Nostalgia is usually bullshit, but the 90s really were a better time, at least in America. The economy was booming, the Soviet Union was busted, The Simpsons was in its prime, the World Trade Center had yet to fall, the dot-com bubble had yet to pop, and the world order was chilled-out enough that our president spent his days courting the affections of interns. It was a simpler time for movies as well, with concepts like, "What if two guys were in a convenience store talking?" or "What if some kids were in a record store goofin' off?" or "What if there were some surfers who robbed banks?" or "What if Goodfellas was more gangster rap than guido?" Who knew they could turn these concepts into bona fide classics?
But those born in the 90s largely missed out, not only on all the economic prosperity and the golden age of comfortable flannel shirts being in fashion, but on the films that the laid-back era produced. Our editorial assistant Lauren, for instance, was born in 1992 and had never seen many pivotal 90s films, so we made her watch Point Break, Menace II Society , Empire Records, Clerks, Terminator 2, and American Pie , then tell us what she thought of them. Here's what she said:
Point Break (1991)
This film has everything: firearms, bank robbers, surfing, football, car chases, fight scenes, naked chicks, a kidnapping, and a couple of casual skydiving scenes, because why not?
There's a plot in here about a very acting-y Keanu Reeves infiltrating a gang of bank-robbing surfers led by an ageless Patrick Swayze (My roommate thought Swayze was Owen Wilson for a good portion of the movie.) The film also features a young Gary Busey, which led to an aha moment: This is how he was famous before he became reality TV's favorite rehab patient and that "kooky yelling dude in those Amazon commercials."
This is a really bro-tastic movie, as any film about bank-robbing surfers who have heart-to-hearts while falling out of planes should be. There are a ton of one-liners that, as my roommate put it, were "like a bad game of masculinity Mad Libs." Like when the FBI boss tells Reeves's character that he's "young, dumb, and full of cum," or Busey's meltdown: "Listen you snot-nose little shit, I was takin' shrapnel in Khe Sanh when you were crappin' in your hands and rubbin' it on your face." Despite all the bad acting and screaming, the film at its core is about how men bond through passion and mutual respect. Also, it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow?
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Having not yet been conceived when this movie came out in theaters (let that sink in a moment), I had never seen any of the Terminator franchise, so I had a few questions while watching the second installment. For starters, What's with the time travel? ; Is Arnold Schwarzenegger a bad guy or a good guy?; Is young John Connor the most badass ten-year-old or the most annoying kid ever? ; How do you kill a Terminator?; and Who the hell is Kyle? Luckily, 2015 has Wikipedia, so we got caught up.
I quickly learned why there are 617-and-counting Terminator films: A cyborg sent from the future is the perfect role for Schwarzenegger, who just needs to stand and run silently while looking muscly and tough.
Other good things about Terminator 2 included the special effects, which seemed pretty good for the early 90s, and the strong, complex female lead—something that's still rare in mainstream films today. It was also deeply gratifying to witness Arnie say, "Hasta la vista, baby."
Menace II Society (1993)
OK, so this one was pretty much catchphrase-free. Menace provides a raw, gritty look at a group of young black teenagers growing up in South Central LA. The protagonist Caine and his friends are surrounded by mayhem and death—at first, it's shocking to watch, then it seems almost casual as it becomes clear that for these characters, violence is used as a tool for survival even as it serves as their undoing. The film shows a different side to growing up in the 90s that isn't represented in a lot of the other movies that I've seen. Typical 90s plot points like facing the school bully, getting asked to prom, or having to work on your day off are trivial concerns compared to what young people like the ones in this film face everyday. Menace is dark and unflinching, one of those movies that you're glad you saw—recognizing the importance of turning the lens towards communities too often stereotyped or ignored all together by Hollywood—but aren't eager to rewatch, because it's almost too real.
American Pie (1999)
There always seems to be at least one or two taboo movies that separate a generation's "cool kids" from the nerds. I was seven when American Pie came out, and it seemed like one of those treasured markers of adult knowledge—every time it was mentioned, the adults around me reacted with hushed voices or eye rolls. Which, of course, made me all the more curious about it.
Unfortunately, this franchise-spawning teen movie is baaaddddddd. It's about four horny high school senior guys who are shamelessly looking for vaginas to stick their penises in—and any vagina will do, as long as penetration happens before graduation. Along the way the audience is treated to misogyny, objectification, some nudity, an awful musical number, a very concerning scene with a homemade dessert, and of course, that infamous "One time, at band camp…" line. Movies are not real life, so three out of four of the boys get laid. Miraculously.
I wasn't entertained or impressed. There were a lot more palm-to-forehead moments than laughter. I experienced a heavy dose of second-hand embarrassment and got a little sad at the one-dimensional representation of the American male teenager, as well as the lack of creativity, originality, or wit in film itself. Hopefully, hook-up culture has moved in a better direction after all these years.
This, however, was a pleasant surprise, given that it's a black-and-white movie from Cop Out director Kevin Smith. It's rough around the edges, obviously cheap (it apparently had a budget of less than $30,000), and is mostly about a couple of guys named Randal and Dante shooting the shit. There's not much action, the plot is loose, and the scenes are simply staged—but it feels authentic, somehow. It's an expert portrayal of the limbo that many of us 20-somethings find ourselves in when we wake up every morning and ask ourselves, What the hell am I supposed to DO with the rest of my life?
Empire Records (1995)
It doesn't get any more 90s than a film about a group of misfit teenagers working at the coolest record store ever—in some ways, it's like watching the MadMen people with their rotary phones and secretaries and drawn-by-hand ad mockups. Did people actually do all this stuff? You could pay the lease on a massive retail space like that from selling records?
But the setting doesn't really matter: This is a movie about the uncertainty of the future, both when it comes to the music industry and when it comes to fragile teenage relationships. It stars a young Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger, alongside relatively unknown teen heartthrob Johnny Whitworth. Who is this guy and why wasn't he in more movies? Damn.
This offered a much better take on sexuality and growing up than American Pie particularly when it came to the female characters. Liv Tyler, the goody-goody who's dying to lose her virginity to rock star Rex Manning, embodies a lot of the complexities and pressures that come with trying to be a good student, but also desirable and sexy, but also a good friend, and just generally keep one's shit together.
At times events seemed to come out of nowhere, like the whole suicide subplot and the speed addiction, (was speed like the Adderall of the time?), but it's fun, entertaining, has good music, and left me feeling like like I finally understood why everyone goes on and on about the 90s.
Follow Lauren on Twitter.