Journey to the Centre of the Nineties: The Most ‘90s-ish Movies of the Decade - Part 2
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…
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.
Last week I counted down numbers thirty to sixteen. This week, we go to the top of the charts!
15. Rush Hour (1998)
Baggy suits and casual racism ahoy in this box office smash that saw the serendipitous pairing of the two stars at very different times in their careers. Chris Tucker burst onto the movie scene a few years earlier in the stoner comedy Friday while Jackie Chan, a legend in his native Hong Kong, was looking for the right vehicle to crack America. In Bret Ratner’s amiable buddy comedy-thriller, he found it.
The plot is routine beyond belief, getting us from A to B while enjoying the breezy chemistry and charisma of the mismatched duo. Tucker’s machine-gun whine is at its least annoying, well-suited to his character’s exuberant braggadocio. Chan’s fantastic physical work, while watered down compared to his Hong Kong stuff, still shows why he is compared favourably to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Honourable Mention: Bad Boys
14. Clueless (1995)
Alicia Silverstone had become a teen idol for her debut role in The Crush and a trio of incredibly popular Aerosmith videos before catching the attention of Amy Heckerling, director of a key ‘80s teen movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. With Jane Austen’s Emma as inspiration, Heckerling wrote a super-smart high school comedy that stood out among a whole bunch of teen movies, thanks to its shrewd script and an effervescent performance from Silverstone as the endlessly upbeat and switched-on high school queen, Cher Horowitz.
Clueless pokes good-natured fun at its genre’s conventions and is a riot of ‘90s fashions, from Cher’s signature plaid-on-plaid outfit to the guys all wearing baggy pants and tie-dyed T-shirts. Plus check out all those ultra-modern flip phones…
Honourable Mention: 10 Things I Hate About You
13. Scream (1996)
The film that kicked off the current ‘80s love-in is also one of the definitive movies of the ‘90s. Wes Craven teamed up with screenwriter Kevin Williamson to send up the slasher cliches he’d helped invent with A Nightmare on Elm Street. The premise was a stroke of genius - kids in old slashers always acted like they’d never seen a horror movie before, but what if these kids knew all the tropes and tried using their knowledge to survive?
With the exception of ‘80s child star Drew Barrymore, ruthlessly killed off in that famous opening scene, Scream was stacked with fresh-faced up-and-comers: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Skeet Ulrich, etc. Blending smart comedy with well-timed scares, it also gave us a new Halloween mask to go alongside the iconic facewear of Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees.. The Scream format proved so popular that it spawned four sequels, each as increasingly tired as the genre the original so cleverly subverted.
Honourable Mention: I Know What You Did Last Summer
12. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
This was the movie that put Jim Carrey on the map in 1994, the year of his astonishing treble-whammy: Ace Ventura, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber. Rick Moranis, Alan Rickman, and Whoopi Goldberg were all considered for the part, but Carrey inhabits the shades and Hawaiian shirts so completely that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the zany pet detective.
While Carrey’s performance is still an absolute blast, it is the most dated out of those three films from ‘94. It suffers from a really cruddy TV movie look and some dodgy homophobic and transphobic jokes that were par for the course in Hollywood movies at the time. It also features a pre-Friends Courtney Cox and a cameo from the then-current Miami Dolphins quarterback, Dan Marino.
Honourable Mention: Liar, Liar
11. Basic Instinct (1992)
It was the change of sitting position that shook the world… Sharon Stone had been around since the early ‘80s, but crossing her legs for that infamous crotch shot made her a superstar.
Wily Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has an acute outsider’s eye for the trashy end of American culture, as he previously displayed in his raucously ultra-violent Robocop. His hot and sleazy neo-noir Basic Instinct followed suit and became one of the most controversial movies of the decade, thanks to its explicit sex scenes and negative depiction of homosexual characters. With the earlier Fatal Attraction and the later Disclosure, we saw a lot of Michael Douglas on the job back then, Bonus ‘90s casting: Wayne Knight, who was in almost every Hollywood movie made at the time.
Honourable mention: Showgirls
10. You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made an adorable couple in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, a time capsule of early ‘90s rom-coms. They re-teamed for You’ve Got Mail, basically a remake of the James Stewart classic The Shop Around the Corner with the Internet.
Also written and directed by Ephron, it really leans into the new fad, with nostalgia-inducing AOL logos, bricky user interfaces, and a script trying to get to grips with concepts like cybersex. It’s all a bit clunky and Hanks and Ryan go through the motions this time around, although their innate charm just about keeps the movie afloat. Watch out for the ubiquitous Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, Steve Zahn, and a young Dave Chappelle.
Honourable mention: While You Were Sleeping
9. Swingers (1996)
“Vegas, baby!” It is now impossible to visit Sin City without shouting the Swingers boys’ rallying cry at least 50 times before you get there, such is the influence of Doug Liman’s big contribution to the mid-90s indie scene. One of the most quotable films of the decade, it also gave star-making turns to Vince Vaughan and Jon Favreau as the conceited lounge lizard Trent and his long-suffering buddy Mikey.
It’s a neatly observed and surprisingly touching buddy comedy about twenty-something life and getting back in the saddle after a painful breakup. Vaughan might get all the best lines, but Favreau’s awkward sadness and desperation gives it some real heart. The jazzy, swinging, bar-crawling, street-level snapshot of Los Angeles is magic, and Swingers was voted as one of the definitive movies about the City of Angels.
Honourable Mention: The Big Lebowski
8. Kalifornia (1993)
Long before Netflix cornered the market, serial killers and psychopaths were huge in the ‘90s, from the glossy psycho-thrillers like Single White Female to the lip-smacking Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Arguably the most ‘90s serial killer movie to emerge from that craze was this forgotten bomb about a slick couple researching a book about serial murderers car-pooling across country with a real psycho and his girlfriend. The film featured a showy early performance from Brad Pitt as redneck killer Early Grayce, and the rest of the cast is like a ‘90s multiplier bonus: Juliette Lewis, Michelle Forbes, and David Duchovny, about to become a household name playing Fox Mulder in The X-Files.
Honourable Mention: Seven
7. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Some of the banter might sound a little close to the bone to the modern ear, but there is no doubting that Ron Shelton’s meandering sports comedy provided a welcome fraternal note during a fraught time for Los Angeles, released between the Rodney King beating at the hands of LAPD and the subsequent riots that scarred the city.
Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, both making a serious name for themselves in Hollywood, are superb as the mismatched streetball players on the hustle, with able support from Rosie Perez in one of her least ear-splitting roles.
Visually, it’s a glorious eyeful of LA street culture, with vibrant bursts of hardcourt fashions and attitude, plus a few “Yo’ mama” jokes to try out on friends.
Honourable Mention: Friday
6. Benny & Joon (1993)
The ‘90s was full of iffy depictions of mental disability, turning it into an award-winning industry with the likes of Forrest Gump and Shine. Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes, Bad Girls) played two super-cute, very attractive mentally ill people who find one another in Benny & Joon, a schmaltzy rom-com that goes all-in on the kookiness factor.
Depp had broken free of his early heartthrob status with committed performances in Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands, well on his way to becoming a major star of the ‘90s before playing Hunter S. Thompson and Captain Jack Sparrow turned him into a weird hybrid of the two. In Benny & Joon, he’s all pouts, cheekbones, and soulful eyes, nailing the silent movie comedy routines that were a big selling point in the trailer. The Proclaimers, the bespectacled Scottish folk rock duo, chipped in with “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”.
Honourable Mention: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
5. Clerks (1994)
The success of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape may have paved the way for the indie explosion of the ‘90s, but it was Robert Rodriguez making El Mariachi for $7000 that really convinced everyone they could make a movie, too. As many of the turgid low-budget efforts of the time proved, it also takes a lot of talent.
Kevin Smith had a keen ear for vulgar small talk and the preoccupations of aimless twenty-somethings, and his distinct voice was smart, wickedly funny and very, very rude. He sold his comic book collection and maxed out his credit cards for his groundbreaking debut Clerks, which instantly chimed with the slacker and Gen-X crowd.
It also introduced us to cult icons Jay and Silent Bob (Smith and long-time pal Jason Mewes), who are unfortunately still peddling their shtick nowadays.
Honourable Mention: Mallrats
4. Natural Born Killers (1994)
Natural Born Killers has lost much of its pure shock value these days largely thanks to an attention-deficient editing style that has dated incredibly badly. It might have seemed so edgy at the time, but now it only serves to provide a hollow distraction from the controversial violence.
Oliver Stone’s ferocious media satire took aim at multiple targets, but the main focus was mindless pop culture and its effect on a nation raised with violence on TV shows and movies. At a time of reality court shows and wall-to-wall coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, his tale of two young mass murderers becoming huge celebrities didn’t feel too wide of the mark.
Rising stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis were superb as the lethal lovers, Mickey and Mallory Knox, while the rest of the cast including Robert Downey Jr, Tommy Lee Jones, and Tom Sizemore just chewed the hell out of the scenery.
Honourable Mention: Wild at Heart
3. Reality Bites (1994)
Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites is absolutely desperate to be the defining statement on Generation X, which would be insufferable enough if it wasn’t also stuffed with angst-ridden cliches, making it feel like a navel-gazing self-parody these days.
Winona Ryder plays Lelaina, a restless college graduate who declines a job in retail because she wants to sell out on her dream, which is making a smug documentary about her mates. She’s caught in a love triangle with Ben Stiller’s nice-but-bland Corporate Guy and Ethan Hawke’s pretentious layabout who hates everything. It’s all so achingly sincere and self-satisfied.
Ethan Hawke’s friend Lisa Loeb scored a hit with “Stay (I Missed You)” the lead single from the soundtrack which found a permanent home on MTV.
Honourable Mention: Singles
2. Spice World (1997)
The Spice Girls, eh? Love them or hate them, they were an absolute phenomenon in the ‘90s, from their debut single “Wannabe” in 1996 to going their separate ways in 2000. If Oasis, Blur and Pulp were the faces of Britpop, the Spice Girls were the queens of Cool Britannia, summed up by Geri Halliwell’s iconic Union Jack dress.
Spice World: The Movie could have only happened at the height of their fame and popularity, A Hard Day’s Night for a new generation of teenyboppers. The resulting film is an atrocity, and if you haven’t seen it already, trust me: the trailer gives you everything you need to know. It’s a bubbly extended promo video for the girls packed with excruciating non-acting from Sporty, Ginger, Posh, Scary, and Baby, a Union Jack double-decker bus, cringeworthy puns, plenty of forced girl power, and a crazy amount of cameos including Elton John, Richard E. Grant, Roger Moore, and Meat Loaf.
Honourable mention: Face
1. Hackers (1995)
Released when most regular people weren’t even sure what the Internet was, Iain Softley’s cyber-thriller was so eager to get ahead of its time that it ended up stuck outside of time. As a result, the film looks more like footage from a parallel universe, let alone another decade.
Hackers is a thing of beauty, an utterly addictive mashup of nerd culture, cyberpunk fashions, dayglo set design, rollerblading, arcane technobabble, and gnarly hacker handles like Zero Cool and Acid Burn. It stars pre-Trainspotting Jonny Lee Miller as a hacker prodigy, pre-fame Angelia as his ludicrously cool love interest, and pre-Scream Matthew Lillard just walks away with the movie as lanky space cadet Cereal Killer. Let’s also celebrate the gang’s outrageous bar-slash-skatepark hangout, trippy cyberspace sequences, and Fisher Stevens as a sneering, skateboard-riding arch-baddie.
Honourable Mention: The Net
So there you have it, my 30 films that define the ‘90s. What did I miss? What would be your picks? Let us know!