Journey to the Centre of the Nineties: The Most ‘90s-ish Movies of the Decade - Part 1
If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you will know that I often talk about the huge wave of ‘80s nostalgia that began over two decades ago and is still going strong today. Having just watched the new mini-series Pam & Tommy, I wondered; where is the corresponding deluge of ‘90s nostalgia? After all, someone who was a teenager when Independence Day came out will be in their thirties or forties now, but movies that really lean into the styles, fads, and tunes of the era are few and far between. Why is that?
I thought I’d set myself the impossible task of picking 30 movies that define the decade as a whole. Not necessarily the best movies of the decade, but the most ‘90s. Are we talking about fashions, tunes, attitudes, look, influence, certain actors? Well, yes to all of the above, plus something more indefinable…
So here it is. Please note that when I use the term “dated,” it isn’t necessarily negative; more in the sense of elements that stamp a date on the movie to make it unmistakably ‘90s.
30. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
MTV was at its peak in the ‘90s, and it’s hard to think of another channel that could not only get away with South Park, but also had the right audience to turn the controversial show into a cultural phenomenon. The duo behind the show, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, took mischievous glee in ruthlessly skewering the hang-ups and hypocrisies of western culture. It was dark, fearless, outrageous, hilarious, and - despite the crude, childlike animation - very adult comedy.
When it came to their big cinematic outing for Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and the gang, they really went for broke and it remains one of the great modern satires. While many of its themes are timeless - cliched Americana, cultural tropes, warmongering US foreign policy, conservative hand-wringing over bad language and violence in movies - it is very much rooted in its era, largely thanks to a sub-plot where Saddam Hussein goes to Hell and becomes Satan’s abusive boyfriend.
Honourable Mention: BASEketball
29. Trainspotting (1996)
“Hollywood come in… your time is up.” crowed the Empire quote on the iconic UK poster. Well… not quite, but there is no underestimating the impact of Danny Boyle’s second feature during a time of unparalleled Hollywood dominance.
Trainspotting quickly became the flagship film of “Cool Britannia,” an acerbic, grungy, ultra-stylish look at the life of an Edinburgh junkie (a never better Ewan McGregor) and his motley group of “so-called mates.” With its must-have poster and soundtrack, it flash-froze a zeitgeist so completely that it felt a little dated by the time it came out on video.
Honourable Mention: Shallow Grave
28. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
It’s the school disco. You’re rocking your new shell suit and a pair of pretty convincing fake Reeboks from the market. You’re sugared up on Chewits and Tango and the girl you like from Geography, laughing and flushed from dancing to the “Shoop Shoop Song,” catches your eye. DJ Master Blaster (aka Jason’s dad) announces it is time for the slow dance session. As the unmistakable opening bars of Bryan Adams begin, she nods towards the floor. Heart in your mouth, you take her sweaty hand in your own equally clammy digits… life is good.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is here to represent those omnipresent power ballads from movies that were absolutely inescapable during the ‘90s. In a time when everyone still listened to the radio, songs like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” just stuck around forever. “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” from Robin Hood spent 16 weeks - four whole months! - at Number One in the UK. Hollywood’s blockbusters took over the airwaves and became part of the soundtrack of our lives.
As for the film, it was an unabashedly Hollywood-ized version of the English legend, a corny yet rousing swashbuckler that featured Kevin Costner at his pomp, Morgan Freeman on his way up, Alan Rickman absolutely munching scenery as a panto Sheriff of Nottingham and Christian Slater still heir apparent to Jack Nicholson’s grin and shades.
Honourable Mention: The Bodyguard
27. Fight Club (1999)
It’s always a bit of a shock to realise that Fight Club is almost a quarter of a century old, and stylistically it has dated far less than many other films on this list.
It was a daring exercise in pop-anarchic angst from David Fincher with Brad Pitt in one of his career-defining roles, signing off the decade and the century as a whole by flipping both middle fingers at hollow consumerism and Gen-X navel-gazing. Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, became a poster boy for the disenfranchised on every side of the aisle. What dates Fight Club most is how the film’s contrary ideas and messages, especially Durden’s rants against womankind, now sound like an incel manifesto.
Honourable Mention: American Beauty
26. My Girl (1991)
It’s hard to overstate how popular Macauley Culkin was in the early ‘90s, starring in several hit movies and attracting the attention of Michael Jackson, who put the kid in his “Black or White” video. While Home Alone was the film that made Culkin a major star, it still felt very ‘80s with its John Hughes screenplay and yuppy-ish parents.
My Girl was the film that entirely hinged on Culkin’s very ‘90s family-friendly charms. Co-star Anna Chlumsky returned for My Girl 2 a few years later.
Honourable mention: Richie Rich
25. Independence Day (1996)
Independence Day, with its world premiere around the 4th July holidays in the States, was an immense ‘90s occasion. It was the most hotly anticipated must-see movie of the year, built around the charisma of Will Smith on his way from Fresh Prince to superstardom and those eye-popping trailer images of city-sized flying saucers menacing well-known American landmarks. Compared to several other major blockbusters of the period (Jurassic Park, Titanic) Independence Day has dated the most, rooted in that carefree pre-9/11 penchant for jaw-dropping destruction.
There is also the very ‘90s fixation with aliens and alien abduction (The X-Files, Fire in the Sky, the hoax Roswell autopsy) and Randy Quaid’s character is solely motivated by being anally probed by the evil marauders in the past. Bonus ‘90s points for Bill Pullman as the President (“Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!”) Harvey Fierstein (“Oh, crap!”) and the plucky dog who somehow survives the cataclysmic events.
Honourable Mention: Jurassic Park
24. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
On the hip indie edge of ‘90s Hollywood we had the unlikely story of a movie-obsessed video store clerk who, with a little lucky help from Harvey Keitel, changed the face of cinema and became the most instantly recognisable director since Hitchcock. Tarantino had the talent and the balls to match, casting himself in his debut and delivering a trademark pop-culture nerd speech about the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in the opening scene. Everything just went from there.
The motor-mouthed auteur made cribbing from other movies a feature rather than a bug, spinning his multiple references into something that felt distinctly its own thing. Reservoir Dogs has dated more than any of his other films, set in the real world around the time it was made, and it inspired a whole cavalcade of ‘90s crime capers like Killing Zoe (directed by his pal Roger Avery), Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Honourable Mention: Pulp Fiction
23. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
In the decade or so after Colin Welland declared “The British are coming!” when accepting his Oscar for Chariots of Fire, British cinema often still meant stuffy period pieces or a little kitchen sink realism from Mike Leigh. Then came Four Weddings and a Funeral, which made screenwriter Richard Curtis a household name and introduced the wider world to the stammering charms of Hugh Grant.
Much like John Hughes, Richard Curtis wrote what he knew. He created a very ‘90s English middle-class fantasia, which he arguably has never left apart from a few nominal updates. It isn’t anywhere near as funny, insightful, or loveable as it thinks it is, but Four Weddings nevertheless revitalised interest in British cinema internationally and paved the way for Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie, and The Full Monty. Gains extra ‘90s points for the presence of Andie MacDowall and another ever-present ballad, “Love is All Around” by Wet Wet Wet.
Honourable Mention: Notting Hill
22. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Arnie was one of the big action stars of the ‘80s, but this was the film where he became a major international superstar with plenty of cross-over appeal, as much loved by mums and dads as their bloodthirsty offspring. James Cameron’s explosive blockbuster expanded on the themes of his lean low-budget original, adding plenty of heart and humour. It also made the most of new CGI technology with the miraculous liquid metal villain, played with brilliant malevolence by Robert Patrick.
It was the film that started the clock on Edward Furlong’s 15 minutes of fame and gave us “Hasta la vista, baby.” Guns N’ Roses, reaching the height of their popularity with their mini-blockbusters on MTV, had a hit song on the soundtrack. The video for “You Could Be Mine” had Arnie’s T-800 deciding that killing Axl Rose would be a waste of ammo. T2 is an action movie that is still capable of raising pulses today, but all the more appealing for its status as a slice of pure ‘90s Americana.
Honourable mention: The Last Action Hero
21. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
There were loads of Shakespeare movies around in the ‘90s, from Ian McKellen’s grandstanding turn as Richard III to Shakespeare in Love winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Baz Luhrmann made the Bard hip again with Romeo + Juliet, his flashy adaptation of the timeless romantic tragedy. Much to the relief of weary English Lit’ teachers everywhere.
Setting the film in a stylized modern era had the effect of leaving the film behind in the mid ‘90s idea of cool, but the film’s energy is still irresistible, as are the swooningly beautiful young match of Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers. The pair making coochy-coo eyes at each other through a fish tank was an iconic romantic moment to rival Kate and Leo doing their thing on the prow of a certain doomed passenger liner.
Honourable Mention: Titanic
20. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The structure of Bryan Singer’s twisty heist mystery is still ingenious and it fully capitalises on Kevin Spacey’s excellent turn as Verbal Kint, as well as a superb ensemble cast packed with ‘90s also-rans like Chazz Palmenteri, Stephen Baldwin, and Kevin Pollack. Benicio del Toro came out the best in the long run, making a striking impression as the mumbling hustler, Fenster.
The Usual Suspects has dated badly thanks to its fashions, cinematography, and a screenplay jammed with wall-to-wall homophobic jokes and slurs. You sometimes have to make allowances when watching older films, but it looks especially bad in light of subsequent allegations against the director and star. The film remains famous for the twist ending, which is pretty well telegraphed if you’re watching out for it.
Honourable Mention: The Sixth Sense
19. Wayne’s World (1992)
Mike Myers and Dana Carvey burst onto the scene with this endearingly sweet and stupid comedy based on their Saturday Night Live skit. As far as SNL spin offs go it was most excellent, especially the opening sequence where the duo wrap an episode of their cable TV show before rocking out in the “Mirthmobile” to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I mean, who hasn’t headbanged to Queen in the car after seeing this movie, even if they don’t have any hair?
The film was a big hit at the box office, resulting in schoolkids everywhere yelling “Schwing!” and “Party on!” A cast including Tia Carrere, Lara Flynn Boyle, and cameos from Chris Farley and Robert Patrick up the ‘90s quotient significantly.
Honourable mention: Beavis and Butt-head Do America
18. Hudson Hawk (1991)
After the huge success of Die Hard, Bruce Willis was still working through variations of his wise-cracking John McLane persona in the early ‘90s. Hudson Hawk was a real curio of this phase, a bizarre action-comedy heist caper about two freewheeling cat burglars who synchronise their robberies by singing classic tunes. It’s a smug, spectacularly misconceived vanity project for Willis and his buddy Danny Aiello, so bad that it almost has to be seen to be believed.
Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard go wildly over-the-top as the villainous Mayflower couple with designs on world domination, and Grant gave a brilliant behind-the-scenes account of this stinker in his memoir With Nails. Bonus ‘90s casting points: Andie MacDowall as the love interest, David Caruso as a mute hitman.
Honourable Mention: The Last Boy Scout
17. Ghost (1990)
The Righteous Brothers’ version of “Unchained Melody,” played during the much-parodied pottery scene, was the top selling single in the UK in 1990, marking the start of a decade of huge movie soundtrack songs.
Ghost was a soppy supernatural romance that brought together ‘80s icon Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, who would become one of the biggest stars of the ‘90s. Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar for her performance as a fake medium, had been around for a while too, but she was everywhere in the early part of the decade, becoming the highest paid actress of the time for Sister Act.
Honourable mention: Pretty Woman
16. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Robin Williams was at the height of his fame in the ‘90s, single-handedly modernising Disney with his whirlwind riffing in Aladdin and earning two more Oscar nominations for Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King to go with his one for Good Morning, Vietnam. Next up was another hit performance in Mrs. Doubtfire, where he played a struggling voice actor who dresses up as a Scottish nanny to gain access to his kids. As you do.
Mrs. Doubtfire is still fondly remembered, but it is easily Williams’ most dated and problematic movie from the period. Its whole premise looks very dodgy from a modern perspective. I was totally rooting for the guy when I saw it back in the day, but a recent viewing left me almost watching through my fingers. It’s excruciating to see what a childish, irresponsible, selfish POS he is nowadays, not to mention the amount of trauma those kids would suffer from his antics. No wonder it has been re-cut on Youtube to look like a horror movie.
Aerosmith feature prominently on the soundtrack with “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” which is where we should mention the band’s strong connection to movies in the ‘90s. Alicia Silverstone, star of a key ‘90s comedy, made her breakthrough in three Aerosmith videos, one alongside frontman Steven Tyler’s daughter, Liv. Liv Tyler would go on to star in Armageddon, which featured the Oscar-nominated rock ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” performed by Aerosmith. Those guys were absolutely everywhere.
Bonus ‘90s casting points for Harvey Fierstein and Mara Wilson (Matilda, Miracle on 34th Street).
Honourable Mention: Patch Adams
So there you have it, Part One of our most ‘90s-ish movies of the ‘90s. You can check out the Top 15 in Part Two!
And, why not check out the movie posters we have for the films of the '90s?