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Great '90s movies that still hold up today

With the advent of the internet, cell phones, and personal computing, the '90s left the world forever changed. As a result, movies of the era have become accidental time capsules of pre-PC life. Back then, stories had to rely on communication through landlines and clunky phone books. If you had to do research, there were no laptops, smart phones, or blazing-fast home WiFi — you had to get to the library within working hours and sift through a card catalog to find the information you needed. Movies themselves had to be physically owned or borrowed: You needed to be able to hold it in your hands if you wanted to watch it. "Stream" was just another word for creek.

And yet, the movies of the '90s still hold up. This decade of cinema pushed narratives to their furthest limits, using new technology in innovative ways that, amazingly, still impress today — even in the harsh light of high definition. Movies tackled social issues with new fervor, in ways that remain groundbreaking. Bold new directors, actors, and designers of all stripes broke through, who have gone on to reshape the medium as a whole. These are the movies of the '90s that still manage to dazzle, provoke, and entertain us to this day. 

The Matrix

In so many ways, the Wachowskis' cyberpunk action-thriller The Matrix continues to be ahead of its time. Its tale of identity, authoritarian constraint, and mass surveillance has, if anything, only become more relevant — no wonder we're getting a Matrix 4. But most impressively of all, the movie's mind-bending special effects have withstood the difficult test of time. 

Take a moment to recall, if you were around, just how jaw-dropping The Matrix's visuals were, back in 1999. Remember the gravity-defying moment when Trinity suspends herself in mid-air, and the camera revolves around her? Remember what it was like to encounter "bullet time" before it became a phrase unto itself? Upon rewatch, these effects don't just hold up: They still look absolutely, unabashedly incredible. Even beyond visuals, The Matrix's impact can't be denied. More than 20 years later, we're still calling weird moments of daily life "glitches in the matrix." Despite the many aspects of this movie that have been homaged to the point of cliche, watching The Matrix today is just as thrilling as it was in 1999.

10 Things I Hate About You

The '90s perfected the art of the romantic comedy, and 10 Things I Hate About You remains its quintessential representative. A modern retelling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You is a saucy love story featuring a number of key plot points that have aged beautifully. Yes, it's a comedy of errors about a misfit girl and the boy who accidentally wins her heart. But it's also a story about the special bonds that exist between sisters, the unique trials of being an outspoken teenage girl, and the worthiness of honesty. All of these elements, brought to life by a stellar cast, make 10 Things I Hate About You an evergreen story. 

And seriously — what a cast. Daryl Mitchell as English teacher Mr. Morgan brings a hilarious, spirited bite to the Bard that remains right at home in the cultural zeitgeist decades later. Allison Janney's turn as the school counselor Ms. Perky adds the bawdiness every Shakespeare adaptation requires with her tumescent, in-progress romance novel. The fact that the movie also stars Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the icing on this delightfully '90s cake.

12 Monkeys

Flipping back and forth between 2035, 1990, and 1996, 12 Monkeys explores the possible origins of a viral pandemic that decimates all but one percent of human life on Earth. The film follows Bruce Willis as time traveler James Cole as he attempts to uncover who is responsible for releasing the virus so that scientists in the future can stop it and restore the planet to health. As you might imagine, Watching 12 Monkeys in a post-coronavirus world in an exercise in surreality — but one worth undertaking. If anything, current events have only made the film more important.

Featuring a gritty, neo-noir sci-fi aesthetic that has aged phenomenally well, Terry Gilliam's movie did more than just predict a global contagion — it also predicted future movies. As Jeffrey Goines, an anti-capitalist psychiatric patient, Brad Pitt foreshadows his later performance as the enigmatic Tyler Durden of Fight Club fame, down to the manifesto monologues. Bruce Willis' Cole offers a glimpse into his role in The Sixth Sense, encapsulated by his line, "All I see are dead people." These aren't just fun tidbits for the trivia-happy cinephile, though — they're part of why classics like Fight Club and The Sixth Sense even got made. Those movies knew they could take a chance on these actors because they'd already seem them pull similar performances off. 12 Monkeys predicted a lot, but it also laid the groundwork for further cinematic brilliance.

Fight Club

Since 1999, everyone everywhere has been breaking those first two rules of Fight Club – and for good reason. David Fincher's social satire, starring Edward Norton as the morose narrator and Brad Pitt as his alter-ego, the charismatic Tyler Durden, continues to impress. Add in Helena Bonham Carter as lost girl Marla Singer and you've got an all-star cast pulling off an unforgettable story. 

Fight Club manages to be one of the most quotable films of its era and one of the most contentious — two qualities rarely found in one film. But that's just how Fight Club rolls: It's nihilistic, it's brutal, it's surprisingly tender, and it continues to be relevant. This is a movie about violence, but for all its macho swagger, it's also an intense indictment of its main characters' destructive urges. No wonder it still spurs discussion and debate. Its ultimate message of self-integration remains vital, a status we don't think will change any time soon.

Seven

If David Fincher's horror noir Seven included cell phones, you would immediately assume it was made today — that's how relevant it remains. Featuring Morgan Freeman as Detective Somerset, a lawman about to retire, and Brad Pitt as his temporary partner David Mills, the two men find themselves embroiled in a gruesome serial killer case. The killer has been choosing his victims based on their indulgence in the seven deadly sins, for which he forces them to "atone." Calling his methods grisly would be an understatement.

In 1995, the implied and on-screen violence in Seven went above and beyond anything anyone had seen. Then, the movie's horrific surprise ending knocked everyone for a further loop. Today,  Fincher's pristine noir aesthetic — John Doe's notebooks are works of disturbed art — is even more striking, thanks to high definition. But improved technology and intervening years have only made it more clear how thoughtful Fincher's use of violence is. Imitators capture the gore, but not the message, making Seven's themes all the most obvious (and impressive) to modern viewers. Seven is one of the best and darkest movies around ... just don't watch it with someone who doesn't know what's coming.

The Crow

Against a raging soundtrack of peak-'90s industrial grunge music, Alex Proyas' adaptation of The Crow is an aesthetic unto itself. Dark tones are contrasted with red bursts of color, the camera veers crazily across the unnamed city, and Eric Draven haunts it all, a ghoul in greasepaint. One by one, undead Eric goes after the men who hurt his beloved fiance, Shelly, making them pay in their own blood. It's a shadowy ode to vengeance that manages to embody '90s goth in every aspect — yet somehow, doesn't feel dated. If anything, the intervening decades have only made The Crow cooler.

Starring Brandon Lee in his final lead role, this tour-de-force performance seems likely to have catapulted the young actor into proper mainstream stardom, had he lived. One might think The Crow's status as a cult classic comes from the fact that Lee died while filming, but that's entirely untrue – The Crow is a beautiful, grotesque, and haunting film all on its own. Moreover, the soundtrack also holds up fantastically — a rare feat for any '90s movie, even the best ones. This is one movie that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, just as it was back in 1994.

Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann's hallucinogenic adaptation of Shakespeare's classic romance, Romeo + Julietfeels as fresh today as the day it premiered. Utilizing digital camera work and editing techniques along with traditional film stock, Luhrmann's rip-roaring update of the story of star-crossed lovers is an absolute feast for the eyes. Seriously: This is a movie that combines neon, loud floral print, mesh button-downs, and SoCal style into a cohesive whole. It takes insane levels of vision to pull that off — to say nothing of doing it so well that it still looks good years later.

This movie turns the Montagues and the Capulets into rival California gangs, marked by their guns, tattoos, and distinct wardrobes. Luhrmann masterfully integrates modern issues of class, race, and gender expression into the classic tale — to call it ahead of its time is an understatement. Watching Romeo + Juliet in high definition, you actually feel like the movie was waiting for the 2000s to arrive: Modern technology allows its design elements and special effects to shine in newly crisp detail. Modern takes on Shakespeare start with solid foundations, but few ascend to the heights Romeo + Juliet achieves. That's because it dares to be strange, salacious, and of its particular moment — which, ironically enough, has made it timeless.

Blade

Long before the MCU became the biggest name in superheroic cinema, 1998's Blade was blowing minds. Wesley Snipes plays the title character, a half-human, half-vampire "daywalker" who dispatches bloodsuckers with cool precision. This glossy film combines the electronic dance music of the late '90s with ground-level hip-hop to create an unparalleled vibe. It's equal parts comic book, all-night rave, and turn-of-the-century reality, making Blade a uniquely cool installment in the Marvel canon. 

Blade's killer cast is a major part of its success. Featuring N'bushe Wright as a hematologist who might be able to cure Blade's vampirism and Kris Kristofferson as Blade's trusty sidekick, they work together to beat Stephen Dorff's villain, Deacon Frost, as he attempts to slaughter his way into vampiric authority. Blade's sense of cool hasn't aged a day: An introductory scene featuring an underground blood rave could have been filmed yesterday. Moreover, as one of the first films to star a Black superhero, Blade was way ahead of its time. It's got style, smarts, and a social consciousness — plus a seriously great soundtrack.

Practical Magic

Based on the novel by Alice Hoffman, 1998's Practical Magic follows the mystical women of the Owens family: Sally, Gillian, Jet, and Frances, played by Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Stockard Channing, and Dianne Wiest respectively. The Owens are descended from a long line of witches, afflicted by a curse cast by the first of their line. It wasn't meant to be a curse — the first witch was only trying to keep herself from falling in love again. But centuries later, the spell has curdled, taking the life of any man an Owens woman truly loves. 

The lush aesthetic and eccentric charm of Practical Magic have only grown more enchanting over the years: Midnight margaritas are now a staple for many, thanks to this movie. But beyond the story's visuals and humor lies the strength of its narrative. Practical Magic is about trauma, family, and love, explored with a depth of feeling that remains resonant. The magic is, of course, entertaining, but it's not just set dressing — it's there to explore sisterhood, domestic violence, and cycles of abuse. It's powerful, it's brave, and it's entertaining as all get-out.

The Shawshank Redemption

There are very few movies that almost everyone can agree on. Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption has been a contender in this rarefied category for years. Based off the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this movie isn't just special — it's iconic. 

Set in the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary, the movie is an unflinching window into life behind bars. But beyond that, it's a twisting mystery, a tale of friendship, and a well-earned story of triumph. Seriously, who doesn't get goosebumps while watching Andy free himself in the pouring rain? Stunning performances from Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as Red are a big part of why the film succeeds: Both men are earnest, tough, and tender, despite their many years of incarceration. The Shawshank Redemption is about the strength of the human spirit against evil forces — one message that never goes out of style.

Dazed and Confused

Though it was released in 1993, Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused takes place in 1976, making this an interesting '90s movie indeed. Following a group of Texas high-schoolers on their first day of summer shenanigans, Dazed and Confused's technicolor '70s aesthetic has a distinctly '90s vibe that, somehow, works like gangbusters  today. It's nostalgia in a blender, filtered through the warm lens of a cinematic summer. It feels cozy and familiar, even if you weren't around for either decade. 

Those who first encountered Dazed and Confused in the '90s will find it just as clever and funny as the day they first saw it. For those watching it for the first time nowadays, it functions more like a period piece — yet one with a core of emotional truth. Decades later, Dazed and Confused's honest heart is what stands out most, and what keeps it relevant to today's teens. It's also totally rad (or perhaps groovy?) that the movie's socially conscious themes have only become more impressively ahead of their time.

Scream

In 1996, Wes Craven single-handedly revitalized the slasher horror sub-genre with his metatextual masterpiece, Scream. This movie proved to be start of a powerful franchise that has only deepened its philosophical leanings with each subsequent film. Scream took horror movie tropes and completely upended them: Final girl Sydney Prescott actually has sex ... and lives to tell the tale. It's funny without being goofy, scary without being schlocky, and still manages to surprise viewers to this day.

Played brilliantly by Neve Campbell, Sydney is a heroine for the ages with an origin story holds up as well now as it did back then. Sure, some of the film's details have become dated, like dial-up internet and flip phones — but that only adds to its charm, especially since each follow-up movie takes place in real time. The series is a time capsule of an entire era, an effect that is as interesting as it is nostalgic. The film is also all the more impressive in high definition: Ghostface's kills are grislier than you probably remember. Today's horror cinema might be blowing minds left and right with works of art like Midsommar and Get Out, but the genre never would have gotten to these heights without Scream.

Jurassic Park

In many ways, Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park has held up significantly better than its CGI-heavy follow-ups. Even to modern eyes, the film's practical effects continue to dazzle: There's just something about seeing those dinosaurs roar, stomp, and roam that takes your breath away. It is an entertaining as ever to watch the titular theme park fall to pieces — vicious predators, industrial espionage, and precocious kids just don't go out of cinematic style.

Beyond the spectacle of the film's visuals lie the sterling performances. Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm has a bizarre charm all his own, while Laura Dern's Dr. Ellie Sattler has become a modern-day girl power icon. An exchange between the two has become a cornerstone of '90s cinema for good reason: When Dr. Malcolm muses, "God creates dinosaurs. God kills dinosaurs. God creates man. Man kills god. Man creates dinosaurs," Dr. Sattler replies, "Dinosaurs kill man. Woman inherits the Earth." The line is as cheer-worthy now as it was then.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the rare sequel that surpasses its predecessor. One of the biggest reasons it manages this feat is because it took full advantage of then-modern technological advancements in digital filmmaking and editing. Cameron's brilliant use of both practical and digital effects elevates Terminator 2 into greatness, and makes it an absolute treat to revisit in high definition, all these decades later. 

But aside from its stellar effects, Terminator 2 is a strong, well-cast, cleverly-written film. Linda Hamilton's performance as Sarah Connor is simultaneously fierce and vulnerable, while Edward Furlong's breakout performance as Sarah's tormented son also holds up beautifully. Moreover, Terminator 2's plot, which revolves around artificial intelligence and authoritarianism, only becomes more relevant with every passing year. And don't forget — this is an early '90s movie, having debuted in 1991. The fact that Terminator 2 is one of the decade's earliest efforts makes it all the more impressive on every front. It thrills, it dazzles, and it makes you think twice about your smartphone. Not bad for a movie made in the shadows of the Cold War.