Picking the most iconic films of the 1990s involves some definition.

1. “Iconic” (as you’ll see) doesn’t necessarily mean “best,” but instead means movies which, for better or worse, were influential, notorious or in some way defined the decade in cinema.

2. If they have spawned catchphrases, numerous “SNL” sketches or are referenced in every other Bill Simmons sports column, that’s a plus.

So to it:

“The Sixth Sense” (1999), “The Crying Game” (1992) and “The Usual Suspects” (1995): Sure, a three-for-one is cheating, but these films triple-handedly introduced the phrase “SPOILER ALERT” into the parlance of our times by banking on the BIG REVEAL for their (well-deserved) success. Blurting out these films’ plot twists in the ’90s caused more bad blood than the East Coast/West Coast rap feud.

“The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “Office Space” (1999): Speaking of “the parlance of our times,” these two ramshackle comedies, both of which bombed pretty hard at the box office, went to home video and became two of the most beloved, rewatched, overquoted films in history. If nothing else, their belated but deserved cult-classic status proves that the movie-going public, like poor Donny, is often out of its element.

“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994): Speaking of great movies initially ignored, check out imdb.com, where this box office also-ran, depending on the day, duels with “The Godfather” for the best-rated movie of all time. It’s run from time to time on cable in a 24-hour loop, and no one complains. And it introduced the immutable fact that any movie would be improved if narrated by Morgan Freeman. (Need proof? Imagine Mr. Freeman’s voice sonorously intoning, “I remember the day the boys dug up the Encino Man“)

“Boyz n the Hood” (1991) and “Menace II Society” (1993), with “Do the Right Thing” (released June 1989) by special exception: Directors John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers and Spike Lee smashed right through Hollywood’s historical racial barriers at the start of the decade, writing, directing and independently producing groundbreaking films examining the contemporary African-American experience of young men that, frankly, threw white America into a tizzy. Endlessly debated, often scapegoated or misunderstood, these films did nothing less than open the country’s (and black filmmakers’) eyes to the possibilities for “black cinema.”

“Boogie Nights” (1997): Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second movie (after the excellent “Hard Eight,” which no one saw) was a movie-goer’s banquet. With actors John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy and Julianne Moore (all emerging as go-to stars), and unexpected triumphal performances by Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg (when most still called him “Marky Mark”), this heartfelt portrait of the ’70s porn industry is as masterful, sure-handed and across-the-board entertaining as any film ever made.

“Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” (1999): The most-anticipated and, therefore, most disappointing film of the decade, “The Phantom Menace” (and George Lucas) single-handedly despoiled the childhood memories of an entire generation. Neat trick, George

“Toy Story” (1995): While “A Bug’s Life” was good, it was this, Pixar’s second movie that showed just how lazy the Disney animation machine had become, that raised the bar in every conceivable way and changed “children’s movies” forever, and for the better.

“The Blair Witch Project” (1999): The greatest low-budget success story in history, a pioneer in using the Internet to market a film and a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon. On a side note, you could have offered me $10,000 to walk home through the woods after seeing this film, and I wouldn’t have done it.

“Clerks” (1994): Kevin Smith’s “guy from Jersey working out some stuff while making rude jokes” routine has tired a bit, so some might forget just how much of a story “Clerks” was. The now-legendary “max out your credit cards” financing story, the Cinderella story pick-up by Miramax, the battle against an initial NC-17 rating (which served to expose the MPAA’s hypocrisy to wider scrutiny), all taking place when the outlets for independent film were virtually nonexistent — “Clerks” defined the modern indie-film movement. And it’s still damned funny.

“Pulp Fiction” (1994): The most iconic, and best, movie of the ’90s is an exhilarating love letter to the flickering, incomparable joys of going to the movies. Combining rapid-fire dialogue, shocking (and masterfully directed) action and violence, and a prankish and referential interweaving storyline, Quentin Tarantino’s second film announced the emergence of a brand new director archetype — the film geek auteur. “Pulp Fiction” spawned innumerable, and inferior, imitations, was robbed (at cliche-point) on Oscar night by the laughable “Forrest Gump,” and was (and remains) simply one of the most thrilling movie experiences of all time. Sounds pretty iconic to me.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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