Saturday, April 11, 2009

Totally Nineties Movies

Movies can often be viewed as a snapshot of their time. As someone in his mid twenties, my most formative years were bookended by that wacky decade, the nineteen nineties. So here's a little list of those movies that to me scream nineties more than the others and get me feeling nostalgic for plaid shirts, alternative rock and slow modems. Obviously, I only included movies that are actually GOOD so maybe there are some other films out there that are even more nineties but they suck so who the hell cares?

note* Someone might ask why a movie such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) isn't on this list. The simplest answer is that I am not so much white as I am WHITE (but, uh, not in the supremacist way) and I honestly couldn't tell you if that movie is a good example of black youth culture in the nineties or not. So I'll mostly be sticking with what I know best - middle class suburban white kids.

5. The Crow (1994)

No suburban kids here. Based on a comic written towards the end of the eighties, there are a lot of eighties elements present. But still, the biggest reason this movie makes the list is, rightly or wrongly, it will forever be associated with goth culture. That also started in the eighties and bands like The Cure (on the soundtrack) had been making their own brand of gloomy music for years but the whole goth movement (?), didn't really catch on until the nineties. I actually liked a lot of goth stuff growing up but at the end of the day, it just took too much effort for me to really embrace. I mean, I don't even like to shave regularly.

But back to the movie. Brandon Lee also helps ground The Crow firmly in the nineties by having it be the last film he ever appears in. Much like River Phoenix before him, here was a talented actor on the cusp of stardom dying far too young. Because of his career track and the time of his death, Lee will always be linked to the nineties and The Crow was his greatest work.

4. Chasing Amy (1997)

I think all four View Askew movies from the nineties (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma) make for good snapshots of the decade but I pick Chasing Amy mostly for its portrayal of the comic book industry just before the Internet swooped in and shook things up. This also came before the big Hollywood superhero comic book based movies that helped make comics more popular overall. It's a nice shot of the world back when comics and related things were still seen as fringe and certainly not mainstream. The convention stuff works really well.

It's also here as sort of a final farewell for Ben Affleck as a semi-indie film guy. In the same year he would go on to crazy stardom with Matt Damon after Good Will Hunting. He would still return to do other Kevin Smith films but at that point, he was a completely different guy considering the way his career now stood. And he takes centre stage in this movie as the perpetually mixed-up Holden - a character I relate strongly to. I think any movie where Ben Affleck plays a character I can actually relate to deserves some sort of award (although making one of my lists kind of counts). It's also arguably the last movie Kevin Smith made before becoming a household name himself. It marks an interesting transition for him as indie darling to...mainstream curiosity? I dunno. Jason Lee is still a relative unknown at this point too.
The soundtrack isn't quite as nineties as it could have been but it still fits pretty well.

3. Hackers (1995)

A teen aged Angelina Jolie! And she's rocking some sexy short hair too. Hackers dishes out a plot based around a group of city kids blessed with mad hacking skills who stumble upon a cyber terrorist plot to unleash a worldwide computer virus. There's a lot of hanging out in weird underground clubs based around, um, computer stuff and the characters don't really dress like it's the nineties - it's more of an attempt to dress like how they thought we might dress nowawadays or something. Anyway, there's a lot of black and silver. And how about those awesome, clunky laptops they use, complete with custom spray paint jobs? With the technology we enjoy these days, it's easy to poke fun at the themes of Hackers but it's still a fun ride and as great an example of a totally nineties movie as you'll ever find. Mess with the best - die like the rest.

2. Scream (1996)

By the nineties the slasher genre had completely run out of gas. The two biggest franchises of the eighties (Friday the Thirteenth, A NightAdd Imagemare on Elm Street) had mostly gotten worse with every sequel and by 1989, they were done (ok, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare came out in 1991 but no one really noticed). In 1994, the landscape had changed and it seemed audiences actually wanted something called "plot" to go with their murders. So both franchises tried a radically different sequel. One was a dismal failure while the other was a fairly good idea, not so perfectly executed. The idea of having a crossover came up but that wound up stuck in limbo for a decade.

The absolute last gasp of the old guard came in 1995 with Halloween's part six: The Curse of Michael Meyers. I actually like that movie a lot more than I probably should. But one thing it wasn't going to do was save the genre.

Which brings us to Scream. I realize I'm on the brink of writing an essay here on the evolution of the slasher film instead of talking about the nineties so now I'll try to cut (oh, I'm clever!) to the chase. Scream is totally nineties because it introduces the nineties take on a genre that enjoyed its greatest popularity during the eighties. It was pretty simple, really. All they had to do was recognize the conventions of the eighties slasher genre and make reference to it and actually discuss it. Finally, we have the characters recognizing they're caught up in something almost exactly like the movies and some even realize there are certain "rules" established within that they must follow. And keeping the identity of the killer unknown throughout most of the action (pretty much not done in the eighties) also keeps things interesting.

Then there's the cast. All the major characters of the trilogy were played by actors I pretty much only associate with the nineties. (Cole's biggest nineties actress crush? Neve Campbell. Well, almost.)

This was suburban North America in the nineties - the clothes, the music, the vibe. When I was in junior high I had hair just like Billy Loomis! Or tried to anyway.

1. Empire Records (1995)

A fun little movie about a day in the life of a neighbourhood record store and its young employees encapsulates the nineties better than any other movie worth mentioning. Mostly, it has to do with music. If you want a nineties soundtrack for alternative rock, look no further. But even the music that exists only within the movie illustrates popular music of the decade beautifully. Asshole pop star Rex Manning's music, while hilariously awful, actually does closely resemble some of the shallow pop of the day and the song "Sugar High", performed at the movie's finale, is a pretty catchy rock song with nineties flavour.

This film even features a cameo by costumed rockers, Gwar. Maybe that's not particularly nineties but it is cool.

As far as the cast goes, worth noting are Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger for almost opposite reasons. While Tyler has aged very well and is still very attractive, Empire Records is about as close to attractive as Zellweger ever got. Here they're both pretty nice to look at. It's also pretty much the only movie where I can stand her. Also noteworthy is that the kids at the store all dress in distinctly different styles but each is one we can recognize from the day - these are the kids we went to junior high and high school with who weren't preps or jocks. These are the kids like myself who just sort of filled out the spaces in between the extremes. But Empire Records also shows how we dress or what music we listen to doesn't completely determine who we are. Sure, it's a part of us but there's more to us as a whole. The movie celebrates how we kids of the nineties, while different, are really very much the same deep down, how we often want the same things out of life. And no other film makes me miss the decade more.


Sam said...

Another great 90's moment in Hackers is when they lose their shit over how great a 28.8 modem is.

Shane said...

Great list, I can't think of any other titles more deserving of this top five.

Also, way to stick it to Zellweger. If I had to pinpoint her ugliest movie, it would either be Bridget Jones's Diary or Cold Mountain.

Zing! That's for not being beautiful at all times.

Cole D'Arc said...

yeah, i'd have to go back in time to when this movie came out to literally stick it to Zellweger - nowadays, no thanks.