Looking back on them now, the 90s were the last decade of film. We mean that in the traditional sense, of course, as fantastic movies (some greater than these impeccable titles) continue to be made to this day. But the 90s were the last decade of pure film, in the sense that the world had not yet experienced the digital takeover. Images of sometimes scratched celluloid still grazed movie theaters where stadium seating was not yet the mainstream. The popular films of the 90s pushed away from the techno mainstream set up by the 80s pop era. Here is our list of the films that have accomplished the daunting task of surviving; of remaining relevant, entertaining and compelling no matter what year they were released.
1. Pulp Fiction– For many, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is the quintessential 90s film. The characters embody archetypes of movie misfits past, but they don’t quite belong in those movies anymore. Here, Tarantino infuses them with dialogue so alive it practically does the work for the camera. Not content with words, though, we get stunning set pieces like the 50s diner, which is filled with enough pop culture references for five films on its own. Together with his cast of misfits, including John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and Bruce Willis, he created a movie where every single character is now embedded in pop culture history. The violence, the language, and the story are so off-kilter that they created their own movie universe, one that Tarantino still gleefully operates in. Narrative structure and good taste are gone with the wind, but that wind also helped usher in a new wave of independent filmmakers into the mainstream.
2. Goodfellas– This is often the first film that comes to mind when you mention Martin Scorsese. That’s because it is a summation of everything great about him as a filmmaker, and his heightened-realism style has never been more masterful than here. The down-and-dirty grit of Taxi Driver meets the formal beauty and narrative ambition of The Last Temptation of Christ to form a totally unique filmmaking vision. It’s a gangster picture like only he could do it, with a cast of violent lowlifes dabbling in the excesses America has afforded them. They meet their various downfalls as gruesomely as you would expect. The narration from various characters over the action was unprecedented at the time, and a tool Scorsese would bring back in films like Casino and The Departed. Filled to the brim with memorable scenes, from the masterful tracking shot through the backdoor of a night club to the hallucinatory helicopter fleeing. Along with his now-iconic cast of Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco, Scorsese created an Italian mob film deserving of mention in the same sentence as The Godfather.
3. Schindler’s List– Spielberg may have his critics cut out for him, but the father of blockbusters had one undeniably great film attached to his name, one he almost didn’t let himself direct. In the early 80s Spielberg took interest in the book and acquired the rights but felt wrong about directing it. He offered it to Roman Polanski, who turned it down, and then to Scorseese, who was on board until Spielberg decided at the last minute he wanted to make the film for his future family. The Holocaust tale is nothing light. Clocking in at over three hours, the film is primarily black and white and verges on the potential of being rather dull and disastrous. However, seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), thousands of replicas and millions of box office dollars later, Schindler’s List was a masterful hit. Topic aside, with its heart-wrenching and striking performances by Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, careful, elegant cinematography, inventive editing and overall storytelling genius, it is easily one of the best films of all time that and a must-see for everyone.
4. Breaking the Waves– While American masters were busy shaking us with their visions of gangsters and Nazis, Danish provoc-auteur Lars von Trier created this enthralling, controversial masterpiece. Emily Watson gives one of cinema’s greatest, most emotionally volatile performances as Bess McNeil, a woman who becomes a sexual martyr for love and Jesus. When her lover is paralyzed on an oil rig, Bess blames herself and becomes somewhat deranged. So too does her husband, who in his arguably mad state asks her to sleep with other men and then tell him about it. It sounds like controversy waiting to happen, but von Trier’s delicate handling of the characters and unflinching attitude toward the subject matter gave him a movie that he’s still trying to recreate.
5. The Silence of the Lambs– If it’s not the definitive serial killer movie, it’s certainly one of the best. With two iconic mass murderers (Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill for those trapped in a hole) and a feminist icon holding the center, it deservedly garnered the Best Picture Oscar as well as the acting ones for Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. As Clarice Starling (Foster) uses one serial killer (Hopkins) to catch another, several eerie games of cat-and-mouse ensue. The amazing conversations between Starling and Lecter are shot in haunting close-up. The characters are looking at each other, but they’re also looking at you. Director Jonathan Demme has created a film that both audiences and critics rewarded with well-deserved discussion.
6. American Beauty- Anyone unfamiliar with the work of Alan Ball at this point is not making an effort to be a part of pop culture. Though his HBO vamp ramp True Blood has brought life to his fame, Ball’s most prolific work deals with death in a more realistic light. Six Feet Under was one of the best shows on television that drew much inspiration from Ball’s own script for American Beauty. It is one of the best screenplays ever written, with its devilish wit, multi-layered meanings and greater goals. Ball isn’t the only freshman that shows up to play ball though. In the director’s chair is Sam Mendes, who puts all the right talent into place and carefully directs this film to the beauty that it is. Spacey and Bening equally deserve credit for their shock and awe performances that hit the mark dead on.
7. Being John Malkovich- Along with American Beauty, this is the finest comedy to emerge in the 90s, and it was released in the same year. Charlie Kaufman’s mind-boggling, original, and hilarious screenplay is one of the finest in memory. It follows a down-on-his luck puppeteer (a never-better John Cusack) as he finds his big break: a portal into the mind of John Malkovich. It’s equal parts weird and funny, and director Spike Jonze never shies away from either. It’s a bold look into the absurdity of American capitalism and a hilarious look into the absurdity of humanity.
8. Fargo– The wintry Minnesota desert of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo is as iconic as its accents. Both work together to create an unparalleled cinematic atmosphere for the dark kidnapping tale to unfold. The brothers claimed it was based on a true story, but the tale is as tall as the Paul Bunyan statue that is a fixing in one of the towns. Viewers follow Marge Gunderson (Oscar-winner Frances McDormand) as she tracks down two kidnappers who were hired by a low-life car dealer (William H. Macy) to kidnap his own wife. Blood and black humor ensue against the cold white backdrop. Few filmmakers are as successful at fusing formal skill with thematic depth in the way that the Coens are, and Fargo is one of their masterpieces.
9. The Big Lebowski- It may be the least serious of any Coen Brothers films, but even for being so silly, it can’t be taken lightly. With the iconic introduction of “the Dude”, a forties-something slacker, stoner, drunk, bowler and dude, Jeff Bridges establishes one of the most likable fuck ups in pop culture. Hardly a hero, and hardly not one, the story of the Dude is very much in line with other Coen Brothers’ creations, with its large cast of odd misfits and skeletons of jokes that are funnier than most jokes. Humorous and strange indeed, but well-directed, well-written, and an iconic tale that is entertaining until the very end.
10. Thelma and Louise– Ridley Scott’s feminist road movie is not only a terrific allegory, it’s also one of the most entertaining movies of 90s. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis play the iconic best friends, who go on a weekend getaway that turns them into fugitives on the run. Louise blasts Thelma’s would-be rapist in a shot heard ’round the male-driven cinematic world, and they hit the road fearing (probably legitimately) that the police would blame the victim. The sweeping back roads of rural America and the terrific acting provides a portrait of this country that is both beautiful and unsentimental. Scott has never used his formal gifts to such a fine thematic end as well as he did here.
11. The Lion King– Disney ended up passing the baton of quality to Pixar shortly after their last masterpiece. In adapting Hamlet to the kid crowd, they may have softened the “everyone dies” ending, but they also created a sweeping epic of unmatched animated beauty. From the iconic opening baptism to the final roar on Pride Rock, The Lion King shows Disney at the height of its animated powers.
12. Titanic- It’s one of the the few big blockbusters and Oscar darlings of the 90s that holds its weight. Of course, this film wasn’t just any big blockbuster. The second highest grossing movie of all-time (first for nearly a decade until Cameron’s next film Avatar hit the third dimension) grossed $600 million domestically and double that overseas. Most everyone born not in this Millenium has seen it. A boatload of well-deserved Oscars give accreditation to the film’s then-impressive special effects, art direction, score, editing and other mise en scen elements. The film jump-started the careers of Leo and Kate, who are two of the strongest awards movie actors in the business today. There are moments where Titanic is a bit overload or long, but then there are moments that are heart-sinking and beautiful. The last ten minutes or so of the film are so wonderfully constructed, which makes it so hard to shed tears over.
13. The Thin Red Line– Terrence Malick emerged from more than 20 years of not making movies to making one of the best war movies ever made. A tonally beautiful and conceptually brilliant film, Red Line follows a group of American soldiers during WWII’s Battle for Guadalcanal. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Malick surrounds the brutally orchestrated combat scenes with some haunting images of nature. He also deceptively stacks the deck with A-list cast members like George Clooney and John Cusack, and then uses them in only a few scenes. The beautiful images, the compelling story, and the awesome score build up to moments of total immersion in a world that seems impossible to recreate.
14. Miller’s Crossing– Debateably the most underrated movie of the decade, the Coens’ take on the gangster genre was largely overshadowed by Scorsese’s Goodfellas. It’s a shame, because it’s one of their finest films, and deserves mention with the other two movies on this list as well as No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. In a premise straight of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (also the inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars), Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), an unaffiliated gangster , finds himself in a town divided down the middle by warring gangs. With unmatched formal skill and darkly comic moments that sometimes border on slapstick, the Coens follow Regan as he plays both sides of the bloody conflict. The thrilling sequence where one of the crime lords, Leo (Albert Finney), escapes assassination with Tommy Gun bursts and clever maneuvering is one of the finest in movie history.
15. The Sixth Sense- M. Night Shyamalan can consistently role out one terrible movie every two years, each one presumably worse than the last. But somehow, something must have caused studios to fund his projects and audiences to show up to them. That something is The Sixth Sense, a once-revolutionary, plot-twisted thriller about a child who can see dead people. It is iconic now, mostly for its twist, but there are still some elements of the film that remain great, like the cleverly shot and edited sequences that keep you on the edge of your seat.
16. The Truman Show– 1998 comes at a perfect time for this film. This is before the fall of network television and right at the beginning of the cable television and reality TV explosion. With America’s eyes fixated on the small screen, The Truman Show hits us on the big one. Truman thinks he is just an average insurance salesman, but in reality, he is the world’s biggest TV reality star. Unaware, he is on screen 24/7 trapped in a large, but limited studio. It’s an interesting concept indeed, one Peter Weir crafts quite admirably. Carey is surprisingly a great choice for the lead, with his quirks, perks and ability to let the audience empathize quickly. The grand theme in the film is ultimately what makes us tune in. How can we balance our obsession with reality TV while we contemplate the moral and ethics of human behavior?
17. Saving Private Ryan- So Spielberg ends up making the list a bit here. Rightly so again with this movie. Saving Private Ryan is a nearly three hour epic, with an impressive 30 minute opening sequence that makes the heart race. Making war look like poetry, Spielberg uses several techniques to amplify the war movie beyond being another World War II movie. Stylization, elements of cinematic glory and a greater statement about WWII being as merciless and chaotic as Vietnam make the movie a modern marvel about the good war.
18. Before Sunrise- Richard Linklater’s deeply affecting love story casts a spell like few other films do. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy star as strangers on a train through Europe. They decide to spend the day and night together in Vienna before his plane takes him back home to America. They inevitably fall in love, but the power of Linklater’s film is how true it rings, how conversation signals intimacy and how we trust strangers more than we trust ourselves. This got a beautiful sequel in 2004’s Before Sunset, but the original is a classic, bittersweet romance all on its own.
19. Magnolia– Paul Thomas Anderson’s sweeping epic was both a filmmaking and narrative prelude to what was to follow in the 2000s. It has the interweaving mosaic of characters pre-Babel and Crash, with fine performances from Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, and a slew of others. The biblical implications of the plot are not nearly as relevant as the bible of filmmaking techniques Anderson employs here. It’s sad, funny, and emotional all at the same time, and the weaving character-arc model has yet to be topped.
20. Europa- Lars von Trier’s other 90s masterpiece was his final step before he began destroying women’s lives. An examination of a train operator in war-torn Germany following WWII, Europa is a hypnotic journey into a world resembling something post-apocalyptic. It’s here that our young train operator discovers the terrorist plot of leftover Werewolves (leftover German special forces.) This may be von Trier’s most beautiful film visually, with the black and white world resembling one of a bygone era of Hollywood epics but the plot staked a much darker territory. The splashes of color bring you back, especially when it’s blood.
21. The Usual Suspects- The most unusual moments of 90s cinema happen in the popular “twisty plot” films like The Usual Suspects. Full of great insights, an all star cast of entertaining lowlifes, confusing storyline pleasure and an interesting question to fuel interest, The Usual Suspects enthralled audiences at the time. However, if you haven’t seen the film and you already know who the film’s mystery man is, you’re in for a pretty usual movie.
22. The Ice Storm- Ang Lee’s meditative look at suburbia in the midst of Watergate is a foreign director’s alien fascination with American culture. Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, and Christina Ricci comprise the terrific ensemble cast, but Lee’s cold, calculating direction creates waves of emotion in an ultimately calm, lifeless environment. It feels mystical, but it’s also surprisingly real and poignant.
23. Run Lola Run– This movie embedded cinema with the video game methodology of “multiple lives” and put it to a pounding score. It was a foreign film marketed at the MTV generation, and a fine one at that. It follows Lola and her repeated attempts to save her lover’s life. The set-up is the same with each attempt, but she has to try and do things differently each time so they both can live. For a movie where a large portion is just stylized running, it couldn’t be any more ridiculously entertaining.
24. Eyes Wide Shut– Stanley Kubrick’s final film is a long night’s journey into oblivion, with him as the grand puppet master of two of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Tom Cruise stars as Bill Harford, a doctor who goes on a mind-boggling journey of self-discovery after he and his wife (Kidman) have their outs at a dinner party. From a secretive masked orgy to walking the streets to a lone piano stroke accompaniment, Kubrick laces this somewhat conventional tale with his sinister menace and a foreboding atmosphere where anything can happen.
25. Ed Wood- Tim Burton’s most peculiar and bizarre pairing with Johnny Depp is their biopic of filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr., an eccentric avant garde type filmmaker who ended up making cult, pornographic, pulp crime, horror and sex movies, dubbing him the worst filmmaker of all time. Ed Wood is a little better. With Depp bringing the bizarre, and Burton the style, the combination is a wonderful, quirky film with more humor and depth than its source material.
26. Toy Story- Behold the beginning of the age of Pixar. Though Toy Story is by no means the company’s greatest achievement, it earns its place on this list with more than just its historical value. The age-old fear of being left out or replaced comes to vibrant life as toy cowboy Woody thinks he’s becoming his owner’s second favorite to the new Buzz Lightyear space cadet doll. What ensues is a story full of humor as well as moments of touching beauty. It would get two very worthy sequels down the road and inspire countless Pixar classics, but there’s nothing quite like getting there first.
27. The Fugitive- It’s a classic 90s action film. It’s a classic action film, actually. When a doctor is accused of wrongly killing his wife, he must find the man who did it before he’s caught by the law. It sounds quite typical, but with Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, and a pretty spry script, the film entertains quite nicely.
28. A River Runs Through It- It’s the kind of 90s Sunday afternoon film you’ll watch on cable reluctantly. Though it’s often too sappy and sad to want to muscle through the whole thing, it’s a beautifully set and crafted movie about a Montana family struggling to grow through the 20s, their religious upbringing, the changing of the times and all in between.
29. Jurassic Park– Be wary of merging science with capitalism, this cautionary action-adventure warns. Steven Spielberg continues his innovation of movie special effects with this adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel about a dinosaur cloning experiment gone awry. It’s one of the few action movies that actually may require a seat-belt, as special effects monstrosities take the starring role and the ensemble cast runs in terror. Filled with wonderful set pieces, a terrific score, and of course, those gigantic dinos, Jurassic Park was the inventor of the “Event” movie’s biggest event to date.
30. Shawshank Redemption- To close off the list, a movie that has an almost unparalleled amount of sentimental value to many, including users on IMDB. As of the date of this post being published, it is still the #1 film of all time on the site. We may not share that much enthusiasm about it, but its merit as a first-rate buddy, prison, adventure, whatever-you-want-to-call-it film cannot be overlooked. The sweeping narrative ambition, terrific acting, and excellent cinematography are enough to wow anyone. It shares the unfortunate luck of Pulp Fiction and is a proud member of the “We lost to Forrest Gump” Club.
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