As the type of person who regularly finds himself being spoon-fed cable movies as a result of a remarkably sedentary lifestyle, I'm frequently revisiting beloved movies of my youth with curiously mixed results. If one was to take a sampling of the movies I enjoyed from my childhood and teenage years, only a fraction hold my interest today. Of course, many of the rejects can be attributed to the fact that my tastes in films have changed. This is an easy, answer. Too easy, in fact.

It's dismissive to assume that a film that fails to hold up after twenty or ten or two years is the result of a change in the viewer. Many of these films were not designed to hold up. Sprinkled with popular references, dated soundtracks, and borderline-retarded notions of what the future had in store for us, some films have a cultural shelf life that's about as long as an episode of Access Hollywood.

The durability of films from this era is a curious phenomenon. One movie that completely exists in its time, like Clueless, holds up extremely well, having made the transition from “topical” to “charming,” while a movie like Wayne’s World captures a similar point in time and a similar niche, also developing its own weird vocabulary for its characters. I use these two examples because a) they act as an example and a cautionary tale, respectively, and b) both of these films were extremely well-received and regarded as "important" in their day.

So how does Clueless stay with us after these years, while Wayne’s World shakes out as borderline unwatchable? (Wayne’s World 2 even more so, but mostly because it’s just a terrible film)

These are just two examples of films that either fight or give in to the ravages of time. Comedies seem especially prone, as does any film that tries to tell us what the future will be like. The recipe to make a film popular at the time of its release is by no means the same one used to insure it’s popularity a decade, or even a few years later.

The touch-points required to last aren’t exactly rocket science, but striking the balance between contemporary relevance and durability is bit trickier. In order to ensure that I can sit around like a beached whale on Sundays while enjoying the highest caliber of entertainment from the past 20 years, I’ve compiled a definitive guide of how things should be done so that I may enjoy your film in 2017 as much as I enjoyed it in 2011.

You’re welcome in advance, Hollywood.

Stay Away From Technology You Don’t Understand. Seriously. Stay Away From It. You Never Will Never Get It Right And You Will Look Ridiculous.

Before I go any further with the categories and examples, it warrants mentioning that a bad movie, no matter how much it sticks to these magnificent guidelines I’m  laying out, won’t stand the test of time. It won’t be popular or “good” when it’s at its most relevant, so don’t expect it to age from vinegar to wine as time marches on. Bad movies will always be bad, whereas good movies can remain as such, or lose their luster over time.

Bad Examples: Disclosure, The Lawnmower Man, The Net, Hackers, Jurassic Park

Good Examples: You’ve Got Mail, Sneakers, Enemy of the State, Back to the Future 2, Jurassic Park

Make reasonable assumptions about the future of technology. When you make huge leaps forward, at least do them with enough creativity that they seem like an inspired inclusion (powerlaces, hoverboards, dinosaur cloning) rather than some half-assed stab at what the future might bring (any scene from 1991-1997 that involved virtual reality, hackers with nose rings).

If your cool characters are “techies,” make them cool people that happen to be techies, like in Sneakers, rather than people who are cool because they’re techies, like in Hackers or that obnoxious little girl Lex from Jurassic Park.

Move forward simply and no one will get hurt. You’ve Got Mail, while not a personal favorite, added simple logical elements (email, internet dating) to staid concepts (pen pals, blind dating). While AOL might as well be making buggy whips these days, the genetics of the concept nonetheless read as quaint, rather than ephemeral.

If you’re going to dabble in technology, think long and hard about how this will look in one short decade if you’re wrong. Don’t worry about what happens if you’re right. It happens so rarely, it’s not really worth considering.

Celebrity Cameos: Bob Barker, But Not Jerry Springer

Bad Examples: Austin Powers 2, Dodgeball, Friends with Benefits

Good Examples: Singles, Wayne’s World, Zoolander, Happy Gilmore, Jerry Maguire

If you want to allow your viewers to watch the film without being ripped out of its universe, don’t toss in some flavor-of-the-month that people will have to rack their brain to understand the significance of years after it occurs. Having your characters resolve their problems on The Jerry Springer Show wasn’t particularly inspired when Austin Powers 2 did it in 1999. It seems downright lazy and unfunny now, just like the Springer show itself. Same with Shaun White in Friends with Benefits, Ryan Seacrest in Knocked Up, and Tabitha Soren (or anyone from MTV) in Black Sheep’s painfully dated “Rock the Vote” scene. (Shame on you, Mudhoney. Shame on your eyes.)

Topical cameos can be funny, so long as they’re absurd or relevant enough to hold up. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Billy Zane didn’t pop up in Zoolander, nor Pearl Jam in Singles. The fact remains that, in these universes, Zane was supposed to be at that fashion show and walk-off, and Pearl Jam were supposed to be dicking around at a coffee shop in Seattle in 1992. Dr. Evil and Scotty weren’t supposed to be on Springer, but they were there nonetheless. And it doesn’t feel right.

Bob Barker wasn’t supposed to be beating the living hell out of Happy Gilmore, but the absurdity of it sells it, because Bob Barker is so not supposed to be in the film, let alone punching Happy. That it’s ridiculous enough to swing back around to durable.

Further: No reality television star references or appearances. Ever.  No one in 2025 will be happy that Omarosa or Evan Marriott appeared in an Adam Sandler film. You probably don’t even know who those people are, which solidifies my point.

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Really Think About Your Music. I Mean REALLY Think About It.

Bad Examples: Wayne’s World, Judgment Night

Good Examples: Singles, Clueless, Wayne’s World

Soundtracks offer yet one more way to date your film. Rather than just concern themselves with the timeliness of one medium (film), directors and producers must either play it safe and go with esoteric or instrumental soundtracking that runs the risk of not speaking to audiences, or venture into the abyss of pop music, looking for a white whale of a song that will resonate not only with people at the time of release, but indefinitely thereafter.

The easiest way to avoid getting wrapped up in the caveat of dated music is to pull a Scorsese and just use “Gimme Shelter” in every scene in every movie knowing that song underscoring clip just makes it that much cooler. However, Scorsese has that as his calling card, so that won’t work for anyone else.

Wayne’s World falls in both the good and bad camps here, its most enduring and endearing scene being a “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong in an AMC Pacer. However, the film as a whole served as the death rattle for the pop-metal of the 1980’s, embracing a whole genre of music that was dated two years later. The aesthetic was pretty ridiculous, and the music itself was just sort of “bad.”

I’m aware that this runs more to subjectivity, but as-my-oh-so-useful caveat in italics above stated, crap in, crap out. Singles essentially mires in the same waters, but offers a real sense of scene. Beyond that, Eddie Vedder sitting around mumbling about Citizen Dick doesn’t feel shoehorned the way Alice Cooper singing “Feed My Frankenstein” does.

That said, when The Mighty Mighty Bosstones pop up in Clueless, the appearance works and is totally believable, but I have absolutely no explanation for that, other than “I still really, really like the Bosstones.”

(Please take a moment to let the integrity of this piece waft over you.)

“Look At Me! I’m Tweeting! I’m A Twitterer!”: Memes And Fads Don’t Help

Bad Examples: Friends with Benefits, Most Every Other Romantic Comedy, The Scary/Date/Not Another Teen Movies, Austin Powers

Good Examples: Se7en, Wes Anderson’s Filmography, Airplane!, Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Most everything that appears in films will one day be rendered obsolete or antiquated, but taking pains to avoid any and all time-sensitive references would make for a very strange film. That’s not to say they would all be bad. In fact, Wes Anderson has made a very critically successful career out of doing just that. Everything from dialogue to production design to wardrobe to soundtrack has been crafted to within an inch of its life so that it will seem, quite literally, timeless.

However, for every The Royal Tenenbaums, there are hundreds of Austin Powers, Sex and the City's, and Meet the Spartans that seemingly exist to capture as much of what is going on in American culture as humanly possible, narrative be damned. Critiquing films such as these isn’t really germane to this discussion, as these films make little to no attempt to be relevant past their theatrical runs. They’re the Katy Perry’s of the film world. Cinematic bubble gum meant to be slightly enjoyed, spit out, then replaced with no real feelings one way or the other, aside from a vague sense of amusement.

Films age fast enough on their own. You don’t need to put in references to Double Rainbow Guy, flash mobs, MySpace to accelerate the process. Sure, there are jokes to be made, but every one of these memes or modern references puts a date stamp on your work. The mention of voodoo economics in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off registers a “2” on this scale. The flash mob scene in Friends with Benefits ranks a “93.” (I’m truly sorry for continuing to include Friends with Benefits in this discussion, but the tidal wave of ephemera that movie possesses was the impetus for this piece, so it’s a package deal. I’m as upset about it as you are.)

Even when using these references as nostalgic touchpoints or humorous juxtapositions, you’re generally doing the lifespan of your movie a disservice. When Sandra Bullock dances to “Get Low” in The Proposal, it effectively served as a throwaway at the height of the song’s popularity (which was actually about five months before the film was released), so while audiences can still find the humor in the uptight career woman cutting loose to a goofy song, the fact that it’s one that was once popular, but is no longer, seems just…wrong.


To reiterate, the above observations/suggestions certainly won’t make a bad movie good, and probably won’t keep a good movie from becoming bad. Only creative forces that lay outside the pop-cultural universe can do that. However, a good movie can be made more enjoyable through the manufactured belief that the story could be told today. As such, it feels “realer” than the realization that the story definitely took place while The Real World was filming New Orleans, which in turn reminds the audience, “Yup. You’re watching a movie. One that was made in 2000.”

In many instances, you can’t stop people from coming to that realization, but you don’t need to hold their hand to show them, either.