Mike’s Top Ten of 1997
Love me some 1997. This is a year where I was old enough to start seeing some of these films on my own for the first time, rather than seeing them as I got older. For some reason I don’t consider this that strong a year, but look at the movies that are here… it’s really strong. The late 90s was a pretty great time to be making movies. Good stuff happened here.
This year has some of my all-time favorite movies, and some others that are embedded into my personality forever. I have so many reference points from this list.
This year also has the added notoriety of having had, for a time, the biggest movie ever made, which kind of dwarfs everything else. I guess some of that is really 1998, since the movie came out in late December and was huge all through the first part of 1998. But man, does anyone else miss walking into literally any public place and hearing “My Heart Will Go On” playing on the speakers? I mean, I don’t, but someone might.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1997
As Good as It Gets
The Fifth Element
Good Will Hunting
Wag the Dog
11-20: Air Force One, Breakdown, Chasing Amy, Donnie Brasco, The Full Monty, Hercules, In & Out, Life Is Beautiful, Men in Black, Princess Mononoke
Tier two: Amistad, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Batman & Robin, The Boxer, Con Air, Contact, The Devil’s Advocate, Gattaca, Grosse Pointe Blank, The Ice Storm, Kundun, Liar Liar, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Mad City, My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Rainmaker, The Sweet Hereafter, Tomorrow Never Dies, Vegas Vacation, Waiting for Guffman
Tier three: Air Bud, The Apostle, Bean, Deconstructing Harry, Event Horizon, Good Burger, Home Alone 3, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Jungle 2 Jungle, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Mrs. Brown, Nil by Mouth, RocketMan, Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, Spice World, Starship Troopers, Suicide Kings, Ulee’s Gold, Volcano, The Wings of the Dove
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1. The Fifth Element
“Leeloo Dallas mul-ti-pass.”
Yeah, multipass, she knows it’s a multipass. Leeloo Dallas. This is my wife.”
“We’re newlyweds. Just met. You know how it is. We bumped into each other, sparks happen…”
“Yes, she knows it’s a multipass. Anyway, we’re in love.”
I maintain that this is a masterpiece of a film and will continue to love it as such. I am very much on the record as saying this is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, and I’ve constantly said that I feel like, from the ages of 9 and 17, there was not a single weekend of my life that went by without this movie airing on either HBO, TBS or TNT.
I honestly don’t know when I saw this movie first. This is one of those where, I’ve seen it in pieces so many times that it just sort of became a part of my brain. I know most people would say it’s Leon, but to me, this is Luc Besson’s best movie. Leon is more character and story, this is more… he built a world with great characters and just gave you so much more than the movie needed. There’s stuff here that would make its own great movie that barely gets utilized.
It’s also the kind of movie you don’t think about as a whole. It’s about a cab driver and former soldier who saves the world from an evil planet that’s moving through space and is gonna crash into Earth. I mean, what? And there’s an entire operatic segment. Chris Tucker has an interlude. Gary Oldman has his own movie for basically half of it. It’s so good.
There are some amazing movies this year, and I will take this over any of them, every single time.
2. L.A Confidential
“Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.”
This is a masterpiece. There are only a few movies I’d call neo-noir that I’d say are truly worthwhile and truly great. This and Chinatown are probably the top two. Everything else is either not really a neo-noir or not in the same universe as the others.
Based on a James Ellroy novel, it stars Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce as three cops working for the Hollywood precinct in LA. Spacey is the celebrity cop, who makes money as a consultant on a hit cop show and hanging around the social elite. Crowe is the working class bruiser cop, whose strengths lie in beating the shit out of abusive husbands. And Pearce is the smart, ambitious son of a beloved cop killed in the line of duty who is trying to live up to everything his father would want him to be. The plot revolves around a multiple murder in a diner and the consequences of the murders and the leads that stem from it.
It’s a perfect movie. It really is. This is one of those that everyone loves when they see it, because it’s the total package of everything you want out of a movie. Truly one of the absolute best pieces of cinema the 90s produced.
“Sean Archer here, who’s calling?”
“Well if you’re Sean Archer, I guess I’m Castor Troy.”
This is, to me, the kind of 90s action movies. One of the most absurd premises you will ever see: a government agent has been chasing a terrorist for years. Only, right when he captures him, he finds out the terrorist has planted a bomb somewhere. So, in order to find the bomb, the agent swaps faces with the terrorist and acts as him to get the information. It’s insane. And yet — makes perfect sense. Especially when it’s John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Not sure how we just go with the fact that they swap faces and nothing else about the body types sees weird, but you know what — doesn’t matter.
John Woo directs this, which I believe is his first American movie. So you get all the style of John Woo elevating this batshit crazy premise and somehow making it all better. Cage is completely — he starts at 11 in this movie. Then Travolta becomes Cage and Cage becomes Travolta. So watching Travolta doing Cage is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. And Cage actually delivers a really good performance when he’s Cage as Travolta doing Cage.
This is 90s action filmmaking at its finest. And this is one of those movies I’ve seen so much that’s just become a staple of who I am as a person. I have no hesitation in calling this a masterpiece.
Also, here’s the movie in a single image:
4. Jackie Brown
Everyone always overlooks this one on the Tarantino filmography. They also overlook Grindhouse/Planet Terror, but that’s more with reason. That one’s a style exercise. This one’s a straight up movie. I assume it’s because this is something he adapted (kinda) rather than wrote himself. It’s an interesting follow up for him to Pulp Fiction. It almost takes the pressure off, because he’s not making something specifically his own, so there was only so much shit they could pile onto him for not matching the genius of his previous film.
But anyway, that’s all to say — this movie is so good. It’s an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch.” But it’s really just Quentin taking the basic characters and doing his own thing with them. He wanted to make his own version of a blaxploitation movie, so he took the general framework of the story and the characters and made it the way he would want to make it. So Jackie Burke becomes Jackie Brown, and it’s Pam Grier who plays her. Of course Samuel L. Jackson plays Ordell. Then he gets Robert Forster to play Max Cherry, cementing his status as the guy who brings forgotten/overlooked actors back into the spotlight with a great role. De Niro as Louis is a fascinating choice and allows De Niro to do something totally different than you’re used to from him.
It’s a really good movie. The plot, if anyone cares, is about an airline stewardess who secretly brings over money for a gun runner but gets caught at the border on one of the trips. So they turn her into an informant for them, agreeing to wipe her slate if she’ll help bring him down. So that’s the movie. There’s a whole lot more going on, and in typical Quentin fashion he has some really great moments and sequences, but it’s basically just this cool ass movie with great actors doing cool things.
People are always gonna go to Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, but this holds up just as well as those other ones do. I love going back and watching this again and sitting with these people again.
5. Wag the Dog
“Look at that! That is a complete fucking fraud, and it looks a hundred percent real. It’s the best work I’ve ever done in my life, because it’s so honest.”
I love this movie so much. David Mamet has written some of the greatest scripts of all time. And the greatest thing about this movie is that it’s basically about Bill Clinton, but it came out before the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Which makes it so much better.
Here’s the premise: the President is caught in a scandal, having been made advances on an underage cheerleader during a White House event, so Robert De Niro, a fixer, is brought in for damage control because the election is coming up in a few weeks. So De Niro concocts a plan to create a fake war with Albania (“Why Albania?” “Why not Albania?”) that will be entirely propaganda and made with the help of a famous film executive (Dustin Hoffman, doing his best Robert Evans impression). It’s so, so funny. They literally create a fake war, with war footage and fake war heroes and songs. It’s absolutely hilarious.
Truly one of the best movies of the 90s, and it feels like one of those movies that remains underrated. Or at the very least, one of those movies that people see it and remember, “Oh right, this is amazing.”
6. Good Will Hunting
“Do you like apples?”
“Well, I got her number. How do you like them apples?”
This is one of those movies where you think back and go, “How did that happen?” This is the actual equivalent of lightning in a bottle. This movie, with this cast at this time — that’s the only way this becomes what it became. You make this movie now, there’s no way it turns out as good as this or as successful as this.
What’s interesting is that Damon and Affleck were two up-and-coming actors at the time. Damon had just been in Courage Under Fire and gotten great notices for it, and he was cast in Coppola’s The Rainmaker. Affleck had been in Dazed and Confused and was in the Kevin Smith movies. And both, I guess, felt that they were gonna try to make their own luck and write a movie for themselves. And they get the right situation at the right time, with the right supporting cast (mainly Robin Williams), and the result is just magical.
Damon and Affleck play best friends living in Boston who are just kind of fucking around. They work menial jobs, they go out drinking, that sort of thing. Though Damon is a self-taught genius, and is hiding his intelligence from the world (while still working as a janitor at MIT). And he ends up, as part of his probation, going to a psychiatrist and studying math with a professor. And the film is mainly about his relationship with the psychiatrist and overcoming all this stuff he has in his past that he shields from everyone.
Damon and Affleck became stars from this movie, won Oscars for this movie, and Robin Williams won an Oscar for this movie, giving one of the best performances of his career. Williams is so good in this. Everyone is so good in this. There are like three or four (at least) iconic scenes and moments that still resonate.
This is one of those movies that I feel is a consensus “favorite movie” of most people. Everyone loves this movie and with good reason. There’s a lot to like about it.
7. Boogie Nights
“I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out.”
Paul Thomas Anderson. Yeah boy. He started with his first movie, Hard Eight (originally titled Sydney), and then burst onto the scene with this, a Goodfellas-style depiction of the 70s porn industry. This movie is just bursting with style and energy and really showed that Anderson was a cinematic force to be reckoned with. And it’s one of those movies we all get into really early and love, just because it’s so similar to all those other movies we like when we first get into movies, and because it’s just straight up great.
It centers around Mark Wahlberg, a high school kid who gets into porn and becomes mentored by Burt Reynolds (delivering one of the performances of his career). The cast is just all stars all around, most of whom weren’t really all that famous or known at the time, which makes seeing it now even better.
It’s a tremendous piece of work, especially for a second-time director. And it still holds up as one of the most watchable movies you’ll ever see. It’s one of those where, you can pick it up at any point in time and just keep watching til the end. I think, artistically, Anderson has eclipsed what he achieved here several times over, but in terms of pure entertainment value, this is one of the best there is.
8. As Good as It Gets
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“You ever get an erection over a woman?”
“I mean, wouldn’t your life be easier if you weren’t…”
“You consider your life easy?”
“All right, I give you that one.”
I love this movie so much. James L. Brooks has made better movies than this. Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News are amazing, amazing movies. But I mark this as my favorite of his movies, just because it’s so ungodly funny to me. The way he writes Nicholson and the way Nicholson plays this character is so, so great.
He plays a famous romance novelist who, in real life, is just a mess. He’s an OCD hypochondriac who hates people. He’s gotta open doors a certain number of times before he walks into a room, brings his own silverware to restaurants and won’t step on the cracks of a sidewalk. And the film is about him learning how to actually be around (and even be kind) to other people. It’s fucking wonderful.
Nicholson and Helen Hunt won Oscars for this movie, Greg Kinnear was also nominated. I’ve seen this movie so many times and I love it so, so much. This is also one of those performances — it’s perfectly Nicholson, but also kind of not. The character is not a guy you’d figure he’d be playing, but also feels exactly like him at all times. Which is why I think it’s so wonderful.
8. The Game
“What are you… selling?”
“Oh. It’s a game.”
This is one of those where… somehow you know what the deal is all along, but it doesn’t matter. Especially now, where you just kind of assume you know the ending. But it’s not really about a “twist,” per se, it’s about how awesome everything is until the ending. In a way, the ending doesn’t matter. Because everything else is just so good.
This is David Fincher’s followup to Se7en, again with Andy Kevin Walker writing the script. Full of great character actors and a fantastic lead performance by Michael Douglas (and Sean Penn pulling a cool supporting role that you wouldn’t really expect from him). This is a movie I watched a bunch of for a time, but it remains one of those Fincher movies I, now, watch least. It’s one of those where it gets lost in the shuffle among the movies he’s made since then, which have scaled far greater heights. Which only speaks to his talents as a filmmaker more than it does the quality of this film itself.
I do think the strength of this movie is the fact that the ending doesn’t matter. Fincher makes such captivating movies, and he does it really without anything overly flashy. It’s a true talent.
“I’m the king of the world!”
This is one of those movies you almost have to put on the list. I feel like, given more time, this may eventually fall off. But for now… it’s such a huge part of my life. This was the biggest movie of all time at that point in my life. I was too young to have heard all about the production issues and budget overruns and what not, but I do remember hearing people vaguely talking about it potentially being a disaster and then it coming out and being gigantic. I saw this in theaters at least twice. And I was 9. It was the longest movie I’d ever sat in a theater for. There was an intermission, for crying out loud. Everywhere you went — and this is no exaggeration — the Celine Dion song was playing on some radio. It was, for thirteen years, the highest grossing movie of all time, making a then-unheard of $600 million at the domestic box office.
I remember, years later, watching the 1953 Titanic movie for the first time, and it’s almost exactly the same plot as this movie. Mostly the idea of a relationship and other various storylines playing out before the ship goes down. And there’s a big disaster sequence that’s the highlight of the movie.
It’s hard to meet anyone around my age who doesn’t see this as a major film event in their lives. We all saw this. We all owned the VHS set with two tapes. We all remember where the first tape ends and the second begins. And we all, for the first half of 1998, had that Celine Dion song stuck in our heads.
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Air Force One — What a great movie. Die Hard on an airplane. Harrison Ford is the president, and Gary Oldman and some Russian terrorists show up on the plane. And he’s gotta get everyone out of there safe. It’s awesome. One of the great things this movie does that no one really talks about — Glenn Close plays the vice president. And it’s not even a thing. Partially because Glenn Close… she could just as easily be the president and it wouldn’t be weird. But also, it’s 1997. That’s pretty progressive for them. Anyway, this movie is awesome.
Breakdown — One of my favorite movies from growing up. I watched this so often on HBO. It felt like it was on my TV at least once a week. This is a movie that would have made a great noir in the 40s. Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan are on vacation in New Mexico and their car breaks down. A truck driver passes by and offers to drive them to a phone. Russell sends Quinlan off to call a tow while he figures out what the hell happened. Turns out, it was some minor issue. So he drives back to the rest stop to get Quinlan. Only when he gets there, they say, “What are you talking about? No woman got here. What are you talking about?” And thus begins Russell’s frantic search for his wife. It’s awesome. I love it so much. Think of it as a B movie that would have placed in front of the main feature in the 50s and you’ll get the most out of it. It’s not high art, it’s just a good time.
Chasing Amy — Kevin Smith’s third movie, and the one most people felt was his most mature. Which is funny when you consider the plot of the movie is Ben Affleck falling in love with a lesbian. But still… it is a good movie. It’s hard for me to discuss these movies objectively (Kevin Smith movies), because I grew up with them and they were among the first group of movies I fell in love with. So I will always hold them in high esteem. But I’m not sure what they mean to anyone just getting into movies now, likely meaning they were born post Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. I guess you’ll have to figure that shit out for yourselves. But I love this movie.
Donnie Brasco — Making a mob movie in a post-Goodfellas world is almost a no-win situation. You can make one, and people will probably see it, but it’s almost impossible to make a good one that people remember. And if you don’t count the other Scorsese mob movies (Casino, The Departed), how big is the list of really good ones people remember? Maybe five? This one is on that list. Johnny Depp stars, back when he was picking interesting material, as an undercover FBI man infiltrating the mob. Al Pacino plays a career mobster who befriends Depp, and gives one of his best performances. This is a movie that just holds up. Most people get into it early when they get into the Goodfellas of it all, but if for some reason you missed this, go back and remedy that.
The Full Monty — The second crowdpleaser British comedy that made the Best Picture list in the 90s. This one is about a group of steel workers who get laid off and are looking for a way to make money. Their solution: a striptease act. It’s… really charming. It’s hard not to like this movie.
Hercules — Great Disney movie that’s a continuation of the Renaissance (not technically part of it because the company structure had changed). Also the first one with visible CGI effects. Parts of this movie look like they’re using some Pixar technology in there, whereas everything before it, even if they did use computers to enhance some stuff, felt hand-drawn. It’s still great though. Great songs, great characters (Megara is one of the great characters of all time and Hades is awesome), really good movie.
In & Out — One of my favorite comedies. It seems like no one remembers this. Or even saw it. Kevin Kline plays a small town English teacher who is finally getting married to Joan Cusack, even though they’ve been dating for years. On the eve of the wedding, Kline’s former student, Matt Dillon, wins an Oscar for playing a gay soldier. And during his speech, he thanks Kline for being an inspiration to him… and then says he’s gay. Naturally, this is a bombshell in the town, and now everything is thrown upside down, even the wedding. Kline insists he’s not gay, though everyone around him starts to think, “You know… that makes sense.” It’s great. It MAY come off as a bit tone deaf and insensitive in the current day, but growing up, I loved this movie.
Life Is Beautiful — This is the epitome of a movie that should not work. It just shouldn’t. And yet… somehow it does. This is two movies in one. The first half is a charming comedy and romance with Roberto Benigni wooing a lady and starting a family with her. Then… the Holocaust happens. The main story of the film is that he and his family are put in concentration camps and he, in order to shield his son from the horrors, turns the whole thing into a game. To the kid, they’re playing. But really, they’re doing things to survive. It’s a really effective movie. People my age might have some lingering feelings toward this because of all the awards… stuff… surrounding it. But if you’re able to go in fresh (which I was finally able to again a few years ago), I think most people will get a lot out of this.
Men in Black — A masterpiece. Looking back, it’s really low budget in some ways. This is the kind of movie I think they didn’t quite expect to hit the way it did. Yet, so much of this is so memorable. Especially considering it’s only like 95 minutes long. They cover a lot of territory in such a short time. If Bad Boys made Will Smith, Independence Day and this cemented him. I’m pretty sure everyone knows what this movie is about, but for those who somehow haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor.
Princess Mononoke — This will be a refrain every time his name comes up: you can never go wrong with a Miyazaki film. There is no bad one, merely ones you like more than the others. This is one I do not like more than the others, but it does not make it any less of a masterpiece. It’s about a prince, cursed by a demon, searching for a cure before it kills him. He stumbles upon a war between humans and the forest, and finds himself right in the middle of it. It’s great. You’re not really a film fan if you haven’t seen Miyazaki movies.
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- Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
- Batman & Robin
- The Boxer
- Con Air
- The Devil’s Advocate
- Grosse Pointe Blank
- The Ice Storm
- Liar Liar
- The Lost World: Jurassic Park
- Mad City
- My Best Friend’s Wedding
- The Rainmaker
- The Sweet Hereafter
- Tomorrow Never Dies
- Vegas Vacation
- Waiting for Guffman
The Boxer is Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis reuniting after My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. This one… largely overlooked, but really solid. He plays a guy in prison for years because he took the fall for IRA guys and is now out and trying to rebuild his life. It’s great. Daniel Day-Lewis is always great. This is one of the overlooked gems of the 90s. The Ice Storm is Ang Lee’s family drama about key parties. Okay, so it’s not just about that, but it’s hard not to remember this as the movie with the key party. It’s about suburban parents and kids dealing with sex and drugs and stuff. It’s really solid, as far as adult dramas go. Great performances by Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. It’s definitely in indie darling, if that makes sense, and one of those movies that’s worth seeing because it’s just good. Grosse Pointe Blank is one of those 90s rom com/action movies with such a great premise you know it’s gonna be good: professional hitman ends up back in his hometown while his ten-year high school reunion is going on. Genius. This movie is so much fun and is one of the great movies of the 90s. John Cusack and Minnie Driver forever.
Mad City is one of those movies I never really knew about, and when I finally watched it, I went, “Why is no one talking about how great this movie is? Directed by Costa-Gavras, it stars John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman. Travolta is a museum security guard who gets laid off and shows up back at work with a gun and ends up holding an entire class of schoolchildren hostage and turning into this big standoff with police. Hoffman plays a TV reporter who happens to be in the museum who uses the story to revive his career but also act as a sort of psychiatrist/friend to Travolta at the same time. It’s a really nice film. I’m not sure why more people don’t know about this. Tomorrow Never Dies is Bond. The most 90s of the bunch and, if not for Die Another Day, would have been the worst of the Pierce Brosnan films. Jonathan Pryce is basically Rupert Murdoch, running a giant news conglomerate, but is also secretly making the news by murdering people and doing evil shit that he can then get the scoop on. The plot is crazy and so fucking 90s. But it’s got its moments. Michelle Yeoh is the Bond girl, and that’s fun. Also it’s got a nice little cameo by Vincent Schiavelli as “The Doctor,” who is one of the more intriguing Bond henchmen I’ve ever seen, with sadly far too little screen time. The Devil’s Advocate is just insane. And I love it. Keanu Reeves (sporting a great southern accent) is a lawyer who literally makes a deal with the Devil. The Devil, of course, is played by Al Pacino, in full Pacino mode. He got locked into that Scent of a Woman, over the top stuff that you saw in parts of Heat. But here, he just commits. And goes full Pacino for the entirety of the film. It’s so nuts. But also, how can you not enjoy it?
The Rainmaker is another John Grisham movie. The last one, really, until Runaway Jury six years after this. This one was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the last of his director-for-hire jobs (and I’m guessing right when the wine business took off). It stars Matt Damon as a young lawyer taking on a giant corrupt insurance company. So it’s the “little man against big odds” trial movie you see a lot of. A Civil Action came out right after this one. You know the drill. This one’s really good, though. Great cast. Damon, Danny DeVito, Mickey Rourke!, Claire Danes, Jon Voight, Roy Scheider (!), Mary Kay Place, Virginia Madsen, Dean Stockwell, and, in her final screen performance, Teresa Wright. It’s quite good and quite underrated. One of the more solid trial movies, and probably my second favorite of the Grisham films. Kundun is Martin Scorsese’s movie about the Dalai Lama. That is correct. He made this movie, and chances are you just went, “Wait, really?” This is his most forgotten film, by far. People just don’t even know this exists. After Hours is probably the other most forgotten one. The others, people forget it’s him (Color of Money, Age of Innocence) or just never see it (Last Temptation, Bringing Out the Dead). This is part of his religion trilogy, with Last Temptation and Silence. It’s a really interesting movie. Not gonna pretend like I love it, much like the other two. I generally prefer crime Marty to religious Marty, as do most people. But it’s solid.
Liar Liar is Jim Carrey, and it still holds up. It’s very funny. He plays a lawyer who lies for a living. He can’t help but lie to everyone, even his son, who he keeps telling he’s gonna spend more time with him, but never does. So the kid wishes that he dad couldn’t tell a lie for a full day, and it magically comes true. So Carrey has to go around, completely unable to lie, and comedy ensues. It’s fucking hilarious. This might be the one straight comedy of his from the 90s I’ve seen the most. It’s so much of a classic in our family that, no joke, two days before I wrote this up, I heard that they ended up watching it on the Spanish channel, with no English subtitles, but were still fully following along because they’ve seen it so often they basically knew all the words. The Lost World: Jurassic Park is the sequel. Not as good as the original, but more dinosaurs and more Jeff Goldblum. Hard to be upset with that. Vegas Vacation might be my personal favorite of the Vacation movies. It’s this or Christmas Vacation. This is by far the one I’ve seen the most. I enjoy the shit out of this movie. The best thing about this franchise is that you don’t need anything more than the title to understand exactly what the movie’s about. That’s pretty wonderful. But yeah, there’s so much from this movie that I still quote. “Nick Papagiorgio. From Yuma.” Or Sid Caesar at the end at the Keno game. “I won! I won the money!” This movie is a classic and I will die on this hill.
Contact is Robert Zemeckis’ Interstellar. That’s all I kept thinking as I watched Interstellar. “This is Contact.” Jodie Foster plays a woman who has been looking for signs of alien life. It is her obsession, and stems from something she did with her father before he died when she was young. So now, she looks for answers. Eventually, she finds something. And I’ll leave it at that. This is a big space epic with emotion at its core, and I really like it. Also has Matthew McConaughey in it too, which is just a nice coincidence. But yeah, big fan of this movie. Amistad is Steven Spielberg’s movie about a revolt on a slave ship. It’s really solid. There’s an interesting transition for him — The Color Purple, this, then Lincoln. He gradually moved toward the white side of things. Which seems dismissive, but if you remember, people (the Academy) hated him in the 80s, and straight up refused to accept The Color Purple. Cut to Lincoln — 12 nominations and a couple wins. Just saying. Anyway, this movie’s really good, because it’s by and large a trial movie. They have to decide whether or not these men are free. You get Matthew McConaughey, playing another idealistic lawyer, and Anthony Hopkins, playing old John Quincy Adams, in the scene-stealing role they gave to Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln. The cast is stacked, as Spielberg movies tend to be, and it’s just really solid. It’s rare to say a Spielberg movie isn’t good. Generally, like this, it just comes down to how much you like it next to the other great ones. Not a bad place to be, as a director.
Gattaca is one of those movies I heard about for years but never watched. Not sure why. But I always just assumed it was overrated. And then I saw it, and within thirty minutes went, “This is not overrated.” Which is always a good feeling. It’s Andrew Niccol, who always makes high concept sci-fi that’s almost always really good or really thought provoking even if it’s not great. It’s about a future where people are classified by DNA. If you don’t have superior DNA, you can’t do things. Ethan Hawke is born without that DNA. But he really wants to do things (namely go to space) that the superior people can. So he meets Jude Law, a former athlete who is paralyzed. Law is perfectly willing to help him out, so he helps him pretend he’s him. It’s… really good. My favorite Niccol film (that he directed. The Truman Show is the best otherwise) is always gonna be Lord of War, but this is second. This is great. Definitely one of the gems of the 90s. Most people know about it, so it’s one that, if you haven’t seen it, you should. Con Air is perhaps the quintessential Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Plane full of convicts goes down and the prisoners take control. Nicolas Cage is a recently paroled convict who just wants to get home and see his daughter, so he’s gotta do the right thing and stop these madmen. It’s… the best. It’s big, it’s fun, it’s nuts… what more can you ask for out of a movie? Also, like any great 90s action movie… it comes with a love theme!
Oh, you all forgot, didn’t you? That’s right. This song was written for this movie.
The Sweet Hereafter is a study in grief. It’s about (and the movie starts with this, so don’t worry) a horrible bus crash that kills a bunch of children and cripples some others. And Ian Holm is a lawyer who comes into town, basically looking to defend all the families in a major lawsuit. And as he goes around, trying to sign everyone up, build his case, we meet all these people and hear their stories, and we see Holm’s story. And it’s just… it’s a brutal watch. It’s great, but it’s one of those movies, you don’t wanna go back and watch it all too often. It’s heavy. Atom Egoyan was nominated for Best Director for this movie, and it’s one of those, if you don’t see why the first time, as you grow older and revisit this movie, you will. This is a movie about how we deal with tragedy in every form, and how we (or if we) move forward from it. It’s really great. My Best Friend’s Wedding is a Julia Roberts rom com. What’s interesting to me is that she went away from them for most of the 90s, only really returning to them in the latter half of the decade. Everything else was always some other genre. This one’s pure rom com, and then she had the string of them that made her the biggest star in the world. But this one is about her who finds out her longtime platonic male friend is engaged, which suddenly makes her realize she loves him. So naturally, she sets out to ruin his wedding and make him hers by the end of the week. It’s fun. I missed a lot of these rom coms growing up, and going back to them now, I’m always amazed at how fun they all are.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is the first one. This was a huge hit and phenomenon when it came out, spawning two sequels in six years. This franchise has crossed into the cultural lexicon, and it’s just one of those comedies that just worked. I haven’t seen it in probably 20 years, so I don’t remember how well it holds up. But man, was this amazing when it came out. Even the second one is great. The only real knock I can have against this franchise is how often they repeat gags and run them into the ground by beating them to death. Other than that, these movies are great. Not sure how much I can recommend them to young people today, because you guys grew up in a completely different era. But for people my age and even people slightly younger, these movies were hilarious. Waiting for Guffman is Christopher Guest’s first mockumentary. Well, that he directed. Clearly he had a lot to do with Spinal Tap. It’s about a small town theater company about to put on a play, and through a vague connection, they invite a Broadway critic to come see it. And of course everyone gets worked up, thinking they’re gonna perform for this guy. And it’s mostly about all the insane characters the cast creates. But if you’ve seen any Christopher Guest movie, you know that already. It’s very funny. You can’t go wrong with any of his mockumentaries (though don’t start with Mascots. Start with an earlier one).
Batman & Robin is the one where they put nipples on the batsuit. It’s George Clooney as Batman and, more memorably, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. This movie is so campy I think it’s a masterpiece. People forget how much fun these movies actually were/are. Sure, the Burton ones were darker and the Nolan ones elevated the genre, but these ones were pure comic book, camp fun. And while they’re lower on the “art” scale, they’re still really fun movies. Also, how many major studio releases are there that feature endless amounts of ice puns?
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- Air Bud
- The Apostle
- Deconstructing Harry
- Event Horizon
- Good Burger
- Home Alone 3
- I Know What You Did Last Summer
- Jungle 2 Jungle
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
- Mrs. Brown
- Nil by Mouth
- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion
- Spice World
- Starship Troopers
- Suicide Kings
- Ulee’s Gold
- The Wings of the Dove
Other films of my childhood: Good Burger. I am of the generation that grew up with Nickelodeon. All That, Kenan and Kel. Good Burger was a sketch on All That, and, like SNL sketches, spun off into its own thing. This movie was so much fun when I was nine. It also randomly features a scene where Kenan and Kel dance in the looney bin with Shaq, George Clinton and Abe Vigoda. Also, that does mean Abe Vigoda is the only person to be in both The Godfather and Good Burger. So there’s that. Then, Bean. Mr. Bean is one of the greatest comedy characters of all time. I honestly don’t know how I was originally exposed to it. I guess my parents showed it to me. But we’d all watch that show when it came on in reruns (or maybe even new, I cannot remember) and laugh our asses off. So then the movie came out in theaters ad we were there. Not as funny at all as the show, because it didn’t have the cadence and humor the original show had. But still something I watched a bunch when I was nine.
RocketMan is somehow a movie that my entire family saw in a theater and still references. It stars Harland Williams as an engineer who gets to become an astronaut. This movie is perfect for ten year olds, which, fortunately, I still am in a lot of ways. Nothing like a good “monkey farting” joke. Air Bud is the Citizen Kane of ‘dogs playing sports’ movies. Fun fact: I saw this movie, opening weekend, in theaters as a double feature with Spawn. (Spawn, sadly, did not make this list.) Home Alone 3 is the lesser, but not forgotten, cousin of the series. Macaulay Culkin is gone, and instead we get Scarlett Johansson playing the sister of the main character. Somehow I saw this movie a bunch growing up. I still saw the first two more, but this one I saw way more than any person ought to have. And I’ve always enjoyed it. Also, weirdly there’s a subplot about the kid dropping the toilet seat on his dick. I’ve always remembered that, because… WHY? Jungle 2 Jungle is Tim Allen in another high concept family movie. Basically, what if you found out you had a son… who was raised in the jungle? So now he’s basically taking in Tarzan and having to teach him how to live around people. It’s fun. And then there’s I Know What You Did Last Summer. The other iconic teen horror film of the 90s after Scream. This one is about some teens who accidentally run over and kill (or so they think) a fisherman. They decide to dump the body. Only a year later, they’re hunted down and killed by a dude with a hook. Guess who. All-star cast for this one for 90s fans: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr. I saw both this and the sequel in theaters. (I have a weird pride about these things. I don’t know what it is.)
Okay, next let’s go through the Oscar films, since I noticed there are a few here. The Apostle is Robert Duvall. He wrote and directed it too. He plays a preacher who, after beating up the man sleeping with his wife, runs out of town and reinvents himself as (insert title here). It’s a really strong performance from Duvall and a fun film. The Wings of the Dove is Helena Bonham Carter in, essentially, a Merchant-Ivory film. She plays a poor woman in love with a poor man. But she desperately craves a higher station. So when she meets a dying American heiress who is in love with her man, she decides, “Well, I can make this work.” And basically arranges so her lover marries the woman, figuring, “When she dies, we’ll get the money.” Things… don’t work out as planned, as you can imagine. Mrs. Brown is Judi Dench, and the first of her many Oscar nominations since then. GoldenEye was what introduced her to most audiences, but this is what established her as a heavyweight screen actress, which she had not been known as by that point. She plays Queen Victoria, who, after her husband dies, becomes close with Billy Connolly, a Scottish servant and the only person in her court who will tell it like it is. She likes that he’ll tell her to shut the fuck up, and the two become very close, to the point of scandal. Movie’s not great, but Judi and Billy are. And finally, Ulee’s Gold. This is Peter Fonda in what might be the quintessential indie Oscar movie of the 90s. Or maybe that’s just perception talking and me doing crosswords for all these years. Fonda plays a beekeeper trying to keep his family together by helping save his daughter-in-law from some dangerous people. It’s a solid movie.
Next are the films that could have been of my childhood, but somehow I missed them all and saw them recently. But if you’re around my age, chances are they’re probably of your childhood. Starting with Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. Guessing I missed this one because it was more a girl’s movie than a guy’s one. But having seen it recently, it’s just good. Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino play two friends going back to their high school reunion. They were always really close and always ostracized for being weird. And they’re determined to go back as successes, so they invent this entire lie in order to look good. It’s fun. Dumb, but fun. Next, Event Horizon. Somehow all my friends watched this a bunch and I never did. It’s sci-fi/horror. A spaceship disappeared into a black hole and has now returned… and something deadly may be on board. It’s fun. So stupid, but fun. I can see how I’d have really enjoyed this when I was nine. Now, going back, it’s almost the quintessential 90s sci-fi thriller. And finally Starship Troopers. It’s Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, who gave us RoboCop the first time they teamed up. People I know love this movie. I never… caught the bug, so to speak. It’s, like Verhoeven’s other movies, a satire of politics and society. This one is about a space army fighting giant bugs. It’s… well, people have very strong feelings about this one, and chances are you don’t need to me to explain what it is. I’ll say that I enjoy this movie, but don’t love it. But I get it. I get why other people would really like this. It’s Verhoeven. It’s fun.
Volcano is another quintessentially 90s disaster movie. A volcano erupts and is gonna destroy LA. That’s it. That’s all you need to know. Oh, and I guess… the volcano is secretly below the La Brea Tar Pits, just so you can make sense of how that could possibly happen. But yeah, a volcano has erupted and it’s up to Tommy Lee Jones to save us. Fuck yeah. Deconstructing Harry is Woody Allen, and it’s one of the ones I like. It’s about a writer who is about to get an honorary award from his alma mater, who starts to see visions (and interact with) his own characters, who are all based on aspects of his life. So there’s an interesting thing where he’s reliving his own past as well as scenes from his books. Good cast, too: Billy Crystal, Kirstie Alley, Richard Benjamin, Judy Davis, Bob Balaban, Elisabeth Shue, Tobey Maguire, Jennifer Garner, Paul Giamatti, Stanley Tucci, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Mariel Hemingway, Robin Williams, Amy Irving and Demi Moore. It’s weird, but I like it. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is Clint Eastwood doing southern gothic. Not a great fit for him, but interesting. John Cusack is a journalist who befriends millionaire Kevin Spacey. Soon, Spacey’s lover, Jude Law, turns up dead, and Spacey is put on trial. It’s mostly about Savannah and all the characters and whatnot that inhabit it. But it’s an interesting attempt by Eastwood to branch out. I like that he’s always tried different things as a director.
Spice World is the greatest movie starring the Spice Girls ever made. To be honest, I have zero idea what this movie is even about, which is funny, because I must have seen this movie like two dozen times. My sister was that age where she was big into the group, so I was exposed to the music (which is admittedly very fun). And she watched the movie a bunch, and eventually it just became something that went on the TV from time to time, so I’ve seen this movie a fair amount. And I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s right there in the vein of those Beatles movies… any big pop band movie, really. It’s is own thing, and it’s fun and does the job. Suicide Kings is one of those Quentin-inspired movies of the late 90s, and one most of us get into pretty early, just because a lot of the cast overlaps with those movies you get into at the beginning. It’s about a bunch of guys who try to pay a ransom for their friend by kidnapping a mob boss… for ransom. Christopher Walken plays the mob boss, and he’s really the highlight of the film. Him and, I guess, Denis Leary, as the mob hitman after the guys. But it’s fun. Very 90s. And then Nil by Mouth, a criminally underrated and underseen gem. Written and directed by Gary Oldman. It actually won the BAFTA for Best British Film and Best Screenplay that year. Both of which are impressive, since it beat the Full Monty on both counts. It stars Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke and it’s just about the personal relationships of a group of working-class people. It’s really good. This movie changed Ray Winstone’s career. You don’t get Sexy Beast without this. And it’s truly one of the great hidden gems of the 90s.
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