It seems that every year another fresh crop of filmmakers make their debut movies, and a high proportion are coming-of-age stories. A sadly low percentage, however, are any good, which is why this week brings us significant reason to rejoice: First-time filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig brings us the adorable, sprightly “The Edge Of Seventeen.” In many ways this year’s “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl” in being both the debut of an exciting new female filmmaker and a funny, fresh, newly insightful take on the teen-movie genre, ‘Seventeen’ perhaps does not reinvent the wheel in the way that Marielle Heller‘s film did, but it’s such a bouncy picture, centered around such a tremendously relatable turn from Hailee Steinfeld, that to disparage it as a result would be a little like critiquing a puppy. If you’re looking for an escape this weekend, this film is pretty much the breezy antithesis to the sorry state the world’s currently in, and may even prove to be an antidote… for a couple of hours, anyway.
Certainly, it dispelled the gloom for us for a little while, and so we thought we’d take this opportunity to bring you our 50 favorite teen movies of all time. Of course, this being us, our picks are not all sweet confections — while many are lighthearted comedies, quite a few are dramas and melodramas that portray the darker side of teenage life as well as its romantic mix-ups and fashion faux pas. We tried to avoid films that fall more squarely into other genres, like horror (a category largely populated with imperiled teenagers), sci-fi and others, but as ever, our selections mostly came down to our subjective taste. Which, thankfully, is fetch.
50. “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet” (1996)
A film that made “lovefools” of every ’90s teenager, Baz Luhrmann‘s excessive, overblown-yet-gauzy take on Shakespeare‘s star-cross’d lovers is loathed by the Bard’s purists. But in many ways, it captures the spirit of the play — the swoony extremism of first love as felt by two people at literally the most dramatic, hormonal moment of their lives ever — better than many more staid, respectful adaptations. The frenetic cutting, odd angles and swooping camera moves of Lurhmann’s inventive music-video style can feel juvenile, but this is a film about juveniles, and if you’re willing to be a little iconoclastic with the text, it works. It’s aided by a wonderfully fresh and affecting Claire Danes, a major heartthrob turn from a pre-“Titanic” Leonardo DiCaprio, an era-defining soundtrack and that all-time-great fish-tank meet-cute.
49. “Dope” (2015)
Rick Famuyiwa‘s bright, ingratiating tale of a geeky teenager’s coming of age is a refreshingly counterintuitive take on black masculinity, though far from flawless. Co-opting the formula of the (usually white-coded) teen movie and incorporating stereotypical markers of urban blackness — drug deals, shoot-outs, excessive use of the n-word — makes for a mixed bag. Most egregious are the paper-thin supporting characters, like Tony Revolori‘s underdeveloped sidekick, and especially the females: Kiersey Clemons‘ lesbian friend; Zoe Kravitz‘s cool girl; Chanel Iman‘s disaster-prone dim-bulb. But Shameik Moore’s lovely hangdog central performance, the catchy Pharrell Williams soundtrack and the earnest, if blinkered, good intentions somehow make it fly. If teen movies are time capsules of their eras, perhaps the lasting value of “Dope” will be as a glimpse of the always-mythic but now dead-and-buried dream of a post-racial America.
48. “Bring It On” (2000)
A given movie about cheerleaders could be a “Step Up”-style dance movie at best, or some kind of softcore exploitation picture at worst. But Peyton Reed’s “Bring It On” is a delight. Following the battle between a mostly white San Diego cheerleading squad led by Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), and a mostly black L.A. team whose moves their rivals had stolen in previous years, the film hits most of the expected sports-movie beats, but with a sly script by Jessica Bendinger, winning performances, great choreography and a deceptively smart and forward-thinking examination of white privilege.
47. “Ginger & Rosa” (2012)
The most accessible film from British arthouse darling Sally Potter is also her most overtly personal, detailing a close friendship between two London girls against a backdrop of 1960s social unrest and nuclear paranoia. Its emotional heart, in the bond between the young girls played by a revelatory Elle Fanning and a terrific Alice Englert (with Fanning’s ‘Neon Demon‘ co-stars Christina Hendricks and Alessandro Nivola also great in support), beats steadily throughout, allowing various digressions and sidetracks to occur without disrupting the film’s leisurely but authentic rhythms. It’s a deeply absorbing portrait of dawning social awareness and political activism, happening in tandem with childhood’s end, the revelation of parental fallibility and the painful truth that the changes we experience at that age can create a schism between us and the people we thought we’d love forever.
46. “Superbad” (2007)
Unlike the other movies here, “Superbad” has the virtue of having been written, at least to begin with, by actual teenagers: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg began work on the script when they were just 13, and were encouraged to complete it by Judd Apatow during the production of “Freaks & Geeks.” It didn’t reach screens until 2007, but when it did, it proved a very fresh, funny take on the coming-of-age sex picture, as Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) endure a long night in the attempt to bring booze to a party where the girls of their dreams will be. Crude but smart, infused with the deep awkwardness of being an actual teenager, and given some ’70s flair by director Greg Mottola, it was a huge hit, and with good reason.
45. “Mean Creek” (2004)
While the phrase “teen movie” tends to call the quotable, pastel-colored likes of “Clueless” to mind, there is a whole other subset that takes a less literally rose-tinted view of the process of a growing up. In the tradition of 1986’s even darker “River’s Edge,” and last year’s excellent “Sleeping Giant,” this 2004 Jacob Estes film is an anti-“Stand By Me,” taking a nuanced look at teen bullying and weaving a small, perfectly performed tragedy around it. Rory Culkin is excellent as always, but Josh Peck is remarkable too (yes, of “Drake and Josh” fame — he’s just one of several kids’ TV stars in this Independent Spirit Award-winning ensemble) in the tricky role of a bully lured to the woods to be taught a lesson, but who gradually becomes the film’s most abject and pitiable character.
44. “The Craft” (1996)
While it never quite breaks into the all-time upper echelons, Andrew Fleming‘s inarguably enjoyable and recently reappraised high-school-coven cautionary tale understands one thing better than pretty much every teen movie ever made: The witchiness of mid-’90s Fairuza Balk was a natural resource that no one could tap enough. As the ringleader of the gang of four outcast teen schoolgirls who discover they have magical occult powers, including Neve Campbell‘s wallflower, Rachel True‘s bullying victim and Robin Tunney‘s troubled new girl, Balk is a force of (super)nature here, though the film doesn’t quite know what to do with her. Still, even without her deeply awesome weirdness, “The Craft” is a lot of fun in a wish-fulfillment-followed-by-‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ kind of way.
43. “An Education” (2009)
Providing an unmistakable breakout role for Carey Mulligan, “An Education” might be set against a now-archaic backdrop of 1960s gender politics, but the wincing acuity with which the very personal story is told makes it feel timelessly relevant. Based on Lynn Barber‘s scathingly intimate memoir essay, given a peppy screenplay adaptation by Nick Hornby and a smooth glossy finish by Lone Scherfig‘s lovely visuals, the film is absorbing, immersive, and strangely modern, despite the lead character’s often regressive behavior, in its portrayal of her as a rounded, complicated and often very unlikable heroine. Peter Sarsgaard is strong in the kind of worldly sleazebag role he does so well, and Alfred Molina is even better as the uncomprehending patriarch, but this is Mulligan’s film, and she makes you understand every weather-vane change her impossibly real character goes through.
42. “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl” (2015)
A surprising number of films that made our list are set in past decades — whether out of nostalgia, or to give the movie some pretty period-accurate window dressing, or because distance lends perspective, or because the the story is based in autobiography. A little of all of these elements is present in Marielle Heller‘s 1970s-set sleeper indie from last year — Heller had already adapted and starred in a theatrical version of Phoebe Gloeckner‘s graphic novel of the same name, and so obviously she knew the spiky, filthy story inside out. Also, its setting during the heyday of second-wave feminism gives its very third-wave outlook some fascinating context, all brought to a head in Bel Powley‘s breakout performance as the self-centered, sex-obsessed protagonist, a brilliantly specific mix of so many teenage traits — good, bad and disgusting — that are universal.
41. “Easy A” (2010)
The film that took Emma Stone from supporting player in “Superbad” and “The House Bunny” to leading lady and most likely an Oscar winner, “Easy A” came out of nowhere as a disarming and utterly winning teen romance. Riffing, curiously but effectively, on “The Scarlet Letter,” Will Gluck’s film (written by Bert V. Royal) sees 17-year-old Olive (Stone) lie about losing her V-card and become a target for her school’s Christian right (led by an unexpectedly hilarious Amanda Bynes), only to end up embracing her new reputation. It’s sharp, funny and sweet, but also unexpectedly wise about female sexuality, double standards and bullying mobs, all carried by a performance of Lucille Ball-level comic greatness by Stone (and the single best parents in all of teen movie-dom, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson).