Nine Films That Accurately Define the Past Nine Decades

1970s: Saturday Night Fever

Lately it seems like we have more period pictures than ever. It's not unreasonable to conclude that filmmakers are setting their stories in pre-digital times because mobile phones and the Internet screw up traditional dramatic tropes. (More ominously, it's possible that some current films take place far in the past in order to justify non-diverse casts.) But what 2010s films best represent life in the 2010s? Will it be the upcoming The Circle, based on Dave Eggers' novel about a social media dystopia? While we ponder, I give you this list. Each of the following nine films, in my view, best depicts the decade in which it was made.

  1. The 2000s: FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004). I hate to open with a documentary, but Michael Moore's blockbuster screed captures the political divisiveness of the 2000s better than any drama – and political divisiveness, launched by the controversial 2000 presidential election and compounded by the Bush administration's reaction to the September 11 attacks, frankly defined that decade (as well as the current one). The Social Network and The Big Short may be greater examples of 2000s events and attitudes, but both are 2010s films, so I can't count them.
  2. The 1990s: BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991). It's tricky to single out a '90s movie, because it was the first decade to reach pop cultural self-awareness: Reality Bites, Slacker, Clerks, Empire Records, and Singles all aspired to be definitive '90s chronicles, and let's not forget Hollywood's clumsy Internet commentaries The Net, Hackers, and You've Got Mail. I choose Boyz n the Hood, even though it's as much late '80s as it is early '90s, because it exemplifies the music, fashion, and posturing of hip hop that would dominate so much of '90s culture, regardless of race.
  3. The 1980s: SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984). My viewpoint may be skewed, as I was an '80s teenager, but I believe that decade's pop culture was aimed at suburban teens like nothing before or since – and John Hughes, the quintessential '80s director, was "our" voice. Whereas The Breakfast Club aimed at profundity and Ferris Bueller's Day Off was more sprawling, Sixteen Candles perfectly encapsulated high school life in the era, particularly its fashion and music – and also, notably, its casual racism and chauvinism. In a way, Sixteen Candles invented our vision of the '80s.
  4. The 1970s: SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977). The 1970s was a unique time for cinema, with daring directors making challenging, grownup films. Compared to The Godfather and Dog Day AfternoonSaturday Night Fever may seem trifling. But this is every bit a '70s film, reflecting the decade's cynicism and urban blight just as well as its more celebrated rivals. Add disco, bellbottoms, and John Travolta to the mix, and you've got the decade in a nutshell.
  5. The 1960s: BLOW-UP (1966). Some might name Easy Rider as the ultimate '60s film, but as Mad Men reminded us, the 1960s wasn't all hippies. Michelangelo Antonioni's ode to swinging London accurately captures the decade's shifting attitudes towards sex, drugs, and rock & roll, while the stylish inscrutability of the film itself points to the art of the times.
  6. The 1950s: REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). There were some good contenders for this decade, like the Red Scare-inspired, anti-conformist Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But while most '50s dramas still took place in New York – Hollywood fetishized that location for decades – Rebel turned its lens on the Los Angeles suburbs, where American life was truly transforming. Our concept of the teenager was born in the 1950s, and James Dean was the first to embody teenage ennui and angst.
  7. The 1940s: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946). The '40s were really two distinct eras: the first, World War II; the second, the postwar boom. William Wyler's touching portrait of soldiers readjusting to American life expertly straddled both eras, and displayed a remarkable perspective, given how quickly it came out after the war's end.
  8. The 1930s: MODERN TIMES (1936). When we think of the 1930s, we think of the Great Depression. At the time, however, audiences preferred escapist comedies about charming millionaires. Thus it's hard to name a 1930s film that honestly depicts 1930s life. (The Grapes of Wrath, still the best film about the Depression, was released in 1940.) Leave it to tireless socialist (and charming millionaire) Charlie Chaplin to confront the nation's woes head-on, with his peripatetic comedy about the Little Tramp trying to find a job in the middle of sky-high unemployment. Chaplin's insistence on keeping Modern Times dialogue-free makes it a Silent Era holdout, but there's nothing Silent Era about the story he's telling.
  9. The 1920s: SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927). Speaking of silents... With so many 1920s movies dedicated to slapstick comedy, period derring-do, and still-fresh memories of World War I, what was considered "current" and depicted everyday life at the time? I'll nominate what many call the greatest film from the Silent Era. F.W. Murnau's Sunrise tells a simple story: a country man falls for a flapper, briefly considers murdering his wife, then spends the rest of the movie trying to make it up to her, as they explore the big city. Sunrise is heralded for its visual beauty, but it also reflects the lure of urban living in the Roaring '20s. (The Great Gatsby remains the best work about the decade, but its 1926 film adaptation, now lost, was not faithful.)