Every other review and movie site has made some sort of reference to "The Social Network" being a film that defines this generation. Some are arguing against the claim, but it's still an idea that's out there on people's minds. Having finally seen the Facebook-origins tale, I'm more in agreement that it is very representative and reflective of at least the zeitgeist of the group known as the Generation Y (aka the Millennials, Generation Next, the Net Generation, and the Echo Boomers). It's hard to say why without insulting an entire population of Americans born over a fifteen year period, so let's just say it gets that group of people who grew up with the Internet, social media and a dwindling concern for and interest in privacy.
But what do we mean when we say something defines a generation? What makes "Rebel Without a Cause," and "The Breakfast Club" define their generations? Is it something that is marked by the people or something that marks them? Is it something that best exemplifies or best interprets or best generalizes? I believe it should be something popular, but not something too popular. In an attempt to figure it out, I've come up with a list of other possible films that define this generation. I should note that I am not a member of this generation, so I very well could have it pegged all wrong. Please do correct me wherever applicable.
1. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001)
It's not just one of the favorites of the generation. The first 'Harry Potter' movie, joined by the rest of the franchise, is also the best coming of age story of the past decade. You could argue that it's more J.K. Rowling's novels which define the group, and you'd be right, but the adaptations are almost equally significant. Partly there's the factor of this generation growing up alongside the series' stars, partly there's the outer effect the overall franchise has had on American culture, especially as viewed negatively by certain conservative groups (watch the docs 'Jesus Camp' and 'We Are Wizards' for some cinematic address of that context), and partly because it has dictated much of the entertainment produced since the success of the first installment. Even "The Social Network" itself at times feels like a magic-less version of Potter's early storyline, with Jess Eisenberg/Mark Zuckerberg in the Harry role and Andrew Garfield/Eduardo Saverin as Ron. Of course, Harry cools his head, but there is a moment in "Chamber of Secrets" where he almost could have gone a different direction and exploited all his friends for an exclusive Hogwarts-based social networking site.
2. "Twilight" (2008)
There may not have been the "Twilight" movies without the prior success of the "Harry Potter" series, but there's just no leaving it off this list. When asked what Generation Y is all about, a friend answered "blowjobs, the Internet and vampires." Sounds about right. I think "The Social Network" has the bjs down, and obviously the Internet, but there are no (literal) bloodsuckers. So here you go, Twi-hards, another list with your favorite franchise represented.
3. "American Pie" (1999)
I don't know that anyone in real life has ever masturbated with a pie or a flute -- at least nobody would admit to it, I hope -- but there are a number of things in this sex comedy, the "Porky's" of its generation, that seem to either ring true or have caught on. Webcam voyeurism/exhibitionism, the term MILF, and the gross-out genre in general, while not originating with the "American Pie" movies, are all things I associate with both this film and this generation, for better or worse. Also, as much as I'm not a huge fan, I do appreciate that "American Pie" featured actors and actresses that looked the age and physical consistency of actual high school kids. None were too jocky or too nerdy or too pretty (at least no domestic students); they didn't all completely or necessarily represent stereotype classifications, and that's something the majority of this generation's teen movies has done better compared to the stark categorization indicative of the John Hughes era.
4. "Easy A" (2010)
It may for the most part be a rip-off of other recent teen movies like "Mean Girls" and "Saved!" and it especially took its main concept from a minor subplot in "American Pie," but "Easy A" is more representative of this generation because of how dependent it is on that referencing and feeding off of past works rather than giving us something fresh and new. A teen movie that defines this generation can only be something that strives to be one of those that defined the prior generation ("The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Pretty in Pink") while misunderstanding how to be inspired rather than being a total copycat. This slightly fits with Internet ventures -- both the way Zuckerberg may have flat out stolen the concept of Facebook from the "Winklevi" and the way the site is just a redo of MySpace which is a redo of Friendster -- except that with web companies, the idea is always to slightly copy but make better. That's not the case with movies.
5. "We Live in Public" (2009)
I've already had friends disagree with me on this, but Ondi Timoner's documentary about Internet pioneer Josh Harris is also about the generation he ushered in and pretty much foresaw the direction of. Yes, it also defines a part of the prior generation and its early naivete with regards to the web, and it's primarily set in the '90s and early '00s and that Web 1.0 era -- the Millenials are all about 2.0 and beyond and have no idea what it was like for the Internet to invade life, since it always existed for them. But Harris was also ahead of his time and, in spite of his age (he barely makes the cut for Generation X, let alone Y), fits in with this generation better than he does his own group. Actually, in "The Social Network," Zuckerberg reminded me a whole lot of Harris.
6. "Al Franken: God Spoke" (2006)
Outside of their computers, this generation has mostly depended on comedy programs and figures like Jon Stewart for news and political influence. We saw how problematic that was in the 2004 race, and this underrated doc from Chris Hegedus (wife and partner of D.A. Pennebaker) and Nick Doob documents the times perfectly while following future senator Al Franken back when he was just a funny political commentator.
7. "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004)
And of course Michael Moore's hugely successful -- in dollars if not influence -- film belongs here, too, for the political culture of this generation. The documentary represents not just the electoral atmosphere of the first real important presidential race for the group (some may have made it to polls in 2000, but barely) but also the most defining event for the Millenials, September 11th, and its aftermath.
8. "Night at the Museum" (2006)
I'm including this Ben Stiller comedy because its script is like a high school report that uses Wikipedia (in its earlier, less trustworthy days) as a sole source for information. One of the most generalized and factually questionable blockbusters in recent years, at least as far as family films that can easily corrupt kids' intelligence, it is symbolic of the laziness of research in the Internet age (not that I'll deny looking at the site for info on these movies, Generation Y and other things). My generation had similar historical inaccuracies in pop culture form with stuff like "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," but that movie didn't mean to represent an actual institution of great integrity (NYC's Natural History Museum). It was about slacker time travelers who wish they had the bounty of information, right and wrong, available on the world wide web. Speaking of how Wikipedia links to this generation, have we had a film yet that reflects the modern increase in plagiarism in schools and on the web? Someone get on that, if not.
9. "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999)
My generation had the original "Star Wars" trilogy. The next has the prequels, and that's too bad. But it goes to show how this generation has little identity of its own that isn't based on the stuff that defined previous groups (see "Easy A" above) and which is also of shoddier quality. Perhaps I could have included a remake of some sort here instead. But given George Lucas' apparent intent to bring this franchise around again and again for each generation, it must be recognized. I guess the Generation Z just gets the whole series in 3-D, and then who knows the next group, whatever they will be called (we've run out of letters. Generation AA?), will get. Perhaps episodes VII, VIII and IX? And maybe the tables will turn and quality will be restored. We can only hope.
10. Reader's Choice
This list wouldn't properly evoke this generation without letting the people themselves spout their opinion or vote on the outcome. And yes, I admit I'm just being kind of lazy and indecisive, but I also want to let readers pick the, or another, film they think best defines them. Is it "The Social Network"? Or any of these films I thought about including: "Napoleon Dynamite," "An Inconvenient Truth," "Toy Story 3," "Shattered Glass," "Juno," "Brokeback Mountain," "Spider-Man," "Superbad," "High School Musical," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "John Tucker Must Die"? Pick one of these or any other film from the last fifteen years -- not necessarily something you loved, but something you thing captures your generation as a whole -- and let me know in the comments.