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The 100 Greatest Movies of the Nineties

From serial killers to slackers, ‘Fight Club’ to ‘Pulp Fiction’ – the best comedies, dramas, thrillers and killer horror flicks of the 1990s

Ah, the 1990s – the decade that brought you indie-cinema breakouts and bullet-time blockbusters, fight clubs and foul-mouthed clerks, charismatic cannibal serial killers and “Choose Life!” sloganeering, Rushmore Academy overachievers and Royales with Cheese. Looking back on the movies that made the Nineties such a surprisingly fertile period for filmmakers and film lovers, you can see how so much of the foundation for the past few decades was laid so early on, from the rise of documentaries as a mainstream phenomenon to the meta touches that would turn so many mix-and-match movies into wax museums with pulses. Sundance was to independent auteurs as Seattle was to grunge rockers. We would hang with slackers and Scottish junkies, smooth-talking criminals and abiding dudes. We would get cyberpunk as fuck. We would know kung fu – whoa!

So we’ve assembled a crack team of film fanatics, culture vultures, pop-culture pundits and various critics to weigh in on the 100 greatest movies of the Nineties. From Oscar-winners to obscure-but-wonderful gems, nonfiction social-issue sagas to a seven-hour Hungarian masterpiece, Titanic to Tarantino, these are the films we still argue over, quote endlessly and return to again and again. Crank up your dial-up connection, crack open a Zima and let the arguments begin.

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins

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78

‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)

“Get busy living, or get busy dying,” notes jailbird Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in Frank Darabont’s prison drama about a wrongfully convicted banker navigating the harsh realities of life in the joint, and the friends and foes he meets along the way. Narrated with a novelist’s wit by Morgan Freeman’s Red, and featuring the justly famous shots Robbins stripping a shit-stained denim shirt off in the pouring rain – Shawshank is a tale of triumph and tragedy, crime and punishment. There’s a reason it’s been on or near the top of IMDB’s most-popular-movies rankings for ages. AS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong

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77

‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)

It’s not the T-1000 that makes James Cameron’s sequel better than his brilliant 1984 B-movie original –– although an indefatigable orb that can melt, shatter and reconstitute itself is a lot more menacing than today’s supervillains. No, the glory belongs to the film’s ripped-up in-house Wonder Woman: The director’s then-wife Linda Hamilton, reprising her role as a fierce Madonna who must protect her savior-in-the-making son (Edward Furlong). Young John Connor’s bond with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s increasingly sentient, former killing machine is touching, and the violence is deftly orchestrated. But Hamilton’s muscular transformation and badass military bearing is what really gives shape to this ultimate showdown between creation and destruction. It’s comforting to believe that tough mothers can help prevent the apocalypse – then and now. PR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder

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76

‘The Age of Innocence’ (1993)

Overshadowed by fellow period dramas Schindler’s List, The Remains of the Day and The Piano, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s gutting novel about 19th-century New York now seems like a Hollywood miracle. Thanks to its elaborate, anal-retentive interiors and costumes, the film comes on like a tasteful frock drama, but underneath those corsets and bowler caps are piranhas at their most vicious and unsparing. Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer play people whose mutual simmering passions are no match for societal rules and decorum, putting the lie to notions of American liberalism and upward mobility. It’s a movie that will inspire violent crying jags from even the manliest of Goodfellas
fans. EH

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Cameron Diaz

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75

‘There’s Something About Mary’ (1998)

Let us praise Cameron Diaz, who’s career-defining role in Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s hit comedy is ridiculously flawless: a rail-thin, goofy-grinned, beer-chugging orthopedic surgeon with a yen for SportsCenter. Yet the brothers brilliantly subvert that idolatry with a farce about maniacal male desire, as Ben Stiller’s sweet-natured suitor, smitten since high school, soon faces a widening circle of testosterone-fueled obsession. But what’s really remarkable is the film’s joyous profanity, be it Stiller’s zippered genitalia (a five-minute reverie), Diaz’s semen-stiffened bangs or an electrocuted border terrier. There’s a huge heart behind the shenanigans, making this lark the missing link between Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker’s Airplane!/Naked Gun antics and Judd Apatow’s humane hilarity. SG

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Daniel Emilfork, Dominique Pinon

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74

‘The City of Lost Children’ (1995)

French directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro build on the demented irreverence of their debut Delicatessen with this visually audacious sci-fi fantasy about a mad (in every sense of the word) scientist who, unable to dream himself, kidnaps nearby orphans and attempts to rob them of their REM cycles. Rubber-faced clones, talking brains and a distinct green mist all add fractured fairy-tale elements, while Ron Perlman (who, according to Jeunet, fired his agent for not showing him the script) brings the pathos as the film’s in-house gentle giant. JN

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley

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73

‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)

It may be sandwiched between Jurassic Park movies – but Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Holocaust drama signaled a new phase in his career, with the blockbuster maestro opening up to far more austere considerations. (You do not get Munich or Lincoln without it.) Shot in a black-and-white that’s as wondrously decadent as often as it’s stark and newsreel-like, it’s a film about flawed and revealingly human men, starting with Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a war profiteer who efforts to shelter the Jews in his factory are accidental before they turn deliberate. Through his awakened conscience, Spielberg’s film will forever provoke our own. ST

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

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72

‘Before Sunrise’ (1995)

One of the movies’ greatest meet-cutes, Richard Linklater’s walking-and-talking travelogue follows two strangers – an an American boy (Ethan Hawke) and a French girl (Julie Delpy) – who impulsively spend an evening wandering around Vienna together. Flirtations and awkward first-date interactions share screen time with getting-to-know-you type games and typical self-aware twentysomething commentary on their own rose-tinted romanticism. It doesn’t have a happy ending so much as a “will they or won’t they?” fade-out – a question which would get answered as Linklater fashioned the story into a trilogy. The first time, however, is still a singular charm. KYK

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Johnny Depp, Dianne Wiest

Everett Collection

71

‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990)

Tim Burton’s skewed tale on a latex-clad misfit with shears for hands (Johnny Depp at his moist-eyed Gothiest) is more than just a Frankenstein riff set in cartoonish suburbia; it’s also his most personal film to date, a sensitive tribute to social outcasts, artistic outliers and anyone who’s ever felt like the world doesn’t get them at all. Even when the director is paying homage to influences ranging from Hammer horror movies to Disney fairy tales, the movie never feels like a sum of its stitched-together parts or an ironic put-on. What started as a sketch from the margins of the filmmaker’s notebooks is now an iconic symbol of isolation – the man who truly hurts everything he loves. BT

100 Best Movies of 1990s

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70

‘When We Were Kings’ (1996)

If he hadn’t been the century’s most compelling athlete, Muhammad Ali could have had a career in pictures. This Oscar-winning documentary about the champ’s legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman in Zaire covers many topics: our fascination with boxing, the preparations that went into the fight, America’s political and racial divide. But rising above it all is Ali, who (at age 32) was considered a has-been destined to be destroyed by the younger, fiercer Foreman. Director Leon Gast lets the boxer take center stage, and the archival footage remains remarkable: Here is a fighter who had already taken on the U.S. government by refusing to enlist in the Vietnam War, now staring down the possibility of retirement, as well as an opponent determined to slay him. Fictional sports movies are rarely this powerful and inspiring. TGr

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Jane Birkin, Michel Piccoli,

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69

‘La Belle Noiseuse’ (1991)

The late,great French New Wave auteur Jean Rivette hit an autumnal peak with this elegiac meditation on pain and creativity. It’s nearly four hours of Emmanuelle Beart naked – and that’s not even the most audacious thing about it. Michael Piccoli is an aging painter who put down his brush years ago, abandoning his unfinished opus, “The Beautiful Nuisance.” But Beart goads him into starting again, with her as his model. Long stretches of the film are just the two of them at work, as he paints over his past, stroke by stroke – a mediation on the creative process and emotional turmoil that goes with it for both artist and muse. (And wife Jane Birkin.) He aspires to “blood on the canvas” – which is exactly what Rivette achieved. RS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Ice Cube. Chris Tucker

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68

‘Friday’ (1995)

Ice Cube and co-writer DJ Pooh hoped to make what the rapper has called a “hood classic” in the
vein of Car Wash or Cheech and Chong’s movies – instead, their stoner comedy, made for an estimated $3.5 million, transcended their expectations, pulling in some $28 million at the box office and became a bona fide cult favorite. Down-on-his-luck Craig (Ice Cube) gets fired on his day off; he and his loquacious pothead friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) then have to beg, borrow or steal $200 to pay off a frightening drug dealer. The film spawned two memes (“You got knocked the fuck out!” and the enduring “Bye Felicia”) and solidified the former N.W.A growler and the future Rush Hour star as box-office draws into the next decade. KG

Jane Horrocks, Alison Steadman

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67

‘Life Is Sweet’ (1990)

Mike Leigh’s breakthrough feature expounds on that notion about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way … as well as being joyous, angry, sorrowful and completely fucked up in equally singular fashions. The more time you spend with the movie’s clan – the culinary paterfamilias (Jim Broadbent), the ray-of-light mom (Alison Steadman), the raging, bulimic Nicola (a pre-Absolutely Fabulous Jane Horrocks) and her butch twin sister Natalie (Claire Skinner) – the more Leigh & co. let you see how, in good times and bad, the bond between them runs deeper than blood. Throw in Timothy Spall’s amateur restaurateur and ladies’ man Aubrey, arguably the funniest character in the director’s back catalog, and you have a 360-degree heartfelt, humanistic portrait of Britain’s lower-middle-class. There’s as much bitterness as there is sweetness. But you never think the title is ironic for a single second. DF

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Madonna

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‘Madonna: Truth or Dare’ (1991)

Madonna did loads of acting in the Nineties, even picking up an English accent somewhere along the way. But as this documentary proved, the character she was born to play was Madonna. Truth or Dare is Peak Ciccone, raging on her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, terrorizing her entourage of dancers and back-up singers. It’s a pre-reality-TV time capsule of a moment when Madge was the only pop star who mattered – as she says, “I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, being provocative and political.” (The scene where her dancers attend an ACT UP rally was the first time most Americans got to hear a “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” chant.) When the Toronto police threaten to arrest her if she masturbates onstage during “Like a Virgin,” she asks how the cops define masturbation: “When you stick your hand in your crotch.” Spoiler: She sticks her hand in her crotch. RS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

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‘Satantango’ (1994)

Set over a miserable two-day period (and sometimes feeling just as long in the viewing), Béla Tarr’s grimy, spectacularly immersive seven-hour odyssey is the Nineties landmark that all serious film fans must reckon with. Commit an afternoon to this Hungarian-made epic and your mind will be rebooted: Hypnotic shots span an uninterrupted eight minutes or more, composer Mihály Víg’s seesawing accordion score creates a dark carnival in your head and crisp black-and-white imagery brings on a waking Lynchian nightmare. The material itself isn’t easy, concerning (but not limited to) power grabs in a depressed farming community, the oblique specter of fascism and one extremely unlucky cat. But the takeaway is nothing less than profound: the whole of cinema reinvented. JR

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Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey

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‘Wayne’s World’ (1992)

Still the most successful film adaptation of a Saturday Night Live sketch to date, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey’s most excellent feature-length romp brings their titular public-access goofballs to the big screen, complete with a sleazy corporate producer (Rob Lowe), a gleeful skewering of product placement and a “choose your own adventure” style ending. It’s endlessly quotable (“Babe-raham Lincoln,” “That’s what she said!” and the gloriously onomatopoetic “Schwing!”) and a peerless example of how to combine headbanging dude-ness with genuine sweetness, one “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along at a time. Party on. AB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Pam Grier

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63

‘Jackie Brown’ (1997)

The early rap on Quentin Tarantino was that he was merely the sum of his pop culture influences – then right when everyone was expecting Pulp Fiction II, he dropped this rich adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel and proved that cinematic obsessions and insight into human nature weren’t mutually exclusive. The story of an aging stewardess (Pam Grier) caught up with a rat-tail–sporting gangster (Samuel L. Jackson) and some stoic-to-stoned unsavory types has his typical rat-a-tat dialogue, soundtrack deep-cuts, dynamic set pieces and meta-references. But it also has a surprisingly sincere middle-aged romance between its lead character and Robert Forster’s bail bondsman – it’s still his most “mature” movie to date – and his blushing fascination with blaxploitation icon Grier doubles as a tribute the soulful black culture of his youth. SB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Eihi Shiina

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62

‘Audition’ (1999)

A widowed TV producer dives back into the dating pool with the help of his devious pal, who sets up an audition purely for the purpose of attracting eligible women. The scam works. Our hero falls for a shy, pretty loner half his age. It sounds like the plot of a dopey rom-com, and director Takashi Miike, Japan’s reigning master of all things gory and twisted, takes nearly 45 minutes to drop his first hint that this is actually a horror movie. But he only needs one shot to shatter the banal original premise and transform the film into a gruesome, indelible allegory for the pain men unthinkingly inflict on women. You’ll know it when you see it. Then all hell breaks loose. Good luck. JB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Brittany Murphy, Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash

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61

‘Clueless’ (1995)

Speak the truth, Alicia Silverstone: “Searching for a boy in high school is like looking for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.” Over a decade after directing the Eighties’ finest teen comedy (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Amy Heckerling did the same favor for the Nineties, with one deliriously quotable barb after another – from “going postal” to “surfing the crimson wave.” Silverstone, everybody’s favorite Aerosmith video vixen, stars as aspiring fashion plate Cher Horowitz, shopping her way through an L.A. full of Baldwins, Bettys, Monets and virgins who can’t drive. The late great Brittany Murphy shines as the Mentos-loving skater girl. (You’re rolling with the homies in our hearts, Brit.) And Cher’s thoughts on immigration are timelier than ever in 2017 – it still does “not” say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty. As if! RS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis

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60

‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994)

Director Oliver Stone was no stranger to controversy when he set out to helm the phantasmagorical, media-fried story of serial-killer celebrity couple Mickey and Mallory Knox, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in career-peak performances. Alleged copycat killings and lawsuits (including one brought by author John Grisham) ensued. But the director’s ruthless satire of American infotainment bloodlust – embodied by Robert Downey Jr.’s sleazeball tabloid-TV host Wayne Gale, his pre–Iron Man peak – stands the test of time. So, for that matter, does the film’s hyperkinetic editing, surrealist imagery and Trent Reznor–curated soundtrack. It’s incredibly Nineties, right down to the original story by Quentin Tarantino. STC

John Cusack and Cameron Diaz

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59

‘Being John Malkovich’ (1999)

A marionette-obsessed office schlub (John Cusack) finds a gateway into the brain of the titular Oscar-winning actor; soon, the celebrity’s cranium becomes home to a battle royale between the puppeteer, his wife (Cameron Diaz) and a coworker (Catherine Keener). Perhaps the strangest movie to ever receive Oscar love – and the only one that features wormholes that exit on the New Jersey Turnpike, bizarre love triangles and Charlie Sheen playing a future version of himself – the feature debut of music-video visionary Spike Jonze remains a mini meta-masterpiece. It was also an introduction into the mind of avant-screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who quickly established himself as one of Hollywood’s most unique voices. DK

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Courteney Cox, Jamie Kennedy, Neve Campbell

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58

‘Scream’ (1996)

“What’s your favorite scary movie?” This meta-horror hit turned a simple question into an almost existential quandary, thanks to A Nightmare on Elm Street mastermind Wes Craven and a self-aware script that toyed with horror clichés (e.g., “if you have sex, you’ll probably die”) by future Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson. Neve Campbell and a cadre of no-goodnik teens attempt to unmask the chatty, horror-movie–obsessed serial killer who’s been offing them, with little help from the nosy newscaster (Courtney Cox) and fumbling cop (David Arquette). It inspired three sequels, a MTV series and the successful Scary Movie parody franchise, and its snarky sense of irony inspired countless stylistic rip-offs that paled when compared to the original and its Ghostface killer. KG

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Rory Cochrane, Matthew McConaughey

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57

‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)

Director Richard Linklater considers this follow-up to Slacker an exorcism of painful high school memories – the scores of stoners and nostalgists who have worn out VHS and/or DVD copies of this teen-movie gem, however, clearly feel otherwise. The rituals and keggers of the last day of school circa 1976 are so vividly recreated that the film almost doubles as a time machine, immersing you in the
fashion, music and pot-fueled meanderings of another era. But the perfect evocation of the confusion and freedom of youth, however, feels timeless. It’s also a prescient casting call for the next generation of stars, including Parker Posey as an alpha mean girl, Ben Affleck as a hilariously apoplectic fifth-year senior and Matthew McConaughey as a skeevy twentysomething with an interest in high school girls. Alright, alright, alright. ST

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt

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56

‘Seven’ (1995)

In this heir apparent to The Silence of the Lambs, David Fincher masterfully recalibrates the noir genre for a nihilistic tale of Biblical vengeance. The sun literally never shines on Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman’s odd-couple detectives as they hunt down a grimly imaginative serial killer (an unnerving Kevin Spacey). This tense, unrelenting and expertly paced thriller was an early indication of the director’s massive talent, and add “being the first to discover the violent poetry of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head” to the list of Fincher’s many accomplishments (see also: Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion). What’s in the box indeed. PR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

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55

‘Babe: Pig in the City’ (1998)

The original Babe remains a staple of anthropomorphic-animals kid’s cinema, but the tale of a pig who finds love and acceptance among sheepdogs took a much weirder, stranger turn in this sequel, directed by, of all people, Mad Max mastermind George Miller. This follow-up transports the titular piglet to a hotel full of beasties in a fantastical, Dickensian metropolis; a pit bull nearly drowns in a hallucinatory, Lynch-esque scene and an elderly Mickey Rooney plays a sinister clown. Pig in the City didn’t just build upon its predecessor; it reinvented it, and wasn’t afraid to wrap its sweetness in a darkly stylish wrapper. JS

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54

‘Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills’ (1996)

The story of three teenagers’ convictions and subsequent legal battles over the murders of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas led to one of the decade’s most engrossing and enraging crime documentaries. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Some Kind of Monster) give all sides – the overzealous prosecutor, the bewildered defendants, the thirst-for-blood community – a platform to vent their opinions on the controversial case. But as the film progresses and doubt about the teenagers’ guilt builds up, the duo peels the layers back on a small town desperate for a villain. Thanks to the movie and it subsequent follow-ups, the case would become a pop culture rallying cry, with Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Metallica, among many others, championing the trio’s release. You couldn’t ask for a better example of deep-dive docu-journalism. JN

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Laura Dern, Nicolas Cage

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53

‘Wild at Heart’ (1990)

Somehow in the midst of creating one of the most influential TV series ever, David Lynch banged out this transcendent romance – a Wizard of Oz-influenced take on Barry Gifford’s novel about two sexed-up lovers and the weird-Americana, nightmarish world of trouble that their relationship unleashes. Nicolas Cage’s magnetic, Elvis-obsessed Sailor and Lynch mainstay Laura Dern make the journey hotter than Georgia asphalt, as this warped, wild road movie propels the couple towards a macabre, brutal but (for Lynch, anyway) uncharacteristically optimistic fate. TGi

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Chris Eigeman (left), Edward Clements (center of frame), Allison Parisi (back right

Everett Collection

52

‘Metropolitan’ (1990)

Indie writer-director Whit Stillman may be the movies’ most eloquent (and low-key hilarious) bard of the vagaries of the American upper classes. He came out martini glass swinging with his first film, about a middle-class Princeton kid (Edward Clements) who stumbles his way into a circle of wealthy young Manhattanites during debutante ball season. With enough witty bon mots to fill a Noël Coward play, Metropolitan is both a cutting takedown of the 1-percent and a loving ode to its quirks. Bridging the divide between the Eighties and Nineties, this was probably also one of the last movies where you’ll find a pack of teenagers unironically rocking tuxes and ball gowns for a night on the town. JS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

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51

‘South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut’ (1999)

Think back to when a big screen version of the low-rent animated cable comedy series sounded misguided. Also, it was going to be a musical. And then you sat in a multiplex and watched Saddam Hussein get buggered by Satan (a behooved, emotionally well-adjusted Beelzebub at that). Trey Parker and Matt Stone not only took their small-screen hit to the big screen without embarrassing themselves, they created a goofy, giddy portrait of a war-crazed America that you could tap your toes to. Every crazy profane idea suddenly seemingly permissible – so were decidedly non-anarchic endeavors like
songcraft and sincerity. The duo pissed on our heads and called it art. And it was. EH

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