Sometimes it feels like the ’90s just happened. Someone named Clinton is running for President, after all, and the curly-haired boy from N’Sync is still writing hits. At other times, though, the ’90s can feel like a whole other world. Culture has shifted significantly since then, and it can be fun to look back on what the ’90s was like. Movies are one of the best way to do this. They capture the look, feel, and attitudes that dominated the decade, and they allow audiences to revisit the ’90s without leaving the comfort of their couch.
Sometimes, the ’90s vibes of films are all on the surface, working to find the styles and phrases that were most popular during that time. At other times, the focus is much more squarely placed on the feel of the period and on the ways people were thinking and behaving. Sometimes, these two ideas work in concert, and those movies will land higher on this list. The ’90s were a time, when styles, ideas, music, and feelings were very different than they are today. The movies on this list might have come out at any time, but they had to capture these qualities that are specific to the ’90s. Here are 15 Movies That Perfectly Capture The ’90s.
Technophobia was all the rage in the 1990s. With the dawning of the internet and personal computing, fears of super-intelligent machines and of what these newfound technologies might be capable was born anew. Hackers exemplified these fears, telling the story of a young boy who discovers a plot to unleash a lethal virus. The boy and his friends have to track down the evidence of the crime, even as they flee the secret service.
Hackers lays the groundwork for many of the technology thrillers that would follow it. 2015 gave us the brilliant TV series Mr. Robot, and its hard to imagine that would exist without Hackers. Still, way back in 1995, the fears were different, and the public was just beginning to understand that kind of danger that a computer could unleash. The ’90s introduced us to this brave new world, and Hackers illuminated how careful we would have to be now that we were living in it.
14. Basic Instinct
Basic Instinct is a pure embodiment of a different kind of blockbuster. The film made an incredible amount of money, and its legacy lives on to this day in films like Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s an erotic thriller, the kind of film that is made for an adult audience. These films rarely get made anymore, but they were incredibly common in the ’90s.
Basic Instinct is perhaps the single best example of their appeal. It’s a film filled with passion and lust, but also with incredible style and fashion. It works because it toes the line of taste. Basic Instinct is a distinctly ’90s product precisely because of the world it reveals. This is a world of scintillation and desire, one where everything feels like a temptation. Hollywood doesn’t make movies this frankly passionate anymore. There’s always a whiff of cynicism, one that makes us long for the return of the unabashed silliness of Basic Instinct.
13. The Big Lebowski
Although The Big Lebowski came out near the end of the ’90s, it’s actually set near the beginning of the decade. In telling the story of Jeffrey Lebowski AKA “The Dude,” we get an insight into what feels like a simpler time. That feeling is contradicted by much of the film’s actual plot, one which shows us exactly how convoluted things were, even then. Still, we’re meant to take comfort in The Dude, a character who lets everything roll of his shoulders.
The Dude’s fashion sense is wonderful, full of sandals and shorts and strange wool cardigans. He’s a mellow guy, a product of a time when everyone freaked out a little bit less. His ordeals don’t change him, they just reaffirm the man he already was. The Dude is a symbol of an easy-going lifestyle that is rapidly disappearing. He doesn’t stress, he just abides. There’s something very comforting about that.
12. Pretty Woman
Pretty Woman represents a transitional phase. It came out in 1990, and is very much indicative of how the ’90s would look as the ’80s wound toward their close. An all-time classic, Pretty Woman follows a businessman and the prostitute he hires as they grow closer. Pretty Woman qualifies for this list on the basis of two things: its style and its stars.
The fashion of Pretty Woman has already been extensively remarked upon, but it’s fairly obvious upon viewing the film that everything being worn is both gorgeous and very of its period (the double breasted suit is coming back, right?). Pretty Woman also marks the first of several Julia Roberts romantic comedies that would be scattered throughout the decade. In Pretty Woman, an iconic ’90s star was born, and our lives would never again be the same. Pretty Woman was a simple love story, one made to be told on a big screen. We could use more of those these days.
11. Wayne’s World
One of the more successful Saturday Night Live sketches that was turned into a full-length feature, Wayne’s World manages to capture the feel of the ’90s even as it satirizes it. In a lot of ways, Wayne’s World, which follows Wayne and Garth as they attempt to save their public access show from a corporate suit who wants to make it more commercial, is emblematic of the ’90s as a whole. Wayne and Garth are fighting against “the man” and fighting to keep the soul of their show alive.
Really, Wayne’s World is about selling out and the fight to maintain one’s authenticity. It satirizes that sentiment even as it embraces the goofy protagonists at the film’s center, two well-meaning doofuses who create high levels of hilarity. It also works as a story of a couple of music geeks in an era filled to the brim with passionate music lovers. Wayne’s World tells us a lot about the obsession with materialism that was central to the ’90s, even as it entertains. It’s party time, it’s excellent.
10. 10 Things I Hate About You
The ’90s was, in part, defined by the kind of story that 10 Things I Hate About You tells. It’s a coming of age story that focuses on an abrasive young girl who has trouble attracting men. Her younger sister isn’t allowed to date until she does, and so she sets out to get her sister a date. Coming out in 1999, 10 Things I Hate About You is emblematic of the style that dominated the late ’90s. The hair, the super-tight tops, the smolders and smirks, all of it is peak ’90s.
The film also captures the angst of the period, and the frustrating and often stupid ways teenagers interact with one another. 10 Things I Hate About You is also emblematic of a kind of film that was incredibly popular in the ’90s. It was a high school romantic comedy, a coming of age story wrapped up inside a love story. In meshing the social dynamics of high school with the ideals of love, 10 Things I Hate About You became an instant classic.
9. Before Sunrise
The beginning of a legendary trilogy, Before Sunrise is a delicately crafted film that also very carefully documents its own moment in time. It tells the simple story of Jesse and Celine, two complete strangers who meet on a train and fall rapidly in love. They spend a single day together, talking and walking in Vienna. Their love story began here, and it would captivate audience for more than a decade.
The first installment is replete with things that scream ’90s, even if they do so unintentionally. The way Jesse and Celine dress, him as a young rebel and her as an intelligent but beautiful bookworm make them both feel authentic to their periods. Star Ethan Hawke is something of a ’90s icon, and his work here is only one piece of the career he built throughout the ’90s. Before Sunrise’s pleasures are simple ones. It captures a feeling of peace and simplicity. There’s an ease to Before Sunrise that feels like it’s missing today. To put it simply, Before Sunrise is marvelous.
Clerks is ’90s demi-god Kevin Smith at his finest. It’s the simple story of Dante and Randal, two friends hanging out at a convenience store. The film, which was released in 1994, wears its setting on its sleeve. This is ’90s independent cinema at its most quintessentially laid back, which is not necessarily a negative thing. Of course, the film does progress slightly, but the basis of the film is conversational, and that works to its advantage.
In looking at these two, we come to understand the feel of the ’90s. Clerks allows us to live with its characters, and this experience is incredibly rewarding. It allows us to immerse ourselves in a particular time and place. Clerks is perhaps most striking for its casual authenticity. These characters feel real, and it’s that kind of feeling that allows us to truly understand the culture of the ’90s in all of its slacker glory.
Everything about Singles is oozing with ’90s nostalgia. First, there’s the prominence of its setting, Seattle, in the grunge scene, which the movie leans on quite heavily. Next, there’s the interwoven story of several tenants living in the same apartment building (even the structure of this movie feels dated). Finally, there’s the general vibe of love and loss that courses through the film. Singles is a ’90s film, alright, and it has the jean shorts to prove it.
Any one of these things alone would have qualified the film for this list, but combined they make for a potent ’90s force that is a must for anyone in search of accurate depictions. One of the major through lines on this list is the centrality of love to ’90s film. Singles is no exception, as it calls back to an era in which love was much more readily depicted onscreen. That’s not to say that there aren’t depictions of it today, they just feel fewer and sappier than films like Singles. It really does captures its time to perfection.
6. Fight Club
Coming out near the end of the decade, Fight Club represented the mood of a decade that could feel, at times, like it was losing its mind. Fight Club is really about the stuff in our lives and the way we can sometimes become consumed by them. The film’s central philosophy revolves around escaping from that materialism. Twist endings aside, Fight Club is really about one man’s dissatisfaction with his own life.
The film shows us what might happen if this man externalizes his discontent, taking it out on a world that he feels has oppressed him. This unnamed narrator is, like many of the characters on this list, at war with the world he lives in. He’s at war with capitalism, and with any system of power that makes him feel small. The question of identity was key to the ’90s, and Fight Club embodies this concept. The Narrator’s identity is a moving target, to say the least, and that’s in part because of the tainted world that surrounds him.
5. SLC Punk
You may be surprised to see SLC Punk on this list, given the fact that it’s set in the early ’80s. Even so, it’s often impossible to separate a film from the time of its release, and that feels doubly true in SLC Punk, which was released in 1998. It focuses on two die-hard punks in a city filled to the brim with conservatives. It’s a perfect example of the rebellious attitude that was baked into the ’90s.
In addition to being an excellent look inside some of the musical impulses that would come to characterize the ’90s, SLC Punk also gave viewers a sense of a war being waged against an unnamed enemy. There were frustrations in the ’90s, especially toward the end of the decade. These frustrations were hard to channel, and so they ended up being fought against an enemy that seemed to be everywhere. SLC Punk gave voice to these rebellious instincts, even though it was set during a completely different decade.
Would it really be a list of ’90s films without Clueless? On style alone, Clueless easily earns a spot. The plaid skirts and matching blazers that are among the film’s most iconic images are so uniquely ’90s that they’re almost ridiculous. On top of its fashion, Clueless is also set in a high school, and focuses on a young women who fancies herself a makeover artist.
What really sells Clueless as an iconic ’90s film, though, is the confusion that runs through its core. There are few films which so perfectly capture the alternate feelings of self-confidence and humiliation that characterize adolescence. Clueless captures the feelings of teenagers in the ’90s, and these types of teen films are an essential part of the decade. The ’90s were all about style and the substance hidden underneath it. Clueless is about those things too and on top of that it happens to be hilarious.
3. High Fidelity
High Fidelity is a romantic comedy, sure, but it doubles as an impressive look at music in the ’90s and the culture behind a moderately successful record store. First and foremost, High Fidelity is a love story, though it’s one that sees its central character questioning the idea of love. He revisits his top 5 break-ups because he loves lists, and each one leaves him wondering what went wrong.
High Fidelity is grounded in incredibly genuine feeling. John Cusack’s Rob is a confused adult, completely grown but somehow not fully matured. Rob is, like so many ’90s protagonists, still figuring his life out. In many ways, the stories of his love life take us through different periods in the ’90s. We see him rebel and mellow, and we get a sense of the way the world is shifting around him. High Fidelity deftly tracks Rob’s developments as a character alongside the developments of the world around him, and it has a terrific soundtrack to boot.
2. Reality Bites
Like many of the films on this list, Reality Bites blends elements of a typical coming-of-age story with more romantic overtones. In addition to the costuming, which is very of its time, Reality Bites also features two of the era’s biggest stars: Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke (I told you he’d come up again!).
Reality Bites follows Ryder’s character as she documents the lives of her friends while they attempt to begin careers and forge lasting relationships. Like Singles, Reality Bites attempts to document several characters on an intersecting trajectory. Both films try to examine life in the ways characters live, love, and lose one another. You have to give the edge to Reality Bites because of the styles and the stars. These are films that feel like they couldn’t have come out at any other time. They capture the moment of their creation too well. Reality Bites is one such film.
1. American Beauty
American Beauty is perhaps the best possible summary of everything that happened in the 1990s. It’s a film that shows us a suburban family that should be perfectly content. Instead, they’re all miserable in different ways. This is a family falling apart at the seams, the story of people who feel as though they’re being crushed by each other.
Whatever you may think about the award-winning film, American Beauty is certainly a pitch perfect representation of its period. The clothes all suggest the era just before the turn of the century, as does the style of the film making itself. Even in its (arguably fumbled) attempts at profundity the film is quintessentially ’90s. Its belief in the simple beauty of a plastic bag floating in the wind, its ideas about a man who finds beauty in his life only as it comes to an end, and even its rose-filled dream sequences all suggest a certain ’90s aesthetic. American Beauty has the style and culture of the ’90s. It has a certain feeling of repression, too, one which characterizes many of the films on this list. On top of all of that, it’s almost a love story, or at least it’s a story about how love can often fail to be enough. American Beauty is the perfect ’90s film, even if it is far from a perfect film.
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