Too young for ‘The Graduate’? Too old for John Hughes? Your cinematic touchstones might be as quirky as mine.
Ever since, baby boomers — the economically, politically and culturally dominant demographic group of just about every subsequent decade — have had a movie for every age and stage, from their divorces in “An Unmarried Woman” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” to their ambivalence about aging in “The Big Chill.”
And these contemporaneous portraits of modern life weren’t just White and middle class: While Dustin Hoffman was floating through life in his parents’ swimming pool and Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were motorcycling through the counter culture, Ivan Dixon was giving voice to the struggles and triumphs of African American laborers in the South in “Nothing But a Man.” If “Woodstock” cast a fond look back at 1960s idealism that was already a dim memory in 1970, the 1975 comedy “Cooley High” was just as vivid a portrait of Black teenagers spending a carefree day skipping high school in Chicago. For every tragic “Love Story” there was a tough but funny and optimistic “Claudine” (1974), starring Diahann Carroll as a single mother making a life and finding romance in Harlem.
By the 1980s and 1990s, Gen X was having its big-screen moment: “Stand By Me” and “The Breakfast Club” and “Do the Right Thing.” “Boyz n the Hood” and “Set it Off” and “Slacker.” “Reality Bites.” “Office Space.” Come to think of it, for a bunch of disaffected latchkey kids, those Gen Xers were amazingly adept at creating a robust cinematic universe, from the oeuvre of John Hughes to such pungent one-offs as “Clueless,” “Kicking and Screaming,” “Beautiful Girls” and “Friday.”
Certain genres lend themselves to generational touchstones: If boomers had “Love Story,” Gen Xers had “Before Sunrise” and millennials had “The Fault in Our Stars.” “Rosemary’s Baby” begat “Halloween” begat “The Blair Witch Project” begat “Get Out.” It’s been said that generations are defined less by chronological age than by the technology they grew up using; another reliable indicator is which “Little Women” adaptation they swooned to: George Cukor’s, Mervyn LeRoy’s, Gillian Armstrong’s or Greta Gerwig’s.
Admittedly, technology has made generational touchstones more endangered: The inherently collectivist analog culture of moviegoing has increasingly given way to an atomized, hyper-individualist form of consumption, wherein Gen Z — the first cohort to be fully immersed in the internet and social media — is more likely to find common ground in Minecraft and “Office” reruns than a two-hour teen drama. But, just when film critics were ready to pronounce generational touchstones relics of a vanished age, Gen Z has found its voice in filmmakers like Gerwig, Jordan Peele and the Daniels.
But, just when film critics were ready to pronounce generational touchstones relics of a vanished age, Gen-Z has found its voice in filmmakers like Gerwig, Jordan Peele and the Daniels.
Granted, those filmmakers have all made big hits. But, unlike “The Godfather,” “Star Wars” and “Titanic” which were box-office benchmarks, “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and now “Barbie” are all movies that work on two levels simultaneously, appealing to general viewers but serving as urtexts for their specific audiences: speaking their vernacular, normalizing their evolving morés, embracing their taste in music and fashion, winking at the same meta-humor. These are movies that don’t just capture the zeitgeist but, in today’s parlance, make people feel seen — and in so doing serve as crucial vehicles to explain one generation to another. (Or not: In 1955, some parents surely recoiled in distaste from James Dean’s “You’re tearing me apart!” in “Rebel Without a Cause,” just as their own children would do around 30 years later when Mookie threw the garbage can through Sal’s window in “Do the Right Thing,” just as their children would do around 30 years later when Michelle Yeoh fights off butt-plugging time travelers in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Kids these days!)
But, to quote the one-woman generational touchstone known as Pink, what about us? What about those in-betweeners who, by dint of birth date, temperament or simple pigheadedness, don’t fit neatly into the expected cinematic pigeonholes? What are the movies that defined our rites of passage — our adolescent longings, first-love tragedies, young-adulthood breakdowns, middle-aged yips?
I was born in 1960, at the tail end of the boom and the first inklings of Gen X. I was too young to see the debuts of “The Graduate” or “Easy Rider,” too old to relate to “Slacker” and “Reality Bites.” By the time I caught up with the classics — the “Klutes” and “Apocalypse Nows” of the world — I appreciated their artistry, but could only relate to them as idealized artifacts of other people’s realities. Even wildly popular films featuring characters, storylines and locales that jibed with my own life — “Animal House,” which came out as I started college, or “Working Girl,” released as I was embarking on a career in New York — left me feeling just outside the cultural frame, peering in with a combination of envy and misguided contempt.
I was born in 1960, at the tail end of the boom and the first inklings of Gen X. I was too young to see the debuts of “The Graduate” or “Easy Rider,” too old to relate to “Slacker” and “Reality Bites.”
Which isn’t to say I don’t have my own generational touchstones. It’s just that many of them aren’t approved or acknowledged as such, because I don’t fit their “target demographic.” Or because they aren’t considered classics — or even any good. Why should I care? These movies have penetrated my consciousness in ways that have proved inexplicably potent and permanent, instantly recalling the time and place and emotional state I saw them in. (With the exception of a “My Brilliant Career” here and an Eric Rohmer film there, the films that I internalized skewed heavily to the American women I reflexively identified with as I was growing up.) My generational touchstones don’t form a cinematic canon as much as a crazy quilt of vibes, impulses, bat signals and dog whistles that — randomly, digressively, but somehow coherently — define the arc of a random, digressive, somehow coherent life.
These are the movies that get at the constantly shifting truth of what it was like to be me through six decades of growing up, having adventures, making mistakes and observing the world through my not-quite-this, not-quite-that, not-quite-chronologically-correct lens. And, I’d wager, most people reading this have similar hyper-specific canons of their own. Movies are touchstones, after all, because they touch us in such profound and quirkily personal ways. Whether they qualify as great is beside the point. There are certain movies that have come to define each of us — for better, for worse and forever. Here are a few of mine.
The 1960s are known as a pivotal era in American film, when the safe cinematic language of the 1950s gave way to edgy new modes of expression, informed by European art films, cinema verité documentaries and the political ructions that roiled the second half of the decade.
The Sixties were also when I was seeing my first movies, which followed the contours of “Mary Poppins” and “That Darn Cat!” Of course, 1968 was a watershed in Hollywood: The racially conscious drama “In the Heat of the Night” won the Oscar for best picture of 1967, having competed against such era-defining breakouts as “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde”; that year, Stanley Kubrick would blow the best minds of his generation with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Roman Polanski would redefine the horror genre with “Rosemary’s Baby” and John Schlesinger would begin filming “Midnight Cowboy,” a shocking but tender drama about two hustlers navigating Manhattan’s scuzzier nether-regions.
While American cinema was being revolutionized, however, some of us were safely ensconced in its prelapsarian past. The scary, grown-up stuff was for parents and babysitters on something they called “dates”; for in-betweeners like me, 1968 was defined by the wholesome family comedies that, despite the changing tastes of the time period, still appealed to mass audiences. My movie memories of 1968 are of my grandmother taking me to a theater in downtown Des Moines to see “Oliver!,” whose portrayal of Dickensian poverty and Fagin-esque corruption pierced my 8-year-old innocence; while my elders were flocking to “Planet of the Apes” or honing their indie connoisseurship on John Cassavetes’ “Faces” or grooving to underground cult classics like “Head,” I was having my own psychedelic — if slightly tamer — experience at the exquisitely staged big-screen musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” for my age group as radical a portrait of unfettered self-expression and anarchic freedom as “Easy Rider,” which would be released six months later.
While American cinema was being revolutionized, however, some of us were safely ensconced in its prelapsarian past.
The most formative films, however, were the blended-family comedies that came out that year — precursors of “The Brady Bunch” about widowed parents who meet, fall in love and then are forced to confront the inevitable domestic and emotional conflict.
Hilarity ensued, but also — for a little kid, at least — brief glimpses of real life that felt deliciously grown-up. In “Yours, Mine and Ours,” Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball found sublime slapstick comedy in the adventure of melding three-kids-each into some kind of functional whole (the nightclub scene is a particularly toothsome piece of period farce). But what landed most powerfully was the film’s ending, when the family’s oldest son, played by Tim Matheson, leaves to join the U.S. Marine Corps, an oblique but somber nod to the Vietnam War that was virtually invisible in most family films of the day.
Even more unforgettable was “With Six You Get Eggroll,” in which Doris Day plays Abby McClure, the mother of three sons who falls in love with a widower who has a teenage daughter named Stacey, played by newcomer Barbara Hershey. As predictable as the turf fights, Freudian jealousies and ultimate happy ending were, Brian Keith and Day (in her final big-screen performance) gave even the hokiest plot points wry authenticity.
But it’s a scene between Day and Hershey that lodged into my consciousness, and still brings me to tears every time I see it. After enduring Stacey’s criticism and power-plays for most of the movie, Abby finally calls her bluff: If Stacey wants to be the “lady of the house” that badly, she can stay home all day to cook, clean, iron and mend while Abby goes to the hairdresser. It’s classic wicked stepmother stuff, punctuated by one of my all-time favorite movie moments, when Day suggests working on the list for the next day, which is a Saturday.
“There’s an awful lot to do, you’re going to have to get an early start,” she says as Stacey looks at her, crestfallen. “The first thing I want you to do is call your friends and go to the beach for the whole day. And then come home and fix your hair and nails, and make some nice long phone calls and have your dinner, and go to the movies.” She pauses for the punchline. “Unless you’d rather be the lady of the house.”
Day and Hershey play the scene perfectly, marking the film’s emotional turning point. Today, I see this is a creative bit of boundary-setting and psychological jujitsu on Abby’s part. For 8-year-old me, though, it was a revelatory portrait of a mother-daughter relationship based on more than expectations and rigid roles; at its core was empathy, insight and something akin to spiritual grace. I’m not afraid to admit that Doris Day showed me what parenting should look like.
We all know what happened to American movies in the 1970s: They grew up — into taut paranoid thrillers, searing social commentaries and gritty urban crime dramas — before regressing back into popcorn entertainments like Star Wars and “Superman.”
The 1970s were the era of auteurs like Hal Ashby (“Shampoo,” “Harold and Maude”), Alan Pakula (“The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men”) and Robert Altman (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Nashville”). “Five Easy Pieces” and “Midnight Cowboy” continued the edgy tone and content of the previous decade. But the movie that kicked off the decade was the old-fashioned three-hankie romantic drama “Love Story,” a PG-rated movie I was actually allowed to see (having already stolen Erich Segal’s novel from my mom’s bedside table). Thus began a lifelong grudge against a universe that didn’t bless me with Ali MacGraw’s lithe figure and unforced, utterly natural beauty; and thus began a personal decade of movie-watching that might charitably be described as “eclectic.” I was 12 when my father took me and a friend to see “Cabaret,” perhaps considering it a teachable moment about Germany’s descent into fascism and intolerance; all we could talk about was the scandalous moment when Liza Minnelli demands to know if Michael York’s character is a homosexual (she used a crueler epithet in the movie).
This was the decade of “The Bad News Bears,” which I probably (wrongly) considered too babyish for teenage me; also when the trauma of Vietnam would be examined in postwar dramas like “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” and 1950s nostalgia would be indulged in “American Graffiti” and “Grease.” The 1970s reached a creative apotheosis in 1976, when “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver,” “Network” and “Rocky” would galvanize cinema as both an art and a business. I didn’t see any of them at the time, instead opting for their fellow best picture contender “Bound for Glory,” having recently discovered the joys of folk music while working at a record store, and wanting to know more about the film’s main character, Woody Guthrie. And, I cannot tell a lie: I took myself to see “Lifeguard,” more than once, to bask in the glow of Sam Elliott in all his tanned, bare-chested glory, the first time I can remember experiencing objectification from the perspective of the one deriving the pleasure. (Take that, male gaze!)
Midnight movie screenings of “Woodstock” allowed me and my friends to pretend that, if we could never be true hippies, we were cool enough to grok their music; “Annie Hall” ignited a fascination with New York (as well as the ill-advised decision to wear men’s khakis I didn’t have the hips for). “Halloween” put a distinct damper on my babysitting career, largely because Jamie Lee Curtis’s portrayal of the bookish, un-clique-y Laurie Strode felt so uncannily personal. And “Breaking Away,” a criminally under-remembered coming-of-age drama about a kid in the Midwest who pursues related obsessions with Italian culture and bicycle racing, turned out to be the perfect vehicle for my own restless urges — urges that had something to do with soaking up unfamiliar weather and a foreign language and songs I didn’t know the words to — the kind of urges that make you want to go somewhere and be somebody. Preferably in Italian.
In many ways, my 1970s took a while to show up on screen: In 1980, Robert Redford limned upper-middle-class inhibitions and teenage angst that felt startlingly familiar in “Ordinary People”; five years later, Joyce Chopra captured the tantalizing promise and very real terror of a 15-year-old girl’s sexual curiosity in “Smooth Talk.” But it wasn’t until the 1990s — with such on-point time capsules as Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” (the keggers!) Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” (the repression!) and Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (the puka shells and powder blue tuxes!) — that my Seventies-era adolescence would be captured in all its flared, Farrah-feathered detail.
Let’s just get this out of the way: I can’t defend my moviegoing gaps in the 1980s. By rights, the coming-of-age comedies of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe — a beloved catalogue that includes “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Say Anything” and “Singles” — should have been in my emotional wheelhouse; but by the time they arrived in theaters I had aged out of their worldviews, and found them hopelessly jejune. (Which is totally my loss, as someone who went around using words like “jejune.”) If “Heathers,” the deliciously dark teen comedy starring Winona Ryder, had come out 10 years earlier, it would have been made for me; by 1988, I had sadly outgrown its poisonously funny observations of high school life.
Similarly, the adult-oriented pictures of the era left me cold, if not repelled. I thought the Motown-singing-in-the-kitchen scene in “The Big Chill” was a little cringe (I would have said “lame” at the time); even at the tender age of 27, I picked up on the anti-feminist hysteria that propelled “Fatal Attraction,” a psychosexual thriller with the emphasis on “psycho.” I felt similarly alienated by the dubious premise of “Baby Boom,” a have-it-all fantasy starring Diane Keaton as a business executive who discovers the joys of motherhood — and the profit margins of homemade organic baby food! — when she unexpectedly inherits an infant from a dead cousin.
None of these narratives had a thing to do with the life I was leading in the 1980s: living in New York, trying to make it as a writer, trying to figure out if men were friends or lovers or both, having way too much fun at a time blessedly free of cellphones and social media. One reason I missed out on the movies of the ’80s is that I was too busy devouring the city I had wanted to explore since seeing my first “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” rerun on TV; why see the movie when you can have the actual life, in all its thrilling, sometimes bruising, immediacy?
Still, in between the bars and plays and bands and more bars, the too-late nights followed by the too-long brunches and deadlines and book clubs, I managed to see some movies. A few even hit home. I still can’t watch the final scene of “Local Hero” without crying, identifying completely with its depiction of the longing that sets in a journey of heart-opening discovery. “My Brilliant Career” struck a deep (and still resonant) chord with a young woman of unbounded ambition but uncertain self-worth. “My Dinner with André,” a talky two-hander starring Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, thrilled me as a portrait of what daily life in the big city must be like, bantering over dinners at Café des Artistes about Jerzy Grotowski, fear of death, the profundity of “The Little Prince” and Shawn’s girlfriend Debbie.Two movies launched a nearly lifelong devotion to directors who have never ceased to enthrall me: Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” polar opposite films in terms of energy and storytelling style, but each of which seemed to reach through the screen to speak directly to a young woman who felt hip, nerdy, confident and wary all at the same time.
Like most women my age, I associate the ’80s with “Desperately Seeking Susan,” an identity-switch comedy starring Rosanna Arquette and fabulously pre-filtered Madonna set amid Manhattan clubland. As a nightlife picaresque, it’s of a piece with the similarly antic, dark-hearted “After Hours” and “Something Wild.” But as vividly as those films convey the New York of that time, it’s “Smithereens” — the debut of “Desperately Seeking Susan” director Susan Seidelman — that revels most unapologetically in the manic, fraying energy of Manhattan’s post-punk era. Although I had little in common with the film’s opportunistic, gratingly self-involved antiheroine, Wren (Susan Berman), something about her free-spirited yearning — not to mention the trashed and tawdry city through which she moves — resonated.
The 1980s produced some of the finest romantic comedies of all time, including “Moonstruck” and “When Harry Met Sally”; on paper, the finicky, ambivalent women of those stories should have been my cinematic avatars. Instead, I found my people in two other classics: “Broadcast News” and “Crossing Delancey,” in which young women played by Holly Hunter and Amy Irving try to stay true to their professional ambitions while navigating friendship, sexual passion and (perhaps) romantic commitment with men. (The ’80s were a banner decade for gay romance as well, with such swoony classics as “Personal Best,” “Desert Hearts,” “Parting Glances” and “Maurice.”)
Was there ever a more prolific year in producing generational touchstones than 1991?
Think about it: Baby boomers got “JFK” and “Grand Canyon.” Millennials got “Beauty and the Beast” (two years after the ultimate millennial nostalgia trip, “The Little Mermaid”). Gen Xers got “Reality Bites,” “Slacker” and “Boyz n the Hood.”
Indeed, Gen Xers made out like bandits in the ’90s, which yielded a bumper crop of films that indulged virtually every mood swing of a cohort known as a collective middle child — neglected, ignored, stubbornly analog even as it tiptoes into the computer age.
A slew of films came out documenting the ambiguities of a generation tellingly labeled “X,” as in — could mean anything. Linklater’s “Slacker” would become another catchall label, but movies like “Clerks,” “Scream,” “Before Sunrise,” “Fight Club,” “Paris is Burning,” “Clueless,” “Beautiful Girls,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “Kicking and Screaming,” “Office Space,” “The Wood” and “Singles” would prove equally adept at capturing the nuances of a cohort that was reluctantly embarking on adult life when the ’90s dawned.
I recognized the growing pains dramatized in those films. Now in my 30s and having abandoned the vagaries of a freelance existence in New York for full-time jobs in Texas and Maryland, my thoughts were turning to dental plans and mortgages. One of the most indelible movie images of those years is from Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays” — starring Holly Hunter (again) as an adult child fighting the inevitable pull of childhood family dynamics when she returns to Baltimore for Thanksgiving. The image occurs early in the film when, on the way from the airport, she locks eyes with a guy in the exact same position: stuck in the back seat of his parents’ car, haplessly trying to maintain his grown-up composure as all the old patterns kick into gear.
I was in that car, just as I had been a few years earlier while I watched “Thelma & Louise,” which really had nothing to do with my real life, other than the exhilaration of watching two women light out for the territory, with zero figs to give and needing only each other for support. Is this what “Easy Rider” felt like to baby boomer men? And why did it take more than 20 years for women to claim their share of the asphalt? No matter. This is the movie that, for so many women my age, fulfilled the feminist promise we were raised on but rarely saw on the big screen: that our lives and friendships were worthy of the buddy films, road pictures and mythic westerns long dominated by adventurous, rule-flouting men. If the big screen is an extension of social space (and it is), “Thelma & Louise” was nothing less than a two-woman insurrection (with a charismatic new kid named Brad Pitt for extra credit — move over, Sam Elliott!).
Another welcome feature of the 1990s (and early 2000s) was a spate of films that, marketing-wise, weren’t “for” me, but that made me feel seen by making my friends and loved ones feel seen. The freewheeling gay rom-com “Go Fish” (1994) engaged the same flirtations and political arguments that had been swirling around me since my 20s; when “Love Jones” came out in 1997, its portrayal of ambitious, conflicted, commitment-craving African American professionals looked like a slightly more idealized version of my neighbors in Baltimore. (A few years later, I’d vibe even more heavily with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball,” especially Sanaa Lathan’s spot-on portrayal of a perennial tomboy who isn’t sure she even wants a handsome prince, let alone deserves one.)
If life in my 30s could be summed up in one movie, though, it would have to be “Walking and Talking,” Nicole Holofcener’s funny, sharply observed writing-directing debut about best friends whose relationship goes wobbly when one of them gets married. By the time the movie came out in 1996, I had been to more than my share of showers, weddings and more showers. I had met the man I would eventually marry, but Holofcener’s portrait of an angry, panicked, bumbling singleton — played with perfect pitch by Catherine Keener — could have been lifted from the most hapless chapters of my own halting journey to adulthood.
It’s all whizzing by so fast: Where did the first decade of the new millennium go? As the 21st century dawned, I was enjoying its fruits along with fellow boom Xers, as well as millennials who were beginning to discover movies: “Donnie Darko” explained the Reagan years of our kind-of-distant past; “High Fidelity,” Stephen Frears’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, perfectly conveyed the obsession and snootiness of the record store clerk I had been during high school and college; Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” mainlined a collective ennui and alienation I instinctively recognized (I recognized the Scalamandre zebra wallpaper, too, having dined often at Gino on the Upper East Side; hay-and-straw with secret sauce forever!). I laughed along with audiences at “The Proposal” when Ryan Reynolds broke into an impromptu version of the ’80s hip-hop anthem “It Takes Two.” Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” devastated me, not only as a superbly crafted drama, but the first neorealist portrait of post-9/11 New York.
But it was Holofcener’s films that would continue to mirror my own life with uncanny verisimilitude, like cinematic doppelgängers. Her 2001 sophomore film, “Lovely & Amazing,” starred Keener, Emily Mortimer and Raven Goodwin as sisters coping with insecurities inherited from their mother (a scene in which a lover critiques Mortimer’s character’s naked body — at her request — carried a masochistic sting). Then came Holofcener’s 2006 comedy “Friends With Money,” wherein I saw myself reflected — with hilarious, unflattering candor — in Frances McDormand’s 40-something wife and mother grappling with the futility of life’s repetitive cycles (she’s stopped washing her hair because her arms get tired, which you have to be at a certain time in life to understand).
These are the years in which I became a wife and mother myself. In 2003, as my husband and I were preparing to adopt our daughter, I watched Catherine Hardwicke’s harrowing coming-of-age drama “Thirteen,” about adolescent girls running amok in Los Angeles. Suddenly, the lens had changed: The acting out and experimentation I once related to as a daughter had morphed into self-destructive behavior that appalled and terrified me — a shift much like the one that occurred when I watched that year’s remake of “Freaky Friday.” Some women know they’ve become a mother once they’ve given birth, some when they find themselves quoting their own parents; I knew I’d become a mom when I identified with Jamie Lee Curtis instead of Lindsay Lohan.
The movies that defined my 40s weren’t just about women: On the surface, I didn’t share much DNA with the author suffering from writer’s block played by Michael Douglas in “Wonder Boys.” (I certainly didn’t ever smoke that much pot.) But the story of someone grappling with ambition, self-sabotage and once-assured potential passing him by felt wryly familiar. Between its themes of rue and regret and a soundtrack dominated by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison, the film felt like it had been reverse-engineered to reach all my pleasure-and-pain centers at the exact same moment.
In 2010, while millennials and young Gen Xers were rocking out to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” British writer-director Mike Leigh released “Another Year.” By then I had turned 50, the ideal age to appreciate Leigh’s bittersweet group portrait of a long-married couple and the family and friends who drift in and out of their lives. (Lesley Manville delivers a bravura portrayal of a single friend whose loneliness becomes more achingly palpable with each faux-cheerful swig of wine.) It was as if the great hangout movies of the 1990s had aged gracefully into a narrative with the same observant wit, but one tinged with more melancholy, more hard-won generosity, more clear-eyed honesty about how some lives manage to rumble along happily, while others derail.
When Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke made “Amour” in 2012, he illuminated the struggles my late father endured while taking care of my mom at the end of her life. As I watched, I automatically related to the fictional couple’s middle-aged daughter until I realized that it was really about what lies in store for my husband and me, just around the corner. A few years later, Linklater presented his portrait of the ravages — and revelations — of time in the glorious coming-of-age epic “Boyhood,” while Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay provided a new lens on the evolution of love and desire in “45 Years.” I’m not nearly as brilliant a reporter as Sacha Pfeiffer, nor am I as gorgeous as her or Rachel McAdams, who plays Pfeiffer in “Spotlight.” But the journalistic thriller, about the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic church hierarchy, was my “All the President’s Men,” its frisson of realism heightened by the fact that I was working for the real-life Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) at the time.
The 2010s were full of other bright spots: Emilio Estevez’s “The Way” depicted the Christian journey, not as an anodyne greeting card or pietistic march toward saintliness, but a rocky road to precious, fragile redemption; Sarah Polley’s documentary “Stories We Tell” chronicled the messiness of family memories and narratives better than any movie before or since; the Australian horror flick “The Babadook” is the scariest — and most psychologically accurate — movie about maternal ambivalence since “Mommie Dearest.” As much as I would have liked to believe I was more akin to Daniel Kaluuya’s character in “Get Out,” I winced in self-recognition at Catherine Keener’s serenely self-assured — and wantonly destructive — White liberal.
As much as I would have liked to believe I was more akin to Daniel Kaluuya’s character in “Get Out,” I winced in self-recognition at Catherine Keener’s serenely self-assured — and wantonly destructive — White liberal.
It’s understandable that I don’t find as many films to relate to these days: I’m not anyone’s idea of Hollywood’s target demographic (thank goodness for “You Hurt My Feelings,” this year’s new Holofcener mind-meld). But there’s one movie I can always revisit to feel understood, no matter what the decade. Perhaps it was demographically fated that my go-to generational touchstone was directed by Ron Howard, the quintessential baby boomer I first met as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show.” In 1989, he made “Parenthood,” a movie I’m pretty sure I avoided in its time, because parenthood was a distant abstraction I had no interest in entertaining.
Since then, I’ve returned to the movie often, finding myself in different characters each time. Was I ever Martha Plimpton’s rebellious teenager? Dianne Wiest’s single woman looking for love? Steve Martin’s overanxious parent? Yes.
And now I’m 63, one year younger than the paterfamilias played by Jason Robards, who delivers one of the greatest speeches ever written about the worry and pain of raising a family. “It’s not like that all ends when you’re 18 or 21 or 41 or 61. It never, ever ends,” he tells his son, played by Martin. “There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown. Never.”
“Parenthood” still works as both a window and mirror on life, revealing different truths depending on what truths are needed at the moment. And it proves something elusive about the movies that have uncannily captured their moments. True generational touchstones aren’t made. They’re found, over and over.