Unlike those of other websites, our Top Ten lists are created from the empirical data of our global rankings.
With teachers and students returning to school this month, here’s a look at the Top Ten Teen Movies of All-Time, as determined by the Flickchart community. Break-ups, cliques, daydreams, drugs, sex, and - most important of all - pop music all dominate the high school experience. These ten films celebrate and explore those themes.
Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) enjoys the most outrageous day of hooky of all time. The film is iconic among a specific generation, but it has endured over the years because it represents the daydream of every generation.
Nicholas Vargo: I loved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off much more as a kid and a teenager than I do as an adult. While it no doubt remains funny to this day, and the fantasy of taking a day off is something everyone can relate to, it doesn’t have quite the same impact it did when I was younger. Still, much of it holds up, like Ferris’s best friend standing up for himself, the principal (Jeffrey Jones) on the quest to bust Ferris once and for all, and Ferris’s relationship with his girlfriend (You really do believe that Ferris would marry her in an instant if he could). The German parade still remains the film’s high point, as The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” has never sounded as fun as it does here. Even though it’s not perfect, this is arguably the best film John Hughes has ever made.
After more than a decade of student activism that included heated demonstrations, marches and notorious rioting, the 1980s saw a more subdued form of teen rebellion. Perhaps no film of its era is better known for reflecting that than The Breakfast Club, in which students from five disparate cliques serve detention together.
Jandy Hardesty: My anti-’80s bias is no secret, and generally not even John Hughes can break through my cynical shell, but The Breakfast Club is an exception. Sure, it has its touches of after school special (see what I did there? Detention is after school! Ha!), and the group of kids is made up of quickly identifiable stereotypes, but at the same time, those stereotypes are subtly challenged and the types become true characters. It plays a little on the nose, but Hughes movies are known for their heart, and that shines through plenty here.
Rebel Without a Cause contributed greatly to the conecption of the anti-hero, through troubled teenager Jim Stark, a role immortalized by James Dean and his untimely death a year later. In a new town and at a new school, Jim tries to stand up to bullies and protect weaker schoolmates, but ineffective parenting has left him with few resources to manage his own impulses much less those of his new friends.
Jandy: Unlike many of the films on this list, Rebel Without a Cause can be difficult to approach from the point of view of today’s teens - the acting is more overwrought than we’re used to despite Dean’s Method background, and it’s difficult to see exactly what Jim is struggling with. But that’s kind of the point - there’s little external cause for his rebellion - and also reveals the title as slightly misleading. Jim isn’t happy with his home life, but he’s the emotional and moral leader for his emergent “family” he creates with his friends. In a way, the film marks the beginning of the end for the stereotypical ‘50s nuclear family. The film may feel like cinematic vegetables now, but let yourself go to it, and Dean’s intensity is incredibly charismatic.
Responsible for reintroducing “Carpe Diem” into popular lexicon 20 years before Drake gave us “YOLO”, Dead Poets Society highlights the influence that a daring teacher can have on students. John Keating (Robin Williams) brings his unorthodox philosophies to Welton Academy, rousing his students’ curiosities in poetry, life, and themselves. What makes the film unique is that it also shows the unintended consequences of rebellion, reminding us that challenging the system is a war, not a battle.
Jandy: A lot of people seem to write off Dead Poets Society as inspirational treacle, but I have quite a soft spot for it. Maybe it’s my innate love for literature and belief in the freedom it can provide, maybe it’s my respect for those teachers who manage to reach their students on a very deep personal level. In any case, not everything goes well for Mr. Keating’s students as they follow the path of self-awareness and self-expression he initiates, and that’s a strength of the film, which doesn’t suggest that literature can save your life, merely that it can save your soul.
Having just graduated high school, average Lloyd (John Cusack) strikes up a summertime romance with valedictorian Diane (Ione Skye). Say Anything... was Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut film but more importantly than that, it gave us the image of Cusack standing on the lawn with a boombox held over his head.
Nicholas: I love many teen films, but Say Anything… is the one to beat. We all want to know or be someone like Lloyd Dobler. In addition, here’s a teen film that cares about each and every character we meet. When one thinks of this film, they think of John Cusack holding up that boom box, but there is so much more to it than just that. This is one of the most realistic romances ever seen. In an era where the romantic comedy has become a truly predictable counterpart, here’s a film that plays it out like real life. When Say Anything… ends, you know it will be staying with you long after its final haunting shot. This is more than a teen flick; this is a great movie period!
The last day of school. Every student looks forward to it, but none more enthusiastically than graduating seniors. Though diplomas are presented later at graduation day ceremonies, this is the day that represents crossing the finish line. Said Chuck Klosterman of Richard Linklater’s film in an essay for The Criterion Collection, “Dazed and Confused is not a movie about how things were; Dazed and Confused is a movie about how things are remembered.”
Jandy: Coming off of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (as well as Slacker and Waking Life), I was on a Linklater high when I came to this film, and I...hated it. Let’s be honest. There was nothing about this “let’s initiate a kid into high school via drugs and other illicit behaviour” that appealed to me in any way. The only bright spot was seeing a very young Milla Jovovich.
George Lucas’s 1973 film takes us back to the last day of summer in 1962. Four friends face the world that awaits them, each with his own aspirations and doubts. The turbulence of the 1960s was just around the corner, making this night especially poignant. In many ways, American Graffiti represents the last night of idealized America before the Baby Boomers left towns like Modesto and began to engage the world.
Nicholas:American Graffiti will always be the best movie George Lucas has ever made. With this one movie, he set the template for a lot of teen stories that take place over the course of one night, but the beauty of the film comes in its interesting characters, who we want to follow around as the night goes on. Add on the wonderful 43-song soundtrack of ‘50s and early ‘60s classics (my personal favorite kind of music), a mysterious DJ on the radio, and characters that have the same fears and dreams as we do, and you have a movie that captures a particular time and place so perfectly. Remember, “the Wolfman is everywhere.”
Taking the D.A.R.E. program to an extreme, Brick is a post-noir film about Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) investigating what happened after his girlfriend stole a brick of heroin from her drug-dealing gang. The moral of the story: Drugs are bad, mmmkay?
Jandy:Brick doesn’t even feel like a teen film, thanks to director Rian Johnson’s very stylized approach to the story and especially the dialogue. These teens speak in a patter that often makes it difficult to even figure out the actual plot, but that’s consistent with Johnson’s attempt to bring noir - often a plot-heavy and confusing style of film - to the high school level. Except he elevates high school to the noir level, if you agree with my biases. This is a favorite of mine, thanks to the gritty atmosphere, unusual speech patterns, occasional goofiness (the entire Kingpin sequence is quite ridiculous) and take-no-prisoners performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Disillusioned with the titular trio of popular girls, Veronica (Winona Ryder) falls in with new student Jason “J.D.” Dean (Christian Slater). Retaliatory antics between the duo and their adversaries quickly escalate, and so does the body count.
Nicholas:Heathers is dark and chancy, and makes zero apologies for it. To say it’s amazing would be wrong, but it’s if nothing else one of the breeziest dark comedies of its ilk. Its first half works much better than the second half (partly because we love Veronica and want to see her get revenge against her so-called friends). Yet, despite the good dark jabs when people are killed, the final 20 minutes just hit a wall. From this point on, Heathers has an identity crisis, as if director Michael Lehmann and screenwriter Daniel Waters have lost their way, seeming to have no idea how to properly end it (which might explain J.D.’s rampage). Heathers still manages to be a fabulous dark time because it comes off as realistic, even if the story goes a little too far off the deep end for some people’s tastes.
Teen romances are the worst! Lane Myer (John Cusack in his second appearance on this list) is devastated when Beth (Amanda Wyss) breaks up with him. Lane doesn’t handle it well, alternately desperate to win her back from the school’s ski team captain Roy (Aaron Dozier) and ending his own life.
Nicholas: Of all of the films here, Better Off Dead is arguably the funniest. Only director Savage Steve Holland could take a darkly comedic idea like this one and make it as light as a feather. Still, what everyone remembers about this one are the supporting characters, who are as much fun to watch as Lane Myer is. Curtis Armstrong in particular as Charles DeMar steals each and every scene he is in. There’s also a greedy paperboy (“I want my two dollars!”), two speed-demon foreigners (one of which learned to speak English from Howard Cosell), a neighbor who snorts nasal spray (“He snorts nasal spray? Know where I can score some?”), and a French foreign-exchange student who might be Lane’s salvation. It all adds up to a hilarious good time that everyone can relate to.
How about it, Flickcharters? Which of these movies best represents your school days? Or, perhaps, your school daze?
Jandy is especially drawn to classic, off-beat, and foreign film, but loves a good blockbuster action sequence, too. You can find her on Flickchart as faithx5. She also writes at The Frame, and co-hosts the occasional podcast Not at Odds at Row Three.