the way a lot of twenty-somethings do? – and I didn’t really care anyway. I just loved the movies, especially anything Andrew McCarthy – the love of my sixteen-year-old life – was in.
Fun fact: Harry Dean Stanton was something of a mentor to the group. Stanton, at the time in his fifties, co-starred in several films featuring Brat Packers, including Repo Man, Red Dawn, and Pretty in Pink.
When I started working on this post, I asked my husband – also a Gen-Xer – what he thought were the most iconic movies of our youth, and the first thing he said was “Grease“. It was a somewhat surprising answer, because he really doesn’t like musicals, but he hit the nail on the head. Grease is one of the first movies I distinctly remember seeing in the theater. A LOT of us saw it in the theater; made for about $6 million, Grease earned more than $132 million in its initial release, making it the highest-grossing film of 1978.
Fun fact: The film’s soundtrack has sold 38 million copies and was the second-best-selling album of the year (after Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack to another John Travolta movie). The Grease soundtrack remains the eleventh-best-selling album of all time.
- The Goonies
One of the first films to star Gen-Xers in the majority of the lead roles, The Goonies was one of the most popular movies of 1985 and remains a cult classic to this day. Steven Spielberg executive produced this adventure flick from a script by Christopher Columbus. The charming teen cast is headed by Josh Brolin and Sean Astin as brothers Brandon and Mikey Walsh, whose family is facing foreclosure by a greedy developer who wants to demolish the homes in their neighborhood (nicknamed the Goondocks) so he can build a swanky new country club. Mikey and his friends set out in search of the treasure of pirate One-Eyed Willie, hoping it will be enough to pay off the developer and keep their homes. Along the way, they encounter a family of criminals, countless booby traps, bats, a giant octopus (cut from the finished product for being too cartoonish), and a pirate ship full of treasure.
Fun fact #1: Executive producer Steven Spielberg asked Cyndi Lauper to be the musical director for The Goonies. Lauper included her friends The Bangles, who had opened for her on her Fun tour and were still relatively unknown at the time (their breakout second album, Different Light, was released the following year). The highlight of the soundtrack is Lauper’s own “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough”, which became Lauper’s fifth top ten hit. The video was directed by Goonies helmer Richard Donner and features appearances by the film’s cast, Spielberg, pro wrestlers Roddy Piper and André the Giant, and the members of The Bangles.
Fun fact #2: The house used as the Walsh home in the film, located in Astoria, Oregon, is a popular tourist destination.