1999 was a watershed year for American Movies that saw an embarrassment of inventive, forward-thinking releases (like AMERICAN BEAUTY, BOYS DON'T CRY, MAGNOLIA, FIGHT CLUB, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, THE SIXTH SENSE, MAN IN THE MOON, THE MATRIX, SOUTH PARK: BIGGER LONGER UNCUT, and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT). This burst of adventurousness was the culmination of a creatively fertile decade that produced a plethora of new genres and a variety of fresh approaches to screenwriting and film making. In this moment, a fistful of movies were each ahead of a particular curve and paved the way for some bold, innovative trends. They are the TOP 10 MOST INFLUENTIAL FILMS OF THE 90'S.
NEO was The One to a new generation of movie goers
The age of the Personal Computer was initially reflected at the movies in cheap exploitation flicks like HACKERS and THE NET, but that changed with the arrival of THE MATRIX. Wit its debut, the digital age had finally come to the Cineplex.
Not only did The Matrix literally plunk its audience down smack dab in the middle of a computer-created cyberworld, it was the first major release since JURASSIC PARK (at the start of the decade) to markedly advance the value of computer generated special effects, forever changing the look of millennial action movies.
Released in roughly the same breath as similarly themed fare like EXISTENZ, THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR, and DARK CITY, The Matrix stood out among the throng. Drawing from a Fan Boy's treasure trove of pop cultural influences, the Wachowski Brothers did for Nerd Culture what Tarantino had done for Movie Geek Culture five years earlier. Borrowing from the work of William Gibson, Graphic Novels, and all manner of modern and ancient philosophies, their dark opus not only incorporated that impressively wide range of influences but also brought the true look and feel of the Bronze Age of Comic Books to the Big Screen for the first time. The next two decades would be dominated by Superhero Movies, and The Matrix paved the way for the genre to be taken seriously and for its atmosphere to be effectively rendered.
The movie's visual style itself became a much copied and often referenced iconography. Pics like INCEPTION, SOURCE CODE, SNATCH, MINORITY REPORT, STEVEN SODERBERGH'S OCEAN'S movies, and ETERTNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (and other areas of entertainment as disparate as fashion, video games, and modern dance) were all influenced by the rhythms and revolutions of The Matrix's atmosphere, movement and ultra-cool aesthetic.
Between CAMERON CROWE'S SINGLES and BEN STILLER'S REALITY BITES, GEN X found its own unique voice at the movies, and the two films gave rise to a host of imitators seeking to explore and exploit the phenomenon. But while Crowe's salute to grunge era Seattle is rooted in his own Echo Boomer sensibilities, BITES (written by twenty-something waitress Helen Childress and directed by a twenty-something Stiller) actually captured the true Gen X-er vibe for the very first time.
Its characters speak in references and slogans, the storyline focuses as much on social habits as it does on narrative action, and the look manages a sunny but grungy wash that had not yet been painted by a Hollywood brush. Other movies that later sought to capture their own slice of 90's post-collegiate life were occasionally on the mark (KICKING & SCREAMING, OFFICE SPACE, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER) but generally far, far off (IF LUCY FELL, MALLRATS, SWINGERS).
#8-THE USUAL SUSPECTS
(The following TOP 10 entry contains hints and allusions that could potentially ruin the endings of several movies...for anyone who's been living under a rock...in a cave...on Mars for the last 20 years.)
Derived from the renewed interest in crime fiction that swept
through the mid 90's, BRYAN SINGER'S THE USUAL SUSPECTS was a concerted effort to make a more traditional film noir. The twist ending had long been a staple of the crime and mystery movies of the original pulp fiction era, but SUSPECT'S BOFFO, GOTCHA' moment in its final reel sparked a trend that outlasted the decade.
Who is Keiser Sose? The answer caught us all by surprise
For better or worse, twist endings became common carnival at the movies. And as is likely down at the local theater, there were the Good (12 MONKEYS, THE SIXTH SENSE, THE OTHERS, FIGHT CLUB), the Bad (VANILLA SKY, THE FORGOTTEN, THE VILLAGE) and the Ugly (THE RICH MAN'S WIFE, THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE, DERAILED).
And as with most True Hollywood Stories, the Tale of the Final Twist itself ended in absurdity and irony; the trend became so popular that studios eventually promoted films (like UNBREAKABLE and SHUTTER ISLAND) by ADVERTISING that they had surprise endings, effectively ruining any potential impact these twists may have had on their intended audiences.
"With an ending you won't see coming!" Well, I probably WOULDN'T have...
#7-THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
"It puts the lotion in the basket." "Quid pro quo." "Hello, Clarice." "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."
The wealth of memorable characters, indelible images and quotable lines that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS contributed to the pop culture zeitgeist is staggering. References to the film's language and imagery (human skin mask, anyone?) were EVERYWHERE in the early 90's. And you couldn't hear that MUSIC without chills running the length of your spine.
Not since the Hitchcock era were low lit corridors, serial killers, and their relentless pursuers so celebrated at the movies. The enormous financial and critical success of Jonathan Demme's Oscar winning thriller lead to a revived popularity of police procedural dramas, first in film and then on television, that continues to this day. Never were morgues, autopsies, and rare imported moth larvae so goddamned sexy.
#6-THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
It seems so obvious in retrospect. The brilliance of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, like so many other great ideas, lies in its simplicity and its "Why didn't I think of that?!" impact. And that (seemingly) easy genius propelled it into the stratosphere of pop cultural explosions.
The media at the time focused more on the Internet-centric promotional campaign and the Sci-Fi Channel tie-in special that attempted to give the impression that the events of the movie were actually fact, not fiction, but the longer lasting influence of BWP has been its VHS cum Cinema Verite approach. An approach that, in the age of digital cameras and handheld home movies, has developed into its very own sub-niche of horror and sci-fi.
The success of recent movies like CLOVERFIELD, INSIDIOUS, and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY owes a great debt to the boldness and creativity of the minds behind (and in front of) The Blair Witch Project.
JUST MISSED THE LIST AT #11-JFK
Beyond its paranoia and politics, even in spite of its very premise, JFK is inarguably a masterpiece of technical skill and a wild blitzkrieg of film and sound editing. Between JFK and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Oliver Stone perfected a style of audio-visual storytelling that was unique to film as an art form. JFK's cut-n-paste jumps, mix and match of stocks and styles, and overlapping soundscapes would inspire movies and television alike (SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB, MALCOM X, THE X-FILES, LOST, the CSI franchise).
The film's even larger influence, however, extended beyond the celluloid and into the very real world of legislation and government. Because of the groundswell caused by the film's assertions of conspiracy and cover-up, the vaulted files pertaining to the Kennedy assassination
were made public much earlier than originally mandated. In fact, because of the renewed interest generated by the movie's mix of pathos and creative editing, a whole series of documents have been made available over the years, each one proving more and more that the collusion depicted in the movie never actually happened. This gives JFK the distinction of starting a movement that disproved its own thesis.
JFK was so influential, it started a movement that disproved its own thesis
It would be an understatement to say that PIXAR'S flagship release forever raised the bar for animated feature films or to merely say that it altered the very idea of what kid's entertainment could and should be. TOY STORY did, indeed, as they say, change everything!
It had an immediate and irreversible impact on the look of animation at the movies, leaving the old hand drawn 2D model in the dust of television and occasional attempts at a revivalist movement. It completely changed audience expectations regarding the complexity of story, character and action sequencing in a genre formerly dominated by throwaway two-hour toy commercials and the assembly line saccharine of the long revered original Disney model. TOY STORY's depth of emotion, its layered humor, and the ambition of its screenplay invited adults (and their inner children) back to the Saturday Matinee for the kind of movie that speaks to young and old alike. That influence has now become the industry standard and still informs the movie going public's perception of what they're going to see when they take their little ones to their very first films.
I would never claim that ID4 is one of the great American Classics or that it's likely to be nominated for any AFI awards in the foreseeable future...but I will readily admit that I saw it 3 times in the theater the summer that it first graced my local Kerasotes. And I will always contend that as pure entertainment, it deserves an A+ all the way around.
Essentially the same kind of cheapie genre flicks we all grew up watching as kids on late night TV, INDEPENDENCE DAY pumps a big studio budget and state of the art F/X into that same fun format. What Dean Devlin and Roland Emerich were also wise enough to incorporate was a 90's sensibility by making their characters pop culture savvy and by goosing the audience with references to all that had come before.
This combination of B-Movie nostalgia, big budget thrills and Gen X snark made ID4 not only a huge box office smash but also created a new template for the summer blockbuster that continues to draw in audiences year after year.
#3-BOYZ N THE HOOD
Certainly not the first film to depict life in America's late century urban communities (Spike Lee had already cranked out a catalog of African-American centric comedies, including his breakthrough work DO THE RIGHT THING while writer-director Matty Rich had won acclaim a few years prior for the brilliant STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN), BOYZ was the first movie to effectively capture the mood of the Gangsta Rap generation. And the results were mesmerizing.
The film managed to, at the exact right moment, catch the cultural wave of a new, grittier hip hop that had begun with costar Ice Cube's former rap group NWA and that had continued in music into the early 90's with the mainstream success of fellow NWA member Dr. Dre and his protégé Snoop Doggy Dog. BOYZ 'N THE HOOD put viewers through the full range of the South Central experience, showing the bonding and the breaking that go hand in hand with life under the stresses of poverty, police rule, and gang mentality.
The film proved so resonant for some audiences that fighting and rioting broke in theaters during showings throughout the Los Angeles area. This would prove true as well for similarly true to life depictions like the HUGHES BROTHERS' MENACE II SOCIETY a few years later.
cinema had previously been relegated to low budget exploitation pieces or fringy art house releases rarely seen by the public at large. John Singleton's poetic and brutally honest BOYZ kicked off a movement that saw Black filmmakers telling their own stories to both popular and critical applause.
Somebody took their love of scary movies too far, and we loved every minute
Mired in stale, seemingly inescapable clichés and increasingly lame sequels to long worn out franchises, the American Horror movies of the early 90's were like some sad, defanged creature, clinging to its final, boring breath. Then, in 1996, SCREAM revitalized the genre.
Wunderkind screenwriter Kevin Williamson's solution to Horror's problems was to embrace the clichés and standard tropes by making his characters fully aware of them (even as they continually succumbed to them). Scream's mix of thrills and chills proved so addictive that soon there were a host of self-aware horror films on the market full of teens cracking meta while running from a ghastly gallery of ghost-faces and ghouls.
Meta-Horror became so popular in the late 90's that major studios were moved to create entire subsidiaries that specialized in the form. The mostly inferior fluff produced by these boutiques lacked not only Williamson's wit and gift for teeny bopper hyper-gab but also his immense talent for tension and suspense. For the beauty of the original SCREAM lies not just within its tweaking and winking but also in its genuinely scary moments, its script's well-laid mystery, and a twist near the end that actually works (and holds up to repeated viewings).
Inevitably, Hollywood's lack of originality and honesty would (as usual) result in the ultimate irony: the (truly awful) SCARY MOVIE franchise in which the (truly deplorable) Wayans Brothers attempted a parody of a parody while completely missing the point and lacking the true humor of the original films. (Like "a copy of a copy of a copy.")
Every few years, there seems to be a debate about whether PULP FICTION is all it's cracked up to be. The supporters say "Yes, it's Robert Altman meets Don Segal! What's not to love?!" while the detractors claim "It's pointless! It's not really ABOUT anything!" (I'll tackle this debate later in my column's life with a little piece called "It's A Movie About Nothing." ) But love it or hate it, QUENTEN TARANTINO's PULP FICTION is undeniably the most impactful film of its decade. (I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it by the way and will defend it to the death!)
The truth is that the atmosphere and attitude of Pulp Fiction are so enveloping that practically every line is quotable. In what other film (or in the hands of what other director) would the line "Pork chops taste good" be a piece of dialogue that friends spout to each other at parties? In what other movie would conversations about cheeseburgers, and vandalized hot rods, and pot bellies seem fresh and exciting? In what other work would surf rock and sodomy seem so effortlessly blended? What Tarantino achieves with Pulp is a wonderland of deviance and debauchery, and instills it with so much enthusiasm it gets into its audience's bloodstreams and stays with them for years.
Pulp's nonlinear narrative, dark humor, explosive violence, and pop culture obsessed heroes & villains all became fixtures in a new kind of American Gangster movie. The list of movies made in the afterglow of Pulp Fiction is long and varied (BOONDOCK SAINTS, THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD, THREE DAYS IN THE VALLEY, OUT OF SIGHT, THE LIMEY, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and many, many more).
The argument that PF ultimately does not amount to much, that its lack of traditional narrative and circular nature render it meaningless in the end, may have some merit with certain critics, but even those non-believers and naysayers cannot deny that PULP FICTION was the most influential and culturally important movie of the 90's.
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Apr 3, 2012 12:34 AM
|I almost disagreed with with #6 since it was the greatest con job of the 90s. But your argument that it basically created a genre, much like George Romero created the "Zombie Genre," the "found Footage" genre, the movies you mentioned only scratches the surface. The indie community cranks out these films on a regular basis!|
Good food for thought!
Apr 6, 2012 4:52 AM
|What about something from the genre of Comedy? Wasn't there some important and influential film from that category? Or - How about a Western like Unforgiven? Didn't that film help revitalize that whole genre?|
Apr 12, 2012 11:17 PM
|This is a really well written article, dude. And I think it's a pretty dead-on list. There is one movie that popped into my mind when I read the comment below about comedies, and it's actually another one from 1999: Since it influenced a lot more movies than it should've, I think a case could be made for American Pie. I haven't even seen it or its bajillion sequels, but it sure led to a lot of dumb teen comedies. |
That's neither here nor there though. Ya know, usually with lists like this, I'm expecting to go "Oh come on," but I thought all of these were logical choices. Even your references to stuff that influenced these movies, and movies that each of these led to, were sharp. Great job.
Apr 15, 2012 1:09 AM
|Yes...The Matrix would be on my list....they kind of invented new camera tricks like Lucas did for Star Wars....however it always kind of bothers me that no one ever give Mortal Kombat credit for starting the whole CGI thing....although not the best movie ever made they still did some pretty cool and ground breaking things with that film.|
Apr 16, 2012 5:23 PM
|Yeah you're right about that! Superbad was one of the good ones it influenced. I never saw Mortal Kombat - I'll have to check that one out.|
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The 90’s was one of the great decades in American Cinema, and I intend to explore it one film, genre, or director at a time.
Matt Berry is a copy writer, music journalist & occasional author of Weird Tales-inspired short fiction from Illinois who loves talking and writing about movies and music almost as much as he loves the music and the movies themselves. And the more coffee, pie, and cigarettes consumed during those discussions, the better!|
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