Mike’s Top Ten of 1996

1996 feels like the peak year of “these are the movies of my childhood.” And that’s not just because of Space Jam. But a lot of it is because of Space Jam.

This year… maybe it’s because I was 7, going on 8 and this is the year stuff tends to stick with you more, maybe it’s because we moved this year to a place that was much closer to a movie theater and started going more (mainly because my sister was now old enough to go consistently and we could all go to basically the same movies and enjoy ourselves), or maybe it’s because this is the year we first got our illegal cable hookup and got all the PPV movie channels for free. More than likely it’s a combination of all of those things.

But on top of all of that, there’s a lot of really awesome stuff this year. It feels like the year that’s more “stuff I like” more than “a lot of this stuff is some of the best ever made.” This is the year I’m most willing to say is closer to my sensibility than objectively what most people would say are the best movies. That said, a lot of this stuff is really great and we all probably really like it.

And there’s Space Jam too. Never count out Space Jam.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1996

Fargo

From Dusk Till Dawn

Independence Day

Jerry Maguire

Kingpin

The Long Kiss Goodnight

Mission: Impossible

The Rock

Space Jam

Swingers

11-20: The Birdcage, Breaking the Waves, The Cable Guy, The English Patient, Hamlet, Happy Gilmore, Matilda, One Fine Day, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Primal Fear

Tier two: Bio-Dome, Bottle Rocket, The Crucible, Daylight, Everyone Says I Love You, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jingle All the Way, Last Man Standing, Mars Attacks!, Multiplicity, Phenomenon, Ransom, Romeo + Juliet, Shine, Sleepers, Sling Blade, That Thing You Do!, A Time to Kill, Tin Cup, Twister

Tier three: Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Big Night, Black Sheep, Carpool, Celtic Pride, Courage Under Fire, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinkin’ Your Juice in the Hood, Down Periscope, DragonHeart, Dunston Checks In, Escape from L.A., Fly Away Home, Harriet the Spy, James and the Giant Peach, Mulholland Falls, The Nutty Professor, Scream, Secrets & Lies, Spy Hard, Trainspotting

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1. Fargo

“Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?”
“Yah, that’s a good one.”

I struggled with picking what was #1 and what was #2 for me this year. Because you have two movies that I just love so much. One of them I watch slightly more than the other and I enjoy more, but the other I think is by far the better movie and I also think it may be perfect. So I broke the tie with that. I think this is the better movie.

All that aside, it’s Fargo. Of course it’s #1. There’s not a bad second in this movie. Everything is instantly iconic and memorable. You know how good this movie is? Frances McDormand won Best Actress for it, and she doesn’t show up for the entire first 30 minutes. But also, everyone else in this movie is perfect, especially William H. Macy. What a performance out of him. And then Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare. And then literally everyone else in the cast.

This is a perfect movie and I can’t imagine almost everyone making this list wouldn’t have this in their top three, if not straight out #1 for this year.

Side note: The Coen brothers have, to this point in history, released six films. Five of them were in my top ten, including a #1, #2 and #3. And the sixth was in my 11-20 in what might be the strongest top ten year of the 90s. So yeah. That’s a Billy Wilder-type run.

2. Jerry Maguire

“Show me the money!”

I love this movie so much. I’ve seen it way more than I’ve seen Fargo, but in the end, I had to make this #2. It’s not a slight against this so much as it’s an acknowledgement of how perfect a movie Fargo is.

Meanwhile, this is a movie that was, at the time, the pinnacle of Cameron Crowe’s career as a director. Little did we know, he’d completely top that with his next movie. But hey, at the time, this was great. This is a movie that’s so good it immediately became its own cliche. There are moments in this movie (“You complete me,” etc) that seem hokey now because they’ve become the cliche. But at the time, none of that shit existed! That’s how I feel like some older movies I see now, where I think, “I wonder if this is one of those thing where, everyone at the time who saw this fresh would tell me that I don’t understand how big a deal it was at the time.” That’s how I feel like this might be for young people coming across it for the first time now. We’re not that far removed from it, so I’m sure it’s not gotten to that point yet. But I just feel like that’s gonna happen with this one over time, and people like me will need to remind people of how this created the cliche rather than used it.

Anyway, this movie is so great. Tom Cruise — this is peak Tom Cruise. This is him at his biggest movie star apex — this is the one where I feel like, if we were to pull the one perfect version of him in a movie, this is it. I know he’s gone through different iterations over the years, but to me, this is peak Cruise.

Also, this is one of those movies… it’s almost the perfect sports movie in a way, without really being about sports, and it’s the perfect rom com. That’s what’s so great about Cameron Crowe at his best… he made this movie and it’s for both men and women at the same time. You get all the sports stuff mixed with him falling in love with Renee Zellweger (this movie, by the way, is what broke her). Plus, there’s Cuba Gooding Jr, who steals every scene he’s in and won an Oscar for his performance.

This is, in a lot of ways, a perfect movie. And it’s unfathomable to me that anyone who sees it wouldn’t love it.

3. The Rock

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Your ‘best’? Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.”
“Carla was the prom queen.”
“Really?”
“Yeah.”

I think about that line at least once a week, and I am not remotely exaggerating when I say that.

This is my favorite Michael Bay movie. I think it’s a perfect entity. It’s the perfect 90s action movie. Armageddon might be peak 90s Bay in a lot of ways, but that, to me, is too much. This feels like it could actually happen. And it’s got Connery and Cage, which is just an awesome pairing.

The premise of this movie is — Ed Harris is a soldier who has become disillusioned with the way the country has treated his fellow soldiers, so he steals some chemical weapons and shows up at Alcatraz, holding all the people doing tours there hostage and saying he’s gonna send the weapons into San Francisco and kill a lot of people unless his demands are met. So the government sends in a chemical weapons specialist (Cage), and the only person who has ever broken out of Alcatraz (Connery). So it’s the two of them going in and having to sneak around Alcatraz and disarm these weapons to save the world. It’s pretty awesome.

This feels like the moment before Bay completely got stuck into his, cut things within an inch of their life, no shot lasts more than two seconds, constantly moving camera sort of style. Even going back to seeing Armageddon it’s there. Here, it feels like things still breathe and it’s more about the story and the characters and it just kind of works as a whole.

4. The Long Kiss Goodnight

“Easy, sport. I got myself outta Beirut once, I think I can get outta New Jersey.”
“Yeah? Well, don’t be so sure. Others have tried and failed. The entire population, in fact.”

I still consider this one of the most underrated movies of the 90s. I know it got very mixed reviews when it came out and is generally thought of as a bomb, but I’ve always loved this movie and every time I show it to people, they always really enjoy it too. So I’m gonna keep sticking with that. I know my taste and I know what the people I like are gonna like.

This started from a Shane Black script. Though, I think, by the mid-90s, they stopped using his scripts as-is and constantly rewrote them, which usually resulted in watered down products and films that go so-so reviews. Which I think explains how this movie ended up being what it is. Still, I think it works.

It’s directed by Renny Harlin, who at the time was married to the film’s star Geena Davis, and both were coming off Cutthroat Island, which is still one of the biggest box office bombs of all time and made Hollywood swear off pirate movies until Pirates of the Caribbean came along. So my guess is, when looking for what to do next, they figured a mainstream Shane Black action movie would be a no-brainer. Didn’t quite work out, and this pretty much ended Renny Harlin’s career as a blockbuster filmmaker (though he did have a last gasp with Deep Blue Sea, which is more a mid-level kinda movie, and then everything went way downhill from there).

Anyway, the premise is — Geena Davis is a housewife and loving mother. One day, while driving a friend home from a Christmas party, she gets into a car accident, which starts to unlock some memories. Turns out, she’s really a former an assassin, who, while on a mission, ended up getting amnesia and believing her cover was her identity and has been living that life ever since. And now that she’s back, some very bad people want her dead. And she’s gotta protect her family.

Samuel L. Jackson is amazing in this. He plays a P.I. Davis hired to find out about her past who ends up (kind of like he did with Bruce Willis in Die Hard with a Vengeance) along for the ride. Trust me when I say this is one of the best Samuel L. Jackson performances you’ve never seen. There’s a motif throughout the film of him humming Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” (which, look it up… you know the riff) that pays off perfectly later in the movie.

This movie is so goddamn entertaining. It gets crazy, but when you think about it, every great 90s action movie is based on some ludicrous premise (even The Fugitive… dude has one fucking arm!). Trust me when I say you owe it to yourself to check out this movie, because you’re gonna love it and you just don’t know it yet.

5. Space Jam

“Just how did you get here, anyway?”
“Producer’s a friend of mine. He sent a Teamster to drop me off.”
“Aha. Well, that’s the way it goes.”

I know, you’re surprised. This wasn’t #1. But let’s be honest. While I love and adore Space Jam, it’s not my favorite movie of all time. But I will unequivocally say it’s my favorite movie about Michael Jordan saving the universe from cartoon aliens. (Sorry, Killing Fields.)

It’s funny because I wasn’t really into basketball at the time. I mean, I guess I loosely got into sports around this age, but it’s not like sports was such a huge thing to me. Though even at 7/8, I understood who Michael Jordan was and how amazing he was within the culture. And it’s also not like I was the biggest Looney Tunes fan. I mean, I watched the stuff and I was aware of all the characters, but it’s not like I really was excited for this as a child. I didn’t even know who Bill Murray was at the time. But for some reason, this movie still was a huge deal for me. And it still is. Because it’s amazing.

I’m not even gonna try to justify this. It’s Space Jam, and it’s one of my ten favorite movies of 1996. I distinctly remember seeing this movie a bunch in elementary school during assembly (which, if I remember, was just what they did with us when we couldn’t go outside for recess because it was raining, so they put us in the auditorium and put one of the same like, six movies on for us for that period). It’s also crazy that us as third graders were exposed to a blatant Pulp Fiction reference and that the filmmakers thought, “Let’s put that in there, it’ll be funny!” And good on them.

Also I would like to point out that the Space Jam website is still in existence. And I’d like to point out this fantastic article that tries to figure out just what the hell the box score was from the game in question. And finally I would like to point out that yes, I do own my own “Michael’s Secret Stuff” water bottle.

6. Independence Day

“Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. “Mankind.” That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Honestly, whoever the first kid is who got up at graduation and said that speech instead of their opening remarks, I salute them. And if it somehow has not happened yet after all this time, first, shame on all of you (I say you because — do you really think that 1) I’d be in any position to be speaking in front of a graduating class, and 2) that they’d let me, even if I were?), and second, please somebody do this.

This is one of those movies… we don’t really know how or why this was the highest grossing movie of 1996. It’s awesome, we know that. But I’m not sure we can really explain just what it is that made this strike the cultural nerve it did and be considered the classic it is. I don’t really care, I’m just pointing out that we can’t quite pinpoint it. If this movie only made like $80 million and was just fine, sort of the way Deep Impact was received or something like that, and we didn’t all see this as children… do you think we’d all remember it as fondly? Just something to think about.

But that’s all hypothetical, because this movie is amazing and we all can quote the president’s speech by heart. (Bill Pullman for president.)

This movie also completely cemented Will Smith’s place as a major movie star. Bad Boys broke him, but this cemented him. And then Men in Black is probably what made him a $20 million guy. Though that one’s just a guess. I don’t do research here. I just kinda say stuff.

The premise of this movie is kinda nuts, and also the kind of thing that only could work in the 90s. Aliens show up and start destroying big U.S. landmarks (the Empire State Building and the White House go boom in this. And that’s the big striking image from all the marketing and even the poster of this one — the White House blowing up), and now the U.S. has to figure out what the hell to do. It’s interesting, because if you took this exact plot and made it in any other decade (starting with the 50s, of course, which is when aliens started becoming a thing in movies, because, you know… commies), it would be a completely different movie. This movie in 1956 is different from how it would be in 1966, 1976, 1986, 2006 and 2016. Well… a sequel to this was put out in 2016 and we all know how that went. But the point is, you only get this combination of this plot in this particular year, which I find fascinating.

It’s also fascinating in that it’s a global disaster epic, but there’s also a bunch of different plot lines going on. Jeff Goldblum has his own movie. Will Smith has his own movie. Randy Quaid has his own movie. Bill Pullman has his own movie. Hell, Will Smith’s dog basically has its own movie. But that’s what makes it work. Because then everyone comes together because Bill Pullman makes his speech and unites the entire world to get behind Jeff Goldblum as he gives the aliens a cold and fat ladies don’t sing and all that good stuff. Point is, this movie rules, and don’t come around me with any “I don’t like it” bullshit.

7. From Dusk Till Dawn

“Why, out of all the God-forsaken shitholes in Mexico, do we have to meet here?”
One place’s just as good as another.”

This is the third and final Quentin Tarantino script of the 90s that he didn’t direct. It’s the last thing since that he’s written straight up and didn’t direct. He punched up a few scripts in the 90s, but he’s uncredited in those. This is one that he straight up wrote and co-stars in. And it was around before Pulp Fiction, because apparently story is that he met with Travolta and pitched him this movie and then was like, “But there’s also this other one.”

This movie is great because it’s two movies in one. And when I watch it, and the change happens, I go, “Shit, I wish I got the rest of that other movie.” But then, by the end I’m so entertained by the second half that I don’t even care anymore. It’s just awesome.

This starts with one of the great opening scenes of all time. It’s Michael Parks and John Hawkes in a liquor store just shooting the shit for five minutes, and you’re wondering what the hell is going on, and then all of sudden you realize why you’re seeing all this… because it turns into this crime movie. With George Clooney and Quentin as brothers on the run trying to get to Mexico. And then that whole sequence happens and then they end up taking a family hostage (which includes Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis) to get them across the border. So then there’s this whole section with them and the family traveling to this bar where they’re supposed to meet their contact. Then there’s the whole segment at the bar, and then the movie becomes something completely different. Which I won’t get into here just in case there’s some stray person who somehow hasn’t seen or heard of this movie, and after all these years somehow hasn’t found out where this movie goes from the people who have seen it, all the stuff that’s there online about it, or the TV show they made that ran for a couple of seasons. That said, it’s pretty great.

I’d also like to point out how weird and awesome it is that they have Clooney in this. This is pre-fame Clooney. Like, he was famous, but more like, ER, TV famous. This is the movie he took not because he could but probably because they offered it to him and I’m sure because he was trying to break into movies. Then of course Batman happened and he became a movie star anyway. Plus he also had One Fine Day this year, which is a great one-two punch of movies. But yeah, it’s great to see him doing this. It’s not a role you’d expect out of him, and he’s great in it.

8. Kingpin

“Yeah, sure, Thomas can raise a barn, but can he pick up a 7-10 split?”
“God blessed my brother to be a good carpenter. It’s okay.”
Yeah, well, he blessed you, too, and I’ll give you a clue what it is. It’s round, it has three holes, and you stick your fingers into it.”
“You leave Rebecca out of this, mister!”

I think of a quote from this movie at least once a month. Which is, “You suck! You don’t deserve a car!” That line is so funny to me. There are others, but that’s the one that comes up the most.

Anyway, this is the Farrelly brothers’ followup to Dumb and Dumber and it’s probably their best overall movie. Dumb and Dumber is wonderful, but it’s just a pure comedy. There’s Something About Mary is good, but this feels like their perfect blend of comedy and story and just overall product.

Woody Harrelson plays a guy who is destined to become a champion bowler when he ends up running afoul of some hustlers and having his hand taken from him. Now, 20 years later, he’s drunk and miserable, when he comes across Randy Quaid, who is as talented a bowler as he was at that age. Only trouble… Quaid is Amish. So Harrelson cleans up his act and works to get Quaid to let him manage him, Color of Money-style. And the film is them training and going out to Reno for the Bowling Championship, where Harrelson is going to confront his longtime rival, Bill Murray (sporting the greatest combover in movie history).

This movie is so ungodly funny. It’s absolutely amazing and still holds up today. It’s the performances that ground it and make it work as well as it does. Harrelson is so committed to this and Bill Murray is at his absolute funniest. This is one of those movies where people are doing themselves a disservice by not having seen it. It’s one of the best comedies of this decade. Bar none.

9. Mission: Impossible

This movie feels quaint now. This franchise has grown and changed so much and has seemingly gotten better every step of the way. And yet, it all started here.

This was just an adaptation of the TV show with one of the most iconic theme songs of all time. But they brought in the heavy hitters for it. Robert Towne wrote the script and Brian De Palma directs. Which is what gives it a sense of gravitas and style that it may not have had if, say… someone else had directed it. I was gonna drop a name, but it felt unfair to whoever that name was gonna be.

What I really like about this movie is how it starts as a complete ensemble. Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emilio Estevez… there’s a whole team there, and then, it just shifts. Shit goes down. And it’s awesome how that happens. And then the new team takes shape, with Jean Reno and Ving Rhames, and it just takes off in a completely different, yet awesome direction. It’s famous for the above photo, as he breaks in to steal the (semi-MacGuffin, but not totally) NOC list from the secure vault, but there’s a lot of cool stuff that happens here. And it sets up all the stuff that will end up becoming mainstays within the franchise, like the stunts and the masks (and Ving Rhames) and all that stuff.

I know the movies keep growing and becoming their own fluid thing as we move on, but this one will always be my favorite. There’s just something about this I love. The others are all great, but this one will always be near and dear to me.

10. Swingers

“You’re so money and you don’t even know it!”

Vegas, baby.

What an essential movie this is for anyone getting into film. And what an underrated gem this is. This is one of those movies… and I’m starting to say this now as we move into the 90s, because I found this to be the case with myself… this feels like one of those movies that was really part of the foundation of my getting into movies that I sort of moved past and either took for granted, or forgot about in terms of its importance to me, or even (and it isn’t the case with this specifically, but with others like this) sort of shunned for a while. Not because it was bad, but sort of in that way that you move away and become embarrassed by things when you were younger, because you’re like, “I’m coming into my own now, and this is from when I was a child.”

But this movie is so good. Jon Favreau wrote it, starting his career as a great voice in cinema (be it as an actor, writer or director. Also shoutout to Chef, which is a hugely underrated movie of his) and Doug Liman directed it (his first real movie and the one that put him on the map. And he hasn’t really made a bad movie since. The worst he gets is generic but watchable). It also broke Vince Vaughn as an actor. Here he delivers one of the more iconic performances of his career and cements his screen persona. It’s just so good.

I’m not even gonna get into the plot of this movie, because it’s not really a movie that’s about plot. It’s a hangout movie. It’s based on Favreau’s experiences living in LA and trying to be an actor. I’d honestly be interested in watching this again now having lived in LA for a period of time and seeing just how much stuff I recognize. Because really every other time I’ve seen this movie, it’s been as I’ve lived elsewhere, so I haven’t really gotten the full frame of reference for every place they go amidst all the other stuff. Not that you need it to enjoy this movie, but I’d be interested in seeing it from that perspective.

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11-20:

The Birdcage — Mike Nichols’ remake of La Cage aux Folles. It’s hysterical. One of the great comedies of all times. For those who don’t know the original or this, the premise is — a man is about to marry the daughter of a senator. She (and her parents) want to meet his parents. The problem? They’re a gay couple who run a drag show in Miami. And the senator is very conservative. So they have to pretend to be straight for the sake of their son. And it’s hilarious. Everyone needs to see this movie. It’s comedy at its finest.

Breaking the Waves — My favorite Lars Von Trier film. Which is always a dicey sentence to be saying. It stars Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard. He plays an oil rig worker and she plays a naive, religious girl. They get married and, not long after, he gets injured in an accident. Now paralyzed, he tells her that she should go have sex with another man and tell him about it. That’s really all you need to know. It may sound weird, but… one, it’s Lars Von Trier, what else did you expect. And two… trust me when I say it’s worth it. It’s part of his Dogme 95 movement, so it may be a jarring watch for the uninitiated, but Emily Watson’s performance is spectacular.

The Cable Guy — The weirdest Jim Carrey vehicle of the 90s, which is saying something. It’s actually kind of crazy that he made these movies work. To this point, he’s played a pet detective who routinely talks out of his ass, a guy who puts a mask on and becomes a weird comic book superhero (?), and whatever Dumb and Dumber is. Somehow they all work. This one has him starring as… you know what this movie is? I just realized it. It’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Fatal Attraction, but as a comedy. Carrey plays an emotionally disturbed cable guy who just wants a new friend. He thinks he’s found on in Matthew Broderick. Though when Broderick finds him too much and ends the friendship… Carrey just won’t have that. It’s so fucking weird, but I love it. Also directed by Ben Stiller, who has some really good movies on his filmography that people just don’t realize.

The English Patient — Your Best Picture winner of 1996. It’s big, it’s epic, it’s romantic, it’s Miramax — it’s everything the Academy went for at this moment in time. The Out of Africa of the 90s. It stars Ralph Fiennes as a man who, in the present, is suffering from horrible burns after a plane crash. He’s tended to by a nurse, Juliette Binoche, who believes she is cursed. Meanwhile, the film flashes back to the past, where we find out about Fiennes’ love affair with Kristin Scott Thomas (who is married to Colin Firth, who always seemed to play the dude who gets his girl stolen from him in Best Picture nominees). It’s a very lovely movie. Personally I always felt it was about 30 minutes too long, and if they focused more on just the romance and less on the detours with Willem Dafoe and Binoche’s soldier boyfriend, it could have been so much better. But even as it is, it’s really good, just… a lot. This about sums it up:

Hamlet — Kenneth Branagh made a four-hour cut of Hamlet, using the entire original text of the play, and he shot it entirely in 70mm. This is the definitive screen version of Hamlet. It’s all out, and it’s all there. And the cast is insane. Branagh naturally plays Hamlet. It’s also got Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia. Also Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Timothy Spall, Billy Crystal, Rufus Swell, Richard Attenborough, Rosemary Harris, John Gielgud, Judi Dench, John Mills, and Charlton fucking Heston. This movie is gorgeous on every level, and if you’re gonna watch any version of Hamlet, go all out and see this one.

Happy Gilmore — One of Adam Sandler’s best comedies. Possibly even my favorite. He plays a guy who really wants to be a hockey player with no skills other than a really strong slap shot. Though, in order to save his grandmother’s house, he takes up golf. That’s all you need to know. It’s great. It features one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema: a fistfight between Adam Sandler and Bob Barker. And the immortal line, “The price is wrong, bitch.”

Matilda — One of the staple movies of my childhood. I really love this. Based on the Roald Dahl book, it’s about a really smart girl who has to deal with awful parents and a tyrannical headmistress at her school. It’s awesome. I feel like everyone my age loves this movie. It’s also sadly the only movie that features a scene where someone eats an entire chocolate cake while being cheered on by their entire school. Which is sad, because I feel like we all wished that happened more.

One Fine Day — Lovely 90s rom com I must have seen about 30 times in my life. George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer star. He plays a reporter and she plays an architect who are both in the middle of a crazy day, which begins as they both miss a field trip their kids are supposed to be on. So now they have to work together… one’s gonna watch both kids while the other does what they need to do, and vice versa. And of course in the middle of all of that, they fall in love, yada yada yada. Maybe it’s me mellowing with age or maybe it’s just a universal truth, but I feel like rom coms, when done right, hold up.

The People vs. Larry Flynt — Milos Forman-directed biopic of Larry Flynt, starring Woody Harrelson. It chronicles Flynt’s life in the pornography business as well as his many lawsuits over the content of his magazine and his fight for free speech. It’s great. Woody is great. Edward Norton practically steals the movie as Flynt’s lawyer, and Courtney Love gives a tremendous performance as Flynt’s wife. As far as Milos Forman biopics go, this one gets overshadowed (rightly so, in many respects) by Man on the Moon. But this movie’s just as good as that is.

Primal Fear — This is Edward Norton’s first film. His second will be in tier two and his third is People vs. Larry Flynt. That’s insane. Also funny that we always talk about this as a Norton film even though it’s really a Richard Gere film. Gere stars as a hotshot lawyer who loves taking big cases (this is probably what got him Chicago). He takes the case of Norton, an altar boy accused of murdering a head priest. Of course, things are much more complicated than they seem, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s a terrific trial film and Norton gives one of the great debut performances I’ve ever seen.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • Bio-Dome
  • Bottle Rocket
  • The Crucible
  • Daylight
  • Everyone Says I Love You
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Jingle All the Way
  • Last Man Standing
  • Mars Attacks!
  • Multiplicity
  • Phenomenon
  • Ransom
  • Romeo + Juliet
  • Shine
  • Sling Blade
  • That Thing You Do!
  • A Time to Kill
  • Tin Cup
  • Twister

That Thing You Do! is a movie written and directed by Tom Hanks. And it is great. Like really great. It’s about a fictional one-hit wonder band in the 60s, the 1ders (or Oneders, wonderfully mispronounced as o-need-ers by people throughout the film). And we follow the band from their creation through the writing of the song to their rise and fall. It’s so good. One of the great gems of the 90s that does not get nearly enough notice by people nowadays. The Crucible is the film version of the famous play. Made in the 90s, so the McCarthyism allegories are pretty much out the window, but it is a great retelling anyway, with a fantastic cast. Daniel Day-Lewis plays John Proctor, Joan Allen plays Elizabeth, Winona Ryder plays Abigail, Paul Scofield (!) plays Judge Danforth. The cast is awesome, the film is really good, and mostly you’re just watching good actors put on a solid version of that play we all have to read at some point in school. You appreciate a movie like this because, growing up, it gives you a way to not really read the text and still be able to follow along in class. Mars Attacks! is Tim Burton’s love letter to campy 50s sci-fi (based on trading cards, no less). Arguably one of his best movies. The cast is insane. It features Jack Nicholson in a dual role as a redneck and the president. And it’s got one of the most famous depictions of martians in film history. Everyone remembers the aliens from this movie. Ack, ack. This movie is so great. How can you not love this?

Jingle All the Way is one of the great Christmas movies ever made. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. It’s a masterpiece. Arnold is a workaholic dad trying to make it up to his son by getting him the one toy he wants for Christmas, a Turbo Man doll. It’s the new hot toy that no one can find anywhere. So he has to go around town and try to get one, which he thinks will be easy, but of course he’s now around all these other crazed parents trying to get the same thing. And Sinbad plays a mailman also trying to get one for his kid, which leads to him becoming both friend and rival to Schwarzenegger along the way. It’s, the best. How can you not love a movie that features the line, “I’m not a pervert, I’m just looking for a Turbo Man doll for my son”? Romeo + Juliet is Baz Luhrmann’s telling of the classic story. It’s fun as shit. Definitely the most entertaining of the versions of it, even if the Zeffirelli version is the best. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, there’s a whole generation of people who adore this movie. Many of the people my age or slightly older had crushes on Leo and/or Claire because of this. It’s just one of those movies that is so over the top and glorious. Everyone knows Baz’s style, and this is him using that to take a piece of material that is hard to do in an interesting way and making it interesting. Twister is just a badass tornado movie. Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton — it’s about storm chasers. And tornados that somehow know exactly where the main characters are gonna be and show up at the exact right moments. But it’s awesome. Jan de Bont’s followup to Speed. It’s loud, it’s fun, it’s 90s. You can still show this to people and have a good time. That’s all you need.

Bio-Dome is a comedy masterpiece. Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin — the Laurel and Hardy of the 90s. It’s about two idiots who get locked into a Bio-Dome, wherein scientists have locked themselves for an entire year to prove they can create a self-sustaining ecosystem in hopes of saving the environment. So now they’re stuck in here with these scientists, and mayhem ensues. This movie still features one of the greatest music drops in the history of movies, when they use the “siege tactic” to drive them out. I love this movie, and that is very much the ten-year-old in me talking. Everyone Says I Love You is Woody Allen doing a musical. I mean, it’s all set to preexisting songs, mostly Cole Porter, but it’s fun to see him do a genre I actually like (as opposed to another goddamn Ingmar Bergman pastiche). It stars Edward Norton, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn, Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup and Tim Roth. In the pantheon of Allen films, this is in the ‘like” category. (There’s ‘love’, ‘like’, ‘it’s fine’, ‘whatever’, ‘don’t like’ and ‘hate’.) So this is one of the ones I’m definitely cool with. Sleepers is a trial movie with a stacked cast. Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Jason Patric, Brad Renfro, young Jeffrey Donovan, and directed by Barry Levinson. It’s about three boys sent to reform school after a prank gone wrong. They get badly abused while there, and it changes the course of their lives, eventually deciding to bring suit against those who abused them for all the years they were there. It’s a fantastic movie.

Multiplicity is one of my favorite comedies from childhood. What a brilliant movie. Michael Keaton is a guy who never seems to have enough time to do things. So he gets offered a way to duplicate himself. So he does, and suddenly he has more time to enjoy things. But of course, now having two of himself means he has to go to great lengths to not be found out. And before you know it, there are four of him he’s gotta keep track of, each dumber than the previous one, and comedy ensues. I love this movie. This is one of the great comedies of the 90s, and is something I think everyone needs to see. Shine is a biopic of David Helfgott, famous concert pianist. The film shows him at three ages, child, teen, adult. And it’s about him being pushed by his father to be the best, which ultimately results in him having a mental breakdown and needing to be institutionalized. Geoffrey Rush plays him as an adult and won an Oscar for the performance. The heart of the film is Noah Taylor, who plays him as a teen. But it’s still really strong. It was nominated for a bunch of Oscars this year, so people will go back and see this. As far as biopics go, it’s one of the more solid ones, even if I don’t love it as much as I do some others. Daylight is a pure 90s action movie. All the action movies of the 90s had the most insane premises, but they had huge action stars and great tones, and somehow almost all of them worked. This stars Sylvester Stallone as a guy who gets trapped with other people in the Holland Tunnel after an explosion. So it’s about him trying to lead them out before the whole thing collapses or they run out of air. Pure disaster movie, and so great. Probably Stallone’s best movie of the 90s. It’s great. Also directed by Rob Cohen, who has another movie from this year that is also featured in this article.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the last Disney Renaissance movie. It’s that transition after Pocahontas and before Hercules. This is the last one with the traditional animation before they started moving toward computers. You can see it in Hercules and Mulan, starting to creep in. This one feels more traditional, even though overall, it’s not as good as the four or five that came before it. Still, it’s great. This is the decade where Disney brought their quality back, and there’s really not a bad film in the bunch. The next sub-very good effort from them is probably Dinosaur. The songs in this one aren’t as good as the previous ones, but the animation is strong. This one also begins that era where I was “too old” for Disney and just completely checked out of the movies for the next decade-plus. If anyone’s keeping score. Sling Blade is Billy Bob Thornton expanding his short into a feature. And it’s great. Everyone knows (I hope) that Karl Childers voice, “Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a kaiser blade,” “french fried potaters, mmhmm.” The character is so iconic that you almost forget what the movie is about. Thornton is a slow man who has been institutionalized for years after a murder committed when he was a child who is now let out to start a life. And he befriends a young boy, whose mother is dating an abusive man. It’s… a strong film. More a character piece than anything. But Billy Bob is so good in it.

Tin Cup is another Ron Shelton sports movie, after Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump. This one is about golf. Kevin Costner is a former golf pro working on the driving range and living a simple life. A top golfer comes into town and is a douchebag to him, so he decides to get even by qualifying for the U.S. Open and beating the dude at his own game. It’s fun as hell. Of course there’s a romantic subplot with Costner and Rene Russo, but the heart of the movie is the sports stuff, and it’s just fun. Two of the three best golf movies ever came out the same year. Go figure. Ransom is an awesome movie. Ron Howard, Mel Gibson. Gibson is a rich guy who’s son gets kidnapped. And they figure he’ll give them money and it’ll go smoothly. But then he’s like, “I don’t negotiate with terrorists. You guys ain’t getting shit. But that money you did want, I’m offering it as a reward to anyone who finds these fucks and gets my kid back.” Which propels the movie to interesting places. It’s a Ron Howard movie, so you generally know what you’re getting. He’s the kind of “solid, but unspectacular” movies, and this is no different. Phenomenon is one of those movies that probably shouldn’t work, and it’s one of those movies I thought I wouldn’t like going in, but I’ve always really liked it. John Travolta is a small town man who sees a bright light in the sky one night, and all of a sudden wakes up with telekinetic powers and super-intelligence, which can cause him to predict events before they happen). And of course it causes a sensation and changes his life (not always for the better, as people want to know). It’s a really interesting movie. I think it’s good. Also a part of the Travolta-ssance that happened in the 90s, before Battlefield Earth happened.

Bottle Rocket is Wes Anderson’s first movie. It’s great. It’s lessened because he’s far surpassed it with his later work, but that doesn’t make it any less terrific a film. It’s like when you look at Mean Streets. It’s great. But also, he went on to make much better stuff too. Plus you get Owen and Luke Wilson together. I like this movie a lot. Last Man Standing is a fun throwback action western starring Bruce Willis. It’s Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars, but with Bruce Willis and a more action-heavy tone. Walter Hill directs, and it’s just fun as hell. Willis, Christopher Walken, Bruce Dern, truly what more could you ask for? A Time to Kill is the second best of the John Grisham movies, after The Firm. (For those keeping count, The Rainmaker is third, Runaway Jury is fourth, The Client is fifth. Pelican Brief and The Chamber, put them however you want after that.) It might have the best cast of the bunch. It’s about a black father who hunted down and killed the two men who raped his daughter. I really liked the book, and I like the movie too. Joel Schumacher directs. Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Oliver Platt, Charles S. Dutton, Brenda Fricker, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland and Ashley Judd star. It’s so good. And features one of the greatest line deliveries in the history of cinema:

 

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier three:

  • Beavis and Butt-Head Do America
  • Big Night
  • Black Sheep
  • Carpool
  • Celtic Pride
  • Courage Under Fire
  • Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinkin’ Your Juice in the Hood
  • Down Periscope
  • DragonHeart
  • Dunston Checks In
  • Escape from L.A.
  • Fly Away Home
  • Harriet the Spy
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • Mulholland Falls
  • The Nutty Professor
  • Scream
  • Secrets & Lies
  • Spy Hard
  • Trainspotting

Big Night is an awesome hidden gem. Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub are Italian brothers trying to save their family restaurant. So they decide to have one (insert title here) of balls out food in order to try to save the business. This is one of the most cited hidden gems of the 90s, and it’s great. Stanley Tucci also co-wrote and directed it, proving the man can truly do it all. Trainspotting is one of those movies that I feel like everyone loves. That poster is one of the stereotypical “dorm room” posters for my generation, along with Fight Club and Scarface. People are constantly talking about that opening monologue. But fun fact: I didn’t see this movie until like, eight years ago. It just never happened. I think it was one of those where, on a sort of subconscious level, I needed to wait until I hit that period where I wouldn’t hate it on principle because of my residual anger from all the film idiots with opinions that didn’t grow past senior year of high school. But also, seeing it beyond the age where most people see it… it didn’t really do much more for me other than, “Yeah, that was pretty good.” So I wouldn’t necessarily go by my opinion of it if you were looking for a recommendation, but also… now you know how I feel about it. It’s just solid.

Spy Hard is one of those parody movies I grew up loving. It’s a James Bond/spy movie spoof, starring Leslie Nielson. Nowhere near as good as Naked Gun or Airplane, but amusing. It’s got the Thunderball-inspired credit sequence, sung by Weird Al, sight gags and dumb jokes galore. Eight-year-old me loved this. Dunston Checks In is the Citizen Kane of ‘orangutan causing mayhem in a hotel’ movies. It’s your classic “jewel thief trains an orangutan to steal things, but instead the monkey runs away and befriends a boy” story. It’s kinda like Blank Check but with a monkey. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. It’s funny. I never really ever watched the show itself, but I knew who the characters were. I feel like everyone my age knew who they were. But still I saw this, and a bunch. Either a certain set of movies were just on constant repeat on the cable channels, or that’s just what happens when you’re under 15, you just watch the same stuff over and over. But yeah, I watched this movie a lot, and I’ve always liked it. Probably haven’t seen it in 15-20 years though. Celtic Pride is one of those, at least for me, classic 90s comedies. Huge Celtics fans don’t want their team to lose a Game 7, so they kidnap the star player of the other team to give their team the edge. I’m sure if I went back to see this, it would be dumb as hell, but I enjoyed the hell out of this when I was a kid. Escape from L.A. is the sequel to Escape from New York. Much more fun and lighthearted than the original (also not as good, but that goes without saying), but more Snake Plissken is never a bad thing.

Harriet the Spy is one of the other movies of my childhood that kinda fell by the wayside. But it was one of those movies… I may have seen it in theaters. Mostly because I had a younger sister who was more the age range for this than I was. But I remember them showing the Hey Arnold pilot in theaters before this. But basically the plot of this movie is Mean Girls before Mean Girls. It’s about a girl who fancies herself a spy, so she goes around snooping on people and writing in her notebooks. But when the notebooks get stolen, everyone hears all the awful shit she’s been writing about them in there. It’s fun. 90s kid stuff though. Probably something that only really works if you were a kid when it came out. Secrets & Lies is Mike Leigh. Definitely the strongest of his movies, acting-wise. Brenda Blethyn is incredible here, as is Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Jean-Baptiste is a business woman who was adopted at birth who looks for her birth mother, who is a lower class woman with a family of her own. The first half basically shows you their lives as-is, and then they meet at the center of the film in this amazing coffee shop scene. And then the second half is Blethyn trying her best to integrate Jean-Baptiste into her life. I don’t love the movie, but the acting is really good. Mike Leigh can be a bit of an acquired taste for people, the way he makes movies. So I’d say this and Vera Drake are probably the two you want to start with. Down Periscope is one of my favorite comedies of the first ten years of my life. Not saying it’s good, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. Ragtag submarine crew have to get shit done. Reminiscent of Operation Petticoat, mixed with Major League. I’ve just always really liked this movie.

Scream is perhaps the horror movie of the 90s. It’s this or Blair Witch. This is more the slasher, and it’s great. It brought self-awareness to the genre, which it badly needed. That opening sequence with Drew Barrymore is iconic, and Ghostface is one of the iconic horror characters of all time now. It’s a great movie. Spawned three sequels, and is one of those films everyone my age grew up with. Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinkin’ Your Juice in the Hood. That’s good life advice. And a Wayans brothers parody of Boyz N the Hood and Menace 2 Society and all the “hood” films of the early 90s. It’s funny. It’s also funny for those who see it for the first time now, noticing how many of the moments they parody are just known even if you haven’t seen the original source. Or, as has happened with me and other movies… I see Ace Ventura first and then realize, “Oh, that moment where he burns his clothes is a Crying Game reference?” And I just had no idea at the time. So this is a good comedy movie and an interesting artifact at the same time.  Mulholland Falls is a sort of L.A. Confidential before L.A. Confidential. Very much a neo noir, set in LA in the 50s. It’s about a detective investigating the murder of a woman. That’s really all you need, along with the fact that it stars Nick Nolte, Jennifer Connelly, John Malkovich, Chazz Palminteri, Melanie Griffith, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Treat Williams, Daniel Baldwin and Kyle Chandler. One of those movies people come across early because of the cast and subject matter. It’s good.

Black Sheep is my favorite Chris Farley movie. I love it so much. Farley is the brother of a gubernatorial candidate (gubernatorial is one of the greatest words in the language) who is a fuck up and has to be kept busy long enough to not ruin his brother’s chances at election. So Spade is the guy tasked with keeping him in line. And of course hilarity ensues. This movie is so funny. Those two were genius together. Courage Under Fire is a great drama. Ed Zwick, who for a long time made really great movies that were really solid but just so blatantly Oscar bait that even the Oscars were like, “We can’t do this.” It’s a trial/war movie, with Denzel as a military investigator looking into an incident in which Meg Ryan died heroically saving her crew in battle. Though there are questions as to what actually happened during the event, so he has to figure out if she’s worth a medal of honor. It’s a really strong movie. Also has Matt Damon in his first great performance. James and the Giant Peach is Henry Selick’s followup to The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it’s one of those movies I saw a lot growing up. Probably haven’t seen it in about 20 years, but in the time I did see it, I watched it a bunch. It’s the kind of movie that could almost only be made in the stop-motion, kinda creepy, almost-adult way they did. Also our second Roald Dahl movie this year. So there’s that. Carpool is yet another dumb comedy from my youth I have a soft spot for. Tom Arnold stars as a dude having to take the neighborhood kids to school, but then gets held hostage, along with the kids. Comedy ensues. Knock it all you want, but things always are remembered better from when you were eight. Also, directed by Arthur Hiller. So it’s got that going for it too.

Fly Away Home is Carrol Ballad, who made a career out of “animal” movies, the big ones being Never Cry Wolf and The Black Stallion. This one is Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin as a father and daughter who raise an orphaned flock of geese and have to teach them how to fly south. It’s pure 90s uplifting family stuff. The Nutty Professor is Eddie Murphy’s remake of the Jerry Lewis movie, only with the added bonus of having Murphy play like ten different characters. It’s got Murphy at the top of his game and still making good movies. Still holds up as being pretty solid. DragonHeart is fun as hell. Rob Cohen’s second movie from this year. I didn’t see this movie until very recently. It’s about the last surviving dragon in a world that has eradicated them, and Dennis Quaid, a drunk, disillusioned knight, who become friends. Quaid swore allegiance to a young prince, who he taught everything he knew. The prince got injured in battle and was given part of the heart of a dragon in order to stay alive. Only he became cruel from it (on top of becoming part immortal). That’s what led to Quaid drinking. And now, he goes around, hunting dragons. But eventually he finds the one that gave the heart and they decide to seek revenge together. Great scenes of them going around, doing a Good, the Bad and the Ugly routine where Quaid pretends to “slay” the dragon for money. Oh, and did I mention? The dragon is voiced by Sean Connery. Which is dope. Early special effects here are actually quite strong for the era, and this movie has one of the greatest film scores of the 90s.

– – – – – – – – – –

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One response

  1. All great movies, except Space Jam, lol.
    ..

    June 26, 2019 at 8:45 pm

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