30. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller’s directorial debut signaled the arrival of a major new talent on the scene. A confident, bold story of adolescent sexuality that honored her protagonist instead of patronizing her, The Diary of a Teenage Girl changed the game for subsequent coming-of-age films. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name, Heller’s film features precocious teenager Minnie (Bel Powley) caught in a romantic rivalry against her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) for the affection of the alluring Monroe (Alexander Skasgård).
While there are unsettling aspects to the power dynamics at play, Heller comes at this story from a sympathetic vantage point without positioning Minnie, Charlotte, or Monroe as an infallible hero, a tragic victim, or a villain. They’re all imperfect people—some more than others—but they’re all worthy of love, care, and thoughtful analysis. It’s often uncomfortable, but Heller balances that out with some laugh-out-loud comedy and deeply held truths. It’s a perfect example of the kind of nuanced storytelling that’s possible when women are permitted to tell their own stories on screen, audaciously and unselfconsciously with their younger selves in mind. (Cyrus Cohen)
29. Star Wars
In a smorgasbord of indelible images of cinema that remind us of the transition into adulthood, one that stands atop the pile is a simple image of a teenager staring at the setting suns, aching for adventure and excitement and wondering where his future lies. The original Star Wars trilogy follows Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as he matures from impetuous youth to a formidable warrior, but it’s in Star Wars where his journey begins in such an invigorating form. Thrust into the path of danger due to sheer coincidence, Luke clasps his destiny with both hands as if it were a lightsaber, using his skills and his smarts (not to mention a fair amount of luck) to take the Empire down a notch. While his death appears appropriately poetic against another pair of suns in The Last Jedi, it’s at the climax of Return of the Jedi where his journey really comes full circle. As he burns the armor of his fallen father, purging the memory of Darth Vader and restoring the legacy of Anakin Skywalker, John Williams’ theme for the Force rising like the flames into the night sky. (Charlie Brigden)
28. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi has made some charming as hell movies in his time, but for my money, the award for most charming goes to Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a thirteen-year-old orphan on the run from the law (read: Rachel House as an amazingly ferocious Doberman of a social worker) comes of age in a wild, hilarious, and deeply individualistic way that affects his growing up as nothing else could. After thirteen years of feeling abandoned, Ricky finally feels at home with his new foster family… a moment of peace that lasts all of the first 20 minutes of the film. With his safety net wrenched away yet again, he finds begrudging companionship in a fantastically crotchety Sam Neill. It’s a marvelously warm-hearted adventure through the New Zealand bush, in which two lost souls learn to take care of each other. And it’s the lovely story of a kid who’s had some genuinely very tough breaks being forced to grow up in the gentlest, most fun way possible. (Liz Baessler)
Most people tend to lean toward Wes Anderson’s more recent and more polished films, but Rushmore remains my favorite of his for numerous reasons starting with it being the last time he managed characters who feel even remotely like real people. To that end, as quirky and stylized as the film gets, Max Fischer’s (Jason Schwartzman) journey remains a smart and honest coming-of-age story even as it also delivers ridiculous entertainment. Max is an exaggerated over-achiever, but his emotions and confusion are extremely recognizable as he deals with an untenable crush, rejection, and the very real struggle to connect with people. The film’s also very funny, propelled by sharp cinematography and a brilliant score/soundtrack, and features one of Bill Murray’s best performances to boot. (Rob Hunter)
26. Pan’s Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale of a lost princess, is wrapped up in the violent story of the conflicts that followed the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) world is grim and severe as she meets her new stepfather, a brutal captain working to eliminate republican guerilla fighters trying to bring down his regime. Ofelia escapes from his cruelty into a fantastical world where she is a lost princess who must prove her worth to return to the magical underworld and her other family. The fey creatures she encounters are increasingly unsettling as her mundane world falls into chaos. Both beautiful and gruesome, Pan’s Labyrinth is Guillermo del Toro’s version of a fairy tale for adults, blending violence and fantasy and horror into a beautiful tale of maturation and honor. (Sam Olthof)
25. American Graffiti
George Lucas’ semi-autobiographical teen movie was made just a decade after its setting, but the nostalgia for the early 1960s was already growing. Not just because of adults reminiscing about their experiences and the music of the time, but also because of the country’s yearning for those innocent years before so many assassinations, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal, among other things, brought America into darker days. September 1962 felt much further away.
Of course, the movie is also a literal coming-of-age classic, following a bunch of teenagers at the end of their summer break, many of them about to head off to college or the army. Taking place over the course of one night, with most of the action in cars cruising around town or at a drive-in restaurant, this Best Picture nominee is mostly concerned with a few love stories, including one about a couple in the midst of breaking up and another involving a boy in search of an older woman he’s obsessed with. Of course, there are also some older guys just wanting to race each other, but their adult narratives aren’t as interesting. (Christopher Thompson)
24. Minding the Gap
Only one documentary made this list, so it’s fitting that Minding the Gap is the most shatteringly truthful nonfiction story about modern American life that I’ve ever seen. Growing up, everyone who comes from a certain disadvantaged background carries with them a personal, closely-held refrain: “I’m going to get out of this town” and “I won’t be like my father” are two of the most oft-repeated. On screen, these refrains have become a bit of a cliche, but stripped away from all artifice, Minding the Gap turns them into the basis for an incredibly emotional, decade-sprawling story of three friends looking for a way out of their current circumstances.
First-time filmmaker Bing Liu filmed himself and his friends Keire and Zack for years as the three transformed from skateboarding kids into reflective, often troubled young adults. As the boys open up about their childhood home lives and the situations they’ve found themselves in as adults, Liu forms one of the strongest narrative explorations of masculinity—fractured, cyclical, inevitably influenced by race and upbringing and economic disadvantage—ever captured on screen. Throughout Minding the Gap, those refrains will become your own if they aren’t already, as the film builds empathy and desperate hope in a way that’s both masterful and heart-rending. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
Look, either you love Lucas or you’re an asshole. I don’t make the rules. It’s one of the best coming-of-age films, underdog tales, and sports movies combined as it follows one teen’s attempts to woo a girl and find popularity. Corey Haim stars, and is fantastic, as an oddball who’s battling between his own quirks and his teenage need to fit in. In addition to comedy, heart, and awkward romance, the film is a rarity in that it allows its protagonist to fail—not just early on, but right up through a pitch-perfect ending. That it succeeds in making Lucas triumphant anyway is something of a miracle that shouldn’t be overlooked or undervalued. Toss in Winona Ryder, Charlie Sheen, Kerri Green, and Gary Cole, and you have an irresistible winner. (Rob Hunter)
22. Fish Tank
There’s a reason that so many films on this list include the attention of older men. Coming-of-age movies act as a gateway into the past, an opportunity to re-examine formative events and try to figure out why they happen and how they can change who a person becomes. The already staggering statistics about young women and sexual assault don’t even include the unreported gray areas, the intersections of teen desire and adult manipulation that for years afterward are too complicated to boil down to a single word, but too common to ignore.
In Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold’s searing, melancholic portrait of a girl on the brink of disaster, Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a poor East Londoner who’s attracted to violence, hip hop dance, and her mother’s new boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender). She’s also compulsively drawn to a sickly, striking horse she sees in a neighboring encampment, one which she longs to set free against all logic. Mia’s in a fish tank, alright, a habitat of poverty and mistreatment and dashed hopes that she can’t help but dream of escaping despite her powder keg persona. Arnold and Jarvis imbue Mia with so much yearning beneath her sharp exterior that it’s impossible not to root for her, even as Conor’s presence in her life becomes the lit match that could burn her future down. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
21. Dead Poets Society
Dead Poets Society tells the story of young men who are being groomed for academic excellence and have their world shaken by an unusual teacher. They follow the beloved Mr. Keating’s footsteps as he introduces them to the romance, poetry, and ideas that were inspiring a generation.
Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating told his students to “dare to be extraordinary, ” a timeless message of inspiration from the dearly departed actor. The ensemble cast of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young actors includes Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke, as they learn to have faith in themselves and discover an identity outside of that which their strict upbringing forced upon them. (Sam Olthof)