This week’s question comes from reader Tyler Street:
If you had to define the 1990s by using only one movie, what would it be? I would actually pick Empire Records because the clothing has a mix of ’90s grunge and the plaid skirt/midriff sweater combo, it has a classic ’90s soundtrack, and—most importantly—it takes place in a ’90s relic: the record store.
It might be terrible, but Space Jam is my quintessential ’90s movie. It’s a nightmarish concoction built from so many of the decade’s trends: the inescapable popularity of the NBA; Michael Jordan’s world domination; the commercialization and sanitizing of hip-hop culture; Wayne Knight; and, of course, garish Looney Tunes jackets. Perhaps more lasting and more ’90s than the film itself is the soundtrack, which was bursting with hip-hop and R&B stars of the decade, from Seal to R. Kelly to Salt-N-Pepa. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny how ubiquitous that track list became (people are still mashing up the theme song with anything you can think of) and how representative of the era’s very particular strain of schlock that movie is.
It’s a bit rich, perhaps, to claim the definitive ’90s movie came out the very first year of the decade, but 1990’s Pump Up The Volume helped lay down the ironic, smartass soil that nourished 10 years’ worth of not caring but secretly caring so much it hurts. As Mark, a shy teen running a pirate radio station, Christian Slater modeled both the floppy hair and iron wall of sarcastic emotional defenses that would personify the ’90s. It builds off of punk disdain for hippies (represented here by Mark’s gentrified Deadhead parents), society’s bullshit (a school weeding out problem students to score higher ratings), and stuffy, outmoded mores (Mark’s DJ moniker is Happy Harry Hard-On, taken from a porn mag) but added a deep sense of social consciousness—safely protected behind a layer studied indifference, of course. Even though the soundtrack was all ’80s music, it included a lot of stuff I was listening to for the majority of the ’90s.
The only way Pulp Fiction could have been more 1990s would have been if Quentin Tarantino had succeeded in casting Kurt Cobain in the drug dealer role Eric Stoltz ended up playing. To me, Pulp Fiction wasn’t just a standout film of the 1990s: It was the ’90s personified, a pitch-black, wildly meta meditation on destiny, violence, fate, and fast food inextricably rooted in the pop culture that preceded it yet unmistakably a product of its time. Just try to listen to Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” on a jukebox without immediately being transported back to the giddy, halcyon days of the ’90s, when everything seemed so much less apocalyptic than our current uncertain era.
I have watched 1995’s Hackers more times than I care to remember, moving from active enjoyment of it as a kid to active distaste for it as an adult. At this point I remember it all in a sort of plotless fever dream: mid-’90s electronic music, aggressive PlayStation branding, gnarly skateboarding, a young Matthew Lillard, lots of people banging on keyboards and shouting about the internet as an agent of utopian change. With the exception of just how ’90s it all is, it has aged remarkably poorly. Released today, Crash and Burn and the rest of the gang would probably just hang out on Reddit torrenting Gundam episodes and shit-posting journalists on Twitter. The future is here!
I might be taking the question a tad too literally by nominating Slacker, a movie that captures the ’90s for me at least quasi-autobiographically, considering I spent the back half of that decade also aimlessly drifting through Austin, Texas. I’ve written before about my own “slacker” period and the films that informed it (Reality Bites, Clerks), but all of those were just descendants of Richard Linklater’s roving, largely plotless slice of screenwriter’s-imagined-life, set among the indolent, overeducated, pseudo-intellectual working class of Generation X. Slacker captured people who were simultaneously jaded by their Reagan upbringing yet also lounging on the precipice of the Clinton era that afforded them the latitude to lie around on their Goodwill couches, smoking weed and talking about the semiotics of The Smurfs, all without having to overly worry about much. That attitude (naturally appealing to me, a guy who liked to smoke weed and lie around arguing about stuff that didn’t matter) mirrored my own, and it’s partly what drew me to move to Austin to live out my own version of the film, where I half-assed my own joe jobs alongside some of the people who’d actually been in the movie and watched while the cheap rents, coffee houses, and dive bars it lovingly immortalized slowly disappeared, falling victim to the rising influx of new residents like myself. As demonstrated by the 2011 “recreation” of Slacker filmed at all its old locations—many of which have long since been turned into mixed-use condos—the original Slacker is a home movie of a home Austin can’t return to, and it’s a document of a place and people lost to its very specific time.
As a terrible millennial, I was much too young for most of the generation-defining movies of the ’90s when they came out. I will admit that Reality Bites was the first thing that popped into my head, but I finally watched that sometime around 2012. Instead, the decade for me was defined by the animated films of Disney’s Renaissance period. The catch, however, is that the movies themselves don’t feel particularly ’90s. Give or take a couple, they are largely timeless classics. (Hence, the studio is remaking many of them now and raking in the cash.) But if I had to choose one as most era-defining, that would probably be The Lion King. It’s not my personal favorite—that would be Beauty And The Beast—but I’d say it earns the title by being both the most financially successful of the lot and the batch’s creative pinnacle before a (slight) decline for the rest of the decade. Which isn’t to say it’s not brilliant—it totally is. Plus, on a purely personal level, I remember dragging around a Nala stuffed animal as a kid. And you can’t beat that nostalgia.
For the ’90s-iest movie, I’m stuck between Singles and Reality Bites, which have a lot in common: a burgeoning auteur director (Cameron Crowe vs. Ben Stiller), a group of close slacker pals, an urban area, various levels of joblessness, and friends who can’t decide if they should hook up or not. Both movies even used similar marketing campaigns in their trailers, with all-black frames around vague white words like “friends,” “sex,” “jobs,” and “companionship” highlighting the aimless plight of the ’90s twentysomething. But just from a soundtrack standpoint, I have to go with Singles. Reality Bites was happy to highlight its nostalgic looks back (at Good Times trivia, “Conjunction Junction,” a pronounced Shaun Cassidy poster) with songs from Squeeze, The Knack, and Violent Femmes. But Singles offers a capsule depiction of the then-vital Seattle grunge scene, with Alice In Chains in a club, Chris Cornell checking out some speakers, and the members of Pearl Jam backing up Matt Dillon’s character in his band, Citizen Dick. Also, Singles’ self-absorbed characters are just slightly less annoying than the players in Reality Bites, especially Ethan Hawke’s greasy, whiny Troy. It’s a close call, but Singles for the win (but the less said about Paul Westerberg’s lame songs in that movie, the better).
Hey, everyone who answered this before me: You’re all monsters. How the fuck did no one think to name-check Clueless? First of all, it came out in 1995, right in the middle of the decade you’re looking to capture. Second of all, holy hell, is it an encapsulation of a particular time and place. For roughly two years following the release of the film, everyone I know wanted to be somebody in the movie, even if it was Paul Rudd, disparaging all the shallow kids around him. The movie was the embodiment of many of the worst aspects of the ’90s, mostly in ways that were only appreciated by those of us who defined ourselves in opposition to the vapidity of the main characters. (Oh, sure, Cher donated to a nonprofit, but I was busy keeping it real, maaaaan.) Many of the things that made me hate the film upon initial viewing are what make me embrace it now, from the calcified fashions to the gleefully nonsensical “whatever” approach the movie gives to acting, style, look… Basically anything people could judge it for, it already had shrugged its shoulders with a jaded, “Whatever.” That is so fucking ’90s.
I was a kindergartner when the ’90s began and a high school freshman when they ended, so the decade encompasses some of some of my warmest memories—and some of my most embarrassing. And nothing says “nostalgia and humiliation” to me like Batman Forever, the 1995 blockbuster that attempted to square Tim Burton’s German expressionist/goth vision of the Dark Knight with Joel Schumacher’s belief that Gotham City was a deeply silly place. The ’90s signifiers are all over this thing: the soundtrack of modern-rock all-stars, Dick Grayson’s ear piercing, a supporting turn by Jim Carrey that threatens to consume the entire picture. It doesn’t represent the whole of ’90s cinema, but in its excess, it epitomizes what moviegoing was for me in that decade. (And even then, it’s not the best movie that fits those qualifications.) In my dinky little elementary school world, Batman Forever existed beyond the screen, in Kenner action figures, Riddler T-shirts, collectible magazine covers, and a behind-the-scenes TV special hosted by Chris O’Donnell. Watch as O’Donnell explains the significance of “Kiss From A Rose” in Batman Forever, and witness someone else get caught between positive feelings and mortification.
Arriving smack-dab in the middle of the decade, no movie captures the “bigger is better is dumber is better” aesthetic of ’90s blockbusters better than Independence Day. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s masterpiece is as massive and subtle as the giant spaceships that blow the hell out of Bill Pullman’s White House (or Jeff Goldblum’s much-beloved/mocked free-associating performance). Coasting on a brainless script and Will Smith’s then-bottomless reserves of charm—and eschewing the brainier big-budget pleasures of past movies like Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park—Independence Day carried within it the big, dumb seeds of any number of big, dumb movies to come, including Smith’s Wild, Wild West, and Emmerich and Deviln’s own future fumble, 1998’s Godzilla.