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The 20 greatest summer movies from the '90s you should watch

Why wait for Memorial Day? Blast back to the '90s for a whole decade of summer fun.


By Benjamin Bullard
Batman Returns (1992) Poster PRESS

Top Gun: Maverick is barreling down fast on Memorial Day weekend, clearing the runway for a summer movie season that’ll properly get airborne when Jurassic World Dominion stomps along on June 10 to snap its jaws shut on the epic dino trilogy.

That’s just the opening salvo in a long, sweaty summer crammed with sure-fire smashes ranging from Pixar’s Toy Story prequel Lightyear (June 17) to the MCU’s new Asgardian antics in Thor: Love and Thunder (July 8). By the time terror from the skies arrives July 22 in Jordan Peele’s Nope, this year’s blockbuster season will be in full swing — but why do we have to wait ’til then? The 1990s gave us some of the wildest popcorn-munching ride of any movie decade, so it’s only natural we look back to the past for a summer sampling of box office classics — just to get us fired up ahead of time. Best of all, there’s no waiting required: These ‘90s summer hits are ready to watch right now.

1. Ghost (July 13, 1990)

The 1990s summer box office got off to a steamy start, with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore starring in a supernaturally sappy story about communing across the spirit realm. The Jerry Zucker-directed smash did scary good numbers at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year, while Ghost’s iconic pottery wheel scene, framed by the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” spun its way into our collective cultural memory as one of the unforgettable images in cinema history.

2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (June 14, 1991)

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was Hollywood’s idea of telling the classic steal-form-the-rich tale in the most epic way possible. With a runtime of nearly two and-a-half hours, it sags more than you might remember, but everything about it feels straight out of the period it came from — right down to the inescapable 1991 pop hit (Bryan Adams’ "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You”) that kept the movie on everyone’s mind for what seemed like months. Forget Kevin Costner’s bro accent as Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves is worth a fresh watch just to relish in Alan Rickman’s awesome turn as the sneering Sheriff of Nottingham.

3. Total Recall (June 1, 1990)

Long before Elon Musk had his eyes on Mars, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as Douglas Quaid) was trying to get there through implanted memories in director Paul Veerhoven’s bonkers, eye-popping sci-fi spectacle Total Recall. Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, the movie puts Ah-nold on the real-world run from an epically mirthless ‘90s villain (Michael Ironside) while being played behind the scenes by his own wife (Sharon Stone). After a gnarly nose-jamming session to remove an implanted tracker, he finally does make it to the Red Planet — liberating its air-starved mutant populace (led by a freaky stomach-dwelling mutant named Kuato) in a spectacular closing scene... even if it did almost cost him his peepers.

4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 3, 1991)

A cyborg badass from the future who plays the kid-protecting good guy? Sign us up. Director James Cameron made the most of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s intimidating presence in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, subverting expectations from the first film to hand him a time-traveling sentinel role to fend off a liquid-metallic, next-gen Terminator sent from the future to kill off a young John Connor (Edward Furlong). T2 vindicated Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her obsession with the pending apocalypse in a big way, while absolutely blowing up the box office: Making good on its then-epic production budget of $102 million, it went on the become the highest-grossing U.S. movie of 1991.

5. Batman Returns (June 19, 1992)

Tim Burton’s swan song in the director’s chair for the Caped Crusader revival he started with 1989’s Batman was the must-see summer movie of 1992, and gifted fans with one more glimpse at Michael Keaton behind the cowl before handing off the role to Batman Forever successor Val Kilmer. Along the way, Batman Returns gave us delicious new Burton-esque baddies in the form of Danny DeVito’s Penguin, Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck, and Michelle Pfeiffer as the ever-enigmatic Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman).

6. Jurassic Park (June 11, 1993)

Dinosaurs may have ruled the Earth millions of years ago, but Jurassic Park ruled the 1993 box office — and it’s had its talons planted deep ever since. Stephen Spielberg’s CGI triumph in putting dinosaurs on the big screen felt kind of like the real-world complement to the movie’s groundbreaking sci-fi premise of tapping amber-trapped DNA to bring them back to foot-stomping life — and the rest is movie history. Few movies launch a franchise legacy the way Jurassic Park did, in the process forever elevating its fictional characters to a household-name status that nearly rivals those of the killer cast (Richard Attenborough, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, and more) who played them.

7. The Fugitive (Aug 6, 1993)

Harrison Ford versus Tommy Lee Jones: The Fugitive starts with an awesome cat-and-mouse setup that pits two iconic stars against each other, and it never takes its foot off the action-thriller gas. Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble, a meek, death row-bound physician who’s wrongfully accused of murdering his wife. His last-minute escape sets off a heart-pounding chase movie that finds Ford fleeing Jones’ relentless U.S. Marshal pursuit, all while personally making amateur-detective pit stops in a desperate attempt to unearth the deeply-buried evidence that could exonerate him. All movie long, viewers rooted for Jones and Ford to transcend their assigned roles and finally get on the same page — and when they finally did, you could almost hear adrenalized moviegoers’ collective sigh of relief in theaters.

8. True Lies (July 15, 1994)

If aliens ever come to Earth and demand a textbook example of what we humans mean by “popcorn movie,” True Lies is the one we’d show them. Every element that makes movies fun to watch comes together in James Cameron’s ridiculously awesome, over-the-top action flick about a James Bond-esque spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who conceals his day job to his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter (a young Eliza Dushku) under the phony guise of being a boring computer salesman. With supporting turns from a menacing Tia Carrere, Bill Paxton, and a never-funnier Tom Arnold, True Lies is probably Cameron’s most purely entertaining movie... and that’s saying something. Plus, they even blew up a friggin’ real-life bridge in the Florida Keys to capture one of the wildest stunts Arnold’s ever committed to film.

9. Apollo 13 (June 30, 1995)

Director Ron Howard let the drama of an ill-fated moon mission do all the heavy lifting in 1995’s Apollo 13, delivering a riveting ride-along with NASA astronauts that needed little sci-fi embellishment beyond its convincing special effects. Stacked with an all-star 1990s cast (Kevin Bacon, Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Bill Paxton, and Gary Sinise), Apollo 13 borrowed from astronaut Jim Lovell’s book documenting the aborted lunar run to spin a gripping tale that punctuates the early U.S. space program’s heavy reliance on human daring, resourcefulness, and pioneering appetite for exploration — no matter the risk.

10. Desperado (Aug 25, 1995)

Desperado got major marketing mileage on its release from some reviewer’s breathless take that Robert Rodriguez’ second El Mariachi tale is “sexy action cool” — and it remains an apt description to this day. Featuring Antonio Banderas in the role of a traveling troubadour who hides a secret in his guitar case, the middle installment in Rodriguez’ Mexico Trilogy remains the suavest, most assured movie among the three. Clocking in at a sleek 105 minutes, it made terrific use of its tidy runtime, unspooling an eminently watchable story of revenge that, by the end, has backed Banderas’ reluctant gunslinger into an unlikely protector role. Though all of the trilogy’s films are well cast, Desperado struck the perfect ensemble with its pitch-perfect lineup, which mixed in killer roles for Steve Buscemi, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and Joaquim de Almeida as the eminently loathsome bad guy Bucho. Even Quentin Tarantino’s walk-on part feels fitting rather than tacked on.

11. Independence Day (July 3, 1996)

It’s a quintessential summer sci-fi movie: The aliens are invading, Will Smith is caught in the middle, and July 4th will never be the same as the last-gasp counterattack to liberate humanity just so happens to fall on a very different kind of Independence Day. In a year packed with blockbusters (Scream, Space Jam, Mission: Impossible, and Twister, to name just a few), Roland Emmerich’s ensemble-studded sci-fi action epic topped them all at the box office, while assembling a survivors’ cast that included Harry Connick Jr., Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Mary McDonnell, Bill Pullman, and Randy Quaid.

12. Twister (May 10, 1996)

Disaster flicks usually feel like a moviegoing sideshow, but Twister managed to turn plains-shearing tornadoes into a box office main event. Chasing an historic storm across the Oklahoma landscape, a pair of researchers (Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton) find themselves too close to the maelstrom for comfort, riding out a direct hit from the monster F-5 by lashing themselves to some ramshackle pipes. It turns out to be just the bonding moment they need to put the wind back in the sails of their stranded marriage, a screenplay touch from the deft writing duo of Anne-Marie Martin and Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton.

13. Men in Black (July 2, 1997)

We hope no one ever flashes it out of our memory, because Men in Black rates right up there with True Lies as one of the most audaciously, unapologetically entertaining movies of the 1990s — and perhaps of times and places far beyond. Will Smith’s plucky doofus teams with Tommy Lee Jones’ methodical, stone-cold alien response agent to embark on an icky, gooey, gleefully campy romp through a gauntlet of Earth’s hiding-in-plain-sight extraterrestrial denizens, all to save the planet from being blown to bits over a petty alien squabble. This was exactly the right kind of material for a director like Barry Sonnenfeld, who played the actors’ fun comedic traits against just the right amount of heartfelt human drama — the perfect formula for a blockbuster summer smash. Plus, we’ll never get tired of watching Vincent D’Onofrio’s off-kilter, jerky performance as a redneck bugman with a serious soft spot for six-legged freaks.

14. Mulan (June 19, 1998)

Disney’s emerging reliance on computer-enhanced 3D rendering brought honor aplenty to the studio’s “Disney Renaissance” string of animated classics first begun with 1989’s Beauty and the Beast. Mulan’s tale of defying gender convention to take up arms against the Huns struck that sweet balance between majesty and mirth, punctuating epic scenes of war in Imperial China with liberal dose of major comic relief from Eddie Murphy as impish dragon Mushu. As with every great Disney movie, the voice cast was top-tier all around, from Ming-Na Wen’s plucky, family-first hero to BD Wong’s duty-first Captain Lis Shang. Be on the lookout, though, for a stealthy-great performance from Miguel Ferrer, who summoned villainy in spades for his bad-guy turn as Hun commander Shan Yu.

15. Armageddon (July 1, 1998)

Existential threats seem to be a running theme among some of the ‘90s biggest blockbusters, so it’s only natural that a Michael Bay tentpole like Armageddon would find its way into the mix. Aiming to stop a Texas-sized asteroid hurtling toward Earth, a crack team of astronauts and old-school oil drillers led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) makes an ill-fated run straight to the object’s surface, where they encounter every unplanned snag there is in the astroid-splitting playbook. Sure, it’s cheesy and the critics mostly mocked it — but Armageddon remains a maudlin, melodramatic spectacle anchored by an eminently watchable star cast that also features Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, and Owen Wilson.

16. Blade (Aug 21, 1998)

Marvel’s pre-MCU vampire stalker franchise made its most indelible impression right at the start, with Blade introducing Wesley Snipes as the hematically-gifted hero with a violent taste for bringing bloodsuckers into the light. The David S. Goyer-penned story took Blade deep into the throbbing vampire underworld, infiltrating the nightclub of main fanger Deacon Frost where the pulsating underground vibes doubled as heavy cover for a vampire society hungry for the chance to break through to feed on the surface world. In hindsight, it’s wild to think that the first Blade film, well regarded as it remains, was made for a relatively scant $45 million. But Marvel’s sure to up the ante with its upcoming MCU relaunch featuring Mahershala Ali in the starring role — which is all the more reason to dive back into the ‘90s and bone up on your Blade lore ahead of time.

17. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (May 19, 1999)

Few movies, no matter how hyped, are guaranteed blockbusters before they arrive, but no movie in modern memory — not even Avengers: Endgame — came spring-loaded with as much pent-up fan demand as Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Whether you’re in the fan camp that’s since embraced all the new lore that George Lucas introduced in this first Star Wars prequel or not, The Phantom Menace is a huge chunk of summer spectacle — from Mace Windu to midi-chlorians; from podracing to Padmé. The box turn-of-the-millennium office agreed: It eventually ended up crossing the magic $1 billion barrier.

18. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (June 30, 1999)

Part of what makes Trey Parker and Matt Stone so great is their uncanny ability to create perfectly faithful facsimiles of the subject matter their raunchy satire chooses to skewer — and nowhere is that gift on fuller display than in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. We should’ve seen The Book of Mormon coming years before: This movie’s musical numbers are absolutely legit, serving as hilariously crude (but catchy!) vehicles for everyone from Butters Stotch to the devil himself as they bare their animated souls. As usual, the kids are the only real adults in the room. But the real treat is a movie-length South Park episode that takes direct aim at every controversial topic the show itself, by the movie’s 1999 debut, had long been targeted for daring to talk about.

19. The Blair Witch Project (July 14, 1999)

Not all shaky-cam movies are cursed. Building to a word-of-mouth debut buzz that no marketing budget could buy, The Blair Witch Project transformed the found-footage style of horror storytelling with its July 1999 premiere, in the process returning an incredible $248 million at the box office against the low-budget fright fest’s production cost of less than half a million dollars. Creators/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez made the most of horror’s less-is-more formula, giving viewers abundant time alone with the titular Maryland witch’s forest-stalking victims — even as they hardly showed the source of the bloodshed at all. Even at 81 minutes, The Blair Witch Project overstays its welcome by a few beats too many, but its documentary style still delivers the kind of deep-down scares that CGI still can't duplicate.

20. The Sixth Sense (Aug 6, 1999)

M. Night Shyamalan’s ghost story with a twist still haunts just as powerfully today as it did when it debuted, spawning a summer buzz that had the film’s big, late-game plot shakeup on everyone’s lips when it played in theaters. The deft framing of every scene in which Bruce Willis’ child psychologist appears alongside Haley Joel Osment’s wounded, “I see dead people” patient made the instant suspense thriller classic a must-rewatch for just about everyone floored by its biggest supernatural revelation. Even without that quintessentially Shyamalan-esque rug pull, The Sixth Sense spun a riveting story whose high-impact scares felt all the more real, thanks to poignant family tensions and compelling characters whose fears, pain, and dread at what comes next kept just about everyone who dared not to turn away glued to the edge of their seats.