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The 25 Most Essential '90s Movies

Pulp Fiction
Miramax

There's a reason you've recently had the urge to bust out your plaid shirts, Celine Dion albums and dial-up modems, as this week sees the release of two relics of the 1990s: "Titanic 3D" and "American Reunion."

Since both of these movies make us think back to a more innocent time when Monica Lewinsky was an eager young White House intern, our money wasn't on fire and Twittering was a weird body tic, we're reminiscing about that decade's most influential and essential cinematic treasures for future generations. It wasn't easy to narrow down the list (next time, "Problem Child 2," next time ...) but if we were to preserve only 25 flicks from the '90s in a time capsule, they would be these (listed in alphabetical order).

1. 'American Pie' (1999)

American Pie
Universal

Losing your virginity on prom night is a rite of passage as American as … well, you know. Jim, Stifler and Michelle's flute helped usher in a new generation of teen sex comedy that had heart, soul and plenty of moist pastry to go around. Of course, you're not truly on the pop culture radar until you've been criticized by Spike Lee, who bashed the film a year later. "'American Pie'? ... That's a movie?" complained Lee to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The black version could be 'Deep-Dish American Pie.' Now, I could get that movie made!"

2. 'The Big Lebowski' (1998)

The Big Lebowski
Gramercy Pictures

Could this be the funniest movie of the '90's? That's just, like, our opinion, man. Jeff Bridges is the embodiment of deadbeat stoner cool as "the other" Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. The Dude, whose quixotic quest for his stolen rug entangles him with performance artists, nihilists, pornographers, cowboys, a crippled millionaire and one very skilled Chicano pederast bowler. Nobody f**ks with the Jesus, and anyone who's seen this cult Coen brothers classic has probably seen it twenty times, as evidenced by Lebowski Fest and all the other Urban Achievers out there.

3. 'The Blair Witch Project' (1999)

The Blair Witch Project
Artisan Entertainment

Before "Paranormal Activity" or "Cloverfield" there was this super low-budget terror flick that kicked off the found-footage revolution. Taking a page or two from "Cannibal Holocaust," this "documentary" may have used shakycam and nightvision to scare the bejesus out of audiences to the tune of $250 million worldwide, but it also was one of the first films to utilize a transmedia experience spread across TV and the Internet to promote the story as if it really happened.

4. 'Boyz n the Hood' (1991)

Boyz n the Hood
Columbia Pictures

23-year-old John Singleton drew from his experiences growing up gangsta in piss poor South Central L.A. for this urban drama released in summer of '91, only four months after the incendiary Rodney King incident. Tré (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a college-bound kid steering clear of gangs and getting good grades, but he can't say the same of his buddy Doughboy (Ice Cube), whose life among the Crips will lead to tragedy. Laurence Fishburne's Furious Styles proves the value of a positive male figure in his son Tré's life, and the anti-violence message Singleton sent through the characters made him the first African American to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Director, as well as the youngest director ever to be nominated.

5. 'Clerks' (1994)

Clerks
Miramax

Besides spinning off the one-man mini empire that is writer/director/raconteur Kevin Smith, this indie gabfest with loads of attitude (translation: LOTS O' SWEARS) inspired a generation of first-time filmmakers to follow his lead and just do it themselves. Smith maxed out some credit cards to gather the paltry $27,575 budget, and voilà! Add a dash of luck at Sundance and next thing you know Dante, Randal, Jay and Silent Bob are in a theater near you. FACT: "Clerks" almost became the first film to get slapped with an NC-17 rating solely for explicit dialogue.

6. 'The Crying Game' (1992)

The Crying Game
Miramax

"The Sixth Sense" had nothin' on the twist in this thriller from Irish helmer Neil Jordan ("Interview with the Vampire"), who used his home country's political turmoil as the backdrop for some psychosexual brinksmanship. Stephen Rea's IRA man is attracted to alluring songstress Dil (Jaye Davidson), who has a secret that only he and Ace Ventura know the answer to. Davidson was so effective that he (yes, he) received a Best Supporting Actor nod, and Jordan won for his screenplay; but it's Boy George's title track that's burned forever into our memories.

7. 'Dumb and Dumber' (1994)

Dumb and Dumber
New Line

News from the Farrelly brothers hints at a sequel on the horizon, but after the one-two punch of "Ace Venture" and "The Mask" in '94, this was the comedy that cemented Jim Carrey as a bonafide movie star and heir apparent to Jerry Lewis. Ol' rubberface found the perfect counterpart in Jeff Daniels, whose more mellow acting stylings perfectly complemented Carrey's manic mode. Together their Harry and Lloyd made for slapstick nirvana, and one ferocious diarrhea scene.

8. 'Fight Club' (1999)

Fight Club
20th Century Fox

With the idea to put director David Fincher and star Brad Pitt back together after "Se7en," studio execs must have had visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. What they probably didn't expect was one of the most boldly subversive mainstream films ever made to escape into the world as Tyler Durden (Pitt) and the Narrator (Ed Norton) blow off their angsty existential steam by pounding each other to oblivion in dark, leaky basements. Fincher used the same flashy high-style sensibilities he'd utilized making TV commercials to create the most homoerotic anti-commercial movie he could in the pre-9/11 era.

9. 'Forrest Gump' (1994)

Forrest Gump
Paramount

Life might well be a box of chocolates, but we certainly never knew we were gonna get this improbable smash hit. Seriously, go down to your nearest movie studio and tell them you want $40 million to make a borderline hallucinatory odyssey about a Ping Pong champion who fights in Vietnam, starts a shrimp company, meets every U.S. president and loses his virginity at age 30-something before his wife dies of AIDS. Pitch it, seriously. Oscar-winner Tom Hanks' title imbecile is part "Zelig," part "Being There" and all heart, and his can-do attitude translated to a Best Picture win.

10. 'Ghost' (1990)

Ghost
Paramount

Okay, quick show of hands -- who can hear The Righteous Brothers' 1955 hit "Unchained Melody" without contemplating some hands-on pottery? No one? That's what we thought. Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore made romantically holding a candle for a dead guy seem appealing, but it's Whoopi Goldberg's sassy medium Oda Mae Brown who won the day ... and an Oscar.

11. 'Good Will Hunting' (1997)

Good Will Hunting
Miramax

Only an actor as effortlessly winning as Matt Damon -- with the help of cowriter and fellow Best Screenplay winner Ben Affleck -- could pen a part for himself where he gets to be both super buff AND a super genius and not come across like a colossal egotist. Damon's 20-year-old MIT janitor likes solving equations when he's not sweeping floors, but a girl, a college professor and one very persistent therapist in the form of Oscar winner Robin Williams all conspire to dislodge Will from his rut. And remember, "It's not your fault. It's not your fault."

12. 'Goodfellas' (1990)

Goodfellas
Warner Bros.

Does this movie amuse us? Does it make us laugh? Is it here to f**kin' amuse us? Of course it is, but it's also the most compulsively rewatchable ganster movie of all time because of the warmth, detail and propulsive filmmaking of Martin Scorsese, who based this on the real rise and fall of mob stoolie Henry Hill. Yes, Joe Pesci took home a Best Supporting Actor trophy, but he should also get out his shinebox for underappreciated costar Ray Liotta, whose charisma and brilliant narration hold the whole bloody package together. Don't believe us? Check out the Liotta-less "Casino" for a good but considerably less charming experience.

13. 'Groundhog Day' (1993)

Groundhog Day
Columbia Pictures

"Don't drive angry, don't drive angry." Bill Murray's self-centered weatherman is going to learn a lesson in humility and gain some spiritual perspective by living the same day in Punxsutawney, PA, over and over and over and over and over. Director Harold Ramis and cowriter Danny Rubin went beyond their clever premise to craft a comedy with genuine weight and charm, not to mention Sonny and Cher. The first glimmers of Murray's more serious "blue period" ("Rushmore," "Lost in Translation") can be found here, with enough truly hilarious bits to make us come back for infinity viewings.

14. 'Jurassic Park' (1993)

Jurassic Park
Universal

Hold onto your butts, because some scientists (who never stopped to think if they should) got dino DNA and cloned themselves a Raptor or two. Steven Spielberg and author Michael Crichton essentially took a bunch of things we love (dinosaurs, theme parks, Jeff Goldblum), put them together, and made us realize those elements don't mix so well, and made a ton of money in the process. Life finds a way ... to eat you.

15. 'The Matrix' (1999)

The Matrix
Warner Bros.

Before they went down the rabbit hole of misguided sequelitis, the Wachowski brothers gave audiences the red pill and showed them what reality is really all about: lookin' cool in black leather while bullet-time kung-fu fighting. Whoa. This savvy combination of martial arts, gunplay, Eastern philosophy, Philip K. Dick-style paranoia and Japanese anime thrilled audiences with a jolt of the unexpected and, mere weeks ahead of "The Phantom Menace," managed to out-"Star Wars" "Star Wars."

16. 'Office Space' (1999)

Office Space
20th Century Fox

"I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it's not okay because if they take my stapler then I'll set the building on fire." Well said, Milton. Stephen Root's brilliant turn as perpetually put-upon corporate slug Milton Waddams is just one of the sublime joys in "Beavis and Butthead" creator Mike Judge's office satire. Criminally ignored during its initial release, the story of Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) and his quest to escape his job and do nothing struck a chord with anyone who ever had a passive-aggressive boss or filled out mindless reports. A scene in which office workers perform a gangland-style hit on a broken laser printer is one for the ages.

17. 'Pulp Fiction' (1994)

Pulp Fiction
Miramax

No young filmmaker has ever tapped the zeitgeist like Quentin Tarantino, who by the midpoint of the '90s had taken his Gen-X pop culture-laden sensibilities and smeared them over every stale cliché of the crime genre, making them shiny new again. "Reservoir Dogs" was a boss calling card, while "Jackie Brown" showed a more mature filmmaker emerging, but in between was this interconnected anthology of L.A. lowlifes doping, punching and shooting their way out of desperate corners. The then 31-year-old auteur reinvigorated John Travolta's flagging career, ignited Samuel L. Jackson's and carved out a place for himself as the poet laureate of exploitation, walking the earth like Caine in "Kung Fu," all to the tune of Dick Dale's "Miserlou."

18. 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998)

Saving Private Ryan
Paramount

Spielberg landed us collectively on Omaha Beach and blew our minds with a harrowing bloodbath opening sequence that made us feel like the bullets were whizzing by our heads and we might not make it out alive. It's a testament to the man's power as a filmmaker that he drew us into World War II in a way we'd never experienced, and as the indulgent and prosperous '90s came to a close, the film stood as a fitting remembrance to the Greatest Generation, which saved the world so we could get better cell phone reception in it.

19. 'Schindler’s List' (1993)

Schindler's List
Universal

This stark black-and-white take on the Holocaust solidified Spielberg as more than a mere popcorn entertainer, but a straight-up artist of the highest caliber. Liam Neeson gives a powerful performance as Oskar Schindler, the German factory owner who saved over a thousand Jews from the clutches of the Nazis during WWII. Forgoing storyboards or crane shots, the director made the film without his usual bag of tricks on real historical locations in Poland. After winning Best Picture and Best Director, Spielberg founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which documented 52,000 interviews with survivors and witnesses.

20. 'The Shawshank Redemption' (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption
Columbia Pictures

Hope truly springs eternal for Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who comes to Shawshank Prison in early 1947 for murdering his wife and the fella she was bangin'. Over the course of 20 years we follow Andy and his pal Red (Morgan Freeman) as they do the hardest time there is, punctuated by some of the most hauntingly beautiful moments in movie history -- the standout being an impromptu broadcast of "The Marriage of Figaro" over the prison intercom. Initially overlooked at the box office but later championed on home video, writer-director Frank Darabont took Stephen King's tall tale and turned it into a story of friendship that transcends institutionalization through sheer indomitable human will. That, and a big goddamn poster.

21. 'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs
Orion Pictures

If you've never experienced Jonathan Demme's Best Picture-winning experiment in fear, then put down those fava beans and chianti to prepare yourself for the ultimate serial killer movie. Anthony Hopkins went from noted character actor to screen legend with his role as homicidal sophisticate (and cannibal) Hannibal Lecter, who dominates the film despite appearing for a mere 16 minutes of screentime. He and costar Jodie Foster both walked away with gold after the film swept the Academy Awards, proving horror can be classy, too.

22. 'The Sixth Sense' (1999)

The Sixth Sense
Hollywood Pictures

A pre-awkward Haley Joel Osment was a child actor revelation when he kept insisting to an unsuspecting Bruce Willis that he saw dead people. M. Night Shyamalan's low-profile flick snuck up on audiences with its eerie blend of the psychological and the supernatural. Also, this was before Shyamalan's name was synonymous with "twist," so the final turn this movie takes made people want to see it again just to marvel at the neo-Hitchcock's masterful sleight of hand.

23. 'Titanic' (1997)

Titanic
Paramount

For months before it came out, especially after completely missing its original summer release date, this movie was pegged by the press as the next "Heaven's Gate"-style bomb. An out-of-control production budget skyrocketed to unheard of heights, but when word trickled out that it might actually be good -- and tears began trickling down the faces of teen girls everywhere -- things started looking up for this tragic voyage. As Leo sank to the bottom of the ocean, James Cameron rose to the top of the filmmaking heap. "I'm king of the world!"

24. 'Toy Story' (1995)

Toy Story
Pixar

Without its flagship release, Pixar would not have the bulletproof track record for releasing masterpiece after masterpiece it has today. The world's first computer-animated feature film went to infinity and beyond both creatively and financially, also spawning two equally lauded sequels. In the end, the film's success hinged on the bright dynamic created by Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) as they came to life and lit the world's imagination.

25. 'The Usual Suspects' (1995)

The Usual Suspects
MGM

Everyone is this movie wanted to know the answer to one question: Who is Keyser Söze? We'll give you a hint: He's the dude who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Bryan Singer's modern-day noir thriller features five shady characters meeting in a police lineup who decide to pull off a robbery together. Turns out these guys played by Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Benicio del Toro and especially Kevin Spacey are all pieces in Söze's intricate chess game, a game played with bullets.

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