Strange, how for such a varied decade, referring to the 1990s immediately calls up memories of Seattle rock, coffee houses, heroin chic and flannel. The tropes that defined grunge culture actually only defined the times for a few years. Indeed, the mid-90s focused more on environmentalism and social justice, while the last few years of the era squealed with the sound of modems, Celine Dion and South Park. In terms of the movies, the decade featured outstanding fare, with Spielberg taking on dinosaurs and the holocaust, Zemeckis coming of age, Lucas coming out of retirement, and heavy hitters like Proyas, Smith, Lee, Mendes and Soderbergh all emerging from the shadows.
But what films most evoke the 1990s? Interestingly enough, patterns emerge in the work of the period. The perception of women continues to evolve and de-evolve, as if the world understands that women are smart and capable, but also sexy and dangerous. Sex itself becomes a danger on the heels of the AIDS crisis. The LGBT community organizes to demand civil rights. Ordinary people give a thought to the environment. Social justice becomes a priority. Angst becomes chic, and cynicism becomes wit.
The movies here all feature these hallmarks in one form or another. Some are classics, while others are relics. Either way, they are 15 Movies That Are Way Too ’90s!
15. Alien 3
Few sequels attract the kind of scrutiny and controversy as Alien 3. The first feature from music video director David Fincher, the film had a development period legendary even within Development Hell, and a production schedule that pitted neophyte Fincher against the bosses at Fox Studios. Though loathed upon release, in recent years, the so-called “Assembly Cut” — which allegedly more closely resembles Fincher’s vision — had attracted a reappraisal from fans of the series. Unfortunately, in any form, Alien 3 reeks of ’90s angst.
Contemporary critics drew parallels between the bald, all-male prisoners of Alien 3 and AIDS patients, considering the death-meets-all themes a reflection of the AIDS crisis. That may or may not be true, though other ’90s tropes like nihilism, the false comfort of religion, intravenous drug use, corporate corruption and general depressive atmosphere still populate the film. Ripley’s plight of seeing all her friends die and facing her own terminal illness (carrying an alien fetus) fits with the “death is the only release” themes found in the music of Nirvana or Soundgarden. For better or worse, Alien 3 channels the neurosis of the time, making it a distinctive, if depressing, entry in the saga.
14. Reality Bites
Winona Ryder might just be the actress of the 1990s, with her waifish figure, pixie hair and frequent portrayal of alienated characters. Reality Bites found her in top form, albeit in a very ’90s story.
Reality Bites follows a group of mid-20 somethings as they confront their dashed hopes for the future after college. Ryder’s character, Lelaina wants to work in film, but struggles in a menial assistant job. Guitarist and coffee barista Troy (played by Ethan Hawke) can’t hold down a job of his own. Their friend Vickie (Janeane Garafalo, another 90s relic) can’t find love, while their friend Sammy is gay and remains in the closet.
Today, the plot of Reality Bites could easily illicit more laughs than sighs of empathy. The self-absorbed, entitled characters play like parodies of young people rather than the real thing, and the subplots about AIDS and closeted homosexuality don’t have quite the same resonance in an era of Truvada and marriage equality. As directed by Ben Stiller (yes, that Ben Stiller), Reality Bites struck a real chord as a thoughtful drama in 1994. Today, it feels like a time capsule.
13. With Honors
Another attempt at heartwarming, socially conscious drama, With Honors featured a cast of pretty up and comers led by the ever-amusing Joe Pesci. The latter plays a homeless man named Simon living on the Harvard campus that befriends a group of young students and teaches them wisdom of life and love. Brendan Fraser, a perm-sporting Patrick Dempsey and ’90s waif Moira Kelly play a group of Harvard co-ed roommates (women and men living together as friends…gasp!) who lament their divorced parents, distant fathers and social injustice after taking Simon in as a roommate. A plot twist reveals that Simon is actually a veteran of the Vietnam War, and suffers from a lung condition brought on by exposure to asbestos during the war. Simon, of course, dies, in a third act tear jerker.
With Honors didn’t even win good reviews on release in 1994, despite winning performances from the cast and a soundtrack that featured the popular Madonna song “I’ll Remember.” Viewed in a modern context, the heavy-handed “homeless people are cool” subplot plays like a joke, especially because the film doesn’t bother to address a leading cause of homelessness among veterans: mental illness. The co-ed setup only pays off as a love subplot, and the friends accept Simon’s death without any rage over his exposure to toxic chemicals. The soundtrack might have featured “I’ll Remember,” but the movie is best forgotten!
12. The Lawnmower Man
The Lawnmower Man caused something of a stir upon its release in 1992. Featuring a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan, the movie introduced the notion of virtual reality to a pop audience. In a story attributed to Stephen King, a scientist (played by Brosnan) finds a way to use virtual reality to improve intelligence, and uses his methods on his mentally-delayed gardener, Jobe. Jobe develops almost godlike powers but grows mentally unstable, and eventually threatens the entire world, infecting computer technology with his presence.
Notice that the word “internet” appears nowhere in that description. That’s because the public didn’t even know the term in 1992, let alone have modems in their homes. Nevertheless, some computer graphics and the pulpy take on the premise made The Lawnmower Man into a cult hit. Stephen King’s name above the title might have helped too, though apart from the title, King had little to do with the story. He actually sued studio New Line to have his name taken off the film, and won. Though once edgy, The Lawnmower Man plays laughably goofy today, a cringe-inducing reminder of 1990s “hacksploitation.”
And speaking of hacksploitation, Hackers became a cult hit (noticing a pattern here?) in 1995, in part because it introduced the concept of computer hacking to a pop audience. The film also benefitted from a young, talented cast that included Matthew Lillard (in one of his best roles), Johnny Lee Miller, and of course, Angelina Jolie.
The plot follows a group of rebellious teenagers who use computers to prank local businesses like a TV station and security firm. Unfortunately, lead hacker Dade (Miller) stumbles onto a real-life act of cyberterrorism and gets blamed for an embezzlement scheme. Dade and his young hacker friends have to band together to clear his name and catch the real hacker.
With a fantastic, if very ’90s soundtrack, stylish visuals and lots of computer technobabble, Hackers earned some positive reviews and helped to popularize the fledgling subculture that would later make The Matrix into a religious-level hit. The movie plays hopelessly dated today, which characters drooling over a 14.4k modem and fantasizing about (gasp again) crossdressing during sex. Jolie and Lillard’s charisma does shine through, however, and Miller never looked more handsome. Perhaps for those reasons, Hackers maintains a following today—albeit as a nostalgia piece.
10. Space Jam
Michael Jordan had a slam dunk decade in the 1990s, ascending to his place as the greatest basketball player in history, as well as one of the top-earning celebrity spokesmen in the business. Not only did the man have his own line of shoes, he had his own restaurant, Saturday morning cartoon (ProStars, with Bo Jackson and Wayne Gretsky), and even a feature film.
Space Jam capitalized on Jordan’s best player ever status, teaming him with the comic talents of Bill Murray, Danny DeVito and the Loony Tunes gang. The movie imagined a world where Jordan and the Loony Tunes have to form a basketball team to save the world from a tyrannical amusement park owner.
Though the premise seems goofy—and it is—Space Jam became a surprise hit in 1996, even winning over respected critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Today, the film plays like a vision of yesteryear, combining topical humor and stars of the day into a harmless comedy. For that reason it doesn’t play as well today, its edge having long warn off since Jordan’s retirement.
9. Chasing Amy
Kevin Smith became one of the filmmakers of the 1990s thanks to his indie film smash Clerks. Smith then followed up with the studio sequel Mallrats before returning to art house studio Miramax for a third entry in his View Askew series, Chasing Amy.
Chasing Amy found Smith moving into decidedly more dramatic and mature territory, albeit with his usual stock company of actors and penchant for raunchy comedy. The story follows comic book artist Holden, played by Ben Affleck, and his love affair with a bisexual woman named Amy, played by Joey Lauren Adams. Amy’s sexual history becomes an object of obsession for Holden, while his best friend Banky (Jason Lee) becomes more and more hostile over Holden’s relationship with Amy.
Chasing Amy confronted the standard Generation X angst found in most of the movies listed here. It also examined the reality of bisexuality, and how changing attitudes about sex and gender affected romance. To date, the film remains one of Smith’s most mature and thoughtful efforts, and the performances of Affleck and Adams help elevate the material to resonant drama. Chasing Amy might reflect a ’90s sensibility, but it still has power today as a relevant romantic comedy-drama.
The ’90s gave birth to the phenomenon of blockbuster movies relying more and more heavily on computer graphics for thrills, and explosions rather than a plot. One of the most guilty efforts: Godzilla, director Roland Emmerich’s big-budget remake of the popular Japanese character. Emmerich used the same groundbreaking CGI techniques that brought the dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park, as well as acclaimed human actors like Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno and Hank Azaria to add credibility to the movie.
Godzilla, of course, became one of the most loathed remakes in history. Longtime fans of the franchise railed against the changes in origin for the character, while critics attacked the leaden script and dumb humor of the movie. Even director Emmerich acknowledges the film as a failure today, claiming that studio TriStar rushed the film through production, denying him the time to refine the script and narrative in editing. The film turned a modest profit, though it has since become an example of bloated ’90s filmmaking, and indeed, a film that emphasized marketing over substance.
7. Basic Instinct
Make no mistake, 1992’s Basic Instinct is not a great thriller. For that matter, it’s not even really a good movie, substituting trashy violence and preposterous plotting for clever storytelling. Despite these factors—or maybe because of them—the film embodies much of the ’90s milieu. Writer Joe Eszterhas nabbed a record-breaking $3 million for his script to Basic Instinct, which made him the highest paid writer in Hollywood. Eszterhas would retain the title through much of the ’90s, until a little film called Showgirls sullied his brand.
But back to Basic Instinct. The movie became a huge box office success in 1992 and helped usher in the era of the erotic thriller that would permeate most of the decade, making a megastar out of Sharon Stone in the process. Stone gives a hell of a performance in the movie as Catherine Tramell, a bisexual, vampy writer who may or may not be a murderer. Roger Ebert observed that every “clue” in unraveling the mystery of Basic Instinct is arbitrary—no evidence rules if Tramell is the killer but the final shot of the film, which could easily be changed. In that regard, Basic Instinct isn’t a true thriller-mystery because the entire plot is arbitrary!
As a ’90s artifact, however, the film fascinates. The sick fascination with gays and lesbians, as well as the deadliness of sex—characters get murdered during the act—point to the decade of AIDS and the increased visibility of the LGBT community. It plays dated today for a litany of reasons, though in its day, Basic Instinct spawned countless imitators.
Cameron Crowe had a great decade in the 1990s, and Singles became his first, if modest, hit of the decade. Like Reality Bites, Singles focused on the plight of Generation X set against the backdrop of the burgeoning Seattle grunge rock scene. Bridget Fonda plays the owner of a coffee shop who falls for a rising star in the grunge scene, and the two have to decide if they’re actually in love and want to commit to one another. How’s that for a plot?
Singles featured a number of rising grunge musicians and won praise for its realistic take on 20-something relationships. Like any Cameron Crowe movie, it also featured a great soundtrack with tracks from then-unknown bands Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins. Singles features plenty of the trends that help identify the ’90s as a time period today, and though it doesn’t have the following of some of Crowe’s other work like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Jerry Maguire. It does, nonetheless, have Crowe’s usual charm and a whole lot of ’90s nostalgia.
5. The Craft
Goth culture and witchcraft became mainstream in 1996 when the sleeper hit The Craft burst onto the scene. The movie helped popularize the religion of Wicca, not to mention black lipstick and the sultry beauty of Fairuza Balk. Featuring ’90s heartthrobs Skeet Ulrich and Neve Campbell, the movie became one of the most unexpected hits of the decade and helped inspire much of the late-90s horror-fantasy genre, including movies like Practical Magic and TV shows like Charmed.
The Craft also manages to retain a great sense of fun, even viewed outside the context of the decade. It helps that writer-director Andrew Fleming has a great sense of teenage dialogue, and that the special effects in the movie still hold strong. Yet the biggest treasure of the film is Balk, with her sapphire eyes and wicked smile, who gives a brilliant performance as a Goth girl gone nuts. Her female co-stars—Campbell, Robin Tunney, Rachel True—have a natural chemistry together, and their relaxed, unaffected performances help elevate the movie beyond a generic teen flick. The Craft might evoke some ’90s flashbacks, but it is still great fun today.
4. Empire Records
Empire Records plays like a who’s-who of up and coming ’90s talent. With performances by Ethan Embry, Liv Tyler, Robin Tunney and Renee Zellweger, the movie opened to disastrous reviews and died a quick death at the box office. Still, it later developed a cult following thanks to the talent pool of actors, and to a great soundtrack album that featured some great ’90s artists.
The plot, however, played dated to the point of silliness in 1995. Today, it seems like a fossil. A group of kids have to rally together to save their favorite record store from getting sold to a major chain. Of course, they succeed, and have a dance party on the roof to celebrate.
Yes, it’s that pedantic. Empire Records is a kind of ’90s teen fantasy, albeit a well acted one. What dates the movie so badly today is the focus on a record store—something the teens of today never even experienced within their lifetimes. The anti-corporate sentiment also doesn’t have quite the weight it did in the ’90s, though the current political climate suggests that may be changing. Perhaps Empire Records will soon become an inspiring classic…assuming anyone can even get past the part about the record store without laughing.
Michael Crichton became a household name in the 1990s owing to the massive success of Jurassic Park, based on one of his novels. Hollywood rushed to pillage his body of work soon thereafter, generating movies of varying quality. Sphere, Congo, and The 13th Warrior all failed to find an audience, and are remembered as silly dreck today, if anyone remembers them at all. Rising Sun attempted to dispense with science fiction in favor or business intrigue, but was met with yawns from critics. The film Disclosure tried to combine the sci-fi and corporate intrigue into a sexy thriller, with only modest success.
Disclosure played on the same kind of voyeurism that made Basic Instinct a hit, and one of the great anxieties of the decade: sexual harassment. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings had generated a firestorm of discussion over the role of sex in male-female working relationships. Crichton uses it in a vulgar way, casting Demi Moore as a sexually-charged woman who tries to use her workplace power to seduce Michael Douglas (who also starred in Basic Instinct…go figure). A climax involving Douglas stealing files using a virtual reality simulation will, no doubt, get laughs today, even while viewers would cringe at the sexism of it all. Disclosure reminds audiences of the hetero male hostility toward women in the ’90s, and for that reason alone, deserves to be forgotten today.
2. Jungle Fever
Much like Kevin Smith and Cameron Crowe, Spike Lee became one of the defining filmmakers of the 1990s. Lee, of course, has since become known for his outspoken opinions as much as for his work, as well as for his uneven output in his career’s more recent years. Credit Lee with always making film-as-art, even if deplorable movies like She Hate Me or leaden statements like Bamboozled show just how hard art can fail.
Lee raised eyebrows in 1991 with his drama Jungle Fever about an interracial couple. As brought to life with two great performances by Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra, lovers Flipper and Angie meet at work and have an affair. Their budding romance invites acrimony and violence from others, putting a strain on their love.
Jungle Fever makes the mistake of treating its leading couple with the same kind of hostility they encounter within the story. Lee seems to regard black men dating white women as treacherous on some level, and white women dating men of color as fetishistic. Far more effective is a subplot in the film about Flipper’s crackhead brother Gator, played with panache by Samuel L. Jackson, and how his drug use decays their family. As always, Lee captures the look and feel of New York City, as well as a sense of the 1990s. As well as Jungle Fever evokes the ’90s, however, the film also frustrates with its mixed messages, reminding audiences of why Lee is such a controversial filmmaker, and why he is a great one too.
It might seem impossible today, but once upon a time, the public regarded Adam Sandler as a hilarious man-child, a master of comedy with good looks to boot. Apart from his very funny work on Saturday Night Live, Sandler made his first real foray into film with a role in the comedy, Airheads, opposite rising star Brendan Fraser. The movie fell into the slacker-comedy genre, concerning a band trying to get signed by a record label. The group decides to hold a radio station hostage, and a comedy of errors ensues.
Airheads predicted the contemporary films of Seth Rogan and James Franco—stoner comedies with ridiculous premises and broad characterizations. Of course, in 1994, studio comedies couldn’t actually depict much in the way of actual drug use without getting slapped with an R-Rating, so Airheads just relies on dumb humor. The film features a cast of familiar ’90s faces, including Steve Buscemi, Michael Richards, Chris Farley and Joe Mantenga, though fails to provide them with much in the way of anything to do. Today, Airheads plays like a remnant of a bygone era: cute in places, lame in others, and kind of forgettable.
Did we leave out your favorite ’90s evocative piece? Thoughts on one we chose? Tell us in the comments!