In the early 90s, we didn’t have Starbucks and Pearl Jam was still known as Mookie Blaylock. Huh? We didn’t use the Internet for everything (yet), and AOL was king. Google wasn’t even invented until 1998 (though didn’t officially become a verb until 2006); instead, we had Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista, Netscape, Lycos, Earthlink, MindSpring, or Yahoo (among others) to search the mysterious, new World Wide Web.
We also saw the birth of email, or Email, or e-mail, or E-mail; yes, it took a while until we settled on a universally accepted spelling for the abbreviation for electronic mail. AOL Instant Messenger was the first chat-like service to exist in the mainstream and it was life-changing. We could chat friends and make plans to go to happy hour after work right from our work computers without ever picking up the phone. We loved it.
We didn’t have iPhones or iPods, but here’s what we did have: grunge and slam dancing, ripped jeans, Dr. Martens (which are totally back, btw), and the slacker voice of Generation X as we were coming of age in the (early 90s recession/late 90s dotcom boom) workforce. And we had a long list of classic 90s movies that were so very different from what was popular in the 80s. Yes, we still had 90s movies about high school (like Dazed and Confused, Never Been Kissed, Varsity Blues), 90s movie comedies (like What About Bob?, Father of the Bride, Happy Gilmore), endless Disney 90s movies for kids (like 101 Dalmations, Tarzan, Toy Story), and popular 90s movies about killers (like American Psycho), slackers (like Reality Bites, Threesome), and blockbusters (like Titanic and Jurassic Park).
Music soundtracks were still a major feature of 90s movies
In addition to loving soundtracks to our favorite movies, we graduated from mixtapes to burned CDs for great music mixes. As film director Cameron Crowe himself described back then, “One of the most fun things for me is to make a road tape. I’ve done it once a month for years.” Cameron Crowe’s early 90s movie Singles, he says, was “like a blown-up version” of a music/mood mix.
We loved his ode to the music and mood of the 90s, listening to the Singles’ soundtrack of grunge music over and over again. Then we moved on to an obsession with Pulp Fiction’s soundtrack, followed by Magnolia’s soundtrack featuring Aimee Mann’s music. We also had a serial killer haunting us every time Tom Petty’s “American Girl” played on the car radio. In the 90s, we had grown men obsessing over IKEA furniture and accessories in the cult movie Fight Club (once IKEA opened its New York City-area store in Elizabeth, NJ in 1990, it officially went mainstream in the U.S.). We had rapper-model Marky Mark (Wahlberg) evolving into a critically acclaimed actor by decade’s end, when Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights made Mark Wahlberg’s 1992 Calvin Klein ad seem prim.
We had “90s royalty” actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, and John C. Reilly who became big through “small” movies distributed by studios like Miramax Films and New Line Cinema. Indie movies took off in the 90s, through the film festival circuit, and at the box office. Stars like Bruce Willis and John Travolta appeared in both independent and Hollywood studio films. Hollywood conglomerates eventually took over the indie film industry and also created independent studios of their own, like Sony Pictures Classics and Searchlight Pictures.
Throughout the 90s, many Hollywood blockbusters were increasingly more “indie” in sensibility (like Shakespeare in Love, Trainspotting, and Swingers). One notable exception: Pulp Fiction went up against the very un-indie Forrest Gump in the 1995 Academy Awards. Forrest Gump won for Best Picture, sparking an outcry — and proving for Hollywood that “Life IS like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” (wink) Pulp Fiction fans preferred the Royale with Cheese, it seems, over the box of chocolates, so they were not happy about the perceived snub.
How we watched movies in the 90s
At home, we watched 90s movies on DVDs from Blockbuster (bye-bye VHS), until Netflix came along in 1997. To rival Blockbuster, Netflix offered pay-per-rentals through the mail, meaning you never had to leave your home to rent movies again.
For the most part, the experience of going to the movie theaters in the 90s vs. going to the movies in the 80s, was mostly the same in that multiplex cinemas with supersized concessions were still all the rage. One way it did change, though, is at the indie movie houses, which suddenly became a totally hip place to see a movie, due to the types of movies being made and the cultural benchmarks of the time. While movies in the 80s were much more focused on comedy, coming of age, and music-themed dramas, 90s movies explored the human experience a lot more deeply and broadly than had been done in the past.
Suddenly, important movies were being made that gave a voice to people who were gay, transgender, Black, women, veterans, young adults, parents, prisoners, criminals, and children in a way that we previously had not experienced. We were eager for movies that told stories about people who were maybe nothing like us, but with whom we could empathize and sympathize, and from whom we could learn a great deal. Simply put, 90s movies were finally being made to celebrate the diversity of humans, and audiences appreciated the opportunity to live and share in the realities of their stories — and in the process, we, the audience, became more compassionate and understanding about the lifestyles and struggles of others.
How we bought movie tickets in the 90s
Movie theatres were still the place where we met friends, took our children for birthday movie parties, and were central to date-nights-out. In the 90s, dating meant dinner and a movie at chains like Applebees, TGI Friday’s, Houlihan’s, Bennigan’s, Pizzeria Uno, and other bar-restaurants that popped up near malls with movie theatres.
To find out what was playing, the newspapers were still a reliable source, however, with the internet gaining in popularity in the late 1990s, some theatre chains began creating websites advertising the movies playing in their theatres. In fact, Hollywood.com was the first site to list movie showtimes online back in the 90s!
The film call-in hotline MovieFone offering movie showtimes, locations, and ticket purchases over the phone was still the most popular way to learn what was playing; eventually, MovieFone expanded its services online through MovieFone.com. By the close of the decade, MovieFone had grown to become the nation’s #1 movie and ticketing service, serving more than 100 million moviegoers annually; it was acquired by AOL in February of 1999.
The movies that make us miss the 90s
Overall, the movie zeitgeist of the 90s was defined by important social and political issues and complicated explorations of love. Hollywood woke us to the brave new world we’ve come to know. In style and subject matter, 90s films had the shock of “the new.” Movies like Pulp Fiction, The Crying Game, Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense were unlike anything we’d seen before.
Here’s a round-up of stand-out movies that defined the culture of the 90s.
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Singles (1992)
Directed by Cameron Crowe, this era-defining rom-com stars Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon, Kyra Sedgwick, Campbell Scott, Bill Pullman, and Sheila Kelley, with cameos from Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden.
“This negativity just makes me stronger, we will not retreat, this band is unstoppable!”~Cliff Poncier
SINGLES was released on September 18, 1992 #Seattle #SinglesMovie #CameronCrowe #ChrisCornell #PearlJam #AliceInChains #MattDillon #BridgetFonda pic.twitter.com/srU7lhhaGv
— Legacy of Chris Cornell (@LegacyOfChris) September 18, 2018
Cameron Crowe, a former Rolling Stone writer, said that Singles “is a love letter to Seattle.” We know what he means as we lose ourselves in the flannel shirts and stonewashed jeans (and Bridget Fonda’s porkpie fedora), the twentysomethings living together in the same apartment complex, the energizing mix of cynicism and sincerity of the Gen Xers—and, oh, the music and slam-dancing club scene. Crowe captures the early days of the grunge music scene, which started in Seattle and spread throughout the Pacific Northwest before the “Seattle Sound” became an international sensation.
We can’t believe that a 26-year-old Eddie Vedder (when he was still part of Mookie Blaylock, Pearl Jam’s original band name) sits across from Matt Dillon in a diner booth. The two of them are bandmates in a fictional band called Citizen Dick. Matt Dillon spoofs himself as ditzy slacker-rocker Cliff who’s too obsessed with himself to appreciate his girlfriend Janet (90s darling Bridget Fonda). Janet works as a waitress at the coffee bar Java Stop in a pre-Starbucks era. Java Stop is actually located in the O.K. Hotel where, in April 1991, Nirvana performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. (Nirvana is not featured in Singles.)
Janet is sweet to Cliff and the rest of her single friends in the apartment complex; but it’s only when she moves on from Cliff that he finally snaps to attention and woos her back, saying “Janet, you rock my world.”
Just as Singles “bottles a moment in time” culturally and musically, in the words of Screaming Trees drummer Barret Martin, the movie is also a time capsule for pre-Tinder dating. In fact, the early incarnation of digital dating is captured in this film, with Debbie Hunt’s (Sheila Kelley) wacky videotapes of herself and her prospective dates. But the rest of the characters pursue love the old-fashioned way, in bars and elevators, with charm, mixed signals, phone booth phone calls, answering machines, and landline hang-ups.
Crowe expertly captures the hopes and insecurities of Gen X twentysomethings who were, at the time, mostly dismissed as slackers. The characters talk about dating “head games;” how many days after having sex a guy should call a woman (Campbell Scott as Steve waits far too long – four days); the merits of drama, trust, and chemistry in a relationship; and much more. When Janet weirdly scans for “signs” that fate is telling her to call Cliff, we remember our own crazy-making analysis and paralysis involving guys and the phone.
Another favorite moment occurs in a club when Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) shouts to her friend above the loud music: “We will always go out dancing!” That’s the perfect sentiment whether you’re 25 or 55. This summer, as the dance floor beckons for the vaccinated among us, we’ll all have those words ringing in our ears.
Movie tickets sold: Singles was a success earning $18.5 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 19 was $4.15.
Where to watch Singles: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino, this black comedy crime film is outrageously good. It was the shock of the new with its bold postmodern style. Critics consider it to be one of the greatest films ever made, and it has influenced many filmmakers. Starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, and Uma Thurman, the movie is nonlinear and follows several stories in the LA criminal underworld. The title refers to the 1940s and 50s pulp magazines known for graphic violence. Tarantino’s movie is a study of violence made all the more jarring with its snappy dialogue and ironic humor. The famous dialogue about the Royale with Cheese is cultish and mesmerizing until the “meat” starts to sound like flesh. Quentin Tarantino is a movie fanatic, and so this film is part shout-out to many of his faves. He includes stylish references to movies like Bonnie and Clyde, His Girl Friday, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Psycho. Even Mia (Uma Thurman) and Vincent’s (John Travolta) spontaneous dance in the restaurant Jack Rabbit Slims is a riff on a dance scene in a French New Wave classic called Bande à part. Pulp Fiction’s soundtrack fueled its cult status.
Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. Nominated for seven awards at the 67th Academy Awards, it won Best Original Screenplay.
Movie tickets sold: Pulp Fiction was a worldwide success earning a whopping $213 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1994 was $4.18.
Where to watch Pulp Fiction: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme and adapted from the 1988 Thomas Harris novel by the same name, this psychological horror movie stars Jodie Foster, Ted Levine, and Anthony Hopkins. Brave and brilliant Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is the rock-star FBI agent we all want to be…if only we didn’t have to deal with a cannibalistic serial killer. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), besides eating his victim’s liver with “some fava beans and a nice Chianti,” was a former psychiatrist who knows how to get inside people’s heads. He helps Clarice track down another serial killer “Buffalo Bill” who skins his female victims.
While there were serial-killer movies before The Silence of the Lambs, there weren’t any that assembled suspenseful elements and narrative quite the way this movie did. Women everywhere have twitched for years when the rear doors of a van are opened in parking lots; and to this day, when we even so much as hear someone say the word basket, we impulsively and jokingly respond in the creepy voice of Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill: “It places the lotion in the basket. PUT THE F’ING LOTION IN THE BASKET!” (I’ll bet you just read it in that voice too.)
The Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars in five top categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay; it’s the only horror movie ever to win a Best Picture Academy Award.
Movie tickets sold: Silence of the Lambs was a global smash hit earning a whoping $275 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1991 was $4.21.
Where to watch The Silence of the Lambs: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directed and written by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, this supernatural horror film knocked our socks off. It’s one of the most commercially successful independent films of all time. The film’s surprise (no spoilers) led me to practically carry my friend out of the movie theater at the end. She was mute with fear and could barely walk.
Like us, moviegoers everywhere became spooked by the woods. In The Blair Witch Project, three student filmmakers hike into the Black Hills of Maryland to make a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. They get lost and camp out in the forest. Terror ensues. Who knew twigs could look so scary? Has anyone gone camping since seeing this movie?
All I know is, I can never look at the corner of an unfinished basement again without thinking of the freaky final scene.
Movie tickets sold: The Blair Witch Project was a sleeper hit, costing a mere $300,000 to make, but raking in nearly $250 million worldwide at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1999 was $5.08.
Where to watch The Blair Witch Project: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Fight Club (1999)
Directed by David Fincher, this movie is based on the 1996 novel of the same name and considered a hands-down 90s cult classic. It stars Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. The movie captures Gen X alienation, especially among men, and both analyzes and satirizes it. Capitalism, false promises of advertising, rebellion, emotional predators (“fakers”) versus empaths—these things fire up the male characters who meet up in a basement to pummel each other to feel alive. “First rule about Fight Club is: You don’t talk about Fight Club.” This has become one of the most talked-about movies; on the 10th anniversary of its release, the New York Times dubbed it the “defining cult movie of our time.
Tyler Durden: welcome to fight club! thanks for coming
Me: don’t mention it
Tyler Durden: *under breath* fuck he’s good
— soul nate (@MNateShyamalan) November 14, 2019
Movie tickets sold: Fight Club earned more than $100 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1999 was $5.08.
Where to watch Fight Club: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Directed by Frank Darabont, this gripping drama is based on the 1992 Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It stars Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, and Bob Gunton. Just poll your friends and see if this movie makes their all-time favorites list, as it does for so many celebs and critics who are smitten with this inspiring prison movie. However, it’s interesting to note that Shawshank wasn’t an instant box office success even though critics raved. When Shawshank opened, it competed with Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. After Shawshank gained seven Academy Award nominations, it had a theatrical re-release and was a smash hit. It’s now broadcast regularly on the TNT network and is considered one of the greatest films ever made. The movie inspires awe, raises big questions, challenges assumptions, and stirs us to the core of our humanity. “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Goosebumps.
Movie tickets sold: The Shawshank Redemption earned more than $58 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1994 was $4.18.
Where to watch The Shawshank Redemption: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Forrest Gump (1994)
“Stupid is as stupid does.” Forrest Gump was a brilliant, beloved movie featuring Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, an intellectually challenged and physically disabled child with a heart of gold. Also starring Sally Field, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, and Haley Joel Osment, the story takes us from Forrest’s childhood when he first meets Jenny (Robin Wright), through his major moments in life meeting Elvis Presley, becoming a star on the college football team, meeting President John F. Kennedy following a tour in Vietnam, and starting a massively successful shrimping company, named for his “very best friend” Bubba. In parallel, we also follow Jenny’s tortured life, where she suffered abuse at the hands of her father, became addicted to drugs, and is later physically abused by her boyfriend. Through it all, Forrest is there for her, no matter what.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film was a critical and popular success and has cemented its place as a timeless classic movie for the ages. Moviegoers loved Forrest for his kindness, innocence, pure love of his Mama (Sally Field), and his devotion to Jenny, his best friend who eventually becomes his wife. This movie is a beautiful celebration of the power of unconditional love in all its forms.
Forrest Gump won six Academy awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Director (Robert Zemeckis), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing.
Forrest Gump had a really nice spirit.
— Wiz Khalifa (@wizkhalifa) September 6, 2014
Wiz Khalifa gets it.
Movie tickets sold: The story of Forrest Gump was beloved around the world, earning nearly $680 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1994 was $4.18.
Where to watch Forrest Gump: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Goodfellas (1990)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, this mob epic is based on the nonfiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. The movie packs an all-star cast with Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, and Paul Sorvino. We hear Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) narrate his own rise and fall, from his childhood in 1950s Brooklyn to 1980. Goodfellas is arguably Martin Scorsese’s best movie and is one of the greatest gangster films ever made.
It won a slew of awards and nominations, from the Venice International Film Festival to the Academy Awards and British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The film is both a saga and a carefully observed depiction of mobsters’ inner lives. It captures the glamour of getting a prize table at the Copacabana, as well as the grisly shifts in mood among mobsters. When that dark world closes in on Hill and his family, we feel his terror, desperation, and guilt.
Movies tickets sold: Goodfellas was a fan favorite among audiences, earning more than $47 million worldwide at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1990 was $4.22.
Where to watch Goodfellas: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Directed by Mike Newell, this British romantic comedy starred Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kristin Scott Thomas, Simon Callow, Charlotte Coleman, and Rowan Atkinson. Hugh Grant, who made his debut here, contributed to the smashing success of a movie steeped in British charm and wit.
Apart from its Golden Globe and BAFTA awards, this movie led critics and viewers to swoon over its fresh take on classic themes like love, commitment-phobia, and the belief in soulmates. The inclusion of gay love in the storyline was also a breath of fresh air. Wedding enthusiasts loved the wide-brimmed straw hats favored by this chic group of friends. And Andie MacDowell’s charm rivaled Hugh Grant’s—yes, we were rooting for the American, in both love and sass.
Movies tickets sold: “I think I love you,” said fans of Four Weddings and a Funeral, as the movie earned a colossal $243 million worldwide at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1994 was $4.18.
Where to watch Four Weddings and a Funeral: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: L.A. Confidential (1997)
Directed by Curtis Hanson, this moody crime film about police corruption is based on James Elroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. It stars Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Guy Pearce, and Russell Crowe.
It was a critical and commercial success, received loads of Academy Award nominations, and won two awards in a year dominated by the Titanic. This detail-rich movie is long on style and intelligence. The plot is intricate, dialogue is sharp, and LA looks almost as seductive as Veronica Lake lookalike Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger).
Movie tickets sold: L.A. Confidential was a major fan favorite, pulling in more than $126 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1997 was $4.59.
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: The Player (1992)
Directed by Robert Altman, this satirical black comedy film is based on Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel of the same name. Starring Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, and Peter Gallagher, this movie is chock-full of Hollywood inside jokes. It’s about a Hollywood film studio executive who kills an aspiring screenwriter he believes is sending him death threats via postcards. A whopping 65 celebs make cameo appearances in this film.
The film is considered a brilliant Hollywood satire, both touching and breezy. The characters stay with you, including dialogue that’s still part of our lexicon today: June (Greta Scacchi): “What took you so long?” Griffin (Tim Robbins): “Traffic was a bitch.”
Movie tickets sold: The Player was a popular hit, earning $28 million worldwide at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1992 was $4.15.
Where to watch The Player: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Magnolia (1999)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, this psychological drama was also a platform for Aimee Mann’s haunting music and soundtrack. From the opening song “One” to the final song “Save Me,” Aimee Mann’s music underscores the themes of this movie such as loneliness, coincidence and meaning, and the desire for forgiveness and redemption.
With these big themes, the director went for an epic 189-minute movie that ended with a rainstorm of frogs in the San Fernando Valley. Paul Thomas Anderson also went for 90s royalty with this epic cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Tom Cruise, Jeremy Blackman, Melinda Dillon, Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall, Ricky Jay, Alfred Molina, and Jason Robards.
The characters in Magnolia are also loosely interconnected—a storytelling device popular in the 90s and used brilliantly in this movie. Tom Cruise is crazy-good as misogynistic (“Respect the cock!”) motivational speaker Frank Mackey. Julianne Moore crackles as a hot mess. But it’s really Melora Walters’ performance at the center of this film and the universe of characters. Magnolia had a cult following then and now, but it’s also been criticized for being too long and melodramatic. Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) had her meltdowns as an emotionally dishonest person, but Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) was emotionally naked, and convincingly so.
Movie tickets sold: Magnolia was a smash hit among audiences, earning $48.5 million globally at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1999 was $5.08.
Where to watch Magnolia: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Fargo (1996)
This black comedy crime film (based in reality) made us fall in love with the Coen brothers (if we’d somehow missed Raising Arizona or Miller’s Crossing). Joel and Ethan Coen wrote, produced, and directed this film that was so jaw-dropping in its originality, incorporating violence, shock, horror, and humor in a way not seen before. Hideous criminality practically rubs up against the pregnant belly of police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) — in the beautiful, snowy prairie of North Dakota no less.
Marge was an unflappable genius in the face of bumbling psychopaths like Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Another unforgettable character is William H. Macy as the sad-sack sicko husband who has his wife kidnapped to extort ransom from his wealthy father-in-law to pay off a secret debt. Marge ultimately solves the mystery of who did what and why without ever losing her cool: “And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.” (Marge to Gaear)
Also memorable is the sweet exchange at the end of the film when Marge and her husband Norm are snuggling in bed at night. Norm announces he won the contest for the 3-cent postage stamp with his mallard duck painting, but he’s disappointed that his friend won for the 29-cent stamp and worries that people don’t use the 3-cent stamp. Marge: “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Of course they do. Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.” Comforted and happy, Norm touches Marge’s belly, and the two of them are excited for their baby to arrive in two months.
The film was so good, it inspired a TV series on FX, also called Fargo.
Movie tickets sold: Fargo was a cult hit with a dedicated following, earning $51 million globally at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1996 was $4.42.
Where to watch Fargo: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: The Sixth Sense (1999)
Director M. Night Shyamalan made his debut with this supernatural psychological thriller. Set in Philadelphia, the director’s hometown, this film was so trippy and surprising when it opened—and it still retains that wow factor. It’s not just the plot twist, or the freaky scene showing Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which nobody had heard of at the time (but has now become a horror trope in Netflix’s The Politician, HBO’s Sharp Objects, or Hulu’s The Act). The wow factor in The Sixth Sense runs throughout this film, from a psychologically absorbing plot (“I see dead people”) to performances by Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, and Haley Joel Osment. Even Donnie Wahlberg had a supporting role. (Back then Donnie Wahlberg was mainly known as a founding member of New Kids on the Block, as well as the older brother of rapper-turned-actor Mark Wahlberg.)
Movie tickets sold: The Sixth Sense was the second-highest-grossing film of 1999, earning $672 million globally at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1999 was $5.08.
Where to watch The Sixth Sense: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Malcolm X (1992)
Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, this epic biographical drama film was based on Alex Haley’s 1965 book The Autobiography of Malcolm X that Alex Haley and Malcolm X co-wrote. Denzel Washington is in the title role; this was his second collaboration with firebrand Spike Lee (after 1990’s Mo Better Blues). Other stars and cameo appearances include Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee himself, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Nelson Mandela.
Spike Lee opens Malcolm X with the 1991 film footage of the four LA police officers brutally beating Rodney King with their batons. A passerby had captured King’s beating on camcorder, much like bystanders captured the killing of George Floyd last summer.
The camera is a truth-teller in Spike Lee’s 3-hour biopic of Malcolm X. It helps us to walk in the shoes of this human rights leader who grew up during the Klan’s heyday and whose thoughts on race continued to evolve throughout his life until his assassination in 1965. This progression of thought is captured in the rendering of key events that shaped Malcolm’s life: his time in prison for burglary; his 1952 conversion (in prison) to the black nationalist group Nation of Islam; his later departure from NOI; his pilgrimage to Mecca where he experienced the peaceful brotherhood of all races; his marriage to Betty Shabazz; and his life as a Muslim minister when he created his own group that focused on human rights and building up African American communities.
This larger-than-life thinker, orator, and activist is brilliantly captured in this movie. Spike Lee’s storytelling combines with Malcolm’s own words put down on paper with Alex Haley. When Malcolm X says, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed,” we think of so many things—one being the truth of camerawork. One of the more memorable quotes from the movie is: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!” #BlackLivesMatter
Movie tickets sold: Malcolm X received worldwide critical acclaim, earning $48 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1992 was $4.15.
Where to watch Malcolm X: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Schindler’s List (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg, this epic historical drama is based on the 1982 historical novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. The film tells the story of the more than a thousand “Schindler Jews” who were saved from the Holocaust, and the German industrialist Oskar Schindler who saved them through employment in his factories in Poland. During the German occupation of Poland, Hitler established ghettos, including one in Krakow, where Polish-Jewish people were exploited, terrorized, and ultimately sent to concentration camps. Refugees from the Krakow ghetto came to work in Schindler’s factories. The film stars Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Göth, and Ben Kingsley as Schindler’s Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern. Renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman performed the theme song “Schindler’s List,” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. The film also won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.
The film is a powerful document of one sliver of the Holocaust and sparked a more open conversation about survivors’ stories. “After the movie came out, more people wanted to learn. It seemed like the wall of silence fell down,” says Rena Finder, who was 13 years old when she went to work in Schindler’s enamelware factory. The film also gave us imagery and a language to discuss the evil of the Holocaust in terms of the individual. On one hand: Schindler, a Nazi, seeks to protect each of his Jewish employees as he realizes the horror of the Holocaust. On the other hand: Amon Göth is absolute evil––the evil of the Nazi regime—and randomly shoots Jewish people from a distance as commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp.
“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” (These are words from the Talmud that are inscribed on the ring presented to Schindler by the men and women he saved.) A title card at the end of Schindler’s List says that in 1993, as a result of the Holocaust, only 4,000 Jews were living in Poland, but around the world, there were more than 6,000 descendants of the Jews saved by Schindler.
Movie tickets sold: Schindler’s List was watched by millions around the world, earning $322 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1993 was $4.14.
Where to watch Schindler’s List: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Life is Beautiful (1997)
Directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, this Italian movie (with subtitles) about the Holocaust is partially based on the book, In the End, I Beat Hitler, which Benigni’s father co-wrote about his time in a German labor camp during World War II. Critics and moviegoers alike praised this movie’s beautiful father-son relationship, as it’s rendered through the extraordinary imaginative games the father uses to shield his son from the horrors of the concentration camp. The movie is a triumph indeed.
Movie tickets sold: Life is Beautiful received worldwide critical acclaim, earning $229 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1997 was $4.59.
Where to watch Life is Beautiful: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Thelma and Louise (1991)
Directed by Ridley Scott, this movie is a classic female buddy movie and became a landmark feminist film now preserved in the National Film Registry. It stars Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Brad Pitt, and Michael Madsen. Best friends Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) embark on a road trip to escape their humdrum lives in Arkansas. Tragedy and disaster ensue, and the women take charge. The ending is iconic and weirdly inevitable; at the very least, we can’t stop talking about this movie’s gender politics and its validation of the female experience.
Movie tickets sold: Thelma and Louise was a smash hit, earning $45 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1991 was $4.21.
Where to watch Thelma and Louise: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Directed by Kimberly Peirce, this biographical film is based on the real-life story of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank’s debut). This young transgender man, born Teena Renae Brandon, moves to rural Nebraska to find love but falls victim to a hate crime. Two male acquaintances of he and his lover Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny) brutally murder Brandon when they discover he’s transgender—making him pull down his pants. They torture, rape, and shoot him.
The film was an instant critical hit and a box office success. It became a lightning rod for LGBTQ rights and protection from hate crimes and discrimination. Boys Don’t Cry opened a year after the Laramie, Wyoming torture and murder of gay teenager Matthew Shepard, a well-publicized murder that spurred hate-crime legislation as well.
Boys Don’t Cry also sparked conversation about what it means to be transgender and to feel inherently you’re the opposite gender of the one you were assigned at birth. Brandon and Lana are star-crossed lovers in this movie, and Brandon’s personality is wonderfully captured by Hilary Swank.
Co-writer of the film Peirce Bienen, who began the script in college, auditioned hundreds of actors before coming upon Hilary Swank. As Peirce recalls, Hilary Swank’s audition “was the first time I saw someone who not only blurred the gender lines, but who was this beautiful, androgynous person with this cowboy hat and a sock in her pants, who smiled and loved being Brandon.”
Hillary Swank won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Brandon Teena.
Movie tickets sold: Ranked as the best film of the year, Boys Don’t Cry was a major hit at the box office, earning $20 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1999 was $5.08.
Where to watch Boys Don’t Cry: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant Classic 90s Movies: Philadelphia (1993)
Directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, Mary Steenburgen, and Jason Robards, this story draws us into the pain and suffering of both living a closeted life as a gay man and living with HIV/AIDS.
In the movie, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) sues his employer, a powerful corporate law firm, for workplace discrimination and wrongful dismissal. After asking nearly a dozen lawyers to take his case, homophobic Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) reluctantly agrees to take it on.
Aside from the lawsuit storyline, the personal relationships in Andrew Beckett’s life were central to the success of this movie. Andrew Beckett and his partner, Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas) were two men sharing life in love in a beautiful and committed relationship; the relationships Andrew shared with his family are portrayed as loving, accepting, close-knit and supportive. Telling Andrew’s story in the context of these personal and family bonds was instrumental in helping to advance equality and acceptance for gay men and women.
Notably, Philadelphia does a tremendous job of humanizing those who are suffering from HIV/AIDS while a the same time educating us about transmission, treatment, harassment, and discrimination.
For more movies like this, check out these movies that changed our perception of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Movie tickets sold: Philadelphia received worldwide critical acclaim, earning $200 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1993 was $4.14.
Where to watch Philadelphia: Buy or rent on Amazon
Most Culturally Significant 90s Kids/Family Movies: Toy Story (1995)
Produced by Pixar Animation Studios, released by Walt Disney Pictures, and directed by John Lasseter, this 90s movie classic was the first entirely computer-animated feature film.
The spectacular Toy Story franchise would follow, but this heartfelt creation was Pixar’s first movie ever. It’s considered one of the best animated films ever made, blending both technical and story sophistication, and scores 100% on Rotten Tomatoes—a rare approval rating.
Toy Story features the music of Randy Newman and the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, and Laurie Metcalf. Critics and the public alike think the original Toy Story’s magic soared somewhere in the vicinity of “infinity…and beyond!” To think it all started with this sketch of a story idea from Pixar: “toys deeply want children to play with them.”
As a Gen Xer, when I sat in the movie theater and entered that toy world for the first time, I felt like a kid again, and I saw my kids more clearly. Toys come to life when we’re not around (who knew?!); they hang with and talk to each other, and they love their children who love them back. We were all a little clingy when we left the movie. We’re still holding on.
Some millennials grew up alongside Andy, watching Toy Story as kids and then seeing Andy go off to college just as they did in Toy Story 3.
Movie tickets sold: Toy Story continues to be a huge hit among audiences, even today. In the year it was released, Toy Story earned $365 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1995 was $4.35.
Where to watch Toy Story: Disney+
Most Culturally Significant 90s Kids/Family Movies: The Parent Trap (1998)
Directed by Nancy Meyers, this romantic comedy is also a huge family favorite movie that has obsessed us all through the decades. An 11-year-old Lindsay Lohan, who makes her debut here, steals our hearts as not one but two characters—Lindsay Lohan plays a set of identical twins separated at birth when their parents (Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson) divorce.
The film is a remake of the 1961 film of the same name, which is an adaptation of the 1949 German novel Lottie and Lisa. Lindsay Lohan has an off-the-charts adorable factor; she also nails a British accent as Annie who grows up in London with mother Elizabeth James (Natasha Richardson), a wedding-gown designer. Twin Hallie grows up in Napa Valley with father Nicholas Parker (Dennis Quaid), who owns a winery. The girls reunite, fortuitously, at summer camp. Shenanigans ensue. The girls trick their father into ending his relationship with his new and nasty girlfriend Meredith (Elaine Hendrix) to reunite with their Mom. Epic scream by the thwarted gold-digger Meredith. Also memorable is the very 90s handshake Hallie (Lindsay Lohan) does with the James’ butler Martin (Simon Kunz).
We can’t forget to mention the iconic combination of peanut butter and Oreos. If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out.
Recently, the cast got together for a reunion organized by Katie Couric, a self-described “huge fan” of Nancy Meyers. On Instagram live, Katie Couric interviews the cast for a nostalgia-fest show that would also raise money for the World Central Kitchen, a charitable organization providing food relief throughout the pandemic. Katie Couric and Nancy Meyers both support the organization. The cast provided donations, and fans can do the same here.
Movie tickets sold: The remake of The Parent Trap was extremely popular, earning nearly $84 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1998 was $4.69.
Where to watch The Parent Trap: Disney+
A Slacker-style stroll through other 90s classic movies
Just as the movie Slacker (1990), directed by Richard Linklater, kicks off the decade with a day in the life of twentysomething “slackers” in Austin, Texas, here’s a meandering quick-hit list of other must-see movies, in no particular order, to cruise through the 90s and capture more key moments. For added free-wheeling fun, we riff on the iconic Got Milk? ad campaign, which debuted in 1993 (and featured celebs like the Olsen twins), to round up these movies.
We bring this back every time we take a sip of milk https://t.co/cmPSg1JogK
— got milk? (@gotmilk) February 16, 2021
Slacker (1990) – Richard Linklater directs and stars in this quirky movie casting more than one hundred people and featuring one long conversation that zig-zags among these eccentric twentysomethings.
The Piano (1993) – In this movie featuring a relationship between a mute Scottish woman Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and New Zealander George Baines (Harvey Keitel), sexual tension builds as George watches Ada play the piano, the only way she communicates. Anna Paquin makes her debut as Ada’s daughter Flora. This strange movie had us so spellbound that it created a joke at the time – If this movie were called The Kazoo, would it have had the same effect on us?
The Crying Game (1992) was an instant cult hit because of plot twists, magnetic connections, the mysteries of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and of course the iconic cast: Forest Whitaker, Miranda Richardson, Jaye Davidson, and Irish actor Stephen Rea who lit up the 90s. Fans walked around mock-singing “I know all there is to know about the crying game” from the haunting theme song by Boy George. But do you?
Jerry Maguire (1996) is a 90s rom-com featuring slick but conscience-stricken sports agent Jerry (Tom Cruise) and lovely single mother Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger’s debut). Jerry’s co-dependent agent-client relationship with Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character Rod Tidwell (“Show me the money!”) is the catalyst to a deep and lasting friendship between the two men. We also watch as his accountant Dorothy helps Jerry find his way to understanding what true intimacy is all about. The final scene is a little cheesy but a whole lotta sweet romance is packed in there, too.
Clueless (1995) is a sweet, funny rom-com about rich girl Cher, (Alicia Silverstone) growing up in Beverly Hills. Her love interest Josh, (Paul Rudd), is an intellectual, college-aged, guy who also happens to be her adorable stepbrother. Her overprotective father Mel Horowitz (Dan Hedaya) is a single Dad and an extremely successful attorney living in a huge house; though strict, he’s very proud of Cher, particularly in moments like renegotiating the grades on her report card. Cher’s best friends, Dionne (Stacey Dash), Tai (Brittany Murphy), Murray (Donald Faison), and Elton (Jeremy Sisto) deliver plenty of hilarious moments as we watch them grow and mature. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, it’s packed with endless quotable moments — “Cher, You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” — and coming-of-age-in-Beverly-Hills humor.
Boogie Nights (1997) is a 70s extravaganza exploring the heyday of the porn industry and its drug-fueled decline. Disco combines with irreverent storytelling and an iconic-level 90s cast, including Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, John C. Reilly, and Mark Wahlberg — who enjoyed critical acclaim for his performance. “I’m the boss of me. I’m the king of me. I’m Dirk Diggler.”
More Like This: Best feel-good 80s movies to watch, straight from a Gen Xer
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