The 100 Greatest Movies of the ’90s – Rolling Stone
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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

‘Romeo + Juliet’ (1996)

Shakespeare had a hell of a run in the Nineties, from the riot grrrl shrew-taming of Ten Things I Hate About You to Keanu as Prince Hal in My Own Private Idaho. But Baz Luhrmann really did the Bard proud with his MTV take on the tale of star-crossed lovers, snagging two of the era’s glossiest newcomers: Claire Danes, fresh from My So-Called Life; and a baby-faced, soon-to-be-superstar Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s the play reimagined as a pulp fantasy, complete with guns, drugs, swimming pools, SoCal gang warfare (let’s rumble at Verona Beach!), angel wings, doe-eyed glances through fish tanks and a soundtrack that’s as iconic as the film itself. RS

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‘Clerks’ (1994)

Shot in grainy black and white and loosely based on director Kevin Smith’s life at the time, this no-budget film follows a convenience store clerk (Brian O’Halloran), and his video-store-clerk best friend (Jeff Anderson) over the course of a single day. Clerks captures both the banality of service work and a sort of dirtbag-vérité weirdness that would end up becoming a go-to template for Nineties indie movies; just for kicks, he throws in a stoner duo (hello, Jay and Silent Bob!) that would end up becoming the cornerstone of the Smithverse. Between its foul-mouthed running commentary on everything from Star Wars to dicks and its dead-on sense of grungy ennui, Smith’s D.I.Y. debut captures a certain post-Slacker cultural moment and traps it in amber. AB

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‘Buffalo ’66’ (1998)

A neurotic recent parolee (writer-director Vincent Gallo) abducts a dancer (Christina Ricci), forcing her to meet his parents, played with batshit majesty by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston. She goes along with the act, pretending to be his loving girlfriend – she’s the only one sees right through his psycho surface to the wounded little boy inside. One of the funniest movies about male insecurity ever made, Gallo’s amour fou story becomes a breathless appreciation of upstate New York dreariness, the lunatic majesty of its creator and the idea that love means always having to say you’re sorry. And that delirious donut-shop declaration ending is a keeper. SB

ice storm

‘The Ice Storm’ (1997)

The subgenre of movies in which wealthy suburban parents watch their own failings magnified in their children was a crowded one in the 1990s – so kudos to Ang Lee for handling the adaptation of Rick Moody’s book with uncommon delicacy and insight. A Connecticut family, led by a philandering Kevin Kline and a brittle, embittered Joan Allen, try to make it through Thanksgiving ’73 alive, as their kids begin to wise up, the sexual revolution begins to cause collateral damage and the country begins to slouch in to the age of Watergate. The tragedy at the end feels sincerely mournful – like an elegy for the end of innocence in America. BT

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999)

Want to survive adolescence – or, better yet, adulthood? Then watch this playful, tragic memento mori about the Lisbon sisters, a quintet of Michigan teens in the 1970s who cast a spell on their small town after the youngest impales herself on a fence. She will eventually inspire her siblings to similar fates. It’s the neighborhood boys who really suffer, however, fetishizing what was left behind (postcards, travel magazines, diary entries) and aching for memory to become insight. Sofia Coppola’s intoxicating debut feature, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, launched her singular career of films about yearning characters imprisoned by their circumstances. SG

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Orlando’ (1992)

This adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel about an apparently immortal Elizabethan-era nobleman who is transformed, midway through his long life, into a woman provided the perfect early showcase for Tilda Swinton’s otherworldly charisma. A poet whose romantic spirit propels him, then her, through the centuries, Swinton’s Orlando doesn’t pass as a man in the film’s first half so much as transcend gender from beginning to end. Director Sally Potter complements the career-making performance by housing it in a peerless, creative free-for-all meditation on masculinity, femininity and time. JB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Singles’ (1992)

Before a bunch of New Yorkers sipping coffee at Central Perk made the love lives of Generation X-ers must-see-TV, Cameron Crowe’s ensemble rom-com captured twentysomething dating in a pre-Tinder, post-Nevermind world. Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick are the adults in the room while Matt Dillon’s naïve Jim Morrison-in-flannel frontman became both a perfect symbol and a simultaneous parody of Pacific Northwestern slackerdom; this was the movie that launched a million Bridget Fonda crushes. It also masterfully documented the decade’s most enduring music movement: Armed with an instant classic soundtrack featuring Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, plus solo cuts from the late Chris Cornell, the movie doubles nicely as a subcultural time capsule – The Decline of Western Civilization of the grunge scene. DK

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Billy Madison’ (1995)

Before the cinema du Adam Sandler meant nothing but bro baiting and phone-it-in paydays, the ex-SNL star gave us this masterclass in manchild comedy – a genuinely weird, warped story of a spoiled rich doofus who, in order to stay spoiled and rich, must do the impossible. a.k.a. repeat kindergarten through high school in record time. This is Sandler in all his unhinged abbie-doobie glory, fighting off 10-foot-tall penguins and staging elaborate musical numbers that end with operatic pleas for gum; he’d never be this over-the-top odd or out-and-out hilarious again. And it features the greatest academic competition to ever end with the words, “I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.” DF

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995)

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” So says slippery Verbal Kint to a short-tempered cop (Chazz Palminteri) during the tense interrogation that forms the spine of Bryan Singer’s unforgettable second feature. Kevin Spacey won his first Oscar for his turn as the runt of a criminal quintet roped into pulling a doomed heist on behalf of a bad-guy bogeyman – the mysterious, legendary Keyzer Söze. But the film is stacked with top-notch character actors doing exemplary work, including Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Pete Postlethwaite and Giancarlo Esposito among them. And its twist ending still packs a wallop. GM

lone star

‘Lone Star’ (1996)

“Forget the Alamo”: That’s not just the final line of writer-director John Sayles’ best film but also a tidy summation of how history weighs people down. Chris Cooper plays a soft-spoken Texas sheriff investigating a decades-old murder, which forces him to confront the legacy of his father (Matthew McConaughey), the community’s beloved former lawman-in-chief. Seamlessly interweaving flashbacks and the present, Sayles’evocation about the past never really being the past was a highlight of Nineties American independent cinema – smart, sober, novelistic and politically astute. TGr

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Dumb and Dumber’ (1994)

Masterful physical comedic performances by burgeoning movie star Jim Carrey and a straw-haired Jeff Daniels punctuate Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s endlessly quotable raunch-com classic, about two idiot friends who take a cross-country road trip in a dog-shaped truck to return a briefcase of money. Its a highpoint in Nineties lowbrow comedy, one whose ex-lax pranks, blue and orange tuxedos, urine-filled bottles of beer and annoying “Mockingbird” singing-a-longs by the movie’s dumb-ass double act are still referenced by millions of fans. The reason why is simple. It’s because we like them. We like them a lot. AS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Long Day Closes’ (1992)

An 11-year old named Bud (Leigh McCormack) comes of age in postwar Liverpool, moving between home, school, church and the movies – all wondrously linked in an extended bird’s-eye tracking sequence scored to Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy.” Overflowing with song, sentiment and elegant compositions, this autobiographical marvel from Terence Davies, England’s maestro of conflicted nostalgia, mines the past for both burnished beauty and unshakable trauma. EH

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Casino’ (1995)

The rise and fall of the gangsters who turned Vegas into a violent, mobbed-up money-making machine, with both Louis Prima and loud rock & roll on the soundtrack – could this Martin Scorsese epic sound any more Martin Scorsese-ier? Like Goodfellas with glitz, the director’s look at an empire built on crime and paranoia employs a lot of his signature elements – it’s like a one-stop Marty shopping spot, complete with an angry Robert De Niro, La Cosa Nostra, Rolling Stones tunes, a Nicholas Pileggi script, incredible Steadicam set pieces and a brutal Joe Pesci death sequence. Plus you get a Golden Globe-winning Sharon Stone as a femme fatale who destroys a “good thing” in the desert and nearly brings down Sin City in the aftermath. DK


‘Velvet Goldmine’ (1998)

Right from the opening credits scene, featuring a group of colorfully dressed glam rock British kids running down the street to Brian Eno’s “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” Todd Haynes’ ode to Seventies glam virtually screams with glee. Told Citizen Kane-style as a journalist (Christian Bale) tries to track down a Bowiesque figure named Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) years after his chart-topping heyday, the movie stews in the glitter and mythology that characterized a bygone era of rock history and reclaims it for the modern New Queer Cinema era. KYK

brighter summer day

‘A Brighter Summer Day’ (1991)

Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s long, sprawling history lesson tells two parallel stories: the first chronicles warring youth street gangs in 1960’s Taipei; and the second follows a family struggling to maintain their modest lifestyle under uneasy circumstances. In the center lies a young rebel (Chang Chen) who falls for a gang leader’s girlfriend, with tragic results. This expansive, intimate period epic filters a universal tale of adolescence through an unstable political environment, creating a work both bound to its cultural context and completely stuck out of time. VM


‘Titanic’ (1997)

A flower-child, a macho fetishist, a tech nerd – James Cameron can be all these things at once. And with this tragic romance set aboard the doomed, iceberg-bound ocean liner, he proved he could speak fluent
teenager as well. Yes, Titanic‘s amazing effects and impressively choreographed scenes of chaos recreate the sinking ship going down with FX-heavy fidelity. But an entire generation of moviegoers still embrace this megablockbuster because Cameron crafted an earnest, swooning romance between two kids, and in Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, he found two ideal actors – perched between teen stardom and adulthood, able to convey both free-spirited puppy love and genuine depth and despair. Come for the awe-inspiring spectacle; stay for the breathtaking moments of tenderness. BE


‘Swingers’ (1996)

Actor Jon Favreau’s writing debut is a sharp, witty meditation on feeling like a loser. A down-on-his-luck wannabe movie actor (Favreau) is stuck on the girlfriend who dumped him when he left New York City for L.A. His fast-talking friends – played by Ron Livingston and Vince Vaughn in his breakout role – try to cheer him up with a trip to Las Vegas and endless hipster-bro hang-outs. Nothing seems to work. Then he meets a woman (Heather Graham) who likes swing dancing. The film’s off-the-cuff D.I.Y. sensibility, unique dialogue (“Look at all the beautiful babies here,” “I’m a Dorothy”) and hilarious dynamic between sad-sack Favreau and fun-loving Vaughn made it a Nineties touchstone. It was so money and it didn’t even know it. KG

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Last Night’ (1998)

Welcome to the most Canadian apocalypse ever envisioned. The world is ending at midnight, as a result of some mysterious environmental catastrophe. Some people pray, some party, some riot in the streets. But most are painfully polite – the manager of Toronto’s gas company spends his final hours calling customers at home to assure them the power will stay on. (How much more Canadian could it get? He’s played by David Cronenberg.) It’s a heart-piercing gem from writer/director Don McKellar (of the cult sitcom Twitch City), who – along with a then-unknown Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley and Genevieve Bujold – spends his last hours searching for some kind of human connection before it’s too late. RS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (1991)

The major breakthrough work of China’s “Fifth Generation” filmmaking wave, Zhang Yimou’s colorful, caustic tale follows a young woman (a breathtaking Gong Li) who’d rather become a rich man’s courtesan than a poor man’s spouse – and comes to realize that a gorgeous gilded cage is still a prison. Also, when you’ve taken the position of “fourth wife,” you’re likely to incur the wrath of your fellow mistresses fighting for scraps. A damning tale of a smart woman slowly suffocating under social constraints, and proof that Zhang and his star were one of the decade’s greatest director/actress combos – a mainland Von Sternberg and Dietrich for the modern age. SB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Election’ (1999)

Pick Flick! Reese Witherspoon’s obnoxiously plucky Tracy Flick is determined to win the election for student council president at her Omaha high school. Matthew Broderick is the civics teacher who decides to stand in her way, convincing a popular jock (Chris Klein) to run an opposing campaign. Illicit affairs, political treachery and one very uncomfortable looking bee-sting helped make Alexander Payne’s brilliant black comedy a critical hit. His gleefully subversive script, written with longtime collaborator Jim Taylor and adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel, earned an Oscar nomination. Any resemblance between the characters here and real-life politicians are, of course, completely coincidental. GM

johnny depp, fear loathing las vegas

‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (1998)

Only Terry Gilliam could mount such a chaotic and kaleidoscopic adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo dispatch – a mescaline-penned eulogy for the Summer of Love and an eerie premonition of the Watergate era. Johnny Depp completely embodies the late, great journalist as his “Raoul Duke” teeters along the Las Vegas Strip and inhales an ether-soaked American flag, with Benicio Del Toro’s unhinged lawyer playing the buzzing Bonnie to our tour guide’s acid-fried Clyde. The film’s bizarre epilogue: Seven years after its release, Depp helped fire Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon at the writer’s funeral. DK

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Bad Lieutenant’ (1992)

A relentless odyssey of a New York City detective on a violent, drug-fueled downward spiral, Abel Ferrara’s free-form descent into the depths follows the sort of law-enforcement antihero who isn’t above swiping dope from a murder scene or publicly masturbating during a routine traffic stop. So far, so Ferrara – and then this scuzzfest begins to reveal itself as a stations-of-the-cross spiritual inquiry, at which point the surreal episodes emanating from the Lieutenant’s pickled mind suddenly take on a serious gravitas. Aided and abetted by Harvey Keitel’s gone-nuclear performance (that howling Man v. Christ vignette!), the director’s take-no-prisoner’s tale of redemption is one of the most religious movies of the decades – a perfect melding of the poetic and the profane, the agony and the ecstasy. SB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘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