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Millennials Didn’t Ruin Cinema, They Just Made It About Themselves

Millennials Didn’t Ruin Cinema, They Just Made It About Themselves

Why Generation Me Isn’t Showing up Onscreen

In his book Best. Movie. Year. Ever., Brian Raftery posits that the convergence of Y2K anxieties and the dawn of the Clinton impeachment-obsessed 24-hour cable-news cycle spawned an onslaught of pioneering films that made 1999 an unparalleled year in the history of American cinema. Announcing the ascension of Gen X masterpieces such as Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, the Wachowski’s The Matrix, Alexander Payne’s Election, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, Kevin Smith’s Dogma, David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Christopher Nolan’s Following, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the class of ’99 garnered serious awards attention and instant-classic designations that only increased as its films left theatres for home video.

In the paradigm shift they initiated, the directors that Peter Biskind dubbed “The Sundance Kids” led a resurgence of personal filmmaking in American movies while offering revolutionary narrative and visual innovations, decimating 80s blockbuster sentimentality in an era when, with the exception of Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, and the late Stanley Kubrick (whose final film, Eyes Wide Shut, premiered that summer), their ‘70s New Hollywood idols had longed succumbed to the ravages of addiction, the perils of hubris, or both.

In appraising such a revelatory film year, the most surprising aspect is not that nearly all of the films have maintained or even enhanced their reputations, but that the same kids of Sundances two decades past continue to define American film well past middle age. The first wave of millennials to which I belong spent 1999 sneaking into Fight Club and absorbing mind-altering works like Magnolia and Being John Malkovich at Blockbuster even if they never reached our flyover zip codes theatrically.

Why have we failed to create our own catchily named cinematic epoch while Wes Anderson’s latest was the most hotly anticipated title at Cannes, a David Fincher film led the 2021 Oscar nominations, a Paul Thomas Anderson period comedy is a major contender for the 2022 Oscars in which no millennial is up for Best Director, and less than 30% of the films on Vogue’s “25 Most Anticipated Movies of 2022” list are directed by someone born after 1980?

As the millennial generation unwillingly reached adulthood, its arts achievement gap extended beyond film. Mark Athitakis pondered the lack of a Great American Millennial Novel in 2019, perceiving its absence as a product of our shift away from a common culture in which the appeal of literary fiction is a casualty.  Yet, the subgenre of arguments portraying the death of universal texts at the hands of a cavalcade of niche content typified by subReddits and Netflix’s omnivorous development slate reeks of oversimplification, especially in an era when the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the new American consensus and meme-worthy pop-culture iconography may well be the only salve for the Red-Blue divide.

Likewise, one cannot dismiss this lack of millennial presence as a result of 9/11 reshaping tastes or the Great Recession changing the landscape of Hollywood, as Raftery does, since technological advances and an insatiable hunger for streamable content have now created more opportunities for filmmakers than at any point in the medium’s history.

In truth, neither novels nor movies are dying; they simply remain in a limbo in which the Gen Xers pushing the artforms forward never stopped. Cinema has witnessed a wave of trailblazers since 1999 from arthouse auteurs Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster [2016], The Favourite [2018]) and Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room [2016], Hold the Dark [2018]) to blockbuster visionary Denis Villeneuve (Dune [2021], Arrival [2016], Bladerunner 2049 [2017]) and multihyphenates like Taika Waititi who alternate between both (JoJo Rabbit [2019], Thor: Ragnorok [2017]). But, they all belong to a Gen X second coming that likely realizes it doesn’t have many upstart candidates qualified for torch passing. It’s little wonder that, with the exception of the current iterations of Spider-Man and the Godzilla/King Kong universe, Hollywood has entrusted its evergreen franchise properties to the visions of filmmakers much more attuned to Gen X irony than millennial fandom.

Bret Easton Ellis, author of Gen X classic American Psycho, echoes such a sentiment in his lamentations over the addiction to affirmation innate to the millennials he deems “Generation Wuss.” Such fraught egoism has positioned its members as more curators than creators—a group that, as one of the generation’s members tells Ellis, “either want[s] to steal the art or they want to BE the art.” Perhaps no statement better articulates the root causes of millennial cinema’s anemic content and output—likely a reason Ellis spent the 2010s as cancel culture’s most prominent literary target. Regardless, Ellis’s reflections on millennial artistry underscore why Taylor Swift is my generation’s only enduring contribution to the multimedia landscape. A songwriter whose formidable talent lies in writing about herself with such specificity that her work becomes universal, Swift traverses whatever genre would most sate her fans’ hunger for the past at her every reinvention. That Swift’s newest evolution centers on her rerecording her entire oeuvre and releasing “the Taylor version” of each album to a fanbase that is legion serves as the perfect fusion of nostalgia and navel-gazing central to millennial self-definition. She has refracted two decades of history through herself. It truly is all about Taylor, leaving little room for other artists or forms to compete as definitive.

The presence of millennials in film and television has largely aligned into the two poles Swift has bridged so seamlessly. As the only pop-culture artifact that arguably rivals Swift’s dominance, The Duffer Brothers 1980s-set Netflix series Stranger Things (2016-Present) steeps itself in nostalgia as a strategy to achieve the lofty status of phenomenon. In bringing the world of their own childhoods to screen by way of sci-fi geekdom, the Duffers suffer from a clear case of Spielberg-Lucas syndrome, mining the past for novelty and cross-generation appeal. Xennial filmmaker David Lowery has forged his career using a similar tack, though instead adopting the ‘70s haze of New Hollywood staples Malick and Sidney Lumet not only in his crime dramas Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) and The Old Man and the Gun (2018) but also in his secular meditations on the metaphysical: A Ghost Story (2017), his live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon (2016), and The Green Knight (2021)—a candidate for most self-indulgent film of last year that obtusely updates the classic lit-101 staple Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and turns masturbatory both literally and figuratively. However, Lowery’s dialogue with the past pales in comparison to Damien Chazelle whose ode to Hollywood musicals and unashamed appropriation of Jacques Demy’s French classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) led La La Land (2016) to box-office success and endless critical adulation despite a downer ending scrubbed clean of its inspiration’s ‘60s political milieu. Genre play and historical tribute have remained integral to cinema since its inception. Nevertheless, in their revision of genre and nods to the past, the filmmakers of the French New Wave and New Hollywood grappled with history to gain insight into the present; they did not stop at citation as a substitute for meaning as these millennials do. Reveling in a vague sense of pastness is not substantial artistry in and of itself.

The alternate faction of millennial filmmakers has fashioned itself as chronicles of the way its generation lives now rather than as a pop-culture repository, not bothering to conceal naked ambitions or much else—a barbaric yawp best distilled in Lena Dunham’s proclamation that she could be the voice of her generation in the first episode of her former zeitgeist HBO series Girls (2012-2017) with a hint of self-criticism that rings as insincere as an Oberlin admissions essay. Dunham came to prominence with her debut film Tiny Furniture in 2009 as part of the mumblecore movement—a closeknit group of filmmakers that Austin’s South by Southwest anointed who employed improvisation and docudrama to reflect millennial concerns. As mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg remarked in 2007, “The story of my life and my friends’ lives are the ones I can tell most completely.” Such a mindset has continued to plague even the most acclaimed millennial work, especially that attempting to obscure its roots in New York’s art-world elite, whether in Dunham’s badly aging hipster exploits most recently on display in her comeback film Sharp Stick that landed at this year’s Sundance with a thud or Josh and Benny Safdie’s effective slumming in the city’s underworld via Heaven Knows What (2015), Good Time (2017), and Uncut Gems (2019)—aesthetically impressive movies that ultimately never live up to the New Hollywood they emulate.

Nearly two decades after its inception, mumblecore also continues to exert an undue influence on the work of Trey Edward Shults, whose crowdfunded Thanksgiving domestic nightmare Krisha (2015) and African-American ensemble melodrama Waves (2019) owe so much to the movement’s DIY pretensions that their visual aesthetics and genre trappings create a cognitive dissonance as they reach for profundity but ultimately just call attention to their self seriousness (Shults plays a thinly disguised version of himself in the former, living the wish-fulfillment of every upper-middle-class film student put on the hot seat about his major at a holiday meal). That the postapocalyptic minimalism of Shults’s sci-fi film It Comes at Night (2017) led to his most engaging work testifies to the heights millennial film can reach when it sidesteps the status anxiety of its creators and adopts a broader scope. Quintessential Gen X films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991) and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994) captured the essence and probed the angst of a generation to construct distinct portraits of their characters. Yet, both directors saw the value in critical distance, which Gen X’s preoccupation with irony no doubt reinforced. Linklater and Stiller wrestled with the questions of what to make of an era rather than claiming to speak for it or create a hierarchy of references that nurture cliques, decisions that separate art that endures from the highlights of last year’s awards shows, festival programs, and Film Twitter hot takes.

While mumblecore amounted to little more than a stepping stone for stars like Dunham as they shifted to Hollywood, a second wave of millennials has adopted its lo-fi aesthetic to build perpetual indie careers that, to us outsiders, seem like little more than enhanced hobbying of interest to no one beyond those active in its community. Usually set in academia or apartment complexes, such films are the fruits of an endless process: pilfering the style of 60s European art films; casting from the same pool of five Hollywood bit players; shooting with a handheld BlackMagic cinema camera in all its desaturated prosumer glory; screening at the half dozen regional film festivals run by the friends and financial backers they met online; launching promotional campaigns via Twitter in between their directors’ adulation of the Squad and Das Kapital; receiving most of their press through Letterboxd reviews or niche blogs run by said friends and financial backers and premiering on Vimeo a year later as their masterminds launch the next Kickstarter campaign. At the center of this movement is Kentucker Audley whose website passes itself off as a curation hub that initiates a limited number of new recruits into the ranks of the crowdsourced microbudget cool kids. More famous for garnering scattershot press thanks to lukewarm publicity stunts and selling apparel with the word “movies” on it than his decade of inconsistent work in front of and behind the camera, Audley seemingly desires a timeless counterculture status, though not enough to pass on a featured write up in the vows section of the Sunday New York Times before his nuptials in 2016.

Mumblecore began before white privilege escaped critical-theory syllabi, but its realist aesthetic and lack of self-awareness continue to shape millennial filmmaking whether in the disconnect between Chloé Zhao’s trust-fund positionality and her depictions of the working poor in The Rider (2018) and the Oscar-winning Nomadland (2020) or Ryan Coogler’s dramatization of a ripped-from-the-headlines Bay-area police killing of an unarmed Black man in Fruitvale Station (2013) that has no qualms about inserting an entirely fictitious scene of its protagonist saving a wounded stray dog to garner audience sympathies. Conversely, only a millennial director like Drake Doremus could wow Sundance with a film as tone deaf as Like Crazy (2011), a loosely-plotted transcontinental romance in which those most affected by patchwork U.S. immigration policies are a white hipster (the late Anton Yelchin) and his British dreamgirl (Felicity Jones).

In this climate, the handful of millennial filmmakers responsible for challenging cinema’s status quo and moving the art form forward have done so from a position of sincerity, crafting stories far removed from the ennui of millennial existence or at least comfortable criticizing it-- even if none of them have reached the cultural relevance most of the Class of ‘99 achieved by this point in their thirties. Mumblecore alum Greta Gerwig has become the most popular millennial director because her work is imbued with generosity and understanding. The teenage angst of Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019) encompasses disparate perspectives and strives to reconcile them while the films’ period settings eschew showy references in favor of distinct worldbuilding. Though less established than Gerwig, Lulu Wang demonstrates a similar talent for generational stories unafraid to confront the faults of her millennial protagonists as she proved in The Farewell (2019), a film that uses the tropes of the illness drama and prodigal daughter returning to her homeland to create a definitive portrait of American-Born-Chinese life. Gerwig’s former collaborator Swanberg adopted a similar vulnerability in his aging millennial tales Drinking Buddies (2013), Happy Christmas (2014), and Digging for Fire (2015), almost atoning for the vapid insularity that pockmarked the first half of his career. One can say the same for the often-caustic Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip (2014), Queen of Earth (2015), Golden Exits (2017), and Her Smell (2019), which approach genre revision and nostalgia with a purpose and satirical bent that would impress his Gen X predecessors and further exacerbate the insecurity of the grating brother-sister duo of his debut film, The Color Wheel (2011). Alternating between Gerwig’s humanism and Perry’s misanthropy, Janicza Bravo’s Zola (2021) –an examination of the sex economy and Florida’s underbelly adapted from a Twitter thread–and Michael Sarnoski’s Pig (2021)–a meditation on grief by way of a deep dive into hipsterdom’s cancerous effect on Portland’s culinary scene starring Nicholas Cage–have become the cinema’s most honest portrayals of millennial ethical compromise and urban aspiration. The pandemic that delayed their releases further accentuated their pointed opposition to elitist millennial delusions.

That art horror would prove the most fertile ground for millennial filmmakers seems fitting, given the genre’s predilection for social critique, which has led Robert Eggers (The Witch [2016], The Lighthouse [2019]) and Ari Aster (Hereditary [2018] and Midsommar [2019]) to the distinction as the only members of Generation Wuss to have reached bona fide auteur status after just two films. The savagery of grad-school satire and millennial selfishness Aster fashions in his director’s cut of Midsommar would serve as the zenith of his generation’s artistry if not for child-actor turned filmmaker Brady Corbet’s masterful Vox Lux (2018), a hybrid of horror movie and Behind the Music parody. Grounded by Natalie Portman’s performance as a school-shooting survivor who exploits her notoriety to reach Gaga-level heights, the film’s ruthlessness and righteous spurning of self-pity without sacrificing character complexity make it the definitive document of millennialdom–a likely reason why it imploded with critics and audiences during its initial release. The only competitor to Aster and Corbet’s unique visions is Josephine Decker, whose fever-dream forays into subcultures like the Balkan folk music camp in Butter on the Latch (2014), the Kentucky farm of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014), and the avant-garde New York theatre troupe appropriating minority stories in Madeline’s Madeline (2018) subvert narrative and toy with subjectivity in ways that take up the mantle of the Class of ‘99 even if they often collapse under the weight of their own ambition. Decker graduated from her humble start as a mumblecore supporting player to the studio film with Shirley (2020), a sexual psychodrama that masquerades as a biopic of author Shirley Jackson, but she continues to hone her personal stamp regardless of the genre in which she works, in some ways a stronger voice under the constraints of convention.

That Chazelle could evolve past La La Land’s hamfisted allusions and emotional mendacity to the genre reinvention and character interiority of his Neil Armstrong space-race drama First Man (2018) shows that millennial cinema may indeed have a better future than its initial output would indicate as does Coogler’s profound revision to the Rocky franchise and commentary on black middle-class masculinity in Creed (2015). However, like Armstrong and Adonis Creed, the generation’s filmmakers must first contend with their penchants for self-absorption and judgment as they strive to carve out a singular place in the world separate from the pop-culture they schizophrenically worship and demonize.