The 90s gave way to a new generation of filmmakers that injected their own distinctive style into their movies. The independent cinema of the era felt like a cultural movement where an emerging youth was entering adulthood and could afford to buy a ticket as well as curious enough to see something different.
The things these films have in common is the ambition of making something new and innovative, successful with audiences of the day they were also critically acclaimed. Now living on as cult classics, they continue to help define much of what we see today.
10 ‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)
It is the last day of school in Texas, 1976. We spend a day and night with graduating high school and middle school students looking for anything to do to distract them from their adult decisions. Richard Linklater wrote and directed the film giving first performances to stars like Matthew McConaughey and Parker Posey.
Linklater made existential dread exciting. Linklater’s passive style and observation filmmaking was not traditional for the industry. To the audiences that were a similar age as the characters in the film left them feeling heard and understood.
9 ‘The Player’ (1992)
Bringing filmmaker Robert Altman back into the spotlight was the story of a Hollywood studio executive that gets threats from a writer whose script he rejected. When the unthinkable happens to Griffin Mill, played by Tim Robbins, he is forced to take a step back and deal with the consequences of his actions.
The film was a box-office success that would inspire other films like it throughout the rest of the decade. Altman’s inside knowledge and experience is what brought credibility to the movie that was loved by the people in Hollywood.
8 ‘Metropolitan’ (1990)
Typically, movies about the American Upper-class dry theaters up so when small theaters became packed for a small indie romantic comedy people’s heads turned. Metropolitan follows a group of preppy young professionals who aimlessly talk about society and culture in the present state.
Whit Stillman’s witty take on the bourgeoisie will charm and delight. The film reached an overeducated audience and radical youth. Possessing strong characteristics of awareness, the wit and innocence is what has made it into a cult classic.
7 ‘Clerks’ (1994)
The black-and-white comedy Clerks is about a day in the life of two clerks that work at a convenience store. To pass the time they annoy customers, play hockey, and talk about inconsequential things.
From filmmaker Kevin Smith, Clerks has a certain irreverence to it that lent itself to the culture of angst-ridden teens entering adulthood, the type to listen to Nirvana. What made the film appeal to audiences the most with the raunchiness was its ability to make innocuous conversations that humanize the characters and put a perspective on what would otherwise be a not-very-interesting group of people.
6 ‘Rushmore’ (1998)
Wes Anderson’s second film allotted him the ability to take more liberties with his own style. Rushmore is about a teenager who falls for his much older teacher. When learning of the teachers’ affair with his middle-aged friend, he goes on a vendetta against them.
Audiences gravitated toward the odd story and unique sense of style. The mise-en-scene brought an aesthetically pleasing appeal to show that camera movements could be satisfying. The work is literary though it never feels bogged down with boring exposition but rather with sarcasm that gives even more insight into the characters.
5 ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999)
Sofia Coppola’s debut film showed the story of a group of boys who become infatuated with the neighbor’s five daughters they believe are being held captive. The boys attempt to make moves to communicate with the sisters that are trapped in their house by religious parents.
Interested in the sister’s harsh realities, Coppola paints a picture of white middle-class suburbia. The girls are unable to express themselves. The narrative is told through the perspective of the boys while we are shown what the girls are feeling. Feeling like a 80s Rom-Com that went wrong attracted audiences to something that was very relevant of the current culture.
4 ‘Do the Right Thing’ (1989)
It is the hottest day of Summer and the racial tensions on the streets of Brooklyn are about to boil over. Mookie, a pizza delivery man, gets caught in the middle trying to be an essence of piece until he reaches his own breaking point.
Spike Lee instills his own voice in the film lightening the mood with humor while a social commentary plays underneath. Do the Right Thing displays a distinct Black narrative that was not shown otherwise in Hollywood. The ability to make a contained film that gives a commentary while also entertaining left a lasting impression on Non-Black Americans in the world of race politics.
3 ‘My Own Private Idaho’ (1991)
A rugged and raw film about male hustlers trying to find their way. River Phoenix plays Mikey, a prostitute with Narcolepsy, and his friend Scott, played by Keanu Reeves, helps him navigate the streets. Along their journey, they search for solace in themselves and discover who they are.
My Own Private Idaho left the door open for queer cinema. Not only admired by LGBTQ+ audiences it left an impactful impression on the minds of viewers in a similar light as Midnight Cowboy. The narrative comes through the consciousness of River Phoenix’s character Mike, though the events in the story are not necessarily chronological or even an accurate part of his memory.
2 ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)
When the illusive genre-bending film Pulp Fiction screened at the Cannes Film Festival it instantly became a success. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the film chronicles the lives of different criminals in the underground subculture of Los Angles.
Pulp Fiction was widely received for not adhering to the traditional norms of filmmaking such as a non-linear narrative, self-reflexivity, and long dialogues. Tarantino was able to blend humor and violence that grabbed a young audience’s attention.
1 ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape’ (1989)
Looking into the intimate lives of a husband and wife who are sexually repressed, things are stirred up upon the arrival of an old fraternity friend who has an unusual fetish. Starring James Spader and Annie MacDowell, the film was an awakening to a new movement that was starting.
Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget drama has been looked at as a blueprint for indie filmmakers since its release. The film acts as a strike against the kind of movies the studios had been making. Sex, Lies, and Videotapegave inspiration to filmmakers that didn’t have a bunch of money to make a movie. They focused on heavy character studies that require minimal locations and a DIY attitude.
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