90’s nostalgia is so ubiquitous that it’s become almost gauche. Endless reboots of popular 90’s phenomenon and an exhausting cycle of predictable retro fashion have inundated popular culture with an almost frightening lust for millennial childhood. No wonder so many have already moved on to glamorizing the early aughts!
It’s a shame that so much 90’s ephemera has been poisoned by revisionist sentimentality considering the actual artistic achievements of that decade were quite formidable. Sure, it’s easy to remember the romantic camp of Titanic with fondness — but there were actual astounding works of art being made at that time, too. In fact, 90’s classics like The Fifth Element and Silence of the Lambs have already made it onto our lists of best sci-fi movies and best thrillers, respectively.
The 1990’s are remembered for girl power and grunge as much as Clinton’s presidency and pan-global technological innovation: And despite or because of political triumph and social upheaval, 90’s cinema was a time of wondrous experimentation and — less fortunately — a whole lot of cinematic kitsch (like You’ve Got Mail and Forrest Gump— as if!).
The danger with nostalgia is that it glosses over some of the unfortunate realities of the past — so let’s take off those rose-tinted glasses and have a more realistic look back at some of the greatest achievements in 90’s cinema.
Paul Verhoeven had established himself as the king of ultra-violent excess with Robocop several years before the release of this schmaltzy ode to sleeze. Like most of the bizarro auteur’s well-known films, Showgirls walks a fine line between so-bad-it’s-genius and actually terrible — but cinephiles have attached themselves to this salacious movie nonetheless. Starring camp queens Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkely, Showgirls is an unparalleled sexual spectacle unlike any movie — or porno — ever made before or after it.
Horror fans have been eagerly awaiting Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta’s reboot of this socially aware supernatural movie, but it’ll be hard to top the original film’s demented vision. Although many wouldn’t expect highbrow aspirations in a film about a ghost that haunts a housing project, Phillip Glass’s score, Virginia Madsen’s acting, and artful direction by Bernard Rose elevates what could have easily been a schlocky story into something much more thoughtful. The eponymous spectre is a kind of vengeful genius loci of the hood — and the terror he incites acts as a frightening commentary on racial inequality in America.
8. Being John Malkovich
A movie as quirky and experimental as Being John Malkovich would have been unthinkable in a pre-90’s cinema landscape; Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze teamed up for this truly strange and self-reflexive psychological fantasy in which real-life actor John Malkovich, playing himself, becomes a vessel for an aging cult of aristocrats looking for eternal life. Even that one-sentence description barely does justice to the film’s surreal world, in which a doorway discovered in a miniature office building acts as a supernatural entrance into the thespian’s mind before dumping various oneironauts (that’s someone who can travel consciously within a dream) into a pile of mud on the side of a highway. John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener are deliciously malicious anti-heroes — and the movie’s unpredictable ending will surely make your skin crawl.
7. Edward Scissorhands
Tim Burton’s gothic fairytale Edward Scissorhands might seem supremely goofy at first, but there’s a good chance you’ll be sobbing by the movie’s concluding moments. A bondage-clad, semi-sentient robot escapes from a cookie factory and is taken in by a kindhearted family. But how can someone with scissors for hands ever show love? It’s a magically real tragedy — and Burton’s idiosyncratic, expressionist depiction of the American suburbs is both jubilant and melancholic.
6. Welcome To The Dollhouse
Director Todd Solandz explores the cruelty of the American suburbs in his darkly hilarious and deeply nihilistic film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Starring the previously unknown Heather Matarazzo as the impossibly socially awkward Dawn Weiner, the film tracks the various indignities the socially ostracized child faces in her soul-crushingly normal New Jersey hometown. Although there’s plenty to laugh at (and some truly iconic fashion moments) throughout, Welcome to the Dollhouse is a heartbreaking portrait of loneliness in a decade that demanded a specific kind of normative conformity.
5. Princess Mononoke
The kinds of ultra-popular high-fantasy escapades that moviegoers flock to en masse these days are exceedingly droll compared to the colorful worlds created by Japanese animator Hayoa Miyazaki. Princess Mononoke is one of the director’s greatest achievements and is masterfully drawn and conceptualized. In the 1990’s, Miyazaki was ahead of the game in predicting our current climate crisis and his whimsical stories acted as an early warning sign about the dire situation caused by man-made destruction. There are plenty of fun characters and magical moments aside from the political messaging, and the action sequences are all absolutely jaw dropping.
4. Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick’s final feature length film explored psychosexual depravity in a tightly wound thriller with spooky, satanic overtones. Nicole Kidman, and the imminently unlikeable Tom Cruise (at that point a real-life couple) are hauntingly desperate in their intertwining searches for sexual satisfaction that lead both into the darkest corners of desire. Although Eyes Wide Shut is less remembered than Kubrick’s most famous films, it might be the best in his entire oeuvre.
3. Doom Generation
While the 90’s are often remembered as a time of economic upturn and social hopefulness, a certain faction of disenfranchised teens were thrashing, moshing, grumbling, and endlessly complaining in the underground. Gregg Araki’s Doom Generation is a showcase of proto-Millennial angst, featuring a delightfully dispassionate Rose McGowan as an ultra-apathetic dream girl caught in a truly bizarre love triangle. There’s plenty of outre object styling and highly aesthetic costume designs that embody the decade’s attitude in this movie, but the film’s dark conclusion says something serious about the violence that lurked underneath all that 90’s optimism.
This movie is so groundbreaking and influential that horror films can essentially be sorted as pre- or post-Scream. Wes Craven’s postmodern masterpiece broke the rules of the genre by saying them aloud, making for a twist-filled journey into and beyond the cliches of scary cinema. The film’s main antagonist, who would later be nicknamed Ghostface by fans, has since become an icon of the 90’s but also of various goth and punk subcultures. Through Scream, starlet Neve Campbell ascended as the Final Girl par excellence.
We’ve only recently learned all the challenges that director Amy Heckerling faced to get this movie made — the 90’s were such a sexist decade that studio execs assumed no one would want to watch a story about a young girl, especially one directed by a woman! They were, of course, laughably wrong about that — and Clueless has since come to epitomize 90’s style, aesthetics, lingo, music, and storytelling. It’s hard to emphasize how truly influential this catchphrase-generating movie really was and continues to be: Despite what at first appears to be a superficial story about vapid, wealthy teens, Clueless laid the blueprint for a specific kind of “girl power” feminism that has manifested in a full fledged movement for women’s empowerment. Besides that, it’s also probably one of the most fashionable movies ever made.
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