What are the movies teenagers should be watching? Most modern movies marketed to high schoolers aren’t particularly enriching or well-crafted, and often placate to the basest of impulses and tastes. So what are some better options? What are films that young people can and should consume, films that inspire and enrich and expand horizons, films that high school teens would truly love if they only knew they were worthwhile?
In 2005, the British Film Institute created a list of the 50 films you should see by age 14. Inspired by this list, and a conversation thread at Arts and Faith, I’ve listed 25 films that every movie-loving high school student should see before graduation. Some of these films could be viewed in the earlier teenage years (e.g., The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Singing in the Rain). Some should only be viewed by more mature and discerning viewers who can handle the content, including The Godfather, Amelie, Schindler’s List, The Kid with a Bike and The Thin Red Line. With any film, teens need to use wisdom, discernment and caution before consuming it, looking at movies through the lens of Scripture and prudence. Be a sieve, not a sponge or a funnel.
Here are 25 films every high school student should see before graduation:
The Classics: Some films stand the test of time. These seminal works continue to inspire and capture imaginations, and discerning teens should have a movie-watching foundation built upon some of these filmic masterpieces. Check out Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Singin’ in the Rain for starters. And if you haven’t seen the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope by the time you graduate from high school, what are you waiting for?
Foreign Wonders: World cinema is filled with great films, many of which go unnoticed by youthful viewers who may be uninterested in a film with subtitles. Yet many of the greatest on-screen stories come from beyond the North American continent. Bicycle Thieves is an Italian morality tale of a father and son searching for a missing bike. Babette’s Feast is a Danish parable of grace. Spirited Away is a Japanese animated film of fantastic wonder from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki. One of my personal favorites is Amelie, a French film filled with whimsy and joy that explores both the great city of Paris and the endeavors of a romantic dreamer. I’d recommend at least one film from the work of Akira Kurosawa from Japan (Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Ikiru are all great films for teen viewers) and the Dardennes brothers from Belgium (I highly recommend The Kid With a Bike or The Son; other Dardennes films contain nudity/sexuality that would be too graphic for young viewers).
Great Directors: It was difficult to decide which film to pick from these great directors, so I cheated by listing a few of their bests that high school students can access. Watch at least one film from Buster Keaton (The General, Sherlock Jr), Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, The New World), and Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park). On the essential list, I’ve posted the film I think captures the essence of the director, as well as the strongest potential for capturing a high school student’s imagination.
Coming-of-Age: Movies can capture the years of adolescence and identity formation with pathos and humor. While there are hundreds of “high school movies” in existence, here are a few particularly great films about the coming-of-age experience: Rebel Without a Cause, The 400 Blows and Moonrise Kingdom are all great films *and* great portrayals of the teen years. Other films on this list (Hoop Dreams, Spirited Away, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Iron Giant) could also be considered coming-of-age journeys.
Faith and Spirituality: I’m convinced that movie-watching can be a transcendent experience, that young people can begin the movement from seeing film as entertainment to art. Films like The Night of the Hunter, Sullivan’s Travels, The Truman Show, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Iron Giant all offer spiritual insights as they invite the viewer to search and contemplate deeper truths, all while being entertained by the moving images and stories on the screen (they’ve all been included on an Arts and Faith Top list). Other films I’ve already listed, like Babette’s Feast and The Kid With a Bike, would fall squarely into this category of spiritually enriching films.
One Documentary: Watch at least *one* documentary, perhaps something from Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) or Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie). Avoid the documentaries that are heavy-handed didactic political films (i.e., An Inconvenient Truth, anything by Michael Moore, etc.), and choose documentaries that are story-driven, cinematic and balanced in their approach. If I could pick one for high schoolers to view, it’d be Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, the chronicle of two inner-city Chicago high school basketball players and their hopes for joining the NBA.
The essential list, in alphabetical order, including date and director:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
- The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut)
- Amelie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
- Babette’s Feast (1987, Gabriel Axel)
- Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
- Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
- The General (1926, Buster Keaton)
- The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
- Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James)
- The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird)
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
- The Kid With a Bike (2011, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
- Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
- The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)
- Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)
- Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
- Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
- Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977, George Lucas)
- Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)
- The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)
- The Truman Show (1998, Peter Weir)
- Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
- The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)
The years of adolescence are marked by change, uncertainty, exploration, emotion and risk. Sounds like the making of a great movie plot.
What do you think? What movies would you add or change on this list?