How We Got Here – The ’90’s On Film

Last week I rolled out my list of the most influential movies of the 1980’s.  With this week’s list of influential movies from the 1990’s it’s easy to see how the Baby Boomer generation responded to their turn behind the wheel while fighting to outpace the rapid spread of the postmodern revolution.

Amid the deconstruction of the Soviet Union and the reconstruction of Europe; “alternative” music, reality television, and the information superhighway joined forces to create one of the most disjointed decades since the 1920’s.  In the ’90’s, domestic terrorism sat next to international peace keeping efforts while technology companies danced to a soundtrack made up of Gangsta Rap, New Country, and semi-corporate rock.

The forecast from ZooTV: Mostly bleak with increased chances of boy bands as the Millenium ends.

This is a list of 10 culture shaping films of the 1990’s, one for each calendar year of the decade.  It isn’t a list of the “best”, “top grossing” or, “most popular” but a list of the movies that defined the ’90’s and set the stage for the world we are now living in.  It is by no means comprehensive.

These are the movies that led us to where we are today:

1990- Dances With Wolves (PG-13)
The Western Genre didn’t fare well during the 1980’s.  The most popular westerns of that decade were either television miniseries or set in the Australian outback.  After spending nearly 5 years in development, “Dances With Wolves” took to screens in the fall of 1990 and was immediately embraced by critics and audiences alike for its sympathetic portrayal of the Native American.

Kevin Costner wrote and directed a sweeping epic that spanned two of America’s most romanticized eras, the Civil War and the Old West.  Where Costner broke new ground was by embracing the emerging revisionist history of writers like Howard Zinn.  “Dances With Wolves” didn’t present the viewer with a classic or anti-hero western story, instead it placed its lens squarely on the “noble savage”.  Throughout the 1990’s Hollywood would work the historical revision formula on subjects ranging from Christopher Columbus to Geronimo.

1991-  JFK (R)
After setting us straight about the Vietnam with “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July”, Oliver Stone offered his talents to the Baby Boomer’s most sacred shared experience: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  This efficiently paced, well cast, and thought provoking suspense film touched an exposed public nerve about not trusting the government.  In doing so it laid the groundwork for the conspiracy theory craze that fueled such ’90’s landmarks as “The X-Files” and the hamfisted Mel and Julia cash in “Conspiracy Theory.”

As powerful as it was, the conspiracy craze was not the most far reaching influence of “JFK”.  Stone’s presentation of an entirely plausible, yet fictional, theory that “the people’s president” was killed by a “self-serving government”,  started a trend that would ultimately culminate in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.  We call the new genre “historical fiction”.

1992- Wayne’s World (PG-13)
The late 1980’s had been a very successful time for Saturday Night Live.  Fresh, young cast-members like Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reinvigorated the program in the face of stiff competition from an onslaught of new sketch comedy shows.  Director Penelope Spheeris took a popular 7 minute sketch and added enough talented supporting actors, pop culture references, and stylistic directives to make a surprisingly entertaining film.

How does a movie about two 30-something adolescent males being bilked out of their cable access program by a media bigwig become one of the top grossing movies of the year?  Well it starts as a hilarious bit on Saturday Night Live, and then its cult status gets exploited by media bigwigs.   For good or for ill, after Wayne’s World there was no SNL skit that didn’t get made into a movie.

1993-Jurrassic Park (PG-13)
Everything that Steven Spielberg achieved in the ’80’s set the stage for the blockbuster success of his adaption of Michael Crichton’s novel.  Whether it was in demonstrating the frailty and necessity of the father/son relationship or making beasts seem human, with “Jurassic Park” Spielberg’s masterful talents were on display against the revolutionary backdrop of computer generated images.

In “Jurassic Park” science and fiction blended with technology and emotion in a way that “Jaws”, “Close Encounters”, and “E.T.” merely suggested.  The lasting breakthrough of “Jurassic Park” was that it was the first truly great movie where actors stood in front of blue screens and believably interacted with characters that didn’t really exist.  In 1993 the world of digital cinema took a massive leap away from Tron… If only George Lucas could have used this power for good.

1994- Forrest Gump (PG-13)
After the financial disaster of “Waterworld” derailed Kevin Costner’s Box Office reputation, Tom Hanks leapt to the front of American consciousness with starring turns in “Philadelphia”, “Forrest Gump”, and “Apollo 13”.  Hanks portrayal of the mentally handicapped Gump in Robert Zemeckis’ love letter to the Baby Boom generation might be the most tenderly bizarre of his career.

The success of “Forrest Gump” was it’s ability to reunite and re-inspire a generation of disillusioned middle-agers at the theater.  For the post-war demographic it was almost more of a 25th high school reunion than it was a nostalgia film.  It doesn’t hurt that the message of the film, “It is possible to have experienced the ravages of the last 30 years and maintain your innocence”, was something that the audience both wanted and needed to believe.

1995- Toy Story (PG)
In 1995 the Walt Disney empire was reeling from the combined failures of its live action features and Pocahontas I: “The Animated Disaster”.  With such ill fated duds as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules” in the pipeline, their partnership with the fledgling Pixar animation studio proved to be a cash filled lifeboat.  Not only did “Toy Story” save an industry landmark, its compelling script and peerless innovation set a new standard for multi-generational storytelling.

By securing the voice talents of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen BEFORE they became household names, Pixar Studios ensured that their first full-length, computer animated, debut would only need to have “good” visuals to be successful. What they delivered was a visual product so stunning that it severely hampered the hand drawn animation industry for years to come.

1996- The Rock (R)
With “The Rock” Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer updated the formula for summer blockbusters and they did it by making action stars smarter and less aggressive.  Nicolas Cage’s FBI Agent Stanley Goodspeed was neurotic, obsessed with his own preferences, and completely lost when a situation called for action.  He was just the sort of hero a sensitive ’90’s man could related to.  The Rock was so successful that Michael Bay has been trying to re-make his own film for the past 15 years.

So how did a popcorn muncher like this influence the next generation?  It broke the final concrete rules that governed mass appeal at the box office by making the villains patriotic American terrorists and relying on an escaped convict to defeat them.  The recent militia showdowns and the Oklahoma City bombing worked in conjunction with an absence of foreign powers to demonstrate that the only place left to inspire fear in audiences was from within.  Little did we know that large scale terrorism was just a handful of years away.

1997- Titanic (PG-13)
What happens when a great director teams up with a talented matinee idol and pitches the idea that “love can touch us once but last for a lifetime?”  Titanic happens.  James Cameron captured lighting in a bottle when he chose the perfect moment of quiet in a cynical decade to blend an oceanic exploration of the past with the emotional introspection of the heart.  Had the internet been more accessible or television less obsessed with “reality”, “Titanic” would have been merely successful.  Instead it was a movie that people (especially divorcees & teenagers) went to to escape from reality in… over and over and over again.

Culturally speaking, “Titanic” led a seismic shift.  If “E.T.” was seen once by 15 million people, “Titanic” was seen 5-10 times by 5 million people as viewers returned to theaters to share it with friends.  This kind of evangelism, based on an emotional connection, hadn’t been seen since Star Wars.  Before “Titanic” movies were usually an 1 and a half long, after it studios were willing to approve extra length movies that they thought could have this kind of shelf life.  We wouldn’t have 3 and a half hour “Lord of the Rings” films if Titanic had bombed.

BTW- It’s not love when you spend your life pining for someone who died the day after you cheated with them, it’s emotional trauma.

1998- There’s Something About Mary (R)
While “American Pie” may have signaled the return of earthy subject matter, “There’s Something About Mary” launched an assault on political correctness and good taste that we are still recovering from.  The Farrelly brothers left no taboo or social norm unbroken in their quest to make people laugh.  They got away with it by mixing in a touch of sentiment while playing on the narcissistic notion that we feel sympathy for others when we see ourselves reflected in them.

Ben Stiller dared America not to laugh at a movie featuring gross-out nudity, damaged genitalia, masturbation, and jokes at the expense of the mentally handicapped.  We did, and now we have an “over the top comedy” category that makes movies like “Airplane” seem genteel.  Without this motion picture the last 10 years of top grossing comedy films (Superbad, Knocked up, The Hangover) don’t happen.

1999- The Matrix (R)
The Matrix was the first truly accessible film to delve into the actual connection between the digital world and the physical.  While the movie was incredibly stylized, it never felt over-polished.  Films of this kind previously relied on words like “cyber” and “techno” to trick you into believing that they had some form of futuristic substance.  The substance of “The Matrix” relied on our past: Philosophy and a healthy dose of Kung Fu.

Where movies like “Twister” and “Independence Day” merely cashed in on the personal computer’s ability to create realistic digital images, “The Matrix” actually succeeded in utilizing technology to advance the storytelling.  The “Bullet Time” effect used inside the Matrix wasn’t there to wow audiences, it was there to help them grasp the movie and it’s message.  We’re still waiting for the Transformers franchise to catch up.

Is there a culture shaping movie from the ’90’s that you love and I missed? Fire away in the Reply section.

Yes, there will be a 2000’s edition.

11 Responses to “How We Got Here – The ’90’s On Film”

  1. andrew September 9, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    It would be hard to put American Beauty over the Matrix, but I was in college when it came out and all of the sudden (or so it seemed), indie/art house culture appeared in orange county. Also, thoughts on Boyz in the Hood in ’91?

    • Jon September 9, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

      If American Beauty had been released in any other year it would have made the list, no other movie so perfectly captured everything that America was secretly struggling with… Though “The Ice Storm” really tried to.

      Boys in the Hood… If it hadnt been so stigmatized more people would have seen it and it would have been more influential. Unfortunately Hollywood spent years trying to reproduce it instead of building off of it. Still, it gave John Singleton a voice and it’s fun to watch it and remember the days when Cuba could act.

      The year I graduated from High School, Ice Cube could do no wrong.

  2. Andy September 9, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Are you forgetting that ‘Batman & Robin’ was released in 1997? Huge.

    • Jon September 9, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

      Don’t forget about Speed 2… Or Ever After!

  3. Josh H September 9, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    As a kid, Lion King was pretty incredible for me.

    • Jon September 9, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

      The Lion King is so much fun. If it hadn’t been the last Disney pic to use the “classic formula” I might have gone that direction. Hakuna Matata Josh!

  4. Casey September 9, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    I appreciated Grand Canyon and the notions that life will always keep happening to us and that we can always change – not always easily.

  5. Casey September 9, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    I’m also compelled to speculate that Ace Ventura, Pet Detective paved the way for films like Something About Mary – certainly less sophisticated, I guess, but just as taboo in some ways.

    I will also never forget the first time I watched the first hour of Saving Private Ryan. For some reason,despite multiple viewings of Stone’s Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July and other Vietnam-ear films, this simple portrayal of war drove home its brutality; I wanted to thank every WWII vet and pray for everyone who had or will be involved in combat.

    • Jon September 9, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

      Great call with Grand Canyon Casey.

      Had the studio allowed Ace Ventura to be rated R it probably would have achieved what Mary did. Ace paved the way for Mary, but was one of the last in a line of PG-13 comedies that had to hold back. Me, Myself, and Irene was the kind of movie Ace would have been had it been made after Mary.

      There’s no doubt that Private Ryan is the best war film ever, it almost singlehandedly kicked off a 10 year run of WWII video games. I picked Mary over Ryan because the change it affected was more lasting. The war on terror snapped us into a new era… Mary created the films that people ran to to ignore that new era.

      That’s why it killed me to pick it.

  6. Mike Maxwell September 10, 2011 at 7:44 am #

    For me most memorable and influential in my own life…..

    #1 Schindler’s list
    #2 Brave heart (politicians never change)

    Worst movie of the decade…leaving las vegas…

  7. Jon September 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    Those are two Movies that the Academy picked right!

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