Every movie year brings important new talents, enduring classics, and massive pop-culture phenomena — but it's not always easy to predict at the time which careers will take off, and which critical and commercial favorites will hold up over time. Before 1996, the world had never heard of Wes Anderson, the siblings Wachowski and Farrelly, Michael Bay, Emily Watson, or Vince Vaughn; it seemed crazy to imagine that 20 years later, we'd still be celebrating our Independence Day. And those are just a few of the culture touchstones we'll be remembering this year. Here are 30 films that turn 20 in 2016. One more year, and they'll be able to legally buy beer.
Grossing an absurd $63 million on opening weekend, the big-screen adventures of Mike Judge's beloved Gen-X mouth-breathers was a watershed moment for MTV, completing its evolution from a music video hub to a diversified youth culture juggernaut. Peeling Beavis and Butt-head off the couch risked defying the show's low-stakes, drool-collecting vibe, but the country proved a endlessly fat target for their slacker jibes.
That coda. Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's bountiful indie feast about two brothers (Tucci and a hilariously irascible Tony Shalhoub) struggling to save a genuine Italian restaurant in the 1950s includes some of cinema's greatest food porn, but it's the subtle, wordless ending that really drives it home. After a dramatic evening that leaves the brothers wrung-out and resentful, the film ends with the sort of grace note that affirm their love for food and for each other.
Wes Anderson's debut feature cost little and made significantly less, but all the hallmarks of the filmmaker's style — gentle offbeat comedy, neat compositions, an affection for half-cracked dreamers — were there, as was Owen Wilson, who would go on to play variations on his dim thief Dignan for years afterward. Critics were kind to Bottle Rocket, but it may have been the MTV Movie Award for Best New Filmmaker that finally put Anderson on the map.
Before revolutionizing CGI with The Matrix a few years later, the Wachowski siblings debuted with this LGBT benchmark, which offers the lipstick lesbianism of post-Basic Instinct "sexy thrillers" but proved more genuine that it seemed. While the Wachowskis' neo-noir has all the eye-popping color and style of their later work, its story about two women (Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly) who risk an affair under gangsters' noses uses its title as both a metaphor for kink and for fates tied to dangerous men.
Lars von Trier has put many women through the ringer, but none as memorably as Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a doe-eyed Christian naif who worships an Old Testament God and carries her devotion over to a husband (Stellan Skarsgard) who isn't worthy of it. Von Trier makes Bess suffer for her faith, but her yearning for transcendence redeems both the character and the movie, which breaks the drudgery with soaring pop interstitials (including the late David Bowie's "Life on Mars") and an ending that puts her faith in a new and glorious light.
In 1996, American audiences had set ideas about what they expected from Jim Carrey, the manic, rubber-faced goon responsible for the Ace Ventura movies and Dumb & Dumber — and his lisping, psychotic loner in The Cable Guy was emphatically not it. But the black comedy, directed by Ben Stiller and produced by then-unknown Judd Apatow, became an instant cult favorite, thanks to memorably deranged set pieces at a Medieval Times and a karaoke party.
After friction in post-production, Harvey Weinstein left Jim Jarmusch's acid-Western to rot, but it remains among his best and most celebrated works, a wildly idiosyncratic attempt to bring his deadpan sensibility to the brutal, unforgiving environs of the Old West. Johnny Depp excels as a fish-out-of-water type who moves West to be an accountant and unwittingly become a wanted man, and the B&W photography, by cinematographer Robby Müller, and Neil Young's spare guitar score lend his odyssey a distinct Jarmuschian flavor.
The late Anthony Minghella's Best Picture-winner briefly served as the whipping boy for a certain brand of prestige arthouse fare — Elaine Benes really hated it — but time has been kind to this sweeping literary romance, which recalls Lawrence of Arabia in its picturesque story of love in the desert. Lose the scare quotes around "classy." This movie is classy.
The Coen brothers may have made better films than Fargo, but they've never made one as pristinely plotted, structured, and balanced as this Upper Midwest noir, which uses a botched kidnapping scheme to access decency, evil, and the meaning of life. Frances McDormand's pregnant sleuth and William H. Macy's desperate car salesman are a perfect study in contrasts, and the language, rich in regional colloquialisms ("Oh yah?" "You betcha!"), rivals the Coens' Raising Arizona for endless quotability.
It isn't often that modern comedies approach the wit and energy of classic Thirties and Forties screwball, but David O. Russell's second feature operates at that high a pitch, all while preserving the dysfunctional family dynamic of his debut, Spanking the Monkey, and the slew of films that followed. As a man on a quest to find his biological parents before he has kids of his own, Ben Stiller excels as a neurotic straight man who throws himself into a series of increasingly ridiculous situations. LSD, the Confederacy, boners — nothing off limits here.
This horror-Western-crime thriller doesn't get better than its tense opening standoff at a Texas roadside liquor store, but the collaboration between screenwriter (and actor) Quentin Tarantino, hot off Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) signaled the future of genre filmmaking. By combining a fugitive storyline with a shit-kicking vampire free-for-all, Tarantino and Rodriguez suggested many hybrids to come.
Sometimes great comedy is sophisticated and intricate and sometimes punching a genial old game show host will do. Adam Sandler's sweet/violent man-child persona was still fresh when Happy Gilmore came out, and trading blows with Bob Barker ("The price is wrong, bitch") was on the right side of stupid. Plus, there's no sport better and stuffier than golf for Sandler to unleash his rude, working-class, bridge-and-tunnel persona. The public — and Sandler — hadn't tired of it yet.
For Fox to wait 20 years to deliver a sequel to this agreeably tacky alien invasion thriller seems like leaving a lot of money on the table, but Independence Day has seen its reputation balloon in the interim. This is Will Smith on July 4th, the weekend he claimed for a time. It's the White House blowing up. It's soaring speeches and alien computer viruses and America kicking some extraterrestrial ass. And it's taken 20 years to admit we kinda like it.
The mid-1990s were a transitional period for animation, building up to the watershed moment of Toy Story in 1995, but amid those early and not-always-successful attempts at computer animation, Henry Selick's stop-motion treatment of Roald Dahl's fantasy feels genuinely timeless. Building on the success of his The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick creates a hand-crafted world of crooked and awesome dimension.
Jerry Ma-fucking-guire. That's the Tom Cruise image — an inapproachable Type-A charm machine — but Cameron Crowe's romantic drama went a long way towards breaking it down and making the slickster appear more human. The writer-director's knack for the earnest catchphrase ("You complete me," "You had me at 'hello'"), along with heartfelt performances by Cruise, Renée Zellweger, and Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., sold an sports agent's redemption as genuine.
The Farrelly brothers established their patented brand of affectionate gross-out comedy with their inspired take on the humble world of semi-professional bowling. The siblings were already eager to push the boundaries of good taste ("You really jarred something loose, tiger"), but with Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, and an especially brilliant Bill Murray, they go so deep into the gutter of America's laziest sport that you can practically taste the Salt & Vinegar chip residue on your fingers.
Indie stalwart John Sayles capped an extraordinary winning streak (Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, The Secret of Roan Inish) with perhaps the best film of his career, a deep and multi-layered look at the past and present of a Texas border town. If anything, the unearthed truths in Sayles' drama are more relevant to the immigration discussion now than they were in 1996, but his provocative conclusions about history are forever up for debate.
Tom Cruise's durable franchise-starter raised the stakes on the 1966 TV series and set the standard for sequels that are required to keep topping themselves. The plotting of Mission: Impossible and its follow-ups may be notorious convoluted, but the action in Brian De Palma's original remains as crisp and purposeful as it gets. The break-in at CIA headquarters in Langley is such a master class in suspense choreography that it should be taught in film schools.
It took 18 years to free the "West Memphis Three" — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin — after they were convicted of murdering three boys in the Arkansas woods, but Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's gripping documentary (and the two docs that followed) set the reversal in motion. Paradise Lost witnesses injustice in real time, as poor assumptions and a rush to judgement lead a community to condemn three teenagers on a forced confession and no solid evidence.
Hustler publisher Larry Flynt may be a degenerate pornographer, but this combination biopic, courtroom drama, and satirical comedy makes a stirring case for him as a genuine First Amendment hero. As played by Woody Harrelson, Flynt veers from porn entrepreneur to Christian convert to wheelchair-bound apostate, but the film turns him into a tireless martyr for expanded rights — and a suitably righteous foil to Jerry Falwell.
The Jerry Bruckheimer School of Filmmaking had many successful graduates, but none as unabashedly vulgar as Michael Bay, whose debut feature turns Alcatraz into the hub for ex-Marines threatening to unleash biological weapons on San Francisco. Bay would send deep-core oil drillers to blow up an asteroid two years later in Armageddon, but pairing an Alcatraz escapee (Sean Connery) with a chemist (Nicolas Cage) in The Rock is scarcely less absurd. No matter. Bay just steps on the gas.
Before Titanic would make him the biggest young star on the planet a year later, Leonardo DiCaprio established his romantic bonafides in Baz Luhrmann's spastic modernization of the Shakespeare play. Romeo + Juliet made an appeal to a younger generation by turning the Capulets and the Montagues into rival gangs, pumping up the soundtrack with pop hits, and uncorking every stylistic gimmick in Luhrmann's considerable playbook. As the star-crossed lovers DiCaprio and Claire Danes validate every seeming misstep.
An era of postmodern horror movies (and parodies) kicked off with Scream, but none could rival the wit of Wes Craven's slasher-movie deconstruction, which exposed all the "rules" that horror fans knew but had never seen acknowledged openly on screen. Kevin Williamson's script winks and nudges knowingly, but the meta-slasher flick works because Craven insists on it still being genuinely scary, starting with an opening set piece that plays it straight before bringing in the laughs later.
Billy Bob Thornton had established himself as a screenwriter and minor character actor, most notably in One False Move, but this Southern-gothic indie drama put him squarely on the map. These days, the vocal tics of his mentally disabled character has been so thoroughly parodied that it's hard to remember and respect the complicated Southern Gothic that surrounds it. Mmmmm-hmmmm. But the twists and turns of Thornton's career might merit a return to the source. Mmmmm-hmmmm.
Like Independence Day, Sthis gift from the cross-branding gods has seen its reputation swell from a tacky, critically disrespected commercial hit to a beloved touchstone for the generation that grew up watching it on TV. There's nothing promising about pairing a stiff Michael Jordan with resuscitated, warmed-over Looney Tunes, but the agreeable tone of Space Jam and its surprisingly durable effects kept it flickering in the background through many childhoods. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia.
"Who's the big winner at the casino tonight?" After Swingers, it was a toss-up between writer/star Jon Favreau and director Doug Liman, who'd each go on to make Hollywood blockbusters like Iron Man and The Bourne Identity, and breakout star Vince Vaughn, who still hasn't quite recreated the easy charisma he displayed in this movie. The catchphrases ("Vegas, baby, Vegas") have aged about as well as a Big Bad Voodoo Daddy single, but as a story of male friendship, Swingers remains enduringly sweet.
With Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump, writer-director Ron Shelton revived the underdog sports comedy by rejecting its rah-rah clichés, choosing instead to champion the has-beens and never-wases on the fringes of the game. Re-teaming with Kevin Costner, Shelton brings the same relaxed appeal to a romantic comedy about golf that coasts on the easy chemistry between the star and Rene Russo, and ends by affirming the nobility of a beautiful loser.
From its "Lust for Life" opening, Danny Boyle's adaptation of Irvine Walsh's novel of friendship and addiction proved that a film about drugs could be funny and exhilarating without lessening the horrific consequences of heroin abuse. This episodic treatment of Edinburgh lowlifes zips from the gruesome depths of the "worst toilet in Scotland" to the surreal visions of helpless addicts, but with a joy and gallows humor that still seems miraculous under the circumstances.
In 1996, it was understood that this thriller about "storm chasers" in the tornado-ravaged plains of Middle America was dopey to the extreme, but the film's CGI effects were so state-of-the-art that it didn’t matter. Now that the effects look utterly weightless and pedestrian, Twister has become a blockbuster relic, fascinating because it hasn’t stood the test of time. Let it be a warning the effects wizards today: Story matters.