Maybe you lived through the 1990s. In which case: Congratulations on surviving an era in which flannel shirts could be paired with day-glo jams and no one would bat an eye. You’re here now, and that’s what’s important. Others can only sit at their grandparents knees’ and reminisce about a time when computers needed a landline to access the internet and Keanu Reeves was our biggest box office star. (Whatever happened to him?)
Suddenly, it seem like after we spent the past few years mining the coke-fuelled 1980s for everything they’re worth (as they say, Stranger Things happened), nostalgia for the most emo of all decades has never been more pronounced — perhaps because it is the last decade that seems likely to feel like a definitive era. (Or am I the only one who feels like everything post iPhone is just an endless, ever-worsening muddle?)
Twitter user Justine Peres Smith recently asked followers for a definitive listing of movies that scream “1990s”:
What’s the most 1990s film you can imagine? It doesn’t even need to be from the 90s— Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) June 21, 2021
Twitter answered, and loudly. What it came up with suggests the ultimate ‘90s experience involved being in your early 20s in the early part of the decade — or also possibly a cave man, a foul-mouthed store clerk, a hip-hop duo trying to pull one over on your folks, or even a literal crow. Though there are common themes to be found, these movies cover quite a bit of ground. And remember, if your favourite isn’t among them, this list is according to Twitter. Direct your complaints accordingly, and then drop your picks in the comments.
The Mask (1994)
The comedy/superhero movie/deeply disturbing mind-f**k starring Jim Carrey is among the very most popular responses to this question — which is mildly inexplicable, since the movie doesn’t seem to have a ton to do with the ‘90s on its face (er, no pun intended), though it does star Jim Carrey, fresh from four years on the groundbreaking (and very ‘90s) In Living Colour, plus it introduced the world to Cameron Diaz — so two quite ‘90s leads. Ninety-four was a Very Good Year for Carrey (and fans of talking of of your arse), as The Mask, Ace Ventura, and Dumb and Dumber were released within months of each other; any would fit well on this list. Recommended here.
Singles was director Cameron Crowe’s second film, and followup to Say Anything…, a movie that itself impressively captured the zeitgeist of the late ‘80s. Here, he made what many people consider to be the definitive Gen X movie. Set in Seattle at a time when grunge (as a style and as a culture) were just getting started, Singles certainly can stake a claim to being a defining early ‘90s movie, serving as a transitional time capsule of white hipsterism. Worth noting the characters are all firmly in their twenties — as the decade went on, a pop culture shift would see more and more movies about teenage concerns (not that the actors were necessarily any younger). Recommended here.
Reality Bites (1994)
Another classic trip into nascent adulthood with angst-ridden Gen Xers moving awkwardly through their 20s — one of them working on a documentary film at a time when that was rather enormously more complicated than it is now. The core cast of talented young actors (including Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller — who also directs — and Janeane Garofalo) lends the comedy-drama an air of prestige, and Lisa Loeb’s massive soundtrack hit “Stay (I Missed You)“ is the decade in three minutes flat, with a super ‘90s video to boot. Recommended here.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
Inspired by teenage comedies of the previous decade, Can’t Hardly Wait sits at an interesting place in the zeitgeist — situated at the tail end of the ‘90s, it looks back fondly on romantic comedies of ages past (meaning: the ‘80s); the nostalgia that would come to define the era (I Love the [Insert Decade Here]) was already in full effect. At the same time, it anticipates the raunchy hijinks of American Pie, which, just a year later, would bring about a full-on revival of the teen sex comedy. Recommended here.
White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
This movie didn’t make me want to play basketball, but it absolutely instilled in me an unfulfilled lifelong desire to go on Jeopardy, just like Rosie Perez. Street hoops has never been just a ‘90s thing, but as a cultural phenomenon it all went to a new level — evidenced by this, an all-time great sports movie about street ball hustlers. Recommended here.
The Crow (1994)
A comic-book movie at a time when they were still a novelty (and good ones, were as rare as natural pearls), The Crow became a cult classic for its appropriately goth aesthetic. The tragic death of the film’s star, Brandon Lee, during filming became an indelible part of The Crow’s legend, lending the film a far more potent staying power and notoriety than it would otherwise have enjoyed (not that the Crow really enjoys anything, except maybe revenge). Recommended here.
Empire Records (1995)
Though it feels like an overstatement to say it launched careers, given it made pretty much no money at the box office, Empire Records certainly stars a bunch of people who would go on to become quite famous (Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler among them). No matter: It’s become a cult classic for its very timely story of the crew of a record store fighting for its survival in the face of a buyout by a major chain. As if that didn’t pin it to the timeline definitively enough, The soundtrack includes groups like Gin Blossoms, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better Than Ezra, and The Cranberries, lending it that unmistakeable ‘90s alt-rock flavour. (And if you saw this one when it came out and want to feel really old, note that Maxwell Caulfield, who plays the impossibly aged and out-of-touch fading rock star Rex Manning, was around 34 during filming.) Recommended here.
House Party (1990)
Though Twitter is giving a lot of love to movies that lay bare the angst of white young adults, this was also the decade during which black filmmakers exploded onto the scene with all-time classics like Boyz n the Hood, Friday, Menace II Society, Soul Food, and many others. Polymath Reginald Hudlin (screenwriter, director, producer, comic book creator, etc.) gave us House Party, a movie that was marketed as a showcase for hip-hop duo Kid ‘n Play, but instead became one of the ‘90s’ most beloved comedies. Two sequels, a couple of direct-to-video spin-offs, and a forthcoming reboot all sprung from Hudlin’s classic. Recommended here.
Airheads is about a band made up of Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler… and includes a cameo from Mike Judge voicing Beavis and Butt-head. Most of the music is more ‘80s-era power rock than anything you’d hear in the ‘90s, but with that cast, it is firmly ensconced in the latter decade. Recommended here.
Encino Man (1992)
Another movie with Brendan Fraser, this one also starring Pauly Shore in his film debut (alongside a young-ish Sean Astin). For some reason, Shore’s ability to speak in a faux-surfer dude patois and repeatedly say: “Hey buuuuddy” made him very, very rich, but Fraser still owns the movie — and perhaps its no coincidence that his leading man career basically maps directly onto the ‘90s, give or take a Mummy sequel. Recommended here.
With Honours (1994)
Still more Brendan Fraser, who worked steadily throughout the 90s. And it’s not hard to see why. Look at him: he’s adorable. He’s also a solid, versatile actor and, by all accounts, a heckuva nice guy. If anything, he should be in more movies. Recommended here.
Interestingly, there’s little to no love for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as a ‘90s movie on Twitter — probably because that movie’s blend of styles doesn’t really pin it to any particular time period (that, or it is good enough to escape the confines of the era). What did make the cut was Go, the most successful of the fast-paced, episodic, post-Pulp Fiction-style movies (and the debut of Doug Liman); its exploration of rave culture feels very of-an-era. Recommended here.
New Jack City (1991)
This tight, taut, noir-ish action thriller directed by Mario Van Peebles sets a drug lord played by Wesley Snipes against undercover detective played by Ice-T. Some of the biggest names in ‘90s new jack and hip-hop (Colour Me Badd, Keith Sweat, Queen Latifah) show up on the very memorable soundtrack. Recommended here.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Lots of votes for the first TMNT film. Which is, of course, ridiculous — the most ‘90s Turtle film of all is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, from just a year later, so we’re making the correction. That the climactic battle takes place during a Vanilla Ice concert means it couldn’t be any other way. Of course, you can always just mainline the Ice Man by grabbing his feature debut, Cool as Ice. The first film is recommended here.
Dick Tracy (1990)
Lots of upvotes for the Warren Beatty-directed comic strip adaptation, though it’s unclear why. The movie is set in a sort of heightened 1930s, and nobody in the cast — Beatty, Annette Benning, Al Pacino, Madonna — really screams 1990s, either. I think people just saw this in the ‘90s. Recommended here.
Batman Returns (1992)
Much like Dick Tracy, Tim Burton’s sequel bat-sequel exists in a world of stylised timelessness, but offers a very modern (then and now) character in Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman. Harassed and finally murdered by her boss, Selina Kyle makes the most of her trauma by reinventing herself as the coolest, kinkiest comic book villain in movie history. Recommended here.
Love Jones (1997)
We have not yet talked about Larenz Tate and his place in the cinema of the 1990s: Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, etc. In this romantic drama, he plays a smouldering poet involved in a doomed romance, and the heat he generates with Nia Long is almost palpable. Recommended here.
In 1995, people were pretty worried that computer hackers were prepared to wield their modems as weapons of mass destruction, bringing down civilisation in an anarchic blitzkrieg. Of course, time has shown that anyone smart enough to do any of that was happier to cash in than to bring down the banks, making Hackers a solid time capsule of a moment when it still seemed like computers were cool. If that weren’t enough to anchor it securely in the ‘90s, it co-stars Matthew Lillard — and impossibly, Scream, which features perhaps the most ‘90s cast ever assembled, didn’t rank on Twitter, so we’ve got to fit the dude in somewhere. Recommended here.
The Net (1995)
Speaking of quaint digital time capsules, Sandra Bullock is simultaneously timeless and very ‘90s in this now-laughable thriller. Twitter weirdly didn’t have a lot to say about Speed, the movie that set her on the road to superstardom (again: too good?), but directed a lot of love toward The Net. The soundtrack of the ‘90s is almost exclusively backed by the sound of a dialling modem, and this movie has a lot of that. It also involves the futuristic and highly improbable life of a woman who telecommutes and mostly only hangs out online, ordering pizza from Pizza.Net. Pure fantasy! Recommended here.
Waiting to Exhale (1995)
Four (mostly) successful black women search for love, romance, and maybe just a little on the side in this Forest Whitaker-directed phenomenon that stars Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, leading an all-time great cast. The soundtrack (with Houston, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, TLC, and many others) is absolutely killer. Recommended here.
Point Break (1991)
Director Kathryn Bigelow broke big with this Patrick Swayze/Keanu Reeves action movie about an FBI agent who goes undercover with surfers to hunt down some skydiving bank robbers. Really! It’s better (and less stupid) than it sounds, but just as gnarly (and no one sells a line like “I caught my first tube today… sir” like the future John Wick). Recommended here.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
At the outset of a decade spent doing action movies and the occasional time-travel comedy, Keanu Reeves put in an excellent performance alongside River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s queer coming-of-age story. It might have been nice had this been more representative of the 1990s, but it does foreshadow a decade during which LGBTQ stories would (very slowly) begin to be told on the screen. Recommended here.
Chain Reaction (1996)
A fair number of upvotes went to Chain Reaction, a movie that I’d almost entirely forgotten existed. The sci-fi action thriller does have some conspiracy elements, which were a major theme throughout the entire decade, from Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1991 to Richard Donner’s appropriately titled Conspiracy Theory in 1997… among many others. Fortunately, conspiracy theories are only a thing in the movies and couldn’t possibly trouble us in the real world. Recommended here.
Double Team (1997)
The 1990s were Jean-Claude Van Damme’s decade as much as they were anyone else’s, and any one of his dozen+ martial-arts action movies from the era could have gotten the nod here. Twitter, wisely, went with this one — it may or may not be among his best, but it does co-star ‘90s pop culture Dennis Rodman, fresh off a championship season with the most ‘90s basketball team, the Chicago Bulls; Mickey Rourke also appears, looking relatively normal, which certainly dates things. (Don’t confuse this with Double Impact, a completely unrelated JCVD movie.) Recommended here.
Fear plays more like a Lifetime TV movie than it does like a feature, starring underwear ad-era Mark Wahlberg as a stalking possessive boyfriend. It’s all pretty nonsensical, but it’s got a lurid charm, and harkens back to an era when Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon (two future Oscar nominees!) could appear together in something this low-rent. Recommended here.
There was a time when Stephen Baldwin, the most uptight Baldwin of all, would have appeared in a movie about college exploration that involves a sexual encounter with another man. That’s how ‘90s this movie is. Recommended here.
Call it Kevin Smith Begins: His early black-and-white comedy about a couple of buddies running a store begat decades of sequels and spin-offs, making semi-beloved cultural figures out of side-characters Jay and Silent Bob. It’s a good movie and an important, influential piece of independent filmmaking — even if the things it influenced don’t always rise to its heights. Recommended here.
Space Jam (1996)
While the Looney Tunes characters didn‘t necessarily have a ton of cultural currency in the early ‘90s (outside of appearing in hip-hop garb on millions of t-shirts), Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls absolutely did, making this a very savvy team-up. It’s a fun movie and an impressive achievement in animation that became enough of a generational hit to spawn a forthcoming sequel with LeBron James taking on the lead role. Recommended here.
Spice World (1997)
There was a lot going on in 1990s music, with grunge, rap, R&B, alt-rock, and even pop-country fighting for dominance in a marketplace that simultaneously wanted all of it and also didn’t know what it wanted what it really, really wanted. As it turns out, we mostly wanted to zigzag ah(!) with the girl pop/girl power group Spice Girls. Alas, like five sporty, spicy, scary, ginger, baby candles, they burned out all too soon — but, for a year or two, the group had more than enough clout and global fame to earn themselves a concert mockumentary a la A Hard Days’ Night. Recommended here.
Sister Act 2: Back n the Habit (1993)
No one on Twitter mentioned this one, which makes this entire exercise suspect. Sister Act 2 (or SI2 as I’ve just now decided to call it) is, in fact, the most ‘90s movie possible, as evidenced by a finale that features a young Lauryn Hill heading up a hip hop-infused gospel number while a multicultural chorus backs her up wearing various grunge-lite flannels, kufi caps, and mum jeans (or, as they were known at the time: “jeans”). By the time a white boy in overalls breakdances across the stage as a prelude to his rap solo, you’ll have to agree that there ain’t nothing more ‘90s than this.