From both a pop culture and a historical perspective, 1997 was a pretty significant year. Princess Diana and Mother Theresa died, Microsoft became the world’s most valuable company, Mike Tyson took a big bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit bookshelves for the first time in the U.K. Hollywood had its share of groundbreaking moments, too, and offered up some of its best and worst films of the decade.
While it pains us to admit this much time has passed, that means that some of the most memorable movies of the 1990s are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. They made us laugh, scream, cry, and sometimes wish for a refund. Whether you were in high school, grade school, or still just a twinkle in your parents’ eye, chances are you’ve at least seen some of these movies. Get ready to feel super old as we take a look at 15 Movies You Won’t Believe Are Already 20 Years Old.
15. The Fifth Element
An ancient alien race visits Earth with the promise of stopping a great evi, leaving behind four stones that hold the key to our survival (or our destruction). Centuries later, in the year 2263, a cab driver, a humanoid, an extra-terrestrial opera singer, and a whole host of other strange characters’ fates collide as the very fate of the entire planet hangs in the balance.
The Fifth Element isn’t the weirdest sci-fi movie ever made, not by a long shot — but it’s not exactly your average summer blockbuster either. Luc Besson’s colorful, action-packed, and highly inventive adventure hit theaters on May 7, 1997, and thrilled audiences around the country. They came to see Bruce Willis in a crazy, futuristic space thriller, and they weren’t disappointed. The Fifth Element helped make Milla Jovovich into a star, and featured Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman in polarizing over-the-top performances.
While it was only a moderate success in the United States, it was an enormous hit overseas, and eventually grossed over $263 million. Film critics couldn’t decide if they loved it or hated it, but over the years, it’s proven to be a film that was in many ways ahead of its time.
Somewhere down this road — the one that leads back two decades — is a gem of an animated film that managed to buck tradition in more ways than one. Anastasia tells the story of the Grand Duchess of Russia; that is, if she hadn’t been executed by her family.
The film had to fight an uphill battle to find success. First and foremost, it was an animated movie that wasn’t from Disney, and its subject matter (mass murder and its subsequent fallout) wasn’t exactly in line with other popular princess-type hits of the time. Fox Animation Studios and 20th Century Fox knew they had a good story on their hands, though, and Anastasia prevailed to become a bonafide hit. Released on November 21, 1997, it grossed more than $139 million, plus it spawned sequels and a successful 2016 stage adaptation. What’s more, Anastasia was responsible for one of the ear-wormiest movie themes this side of Celine Dion, thanks to its signature song, “Journey to the Past.”
The 1990s were a banner decade for Disney, thanks to the runaway success of movies like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Hercules strayed a bit from the studio’s tried-and-true formula of telling epic but easily accessible stories of adventure and survival — and that’s a large part of what made it awesome, and sorely underappreciated.
The animated retelling of a classic Greek myth was, in many ways, Disney’s most original endeavors of the decade, thanks to its more mythic subject matter and a delightfully wicked take on the Greek god of the underworld, Hades. It also, unfortunately, lacked a wide appeal to older kids and adults, as it turns out. Released on June 27, 1997, Hercules was far from a runaway hit. It ultimately grossed over $250 million globally, but never really found a strong footing in the United States. Though Hercules wasn’t as wildly popular as some of its predecessors, it was still a hell of a fun ride.
12. Con Air
Con Air is in many ways about as blockbuster-y a film as you can get; it’s chock full of explosions and action sequences, simple but memorable characters, and a plot so thin you can see right through it. Given its genre and its purpose, that’s not exactly a bad thing.
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Con Air stars Nicolas Cage as a wrongfully convicted criminal, John Malkovich as a gleefully evil villain, and features a pretty stellar ensemble — Steve Buscemi, Dave Chapelle and Danny Trejo, to name a few — for being such an unapologetic popcorn flick. While it failed to impress critics, it did exactly what it was created to do, and that’s thrill the crap out of audiences. Con Air was released on June 6, went on to become one of the biggest hits of 1997, and now serves as a time capsule for an era in which Nicolas Cage was actually a viable action star.
Sometimes, movies are just way ahead of their time. That was definitely the case with Gattaca, the sci-fi drama starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law. Andrew Niccol’s debut film is a cautionary tale about the dangers of reproductive technology and eugenics, and features a daringly futuristic design and an introspective rumination on fate, society and the future of the human race. Gattaca opened on October 24, 1997 to positive reviews, but failed to gain any traction at the box office — probably because of its seemingly dense subject matter.
Like other overlooked films before it, it’s come to be seen as a sci-fi classic, though. In recent years, Gattaca has enjoyed some retroactive popularity and has become more or less a cult hit thanks to its prescient take on the way that genetic engineering would begin to become a part of our reality. Hey, better late than never.
10. Batman & Robin
Fans of Bruce Wayne can consider themselves lucky these days. Since the dawn of the 21st century, we’ve had Christopher Nolan’s epic three-part Dark Knight trilogy, and — for better or worse — last year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Back in 1997, we weren’t so lucky, because we had to suffer through Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. While it’s not the worst movie ever made, it’s a dark chapter in the Caped Crusader’s long cinematic legacy, and not in a good way.
George Clooney’s take on Wayne was ill-conceived at best and a definite career low, Alicia Silverstone’s one-note Batgirl was embarrassingly bland, and as far as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is concerned…well, if you don’t have anything nice to say, it’s better to say nothing at all. Despite its shortcomings, Batman & Robin was a moderate success when it hit theaters on June 20, 1997, but thankfully, not a big enough hit to greenlight Schumacher’s planned follow-up.
9. L.A. Confidential
In a year mostly remembered for its bigger budget fare, L.A. Confidential was a different kind of movie. That fact doesn’t make it any less memorable, though. Curtis Hanson’s neo-noir drama about the darker side of classic Hollywood is pretty much perfect in every way. From its taut, thrilling story to its complex characters, it’s the kind of movie that immerses you in its narrative from the very first frame and stays with you long after the credits roll. Its elite ensemble, which featured a pre-Memento Guy Pierce, pre-Gladiator Russell Crowe, and pre-American Beauty Kevin Spacey, perfectly embodied the 1950s era it brought to life.
Often, a movie feels like a product of the time in which it was made, and that can certainly be said for many of the movies released in the late ’90s. L.A. Confidential, released on September 19, 1997, has the opposite effect — it feels timeless, and despite its period setting, it only gets better with age.
8. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Austin Powers is undoubtedly one of the funnier film franchises to come out of the 1990s. Its first installment, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, manages to be both over-the-top with its sexual antics and physical humor, but sometimes surprisingly clever in its parody of James Bond films and 1960s culture. The movie, which came out on May 2, became a sleeper hit thanks to word-of-mouth buzz and its unforgettable one-liners and recurring jokes.
Mike Myers pulled off a hefty feat in portraying the titular hero and his arch-nemesis, Dr. Evil, the latter of whom still crops up in pop culture and memes from time to time. The rest of the cast is just as good, if not better, including Seth Green as Dr. Evil’s angsty son Scott, Will Ferrell as his ill-fated henchman Mustafa, and the perpetually underrated Mindy Sterling as Frau Farbissina. Was Austin Powers the greatest piece of cinema to hit theaters in 1997? Not even close. Do we still quote it on the regular? Yeah, baby, yeah.
7. Starship Troopers
It’s sci-fi, it’s satire, it’s a treatise on propaganda, facism and the military-industrial complex. Of course, most of that was lost in transmission, and as a result, Starship Troopers is one of the strangest and perhaps most misunderstood movies to come out of the late 1990s. Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel was loose at best, and in the end, his attempts to make a biting film about the ridiculousness of war fell a bit flat.
When it hit theaters on November 7, it was met with tepid-to-scathing reviews. Because of its attempted criticism of the very type of story it was trying to tell, it proved to be a hard movie to watch. Ultimately, it became more of a punchline than the cutting-edge sci-fi satire that Verhoeven envisioned. Despite all this, Starship Troopers has become a cult favorite over the years. Its visual effects are admirable, and if you don’t take it too seriously, it’s mighty entertaining.
6. Boogie Nights
How do you make a movie about the porn industry without making, you know, porn? Just ask Paul Thomas Anderson. His acclaimed drama, Boogie Nights, still serves as a masterclass in storytelling. It shows us the adult film industry’s free-wheeling 1970s culture in all its glory (and its horrors): the sex, the fame, the drugs, and the family of broken people that tried to find validation in a world that didn’t understand them.
Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of the starry-eyed Dirk Diggler sold him as a viable movie star and remains one of his best performances to date. The rest of Boogie Nights‘ ensemble is equally spectacular, from Julianne Moore’s weary Amber Waves to the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s heartbroken Scotty J.
These days, it’s not all that uncommon for an indie film to hit it big, but when Boogie Nights was released on September 11, 1997, it was less of a sure thing. It made more than $43 million, earned Oscar nominations, and established PTA as one of the most promising filmmakers of his generation. Not bad for a movie about a dude with a big, well, you know.
5. I Know What You Did Last Summer
The late 1990s saw a resurgence in the teen slasher genre that’s perfectly encapsulated in I Know What You Did Last Summer. It tells the spooky story of four high school grads who accidentally hit a dude with their car and try to cover it up (spoiler alert: that doesn’t go well). A year later, they get letters from someone who claims to know what they did (last summer). Then, a creepy man wearing a hook starts killing them off one-by-one.
IKWYDLS hit theaters on October 17, 1997, and while it was panned by critics, it was still a surprise success. It hasn’t enjoyed the same pop culture reverence that, say, Scream has, but it’s not without its merits. For one, it’s definitely a thrill-ride, even if it’s not exactly revolutionary in its storytelling. For another, with Party of Five‘s Jennifer Love Hewitt, Buffy‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar, Cruel Intentions’ Ryan Philippe and She’s All That‘s Freddie Prinze Jr., it feels like a live-action recreation of a Teen magazine cover. In other words, it’s great for nostalgia’s sake at the very least — and a couple of scares.
4. Air Force One
Hollywood gave us a lot of gifts in 1997, including, but not limited to, POTUS Harrison Ford kicking ass on a hijacked plane. Air Force One was one of the biggest hits of the year, and with good reason. Wolfgang Petersen’s actioner is easily one of the most exciting movies of the decade, one that still holds up 20 years later. Gary Oldman is wonderfully evil as Russian terrorist Ivan Korshunuv, and in the realm of fictional movie presidents, Harrison Ford’s James Marshall is still one of the best.
Moviegoers came out in droves to see him take on the bad guys and utter his now famous line, “Get off my plane!” These days, the threat of Russians going toe-to-toe with an American president may seem eerily prophetic, but back when Air Force One was released on July 25, 1997, it was just a really exciting story. Is it too late to request a sequel?
3. Men in Black
Will Smith’s Hollywood career was solidified in the 1990s thanks to two alien-themed films: the gloriously patriotic Independence Day, and the thoroughly fun Men in Black. As Agent J, who’s pulled into a shadow government agency tasked with eradicating evil extraterrestrials from Earth, he played perfectly against Tommy Lee Jones’ stone-faced Agent K. With its tongue-in-cheek approach to its subject matter and impressive special effects, Barry Sonnenfeld’s action-packed comedy was one of the most crowd-pleasing films of the summer. It easily fended off competition over the Fourth of July weekend on its way to grossing over $250 million in the U.S. and nearly $
Two things set Men in Black apart from other big budget movies that year: Ed Solomon’s witty, uproarious script and the surprisingly awesome chemistry between Smith and Jones. Men in Black didn’t just give us a good reason to hit theaters in 1997, it gave us a lesson in style, too — Ray-Ban’s sales skyrocketed following the movie’s release.
2. Good Will Hunting
In some ways, it feels like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have been around forever — heck, two decades is pretty impressive streak for any career, particularly one in Hollywood. Still, as difficult as it is to fathom now, Bourne and Batfleck weren’t always A-listers. They got their big break with 1997’s Good Will Hunting, a film they both starred in and co-wrote. The drama tells the story of a Harvard janitor (and secret math whiz) and his troubled relationships with his lover, friends, mentor, court-ordered psychiatrist, and the city of Boston at large.
What elevated Good Will Hunting from other dramas of the time wasn’t just its fresh, energetic script; it was the top-notch performances from the film’s entire ensemble. From Robin Williams’ inspired, Oscar-winning portrayal of the beleaguered Dr. Sean Maguire to Minnie Driver’s brilliant and vivacious med student, Skylar, every scene of the film feels alive, lived in, and incredibly vulnerable.
Good Will Hunting was a success in every sense of the word: critically, financially, and in terms of accolades. Both Damon and Affleck have gone on to achieve great things in their careers, but there’s something extra special about this love letter to their hometown.
What can you say about Titanic that hasn’t already been said? It’s an iconic slice of pop culture, one of those rare movie moments that nearly anyone who experienced it can remember vividly. Whether you loved it and wallpapered your room with DiCaprio and Winslet posters, or thought it was awful, cheesy, and three hours too long, you were there when it happened.
It seems silly now, given its global domination at the box office, but Titanic was considered a huge gamble before it was released on December 19, 1997. It was a romantic story set amidst a catastrophe that had little relevance to modern moviegoers. It starred two relatively unknown actors. It was mostly set on a big boat. Obviously, the stars were aligned, though, because it was not only a colossal success, but remains one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Given its upcoming anniversary, and the fact that new generations will continue to discover it for decades to come, it’s safe to say that Titanic‘s legacy will go on, and on, and on.
Are there any other movie anniversaries we should be celebrating this year? Let us know in the comments!