10 Radical 90’s Movies That Captured The Decade

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O 1990’s America, where art thou? This fantastic decade–the last of the American Century that seemed to find the country at the height of its powers economically, socially, and politically–can easily be considered a high watermark in American history. With a booming economy, a culture that was dominating the world through its film and musical output, and largely a decade of peace and plenty, it’s no surprise that Americans who lived through this era, and especially those who came of age then, have such a strong nostalgia for the 1990’s.

Youth culture of this decade was largely defined by the “slacker” mentality that was exemplified by grunge music, casual styles that mixed rock and hippy aesthetics, and an attitude of extreme indifference characterized by sarcasm and irony. Of course, only those who lived in such material comfort and opulence as the American youth of the 90’s could afford to hold this sort of pose: in stark contrast, it seems active engagement and ferocity of voicing one’s beliefs has become the trademark of the leaner, meaner 21st century and its youth in America.

These sorts of attitudes also belies a certain naivete. The 90’s, after all, was the last decade before the internet as we know it today took over as the de facto media and news outlet, its polyphonic approach to disseminating information a sharp contrast to the narrow channels of cultural output that were available to the youth of the 90’s. Outside of the burgeoning internet, which was far too slow and obscure to be relied upon, there were radio stations, limited cable channels, and physical media outlets (VHS, CDs, magazines, and newspapers) that comprised all of media. It was the last great gasp of (at least the illusion of) innocence any generation could claim before the unwieldy, unstoppable future swept everyone up into the endless barrage of information that now batters everyone’s senses 24/7 in modern times.

It was a decade largely dedicated to celebration. Even the doom-and-gloom facade of its edgier components were reflective of an increasingly open culture that was allowing previously transgressive elements to share and produce its output into popular culture. Besides, it was easy to claim that life sucked when, in fact, life was pretty easy; it’s only when life actually sucks that nobody wants to hear about it. With that in mind, let’s look back at 10 movies produced in the 90’s that exemplify the sorts of attitudes, aesthetics, and conventions that could have only existed in the late, great 1990s.

Slacker (1990)

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Richard Linklater’s first full-length feature film practically defined the decade just as it began with his seminal film Slacker. A relatively plotless film, instead it’s a slice-of-life movie that features vignettes of various young characters and bohemians whiling away their lives in Austin, Texas. Never staying with one character for too long, instead the camera picks up and moves on to the next scenario every few minutes, creating an interesting look at a group of pop-culture obsessed, navel-gazing indie Gen Xers.

On a meta level, Linklater’s film also represented a new wave of indie filmmaking, one where a tenacious would-be director said nuts to the studios, I’ll scrape together some money and make my movie on my own terms! And he did just that: made for just $20,000, Slacker was a gigantic arthouse hit, with Linklater’s trademark wandering-eye style and laid-back approach serving him well in later projects. Seemingly codifying the very idea of what a “slacker” is, Slacker kick-started what would become the dominant attitude and perspective among young people in the 1990s.

Singles (1992)

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Although not as gritty or authentic as Linklater’s Slacker, Cameron Crowe’s Singles similarly focused in on a group of 20-somethings living in Seattle in the same apartment block at the height of the grunge era. Characters include Janet (Bridget Fonda), a coffee bar waitress that’s hopelessly in love with Cliff (Matt Dillon), the leader of a grunge band, and other assorted Gen X types faltering in their love lives. With the grunge scene as backdrop and shot on location in the now-famous city that started the Seattle Sound, Singles was made at just the right moment in time to capture the feel and look of the era. With numerous cameos by famous grunge artists–including members of Pearl Jam as Cliff’s backing band–and a soundtrack crammed with grunge bands, including Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Pearl Jam, Singles is a streamlined introduction to early 1990s style, Gen X attitude, and especially music.

Reality Bites (1994)

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A sort of companion piece to Singles, Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites is often cited as a good example of aspects of 1990’s Gen X attitude and culture that tends to infuriate modern-day audiences. For example: the (mostly) college-educated 20-somethings that populate the film continuously harp on how they’re so bored and don’t like their jobs, finding them below their haughty aspirations (despite rejecting any idea of compromise or negotiation with other parties to attain said aspirations). One example of this is how aspiring documentarian Lelaina (Winona Ryder) has snagged a job as a production assistant at a network and even gets to the point where a project she’s pitching is cut together as a teaser pilot to show executives. But she doesn’t like the cut and finds that it compromises her “artistic vision,” so she leaves in a huff instead.   

Guess how many opportunities like that are awaiting aspiring artists just out of college in 2017? If you said none, congratulations! There’s just one example of how this movie tends to get on people’s nerves in the present day. Similarly, the character of Troy (Ethan Hawke) infuriates some because he often comes across as a spoiled, whiny narcissist who thinks he’s better than everybody else, often going out of his way to condescend to people. Meanwhile, he can’t hold a job and professes himself a musician even though his music sucks. Ironically, modern audiences would probably relate to Michael–Ben Stiller’s yuppie character–more, even though he’s set up to be the “bad guy” in the movie, as he’s shown to be a hard-working, ambitious straight-shooter that’s actually trying to get something accomplished in his life.

Still, there is something to say about Reality Bites: it may be infuriating, but it does capture the entitled, narcissistic attitude of many Gen Xers at the time, kicking against a conformity that in just a few years would be scattered to the winds and bitching about jobs that most young people would sell their souls for today. Let’s call it a good example of the bad side of the 90’s.

Clerks (1994)

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And then there’s the fourth option of Gen X slacker representation in American cinema with 1994’s Clerks. Unlike the slightly glamorous lives of the characters in Singles or the spoiled brats of Reality Bites, Clerks presented a much more realistic look at what being a slacker gets you in life–mainly, working behind a convenience store counter and being the universe’s punching bag. At least, that’s Dante’s experience: having eschewed going to college, instead Dante is an on-call wage slave at a local convenience store in his home town, often the butt of jokes and at the receiving end of abuse from former classmates and strangers that file through the store over the course of one day. Much closer to the “slacker” stereotype is Randall, Dante’s best friend who works at the video store next door. Unlike Dante, Randall curses out customers that annoy him, barely does his job, and has a flippant attitude towards nearly everybody and everything. Capping this off are Jay and Silent Bob, two drug dealers who peddle their wares just outside the convenience store and occasionally interlude on the narrative.

Inspired by learning that Linklater spent only $21,000 to make a full-length feature on his own, Kevin Smith took out loans, maxed out credit cards, and begged his family and friends for money to make his first low-budget film, succeeding handily with $24,000. Smith’s Clerks captures the more humdrum existence of low-level young workers whose slacking has trapped them in a frustrating pattern in life, which makes them end up resenting the customers, their job, their friends, and even themselves. It’s the dark side of the 90’s attitude, and it’s scathing. Of course, Clerks would end up inspiring a whole generation to try their hand at filmmaking–to mixed results–but ironically the vocabulary, naturalistic dialogue, and small-scale scope of the film would end up being highly influential and even a signifier of 90’s film grammar.

Wayne’s World (1992)

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In a strange reversal, Wayne’s World doesn’t particularly reflect 90’s American culture as much as it helped define 90’s American culture. Indeed, the music Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) listen to isn’t grunge but 70’s rock and roll; they don’t seem particularly hip to the current culture but instead live in a sideways town of Aurora, Illinois; although Wayne lives at home with his parents, he seems to have at least some ambition–mainly hosting his own public access talk show, the titular “Wayne’s World.”

But it was–again–the attitude that the film transmits that makes it such a 90’s film. In particular, its comedic style: silly, meta, ironic, self-aware, and cheeky. It was also a meme machine of its day: after all, how many people spent the decade saying “NOT!” as an interjection? Or “schwing!”? Chalk that up to Myers and Bonny and Terry Turner’s script, which often comments upon how what we’re watching is just a movie. The Turners would write more signature 90’s comedies in the same vein, particularly The Brady Bunch Movie, which is as self-reflexive and meta as a film can get. Although it seems Wayne and Garth were living in another decade–if not another reality–entirely, Wayne’s World’s casual approach to comedy became another signature stylistic of American comedies from the decade.

Clueless (1995)

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Clueless was the sort of slacker flipside to the 90’s: while there were characters that embraced the grunge aesthetic in the film, this was (like it was for so many that adopted this look) simply a pose–after all, almost all of the characters in the film were fabulously wealthy. In many ways, the 90’s in America never truly shed the go-go capitalist ambitions and want for material wealth but simply hid them behind dressed-down fashions and prickly attitudes. This is the same decade that brought Beverly Hills, 90210 great success, after all: American kids never stopped pretending they wanted to be wealthy–they simply scoffed at the idea while secretly wishing all their materialist dreams would come true.

Clueless confronts this idea head-on in a way that would come to anticipate the more naked ambition and cleaned-up pop aesthetic that would come to dominate the second half of the decade in youth culture, where MTV went from playing Nirvana and Soundgarden videos to reverting back to pre-fab boy bands and slickly made rap videos where the artist would sing about how hungry they are for money (or conversely, boasting of how much money they have). The main character of Clueless is uber-wealthy Cher Horowitz: attractive, popular, and somewhat shallow, Cher lives her life in mansions and on Rodeo Drive and attends to the romantic lives of the people around her, unaware of the potential havoc she’s causing while fumbling towards her own romantic resolution. In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, Clueless is Jane Austen’s Emma updated to the 1990s.

But what this film captures–and transmits–is the style of the 1990s, particularly the teen set, which have never been uniform in their styles. You have jocks, artsy types, the popular and vain, and just middle-of-the-road types–and in this film, their styles are all captured rather immaculately. As all films, in one way or another, are time capsules of the era they’re produced, Clueless reflects the larger mainstream zeitgeist if the 90’s in style, aesthetics, and preoccupation with the trivial. Its attitude, visual style, and humor would be influential in comedies–both television and film–for the rest of the decade, and director Amy Heckerling, who had previously directed the “capturing the 80s” teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, would go on to create a television series inspired by the film.

PCU (1994)

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What other genre but comedy is so adept at exposing the absurdities within a culture? While in just a few short decades the 21st century has seen some incredible leaps in social progress, newfound online extreme movements that have splintered into a thousand intense subcultures, each with their own concern to promote (and some holding severe viewpoints on particular social topics) has left some confused as to the intent and purpose of said causes. After all, specificity can be the death of movements, particularly when others that ostensibly agree with your base perspective cannot follow a movement down an increasingly narrow path.

Such is the thesis statement–of sorts–of PCU, a throwback raunchy college comedy released in 1994. Lampooning political correctness on college campuses–a concept that was then relatively new in the American collective conscious–PCU takes potshots at every political cause and niche group: feminists, conservatives, gay activists, black power groups, everyone’s fair game in this film. Following the lead of Droz (Jeremy Piven), who runs an unruly group that has rejected political correctness in favor of having fun, PCU follows a day filled with various groups pitted against each other, the conservatives (led by David Spade) playing lackey to the duplicitous college president (Jessica Walters), and of course the often-stoned bohemians attempting to pull together one giant kegger at their house.

More than just making fun of political correctness, however, PCU manages–unintentionally–to capture the look and spirit of the early 90’s college scene, with student activists and grungy partiers mixing together and creating comedy that would most likely be seen as distasteful in modern times. It’s another time capsule movie that preserved the attitudes and styles of the 1990s in comedy–one where political correctness could be made fun of instead of any criticism taken as a mark of fascism.

Mallrats (1995)

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Kevin Smith got a lot of mileage out of 90’s culture, and his appearance twice on this list shows how much he had to do with distilling the image and style of the 90’s on-screen. Mallrats continues the tradition that Clerks started in depicting 20-something slackers and their mundane daily lives, following the misadventures of T.S. Quint (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee, who steals the movie), two young men who had just been thrown over by their significant others and seek solace at the local mall.

The comedy aside–which is typically of the sarcastic and silly vein–the entire setup of Mallrats is a typical 90’s one, taking placeover one long day at one location, this time a mall, where the potential to satirize suburban and commercial culture intersect. Its soundtrack is similarly pure 90’s, populated by Bush, Weezer, Archers of Loaf, Elastica, Sponge, Silverchair, and any other group you’ll expect to see on a nostalgia tour that will surely be coming your way within the next decade. Youth culture dominated the 90’s, and Gen Xers were front and center at setting the tone of films aimed at the youth demographic. Mallrats has the aesthetic, story line, characters, soundtrack, and comedic style that was made popular in this slacker-dominated era, and as such is greatly representative of what the middle of the decade–not quite out of grunge but moving towards a more pop sensibility–looked and felt like for many.

Empire Records (1995)

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Empire Records may be the most 90’s of all 90’s movies. It could serve as the blueprint to build a virtual realm of what the 1990’s looked, sounded, and felt like in American pop culture. And that realm would itself be a long-lost relic from the decade: a record store. This coming-of-age film is set in a record store (the titular Empire Records) and centers on a group of young employees who are facing various crises in their lives, the owner of the record store, who’s facing going under and being absorbed by a big record chain, and an 80’s pop idol that’s doing an in-store appearance that day.  

Following the extremely popular “day in the life” format of 90’s films, this film is a mini-soap opera, with each character facing their own challenges, of which are revealed and faced over the course of the film like some sort of The Breakfast Club only instead of detention they get to hang out in a cool record store.

Again, fashions and attitudes are central at what make this film so very 90’s: everyone looks like they’re dressed for a commercial promoting “I Love The 90’s,” And in true 90’s fashion, it had its cake and ate it too: although there are troubled and disadvantaged characters, they’re contextualized in a comfy suburban dream; while the characters rail against corporations and “the man” (“Damn the man!”), any sort of action against the encroaching corporatization is solved through capitalistic self-interest; the problems  characters have, such as promiscuity due to insecurity, suicidal urges, and amphetamine addiction, are tied up in a neat little package after a few heart-to-heart talks; and in general its supposed angst is covered up by bright visuals, catchy pop tunes, and a happy ending. The entire film is one cheesy love letter to the 90’s from the 90’s, and it’s perhaps the best encapsulation of the decade from an American pop perspective.

Fight Club (1999)

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At the end of the 90’s, the frothy cheer of the decade began to curdle, particularly among its adolescents who were coming of age at the time. A generation began to rebel against the manufactured, safe version of rebellion that was produced by the mainstream media where listening to “angsty” music was married to conforming to a consumer ideal. As Nirvana t-shirts flew off the racks and bedrooms were decorated with Marilyn Manson posters, the youth that spent their teenage years in the 90’s began to catch on that it was mostly just good marketing that was selling a comfy version of “teen angst” to them. This became evident as the decade wore on and bands became smarter at marketing themselves: groups like Garbage and Elastica were slickly produced and coordinated efforts by music industry insiders that knew exactly how to package a sound and image to a demographic; music began once again to slide towards the shiny sounds of pre-fab over-produced pop music; and what was once considered “edgy” had its edges smoothed off to retain the aesthetic–but no longer the ethos–of what hard rock and grunge music earlier in the decade represented.

In a larger sense, young men began to grow more than a little weary of the extremely comfortable, pre-planned consumer life that seemed to be programmed for them to follow. A crisis of identity began to foment, however quietly, within a generation: was life just going to be this easy? If so, where’s the challenge in that?

It seems ridiculously stupid, in hindsight, that this was a problem anyone would have worried about, but such is the benefit of hindsight: if we knew then what a hard, rocky road the 21st century was going to be, we would have worshipped the time period when it seemed like it was going to be smooth sailing forever. Instead, books and films began to be produced that commented on the too-comfortable life of the middle-class and protagonists that wished to break out of its normatives. Perhaps the most memorable of these–and the one that most succinctly gave voice to the concerns that we were becoming over-complacent in the American Dream–was 1999’s Fight Club.

The film is notable for a number of reasons: coming at the end of the decade, it served as a sour commentary on the capping of the American Century as a whole; like American Beauty, which was released the same year, its criticism of American capitalism and its production of generations of consumers within its safe parameters was one many young people held but weren’t sure how to articulate; and it was a mainstream film that seemed to directly advocate for violent revolution against the status quo in America.

Again: if only we would be so lucky to live in the sort of economic paradigm as the 1990’s in America today. However, in many ways what Fight Club anticipated came to pass in the form of the terror attacks of 9/11. Suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under the status quo and with this the more comfortable assumptions that made people complacent and staid; the events of the following decade, in which war broke out across the globe, terrorism rose to unprecedented levels, and the very security that was once seen as boring in America was shaken. With the recent rise of radical left-wing groups in the country and an increasing disharmony within US society, we may well be witnessing the very beginnings of the anarchist state Fight Club envisioned.

Fight Club is a 90’s film in the way it serves as a closing curtain on the idealism and prosperity of the decade, and on the American Century as a whole, anticipating a darker immediate future where the fundamental assumptions that largely made the 1980s and 1990s such comfortable, prosperous decades in America would soon be shaken, and with it the cozy claims that capitalism and materialism could make one whole.

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Categories: culture, film, the 90s

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