Tom Hanks stars as Forrest Gump in "Forrest Gump," a...

Tom Hanks stars as Forrest Gump in "Forrest Gump," a 1994 film directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Wendy Finerman, Steve Tisch and Steve Starkey. Credit: Paramount Pictures

What do the last 20 years of movies say about us? Well, which "us"?

There's us, but also them and those and many other groups of differing backgrounds and mindsets. Can anyone really "sum up" the 1990s, a decade of grunge-rock and Bill Clinton and "Independence Day"? Or the 2000s, a decade of hip-hop, George Bush and "The Lord of the Rings"? And whether you'd vote for Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Lopez or Jennifer Aniston as your favorite star might say more about you than about them.

That said, there have been some unbroken threads over the years. Disney still makes animated movies about fairy tales, from 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" to last year's "Tangled." Serial killers are still popular, from "The Silence of the Lambs" to "Saw 3D." Audiences still sometimes embrace a Western, whether "Unforgiven" or "True Grit." And while Hollywood seems more sequel-crazy than ever, "Home Alone 2" and "Alien 3" should remind you: 'Twas ever thus.

Movies now vie with video games and Facebook in a splintered entertainment market, but they remain important as a way for people to see themselves, and their diverse country, reflected on screen. If there's one common bond between moviegoing Americans today, it is this: We're all paying too much for those 3-D glasses.

Here's our list of 20 performers, movies and trends that defined the last 20 years.


BEST MOVIE STAR Still our quintessential actor, Tom Hanks is not the guy most men wish they were (that's Johnny Depp), but the guy most men believe themselves to be: decent, brave, reasonably good-looking. From "Sleepless in Seattle" to "The Da Vinci Code," his films have a tendency to become cultural landmarks.


BEST SERIOUS ACTOR At 61, Meryl Streep seems to be hitting her stride, though that's what we said in the 1970s ("Kramer vs. Kramer"), the 1980s ("Out of Africa"), the 1990s ("The Bridges of Madison County") and the 2000s ("The Devil Wears Prada"). We might be saying it in another 20 years as well.


MOST INFLUENTIAL DIRECTOR A onetime video clerk, Quentin Tarantino revitalized Hollywood with his electrifying screenplays and forget-the-rules directing ("Pulp Fiction," 1994). In Tarantino's films, the bank robbers wear matching suits, the heroines snort heroin and everybody finds startling new ways of killing everybody else. His message to the movie industry was this: Wake up, and keep up.


MOST INFLUENTIAL FILM The stylized outfits, super-slow-motion and physics-defying battles whipped up by the Wachowski brothers in "The Matrix" (1999) became so widely imitated -- in masterpieces like "Inception" (2010) or in drivel like "Wanted" (2008) -- that critics no longer bother to point them out.


BIGGEST DREAMER James Cameron dominated the 1990s and the 2000s with "Titanic" (1997) and "Avatar" (2009), two of moviedom's biggest movies -- not just in terms of their record-breaking ticket sales but in terms of scope, ambition and vision. Cameron is one of the last true believers in the religion of the spectacle.


BEST MAVERICK Why won't Tyler Perry screen his films for critics? No need. Most of his 10 films (his 11th opens Friday) have debuted at or near No. 1, driven largely by black audiences. A combination auteur and savvy businessman, Perry has reportedly grossed more than $450 million worldwide.


LOUSIEST ENDING After watching Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) and "The Dark Knight" (2008), it seemed clear that the greatest actor of a generation was among us. His death in 2008, at the age of 28, came as a shock to those who knew him, and left moviegoers permanently dangling on the edge of their seats.


BEST TREND Thanks to Pixar's "Toy Story" (1995), cartoons began growing up, taking huge strides in writing and storytelling. Today, most major studios churn out animated films, but Pixar remains the leader thanks to releases like "Up" (2009), one of the few cartoons to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.


WORST TREND After Cameron's eye-popping 3-D camerawork in "Avatar," Hollywood began pumping out 3-D films and charging exorbitant fees for those bulky glasses. What did you get for your money? Characters spitting liquid at the screen, frequently glitchy effects and, in the end, two dents on the bridge of your nose.


SECOND-WORST TREND The days when documentaries aimed for objectivity ended in 2004 with Michael Moore's anti-Bush, box-office hit "Fahrenheit 9/11." That triggered a wave of blatantly biased docs, from Bill Maher's faith-blasting "Religulous" to Ben Stein's creationist rant "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" (both 2008). The dispassionate observer appears to be an endangered species.


BIGGEST UPRISING Using San Diego's Comic-Con and the website Ain't It Cool News as megaphones, the once-marginalized fanboy community convinced Hollywood to start pumping out sci-fi, fantasy, action and superhero movies. That could be good or bad, depending on how much time you spend in comic-book stores.


BIGGEST GAME CHANGER The 2001 launch of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy forced risk-averse Hollywood to do a rethink. Filmed simultaneously, then rationed out to hungry audiences, the "Rings" movies helped launch the current mania for franchises that has made nearly every film look like a pilot episode.


BEST TWEEN PHENOMENON J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books had been merely popular before the movie adaptations turned them into a global cultural and economic force. Better-made than they needed to be, with talented young actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson) and burnished pros (Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes), the "Potter" franchise set up a tent large enough for everyone to get under.


WORST TWEEN PHENOMENON It says something about our era that girls are flocking to movies that equate premarital sex with death. The "Twilight" films, about a high-schooler desperate to marry her vampire boyfriend, preaches abstinence but also romanticizes passivity and dependency. What century is this, again?


BEST EDUCATIONAL FILM "Scream" (1996), directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, not only spoofed the horror genre but analyzed it with savvy dialogue about subtexts and formulas. Essentially, this was Film Theory 101 for the masses. If audiences today are smarter about movies overall, it's because "Scream" broke the rules by naming them.


BEST COUNTERCULTURE MOVIE David Fincher's "Fight Club" (1999) synthesized the scattered ideas and attitudes of "alternative" culture into a cohesive vision, casting Ikea as the enemy, Edward Norton as the seething consumer and Brad Pitt as a sociopathic savior. It's as definitive of its moment as "The Graduate" or "Easy Rider."


STEALTHIEST INVASION Hong Kong action flicks like John Woo's "Hard-Boiled" (1992) primed Americans for gourmet chop-sockies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). But the influence of Yuen Woo-ping, Corey Yuen and other martial-arts choreographers explains why just about every Western action movie now looks a little bit Eastern.


SIMPLEST CONCEPT Guys cracking each other up with dumb jokes -- why didn't you think of that? Judd Apatow turned the idea into a hit with "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005) and then, as a writer, director or producer, created the genre we now call the bromance. The trend is waning, but the influence (see 2011's "Paul") remains.


LEAST POPULAR GENRE No matter how movies tried to frame the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- whether as documentaries or action-thrillers -- audiences stayed away. Even Kathryn Bigelow's bomb-squad drama, "The Hurt Locker" (2009), became the lowest-grossing best picture Oscar winner in modern memory.


WORST NEWS FOR OLD FOGIES The idea that a movie should be seen with other people, in a place built for that purpose, seems increasingly quaint thanks to streaming rentals, video-on-demand and bittorrent. Silver screen, meet vinyl album -- you two have so much in common.

 

MOVIES -- THEN AND NOW

 


RAUNCHY COMEDY

1991 -- "Hot Shots!"

2011 -- "The Hangover 2"


UNLIKELY HUNK

1991 -- Kevin Costner

2011 -- Ryan Reynolds


FEMALE ROLE MODEL

1991 -- Thelma and Louise

2011 -- Bella Swan


HOME ENTERTAINMENT TECHNOLOGY

1991 -- VHS

2011 -- Roku

 

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