The 1990s was a great decade to grow up in. Game consoles were getting big, some of the best music of the past 40 years was being made, and at multiplexes far and wide, cinemagoers were being treated to a raft of great teen movies covering masked killers, sex pacts, and school elections.
It was the decade that introduced the world to Reese Witherspoon, Freddie Prince Jr., Ryan Phillippe, Jason Biggs, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Alicia Silverstone to name but a few.
Building on the success of the slightly less polished teen hits of the ’80s like Porky’s and Fast Times At Ridgemont High, the ’90s ushered in an era of slick, cool, teen-led movies of all shapes and sizes, and while much has changed in the time since, it still represents something of a golden era for this sub-genre of sorts.
But which of these movies sits at the top as the very best among its peers? Here are the 16 best ’90s teen movies, ranked.
16. But I’m A Cheerleader
This clever, satirical tale was inspired by the real-life story of a young man sent to a “reparative therapy” camp by his parents, who feared he was gay. Director Jamie Babbit opted to switch things up for But I’m A Cheerleader, though, with Orange Is The New Black’s Natasha Lyonne starring as Megan, a cheerleader who suspects she may be a lesbian, and is swiftly sent to True Directions by her narrow-minded parents to undertake a five-step program designed to convert her to heterosexuality.
It’s there that she meets and falls in love with Clea DuVall’s Graham, a fellow resident also wrestling with her sexuality. With a cast that includes Michelle Williams and none other than RuPaul, But I’m A Cheerleader is funny, clever, and kind of ahead of its time, with Lyonne putting in a performance that set her out as one to watch.
With a title that, according to director Darren Stein, reflected the duality of high school girls in that they were sweet but capable of breaking your jaw, the film focused on the trio of Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, and Julie Benz, three members of a high school clique who accidentally kill the prom queen during a kidnapping gone wrong.
Universally slammed by critics upon release, Jawbreaker is a flawed but fun picture that has improved somewhat in the years since, with McGowan excellent as the film’s emerging villain helped by a script that, while lacking logic in places, remains clever enough.
14. Can’t Hardly Wait
This multi-character teen comedy reads like a who’s who of forgotten child stars and familiar character actors, and it’s a pretty enjoyable effort that, at one hour and 40 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Focusing in on a graduation night party, Can’t Hardly Wait presents us with any number of familiar high school character types, from Peter Facinelli’s deluded jock Mike to Seth Green’s inspired wannabe rapper Kenny and their various lives and loves on this one night of the year.
Central to the many misadventures on display is Ethan Embry’s Preston, who decides to declare his undying love for high school queen Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) by sending her letter before heading off to college. Throw in the presence of former Dick Tracy child star Charlie Korsmo as the class nerd venturing out of his comfort zone for one night only and you have all the ingredients for ’90s teen dramedy gold.
13. The Craft
This popular horror drama has garnered a cult following since its release way back in 1996, and rightly so – The Craft is a well observed take of the trials and tribulations of high school, albeit one told from the perspective of a would-be witch and her cunning coven.
Robin Tunney plays the film’s heroine of sorts, Sarah, a newcomer at a Catholic prep high school who soon falls in with a gang of outcasts that set about discovering the dark arts of witchcraft together.
At first, it plays out like every high school outcast’s fantasy; bullies suffer premature balding, sleazy boys get their comeuppance, and step dads are duly dealt with. But soon the power goes to their head, with Fairuza Balk’s edgy Nancy taking things down a dark and murderous path. As scary as it is, The Craft’s real skill lies in the fact that it is as much a powerful teen drama as it is an out and out horror.
12. Varsity Blues
James Van Der Beek proved that there was more to life than Dawson’s Creek with this credibility-stretching drama that centers on the lives and loves of a Texas high school football team. It’s all set around Van der Beek’s Mox, who finds himself thrust into the spotlight after the team’s star quarterback, Paul Walker’s Lance, is seriously injured. Suddenly, it’s up to the second-string reject to help the team win another district championship, and the pressure is on.
Seemingly inspired by the same true-life story as the superior Friday Night Lights (both the film and the TV series) Varsity Blues makes the cut by virtue of the fact that it was made in 1999, while the latter two came in the 2000s.
That’s not to say it’s without its own charms: Walker, Scott Caan, and Amy Smart all deliver in early roles while head cheerleader Ali Larter’s whipped-cream bikini seduction attempt on Mox is the stuff of teen movie legend. Ron Lester’s overweight offensive guard Billy Bob is also an endearing addition to the action, though Jon Voight’s two-dimensional coach Bub Kilmer compares poorly to his Friday Night Lights counterparts. Enjoyable filmic candyfloss.
11. Encino Man
Remember when Brendan Fraser was a dreamboat? Anyone who has ever watched Encino Man, or his similarly memorable early turn in the Dead Poets Society-esque drama School Ties, certainly does. Encino Man gets the nod here thanks to its inspired, if slightly silly premise: two high school losers discover a frozen caveman in their backyard and thaw him out, introducing their new friend to the highs and lows of modern teenage life in the process.
Fraser plays the aforementioned caveman, Link, and does a damn fine job of being both primitive while also charming and affable, amazed at the world around him and fiercely loyal to his two modern day charges, Sean Astin’s central protagonist Dave alongside Pauly Shore’s comedic sideshow, Stoney.
Something of a throwback to a different time – when Shore’s comedy and Fraser’s looks were greatly appreciated – Encino Man is a charming, light comedy that’s an endearing and highly recommended slice of ’90s fun.
10. The Faculty
Fusing B-movie alien scares with all the familiar tropes of a standard high school drama, Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty brings together some of the decade’s best young stars for a sci-fi led horror homage that stands up to repeat viewing.
When a group of students discover the school’s staff may, in fact, be aliens intent on taking over the world, it’s up to a group of misfits that essentially amount to every familiar high school character type to save the day. There’s the nerd (Elijah Wood), the popular girl (Jordana Brewster), the stoner (Josh Hartnett), the loner (Clea Duvall), and the jock (Shawn Hatosy) along with new girl Laura Harris to save the day. Usher also pops up for no apparent reason (he’s similarly sidelined in She’s All That).
Paying tribute to everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Thing, The Faculty is also seemingly ripe for a sequel/remake, though it might be nice if they just leave this one alone for a change.
9. She’s All That
She’s All That may be a classic of the teen movie genre, but it’s a movie that hasn’t aged all that well, helped in no small part by a plot that, in hindsight, is both painfully sexist and slightly misogynistic when you put more than a passing thought into it.
The action centers on Freddie Prince Jr’s Zack, the most popular guy at school who gets dumped by his girlfriend Taylor (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) for Matthew Lillard’s crazed MTV Real World star Brock, and decides to make a bet with fellow jock and dangerous creep Dean (Paul Walker) that he can turn an unattractive girl into the prom queen.
Rachel Leigh Cook plays the aforementioned unattractive girl, Laney Boggs, whose unattractiveness extends to a pair of dungarees, a ponytail, and some glasses. But while the action may be borderline offensive and a little cliched, She’s All That is still undeniably fun and somehow, despite all of the above, charming as hell.
Credit must go to Prince Jr. for that, as the standout star of the film and a guy who could take a dump on your doorstep and make it seem endearing. Lillard also deserves props for his hilariously crazed half-cameo, while O’Keefe also does a fine job as Zack’s entitled ex.
8. Never Been Kissed
Never Been Kissed is pure wish fullfillment for its viewers – positing the idea that you could one day go back and relive your difficult high school years, doing things a whole lot better this time around.
That’s the opportunity Drew Barrymore’s reporter, Josie “Grossy” Gellar gets after enrolling in school as part of research for a newspaper article (ah, to be a journalist in the ’90s). Once there, she soon sets about righting the wrongs of her previous high school experience, with limited success. It’s only when her brother, Rob (David Arquette in his funniest role to date) also enrolls that things start to look up.
Even so, Josie finds herself getting increasingly close to teacher Mr. Coulson (Michael Vartan) despite that being a big no-no for all involved. Will Josie come clean in the name of love? You’ll have to watch Never Been Kissed to find out, though don’t bank on any major Sixth Sense style surprises.
7. Dazed and Confused
This ’70s-set high school drama helped introduce the world to the genius of filmmaker Richard Linklater, with a movie that’s not about anything in particular other than the day-to-day dramas of a group of kids growing up way too fast. The seminal coming-of-age comedy also boasts a fantastic ensemble cast of soon-to-be-big name actors, including Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and, of course, Matthew McConaughey. They’re all just small squares in the larger tapestry of Dazed And Confused, which touches on pretty much every social grouping from high school back in the day. Jason London and Willey Wiggins deserve particular praise for their work as Randall “Pink” Floyd and Mitch Kramer respectively.
The perfect companion piece to Linklater’s more recent effort, Everybody Wants Some, Dazed and Confused also boasts a killer soundtrack and one of McConaughey’s most memorable performances to date – however brief it may be.
6. American Pie
On the face of it (and in the wake of the film’s multiple sequels), American Pie might appear as just another gross-out teen comedy, but the truth is that there’s much more to it than that.
Jason Biggs’ Jim leads a group of five horny high school guys who make a pact to lose their virginity before graduation, but soon find adversity and any number of comedic circumstances preventing them from doing that. Granted, a lot of American Pie’s most memorable moments involve crude gags – Jim’s webcam antics and the incident involving a bit of hot pastry immediately spring to mind – but the film does have a largely positive message at its heart for any young guys out there.
Of course, the sequels may have focused a little more on the gross-out antics and moved Sean William Scott’s Stiffler from adversary to friend, but the original just about stands the test of time – even if most of the scenes involving Shannon Elizabeth’s foreign exchange student Nadia need a little explaining. It’s funny, it has a lot of warmth, and it’s certainly worthy of its place high on this list.
5. 10 Things I Hate About You
The first entry on this list to take inspiration from classic literary works (it’s basically William Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew), 10 Things I Hate About You is also a lot like She’s All That — without the offensive parts.
When Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s likable nerd Cameron takes a shine to Larisa Oleynik’s Bianca, he discovers a rather unusual roadblock in his way: her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles). Kat and Bianca’s dad won’t let either one date unless the other does. So, Cameron hatches a plan with best friend Michael (David Krumholtz) to use Andrew Keegan’s rich kid Joey, who thinks he has a shot with Bianca, to fix the situation. Joey, in turn, is manipulated into paying bad boy Patrick (Heath Ledger, in his breakout role) to date Kat, freeing up Bianca to date either Cameron or himself.
But when the rebellious Kat, who has fallen for Patrick, gets wind of the deal, all hell breaks loose. Both witty and surprisingly funny, 10 Things I Hate About You is also one of the more female-centric efforts on this list, with Stiles being a particular standout. It’s great fun all around.
4. Cruel Intentions
Another adaptation of a literary classic – Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses – Cruel Intentions isn’t just one of the decade’s best teen movies, it’s probably the sexiest, too.
When two vicious step-siblings, Kathyrn and Sebastian (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe), from a Manhattan prep school make a bet, the innocent daughter of the school’s headmaster, played by Reese Witherspoon, finds herself at the center of a dangerous game. Sebastian must deflower Witherspoon’s Annette to win a night with Kathryn. Fail to do so and she gets his prized Jaguar XK140. But what starts as just another conquest soon turns into something else. Gellar’s Kathyrn, meanwhile, is focused on destroying Selma Blair’s Cecile, who has stolen her former boyfriend away from her.
The original and best ’90s teen slasher, Scream saw Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson channel his penchant for writing young adults as funny and fiercely intelligent into a classic horror format. Williamson finds a way to turn what was once a tired concept on its head, populating Scream’s fictional town of Woodsboro with VHS-obsessed teens, knowledgeable in the many tropes associated with the horror genre…not that it stops any of them from falling victim to the masked killer that has begun stalking teens in the movie and already has eyes for Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott.
Combined with the filmmaking expertise of horror legend Wes Craven, and you have all the ingredients for a witty morality tale and horror outing that touches on themes of sex and movie violence while cranking up the scares, and fun, in turn.
If Cruel Intentions is the 90s’ sexiest teen movie and Scream is the scariest, Election may just be the most bitingly intelligent, with filmmaker Alexander Payne announcing himself as one to watch with this slick, engaging adaptation of Tom Perotta’s novel of the same name.
Much of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of Reese Witherspoon who, as school try-hard Tracy Flick, treads a fine line between being annoyingly lovable and just plain annoying. Matthew Broderick plays Jim McAllister, a high school teacher who encounters problems at home while attempting to manage the school election to become student body president, a position Flick desires at almost any cost.
McAllister decides to bring Chris Klein’s popular jock Paul Metzler into the mix, much to the chagrin of Flick, with the situation and drama escalating pretty quickly from there. Told from multiple view points and in a sharp and direct style by Payne, it’s slick, at times painful, and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s perhaps the sharpest observation of high school life ever put to film.
Another teen comedy anchored by a female lead, Alicia Silverstone ultimately struggled to shake off the Clueless persona of Cher — her character in Amy Heckerling’s hip update of Jane Austen’s Emma — in the years since, but that’s likely because she’s so damn good in the role.
A rich high school student who has made a habit of attempting to match her friends up with potential suitors, Cher soon discovers her insistence on setting up her classmates may be masking her own loneliness and deep-seeded feelings.
Written and directed by Fast Time At Ridgemont High filmmaker Heckerling, the entire film is told from Cher’s perspective, with Silverstone’s mannered voiceover not only guiding viewers through the film’s events, but also giving proceedings a funny and unique voice that would go on to spawn a number of quotable pop culture references.
It’s not just Silverstone who shines, though; Donald Faison and Stacey Dash both impress, while special mention should go to the late Brittany Murphy as the malleable Ty and Paul Rudd as Josh, Cher’s stepbrother, who appears to have not aged a day since this film was made. Cool, funny, and fresh, Clueless more than holds up to repeat viewings and is a worthy choice for top spot.
Did we miss any 90s teen classics off the list? Have your say in the comment section!
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