The 90s were a total explosion of cinema. Home video was in full swing, so movies were getting second lives on tape. Other movies were getting chances they wouldn’t otherwise by the ability to go direct-to-video. Movies like As Good as It Gets could gross over $300 million.
It was a true high point of the industry and as a result, some of our best movies come from that decade.
For the first issue of our newsletter, Cut the Cord, I did a genre sampler. I had so much fun with it that I thought I’d do it again. Here’s a little of the best of the best (or at least some of my favorites) in every genre for film’s craziest decade.
Action: Speed (1994)
Los Angeles SWAT cop Jack Traven is up against bomb expert Howard Payne, who’s after major ransom money. First it’s a rigged elevator in a very tall building. Then it’s a rigged bus–if it slows, it will blow, bad enough any day, but a nightmare in LA traffic. And that’s still not the end.
Speed is one of my favorite action movies of all time and although the 90s were full of great action flicks, I could never leave Speed off this list. When the 4K disc came out last year, I picked it up immediately. Do I already own the film on LaserDisc? Of course I do. But I had to see Dennis Hopper’s sweaty performance as sweaty as possible.
The fact that Dennis Hopper plays one of his menagerie of insane villains (there’s another one later on this list) and it isn’t even like one of my top ten things about the movie just shows how unstoppable (dad joke! sorry!) this movie is.
This is the movie that made Keanu an action star and made Sandra Bullock popular. It’s also got one of my favorites, Jeff Daniels, doing a lot of acting. Mark Mancina’s score perfectly builds tension and the Graham Yost screenplay is always one step ahead of you — even on multiple rewatches, which I have done many times.
Comedy: Liar Liar (1997)
Fletcher Reede is a fast-talking attorney and habitual liar. When his son Max blows out the candles on his fifth birthday he has just one wish — that his dad will stop lying for 24 hours. When Max’s wish comes true, Fletcher discovers that his mouth has suddenly become his biggest liability.
Is Liar Liar the best comedy of the 90s? No! But this is not a best-of list…
However, one could argue that Jim Carrey was the best comedian of the 90s. He was definitely the most popular and although Liar Liar’s Fletcher Reede is not on his Mount Rushmore, it is one of my personal favorites of his. Although I like cartoon Carrey (I love him as The Grinch or in Sonic the Hedgehog), I prefer him when his characters are a bit more grounded, so he can use those skills to give his regular joes a little flavor. Bruce Almighty and I Love You Phillip Morris come to mind, but his best 90s version of that is Liar Liar.
Documentary: Hands on a Hardbody (1997)
A 1997 film documenting an endurance competition that took place in Longview, Texas. The yearly competition pits twenty-four contestants against each other to see who can keep their hand on a pickup truck for the longest amount of time. Whoever endures the longest without leaning on the truck or squatting wins the truck.
Hands on a Hardbody is a movie you have to see to believe. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy movie to see. The DVD fetches stupid prices online and the only place to stream it is, get this, through Mailchimp.com. Yes, you read that right. Mailchimp Presents, their streaming service.
But it’s worth hunting down.
These folks from Longview, Texas are quite the cast of characters and I had such a blast rooting for my favorite competitors. They all seem to have the worst possible strategies and postulate the most insane theories on how to win the game. It’s great fun to see which strategies work.
After a while, they become a bit delusional and you begin to question the sanity of the game. But you know from the start the whole idea is insane and that you should never forget that.
And despite the fact that it’s not easy to watch, it’s had a lasting impact. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite documentary and a musical version was a Broadway flop about a decade ago — that show never got a cast recording so it seems as though this story will always be elusive in some way.
Drama: New Jack City (1991)
A gangster, Nino, is in the Cash Money Brothers, making a million dollars every week selling crack. A cop, Scotty, discovers that the only way to infiltrate the gang is to become a dealer himself.
Do you need anything to sell you on this movie other than the line, “Sit your five-dollar ass down before I make change!”
What if I said it featured career-best performances from Wesley Snipes, Ice T, and Chris Rock?
What if I told you it was the directorial debut of Mario Van Peebles, son of blaxploitation legend Melvin Van Peebles, who would go on to make movies for thirty more years?
What if I said it clearly influenced shows like The Wire and music from folks like Jay-Z and 50 Cent?
It’s one of the most important pieces of 90s black cinema and that representation had to be on this list.
Looks like you have no reason not to watch it.
Fantasy: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
A shipwrecked sailor stumbles upon a mysterious island and is shocked to discover that a brilliant scientist and his lab assistant have found a way to combine human and animal DNA — with horrific results.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is a terrible film. But I love it.
It was ravaged by production issues, a studio breathing down their necks, and a cast of characters that was a real cast of characters, (Brando had stopped caring 25 years earlier, so he truly did not care an ounce here — it’s hilarious).
In fact, it was such a disaster, there was an entire documentary made in 2014 about what a mess it was, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. “Mess” is such a good word to use.
The movie is a real damn mess. But that insanity is its charm. I’m not usually the biggest fan of high fantasy, so if the movie thinks it’s outrageous as well, I’m totally on board. Luckily, the source material is strong enough to withhold the outlandishness. I can’t necessarily recommend this movie, but it’s a hell of a time.
Horror: Dead Man’s Curve (1998)
Two roommates plan to kill a third to take advantage of college policy giving a 4.0 grade to a suicide’s roommates.
The 90s were full of copycat movies. When Speed was such a big hit, we got a load of Speed movies on planes and trains. When Tarantino dropped Pulp Fiction, the next decade was full of bad imitations. And when Scream revitalized the horror genre, the scary movie landscape was full of self-aware, obnoxious, teenager-crammed, soft parodies.
Dead Man’s Curve (also known as The Curve) was one of those movies (it even features Scream alum Matthew Lillard) and has sort of faded into obscurity, but I think it’s better than most of that crop and deserves a shoutout.
It’s total 90s schlock. Lillard gives another one of his unhinged performances, the ladies in the cast are splendid, and much of it was filmed right down the street from where I live. It was kind of the perfect movie for me to discover and pass on to you.
Science Fiction: Waterworld (1995)
In a futuristic world where the polar ice caps have melted and made Earth a liquid planet, a beautiful barmaid rescues a mutant seafarer from a floating island prison. They escape, along with her young charge, Enola, and sail off aboard his ship.
I tried to not repeat actors on this list, but I just couldn’t help but include another Dennis Hopper as he plays the snarky Deacon in Waterworld, one of the whackiest films of the decade.
I first met Waterworld the same way that many people do, through the Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios Hollywood, (a quick tangent: I love 90s relics in studio’s theme parks. They thought these movies would be timeless and now Pocahontas is a huge part of Fantasmic! at Disney. It’s hilarious that most people still remember Waterworld because of the show. It’s one of the best things in the park since they took out T2–3D: Battle Across Time.)
Waterworld is another hard movie to recommend because, well, it’s not very good. But some things about it have always really tickled me.
Fine, Yes, those things are the poop swamp and Kevin Costner drinking his own pee.
If it’s not your movie, I get it.
Romance: Cruel Intentions (1999)
Slaking a thirst for dangerous games, Kathryn challenges her stepbrother, Sebastian, to deflower their headmaster’s daughter before the summer ends. If he succeeds, the prize is the chance to bed Kathryn. But if he loses, Kathryn will claim his most prized possession.
There is absolutely nothing romantic about Cruel Intentions. In fact, the steamiest relationship is between a brother and sister…
But what is melodrama without steamy, sexy passion? And this is the melo-ist of the dramas when it comes to the 90s.
Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Reese Witherspoon lead a cast of other twenty-five years old teenagers as they update Les Liaisons dangereuses, which is a source material that is absolutely not at all appropriate for a prep-school setting. I guess they thought the only way that people could be this horny is if they were teenagers…
Where are their parents?
Credit: Each plot synopsis comes from Letterboxd via TMDb.
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