Renate Reinsve running down a street​ in The Worst Person in the World
Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World.

Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo


I Tried to Define a 'Millennial Canon' of Film, TV and Video

What makes a millennial movie? It's more complicated than you think.

It struck me during Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World that I was watching the end of an era: Late in the film, Julie (Renate Reinsve) listens to her elder millennial cartoonist ex Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) expound upon a life lived through media. He tells her, wistfully, of his young life “without internet and mobile phones” spent going to record shops, comic spots, video stores, “a time when culture was passed along through objects”.


“I spent my life doing that. Collecting all that stuff, comics, books… and I just continued, even when it stopped giving me the powerful emotions I felt in my 20s. And now it’s all I have left. Knowledge and memories of stupid, futile things nobody cares about…

“I reached a point in my life when suddenly… I began to worship what had been. And now I have nothing else.”

I knew that I was watching the Last Millennial Film – an acknowledgement of time passing, youth fading, life continuing on within and without us. The unbearably familiar rhythms of the film both resonated and frustrated, not only as memories from my own life but also as ones I absorbed from culture across my 33 years of life. Telling the difference was tricky: Like Aksel, I grappled with the ephemera that made me. But what made me was less tangible – entire histories confined to obsolete formats, blogs that go offline, server transfers that fail. In an existential haze, I sought to finally answer a question that has haunted me since downloading a leaked copy of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion shortly before my 20th birthday: “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?”

I attempted to carve out a “millennial canon”, a roadmap to understand how the idea of “The Millennial” has been constructed, presented, and regimented by mass media. While there’s countless music, writing, and photography that could fit the bill, I limited my focus to 100 moving image works: films, television series, advertisements, and music videos that were created and distributed with a broad audience in mind. (After I posted the list on Twitter, major oversights that were called out increased the list to 125. It’s a mutable thing.)


Viral videos, memes, and Vines were off the table: Any attempt to build a comprehensive, comprehensible view of online visual culture over the past two decades would undoubtedly send me on a Borgesian descent into madness. And anyway, I was above all else concerned with “The Millennial” as a creation of mass media, constantly iterated upon, disrupted and reconstituted as the tide of the internet rose to engulf all. As millennials built a parallel multiverse on the internet, “The Millennial” of monoculture became a feedback loop: a mutating image of us, performed by us, then projected back onto us, back and forth forever.

As a film programmer, I always look for works that rhyme: Which pieces will flow together best and echo off one another? How will a presentation add up to something greater than the sum of its parts? Building this list was no different. While it’s inherently foolish to try to boil down an entire generation’s identity to the media enjoyed by a small subset of it, patterns do emerge.

Amidst the economic anxiety, social media malaise and burgeoning forms and genres, what stood out to me was just how many millennial works are preoccupied by growing pains. Each generation rages into adulthood in its own way, but so much millennial media builds paeans to adolescence, while connoting coming-of-age with loss.

It’s palpable in intimate dramas (Margaret, Thirteen) and big-budget wonders (Cloverfield, Where The Wild Things Are); in rowdy teen movies (Superbad, Project X) and high-brow arthouse fare (Elephant, Marie Antoinette); in earnest awards contenders (Boyhood, Juno) and cynical satires (The Bling Ring, Jennifer’s Body). It’s there in reboots like Creed, franchises like The Hunger Games, in the fable of Anakin Skywalker’s corruption at the centre of Star Wars: Episode III. Each, in its own way, makes a spectacle of innocence lost.


Some of this is projection, older artists working through their failure to fully understand young people – Obi-Wan’s agonised “You were the chosen one!” upon defeating a fully Dark Side-d Anakin in Episode III may as well be the cry of a parent feeling their kid slipping away. But soon, we began to feel a similar ache. Through the 90s, there was a hopeful idea of what millennials could become. At some point, that optimism shattered. We’ve been mourning that loss ever since.

Upended by America’s War on Terror, a global financial crisis, sudden outbursts of mass violence in public spaces, and the single most consequential technological shift since the Industrial Revolution, it makes sense that millennials wanted to look backward. Justifiably unsettled in the present, and terrified by what’s to come, “The Millennial” mythologises our past and eulogises a childhood that never really was, an impossible youth.

Even a millennial work that pulses with immediacy can’t totally escape the yearn of nostalgia: Aaron Brown’s still-gorgeous video for Girls’ “Lust For Life” evokes a bygone era in format and instantly dates itself, encasing in amber-hued Super 8mm a New York Post headline announcing Michael Jackson’s death. The moment is here, now, forever gone.


Aksel’s monologue in The Worst Person in the World is delivered from a place of mature resignation. But the millennial urge to “worship what had been” has been there from the very start.

Screengrab of Aaron Brown's music video for Girls's "Lust for Life"

Aaron Brown's music video for Girls's "Lust for Life". Screengrab: YouTube

Mine is not the first attempt to build a coherent lineage of millennial visual culture. Ashley Clark, curatorial director at Criterion, was gripped by a similar ambition in his former capacity as director of film programming at BAM in New York. He, along with BAM VP of Film Gina Duncan, curated a repertory series called “We Can’t Even: Millennials on Film” in 2019. The genesis for the series came from Duncan’s and Clark’s extensive dialogue surrounding Brady Corbet’s divisive 2018 popstar drama, Vox Lux.

“The film served as something of a baroque, cinematic origin story for the millennial,” Clark tells me, “a coming-of-age irrevocably marked by domestic and international trauma, and rapidly shifting notions of the self, of technology, of capital (social vs. financial), of fame. That was an entry point to a wider exploration of how millennials had been portrayed on film, and, later on, how they had begun to portray themselves.”

In Vox Lux, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a school shooting and sings a bereaved ballad that launches her into celebrity. Celeste’s performance of her grief quickly becomes commodified by the recording industry, which rots her from the inside out. As an adult, Celeste (now portrayed by an absolutely chaotic Natalie Portman) prepares for a big comeback tour, and reckons with her “deal with the Devil,” which may actually be literal.


Since the 2008 financial crisis, millennials’ capitalist dance with the Devil has always been fraught. I tried my best to represent this within the canon: from navigating uneasy alignments with corporate interests (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, We Are Your Friends) and reluctantly allowing tech companies to profit off our desperation (The Social Network, My Last Film, The Human Surge), to enduring the anguish of an increasingly stratified society simmering in violence (Minding The Gap, The Other Side, Nocturama), millennials have borne the brunt of a sundowning economic condition where policymakers have empowered wealth hoarders to pillage our possible futures. We’re left fighting each other over scraps.

Reflecting on “We Can’t Even,” Clark notes: “[The series] was definitely meant as a shot across the bow aimed at boomers who seemed – and still seem – so keen to simplify and trivialise the struggles of millennials while completely minimising their own role in the parlous socio-economic state of things.”

In a widely-reported graph comparing how generations fared financially at different ages, economist Gray Kimbrough determined that by 2019, millennials possessed only 3.2 percent of wealth in the United States, compared to the 9 percent of wealth Gen-Xers held at a nearly respective age, and the 21 percent of the pie that boomers held by their median age of 35 in the year 1990. As Kimbrough’s estimations only use pre-pandemic Federal Reserve data, it’s even harder to determine what this picture looks like post-COVID.


The fact remains that, for all our influence over the past 20-ish years, we don’t actually own anything. All we have is our media.

And much of the time, we don’t even have that.

In July 2009, ad agency Wieden+Kennedy refreshed Levi’s denim with “Go Forth,” a startlingly primitivist vision of contemporary Americana. Buoyed by the sensorial photography of Ryan McGinley and an evocative black-and-white spot from a pre-True Detective Cary Joji Fukunaga, the “Go Forth” campaign went viral online upon release of its M. Blash-directed anthem film, “O Pioneers!”, a crucial piece of the millennial canon. 

The epic advert sets Walt Whitman passages to earthquaking “ho heys!” cribbed from Arcade Fire songs, and features impressionistic blurs of handheld cinematography that have since become a default mode across media. Sexy, lithe young bodies pull up their jeans against towering woods, bask under waterfalls, hop over bonfires, and tease a whole new world for the taking.

In its depiction of whiteness on the range, “O Pioneers!” dressed a colonialist myth in millennial drag. It also accidentally became a generational urtext. Decontextualised images and GIFs from the spot earned not just thousands of reblogs on Tumblr, but also countless placements in advertising pitch decks for the following decade. It anticipated the basic neo-naturalist shift of the early-2010s and its bespoke craftmaking, rustic Pinterest weddings, and so-called “lumbersexuals”. Its slickly composed vision of reckless abandon somehow flowed upstream, surfacing in indie hits Beasts of the Southern Wild and American Honey, two similarly mythic, problematic visions of outsiders building utopia within a “lost” America. An ouroboros, a feedback loop, pooping back and forth forever.


But was it “O Pioneers!”, really? Or was it just Ryan McGinley? Did M. Blash influence Andrea Arnold or was it the other way around? Whose images were these? Just as millennials deftly remixed, mashed up, and shipped elements that did not intuitively go together, advertisers quickly learned how to refract what was once deemed sincere back to us, often in collusion with the original artists. It made things confusing.

This crisis of ownership is something that I felt needed to be represented in the canon: Apple shrunk director Patrick Daughters’ twee masterpiece for Feist’s “1 2 3 4” to fit on an iPod screen (“A Little Video For Everyone”) while Tommy Hilfiger bastardised Wes Anderson’s rigorously composed melancholia, soundtracked it to a Vampire Weekend song and paid Ezra Koenig’s rent for at least a few months (“Feast Interruptus”).

Meanwhile, Lana Del Rey’s self-directed video for “Video Games” was a crude rush of sampled images that understood the logic of YouTube K-holes and Tumblr-era foraging better than virtually anything before or since – but she was still accused of being an industry plant. Even when something fringe cracked through, be it Animal Collective’s genuinely strange performance of “#1” on Conan, or Odd Future bumrushing Jimmy Fallon’s stage, millennials couldn’t help but arbitrate its authenticity.


Crying “sellout” at a time when most culture industries – most industries, period – had bottomed out seemed gauche, but millennials still held onto some ideal of “real”. But in revisiting much of the content considered for the canon I was building, trying to tease apart what rang false and what felt true, I came to an uneasy realisation: A lot of this shit kinda sucks. It hasn’t aged well. 

Pieces I held onto, held up in my adolescence as Real Important Art, don’t actually hold up to much scrutiny. Others that I had written off at the time as fake, minor, or thin opened up exponentially. Canons are made to be shattered, I guess.

Much has changed since 2003. It’s not lost on me that “The Millennial” represented throughout the canon is an American/European construction, frequently white and raised middle-class, now facing a kind of financial precarity they were spared in childhood, and constantly bumping up against the limits of their liberal politics. While it may have seemed novel at the time for white artists to finally face the structural advantages they enjoyed, the tendency to poke fun at one’s privilege while simultaneously congratulating oneself for doing it (see Girls, Portlandia) codified a weird dynamic in the canon around race.

White kids raised on Hype Williams videos gentrified these aesthetics with a winking, ironic detachment (brokeNCYDE’s “FreaXXX”, Salem’s SXSW Fader Fort performance, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”) that was “in on the joke” while still engaging in a kind of minstrelsy. The most biting satire of this phenomena came from Harmony Korine’s iconic Spring Breakers, which stunt-cast young ex-Disney Channel stars to embody a contagion of parasitic whiteness that consumes the South Florida coast each year.


Millennial directors Josh and Benny Safdie tread similar waters in their propulsive breakout Good Time. On the run following a botched bank robbery, petty criminal Connie (Robert Pattinson) leverages his whiteness at every agonising moment in the film, quite literally sacrificing each Black person he encounters on his nocturnal odyssey to rescue his brother Nick (Benny Safdie) from prison, and elude capture himself. The effect is brutal in its totalising myopia of millennial whiteness: self-aware enough to understand how the racist mechanics of this world work, only to conveniently shelter under them when the heat is really on. 

These films are imperfect critiques, in the same way my list isn’t airtight: I know the canon I put together is riddled with blind spots, dead ends, confusing detours. After all, where’s Drake? Where’s Kendrick? Where’s Nicki? All three contributed unforgettable visuals for our era and their influence cannot be understated. But it’s the images of Soulja Boy in a Web 1.0 browser, or Tyler, The Creator eating a cockroach, or Le1f launching a Kamehameha wave, or MC Ride screaming in a car filled with TV static, or Azealia Banks grinning on the block in a Mickey Mouse sweater that feel closer to the admittedly limited narrative of millennialism explored in the list. The triumphalism of pop icons gives the culture something to aspire to. But there’s a reason I selected Homecoming over Lemonade, or “Formation” or even “Single Ladies” – “The Millennial” could never be Beyoncé. We just watch her in awe.

On September 11, 2001, my middle school held its annual Picture Day. Having determined that it’d be too costly to cancel the photographers outright, our teachers brought all the students into the gymnasium and decided to proceed with our yearbook portraits. As the attacks shook New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, we were expected to smile for the camera.

I still have this yearbook, filled with images of traumatised seventh-graders straining to put on a happy face amidst so much terror.

This is how a lot of millennial media feels to me – a delicate balancing act, anxiously torn between feeling and not feeling the forces that press upon us. Acknowledging and not acknowledging the cards we’ve been dealt. Playing and not playing along.

Building a “canon” from this media was a similarly fraught activity. Some people on Twitter said it was too soon, that we’re still too close to this era to properly appraise it. But after two decades in the spotlight, millennials are finally ageing out of the most desirable market demographics and slowly coming to terms with our contributions to a world we’ve long thought never wanted us in the first place. We’ve emerged in midlife in medias res, having spent the past 20-odd years struggling to be born.

In other words: we’re losing our edge. We don’t know what we really want.

View “the millennial canon” in its entirety on Letterboxd.