Underrated Movies That Perfectly Capture The ’90s
Movies are always products of their time, and films from the 1990s are no exception. After all, ‘90s films and their sequels are time capsules that preserve the decade’s fashion, slang, grunge culture, and music, and they sometimes feature timely cameos. Just look at Clueless, for example: It perfectly captures - and lovingly satirizes - teen culture in the ’90s, from knee-high socks and choker necklaces to the skater sub-culture.
No one disputes that some of the best-loved films from the ‘90s like Clueless or 10 Things I Hate about You are stone-cold classics. Yet, they aren’t the only ones to depict the ’90s in all its glory. From Singles to Encino Man, the movies on this list may not be as well-known as some of the obvious classics from that decade, but they’re no less entertaining or quintessentially '90s.
- 1487 VOTESPhoto: 20th Century Fox
From popular success on Saturday Night Live to Hollywood hits like Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer, Adam Sandler was one of the comedy kings of the 1990s. Yet, not every film was a hit for him. Such was the case with 1994's Airheads, which included other '90s stars like Brendan Fraser, Chris Farley, and Steve Buscemi.
Besides its pedigree of ‘90s stars, Airheads also captures ’90s culture. It focuses on a band trying to get its music heard by taking over a radio station.
Though the film couldn't find its legs at the box office, Sandler remembers it fondly. As he told Variety in 2022, “That was one of the best shoots of my life, without a doubt. We would drive to the Fox lot and just get there at around 4:30. Sun's going down. We'd have our snacks, get into our clothes, do our scenes. And, man, the best party of all time.”
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What if modern-day teens in Encino, CA stumbled upon a caveman who had been frozen in ice thousands of years ago? That's the premise of Encino Man, a one-of-a-kind comedy. Buoyed by a cast of ‘90s all-stars - it features Sean Astin, Pauly Shore, and Brendan Fraser in his breakout role - Encino Man also displays ’90s grunge and stoner culture, from the characters' messy, long locks to their mismatched fashion. As Leila Jordan noted in Paste:
Encino Man is about as early '90s as a movie could possibly be. It's a time capsule filled with every social group that spread across America: the stoners, the casual SoCal lifestyle, the early aesthetics of grunge. The valley culture boom of the 1980s is still present, but very clearly evolving into a new sensation moving away from “valley speak” and toward a new vocabulary of surfer and stoner slang.
- 3396 VOTESPhoto: Sony Pictures Releasing
The '90s was a great decade for teen movies. Though some films like Clueless and American Pie get all the attention, others are just as compelling and quote-worthy, but without the acknowledgment.
Can't Hardly Wait is one of those films. Featuring a cast of ‘90s all-stars - Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ethan Embry, Peter Facinelli, and Seth Green, just to name a few; Embry even referred to the cast as “the ’90s kids” - the story unfolds over the course of one epic party. Like any worthwhile teen movie from that decade, the film also boasted an uber-'90s soundtrack, which included groups like Smashmouth, Third Eye Blind, and Boyz II Men.
- 4362 VOTESPhoto: Dimension Films
The 1990s produced teen horror classics like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. The Faculty belongs in the same class as those films, though it seldom gets as much attention.
Its premise is a little more far out. The Faculty follows a group of teens as they try to fend off an extraterrestrial invasion of vampire-like creatures who assume human form.
A cast of '90s notables fills the screen, including Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, and Usher, one of the most successful recording artists of the decade.
- 5342 VOTESPhoto: Warner Bros.
Filmmaker Cameron Crowe entered the 21st century with his 2000 hit Almost Famous, which captures the rock scene of the early 1970s. But it was one of Crowe's earlier - and lesser-known - projects that perfectly captured the 1990s grunge culture: Singles.
Set in Seattle in the 1990s, Singles follows the adventures and misadventures of a group of friends who are single. Not only is the look and fashion peak '90s - the long hair, the pointless hats - but it also features actors synonymous with the decade, like Matt Dillon and Kyra Sedgwick. It also boasts cameos from the bands Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
- 6300 VOTESPhoto: New Line Cinema
Allan Moyle, the same guy who brought audiences Empire Records, created another lesser-known film that defined the 1990s: Pump Up the Volume. Starring Christian Slater as a high-schooler turned secret radio DJ, the film blends edginess and cynicism in a way only a '90s movie can.
The most '90s aspect of the film is arguably its soundtrack. Though released in 1990, Pump Up the Volume anticipated the sound of the next decade. As The Ringer's Eric Ducker recounted in 2020:
[Pump Up the Volume] also serves as a preview of where modern music was going. The soundtrack includes songs by Sonic Youth and Soundgarden before college rock became the more mass-marketable alternative rock. It also has tracks by Ice-T and Above the Law, capturing the moment when gangsta rap took hold in the suburbs but hadn't reached the multiplatinum status it would find just a few years later through albums like Dr. Dre's The Chronic.