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The 88 Films That Define Generation X

These movie classics formed us as much as they entertained us

A grid of movie stills from different Generation X movies mentioned within the article
Alamy (9) Everett Collection (3)

As much as movies defined Generation X, Generation X defined movies. No one went to the movies or lived them more or better than we did. Our repeat viewings fueled the first blockbusters, from Jaws onward. We had cable and VHS, which means any flops that turned into cult classics did so courtesy of us. These films either formed us as people or depicted us just as we are, were or both.

Need further proof? We bet you’ve seen every film on this list more than once.

They weren’t just kids like us. They felt feelings we all felt and, just like us, had to gut it out without adult supervision.

Stand by Me
Every childhood hike and camping trip had its metaphorical dead body, the one crazy thing that seemed possible but never really happened. Still, it could have. Oh, and your life will end one day, probably sooner than you think. Is it any wonder we’re so messed up?

The Bad News Bears
Each of the kids’ personalities existed inside us at the same time. Meanwhile, cruel and boozing coaches were the norm. A film for every Little Leaguer who remembers the taste of Schlitz.

The Goonies
“This is our time.” Our generation really did leave the house after breakfast and get into adventures. Sad fact: No future generation will ever have that privilege.

Has any generation’s high school and college education been more entertainingly and exhaustively chronicled than ours?

The Breakfast Club / Sixteen Candles / Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The Gen X film trinity. As Bowie sang, we were quite aware of what we were going through.

Three O’Clock High
For every undersized, terrified kid who finally had to ball up a fist and make a statement.

Risky Business
Gen X’s neo-noir, complete with the femme fatale and the morals in decaying orbit. It’s like as teens we all sensed what was lurking beneath the shiny surface of suburbia and this film confirmed all of it.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The masturbation scene alone locked this in as a seminal Gen X guy film. But God, it had everything. Cameron Crowe’s a boomer, but he got us even better than Hughes did.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Bill and Ted repped all of us — the dim-bulb dudes with other priorities who have potential in spite of themselves. Missed opportunity: They probably could’ve learned more about America just by spending 90 minutes with George Carlin.

Dazed and Confused
Remember when you were that freshman seeing how all the upperclassmen were really just drunken assholes on the verge of dead-end lives? And couldn’t wait to be just like them? Good times.

The Silence of the Lambs
A film about education? Yes, in two ways. It’s the story of a gifted student finally finding a teacher worthy of her potential. It’s also one of the first times Gen X men encountered a Gen X woman who was smarter, braver and more focused than we could ever be.

Dead Poets Society
“What will your verse be?” When you’re a kid, freedom of thought and spirit really can be like handling a loaded gun.

We sucked at relationships, and maybe we still do. That’s why these flicks still land.

Pretty in Pink
With all due respect to Molly Ringwald, I always thought Annie Potts’ character was the smokin’ older woman every teen boy needs.

Before Sunrise / Before Sunset / Before Midnight
Possibly the only relationship story our generation needs. It’s that comprehensive and wise and authentic, especially as we get older.

Say Anything
The in-touch among us knew how important it was to be Lloyd Dobler and not Joe Lies. Even better: We all knew a bunch of disapproving dads, but what those dads didn’t know was we got to do all the things with their daughters because the daughters instigated it.

As much as we Gen X men prided ourselves on our self-awareness, we could descend into self-parody in seconds. That’s this film.

Adulthood loomed for all of us, and even today a lot of us avoid as much of it as we can. Boomers did the exact same thing, of course, but they had that whole make-love-not-war thing to give their immaturity legitimacy.

Foundational Winona. Dunno about you, but as dark as this is, I wish it had gone darker. Heathers may not be what adolescence was like, but it’s what it felt like.

Reality Bites
Winona again, of course. And Stiller is probably an underrated director. But concocting a scheme to use a gas card to score cash to pay bills rather than get an actual job is peak ’94 mindset.

This Is 40
Hits so many notes it might as well be a generational symphony. No matter how much we accumulate and accomplish, we’re all just 16 and stupid and single in our heads.

The movie was so potent its title was applied to an entire generation. Maybe people just like us talk so much in this film because growing up no one was ever interested in anything we said.

Crowe again. He’s the master of the killer moment in his best scenes. But here he nailed a cultural moment as well: grunge. Did grunge lift us up or hold us back? Discuss.

St. Elmo’s Fire
College was a drug for a lot of us, and going cold turkey after graduation didn’t work out. Forcing maturity on the immature never does. We have to burn out naturally.

Fight Club
Materialism, masculinity, the middle children of history. A film that sells its bullshit message so well that no one gets the deconstructive hilarity underpinning it. That’s boilerplate Gen X.

Which means they made us cool as kids and a lifelong annoyance to everyone we’ve met since. Thank God for that.

Wall Street
How does “Rich enough not to waste time” land now that you’re this many years old?

Tuh-day. Tuh-day.

Mitch Cumstein is still funny.

The Princess Bride
Taught us everything we know about wuv, twu wuv and land wars in Asia.

This Is Spinal Tap
Best when heard in Dubly.

The Blues Brothers
The quotes, sure, but this was our gateway to Ray Charles, Aretha, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, the Good Ol’ Blues Brothers Boys Band and SCMODS. Fix the cigarette lighter.

Better Off Dead / One Crazy Summer
The Savage Steve Holland duology had us demanding two dollars and telling the story of the little fat boy nobody liked.

Slap Shot
Eddie Shore.

Reservoir Dogs
It was nine dicks. Nine.

Still crack up about the private sector and results.

The stoic, the charismatic, the brooding, the violent, the tough. In the end they all taught us that getting the job done, bloody or not, was job one. And more: We all felt like we were lone wolves in the world — something that we would have to unlearn as we aged. But back then, these guys were the tao.

Smokey and the Bandit
For those of us who had the soundtrack (on eight-track, but of course), this was our first experience with “incidental CB dialogue” and the proper Gleason pronunciation of “sumbitch.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indy was the prototype of the dusty, bloody, covered-in-the-shit-that-was-just-kicked-out-of-him hero we all aspired to be. Who stole artifacts, slept with underage girls and shot people in the street in foreign cities. Our first “complicated” hero 40 years before we knew what that meant.

The Spy Who Loved Me
For many this was the first in-cinema Bond experience, which happened to be peak Roger. Barbara Bach in the shower was the shot over our bows for the Phoebe Cateses to come.

First Blood
Stallone had us all believing we could sew our own wounds — you know, if we had to.

The Road Warrior
Just when you thought the truck chase in Raiders was the gold standard … holy cannoli.

The Outlaw Josey Wales
Our generation’s first Western (sorry, Silverado). Little did we know at the time it was one of the best ever made.

Sudden Impact
I was not allowed to see the initial Dirty Harry films as a kid. Sudden Impact, finally, was my first Dirty Harry. He made all our days.

Die Hard
One thing all these hero films have in common and why they’re so Gen X it’s scary: an addictive contempt for authority. Now that we’re of an age, it still feels like that contempt was earned, doesn’t it?

Mostly because we saw these films way before we should have, age-wise — but our ravaged psyches are what’s made us great.

I was 6 when I saw the blood-raft-gusher and the head in the boat and the leg at the bottom of the sea and Quint screaming to high hell as he’s bitten in half below the waist. Ocean? Love the ocean.

Blue Velvet
It’s a shame you can only see this for the first time once. A great drinking game would be drinking every time the first-timer says, “What the f- --  ?”

The River’s Edge
It’s not so much what’s on the screen. It’s the vibe. We knew we could go bad. Not just do stupid things, but stupid things that became really bad things. Most of us didn’t, but …

Apocalypse Now
In 1979 we didn’t have Redux and we barely knew the Doors. But we learned.

Fatal Attraction
For many of us, the first depiction of “your johnson can’t get you in trouble if you don’t take it out in the first place” horror.

Faces of Death
Real or maybe not so much. We had to push our limits, and this one at least let us feel like we might be doing so.

The Toxic Avenger
We’re the first generation to know the term “toxic waste dump,” so the authentic Gen X response is we might as well have some laughs over it.

Let’s try heroin!

Let’s try cocaine! I went to see this with Mom and Dad. They didn’t know. I did. They wanted to leave halfway through. I didn’t. I’m glad they were able to stick it out.

Salem’s Lot
I was 9 years old when I saw that kid floating outside the window. Holy s- --.

American Psycho
Sort of a Fight Club precursor in that some guys just could not understand the whole satire part. The book is the more prolonged experience.

If you want to see what a defining effect Halloween had on Gen X, just watch Scream.

A Clockwork Orange
Raise hands: How many did a Droog costume for Halloween?

The films we watched alone in the dark (because reasons) dug deep into our psyches, for better and worse.

Pink Floyd: The Wall
When you’re 13, life is in a minor key and you hate everyone. Still, I would argue Gex X has the best music catalog because we grew up on the old stuff too.

9½ Weeks
Our antidote to a lack of accessible porn and scrambled cable channels.

Alien / Blade Runner
Put either one on, sit transfixed. One night as a kid I sat there rewinding the Tom Skerritt jump scare over and over to get a good look at the monster. And today my aging brain says Batty’s final words are the best monologue in film.

Yup, problematic. But the howler scene was a howler.

The Thing
All that magnificent gore, and the shot that always stayed with me was MacReady hitting the fire alarm while holding a can of Bud. Made Antarctica seem cool.

Taxi Driver
So much we kids were not supposed to see. So much stuck.

Dawn of the Dead
Living in a mall. Like you wouldn’t?

Great films, yes, but they allowed us to experience blue screen, new practical gags and the very first computer FX. Consider all the cool stuff in film Gen X got to see first. Mind-blowing.

An American Werewolf in London
It also made us laugh and had lots of sex. But that transformation …

Star Wars, the OT
On VHS you could see the tie fighter and asteroid matte marks and — current internet trolls take note — we still loved the films despite their flaws.

The sole reason even the finest Marvel and DC movies will never fully impress us.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Super Bowl–level filmmaking, but did anyone else wish it could’ve been even more violent?

Jurassic Park
Dinosaurs eat lawyers, smokers, overweight swindlers and big-game hunters, but not billionaires. Oh wait, Uncle Steven is worth a bill with a b. See, we Gen Xers can be cynical about anything because …


Do the Right Thing
Suburban white kids had no clue, even the ones with Black friends. Spike had to show us. It will never not be impactful viewing.

Pump Up the Volume
For many of us, the first exposure to Leonard Cohen and a distillation of just what the hell we were supposed to do with all that teen anger.

They Live
Consume. Obey. It all sounded like our lives. No wonder we were always out of chewing gum.

Trading Places
As utterly hilarious as it all was back then, and as utterly hilarious as the billionaire class is today, rich people haven’t changed at all, have they?

Clerks / Boyz n the Hood
An unlikely double feature, but indelible in that the suburban white kids are bored and bitch and decode Star Wars and the urban Black kids just try to get home alive. Which is why both films feel so real.

Office Space
Admit it: You sometimes watch this and laugh, but inside you’re not laughing at all because it’s a documentary.

Our government did what, now?


The soundtrack to this was the soundtrack to all high school dances in 1984.

Top Gun
The soundtrack to this was the soundtrack to all high school dances in 1986.

E.T. / Poltergeist / Back to the Future / Gremlins
Uncle Steven’s ownership of our childhoods intensified from ’82 to ’85.

The Shawshank Redemption
We had buddy cop films, sure, but a real story about male friendship? There’s a reason this one plays over and over on multiple channels.

Home Alone
We know a respectable live-action attempt at a Bugs Bunny cartoon when we see one.

A Christmas Story
Our generation’s holiday film. It must be, because I know no kids nowadays who think it’s funny.

The Karate Kid
We all had an Elisabeth Shue we would’ve gotten our teeth kicked in to impress, but she wouldn’t have been impressed, so we never got our teeth kicked in for her. Might as well watch the movie, then.

The Lost Boys
An underrated soundtrack, breakthrough Kiefer and Jami Gertz. We all had our real-life version of the blood-drinking scene. Mine was Jack Daniel’s.

Follow Article Topics: Inside-Dope