Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
The independent film boom of the '90s led to some of the greatest films of the past 50 years and the starts for some directors who are still wowing us today. But it also changed the way we thought about genre films, not just in a cinematic way, but a popular culture way: suddenly, it became kind of cool to work in genre!
With all the '90s nostalgia today, we felt obliged to throw our hat in the ring. Here are the five best genre films from the '90s. (Note: No horror movies on this list. We'll get to those next week.)
Bringing John Woo to Hollywood didn't quite turn out as well as everyone thought it was going to, but we'll sit through Broken Arrow 100 times if it means we got to have Face/Off, an entirely ludicrous, utterly insane action film that will never stop being obsessively watchable. What a wild confluence of circumstances, to get this Nicolas Cage and this John Travolta at this particular moment in each of their careers.
And then to let them just go so crazy and let Woo let his freak flag fly... it just blows our minds. The '90s may have been worth it entirely because this crazy-ass film got made.
Starship Troopers (1997)
We all have certain audience experiences that we never forget, moments that can even transcend the movie itself. One of ours was seeing Starship Troopers with a hot crowd in Los Angeles on opening night, in which the whole place was ready to rock from the first scenes. By the time Michael Ironside is screaming "Here's the beer!" the place was erupting.
The movie works as satire — it's sometimes uncomfortable to watch today — but it never forgets how fun and silly it’s supposed to be. All together now: Would you like to know more?
Jurassic Park (1993)
This Steven Spielberg colossus isn't his best film, but it may be one of his most important in terms of how it permanently shifted the Hollywood landscape.
Movies had used digital effects before Jurassic Park — just look at Terminator 2 — but never before had a summer spectacle used them in such a central way. Basically, this movie only works if you believe in the dinosaurs, and from the first second we see them, they're thrillingly, impossibly alive. And once we're properly wowed by those big lizards, Spielberg proceeds to use them to scare the hell out of us.
With Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, he had given us top-flight roller coasters. With Jurassic Park, he provided us with his latest attraction.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino has always been a B-movie junkie, plundering from spaghetti westerns and grind house cinema and martial-arts flicks. But Pulp Fiction remains his "Like a Rolling Stone": it's the game-changer that set the agenda for filmmakers in the '90s. And as its title suggests, the movie is a loving homage to trashy novels and disreputable genre moviemaking.
We'd seen films before about third-rate boxers and lowlife hit men and nothing-to-lose crooks. But we'd never seen them woven together into one vivid tapestry, and never with such witty characters and so many indelible scenes. (That poor pocket watch...) Tarantino loved films that reside in the margins. With Pulp Fiction, he brought them into the zeitgeist.
The Matrix (1999)
There was no reason to think that Lana and Lilly Wachowski were going to reinvent the sci-fi/martial-arts blockbuster. Their previous film, Bound, was a smart, intimate, low-budget thriller. But then came The Matrix, a visionary action movie that gave us a dark future in which the machines have enslaved humanity — and we don't even know it.
Keanu Reeves has never been better than as Neo, an everyman computer hacker who discovers he alone can destroy this horrible new world order. Coming at the end of the '90s, The Matrix weaponized pre-millennium tension and gave Hollywood a new way of thinking about franchise films. We're still going down this movie's brilliant rabbit hole.