The Era of Mainstream Films and "Indie" Cinema, the Rise of Computer-Generated Imagery, the Decade of Re-makes, Re-releases, and More Sequels
Film History of the 1990s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Film History by Decade
Index | Pre-1920s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s
Actors Turned Directors:
Three actors/directors received numerous awards for their Best Pictures. Kevin Costner's directorial debut film - the Native-American epic Dances With Wolves (1990) - was honored with twelve nominations and seven wins including Best Picture and Best Director. Clint Eastwood won accolades with the elegaic, revisionist western Unforgiven (1992), another Western genre film to win Best Picture (and Best Director). [Producer Eastwood directed and starred in the revisionist, deglamourized western as a retired gunslinger forced to return to killing.]
And producer/actor/director Mel Gibson's historical Scottish epic Braveheart (1995) also won the Best Picture and Best Director honors, among others. Gibson starred as the Scottish hero William Wallace, and Patrick McGoohan played the role of Edward Longshanks. Robert Redford directed his third film, A River Runs Through It (1992), a beautifully-evocative film made on location in Montana about two brothers of the MacLean family (headed by minister Tom Skerritt) who followed different paths: older serious son Craig Sheffer and impetuous, wild gambling younger son Brad Pitt. He also directed Quiz Show (1993), about the TV game show "Twenty-One" cheating scandal involving Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) and unfairly beaten Herbie Stemple (John Turturro).
Rob Reiner first directed the overly-emoted A Few Good Men (1992) - with Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as the scene of a crime in the military, followed by a courtroom drama pitting Navy lawyer Tom Cruise against the hystrionics of higher-up Jack Nicholson. Reiner also directed the romantic comedy The American President (1995) which starred Michael Douglas as the President and Annette Bening as a lobbyist who fall in love with each other. [Its appearance seemed to inspire the creation of the popular TV hit The West Wing.]
Maverick Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino:
Violence accompanied a number of films, including those of emerging maverick writer/director Quentin Tarantino, a self-promoting videostore clerk who demonstrated his exciting, self-taught, original filmmaking genius (with generous helpings of violence, sex, and profanity) in his first film Reservoir Dogs (1992). The cult hit broke many of the rules of conventional crime films in its tale of a group of color-named criminals whose jewelry heist went awry. It began with a deconstruction of Madonna's 'Like A Virgin' and even featured director Tarantino as Mr. Brown.
Tarantino served as co-screenwriter (with Roger Avary) and director of an acclaimed (Best Screenplay-winning) follow-up, low-budget independent film Pulp Fiction (1994). The Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner and seven-time Academy Award nominee was an ultra-violent, intermingling, non-linear trio of criminal life stories intertwined in a sleazy Los Angeles (involving hitmen, a crime boss' overdosing wife played by Uma Thurman, and a boxer - Bruce Willis) that gave John Travolta a super-star comeback (famed as a hitman for talking about what the French call fast-food Big Macs). It began with and returned to a scene of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny holding up a restaurant.
Director/screenwriter Tarantino also followed up with a more mature character study in his leisurely crime thriller Jackie Brown (1997) with ex-blaxploitation 70s star Pam Grier in a stand-out role as an ex-con.
Films About Hollywood and Film-Making (Before the 90s):
Before the decade of the 90s, a number of films looked at the dark underbelly of the business of making illusions (movies) in the Hollywood film industry, and often cautioned against its beguiling ways and problems. Many were inspired directly or indirectly by Billy Wilder's caustic and corrosive black comedy, Sunset Boulevard (1950) about an abandoned silent era screen actress:
Films About Hollywood and Film-Making In the 90s Decade:
A flood of films in the 90s looked at the often-times vain, difficult and failed business of making films as their prime subject matter:
An era of suspenseful, post-Cold War adventure spy films was launched in the 90s, all based on Tom Clancy's best-selling "Jack Ryan" techno-thriller novels. The first in the Paramount series was directed by John McTiernan, and the rest of the trilogy by Phillip Noyce:
Ford was also featured in Alan Pakula's gripping who-dun-it thriller Presumed Innocent (1990) as an adulterous prosecuting attorney who investigates the murder of a seductive lawyer (Greta Scacchi) and becomes a suspect himself. Sylvester Stallone made a comeback in the non-stop, relentlessly-exciting Cliffhanger (1993). Tony Scott's tense military thriller Crimson Tide (1995) extended the trend of Hollywood's production of political-military pictures. And In the Line of Fire (1993) was the story of a government agent (Clint Eastwood) haunted by his past, because of failing to protect Kennedy in 1963, and now called upon to protect the present-day President from psychotic killer John Malkovich. Air Force One (1997) told of threats against President Harrison Ford aboard his airplane.
John Grisham's Film Adaptations:
Adaptations of John Grisham's best-sellers, many of which were legal thrillers set in the South, also did well at the box-office:
Belfast-born actor/director Kenneth Branagh directed his second film (following his revisionist rendering and scripting of Shakespeare's Henry V (1989)), the intelligent and suspenseful noir thriller Dead Again (1991). In the film, Branagh starred as a cynical L.A. private detective who investigated a twisting cycle of murder involving a mysterious amnesia victim (Emma Thompson, Branagh's real-life wife at the time).
A master of modern noir, writer-director John Dahl contributed three great stylish neo-noirs in the decade:
Gus Van Sant's dark comedy-satire To Die For (1995) featured Nicole Kidman as obsessed and determined cable-TV weather reporter Suzanne Stone who sought to have Joaquin Phoenix kill her obstructive husband Matt Dillon. Bryan Singer's mystery/crime thriller The Usual Suspects (1995), screened at Sundance, had a complicated screenplay and a surprise ending. It starred Kevin Spacey in his first Oscar-winning performance of the decade as a petty crook - and the all-knowing, black-hearted villainous crime lord Keyser Soze. Spacey also appeared in British theater director Sam Mendes' motion-picture directorial debut picture - DreamWorks' brightly-colored black comedy about an unhappily-married couple in suburbia, American Beauty (1999) and became a multiple Oscar winner for his role as head of the dysfunctional family. While his real estate-selling wife (Annette Bening) was having an affair, he was obsessing over his daughter's cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari).
Curtis Hanson, who had earlier directed the thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), directed the much-acclaimed, modern film noir and police drama L.A. Confidential (1997), set in early 50s Los Angeles and adapted from James Ellroy's crime story. A shooting at an all-night diner set the stage for the film. Two of its Aussie stars, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, became more familiar to movie-goers since 1997, as has character actor Kevin Spacey (who portrayed a detective who also served as a TV consultant). The film received nine nominations and two Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger).
The Coen brothers continued to make twisted but influential independent films, including the gangster film Miller's Crossing (1990), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and the film-noirish, Oscar-winning black comedy Fargo (1996) - their most conventional film to date, about a kidnapping-blackmail scheme that went awry. It had a twisting plot and featured Best Actress-winning Frances McDormand as a determined, pregnant Minnesota police sheriff investigating a triple-murder, and William H. Macy as the perpetrator - a desperate used car salesman. The pair also directed the quirky The Big Lebowski (1997) with Jeff Bridges as a stoned, bowling-loving 'Dude' caught in a complex case of mistaken identity.
The Dying Musical Genre:
There was very little evidence of films from the musical genre beyond just a few examples: the first major Hollywood musical in almost a decade and a half was director Alan Parker's Evita (1996) - based on the stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and starring an impressive Madonna in the lead role as Argentina's first lady Eva Peron. The film won Golden Globe Awards for Best Comedy/Musical and Best Actress, and one of its songs, You Must Love Me won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. A second example was Woody Allen's revival of the musical-romantic comedy - Everyone Says I Love You (1996).
Some of the best musicals of the decade were animated features (see more below), jump-started by Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989). Some examples included: Beauty and The Beast (1991), the only musical nominated for Best Picture for many years and the first animated Best Picture nominee in Academy history, Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Anastasia (1997) - the first animated feature film from 20th Century Fox, and The Prince of Egypt (1998) - DreamWorks' first animated feature film.
Horror king Wes Craven made an unpredicted comeback with Scream (1996), a well-made, intelligent version (from a witty script by Kevin Williamson) of the schlocky slasher films of the 70s and 80s. It was both a post-modern comedy and horror film of the 'stalk' and 'slash' variety, with star Drew Barrymore as the first to be stalked by a 'ghost-faced' serial killer. Craven reprised the successful film with two sequels in the decade, all with bright young female star Neve Campbell in the lead role:
All three low-budget horror films helped to generate cash for Miramax' subsidiary, Dimension Films.
Mike Myers (as Wayne) and Dana Carvey (as Garth), originally buddies in a Saturday Night Live skit, were particularly memorable ("Ex-squeeze me?" and "Schwing!") in the feature-length anarchic comedy Wayne's World (1992), followed by a similar sequel the next year. Myers would also play the dual lead role (as both a hip fashion photographer in swingin' 60s London, and as a crime-fighter) in the first of a series of James Bond parodies - Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).
In Kindergarten Cop (1990), police officer Arnold Schwarzenegger went back to school. Sister Act (1992) starred Whoopi Goldberg as a singer who went into hiding for protection, and became a nun. Desperate divorcee Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) cross-dressed to be a nanny in order to see his kids in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). In the screwball comedy Bean (1997), Rowan Atkinson (in the title role that he originated on TV) was supposed to be an art expert looking after Whistler's Mother. The Farrelly Brothers' tasteless and raunchy romantic comedy There's Something About Mary (1998) included Ben Stiller experiencing a problem with his 'frank and beans' on prom night, and Cameron Diaz as his date - who also discovered a new form of hair gel. In Harold Ramis' crime comedy Analyze This (1999), Robert DeNiro was a Mafia boss with unresolved issues concerning his father that he discussed with psychiatrist Billy Crystal.
Harold Ramis' excellent existentialist romantic fantasy Groundhog Day (1993) featured Bill Murray as an egotistical TV weatherman doomed to experience deja vu and repeat the same day over and over again (February 2, 1992) - beginning with a Sonny and Cher song - during the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania "Ground Hog Day" festivities. Ron Underwood's enjoyable and funny City Slickers (1991) followed a group of suburbanized, married, mid-life friends (including Billy Crystal as 40 year old Mitch Robbins) on a two-week cattle drive led by Curly - a weathered and grizzly trail boss (Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning Jack Palance). Their experience was repeated in the sequel City Slickers: The Legend of Curly's Gold (1994) with virtually the same cast. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were brought together as two long-time feuding, cantankerous neighbors who pursued the same woman in Grumpy Old Men (1993).
Tim Burton spoofed sci-fi alien-invasion and UFO films of the 50s and 60s, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and even present day films (i.e., Independence Day) with Mars Attacks! (1996), and he saluted a 50's maverick, angora-wearing director-writer-producer (one of the worst, but praised cult and B movie film-makers of all time) in his black and white Ed Wood (1994), with Johnny Depp in the title role and Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner Martin Landau as horror star and morphine addict Bela Lugosi. Robin Williams played a homeless tramp (searching for the Holy Grail) and Jeff Bridges portrayed a shock-jock who instigated a shooting tragedy in Terry Gilliam's fantasy comedy The Fisher King (1991). Joe Pesci played a New York lawyer called to defend an accused relative, but found himself out of his element in Alabama in My Cousin Vinny (1992).
In Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Nicolas Cage lost his fiancee Sarah Jessica Parker to gambler James Caan in a bet and had to travel to Hawaii and then back to the strip - where he parachuted down as a sky-diving Elvis. In My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), Julia Roberts (as Julianne Potter) realized she loved long-time friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney), but he was due to marry Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) - so she tried to break them up. And in another romantic comedy set in 1985, The Wedding Singer (1998), Adam Sandler (as broken-hearted wedding singer Robbie Hart) was left at the altar, while Drew Barrymore (as waitress Julia Sullivan) was engaged to the wrong guy.
Woody Allen's Comedies:
In the 90s, writer-director-actor Woody Allen continued to make mostly satirical, intelligent comedies, mostly set in New York. Although he has shown signs of wear, with increasing bitterness and anger reflected in his works (conceivably due to attacks by the tabloids and the general public on his scandalous personal life), he remains a key film-maker in the 90s and after:
The Super-Stardom of Jim Carrey:
Hammy and crude, face-twisting, clownish comedian Jim Carrey, of Fox TV's comedy show In Living Color, began to make a name for himself in Tom Shadyac's directorial debut film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1993) as a low-cost, Florida missing-animals detective searching for a kidnapped dolphin (the mascot for the Miami Dolphins football team). His next two films propelled him into super-stardom - both were from New Line Cinema (purchased by Ted Turner in 1993):
The sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995) suffered from a poor script and infantile-minded comedy. Carrey turned to more legitimate acting at the end of the decade in two films. In Peter Weir's comedy/drama The Truman Show (1998), Carrey played the role of Truman Burbank, a happy suburbanite resident of the paradisical fictional community of Seahaven Island, and the unwitting, imprisoned star of a real-life documentary TV series created and controlled by god-like producer Christof (Ed Harris). And in Milos Forman's biopic Man on the Moon (1999), he assumed the role of legendary comic Andy Kaufman. In consecutive years, Carrey won the Golden Globe Best Actor award for both roles, but was un-nominated for an Academy Award.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6