Sure, we can’t get enough of ‘90s nostalgia these days. But while we’re remembering all of our cool toys, our favorite Nickelodeon cartoons, and the now-discontinued cereals, it’s wise to think back to the baddest decade ever and remember that the ‘90s were actually nostalgic for previous decades. Take, for instance, these 15 movies: hardly just period pieces, these films made their respective past settings into characters of their own.
John Waters’s follow-up to his mainstream breakout Hairspray, Cry-Baby goes back another ten years to spoof the culture clash between the prim-and-proper Squares and the rockabilly Drapes, a band of juvenile delinquents led by Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (played by Johnny Depp). Part musical, part parody, the comedy features plenty of ‘50s-inspired slang, fashions, and sight gags, and a cameo by late-‘50s heartthrob Troy Donahue.
Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton’s biopic, also starring Johnny Depp, followed the titular cross-dressing sci-fi director as he prepared his magnum opus Plan 9 From Outer Space, which many call the worst film ever made. Shot in black-and-white, Ed Wood is not just a love letter to the auteur who inspired Burton’s aesthetic — it’s also an homage to a time when our cinematic tastes were much less refined.
Inventing the Abbotts (1997)
The ‘50s wasn’t just the era when sideburns were huge and every middle-aged woman had the middle of her face framed with soft fluorescent lighting. It was also the decade during which America lost its innocence and discovered sex for the first time, that is if Pat O’Connor’s film adaptation of Sue Miller’s novel is to be believed.
Technically, Pleasantville takes place in that terrifying place known as Los Angeles in the late ‘90s, but through television magic Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are zapped back to the storybook past, into the black-and-white olden days when dads looked like William H. Macy, moms looked like Joan Allen, and J.T. Walshes held every sleepy little town in their puritanical, iron grips. Thankfully, Witherspoon was able to teach teens about sex and the saccharine-sweet Pleasantville got some edgy color to it.
The Doors (1991)
Oliver Stone is one of the most ‘90s directors, and he loved making movies about the ‘60s. This biopic about Jim Morrison and The Doors is as psychedelic and druggy as the band’s tunes, and not only features prominent ‘60s icons like Andy Warhol and Nico; it also gets real hippie-dippy with some witchy scenes that nailed down the decade’s counterculture movement.
Starring John Goodman as fictional film director Lawrence Woolsey, Matinee is a loving homage to the sci-fi b-movie director William Castle. Set amid the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the film nails both the endearing pop-culture of the time (the film-within-a-film, Mant! — “Half man, half ant, all terror!” — is a glorious send-up of the era’s trashy fare) and the burgeoning Cold War sense of dread that loomed over the nation’s youth.
That Thing You Do (1996)
Tom Hanks’s directorial debut is a squeaky-clean look at the boom of ‘60s pop-rock as inspired by The Beatles, exemplified by the quick rise and fall of fictional band The Wonders (né The Oneders). With flashy fashions and catchy tunes (the title track was nominated for an Oscar), the film captured the beatific, all-American side of a decade regularly associated with counterculture, war, and corruption.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Richard Linklater’s ensemble comedy about Austin teenagers on the last day of school in 1976 was hardly a teen flick, and it featured an impressive roster of ‘90s indie actors, including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Joey Lauren Adams. More importantly, it was the beginning of the ‘90s obsession with the ‘70s from the bell-bottoms up to the bongs.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Todd Haynes treats the British invasion of glam-rock with all of the glitter and sex it deserved in this cult favorite. Originally intended to be a David Bowie biopic, Velvet Goldmine stars Rhys Meyers as a composite of Bowie and Marc Bolan named Brian Slade, and it captured a slice of the ‘70s rock scene with Citizen Kane-like aspirations.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Jeffrey Eugenides’s debut novel gets the existential film treatment from writer/director Sofia Coppola, who made her directorial debut with this gorgeous adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst. With a soundtrack including Heart, Styx, ELO, and Todd Rundgren, the film is perhaps most notable in retrospect for Josh Hartnett’s amazingly feathered hair.
A glorious piece of Watergate fan fiction, the impossible-to-Google Dick is a fantasy in which two teenage girls (played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) infiltrate Richard Nixon’s White House and spill the beans to Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It’s also a hilarious send-up of the Me Decade, filled to the brim with ‘70s details like mile-wide lapels, roller-disco, Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers, and Bobby Sherman posters.
The Wedding Singer (1998)
This Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy was set in 1985 for the sole purpose of making fun of how stupid the ‘80s were. (1998 Billy Idol has a cameo as 1985 Billy Idol, for crying out loud.) It’s hardly historically accurate, as rapping grandmas weren’t a thing until the late ‘90s.
The Last Days of Disco (1998)
Whit Stillman’s early-‘80s-set ensemble comedy of manners revolved around a group of young New York yuppies in the era when the term was first being tossed around as a pejorative. While it’s more about the comings and goings of a group of young people at the climax of the New York discotheque scene and less about era-specific pop culture, it’s commendable for equally depicting both disco music and the beginnings of the herpes virus as cultural game-changers.
200 Cigarettes (1999)
Before Garry Marshall’s insipid New Year’s Eve, 200 Cigarettes cornered the market on the multi-narrative, turn-of-the-year genre. It also included a stellar cast of actors shellacked in denim, frizz, and mousse solely for visually comic effect.
Forrest Gump (1994)
The greatest (or perhaps the most cloying) of the ‘90s nostalgia films follows the dimwitted Gump from the ‘50s through the ‘80s, decades during which he manages to meet Elvis Presley, Bear Bryant, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Dick Cavett, and John Lennon, and is somehow personally involved in the invention of the Twist, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal. It’s a veritable “We Didn’t Start the Fire” of cinema, practically patting every baby boomer on the back for living through each major historical event in the 40-year span.