Ah, the 90s. The decade of smelling like teen spirit, flannel shirts, and socially acceptable overalls. It was a time of unimaginable slack piled atop never-before-known opportunity. It was also a time of some really fantastic films-and a few less-fantastic movies that still resonate for what they were to us when there was a Clinton running for president and reality TV dominated the airwaves. You know. The last time that happened.
Including movies that make us miss the styles, the zeitgeist, that help us abide or remind us we weren’t even supposed to be here today, these fifteen films make us wish for those heady days of Nirvana, Kurt Loder, raves, and frosted tips. So party on, reader, and slack through the 15 Movies That Make Us Miss The 90s.
15 Wayne's World
“Party on, Wayne!” became a rallying cry of the mid-90s. This Mike Myers/Dana Carvey vehicle-spawned by Saturday Night Live sketches featuring ultimate slackers Wayne and Garth-is a loony comedy which nevertheless produced some lingering comedic gold.
Objectively, Wayne’s World is a terrible film. Like many of the Lorne Michaels-produced, SNL-inspired films of its day (Superstar, The Ladies Man), Wayne’s World is overlong, hokey, and really not very funny in parts. Where it is funny, however, it is screamingly so. Nearly twenty-five years since its release, an entire generation of Americans can neither pick up a guitar to play “Stairway to Heaven” without looking for a “No Stairway” sign nor hear Queen’s operatic glam-rock classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” without banging our heads and waxing nostalgic about this silly little movie.
14 A Night at the Roxbury
If Wayne’s World was a terrible film, A Night at the Roxbury needs new language to describe just how bad it is. Another Lorne Michaels project launching a three-minute skit into a ninety-minute film, there is almost nothing redeeming about this parody of 90s club culture. Of course, there is also almost nothing at all redeeming about the club culture it parodied, and this movie’s spot-on indictment of the shallow club kids of the day brings one right back into the “OONTS OONTS” electronica scene.
A Night at the Roxbury is notable, however, as being the film which basically began Will Ferrell’s movie career. It’s hard to imagine, but without this juvenile, shiny-jacketed, head-bopping train-wreck, we may never have had Anchorman or Talladega Nights.
13 The Mighty Ducks
In what must be the most bizarre case of drunk-driving sentencing in history, convict Emilio Estevez is sentenced to work with children, coaching a hockey team for community service. Of course, Estevez’s Gordon Bombay has a history with the sport, having missed a shot that cost his childhood team the championship.
While The Mighty Ducks is a formulaic sports-inspiration movie, something in it struck a chord in the the public’s imagination. It launched the career of Elden Henson (Foggy in the Netflix series Daredevil), and it spoke to the insecure place in each of us which still yearns to be a champion. Like any good redemption/rags-to-riches story, it pulls back into a place where we felt at our lowest, and massages those tender spots until they feel just a bit better.
12 Isaac Mizrahi Unzipped
In a documentary released in 1995, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi took the world through the process of conceiving and executing his fall 1994 fashion show. With a revealing look into the changing world of high-fashion, and an unprecedented glimpse into how the the looks of the mid-1990s were shaped, Unzipped captured the imagination of the grunge generation-at least for a few minutes.
Particularly notable for the time were the supermodel cameos. For the first time, many of us saw these newsstand goddesses as people. Suddenly, senses of humor, personality quirks, and mannerisms of women we saw only in magazines and on posters came home, illuminating the fashion industry in a new way, influencing the way we saw everything from feminism to gay culture. And, of course, seeing the brightly colored shaggy boots, cropped shaggy jackets, and quintessential 1990s styles brings us right back to the days of yore.
Like all of Kevin Smith’s early films, Mallrats features an ensemble cast in both relatable and absurd circumstances, and is uproariously funny. Mallrats takes us back to the malls of the 90s, where many of us spent our tender teenage years. With people trying to figure out “Magic Eye” pictures, boatloads of flannel, and a soundtrack featuring Bush, Weezer, and Belly, Mallrats blasts us with 90s culture from beginning to end.
More than the scenery, though, it may be the cast which makes us most nostalgic for the nineties. Young Jason Lee, young Ben Affleck, young Joey Lauren Adams, and Shannen Doherty following her Beverly Hills 90210 departure ooze 90s life through the screen and onto the audience. With Smith’s Silent Bob getting a turn as Batman, we’re nostalgic for a Ben Affleck movie featuring the Caped Crusader that received decent reviews.
10 Office Space
In directing his first live-action feature, it’s hard to overstate how perfectly Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge captured office culture of the late 90s. For the younger crowd, it might be hard to imagine just how dramatically offices changed between 1989 and 1999. The explosion of the internet and the dot-com boom meant nearly everyone who could breathe could get a well-paying job, and with a young class of new entrepreneurs carving out new territory and trying to win new talent, the office became a strange place-with new acronyms, technology, culture, and expectations of each worker.
Enter Office Space, in which the absurdity of some of that new culture reigns supreme. It seemed possible that a man could decide not to do his job anymore and be a hero while others could work their fingers to the bone and dwell unnoticed in a basement. Management techniques had not evolved to meet the new challenges of a connected workplace, and college culture had not evolved to meet the professional requirements of an evolving marketplace. The result was a constant clash between old and new, and a never-ending slew of paper jams, flair, and ultimately massive layoffs.
In Election, many of us first saw Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller) as an adult instead of a lackadaisical high school student. Broderick plays Jim McAllister, a teacher and student advisor in Nebraska. Reese Witherspoon stars as Tracy Flick, an overambitious student who had an affair with a former teacher at the high school, and who wants more than anything to be Student Council President. McAllister resents Flick, and works at every turn to stop her campaign, with hilarious and cringe-worthy results.
Based on a 1997 novel by Tom Perrotta, Election won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and serves as a terrifying and comedic window into the post-grunge teenage culture of the 1990s. We’re brought into the world of the driven over-achievers who have adjusted to a new reality in which more productivity than ever before is expected of students and workers, and those of the generation before them who are left befuddled and bitter at the success of these latecomers.
8 Before Sunrise
In what might be the most beloved movie of those who came of age in that decade, Before Sunrise captures all the possibility of love and angst and connection and potential that the evolving world of the 1990s offered. Richard Linklater (Boyhood) directed this minimalist masterpiece which featured two unlikely characters sharing a night walking and talking after meeting on a train.
Julie Delpy (White) and Ethan Hawke (Gattaca) play a disparate pair of travelers who decide to get off a train together in Vienna. As they share more with one another, they feel a romantic connection and reveal more and more personal details about their own lives. The film expertly captured the feeling of “the one that got away,” portraying the instant and impossible connection between two people who must be together, but who cannot. It’s youthful insistence on immediacy combines with the geopolitical changes of the 1990s, which made encounters like this easier and more likely than ever before, and we all fell in love along with them.
Perhaps more than any other fictional movie of the 1990s, Singles captures the grunge-era zeitgeist. Taking place in Seattle, and with cameos from many of the just-exploding Seattle music scene, Singles captures the 90s' evolving thinking on relationships, monogamy, commitment, and culture. It dives in at the very beginning of the flannel-and-distortion grunge scene which had just hit national prominence the year before with Nirvana’s album Nevermind.
Music features prominently in Singles, and Matt Dillon’s fictional band Citizen Dick are portrayed by members of Pearl Jam (then called Mookie Blaylock). Alice in Chains plays a bar band, Chris Cornell - the lead singer of Soundgarden - has a cameo. Tim Burton makes a rare acting appearance, and the soundtrack featured such grunge stalwarts as Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees, and Mudhoney, as well as the aforementioned bands.
6 The Big Lebowski
Much of 90s culture was defined by slackers, and there is perhaps no greater slacker ever created than The Dude. The Big Lebowski is the Coen Brother’s masterpiece, capturing the intersection of surfer and slacker culture, the corporate greed of the booming 90s, European nihilism, the newly cavalier attitudes surrounding sex and conception, and the aging Vietnam veteran population all in the greatest heist-comedy ever told.
Part Hunter Thompson and part Phillip Marlowe, the screenplay follows The Dude through bowling alleys, mansions, and bizarre dream sequences in an effort to recoup the value of a destroyed rug and find the missing wife of the right Lebowski. Hilarity and grief follow, and John Goodman delivers his greatest performance in a near-perfect film.
5 Wag the Dog
Wag the Dog was an eerily prescient 1997 film exploring just how far a president might go to cover up a sex scandal. Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman play Washington and Hollywood insiders who concoct a fake war to distract the electorate from the sexual misdeeds of the president in the days leading up to an election. Replete with theme songs, fake prisoners of war, tee shirts, and all the trappings necessary to stir patriotic fervor, the film still fuels the conspiracy theorists of today.
Wag the Dog makes us miss the 90s, however, because of the strange case of life imitating art which shortly followed the release of the film. Bill Clinton-an immensely popular president even during his tenure-was presiding over a booming economy when he was caught in an affair with Monica Lewinsky. An opposition Congress, smelling blood in the water, impeached a president for only the second time in our nation’s history-and suddenly, the United States bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. The parallels to the movie, and the breathless water-cooler gossip about what Mr. Clinton did or did not do dominated the last two years of the 1990s and led us up to the new millennium.
On the opposite end of the slacker spectrum from The Dude lay the evolution of the 80s valley girl. Rich, spoiled, and clueless to the world around them, the beneficiaries of the greed of the 80s and the continued success of the 90s lived a charmed life, but were often unable to function in the world when forced to do so. 1995’s Clueless (another film which proves Paul Rudd is in every movie you’ve ever seen) takes a farcical look at the privileged slacker.
Starring Alicia Silverstone (who, by the way, turns forty this year) in the role that made her famous Clueless, like The Mighty Ducks, plays a formulaic story with heart. Paul Rudd’s performance is solid, and a turn by Brittany Murphy as a bad-girl-gone-good steals the show. Silverstone, however, holds the whole show together, and an appearance by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones fixes the movie square in the mid-90s, when ska stole the airwaves and dancers could be bandmembers too.
3 Reality Bites
Reality Bites hits squarely on the Gen-X end of the 90s, speaking to those in their twenties during the tumultuous decade. Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, this comedy-drama addresses real issues young adults dealt with, especially in the early part of the decade, while maintaining its humor throughout. Also starring Janeane Garofalo, Winona Ryder, and Ethan Hawke, the cast was almost a next-generation “Brat Pack.”
Particularly notable in the film is the real fear and presence of AIDS in the sex and dating lives of the characters. After a series of one-night-stands, one of Garofalo’s former partners tests positive for the virus, and the no-attachment lifestyle prevalent at the time gets a serious examination. This rang true to many of us living a similar life at the time, and the movie holds a cult status as perhaps the most accurate portrayal of early 90s love and sex of the era.
2 Empire Records
Empire Records is a legitimately awful movie that still makes us miss the decade from which it came. In this case, it’s much less about the story, direction, script, and acting, and much more about the soundtrack and visuals that the film brings to the fore.
With a soundtrack featuring The Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better than Ezra, and Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, and music in the film from GWAR, Dishwalla, Throwing Muses and more, Empire Records was a showcase of popular alternative music of the 90s. The film is mostly about Tyler in a short skirt, but is dressed up by a great performance by Renee Zellweger. While many of the actors in the film (Anthony LaPaglia, Maxwell Caulfield, and Robin Tunney) have gone on to successful careers, you wouldn’t know it from watching Empire Records. Still, when we want to put on two hours of great music with no plot on which to focus, Empire Records is just the ticket.
The film that induces the most nostalgia for the 90s is also one of its best. Kevin Smith’s breakout hit, low-budget Clerks captures the mindset of the directionless youth of the decade perfectly. Its humor is spot-on, the slacker-meets-hardworking-underachiever leads are just like people we knew right then, and the general milieu of the film beautifully evokes a specific moment in time.
Clerks isn’t for everyone. Its humor is coarse. Its language is blunt. Its characters are sometimes whiny, sometimes moronic, and completely fallible. They get in the way of their own success, at every turn. In short, they are like almost everybody you’ve probably ever met, and that’s what makes Clerks the most evocative film of the 90s: there is exactly nothing about it which rings false, even in the absurd situations some of the characters find themselves. It’s vivid, real, and feels like it happened to someone you know.
Which films make you miss the decade of Lewinsky and Yeltsin, of Batman Forever and Chumbawamba? Let us know in the comments!
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