Most Influential Films in American Cinema

The 100 + Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema

The 1990s

Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
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Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
Title Screen
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Descriptions of Influence/Significance

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
d. James Cameron, 137/152 minutes, Carolco Pictures/TriStar Pictures/Pacific Western

  • This film was the well-executed, action-packed sequel to the earlier film of the same name, with a great variety of action set-pieces, chases and quotable one-liners ("Hasta la vista, baby!") - it still remains one of the best action films of all time, and is one of the most influential sequels in Hollywood blockbuster history.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger cemented his T-800 as one of cinema's most iconic characters. The sequel was made possible by Cameron's hugely successful blockbuster Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989). Unlike The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day would gross about a third of its budget in its opening summer weekend (almost $32 million), despite a running time of over two and a half hours, and end up making back twice its budget in the United States alone.
  • The science-fiction blockbuster was known for its computer-generated special effects (created by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic) and dazzling, non-stop action sequences. In the first film, the Terminator was stop-motion animated as an armature model unlike the second Terminator that was a product of state of the art CGI (computer-generated imagery).
  • It was also the first film in history to cost $100 million to produce - the most expensive film of its time. The exorbitant cost was mostly due to its advanced visual effects. The film's trailer alone cost $150,000. Arnold Schwarzenegger's salary was reported to be between $12 and $15 million. It was Arnold's highest-grossing film of his career. Evidentally, it paid off, as the film was the top-grossing (domestic) film of 1991, at $204.8 million, and it made $520 million (worldwide). The film acquired four technical Academy Awards (Best Makeup, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Effects Editing) from its six nominations.
  • The first truly believable, naturally-moving computer-generated character (CGI) was the morphing, liquid molten metal, T-1000 cyborg villain (Robert Patrick) in the film. It was the first groundbreaking instance of a computer generated main character. Over 300 special effects shots made up 16 minutes of the film's running time, although the most complex CGI shots composed about 3 and a half minutes of running time. A new age would be dawning of big-budget, CGI-rich movies such as Jurassic Park (1993) and The Matrix (1999).
  • The film signified a huge turning point in Hollywood's strategy on franchises and sequels. The original gritty, independent, R-rated action flick was turned into a special-effects showcase - that would appeal to larger and younger audiences. It also made many times more than the 1984 film (which only made $38.4 million domestic) - proving that sequels were big business. It also launched the mega-career of director Cameron, who would go on to greater heights with Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009).
  • The chief selling point, aside from the computer-generated special effects and dazzling, non-stop action sequences, were the two major stars, Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, who starred in the original - a major female heroine lead. It would be followed by a mildly successful sequel, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), in which only Schwarzenegger returned and faced off against a female "Terminatrix."

Jurassic Park (1993)
d. Steven Spielberg, 127 minutes, Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

  • This Steven Spielberg and Universal f/x laden film (based upon Michael Crichton's 1990 novel), one of the greatest adventure films ever made, was the Academy Award winner for Best Achievement in Visual Effects (defeating The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Cliffhanger (1993)). It was perhaps the most influential of all movies supplemented by CGI, and the biggest 'monster movie' of all time. It was the first major instance of extensively having computer-generated animated characters mixed with live action and animatronics.
  • It became the top-grossing (domestic) film of the year, at $357 million, from an initial production budget of $63 million. It easily surpassed the # 2 film, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) at $219 million, and # 3 film The Fugitive (1993) at $184 million. This was the third time that one of Spielberg's films became the highest grossing film ever (earlier, he succeeded with Jaws (1975) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)).
  • DTS Digital Sound also made its theatrical debut in the film, created to help enhance the film's sound design. It won all three of its Academy Awards nominations: Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Best Sound Editing.
  • It mixed animatronic and computer-generated (CGI), photo-realistic dinosaurs - the first of their kind, displayed with textured skin and muscles. The ground-breaking mix of animatronics and CGI brought the dinosaurs alive, especially the first stunning view of a tall-necked brachiosaurus on its hind legs eating from a tree.
  • The scenes of the living, eating, and breathing dinosaurs (including the scene of the stampeding herd of Gallimimus) used mechanical animatronic robots and miniature models in stop-motion, frame-by-frame processing. The T. Rex was shot using 20- and 40- foot tall animatronics. The 20 foot-tall model weighed over 13,000 pounds.
  • The CGI creatures were artificially-generated at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and very realistically-rendered and seamlessly integrated within live-action sequences using animatronics. There were about 15 minutes of dinosaur footage in the movie, with only 4-6 minutes generated by computers, the rest by animatronics. The original plan to use stop-motion versions of dinosaurs was quickly scrapped when CGI became the better option.
  • The scene of the night-time attack of the T. Rex on a lawyer cowering in a toilet used live action and digitization - it was the first example of a computer-generated human stunt double, involving hyper-realistic rendering.
  • As a result of the film's success, there was a massive surge in the use of CGI in Hollywood blockbusters. Two years later, the first feature-length film with a digitally-created, CGI character in a leading role occurred in Casper (1995), there were CGI stampeding animals in Jumanji (1995), and Toy Story (1995) was released as the first feature-length computer-animated movie. The technological leaps in CGI only accelerated from there and became more pervasive.
  • Spielberg's vision created the indisputable standard for all subsequent dinosaur films and television shows (i.e., the TV-documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs (1999-2000), the TV show Terra Nova (2011), etc.), and the film increased interest in the study of paleontology.
  • The film generated billions from its massive marketing campaign (budgeted at about $65 million, larger than the production budget for the film itself) and the sale of merchandise (T-shirts, stuffed dinosaurs, action figures, fast food franchise deals, video games, comic books, etc.) by licensing deals with over 100 companies to market thousands of products.
  • As a result of the film's success, James Cameron founded Digital Domain (a pioneering new F/X company), with special effects guru Stan Winston and IBM.

Philadelphia (1993)
d. Jonathan Demme, 125 minutes, TriStar Pictures

  • The ground-breaking, historically-significant, and realistic film Philadelphia (1993) from Jonathan Demme was one of the first major (mainstream) studio (big-budget) film to confront the HIV/AIDS issue from a societal, medical, and political point of view.
  • The landmark film addressed the issues of homosexuality and homophobia (and cases of unfounded fear) in a case of wrongful termination. It came after the HBO-TV docu-drama And the Band Played On (1993) about the growing AIDS crisis.
  • It starred straight actors Tom Hanks (who won his first Best Actor Oscar) and Antonio Banderas as gay lovers. Hanks' character Andrew Beckett was an HIV/AIDS-afflicted lawyer who contracted the disease and was forced to sue his law firm over job discrimination - he was ably defended by a black personal injury lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). The presence of two major, well-respected American actors helped to broaden awareness about the problematic disease and related medical, political and social issues.
  • The humanizing film was inspired (in part) by the true story of attorney Geoffrey Bowers, who successfully sued the law firm that fired him in one of the first AIDS discrimination cases of wrongful dismissal. The drama made effective use of Bruce Springsteen's tear-jerking Oscar-winning song Streets of Philadelphia.
  • Although well-intentioned and compelling, and its stimulation of more empathy toward the major health issue and its societal stigma, it was criticized by gay groups for downplaying the affectionate romance between Hanks and Banderas, and for its many compromises for mainstream audiences.
  • It was the film that bridged actor Tom Hanks' earlier career (of lighter comedies) to more sober and serious roles (Apollo 13 (1995), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Green Mile (1999)).
  • During Hanks' Oscar acceptance speech, he paid homage to his high school gay teacher Rawley Farnsworth - the situation was later used as the basis for the comedy In & Out (1997) in which a passionate Oscar winner during his acceptance speech inadvertently outed a teacher.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
d. Quentin Tarantino, 154/168 minutes, Miramax/A Band Apart/Jersey Films

  • The self-indulgent, episodic low-budget film about corruption and temptation, a modern B-movie cult classic, with production costs of $8 million, became an immensely popular, major independent hit for its distributor Miramax, earning $108 million (domestic), and $214 million (worldwide). It was the 10th highest-grossing (domestic) film of its year, when it was competing against Forrest Gump (1994), The Lion King (1994), True Lies (1994), and Speed (1994).
  • When the influential neo-noirish crime film opened in May of 1994 at the Cannes Film Festival, it won the "Best Picture" or prestigious Palme d'Or, snatching the top award from Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy swansong Three Colors: Red (1994). It was also honored with seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (John Travolta), Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Best Supporting Actress (Uma Thurman), and won one Oscar - Best Original Screenplay (Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino).
  • This non-formulaic, stylish, defining film of the 1990s was known for its violence, ensemble cast, pop cultural references, rich and witty dialogue, blood-letting, vulgarities, 'sick' and dark humor, an AM radio pop music soundtrack, and startling action. The unpredictably shuffled, post-modern film shocked with its hip combination of violence, sex, drugs, and profanity (including 269 F-words), and a body count of 8 dead.
  • Director Quentin Tarantino, a B-movie fanatic and ex-video store clerk, was brought to mainstream attention with this stylish and inventive episodic thriller about corruption and temptation. His work featured guns, femmes fatales, deadly hit-men, and drugs. Tarantino provided rampant references to hard-boiled fiction, to TV shows, Hong Kong action films, and to other noirish films from The Killers (1946) to Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Psycho (1960) - and many others.
  • The pop-oriented film has become legendary, with a number of very quotable lines, a fragmented story, a great soundtrack, the mystery of the contents of a glowing suitcase (a prominent MacGuffin, and originally filled with diamonds in the script) with the devil's '666' as its combination, a philosophical discussion on French names for American fast food, and many flashbacks, flash-forwards, plot twists and unexpected turns. Four different short-story tales were interwoven together to tell a non-linear, non-chronological, and intricate story of nihilistic criminal activity in LA's sleazy underworld. The skewed script structure was revolutionary in the way the vignettes were told.
  • In the mid-1990s, it was criticized by some detractors, and offered up as an example of the perverse and immoral direction that the Hollywood film industry was taking - with displays of casual violence and sex, "nightmares of depravity," and for promoting "the romance of heroin."
  • The highly influential independent film helped open the doors for film school graduates and other indie films (from the likes of Bryan Singer with The Usual Suspects (1995), UK director Danny Boyle, and Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights (1997)), and changed the direction of contemporary cinema.

Cutthroat Island (1995)
d. Renny Harlin, 124 minutes, Carolco Pictures/MGM

  • Director Renny Harlin's (known for Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993)) and MGM/Carolco's bloated action-comedy pirate film (before the hugely popular Disney pirate film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) with Johnny Depp 8 years later) was one of the biggest flops of the decade (with an eventual cost of between $98 and $115 million and box-office of only $10 million domestic).
  • It continues to enjoy the reputation of being one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time. Its losses were phenomenal - costs were nearly equaled by its net losses of almost $89 million (inflation adjusted at $137 million). It was nominated for one Razzie award: Worst Director.
  • It was influential, but in a negative way. The independent production company Carolco (makers of the Rambo series, Total Recall (1990), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)), didn't survive this film's failure (and the additional failure of Showgirls (1995)), and was forced to file for bankruptcy even before it opened, and sold most of its assets for $50 million to 20th Century Fox.
  • The swashbuckling pirate-themed movie was an adventure tale with horrible acting, a deficient and often incoherent script, continuity problems, spectacular but boring special effects and action-film sequences, and logistical issues due to being filmed on two continents (in Malta - serving both as 1600s Jamaica and Thailand). There were six writers credited for the dubious film's story and script, indicative of its major problems.
  • Geena Davis (the director's real-life wife) who was cast in the unlikely main role of Captain Morgan Adams, played the modern 'feminist' role of a swashbuckling pirate queen, but it appeared that it was too early for female action heroes of her ilk, and her future bankability suffered.

Showgirls (1995)
d. Paul Verhoeven, 131/128 minutes, Carolco Pictures/United Artists/Chargeurs/Vegas Productions

  • Director Paul Verhoeven's and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' sleazy film provided an uncensored look at the show-biz world of Las Vegas strip clubs and shows.
  • This 'guilty-pleasure' popular cult film was a big-budget, exploitative, misogynistic, 'adult-oriented' film that became a camp classic instead. The outlandish, over-the-top, show-biz related film marked a milestone in film history - the sexploitation drama was the first NC-17 rated film with a wide mainstream release. The film was the first attempt of Hollywood to mass market a studio film with an NC-17 rating (since the failure of Caligula (1979)), yet it failed miserably.
  • Although it was the first big-budget, adults-only film in many years (after Caligula (1979) and Philip Kaufman's Henry & June (1990)), it turned out to be both a critical and commercial flop or failure, and grossed only $20 million (about half of its budgeted cost) from its production budget of $45 million. However, it remains the highest-grossing NC-17 rated film of all-time with almost double the box-office take of its next major competitor, Henry & June (1990) at $11.6 million.
  • It was one of the most notorious films of the 90s, later finding an audience among cult film-goers (although it reportedly almost destroyed the career of star Elizabeth Berkley, earlier noted for her role in the late 80s TV show Saved By the Bell).
  • The film was considered senseless, violent, and actually sexually boring or desensitizing, although it contained lots of gratuitous nudity.
  • To illustrate its campy nature and the dictum that it was "so bad it was good," the film received a record thirteen Razzie nominations and won seven of them, including Worst Actress and Worst New Star (Berkley), Worst Director, Worst Original Song, Worst Picture, Worst Screen Couple and Worst Screenplay.
  • Director Paul Verhoeven became the first actual "winner" to show up at the Razzie ceremony (in 1996), when he personally accepted his Razzie awards for 'Worst Director' (and 'Worst Picture') for his film. The film became the all-time champ of bad films (to date, until 2001), with a record seven Razzies, including 'Worst Actress' for Elizabeth Berkley. It also won the Razzie award for Worst Picture of the 1990s Decade.

Toy Story (1995)
d. John Lasseter, 81 minutes, Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

  • This was the first feature-length film made entirely by computer animation, also fully digital 3-D (in a re-release in 2009), in a collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios (its debut film) and Disney Studios.Toy Story (1995) became the highest-grossing (domestic) film of the year, at $191.8 million, and made Pixar one of the premiere film studios.
  • It was the first feature film of Pixar Animation Studios to be released in theaters, created by a team of 110 (including 27 animators) working over 800,000 hours to render the finished movie, released in November of 1995.
  • Pixar Studios had already experimented with quite a few short subject films, most noticeably the Oscar-nominated short Luxo Jr. (1986) (whose characters became the basis for their logo) and Oscar-winning short Tin Toy (1988). It was the only Pixar film to have full opening credits, and the first Pixar film to be adapted for television. It was also the first Pixar film to debut (in 2008) as a live action musical on Disney Cruise Line's The Disney Wonder.
  • It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Original Song (Randy Newman's You've Got a Friend in Me), Best Original Musical Score, and Best Original Screenplay (without any wins). It was the first animated movie nominated for Best Original Screenplay. John Lasseter was awarded a Special Achievement Academy Award for the groundbreaking movie.
  • The cutting-edge animation was the first totally-digital (or computer-generated) feature-length animated film - a trend that would continue to entertain audiences for decades. The visuals were entirely generated from computers, creating a wonderfully-realistic 3-D world with lighting, shading, and textures, that included real toys in supporting roles (Etch-A-Sketch, Slinky Dog, the plastic toy soldiers, Mr. Potato Head, etc.).
  • The film's amazing computer effects were surpassed only by the intelligent, thoughtful script that had adult themes that both parents and their kids could relate to. It placed major emphasis on its characters and their voices - it was essentially a buddy film between anthropomorphic cowboy doll Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) and space ranger action figure Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen).
  • Massive commercial success came from the merchandising of toys, video games, theme park attractions, spin-offs, numerous products from corporate tie-ins (i.e., Burger King, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Payless Shoes), and VHS rentals and sales.
  • It led to a trilogy of animations: Toy Story 2 (1999) was the first Pixar sequel, and considered superior to the original. It was the highest-grossing animated film of 1999. Toy Story 3 (2010) was the third installment in the popular Toy Story series. It was the highest-grossing (worldwide) animated film of all-time, grossing over $1 billion. It was also the first Pixar film to be released in 3D for its first run, and the first film to be released theatrically with Dolby Surround 7.1 sound. It became the highest-grossing 3D animation of all-time, and the highest-grossing film of 2010. From its five Academy Award nominations, it won twice - Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song (Randy Newman's We Belong Together). It was the most expensive Pixar movie to ever be produced, at an estimated budget of $200 million.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
d. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 81 minutes, Haxan Films

  • The pseudo-documentary, low-budget (budgeted at about $60,000), media-savvy cult horror film grossed $140.5 million (domestic) and $249 million (worldwide), easily making it (percentage-wise) the most profitable film in Hollywood history (with a record budget/box office ratio). It was the first independent blockbuster.
  • Foretelling new methods of Internet-based marketing, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's roughly-made, offbeat independent film (from small-time distributor Artisan Films) was a quasi-documentary about an October 1994 horrifying camping trip and investigation of a local legend that was experienced by no-name actors: three vanished Montgomery College student film-makers (Heather, Josh, and Mike) in Maryland's Black Hill Forest (near Burkittsville).
  • The almost entirely-improvised cult film reaped a greater audience (and successful box-office receipts) from low-cost Internet exposure and astute promotion, advertising and marketing. The 'Blair Witch' website, a popular destination for web surfers (with millions of hits), created tremendous advance buzz (suggesting that the story was real) for this low-budget film that was directed by a group of students from the University of Central Florida in 8 days. Many believed that the story was true, rather than the ingenious marketing hoax that it was.
  • The surprise hit and media sensation, a precursor of reality TV, was innovatively shot on 16mm B/W and Hi-8 color digital video camcorders, and basically looked like a home-made film with unknown actors and poor production values. Remarkably, it had no stars, no large marketing budget, no state-of-the-art special effects, and no creatures/monsters. Released at the dawn of the ubiquitous camcorder revolution, The Blair Witch Project demonstrated how a no-budget horror film could easily be made by anyone with a camera and a means to edit the film.
  • It was the biggest 'found footage' movie to date and it effectively kickstarted the sub-genre. Over a decade later, 'found-footage' films had become extremely popular, possibly due to the influence of home-made YouTube videos and reality TV. It was extremely influential for the next generation of similar films, including director Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity (2007) and its sequels (from 2010-2012), the sci-fi monster anthology Cloverfield trilogy, a franchise consisting of Cloverfield (2008), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), and The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), and the [REC] horror film franchise from 2007-2014 - and many more.

The Matrix (1999)
d. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 136 minutes, Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures

  • This kinetic, action-oriented, science-fiction virtual reality film combined many innovative visual and special effects elements comprising about 20 percent of the entire film. This groundbreaking action film became a smash hit, featuring elaborate fighting and stunt sequences with complex editing. Its convoluted screenplay that blurred the edge between reality and fantasy, still did not lose the audience's grasp of the story.
  • It came from the directorial writing team of the Wachowski brothers, and included incredible Oscar-winning technical Visual Effects (defeating Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) and Stuart Little (1999)). The film was nominated for four technical Oscars and won all of them including Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects.
  • The Matrix became best known for its phenomenal and revolutionary visual effects - airborne kung fu, 3-D freeze frame effects with a 360 degree rotating or pivoting camera, and bullet-dodging (slowed-down, rotating action dubbed "bullet-time" and "Flow-Mo"). These digital effects were created with suspending actors on wires (traditional wire-work), using motion capture, and filming segments with multiple still cameras shooting from multiple angles, and then enhancing the pictures with CG interpolation. Some of it was filmed against a greenscreen with a rig of cameras shooting at 12,000 frames per second.
  • Features included time-freezing, camera tracking around frozen action, shoot-outs, wall-scaling, virtual backgrounds, biomechanical monsters with tentacles known as Sentinels, and airborne kung fu between computer hacker Thomas Anderson/Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).
  • This popular, imaginative, visually-stunning film made timely references to prototypical elements of the 21st century high-tech culture, such as hacking and virtual reality, and included bullet-dodging.
  • Its tremendous visual effects and Western-styled action cinema were combined with Eastern world-denying philosophy, metaphysical Zen statements, Japanese anime, Greek mythology, cyberpunk chic, neo-Cartesian plot twists, film noir, Biblical and Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) references. Its cyberpunk and manga traditions helped to create a live-action anime.
  • After the first film's success, a second back-to-back film was announced - part of the trend of creating sequels (and a potential trilogy) to capitalize on the original film's popularity. The Matrix was the first in a trilogy with inferior sequels: the somewhat successful but critically derided The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and the artificially-expanded The Matrix Revolutions (2003).

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