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2019 marks the last year that will see a wave of 20 year anniversaries to the most beloved films of the 1990s. Over the past decade, the celebrations of nostalgia have been strong for that last decade of the 20th century, and with the movies it produced, there’s no surprise that it’s been as strong as this crop we’ve seen.
The 20 movies we’re about to run down are probably the most memorable of the decade, and one of the most diverse lineups you could ever expect. If you really want to max out the nostalgia factor, feel free to read this on your old PC, running a dial-up modem connection, and popping open a can of Pepsi Twist. But it’s perfectly fine if you proceed on a modern rig, as nostalgia reads true through any screen.
The perfect triangle of ‘90s love came together when they created Space Jam. Nostalgia for the Looney Tunes, admiration of Michael Jordan’s legendary sports career, and a killer hit soundtrack are the building blocks for this favorite of kids who grew up watching it. Throw in some comedic references of the era it was created for, and you’ve got a movie so perfect for its time, it could have been President.
It’s starting to look like the ‘90s were the era of nostalgia themselves, as another memorable hit of the decade was director Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump. A movie so heartfelt and bittersweet it made many an audience member teary with emotion, Tom Hanks’ protagonist makes his way through history in a way that made adults fond of their youth, and their children fond of this film. Sometimes life is like a box of chocolates, and when you’re crying over some of the stuff Forrest goes through, chocolate helps.
You can hear it, can’t you? The penny whistle melody. The waves on the ocean. Kate Winslet’s voice amazed at the fact that she’s flying. Titanic is already engrained in your memories if you’re reading this list, and you don’t even have to be a child of the ‘90s to have that fate. Between the long lasting scientific debates, the box office records, and even the hit single that Celine Dion provided for the film, director James Cameron’s mammoth epic was the ship of dreams for many who saw it in its initial theatrical run, as well as all who saw it on home video.
If Reservoir Dogs was the warning shot that started Quentin Tarantino’s career, then Pulp Fiction was the full barrage of gunfire that finished the job. With interwoven plots in the same universe, multiple lines of insanely quotable dialogue, and Tarantino’s unique brand of dark gallows humor, audiences latched onto this film almost instantly. We’re betting that golden briefcase Marcellus Wallace was after contained pure box office magic.
The Lion King
Just as Titanic almost instantly sets the scene once its name is invoked, you can practically see the opening of The Lion King once it has been dropped in conversation. A crowning achievement in Disney’s renaissance, it taught kids life lessons about responsibility, entertained them with catchy songs, and probably traumatized a lot of kids with Mufasa’s death due to wildebeest stampede. Some circle of life.
People love dinosaurs, and science has proven this fact time and time again. But when Jurassic Park came out in 1993, even the bullish of speculators probably couldn’t guess how big director Steven Spielberg’s dino theme park would become. CGI had its first big success at the movies, and everyone got to see an adventure that was not only 65 million years in the making, but also worth every day of the wait.
The Silence of the Lambs
The biggest thing that audiences tend to forget when talking about The Silence of The Lambs is that Clarice Starling is actually the lead character in the film. That’s not a knock towards Jodie Foster’s portrayal of the hero from Thomas Harris’ best-selling novel, but rather that’s a comment on just how chilling Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter hit home with audiences of the era. Lecter’s still as creepy and brilliant now as he was then, but over time, it’s been easier to see just how amazing Foster’s green, but tenacious FBI agent compliments it.
It began with a cryptic Super Bowl ad, asking one crucial question: “What is The Matrix?” A couple short months later, the answer would be clearer than ever: it was a cultural goldmine. Mixing the influences of anime, kung fu movies, and philsosophy, The Wachowskis set the world on fire with their tale of an epic war between man and machine. They also made a name for themselves as filmmakers who weren’t afraid to get weird with their product, and helped make Keanu Reeves into an action superstar.
The Big Lebowski
Bowling kind of lost its cool for a little while in the ‘90s, with the sport being relegated to something that only dads did. Then along came The Big Lebowski, which introduced The Dude, the man who made it all cool again. A stoner/slacker who took life one moment at a time, and loved to roll some thunder on the lanes, his beloved sport gained some cool points during his caper to untangle himself from the troubles of someone with the same name. So now when you think of bowling, you think of Jeff Bridges slinging a ball down a lane, a White Russian at the ready, with some Creedence in the tape deck. You could do worse if that’s your sport’s image.
The Shawshank Redemption
Some stories feel like they started as fairy tales, but found themselves molded into something adults could take to heart themselves. The Shawshank Redemption is one such story, as Stephen King crafted a world that very much took place in our own reality, but saw Andy Dufrense go through perils not unlike any prince or princess in all of literature. Seeing writer/director Frank Darabont’s classic go from theatrical flop to absolute classic, all thanks to old school video stores, felt as good as watching Andy emerge from the sewers.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
James Cameron ruled the ‘80s with Terminator and Aliens being his huge efforts in that particular decade, but that wasn’t enough. And before he could even set himself up to rule the world with Titanic, Cameron entered the decade with a sci-fi classic that would forever define him: Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Turning the T-800 into a good guy was only the start, as James Cameron similarly transformed a grim and violent franchise into a meditation on fate, time travel, and personal responsibility. But boy, was it still violent as ever!
Speaking of reinvention, Wes Craven had a crack at turning a table near and dear to himself when he made Scream. A post-modern slasher film, Craven used his skills as a horror professional, teamed up with writer Kevin Williamson’s hip script, and created some new nightmares for the kids of that era. While Ghostface is a more grounded evil than Freddy Kruger, it’s certainly as memorable, as you could still quiz people about the rules of a horror film and they’d probably be able to answer correctly.
Divorce isn’t an easy subject to discuss in any context, especially when humor and heavy prosthetic makeup are involved. Yet both are key ingredients to just why Mrs. Doubtfire works as a movie, as not only does Robin Williams navigate the laughs with perfect timing, he also works with Sally Field to ground the reality of their failed marriage. It’s funny, but knows when to take itself seriously; much as it’s a dramatic film that knows how to balance the fun with the tears.
Beauty And The Beast
Around the same time The Disney Store started to invade your local mall, Beauty and The Beast made its way into theaters across the world. This tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, was so big of a hit that it landed a nomination for Best Picture, in an era with no Best Animated Film category. And after you saw Belle and her Beast fall in love for the first time, there was the Disney Store, waiting to offer you a pre-order for the film on VHS, and some cute merch you could wear to school the next day.
If you ever wanted to study the ‘90s as a cultural era, you basically need to throw Clueless into the fold. The clothes, the slang, and the usage of pop culture to adapt a story as classic as Jane Austen’s Emma are all hallmarks of the decade, and Alicia Silverstone’s Cher is the perfect icon to represent each of those aspects it embodies. Also, if you want proof that Paul Rudd is ageless, watch Clueless right before you see Avengers: Endgame. You’ll start forming your own theories once that’s in the noggin.
Will Smith has seen his share of interesting creatures, and Independence Day was the first time he actually got to whoop some otherworldly ass on the big screen. As part of an all star ensemble that included Jeff Goldblum, and a very young Mae Whitman, he was one of the last lines of defense against invading forces hellbent on ruining our planet. While the entire ensemble had their own memorable moments, it's hard to argue against Smith being an MVP, as this film helped catapult him into box office royalty; as well as started his career in alien relations.
Some movies don't hit automatically, but once they get to VHS, they soar. The Shawshank Redemption saw that sort of fate, and to a certain extent, so did Hocus Pocus. As a tepidly reviewed film in its initial release, the Disney spooktacular would go on to become a Halloween staple for all who remembered growing up with it. This only helped future generations find their way to the antics of the Sanderson Sisters, and the lesson of what happens when you let a virgin light a black flame candle on Halloween. You'd think the fact that it's a black flame would scare people away from even trying to light that special candle.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
If it wasn't for the quirky pet detective that Jim Carrey inhabited in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, who knows if his rise to fame would have ever happened? While playing a lot of fun and memorable characters on TV's In Living Color, Carrey really took off once he started palling around with animals, solving crime with Courtney Cox and Tone Loc, and snooped around all of Miami to find a missing mascot. Would he have been a star without the film? We're not sure, and we're al-righty with not finding out that particular cosmic truth.
Another question that drove moviegoers crazy throughout the decade was “What’s in the box?” Whether it be repeated mockingly, or with serious intent, director David Fincher left the world on a hell of a cliffhanger by the time Seven came to a close. Watching Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman doing their best detective work helped usher in Fincher as a talent to watch out for, but also gave us one of the best mystery stories to be told in such a bleak and grim manner.
Men in Black
Over 20 years ago, Agent J and Agent K defended Earth from the worst scum in the universe, as Men in Black made Will Smith the king of the 4th of July box office for a spell. With a deft hand mixing the tones of comedy and drama into the story of a top secret organization sworn to monitor and fight extraterrestrial activity, and some really good casting at work putting Smith alongside Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black is a movie that’s so fun to revisit, it’s almost as if you’re watching it for the first time.
And those are the 20 classics that, we feel, bring the most nostalgia to the table. Of course, nostalgia is pretty subjective, and the '90s were so big that there's plenty of films that might feel left out. So if you've got a particular favorite that isn't on our list of the most memory making films of that decade, send 'em our way in the comments below. It's as good a time as any to have a nostalgia party, so don't be shy and share away!