The 1990s were a troubling decade, and they seem to be increasingly so the farther we get from them. I was not really a child in the 1990s–I turned 18 the year they began–but many of my near-contemporaries who spent their childhood years in that decade recall fondly its pop culture, music, outrageous and bizarre clothes, toys and video games. Culturally and historically the 1990s were the pivot point from the more “innocent” 1980s to the bleak and troubled new century that began with 9/11. As with any other period since the advent of motion pictures, the cinema of the 1990s can give us an insightful look at what was cooking in America during those years, and that’s what I propose to do in this blog series, looking at the final decade of the 20th century by referencing 25 films that epitomize its style and substance. This series echoes the similar one I did profiling the “greed and glitter” cinema of the 1980s.

The same caveats apply here as did in my 1980s series. The list of films we’ll be going through in this and the next four posts are not intended as a “best-of” list; in fact some of them are downright bad. Nor is it a list of my favorite 1990s films; indeed, although my all-time favorite movie came out in 1993, you won’t find it on this list. I chose these films because I think they all say something significant about the time they were made and what was happening in America and the world then. Each article will examine two years of the decade, the first being the openers, 1990 and 1991.

The Freshman (1990, Andrew Bergman, Director)

Anyone who expected the 1990s to be a continuation of the glitzy ’80s was in for a rude awakening fairly quickly. With Reagan gone from the White House and the Cold War powering down, the world was changing in profound ways in 1990. Part of the charm of The Freshman, Andrew Bergman’s light and quirky mafia comedy, is how it plays anachronism for laughs. A mafia club in what was once Little Italy is now, in 1990, in the middle of Chinatown. Purported mafia boss Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando) deliberately yuks up his own portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but instead of casinos and racketeering he’s in the endangered species business and shrieking to his broker on the phone about Polaroid stock. And 1980s teen heartthrob Matthew Broderick of Ferris Bueller fame, actually 28 when he made this film, is now in college.

The Freshman is a fun picture partly because it assumes that the audience knows all the jokes. It knows you’ve seen The Godfather and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Bergman doesn’t try to explain them to you. The comedic chemistry between Broderick, Brando and Penelope Ann Miller as Sabatini’s fetching daughter is perfect, and only sharpened by the antics of supporting players Paul Benedict as a pompous film professor, Bruno Kirby as a moronic mafia hustler and Maximilian Schell and B.D. Wong as gay lovers. And don’t even get me started on the lizard! The Freshman is a really funny film that serves as a perfect entry point into 1990s cinema.

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990, Brian De Palma, Director)

I realize I’m already testing the patience of my readers by including this, one of the worst films of all time, on my list of representative 1990s films. Don’t get me wrong. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a bad film. It’s badly directed, badly written, terribly acted (especially by Bruce Willis, who had no business being anywhere near this picture), and quite rightfully badly received both by critics and audiences. Yet this big-budget ($47 million in 1990 dollars, equivalent to $91 million today) flop is crucial to understanding 1990s cinema, because it demonstrated beyond all doubt that what worked in the ’80s would not work in the ’90s.

Based on the satirical novel by Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities attempts, and fails miserably, to satirize New York City high society, racial politics and the gestalt of greed as it was known in the 1980s–think Oliver Stone’s Wall Street given the black comedy treatment. Great idea for a story, and in fact Tom Wolfe’s book is one of the all-time best novels of the 1980s, but it was published in 1987, the height of that fragile era. When De Palma tried to adapt it in 1990, times had already changed and the “greed and glitter” ethos of the ’80s was already outdated. The cinema of a new decade must, before it can move on, decisively turn its back on the previous decade. The Bonfire of the Vanities and its egregious dramatic, narrative and commercial failure represents a stark repudiation of the ’80s. This same film, if made in 1987 or 1988, probably would have been at least watchable. In 1990 it was utter trash. It demonstrates how short that moment of transition was from 1980s to 1990s.

Pretty Woman (1990, Garry Marshall, Director)

The 1990s was the apotheosis of the romantic comedy as a cinematic form, and 1990’s Pretty Woman laid down the rules that all others would eventually follow. More significantly than that, Pretty Woman crossed a line that would at least begin a cultural conversation about the inclusiveness and value of women engaged in sex work, which is now part and parcel of our societal-level re-evaluation of gender equality. Julia Roberts plays Vivian Ward, a Hollywood prostitute whom the movie dares to depict as a human being worthy of being loved and valued on her own terms, instead of being, in the words of a famous 1980s movie (Fatal Attraction) “some broad you can bang a few times and then throw in the garbage.” Don’t get me wrong, Pretty Woman is not a feminist anthem by any means, but at least it represented incremental progress from the misogynistic slasher pics and the “women in prison” movies that were popular in the previous decade.

Pretty Woman deals heavily in privilege. It’s Pygmalion for the 1990s, with Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) spending out the wazoo to “civilize” leather-booted hooker Vivian (Julia Roberts). The picture is problematic on many levels, but it perfectly represents the 1990s in the sense that it’s not as problematic as it would have been if made in 1980, yet considerably retrograde if it had been made in 2010. Indeed a film like Pretty Woman probably couldn’t have been made in any other time than when it was. For that reason alone, as squeamish as it makes us feel nearly 30 years on, it deserves a place in a survey of 1990s cinema.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, Kevin Reynolds, Director)

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves represents so much of early-90s cinema, there’s no way it could not have a place on this list. It was a blockbuster conceived in a corporate boardroom, built by committee and communicated to us, the moviegoers, from on high by marketing channels who drilled into our heads that “this is the Gone With The Wind of the 1990s” and we had to see it. We did see it, many of us (including me) on opening weekend; we were horrendously disappointed, because it’s a terrible film, but by then it was too late: the studios already had our money. This cynical bait-and-switch was the blueprint for so many movie experiences of the 1990s, underscoring that cinema in that decade was less about story or filmmaking, and much more fundamentally about commerce. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was the Nigerian 419 scam of motion pictures, and it swindled the world out of $390 million.

What’s so fascinating about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is not how bad a movie it was, but who got the blame for it. Director Kevin Reynolds, a Hollywood nobody at the best of times, escaped relatively unscathed; who the hell remembers him as an “auteur”? No, it was the other Kevin, that being Costner, the star, who is ludicrously associated with this terrible but perversely enjoyable paraphrase of the medieval Robin Hood legend, juiced up with an unflappable Morgan Freeman and a comic Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Most of the failure of this film is laid at the feet of Costner, from whose marble heights 1990’s Dances With Wolves he simply had to be dethroned. Ironically the two Kevins, Costner and Reynolds, would belly up to the bar together in 1995 to take it in the kisser again with Waterworld, the Heaven’s Gate of the 1990s. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was but prologue to that hulking failure, the less said about which, the better.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme, Director)

You cannot evaluate 1990s cinema without reckoning with The Silence of the Lambs. Released during the brief Persian Gulf War, in many ways it’s the first purely 1990s film without any attachments to the previous decade. Its unsparing violence, moral brutality and sensual stripped-down minimalism were like nothing audiences had ever seen before. When I first saw the film in February 1991 I recall whimpering and cowering in my seat, I was so terrified by what was happening on-screen. In this brutal depiction of serial killers and the federal agents who hunt them, Demme completely bypassed the cop-show clichés of the 1970s and the slasher movie tropes of the 1980s to deliver a horrifying glimpse of home-grown evil, the sort of monsters who lurk in small Ohio towns and who evade capture not because they’re clever, but because they’re so ordinary.

The film also vibrates on many hidden levels. Jodie Foster, who portrays FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling (in an Oscar-winning performance), has a crackly chemistry with jailed serial killer Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) which is eerily fraught with sexual tension as well as intellectual intrigue. Hopkins is on-screen for less time than any other actor who won an Academy Award for Best Actor, but he dominates the film in a way that makes you think about the depravity of our society, especially as he comes off as sort of a folk hero, or at least a figure of macabre fascination. I utterly hate everything The Silence of the Lambs makes me think about, but it’s undeniably a great movie–and one of the all-time greatest from the 1990s.

Stay tuned for Part II of this series, which will deal with the years 1992-93.

The poster for [The Silence of the Lambs is presumably copyright (C) 1991 by Orion Pictures. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.