10 Movies That Perfectly Capture The Essence Of The '90s

10 Movies That Perfectly Capture The Essence Of The '90s
Image credit: Legion-Media, globallookpress, Sony, Orion Classics

Get ready for some serious nostalgia.

1. Reality Bites (1994)

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The '90s are known for flannel, angst, and grunge music, all of which were gloriously captured in Reality Bites. Directed by Ben Stiller, this film epitomizes the '90s Gen X zeitgeist with its storyline about post-collegiate ennui. Winona Ryder shines as Lelaina, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, grappling with the pressures of adulthood while juggling relationships with her polar-opposite suitors – a directionless musician played by Ethan Hawke and a charmingly shallow TV executive portrayed by Stiller.

Everyone needs to watch this at least once, if only for that iconic scene where Ryder, Stiller, and Janeane Garofalo lip-sync to My Sharona in a convenience store. This film is as '90s as Kurt Cobain's flannel shirt, trust me on this.

2. Run Lola Run (1998)

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This German thriller by director Tom Tykwer takes us on a heart-pounding trip through the streets of Berlin. Lola (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to find 100,000 Deutschmarks to save her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) from a mobster. The plot is unique because it gives us three different outcomes of the same 20-minute sequence, like a video game with multiple lives.

Each run reveals new aspects of the characters and circumstances, resulting in a frantic and fascinating exploration of fate and time. Run Lola Run is as iconic as Matrix, yet for some reason remains criminally underrated.

3. Clerks (1994)

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Kevin Smith's debut film Clerks was filmed in black and white, reflecting the monotonous, minimum-wage life of its protagonists, Dante and Randal, two store clerks stuck in dead-end jobs. The hilarity of the film arises from the banality of their lives, filled with eccentric customers, relationship woes, and philosophical debates about Star Wars. Made on a shoestring budget of $27,575, it became a cult classic, earning over $3 million at the box office. Dante's infamous line I'm not even supposed to be here today! is a '90s mantra for all who've ever worked in retail.

4. Empire Records (1995)

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Before streaming services made us all DJs, Empire Records was the place for music in the '90s. The story revolves around a day in the life of the employees of an independent record store facing the threat of being sold to a large chain. The ensemble cast, including Liv Tyler and Renée Zellweger, deliver performances as diverse and eclectic as the CD racks in the store. The soundtrack was pure '90s gold, featuring songs from Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, and Edwyn Collins.

5. Waiting for Guffman (1996)

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And now, for the theatre geeks of the '90s, Waiting for Guffman was a hilarious mockumentary that chronicles the creation of a community theatre musical in the small town of Blaine, Missouri. Christopher Guest's brilliant performance as the overly enthusiastic director, Corky St. Clair, is pure comedic genius. Much of the dialogue was actually improvised by the cast, giving it that spontaneous, raw feel which was a hallmark of '90s films.

6. Living in Oblivion (1995)

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Nothing screams the '90s film scene more than a film about making an indie film, and that's precisely what Living in Oblivion is. Directed by Tom DiCillo, this brilliant meta-comedy starred Steve Buscemi as Nick Reve, a director trying to make his dream movie. From technical mishaps to diva tantrums and surreal dream sequences – the plot spirals into hilarious chaos. Remember the eye-patch wearing, apple-hating dwarf actor, Tito? It was actually Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage screen debut.

7. Bottle Rocket (1996)

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Before Wes Anderson became the master of symmetric shots and pastel color palettes, he directed Bottle Rocket. It marked the debut of Anderson and the Wilson brothers (Owen and Luke), thus offering a glimpse into the quirky styles that would later become their trademarks.

The story revolves around three friends who embark on a hilariously ill-fated crime spree. As far as the plot goes, Anthony (Luke Wilson), recently released from a mental hospital, joins Dignan (Owen Wilson), who's devised a 75-year plan for their criminal careers. They team up with the slightly older, experienced thief Mr. Henry (James Caan) to pull off a heist.

8. Swingers (1996)

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Swingers is a story of heartbreak, friendship, and swing dancing. Jon Favreau stars as Mike, a down-on-his-luck comedian who's moved to LA to seek his fortune but is mostly seeking to get over his ex-girlfriend. His friend Trent (Vince Vaughn) tries to help him rediscover his mojo, leading to a series of misadventures through LA's nightlife.

With Hollywood as a backdrop, the film captures the essence of struggling young artists trying to make it big. Bet you didn't know that the term Vegas, baby which has since entered pop culture lingo, originated from this very movie.

9. Slacker (1991)

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Richard Linklater's Slacker may not be his most famous film, but it's a must-see for anyone wanting a slice of authentically '90s cinema. Shot in Austin, Texas, the film doesn't follow a conventional plot but rather meanders through the lives of several eccentric characters over a 24-hour period. From anarchist hitchhikers to UFO buffs, Slacker is an oddly fascinating insight into '90s subcultures. It has a 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an impressive feat considering its minuscule budget of $23,000.

10. Rushmore (1998)

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The plot revolves around Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a 15-year-old student at Rushmore Academy who excels at extracurriculars but is a poor student. His life gets complicated when he falls for Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a teacher at his school, and ends up competing for her affections with his friend, the wealthy industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray). Rushmore is a unique coming-of-age tale that displays Anderson's signature style before it became mainstream.