When I first pitched this piece last spring, I was desperately attempting to stay the covid doldrums by binge watching movies from my childhood. It was lockdown and I couldn’t go to work, couldn’t visit family and friends, and only left the house once a week for a hasty, sanitizer-drenched trips to the grocery store. Nostalgia (and steamy romance novels) was pretty much the only thing keeping me functioning. Then the lockdown was lifted and a lot of us went back to work, and forgot all about this pitch. What was the point? We’d be done with this virus thing by fall, surely, winter at the latest.
Almost a year later and time is a flat circle and my brain feels like the “this is fine” dog in the room of fire. So I figured why not go back to this little listicle of ten supremely nostalgic movies from the 80s, 90s, and early 00s and share it with the world. These are not the billion dollar blockbusters or the movies that have become a part of our cultural language, but the forgotten, the deep-cut cult classics, and the weirdly silly.
Gen Z young’uns and my elders are, of course, welcome, but I write for my grumpy, over stressed, and utterly exhausted Millennial siblings. The ones who have lived through three recessions, three wars, two terrorist attacks, countless school shootings, the AIDS epidemic, the student debt crisis, the return of fascism, and now The ‘Rona. I write for the ones who are killing Boomer industries because we would rather fill our tiny-yet-overpriced apartments with pets and plants instead of throwing our meager earnings away on something someone else decided we should want. Here’s to us, my Millennial cohort. Things will eventually get better before they get worse again. But for now we binge.
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
The what: David, a 12-year-old boy, falls down a ravine and wakes up eight years later but the same age as he was when he disappeared. Turns out he’d been taken by an alien spaceship he later calls Max. David and Max travel around the world, then Max undertakes a risky journey to return David to his original time.
The why: For years, I thought I hallucinated this movie. All I could remember was a boy singing “Barbara Ann” in a metal room and something about time travel. Ask Jeeves was no help, and none of my childhood friends remembered it. Decades passed before I rediscovered it purely by chance, and now it lives proudly in my small but mighty collection of DVDs. Like a lot of kids movies in the 1980s, the plot is paper thin. It’s fun, frothy entertainment with nice message about being nice to family and friends.
See also: Short Circuit (1986)
The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
The what: Five household objects – Toaster the toaster, Blanky the electric blanket, Lampy the desktop lamp, Radio the radio, and Kirby the vacuum – set out to find their former “master” to convince him not to sell his old home. Phil Hartman channels Jack Nicholson and Peter Lorre for his characters Air Conditioner and Hanging Lamp. Adventures ensue.
The why: Younger Millennials picked up the anthropomorphizing habit from Toy Story, but us old folks have The Brave Little Toaster to thank. To this day I still say hello to my toaster whenever I use it. Sorry nerdlings, due to arcane licensing issues with Hyperion, this is DVD only.
See also: Oliver & Company (1986).
The what: Kevin Bacon stars as one of a pair of friends who are just about to leave town in search of new opportunities when they’re trapped by hungry, hungry giant worms. They’ll have to team up with a cute seismologist, gun-happy survivalists, and a desperate mother and her children to make it out alive.
The why: Set in the dusty desert town of Perfection, Nevada (but also featuring inexplicable Southern/Texan accents), Tremors is one of the better entries in the “monsters hunt down residents of a small town” subgenre. If you haven’t seen Tremors in a long time, trust me, it’s way better than you remember. Avoid the sequels at all costs.
See also: Critters (1986), Arachnophobia (1990)
Encino Man (1992)
The what: Brendan Fraser plays a caveman who was unearthed and defrosted by Sean Astin and Pauly Shore from underneath Astin’s Encino, California backyard. The story is mostly them dressing him in weird clothes and letting him loose to hit on high school girls. Astin has a crush on a nice girl dating the class asshole, and Link (what the boys named their caveman) helps him defeat the jerk and get the girl.
The why: The himbo king of the 90s deserved better treatment than he got. We did not appreciate his comedic talent, strange blend of classic film good looks, 1930s slapstick comedy jive, and a presence that felt both chill and intense all at once. Like most of the movies on this list I can’t claim that this is good, but it is fun in an inconsequential way. It’s classic 90s suburban white boy schlock – a specialty of Shore’s – but what’s not to love about Fraser as a fledgling goofball?
See also: Monkeybone (2001)
The Crow (1994)
The what: Starring Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee and martial arts impresario in his own right, the movie is about a man who is murdered who comes back from the dead to enact revenge on the people who killed him and his wife.
The why: Goths carved out a real niche in the Nineties. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Addams Family, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, May, The Craft, and the king of the goth-y hill, The Crow. Sadly, this was Lee’s last cinematic appearance. He was killed a few days before filming was complete when he was accidentally shot with a dummy bullet cartridge instead of a blank round. Lee was hella charismatic as Eric Draven. We lost a great talent.
See also: Ginger Snaps (2000)
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
The what: When John Milton (Al Pacino), the head of a New York City law firm, takes a shine to undefeatable Florida defense attorney Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), he offers him a huge apartment and even huger salary. Once in the big city, things spiral out of control. Kevin’s wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron in an absolutely awful perm) is driven mad by nightmarish visions of demons and monstrous babies. Things go from bad to worse.
The why: Full of lurid imagery and references to Paradise Lost and Faust, this is a movie that thinks “excessive” isn’t quite enough. Pacino’s acting got a lot of the critical attention when it first came out, but for me, Reeves makes the film work. Just imagine if the version with Joel Schumacher and Brad Pitt had gotten picked up instead. *shudders*
See also: Bless the Child (2000), What Dreams May Come (1998)
The Faculty (1998)
The what: A Breakfast Club mishmash of teens band together to battle the alien parasites possessing their teachers.
The why: The Nineties was the golden age for teen slashers, but only one had the audacity to make aliens the baddies. The Faculty is a who’s who of late 1990s young actors. If you were a teenager who liked movies, you were well acquainted with all of the stars. And while you may not have known Kevin Williamson by name, you were definitely familiar with his works (he had done two Scream movies, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Dawson’s Creek, and would release Teaching Mrs. Tingle the following year). There’s lots of gross-out body horror, screaming, and melodramatic acting, plus a killer twist at the end.
See also: Idle Hands (1999)
Wild Wild West (1999)
The what: A few years after the Civil War, two agents, Will Smith and Kevin Kline, are sent to track down some missing scientists. Instead they find a sinister former confederate officer, Kenneth Branagh at his hammiest.
The why: Roger Ebert described the Wild Wild West as “all concept and no content,” and he wasn’t wrong. Lots of stuff happens, little of it means anything, but damn if it isn’t a riot to look at. The special effects are bizarre, the set pieces detailed, and the costume design is *chef’s kiss*. Barring an unfortunate running joke about men wearing women’s clothing, it’s actually fun if you just give in and let it wash over you. It sucks that Wild Wild West single-handedly created and destroyed the turn-of-the-millennium weird west film movement. Hollywood tried and failed again more than a decade later with Cowboys & Aliens, a movie that I not-so-coincidentally also thoroughly enjoyed.
See also: Theodore Rex (1996)
The what: David Duchovny and Jones play little respected community college professors who discover an extraterrestrial flatworm. The creature evolves quickly…too quickly. Within a few days it’s gone from single-celled organism to bipedal sentient beings. The army takes over and it’s up to our motley crew of losers to stop the invasion and save the day.
The why: David Duchovny doing a spin on Mulder, Seann William Scott as a himbo fireman, Orlando Jones doing his driest sarcasm, and a genuinely funny Julianne Moore. Y’all, this movie holds up! It’s funnier than it has any right to be even as it throws everything including the kitchen sink into the plot.
See also: Lost in Space (1998), Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
The Order (2003)
The what: Original Hot Priest, aka Heath as Alex Bernier, investigates a suspicious death and determines the culprit is a Sin Eater, a person who consumes a dying person’s sins so they can enter Heaven. The Sin Eater wants Alex to follow in his footsteps, but Alex refuses. Death and demons follow.
The why: The best part of this mediocre movie is the cast. Director Brian Helgeland reunited his A Knight’s Tale cast, in particular Heath Ledger, Mark Addy, and Shannyn Sossamon. Look, we all know the only reason to watch this movie is Heath Ledger. He had this way of elevating everything he was in simply by being present.
See also: Stigmata (1999), Lost Souls (2000)