Five Films that Defined a Decade – The 1990’s

Remember the 90’s? No? This may help. ‘5 Films that Define a Decade’ will become a regular feature and will begin with the 1990’s. Not neccessarily a list of the ‘best’ movies, but those that shaped the decade.

5. Trainspotting  (1996, Danny Boyle)

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a starter home. Choose dental insurance, leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose your future. But why would anyone want to do a thing like that.”

When Shallow Grave was released to critical acclaim in 1995 a new ‘one to watch’ was recognised. Up to that point, English director Danny Boyle had made his name by directing several episodes of Inspector Morse. His movie about several down an out Scottish junkies which made him and it’s star, Ewan McGregor internationally recognised names. 

McGregor plays Mark Renton, a young heroin user who repeatedly tries to get out of the cycle of addiction. He and his friends Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie and Tommy are all products of a working class Edinburgh environment and usually hang out in ‘Mother Superiors’, a safe place in which to buy and use hard drugs. After relapsing, Mark cleans his act up finally and moves to the hustle bustle of London. He gets a steady job as a real estate agent and seems too be getting his life in order until Begbie and Sick Boy halt his progress. They arrive at his home with plans of a final drug deal in which Renton must be involved. Will he slip into his old habits and fall in with the wrong crowd once more, or will he follow his own path?

The scenes which have a lot of power are the moments of fantasy experienced by Renton. When we see him plunging his hands into the ‘worst toilet in Scotland’ to retrieve his suppositories, we get a wonderful romanticised fantasy of him swimming in blue seas, dodging mines and finding his precious pills amidst the rocks. Another is when Rentons parents lock him in his room after a quick relapse, forcing him to go ‘cold turkey’. He sees the results of his neglect and abuse in a fantasy in which his friends appear to him and, in a now infamous scene, the dead baby climbing on the ceiling, haunting him from the grave. All set to thumping 90’s rave. Which is another aspect in which this film excels – music. From Iggy and the Stooges to Lou Reed to the ‘Born Slippy’ by Underworld, the songs from the film are so iconic that they are commonly associated with their use in the film.

In retrospect, Boyle’s sophomore effort is as hard hitting as it was over ten years ago. His aesthetic style is already on show here, with raw, hard hitting visuals mixed with energetic editing. No punches are pulled and the film is by no means pro-heroin. On the contrary, the downfall of the characters, in particular Tommy, shows the destruction heroin causes.

A powerful and often hilarious film, Trainspotting is a poignant yet funny slice of 1990’s youth culture and is arguably still Boyle’s greatest work.

4. Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg)

Made at approximately the same time as his Oscar laden masterpiece, Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park couldn’t be a more different movie experience. The film set the benchmark for the use of CGI and showed it’s potential, influencing dozens of effects heavy action films since and also spurring two inferior sequels (with a third on the way).

Scientists have found a way to clone dinosaurs and businessmen have turned the marvel into an expensive theme park. The lucky few allowed to see the early development of the park are thrown into danger when the park’s security breaks down and ravenous dinosaurs threaten the lives of every inhabitant.

What stands out when you watch Jurassic Park is how well the effects are, still looking as good as most CGI action films out there today. There is a reason for this. It is due to Steven Spielberg and effects wizard Stan Winston. Instead of going gung-ho with computer effects, traditional puppet effects were integrated with digital effects, making the dinosaurs integrate much more successfully. This practice is practiced less and less nowadays, with filmmakers lazily using digital effects for scenes that could be done without them, thus making a film look unauthentic. 

There are so many classic scenes here. Who could forget seeing that T-Rex for the first time, in the rain. Or the Velociraptors terrorising the children in the kitchen. If, like me, you were a kid seeing this film for the first time, those scenes scared the shit out you. One must mention John Williams’ sweeping score, used perfectly when we see our first glimpse of a dinosaur, the huge Brachiosaurus grazing in the field. We share the amazement of Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). The always great Jeff Goldblum has a brilliant supporting role as Dr. Iain Malcolm.

Just as Spielberg invented the Summer blockbuster with Jaws in 1975, he re-invented it with Jurassic Park, changing the face of an entire genre. 

3. Toy Story (1995, Lasseter)

Who knew when a little company named Pixar released their debut feature film that it would change the way mainstream animated films were made. CGI animation was not an example of style over substance. As much effort was put into the story and characters as there was for the beautiful, vibrant animation. 

Since their first film, Pixar have prided themselves on telling exciting stories beautifully and have never compromised their ethic – as is seen in their already extraordinary back catalogue, featuring Monster’s Inc. Toy Story 2 (a rare sequel regarded as good as the original), Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and last years masterpiece Wall-E.

A revolution was born with the release of Toy Story and the future looks bright for Pixar.

2. The Matrix (1999, The Wachowski Bros.)

“What is the Matrix?”

Seeing the opening scene of the Wachowski Brothers Sci-fi actioner is something that will linger in your memory. A woman (Trinity, played by Carrie Anne Moss) wearing a PVC catsuit is cornered by a cop in a dark room. Suddenly she jumps in the air and stays there as the camera swoops around to show us her face, she blasts the cop through the wall with a swift kick.  It is a truly mind blowing piece of cinema. 

Scene after scene is truly memorable: The training scenes with Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne), the lobby shoot-out or the showdown on the rooftop as Neo tries to stop a helicopter destroying a building.

Nobody at the time, or since for that matter have seen anything like The Matrix, with its complex plot and mind bending special effects. The famous ‘bullet time’ camera effect has been often imitated and parodied but never equalled. 

Even Keanu Reeves distinctly average acting skills don’t detract from the power of this film, because that’s not what The Matrix is about.

1. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

What is there to say about this film that has not been said.

After bursting onto the scene with his 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs, critics and audiences stood up to notice the most exciting filmmaker in some years. A filmmaker who would come to represent 90’s indie cinema. His follow-up to Reservoir Dog’s was a crime movie which brought Samuel L. Jackson to prominence and resurrected the career of then flailing John Travolta.

No film of the 90’s has entered the public consciousness like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The dialogue, the clothes, the music. Not to mention the off kilter narrative, which has been overused since and has become a trademark of Tarantino’s, as well as his use of found music in his soundtracks.

The soundtrack is one of the most memorable of all time, from the opening ‘Miserlou’ to ‘Girl, You’ll be a Woman soon’ in the infamous overdose scene.

So there you have it, Pulp Fiction is the film that defined the 1990’s. Go and watch it again if you have forgotten how great it is, and that goes for the rest of the list too.

There are lots of great movies that didn’t make the list. Here are just a few.
  • Scream
  • Clerks
  • Breaking the Waves
  • The Lion King
  • Fight Club
  • American Beauty
  • Three Colours Trilogy
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Agree? Disagree? Tell us..

Next up: The 1980’s!


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