PSA: These are not objectively phenomenal movies that will change your life (although they definitely shook mine to the core). They are very quirky. They are very nineties. They are sometimes cringy. And they definitely follow the angsty teen trend. American Beauty aside, they are mostly underrated or unheard of. So grab your popcorn, get ready to illegally download (joking of course) and let’s educate ourselves on the wonderful world of the nineties.
1. American Beauty
“There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.”
And this is exactly what Lester Burnham proves in the poignant retelling of his last year in Suburbia; his last year, that is, of life. The first scene unfolds onto the minute details of his depressive daily rota. It pans out onto his anal wife along with the cherry on top- the feminine angst brewing within his teen daughter and the girl Lester falls in lust with, her best friend Angela Hughes. While we are teased with the flames of many an affair, what has the potential to be a moment of corruption ends in the preservation of Angela’s purity (rose petals and all). This is because, although Kevin Spacey’s creepy character hasn’t aged well, the story is ultimately not about an inappropriate Lolita relationship or the mundane reality of how boring even the most perfect, cookie cutter American life can become. It is not solely about a mid life existential crisis, but rather the ebb and flow of the characters’ self worth. The perversity and darkness twisted around the heart of their seemingly Utopian neighbourhood only brings light to Spacey’s enigmatic portrayal of one man’s resistance, rebellion and victory. The ending may be one of death but the cynicism, realism and parody, married to Hall’s exhilarating cinematography, make the audience’s journey one of life and, ultimately, beauty. Although modern critics have settled on unanimous hatred for its sometimes cheesy and creepy nineties dialogue, it we can’t deny that it made waves when it was first released.
2. Girl, Interrupted
“I’m playing the villain baby, just like you want”.
A baby Angelina Jolie, Winona Rider and Brittany Murphy go head to head in this rocky exploration of mental health in 1967. Like American Beauty, it seeks to prompt you to question your perception of the world; this time in terms of psychology. The audience is not only occupied by the drama of the narration but is forced to realise what the tragedy of a stigmatised life consists of. The actresses are immersed in their roles so completely that it is almost impossible not to go a little crazy as you helplessly watch each scene unfold. But, truly, “the only way to stay sane is to go a little crazy.”
“Never send a rose unless dyed black as a warning. And if one is sent to you, destroy it along with the sender. Emotionally of course. It’s not like we kill people…on purpose”
The original, edgier version of Mean Girls. Courtney and her crew are like Satan in heels. They mean well, of course, what with the cruel politics of high school and all. But even the sweetest candies can be sour inside, or so it seems after a birthday prank ends in the death of Liz Purr (the resident teen dream). Tragedy ensues and everything becomes not so “peachy (fucking) keen”. Murder, sex, revenge and a quarry of fruitful quotes to pluck from are only a portion of what makes this movie indisputably iconic.
4. The Virgin Suicides
“What we have here is a dreamer. Someone completely out of touch with reality.”
Based on probably one of my favourite teen books, Coppola’s adaptation evokes a magical, almost ethereal atmosphere within the surprisingly curious world of the middle class American suburbs. She adapts Eugenides’ tender writing to capture the morbidity, cynicism and lust entwined in the long arms of adolescence. The unique visuals, camera angles and captivating use of light only harmonise with Air’s ethereal soundtrack, particularly the song ‘Playground Love.’ One word: aesthetic. Five words: “Peach schnapps, babes love it.”
5. Stealing Beauty
Liv Tyler’s idealised ‘virgin’ beauty and the soothing edge of Tuscany’s rolling hills seduce the audience into a story of summer. The bourgeoisie, the aesthetes and the dilettantes flirt with the fruit of their pretentiousness to engorge in the languid hedonism which a 19 year old American girl next door has yet to relate to.
6. Buffalo 66
This movie is anything but conventional- Gallo’s performance is eccentric in its urgency and his ambiguous aura collides with Ricci’s vibrant delicacy. Falling in love with her pitiful and refreshingly ‘innocent’ kidnapper, she pretends to be his wife amidst the chaos of a cinematic masterpiece. The imagery astounds while the powerful dialogue is minimal. The only consistent thing that strikes the eye – Layla’s baby blue eye shadow and that baby doll dress.
7. The Dreamers
It’s not technically a nineties movie (2003) but it deserves an honorary mention due to the overall vibes (and the fact that it’s set in the late 60s). Admittedly, some of the vibes in this movie can be weird; both explicitly and implicitly weird. It’s definitely not one to watch with the parents, to say the least. But that’s only more reason to watch it at all. Coloured with naivety and dark humour, three beautiful rebels in Paris revel in their youth and ‘radically’ political musings. They reference/re-enact classic films and even run through the Louvre. Was Tumblr made for this movie or was this movie made for Tumblr?
“What’s your damage Heather…… Do I look like mother Teresa? … Let’s go get a slushie”
If you haven’t seen Heathers, what rock do you live under? Cliché but true, this is practically the cultural FOUNDATION for the ‘evil popular girls vs the outsider’ trope. It’s set in high school except the cool new trend isn’t a new handbag, wearing pink on Wednesdays or getting booty implants; it’s killing yourself. Or so it would seem. It’s a black comedy at it’s finest and it isn’t apologetic about it. Revenge starts slow but ends up with a body count- and Veronica’s teen angst bullshit is the weapon of choice. Also… it’s eighties instead of nineties but let’s just turn a blind eye (or two) one last time.
This movie masquerades as a light-hearted sit com but it actually tries to be kind of deep. Two modern teens are trapped in a black and white world that is indoctrinated with the all-American values of the fifties; everything appears Edenic. Picture perfect. However, colour creeps into the darkness and their alternate universe expands into more than just a street lined with white picket fences and a school yard. As freedom, art, creativity, lust and love intoxicate society’s minds, the ‘pleasantness’ is challenged; the ‘conservatives’ who oppose it burn pages of no longer empty books, smash stained glass windows and ostracise the now ‘coloured’ people in a way clearly symbolic of both fascism and the Jim Crow era. The film is “a fable about the conflict between the free-thinking liberal heirs of the Sixties and the right-wing adherents of religious fundamentalism who wish to restore an innocent prelapsarian America that never really existed” (The Guardian). The ‘fortunate fall’ (felix culpa) has never been so nineties.
10. Poison Ivy
Guilty pleasure at its finest, Ivy is death in succubus form. The film begins by portraying the dysfunctional dynamic between a tom boyish introvert and a femme fatale willing to worm her way into a rich family by means of seduction and murder. There are brinks of light moments but, at its core, every Poison Ivy movie (there are three) ends as a psychological thriller. The complex antagonist is never straight-forwardly the bad guy; she is sly, sultry and deliciously wicked.
11. Empire Records
“I talked to God and she said ‘yo whatsup'”
This is a soundtrack that found a totally ‘rad’ movie. Like Freaks and Geeks, this gem has become a cult classic. It is The Breakfast Club in a record store. The indie misfits metaphorically and literally battle against the sugary super-monster that is corporate America. Everything seems to go wrong but instead ends in song and dance. Brilliant.
12. The Crush
A silly school girl crush turns violent and obsessive in this thriller. What starts off innocent will leave you gripping your chair in anxiety as *plot twist* the traditional roles of sexual harassment and discrimination are reversed. It’s all just too nineties to comprehend. To enjoy it, you have to ignore the mess.
13. True Crime
A very cheesy lifetime movie which doubles as a detective thriller brimming with plot twists. Alicia Silverstone, as a darker Nancy Drew, is trapped in the plot of a serial killer who is far from who you would expect. Girl power galore, this heroine ends up being smarter than the whole police force combined. Edgy enough to leave you on the edge of your seat and cringe enough to keep you wanting more.
14. Ten Things I Hate About You
Heath Ledger serenading an angry feminist on the bleachers- need I say more? We also learn that if a girl owns black underwear she wants someone to see them one day.
15. Cruel Intentions
This is Gossip Girl on acid. The themes are all there: lies, death, sex, cruelty, manipulation. But waaaay more amplified. Loaded teens laden with money and privilege, perhaps some cocaine, and plenty of preppy uniforms. They use these as tools for engagement in seemingly pointless games. Nothing is off limits specifically in the sexual politics of the upper east side, the playground of the surprisingly ‘feminist’ vixen, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar.
16. The Craft
If you like Charmed and wish Harry Potter took place in a sorority, this classic ‘outcast girl group get magic powers and go way too far’ flick will tickle your fancy.
17. Whatever It Takes
If you’re looking for romantic comedy, this movie delivers. Probably the main reason to watch it is James Franco and… James Franco. But, of course, the comedy and cute elements are more than a running theme; they make this film worth more than one watch. It’s light, airy. It is Pretty in Pink’s adopted nineties love child.
“I was a daisy fresh girl and look what you’ve done to me”
TW. This nineties version differs from Nabokov’s original (and often banned) novel. It is highly controversial and quite uncomfortable to sit through at times. Yet, the cinematography is powerful and interestingly made. Humbert’s perversity and pedophilia should be in no way condoned or romanticised but the power relations are nevertheless explored. This popularisation of the novel has inspired an era of ‘nymphet’ culture on all types of social media and even clothing brands. Tumblr popularised a toxic ‘lolita’ phase which dangerously glorified this film.
A girl who wants to be the world’s greatest Catholic, to the dismay of her unorthodox vagabond mother, falls in love from afar. Her self-pity is comedic but there is a semblance of pain mixed in. There are three generations of legend at the forefront: Ricci, Winona and Cher.
P.S. Of course if we were talking the best 90s movies ever, Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Home Alone, Titanic and Edward Scissorhands would all be on here. Honey, Clueless isn’t even on here and it’s in the title. These are just some less well known and truly underrated cinematic masterpieces that I felt your immediate attention must be diverted to- at least to understand the rich culture of your nineties aesthetic.
Images sourced from Instagram, Tumblr and movie stills.