We recently came across an old list compiled by the British Film Institute, naming 50 films that every teenager should see by the age of 14. We can’t argue with many of their picks — classics like E.T., The Wizard of Oz, and others feel like true essentials. Still, we couldn’t help but notice a number of movies we have a hard time imagining most young teenagers watching of their own free will. We wanted to come up with a few alternatives to BFI’s picks and include some films we were surprised didn’t make the final cut, and others that weren’t around in 2005 (with the 14-year age in the back of our minds). Some of our choices are classics, others act as a gateway to other selections in that genre, and the rest are just damn good. These types of lists are all subjective, so we want to hear your picks as well. What would you add to our essential teen watch list? Share below in the comments section.
We were surprised not to see Peter Jackson’s first installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy on BFI’s list, but we suppose the “fantasy” vote went to Star Wars. We’d definitely encourage teens to watch Jackson’s epic adventure tale, which changed the face of the fantasy genre as we know it. Once upon a time, kids who played D&D weren’t exactly considered popular. Today, porn stars are playing it, and geekdom has gone mainstream. Fantasy is no longer a genre relegated to the bottom of the barrel. The 2001 Tolkien adaptation is a universal tale and all-encompassing story containing multiple dualities: love and loss, hope and fear, and so on. It doesn’t sugarcoat things either, treating its audience with the know-how to process emotions accordingly and scale the events in their own way. Teens can identify with the narrative involving friendships being forged while struggling for a shared goal or belief. Middle-earth is an entirely believable setting, and the film’s mythology seems to evolve naturally out of a definite history. LOTR is pure enchantment, and like Star Wars, leaves audiences in awe at the magic of cinema.
Rob Reiner’s enduring coming of age tale Stand by Me is a must see for every young teenager. The film based on Stephen King’s novella The Body and is part buddy movie, part journey film, and features a motley crew of characters that pretty much everyone can relate to. Chris (River Phoenix) is the tough guy everyone looks up to, but no one really truly understands; Vern’s (Jerry O’Connell) the token chubby kid who gets bullied; Teddy (Corey Feldman) is the eccentric, unpredictable one who can’t seem to escape his upbringing; and Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is the pensive writer whose loyalty is mistaken for following the crowd. In other words, these are real kids with multifaceted personalities. For some, the movie will be an eye-opener, proving that once you leave the safety of your neighborhood or backyard the world is a sometimes scarily unpredictable place. For others, the film reinforces standing up for your beliefs and problem solving — as demonstrated by the boys’ time on the road and the scene when they find the body and have to make some tough choices. Stand by Me also features some amazing teen actors, which is inspiring and relatable for young audiences.
BFI’s list includes two Miyazaki movies, but our pick is 1997’s Princess Mononoke — a landmark animated film that is not only gorgeous to watch (and hand-drawn almost entirely, sharing the importance of craft with young viewers), but also darker in tone than the director’s previous output. This element increases the drama and emotional impact, particularly for impressionable audiences. The film also has an important message about mankind and the balance of nature that still feels very timely. Like Lord of the Rings, Princess Mononoke’s mythology is completely immersive and believable. That aspect may inspire viewers to want to learn more about traditional Japanese lore, too.
Some people may balk at this pick, but The Godfather is one of the essential New Hollywood films — and we’d totally opt for this kind of crime movie over something garish like Scarface. A mature teen should be able to cope with the violence, and it may make a good talking point for other issues that surround their everyday lives — including themes of alienation and family. Still considered one of the greatest, most influential movies ever made — during a time when filmmaker’s took chances and dreamed big — Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic 1972 film is a fine example of powerful storytelling, opulent set design, and amazing acting. Before Hollywood blockbusters featured throwaway talent and forgettable storylines, The Godfather proved that popularity and commercial success could be equated with superb filmmaking.
Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth features a fun and engaging storyline, full of magical characters that inspire the imagination. It’s a perfect way to capture an era of filmmaking where props and creatures were still handcrafted — and we can’t think of a finer example of puppetry than Jim Henson’s menagerie of unforgettable beings. Labyrinth features the right amount of creepy and delirium, challenging young moviegoers. Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah makes a relatable heroine who is on the brink of womanhood and trying to cope with all the uncertainties that go along with her transformation, prompted by a personal voyage.
We noticed a distinct lack of horror on BFI’s list, which didn’t surprise us — but the genre still has plenty of gems to offer teens, and we’ve chosen Hitchcock’s Psycho. The fright film is dated in terms of scares (no torture contraptions here), but that may be perfect for young viewers who can’t digest gore galore and still want to watch something with a palpable anxiety throughout. This is another perfect example of classic filmmaking that may serve as a gateway to the director’s oeuvre or other “old” movies — sparking conversation about technique, the film’s psychological themes, and more. Psycho is proof that scary movies don’t need to spill buckets of blood to be effectively terrifying.
There are plenty of films involving teen pregnancy that feature cliché characters, but director Diablo Cody wanted to make Juno — directed by Jason Reitman — different. “Women are clever, women are funny, women are sharp, and I wanted to show that these girls were human and not the stereotypical teenage girls that we often see in the media,” the screenwriter shared in an interview. “There was a lack of authentic teen girl characters … I saw writing this screenplay as an opportunity to create an iconic female,” she also shared. Cody’s more honest, smart, and refreshing take on teens is no generic after school special and offers a complex look at an important issue.
Minus a handful of small (comedic) scenes that mature teens should be able to handle (they can access worse from their laptops at home), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie has enough magic, romance, and charisma to captivate. Unless you’re a miserable crank, it’s hard to hate adorable do-gooder Audrey Tautou in the film as the quirky, heart-warming lead. Visually, Amélie draws viewers immediately into its fairy tale world. The French film could be an entertaining introduction into the world of international cinema for newbies.
Some might think that a film made in 1955 about rebellious teenagers would have little resonance with today’s youth, but we think kids will find that the angsty overtones of Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause will be familiar, even if a bit dated. The landmark classic’s emotional drama, messages of alienation and individuality, and iconic status (with the ultimate teen idol actor at its center) should be a strong draw.
Have no fear Koyaanisqatsi fans: we love the film just as much as you do, but we chose Baraka because we feel it works best as part of the trilogy. While both movies are frequently compared, Ron Fricke’s Baraka certainly holds its own — taking viewers for a trip around the world. Baraka shares a kaleidoscopic web of people, nature, fragility, hope, and beauty. Baraka’s various technical points and stunning imagery are a nice introduction to experimental filmmaking.