The Canon by Alan Decker

The Canon  

One of the great joys of parenting is being able to take the things you love and ram them down your child’s throat until he or she loves them, too.

I’m kidding.


I will admit that that I have eagerly anticipated my children reaching certain ages because they’d be old enough to see certain films.  Many of these are favorites of mine, and it does hurt a little bit when they don’t enjoy them as much as I do.  I keep hoping that one day my kids will suddenly realize how great Star Trek is, but I think that may be a lost cause.

Still this is about more than just making my kids watch the movies I love.  I also have to consider the broader issue of cultural literacy.

I don’t know if it’s as big of a deal now, but when I was in high school, there seemed to be a big push for cultural literacy.  I remember the lists of books we should read and historical events we should know about in order to be considered culturally literate.  In today’s world, though, I do not believe that our shared culture really comes from books and historical events.

It comes from our films.

Let me just say right now and very firmly that I offer no opinion on this state of affairs.  I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English.  I love books.  But when was the last time you heard someone casually quote “The Canterbury Tales” in conversation?  Meanwhile, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve heard someone give some variation on “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto” or slip into a bad Schwarzenegger impression to say “I’ll be back.”

There are movies that have shaped our pop culture and are still referenced today.  Just last week, I showed my teenager Speed, and he came to me over the weekend to tell me that he’d overheard someone using “Pop quiz, hotshot” in a conversation.  Does knowing where that phrase came from really matter?  Maybe not, but I feel that I am doing my children a disservice by not showing them the origins of references they may encounter.  I suppose you could call it pop cultural literacy.

But where to start?  This is where some of my personal biases slip in.  I grew up during the 1980s, which I consider to be one of the greatest eras of popular films ever.  A huge number of films that I consider to be classics came out during that decade.  The hard part is whittling the list down to the ones that have had the most lasting effects on our culture.  

I’ve taken a shot at it.  So here, in no particular order, is my list of the pop culture film canon for the 1980s (Your mileage may vary.  Keep your kid’s age and maturity level in mind when selecting films to show them.  Don’t put Fatal Attraction on for a ten-year-old.  Angry tirades about objections or omissions may be left in the comments.):

The Empire Strikes Back  (Star Wars is also essential, but it was released in 1977)
The Shining
Blade Runner
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Return of the Jedi
The Terminator
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Die Hard
A Christmas Story
Beverly Hills Cop
Field of Dreams
Superman II
Dirty Dancing
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Back to the Future
The Princess Bride
Top Gun
The Goonies
The Breakfast Club
The Karate Kid
Pretty in Pink
Sixteen Candles
The Naked Gun
Fatal Attraction
When Harry Met Sally
Lethal Weapon

Since it’s my list, I’m going to add a few more titles.   These are movies that I wouldn’t classify as "essential," but I'd show them anyway just because I like them so much:

Better Off Dead
The Right Stuff
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
The Last Starfighter
Real Genius
The Running Man

Not a single one of these films won Best Picture.  The Right Stuff may be the only one that was even nominated.  I could honestly see including a few of the Oscar Winners (Rain Man, The Color Purple, and Amadeus), but I don't know that any of them have had the cultural impact of the others on the list.  Gandhi may have won the Best Picture Oscar in 1982, but E.T. has stood the test of time (I was traumatized by the movie when I saw it, and then I got to traumatize my own children with it three decades later).  

I have the list, but now comes the hard part: getting my kids to sit down and watch them.  I’ve spent two months trying to get my daughter to watch The Princess Bride, a movie her brother and I have both promised her is great, but she has adamantly refused.  Where have I gone wrong?!?

- Alan Decker (@CmdrAJD on Twitter)