Ah, the 90s, how I remember them well, and in many cases, how I wish I didn’t remember them well. Although I was born in the 1980s, I began my love of cinema in the late 90s, often with the somewhat suspect teen films that proliferated the era.
As a film critic who has sadly come to realize that some of the films of my youth aren’t that great in hindsight and that being forced to write about them in any critical capacity might cause me to stop getting a nostalgic feeling whenever I watch them, I approach writing about the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Back to the 90s series (kicking off October 10th and running to December 26th) with a great deal of hesitancy. Some of these films I have never liked. Some of them I used to like, but think twice about. One of them I’ve never actually seen (Pump Up the Volume, screening on Friday, November 7th at 9:00pm). Some I have a greater appreciation for now that I’m older.
So instead of offering any sort of critical appraisal of films that now pretty much sell themselves on nostalgia value alone, I’m going to go back to the 90s myself and try to remember what my first and lasting experiences were with these heavily treasured films.
Oh, and I really hope you dig the mixtape I made for you along the way. Maybe we should hang out sometime or something. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing or, you know, you like hanging out and stuff…
Friday, October 10th, 9:00pm
And this is the point where you’re probably going to stop reading already and discredit the entire piece to follow. You know that one movie I said I didn’t like out of this bunch? It’s Amy Heckerling’s dearly beloved 1995 modern updating of Jane Austen’s Emma. And it’s strange because it doesn’t really seem like a film that I should have a problem with. I like everyone in the film, and I’m a bit of a Heckerling apologist, but even watching this film on VHS as a young adult it felt like nails on a chalkboard to me. I didn’t care growing up as a poor kid on the East Coast that the film quite airheadedly uses privileged lifestyle choices for easy punchlines (I didn’t know what it even meant to be privileged at all at the time), but I did have a huge problem with how every line of dialogue felt overly calculated to create buzzworthy phrases. I remember having it recommended to me by a bunch of people, and I excitedly rented the film, only to become crestfallen at how annoyingly unfunny I thought it was. Guys and girls I knew equally seemed to like it, and I never felt more distant growing up than when I had to tell people that I didn’t think Clueless was funny. That’s probably why almost a decade later I liked Mean Girls so much. I probably read it as the antidote to something like Clueless. I tried watching it again twice as an adult and I still get no joy out of it. Every time Clueless comes up and I say I don’t like it, I feel like I am less than a second away from someone trying to bully me into watching it again. I’m sorry. I promise I will have nicer and happier things to say as we go on. Thank you for reading this far if you could make it to this point without saying “AS IF.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Friday, October 17th, 9:00pm
I grew up in a small town across the street from a three screen movie theatre. My mother was a manager at a restaurant that was next door to the theatre, and she would often trade meals for the theatre staff in exchange for free movie tickets for her staff… and for me. So even though Buffy the Vampire Slayer was such a box office dud where I lived that it only played for two weeks (comparatively the John Ritter starring dud of a comedy Stay Tuned inexplicably played for three months), I still somehow managed to watch this movie no less than five times in the theatre. Something about it spoke to me. Maybe it was the outlandishly silly premise, the goofy humour, or just the fact that it was something different, but eleven year old Andy loved this movie. And despite now knowing who writer Joss Whedon is in the wake of the vastly different television series that followed it, I haven’t really had the heart to revisit this one. I’m oddly terrified that it doesn’t hold up, and considering that it was a film that admittedly brightened up some pretty rough days that I had as a kid, I’m not sure I want to learn that it’s as mediocre as everyone purports it to be today. Just know that I thought the character of Buffy was really cool before a lot of people thought she was really cool.
Friday, October 31st, 10:00pm
I remember watching The Craft on VHS on a Saturday morning while packing for a camping trip with friends, and everyone in the house getting so sucked into it that we all stopped packing, sat down and watched the whole thing, and we all looked at each other and were surprised at how decent it was. I don’t think I remembered much of it after that (outside of the ending and always saying “light as a feather, stiff as a board” any time I try to move something that I patently can’t lift on my own), but I did revisit it earlier this year after watching the documentary Before Clueless at Hot Docs. In the look back on what makes teen films of the 90s resonate, film writer Charlie Lyne kept going back to use clips from The Craft to illustrate his points. It’s probably cited more than any other film from the era. Then, watching The Craft once again, it turns out that it’s a lot sharper, funnier, and smarter than I gave it credit for as a teen. There’s some really interesting stuff going on there beyond just a standard parable about teen angst. Every character is fully fleshed out and relatable to some degree. It’s easy to see why it was such a hit at the time, and it’s probably the film that should have a bigger cult following than it already has.
10 Things I Hate About You
Friday, November 14th, 9:30pm
I saw 10 Things I Hate About You back to back with The Matrix. It was the opening day for both films. It still to this day remains one of the best days of going to the movies that I have ever experienced. Sure, there’s some corniness and a more than healthy dose of contrivance to 10 Things I Hate About You that makes this tweaking of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew somewhat hard to stomach for a “serious critic,” but it has always remained effervescent and fun. It’s easily the film that I quote more than any other in the program, and that’s probably because unlike several other films on the list, nothing about this feels tied to a specific time period. The fashion and some of the slang says 90s, but the intent of the jokes are timeless and spot on. It’s the rare example of a film that doesn’t really have any jokes that miss. I’ve definitely watched this one more than any these other films.
Friday, November 21st, 9:15pm
Okay, fine. Eleven year old Andrew who attempted watching this one in a theatre was wrong. It’s not that the plot of Reality Bites was too hard for me to follow, but there wasn’t a single way that my pre-teen brain could find anything of interest in Ben Stiller’s big screen directorial debut. I couldn’t grasp what this post-college malaise these characters found themselves in was all about. I still thought when you graduated university the world was your oyster! You got a job immediately! You had nothing to worry about. Why were these people complaining so much? Then I watched it again in university because there was nothing else on TV, and it was like being on a ten year drunk and sobering up in a heartbeat. Also, side note, Lisa Loeb’s “Stay,” is one of my go-to karaoke songs and it will be until I can’t speak or sing anymore.
Romeo + Juliet
Friday, November 28th, 9:00pm
I remember TRYING to go see Baz Luhrmann’s updating of Romeo and Juliet with classical text in a modern outlandish setting, but I was memorably thwarted by my first attempt when I had to take a bus to a two screen theatre in the neighbouring city and the film was sold out. Not want to go home I saw the Garry Marshall/Greg Kinnear movie Dear God instead since it was the only other thing playing. I was so pissed off. I saw the movie the following week, and my MTV conditioned brain ate it up. I still think it’s a ton of fun, and one of Luhrmann’s best. I also remember when my class was doing Romeo + Juliet shortly after the release of the film, the number of students who desperately wanted to play Tybalt and Mercutio skyrocketed. Being lovers or in leading roles is cool, I guess, but when you’re a teen and you can picture yourself as a badass outlaw type that can get away with being pissed off and shouting all the time, why wouldn’t you want that part instead?
Can’t Hardly Wait
Friday, December 5th, 9:00pm
Hi. Did you graduate high school between the years of 1998 and 2002? If so, please tell me how many times you watched this movie or had it referenced to you just around the time of your graduation? I’ll wait. A gazillion, did you say? Well, you probably got sick of it and left it behind once you moved on and forgot the names of more than 60% of your graduating class, but despite some pretty dated references and a perfectly 90s-tastic soundtrack (except for the unimpeachable title track from The Replacements which comes straight from the 80s), this one holds up even better on hindsight. The performances are remarkably good for this kind of goofball ensemble comedy, it’s decidedly less sexist than a lot of the films that came out around this time, and it’s clear that filmmakers Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (who would reteam on the chronically slept on Josie and the Pussycats) just wanted to make a film that feels like a party. Either that or something that feels like an explosion in the old John Hughes factory. Whatever happened here, it worked then and it still works now.
Friday, December 12th, 9:30pm
Even back in 1999 I realized that Cruel Intentions is a really meanspirited movie that’s been gussied up to look somewhat romantic. Say what you might about the storyline of a young lothario trying to win a bet to bang a Christian chick so he can in turn bang his hot, evil stepsister, there’s no way that there’s any way to redeem any of these characters in any way or make them even look redeemable. And yet, that kind of sleaziness plays somewhat well to the crowd that couldn’t get in to see something like John McNaughton’s misanthropic trashterpiece Wild Things. And yet, with time, I tend to have fonder memories of this updating of Dangerous Liaisons than I did when I was younger. Funnily enough, I’ve come to realize that it’s well acted, very well shot, and surprisingly well directed film. It’s still pretty nasty when you stop to think about it, but at least it’s accomplished nastiness.
Side note: This was one of the first films I ever put together as a projectionist back when 35mm prints had to be assembled, and instead of sending the last reel to Cruel Intentions, they sent us the first four reels of Cruel Intentions and the final reel to the Nicolas Cage film 8mm and a huge part of me wanted to just have this movie suddenly have a very different, but tonally not that far off ending.
And another side note: This movie still has better use of Counting Crows than Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. There. I said it.
Friday, December 19th, 9:30pm
I worked in a record store for several years. This was about six or seven years after Empire Records (which shares a director with Pump Up the Volume in Allan Moyle) had been released, so the cult reputation the barely theatrically released film would gain was only starting to bubble up. I came to the Empire Records party super late. How late? I only watched it about a month ago, and thankfully I can see the appeal mostly because much like Can’t Hardly Wait, these all seem like people that I had to deal with at one point or another as a customer or as an employee. Also, the film now has an undeniably melancholic feel to it when you consider it’s “big business vs. independent message” in today’s musical economy. Neither of the record stores I worked at exist anymore, so it would have been interesting to see someone tackle something similar today. I’m guessing it probably wouldn’t be as funny.
Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion
Friday, December 26th, 9:30pm
Growing up, I probably would have avoided Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion like the plague. It just seemed like a version of Clueless for grownups, and if you’ve made it this far and beyond the part where I unequivocally stated that I don’t like Clueless, you can see why this wouldn’t appeal to me. Much like Clueless it took a lot of my friends saying, “But no, wait, this is actually funny,” and me saying, “But Clueless, tho,” and them retorting with, “But yeah, you’re an idiot” before I would go see this. And then I ended up seeing it four more times. It might be because Romy and Michelle seem like genuine goofball human beings instead of out-there rubes or because they’re put in opposition to the best performance Janeane Garofalo has ever given, but it worked for me. It’s one of the best comedies about unwavering friendship I have ever seen, and it never ceases to bring a smile to my face. I can’t be in a bad mood watching it. It makes for a great high school reunion double bill with Grosse Pointe Blank that showcases two of the most underrated comedies of their year.
For tickets and more information, please visit the TIFF website.