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Top 10 films that defined the 90s


The rock anthems have died down and the aerobics sessions are thinning out...what can movies from the nineties tell us about what culture was going through...?

Top 10 films that defined the 1990s

The 1990s were quite a turning point for society as a whole. After a decade of conservative politics, neon colors, feel-good music, corporate greed and the entire “Me” generation, we as a collective whole hit a brick wall and said “enough”. Suddenly bands who were labeled “college rock” were hitting the popular stations, Grunge put Seattle back on the map. And suddenly no one knew who they were anymore. Clothiers stole from every imaginable source for inspiration, songwriters eschewed the party scene for lyrics that delved deep into the darker recesses of the soul, and the tough guy made way for the sensitive, caring man who wasn’t afraid to show emotion.

As always, film is a wonderful time-capsule, capturing the present and preserving it for us to look back on and take a new look at what was going on in the world. Here, I present ten films that define what the 90s really meant, and show what society was really going through. It is in no way meant to represent a “best of” what that decade produced, as such a list would be much longer. Instead, this gives more of a view on what the 90s really were about and what it meant to come of age in that time.

10. Say Anything (1989)

Say Anything

I’m fudging a little bit with this one, as it came out in 1989, but Cameron Crowe’s tale of young love beating the odds really paints the picture of the early nineties. John Cusack plays Lloyd Dobler, a young man who just graduated from high school and is only sure of two things: He has no desire to be another corporate grunt in a tie, and he is madly in love with class valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye). He teaches kickboxing at the local club (“Sport of the future”, he says), and his best friend Corey (Lili Taylor) is his only voice of reason, telling him “Don’t be a guy, be a man”. Diane is preparing to travel in the fall to England to attend school, and is won over by Lloyd, much to the chagrin of her father (John Mahoney). Suddenly Diane is overcome with her feelings for Lloyd, her loyalty to her father – even after she finds out that he’s been getting extra money out of the residents of his nursing home – and the pressure that she feels from trying to be the best to prove herself. Best of all, the movie has a great ambiguous ending, which was the only way to segue into the next decade. Strong performances from everyone in this film, which also includes Jeremy Piven, Eric Stoltz and Bebe Neuwirth. It took the leading man from self-assured confident male to average guy, and we all benefited from that.

9. Airheads (1994)

Airheads (1994)

As a musician who struggled through the 90s, I have a real soft spot for this flick. Brendan Fraser plays Chaz, the lead singer/guitarist for The Lone Rangers, a band that catch a break. When his girlfriend kicks him out, he turns to his band-mates – bassist Rex (Steve Buscemi) and drummer Pip (Adam Sandler) – for help. The three are inspired when a local band hits it big because of the help from a radio station, so they sneak in to get their song played. When things go sour, they take the station hostage with water guns filled with hot sauce. At one point, the DJ Ian (Joe Mantegna) puts them on the air without them knowing, and Chaz gives an empowered speech about playing clubs, rich record producers, and the whole music scene in general. The scene strikes a real chord, especially now when there are so many shows on television looking to just hand a record contract out to any singer that is brave enough to get in front of the camera. Extra fun is in seeing Michael McKean of Spinal Tap fame playing station manager Milo, who is making a deal to change the format of the station from rock to soft adult contemporary.

8. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

At a time when cloning was becoming a reality and fears of genetic manipulation were growing rampant, along came Jurassic Park, a morality tale wrapped up in a big screen tribute to Harryhausen films of yesteryear. While most of the film plays like a standard giant monster movie, we see not only the dangers represented by misuse of science, but what other problems can arise through greed, ego and corporate gain. The real message of the movie is dealt with in a brilliant dinner scene, where billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) is trying to sell the idea of a theme park to the scientists and his lawyer. The scientists (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum) all have doubts, even though two of them are paleontologists and have a real fascination in seeing the dinosaurs brought to life. It really portrays the fears that the general population had at the time (and that many still have) about cloning and genetic research, especially when we look at the knee-jerk reaction most people have about stem cell research. While there can be marvelous things done through medical advancements, terrible things can also be done.

7. Beautiful Girls (1996)

Beautiful Girls (1996)

Timothy Hutton plays Willie, a piano player from New York City who has come home to the small town he grew up in for a class reunion. There he tries to deal with familial strains, Marty (Natalie Portman), the underage girl next door who bonds immediately with Willie, his high school friends who are still living in town, and his own future career choice and possible marriage to his girlfriend Tracy (Annabeth Gish). The rest of his friends (Matt Dillon, Noah Emmerich, Max Perlich and Michael Rapaport) are all dealing with still being in the same town and having never gone anywhere or done anything more with their lives (Rapaport’s character, Mo, seems to be the happiest of the bunch, having settled down with his high school sweetheart). The film is funny, but never overly so, keeping itself grounded in a very real world setting. In one scene, Willie is telling Mo that he’s thinking of giving up playing piano, and going to work as a salesman, to which Mo tells him that he shouldn’t just give up the music. The really great moments don’t come from the comedic bits, but from those small moments between two characters, where everything else stops, and the problems of the moments are fixed one piece at a time. It really shows how many of my generation went from having big dreams to finding themselves ten years down the road wondering what happened to those dreams.

6. Home for the Holidays (1995)

Home For The Holidays (1996)

This Jodie Foster-helmed film details the Thanksgiving dinner from Hell. Holly Hunter plays Claudia, an artist who has just been fired from her job as an art restorer at a prestigious museum due to budget cuts. She is due to get on a plane to go back home when her 16-year-old daughter Kitt (Claire Danes) informs her that she will probably lose her virginity to her boyfriend. Her father (Charles Durning) is a retired airline maintenance worker who drives her mother (Anne Bancroft) crazy, while she sits and hounds Claudia for not making her own paintings anymore. Her brother Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.) has also moved away to escape his family, and married his partner. Their sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) is a conservative housewife who stayed close by to help her parents out (even when they don’t want her to), and settled down with her banker husband Walter (Steve Guttenburg) and their two spoiled children. The movie hits close to home because everyone has these family members either in their close or extended families. Joanne hates that her life has been reduced to being a mom and wife and dealing with their mother, even though she was the one that chose that life. She also despises Tommy, and chastises him at dinner for his lifestyle, even telling him that she and Walter had friends in Boston where the ceremony took place, and asks if he ever thought of anyone but himself. And then there’s Leo, Tommy’s friend who he brings to introduce to Claudia. Strangely enough, for all of their idiosyncrasies, Claudia, Tommy and Leo are the sanest of the bunch. It’s not the feel-good holiday film, but one that makes us laugh because it forces us to laugh at ourselves.

5. Se7en (1995)


Think of this film as a feature length version of CSI, but more graphic. Morgan Freeman plays Detective Somerset, who is a week away from retirement, but is dragged into a case in which a killer seems to be playing off of the “Seven Deadly Sins”, with each murder representing a different sin. While other films had started writing in forensic work, this one really put it up with actual detective work, making it an intricate part of the plot. The film represents not only the grittiness of urban life, but also the growing awareness of sexual fetishes, religious zealotry, and it rewrote the police procedural as far as film goes. Brad Pitt is excellent as Somerset’s replacement, small-town transplant Detective Mills, who has recently moved to the city with his wife Tracy (Pitt’s then-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow). Also wonderful is Kevin Spacey, initially uncredited as killer John Doe, who gave us a truly chilling look at the killer of a new generation. It also established a new precedent in thrillers, which wasn’t to elaborate on what the killer had done, but how and why. The psychology of the murders was what really made the film such a fantastic work, and made it especially interesting to a movie-going audience that had had their fill of slasher films.

4. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino’s directorial debut rewrote the heist movie in ways that would change crime films forever. It also helped bring along “geek chic”, a bandwagon upon which everyone has jumped. The story of five thieves being brought together for a major jewel heist incorporated classic elements of crime films, but added to that Tarantino’s signature dialogue style, the rapid-fire back and forth between characters, with more than a liberal sprinkle of cursing. He also allowed for his characters to converse about the most mundane of topics, which added that everyday feel to the film. And in a world where the real world success stories were those of the geeks, it was nice that they could relate to characters who would wax poetic about comic book characters outside of the occasional reference to Superman or Batman. QT seems to understand how to bring believable characters to life, and he succeeded with this film.

3. Singles (1992)


Cameron Crowe makes the list again with his story of a group of young people trying to find love in the time of Grunge. It portrays a society growing tired of the club scene that had been the staple of culture, and of finding the same short-lived relationships without finding anything with any substance. We have Steve (Campbell Scott) and Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), two professionals who are dealing with their own hang ups in order to make their relationship work. There’s Janet (Bridget Fonda), who is madly in love with Cliff (Matt Dillon), a musician (whose band is played by the members of Pearl Jam) who also sees other women. We also meet Steve’s friend David (Jim True-Frost), a womanizer who lives life “like it’s a French film”, and their friend Debbie (Sheila Kelley), who will go to any lengths to find a man. It takes looks at everything that society had to offer at the time, from plastic surgery to video dating. It’s not a clear cut romantic film, but one for a different time. And the soundtrack has to be one of the top ten soundtracks of all time, featuring some of the finest of the Seattle scene.

2. Reality Bites (1994)

Reality Bites

Where girls usually went with the safe bet in 80s films, typically taking the successful, good looking guy over the unemployed artist, this film went the opposite way. Ben Stiller directed Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and himself in this romantic dramedy (I’m told that’s a word) about struggling videographer Lelaina (Ryder), who is putting together a documentary called Reality Bites. The documentary is about the lives of her friends Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) Sammy (Steve Zahn) and Troy (Hawke). The movie deals with very real issues, such as dating, AIDS, homophobia, the MTV generation and its ADHD-like attention span, and finding employment in a world obsessed with being one of the flock. The four roommates don’t come off as overly sympathetic at first, but you can relate to them more as the film goes on. The film shows the disappointment that many young people felt in the 90s when jobs weren’t readily available, and college graduates were forced to find work at fast food restaurants and department stores to pay off student loans.

1. Clerks


Kevin Smith’s début introduced us to cult heroes Jay and Silent Bob, but also presented Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran), a young man who has little direction in life and is tired of existence as he knows it. He is called into his dead-end job on his day off and is harassed by co-worker and best friend Randall Graves (Jeff Anderson), a fellow slacker. The two have deep intellectual discussions on everything from annoying customers to the guy that cleans up “nudie booths” after each use. And one mustn’t forget the terrific debate about independent contractors on the second Death Star, and the reaction of a real contractor. Again, Smith paints a bleak picture of the early 90s, with work being limited to working in convenience stores and video shops, and the horror of having to live with one’s parents after graduation. Smith takes a humorous look at the public opinion of tobacco companies, relationships and how small businesses work in small communities. While Dante and Randall’s story would be expanded in comic books, a short lived animated series and a sequel, this was the film that started it all, which also helped further the “geek chic” phenomenon.

See also:

Top 50 movies of the 1980s

Top 100 movies of the 1970s

Lists at Shadowlocked


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#1 RE: Top 10 films that defined the 90s Alex 2011-11-26 07:58
Airheads? Really?

The thing didn't do much business and lost a further million dollars after an sweepstakes where the winner gets a million dollars and a concert from White Zombie.

Ofcourse after taxes it was probably closer to 600,000 dollars. What a gip!:)
#2 RE: Top 10 films that defined the 90s Ed 2012-01-30 16:59
As a 90s teenager I fell heavy into the grunge scene and totally related to movies like Singles and Reality Bites. Tarantino and Fincher were godsends to Hollywood movies for me. As much as 80s movies were good we needed to break from that style of filmmaking and montages and they were a breath of fresh air. I agree with other comment about Airheads. Really? As a tee this was one movie I had high expectations for and left me disappointed. Also didn't care for Home for the Holidays. May give it another chance though. May be at an older age I can appreciate it more
#3 RE: Top 10 films that defined the 90s Pat Brown 2012-02-25 03:44
I love you bro. You're one the few who understands that Reservoir Dogs is better than Pulp Fiction
#4 Reservoir Dogs Caleb Leland 2012-02-26 06:54
I do love Pulp Fiction, but RD is such a great movie. It's a heist story, but it's a story of fellowship between criminals, but it's also a story of a cop who goes undercover, etc. Few can claim such a masterpiece as being their directorial debut.

And I stand by Airheads. As a musician, it resonated with me, especially at the time it was released. Like I said, Chaz's speech about trying to make it - getting gigs, promoting, playing lousy shows - all true. I will say that if any movie would replace it, it would be Office Space, because I have worked in a similar workplace, and it definitely represented corporate America in the ninties.
#5 Bad List cris 2012-03-04 09:09
The only movies I would agree with would be Se7en, Reservoir Dogs or Jurassic Park. Also Clerks is a classic but I don't know if it defined the 90's
#6 SRSLY?! shane 2012-05-17 12:23
No clueless? Are you kidding? That was the single most defining movie of the 90's
#7 RE: Top 10 films that defined the 90s Andy 2012-05-22 15:05
No Spiceworld: The Movie?

#8 Re: Top 10 films that defined the 90s Charlie 2013-04-05 13:07
I remember kids quoting T2, Waynes World, and Clueless from early to mid 90s, then came Austin Powers, Swingers and American Pie... Well, that's what 90s England was like. Interesting list, but I dont think the title and content match.
#9 RE: Top 10 films that defined the 90s juan 2013-06-28 01:40
MATRIX!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!

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