Playtime
Toy Story
(1995)

It’s all been there from the very beginning: the consummate genre cleverness, the animation with its affectedly rounded edges and warm tones, and the emotional appeals to not only kids but their nostalgic parents, who wish they were kids. All of this—what would come to be identified as the Pixar trademark—springs to life, fully formed, in the opening moments of the company’s 1995 debut film, Toy Story, as a boy named Andy plays cowboys with his delightfully mismatched toys: a cowpoke named Woody, Mr. Potato Head, and the rest.

So began the transformation of mainstream American animation, which, on the shoulders of Pixar, shifted dramatically toward computers and the rich, clever storytelling that has become as synonymous with Pixar as photocopies are to Xerox. It’s fascinating to watch this opening scene now, knowing what Pixar would become. Everything here—the Randy Newman needle drop, the adolescent delight—was a choice that would come to define a generation (and then some) of children and parents worldwide. —K. Austin Collins

The Cold Open
Scream
(1996)

As the formidable teen boom of the late 1990s and early aughts was first churning into motion, along came director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson’s zippy classic, all at once reverent and iconoclastic toward the slasher genre. No scene in the film was more indelible than Drew Barrymore—recently having reclaimed star status after some years in the wild—tangling with Ghostface the killer in the film’s shocking opening minutes. What that scene kicked off was a major cultural evolution, with teens being marketed to more and more as a disposable income-wielding consumer force, and a meta self-awareness seeping its way into every facet of filmed entertainment. The sly, scary wink of Scream’s actually pretty brutal cold open takes its fun seriously—and taught an entire generation how to talk about what they love. —Richard Lawson

“I’m King of the World”
Titanic
(1997)
It’s not so much that a bunch of movies after James Cameron’s seismic epic tried to copy its mix of sentiment and special effects—Pearl Harbor certainly did, but is that it? It’s more that Titanic opened the door for more maximalist thinking in Hollywood than had existed for a long time. Cameron pioneered the $200 million budget, and the extensive use of computer graphics in a film with no robots or trips to outer space. He made a true movie star for the ages in Leonardo DiCaprio, no more winningly or brazenly than with the triumphant launch of Titanic’s voyage. As the camera glides lovingly, freely around Cameron’s magnificent creation, he whips up a cinematic awe that’s so palpable it changed a medium’s conception of spectacle in an instant. Little that came in the years after quite matched that dizzy coronation, but a lot of people spent a lot of money trying. —R.L.
Gutterballs
The Big Lebowski

(1998)

Since at least the New Hollywood era, our favorite American auteurs have been filling their movies with references to other classic Hollywood movies. They’ve been showing off just how much the history of Hollywood fills their DNA; directors, their public image says, are movie-lovers above all else. And yet even by those standards, it’s funny to see a modern, American cult-film nod, not to Howard Hawks or old gangster movies or the like, but to the dizzying, kaleidoscopic dance numbers of Busby Berkeley, known for filling the screen with circles and rows of showgirls, dancing out geometric fantasies to the audience’s delight.

The Big Lebowski is one such movie, and its famous “Gutterballs” fantasy sequence, with its dancing bowler girls, flying Jeff Bridges, and Viking Julianne Moore, is one such scene. Lebowski is a simmeringly smart—but also wild—tale, anchored by a loose, meandering central turn by Jeff Bridges as the Dude, who finds himself caught up in a world of mistaken identity, nihilist thugs, bowling, extortion, and outrageous violence. Not that the plot is what matters. The Big Lebowski is about a world, a political landscape, in which conflicting American values clash against each other, all of it embedded in style, references, and stoner dreaminess. It’s the ultimate American movie, a feature with underground cultural credibility that is also an icon of independent moviemaking and bro-cinephile obsession. —K.A.C.