The 20 best movies built for nostalgia

The 20 best movies built for nostalgia

As Steven Spielberg's adaptation of "Ready Player One" prepares to pummel our senses with a flurry of pop culture references to beloved '80s and '90s intellectual property, it's time to acknowledge that many of our favorite movies hooked us by evoking a powerful nostalgia for the past. Some of these films are set in a time or place you experienced first-hand; others dredge up formative feelings of first love, heartbreak and friendship so powerfully, you feel as though you lived through them. In the wrong hands, nostalgia is the cheapest of emotional appeals. But when it comes from a real, wistful place, it can result in a masterpiece. Here are 20 films that do nostalgia right.

 
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"American Graffiti" (1973)

"American Graffiti" (1973)

“Where were you in ’62?” asked the tagline for George Lucas’s 1973 cruise down memory lane. Set in Lucas’s hometown of Modesto, California, the film follows four best friends (and recent high-school graduates) as they knock around town on the last night of summer vacation. The soundtrack is stuffed with hits from the era, but the good vibes dissipate as the sun comes up. If you’re not going to college in 1962, the draft – and Vietnam – awaits.

 
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"Dazed and Confused" (1993)

"Dazed and Confused" (1993)

This is “American Graffiti” for ‘70s kids. Richard Linklater’s exhilarating night-in-the-life comedy about Austin teenagers cutting loose on the last day of school is just a flat-out great hang. It’s a big-hearted and inclusive movie, too; whether you were a jock, a stoner or a nerd, you’ll recognize yourself in at least one of the characters in this tapestry of debauchery.

 
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"Matinee" (1993)

"Matinee" (1993)

B-movie producer Lawrence Woolsey brings the roadshow presentation of his latest gimmick-laden monster movie, “Mant," to Key West, Florida. His fictional cheap thrills offer a momentary escape from the real-world horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which threatens to escalate into nuclear annihilation. Director Joe Dante’s unsung masterpiece is at once nostalgic for a bygone moviegoing experience and that one time the United States’ leaders evaded the end of the world.

 
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"Stand by Me" (1986)

"Stand by Me" (1986)

This Rob Reiner-directed adaptation of Stephen King’s novella “The Body” expresses a deep nostalgia for the 1950s as its four young characters set off on a journey to find the dead body of a classmate. The film strikes a perfect tonal balance between the carefree antics of the kids and the hormone-addling onset of adolescence. Even if you aren’t of the era, you’ll still find yourself singing the theme song to “Have Gun – Will Travel.”

 
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"Cooley High" (1975)

"Cooley High" (1975)

This classic coming-of-age drama was one of the very first movies to capture the thrills and heartbreaks of high school from an African-American perspective. Set in early 1960s Chicago, the youthful exploits of Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) evokes knowing laughs and unexpected tears throughout its eventful narrative. This is the film that brought us “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” and, indirectly, the ABC sitcom “What’s Happening!!”

 
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"A Christmas Story" (1983)

"A Christmas Story" (1983)

Bob Clark’s yuletide classic is based on humorist Jean Shepherd’s semiautobiographical reminiscences of growing up in a working-class Indiana suburb of Chicago in the 1930s, but it conjures up plenty of fond (and not-so-fond) memories of being a kid around that most magical of holidays. The hilarious vignettes concerning the drudgery of school, the terror of the local bully and the yearning for the most sought-after Christmas gift should strike a familiar chord for just about everyone.

 
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"The Big Chill" (1983)

"The Big Chill" (1983)

The oldies radio format became a full-fledged cultural phenomenon thanks to Lawrence Kasdan’s film about a group of baby boomer-aged college friends who reunite over a weekend to attend the funeral of a friend. The soundtrack is stuffed with ‘60s rock-and-roll and Motown classics, and to date has sold over six million copies. The movie, on the other hand, inspired a spate of dramedies centered on the struggles of white, well-off, middle-aged boomers like “thirtysomething.”

 
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"Goodfellas" (1990)

"Goodfellas" (1990)

Most people didn’t grow up wanting to be a gangster, but based on the first hour or so of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” it looks like a lot of ball-busting fun (minus the beatings and murder, of course). The Little Italy-raised Scorsese is the right age to cast a nostalgic glow over 1950s and ‘60s New York City, and the soundtrack whisks you back to an era when wiseguys could walk into the Copa and get a table set in front of the stage without asking.

 
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"Almost Famous" (2000)

"Almost Famous" (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s loosely autobiographical tale of a precociously gifted 15-year-old boy journalist’s travels with an up-and-coming rock band soft-peddles the misogyny and heavy drug use of its 1970s setting, but it’s made with such love and kindness that you might be able to excuse the whitewash. It’s part nostalgia trip and part wish fulfillment: who wouldn’t want to tag along on a U.S. arena rock tour in 1973? The film singlehandedly transformed Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” from a modest hit (it topped out at No. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972) to one of the artist’s signature songs.

 
10 of 20

"Diner" (1982)

"Diner" (1982)

The first entry in Barry Levinson’s backward-looking Baltimore trilogy is set in 1959, but its ensemble story about male friends in their early 20s making that awkward transition into adulthood resonates across generations. These guys are running out of nights to burn, and they know it; there’s an anxious energy to their BS sessions about ladies and sports and other ephemera people busy themselves with to avoid thinking of the long march ahead. We’ve all been there, and watching “Diner” we wish we could be there again.

 
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"Not Fade Away" (2012)

"Not Fade Away" (2012)

Writer-director David Chase would hate to see his film included here, as he has been adamant in interviews that his chronicle of a 1960s New Jersey garage band was more of an unsentimental character study. But it’s impossible to make a movie about a fledgling rock band during that era and not leave one yearning for the opportunity to experience those excitingly turbulent times (Tom Hanks's "That Thing You Do!" pulls off this trick, too). That said, we could do without a hard-case father like the one James Gandolfini plays in the film.

 
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"Boogie Nights" (1997)

"Boogie Nights" (1997)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling (and quite unconventional) family drama is set in the thriving porn industry of the 1970s and ‘80s, and it’s a Gen X wonderland of 8-track tapes, conversion vans, discotheques and video games. Anderson’s soundtrack straddles musical periods, mixing up kitschy ‘70s hits like Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” and Melanie’s “Brand New Key” with gloriously over-produced ‘80s chart-toppers like Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” It’s a hell of a trick to make anyone want to experience the early ‘80s again, but “Boogie Nights” does it.

 
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"I Wanna Hold Your Hand" (1978)

"I Wanna Hold Your Hand" (1978)

Robert Zemeckis’s first feature is a rambunctious comedy that follows a group of teenagers hellbent on meeting The Beatles during their first visit to New York City. Zemeckis (who wrote the script with his “Back to the Future” partner Bob Gale) perfectly captures the insane build-up to the band’s legendary first performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And while there was never a pop cultural phenomenon quite like the Fab Four, the madness on display in the film isn’t that far off from the fan mania that surrounded Michael Jackson or the Backstreet Boys. It’s a movie that will make you feel young and dumb again.

 
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"20th Century Women" (2016)

"20th Century Women" (2016)

Mike Mills’s underrated coming-of-age drama evokes the very specific time and place of Santa Barbara, California in 1979. Jimmy Carter’s disastrous “Crisis of Confidence” speech figures prominently into the story, as does the music of Talking Heads, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Buzzcocks. Mills is highly attuned to the mood of the time, and he succeeds in transporting the viewer back to a time when America had no idea how to move forward.

 
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"Hairspray" (1988)

"Hairspray" (1988)

John Waters’s shockingly non-vulgar love letter to the Baltimore of his youth takes us back to a time when dance shows were all the rage. It was also a time of tremendous social upheaval, and Waters fearlessly foregrounds the issue of interracial romance without trivializing it in his otherwise quirkily lightweight comedy. Waters’s keen interest in gaudy fashion and bizarre dance crazes gives this film a singularly campy vibe.

 
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"Lady Bird" (2017)

"Lady Bird" (2017)

Some of us felt awfully old when we realized Greta Gerwig’s magnificent “Lady Bird” was a period piece set in the early 2000s, but her post-9/11 nostalgia for Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” brought us all back to that very weird moment in American history just before the invasion of Iraq, and, well, that was unquestionably a better time. And maybe, just maybe you spent a lonely night tearing up over Dave Matthews Band's “Crash Into Me.”

 
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"The Wanderers" (1979)

"The Wanderers" (1979)

Here’s a knuckle-sandwich throwback for the bad kids. Richard Price’s invigorating account of his rough-and-tumble Bronx upbringing gets a rowdy, slightly surrealistic big-screen treatment from director Philip Kaufman. You probably didn’t come of age cracking skulls as part of a street gang, but the feeling of invincibility on display here (particularly as embodied by a young-and-studly Ken Wahl) is the stupidity of youth personified.

 
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"Crooklyn" (1994)

"Crooklyn" (1994)

Spike Lee’s semiautobiographical take on growing up in early 1970s Brooklyn is a rambling, oddly structured work to be sure, but he succeeds brilliantly in recapturing that era of New York City. The film is told from the perspective of the children, but it’s anchored by the adults, namely Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo as two loving parents who struggle, fight and reconcile as they try to keep a roof over the family’s head. It goes without saying that Spike nails the soundtrack, with choice cuts from The Spinners, Bill Withers and the Jackson 5.

 
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"Adventureland" (2009)

"Adventureland" (2009)

Summer jobs are the worst when you’re working them, but years later you might realize what a blast you had earning crap money to cover whatever expenses you’re accruing living at home with your folks or on your own. Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland” stars Jessie Eisenberg as a recent college graduate forced to work at a Pittsburgh amusement park after his summer travel plans fall through. He’s mentored by cool older dude (Ryan Reynolds), and falls hard for his hip, above-it-all co-worker (Kristen Stewart). Mottola’s use of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is the closest humans have come to inventing a time machine.

 
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"Pleasantville" (1998)

"Pleasantville" (1998)

Two ‘90s kids (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) get zapped back to the black-and-white 1950s of an old television comedy in Gary Ross’s treatise on the danger of nostalgia. The world of “Pleasantville” is the idealized, lily-white, post-WWII suburban utopia that never existed in real life, but that a multitude of baby boomers nevertheless pine for. And yet the film gets to have its cake and eat it, too, with its nifty ‘50s soundtrack (the highlight being a narratively pivotal deployment of Dave Brubeck’s jazz instrumental “Take Five”).

Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.

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