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

‘L.A. Confidential’ (1997)

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce weren’t yet stars when they played two mismatched police detectives – one raging, one shrewd – uncovering corruption in 1950s Los Angeles. Both actors light up the screen, even when set against an ice-cool Kevin Spacey (as a vice cop who specializes in showbiz) and an Oscar-wining Kim Basinger (as a high-priced prostitute with mob ties). Director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland turn James Ellroy’s literary pulp novel into a sweeping, sophisticated urban crime epic – so cracklingly entertaining and thematically rich that it felt like a long-lost Hollywood classic even in 1997. NM

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Heavenly Creatures’ (1994)

Before Peter Jackson took us all to Middle-earth, he brought moviegoers to the mad world of two troubled teenagers – a fictional universe every bit as engrossing as J.R.R. Tolkien’s, but far more romantic and lethal. Based on a true-crime story, the film depicts pre-stardom Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as Pauline Parker and Juliet Hume, two New Zealand teenagers whose BFF-ship blossoms first into love, then madness and ultimately murder. Jackson’s kinetic camera captures the rapturous swirl of teenage dreams before plunging us into its brutal, bloody endpoint. It’s a beautiful dark twisted fantasy. STC

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Poison’ (1991)

Todd Haynes’ lo-fi triptych heralded more than just a vital new talent – it helped spark the New Queer Cinema movement, pissed off right-wing N.E.A. haters, further established Sundance as ground zero for American indie visionaries and almost singlehandedly introduced subversive-lit godhead Jean Genet to a new generation. “Hero,” uses a found-footage faux-doc format to profile a kid, a crime and an unexplained occurrence; “Homo” takes Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers scenario of lovestruck prisoners and turns it into a rough-trade Pierre et Gilles portfolio; and “Horror” apes Fifties monster flicks to craft a story about a mysterious new disease. The shadow of AIDS hovers heavily over its tales – but so does a sense of liberation and the idea that there were still taboo subjects left to drag out into the light. DF

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘To Sleep With Anger’ (1990)

Everybody knows a guy like Harry (Danny Glover, who should have won an Oscar for this), who simultaneously brings the party and ruins it. He happens to be in town to visit old friends, ex-Southerners transplanted to Los Angeles during the Second Great Migration – and to clean out a closet full of skeletons from their Jim Crow past. Writer-director Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) crafted a prismatic folk tale where every line is a subtle threat or tease. A masterful, magic realist black-Black comedy. SB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘JFK’ (1991)

You can (and should) push back against the since-debunked assertions in Oliver Stone’s dazzling speculative fiction regarding a vast conspiracy behind the murder of President John F. Kennedy. But what remains indisputably true about this electric, frenzied film – highlighted by career-high turn from Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans prosecutor determined to uncover the truth – is the firebrand filmmaker’s rage at the killing of an American leader and the idealism he represented. The movie’s screaming-truth-to-power fervor felt vital during its moment – and continues to feel more necessary than ever now. TGr

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Breaking the Waves’ (1996)

Emily Watson earned a deserved Oscar nomination as Bess, a devout Scottish woman who talks to God – in her mind, He chats back – and marries an oafish oil-rigger (Stellan Skarsgård) who becomes paralyzed in an accident. Soon, he’s encouraging her to find other lovers and report back about their sexual dalliances. Filmed with handheld cameras that emphasize the rampaging torment at the movie’s center, this transcendent melodrama tackles gender inequality and the mysteries of faith with unshakeable intensity. And its shocking ending remains cinematic provocateur Lars Von Trier’s nerviest gambit – he rocks the bells and blows your mind. TGr

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Double Life of Veronique’ (1991)

Nestled right between the career-defining achievements of his 10-part magnum opus Dekalog and his Three Colours Trilogy, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski gifted audiences with this transcendent drama revolving around two vastly different, strangely identical women. Irene Jacob plays an aspiring Eastern European singer named Weronika, who dies onstage during a concert; the actress also shows up as a French woman named Veronique, who finds herself overcome by inexplicable grief at the moment of her doppelganger’s death. With its gorgeous, dreamlike imagery and magical mystery tour of metaphysical connections, the movie casts a spell on you right from the get-go – and offers proof that some feelings are simply easier to evoke than explain.  BT

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Starship Troopers’ (1997)

Executed with the go-for-broke daredevilry of a man who just made Showgirls, pervy Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi action film is, limb for severed limb, Hollywood’s most subversive war movie. Pro-military patriots and fans of Robert Heinlein’s ultrasquare 1959 novel arrived at the multiplex only to be confronted by a $105-million piss-take, peopled by gorgeous lunkheads (Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards chief among them) and drenched in antifascist irony. Presciently, Verhoeven adopted a screaming advertorial style, peppering the alien bug hunt with “clickable” recruitment ads and xenophobic news blasts. But it’s his film’s backward glance – to Nazi pageantry and a jack-booted Neil Patrick Harris – that makes Starship Troopers so lovably irresponsible. Is it the future or Fox News? Both. JR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Lion KIng’ (1994)

This fun (and occasionally problematic) Disney film about a lion avenging the death of his father will make you laugh, cry and sing to your heart’s content. The film’s colorful African landscapes, songs by Elton John and Tim Rice and groundbreaking direction – the wildebeest stampede is still one of the best animated sequences of all time – would go on to influence a new generation of cartoon movies and musicals. In the circle of life, good stories move us all. AS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Naked’ (1993)

Mike Leigh’s acidic character study of an intelligent, cynical street philosopher touring of London’s seedy underbelly and leaving a path of emotional destruction in his wake is a strong contender for the decade’s angriest cri de couer –  it’s still a complete verbal assault on the senses. David Thewlis provides one of the Nineties’ greatest performances, giving his character a feral intensity as he trudges through a landscape of urban squalor and challenges every former flame, predatory yuppie, sneering hipster and working-class folk he meets. Though bleak and despairing in tone, Naked also features a profound appreciation for life’s small pleasures – biting wit, unlikely companionship and a desire to live even if there’s no light to be found. VM

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Unforgiven’ (1992)

When it came to making one last Western, Clint Eastwood wasn’t satisfied with filming a simple revenge tale – instead, the director and former Man With No Name pulled out a critique of the genre that propelled him to iconic status. His William Munny is an aging gunfighter pulled out of retirement to kill two cowboys after they disfigure a prostitute. Unfortunately, he receives more than he bargained for when a self-righteous sheriff (Gene Hackman) gets wind of his plans. Blessed with great supporting performances (especially Hackman and Morgan Freeman) and David Webb Peoples’ airtight script, Unforgiven turns what could have been a traditional horse opera into a meditation upon issues of violence and our country’s moral relativism. “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” Eastwood’s ex-outlaw wearily sighs. Yet only someone who so thoroughly understood how frontier mythology shaped our nation deserved the right to tear it apart. VM

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Crash’ (1996)

No, not the didactic race-relations drama that stole Brokeback Mountain‘s Best Picture Oscar – we mean the movie about James Spader fucking a vagina-like wound in Rosanna Arquette’s thigh. J. G. Ballard’s cult novel about sexual obsession with sleek cars and high-speed death was a perfect match for body-horror specialist David Cronenberg, who pared the book down to an elegant 62-page screenplay. Channeling his rough-and-ready earlier productions, the Canadian director captured tail-lit night rides on Toronto’s freeways, and coached a committed cast to haunted performances. Even orchestral composer Howard Shore stripped his game down to a wiry all-electric-guitar score, the perfect soundscape for the place where twisted metal meets tortured flesh. JR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Fireworks (Hana-Bi)’ (1997)

Japanese superstar “Beat” Takeshi Kitano has always cultivated an offbeat approach to action and crime dramas, but this is something else entirely. He plays a desperate, violent ex-cop dealing with his wife’s terminal disease – the kind of set-up that often lends itself to treacly melodrama or depressing grit. Instead, what emerges is a film that is at once melancholy and light – a lyrical journey in which the sadness of everyday existence coexists with the delicate levity of art, humor and love. And despite the ridiculously tragic narrative, it’s the kind of movie you can return to over and over again – visually gorgeous and genuinely romantic, albeit with moments of near-absurdist violence. BE

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘All About My Mother’ (1999)

An organ-donation counseling nurse in Madrid suffers her teen son’s death and literally gives away his heart before she retreats to Barcelona to find the boy’s father – a transsexual hustler clueless about his paternity. And that’s just the first 20 minutes! We haven’t gotten to the Sapphic actress, her junkie lover or the pregnant nun yet. Welcome to the cruelly ironic, wildly coincidental world of Pedro Almodóvar, where women are mythologically resilient, men are pathologically oblivious and prostitutes play pattycake in the street. This stunning melodrama, a cathartic LGBTQ landmark that nabbed the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, fused the outrageous with a deeply felt empathy – and paved the way for Laverne Cox and Transparent. SG


‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)

It’s the found-footage horror movie that launched a thousand paranormal activities, but Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s out-of-nowhere, no-budget blockbuster is so much more than that. A word-of-mouth phenomenon for months even before it hit theaters, this videotaped account of three student filmmakers who fall prey to the very urban legend they’d set out to chronicle hit summer moviegoers like a mack truck, packing theaters with people who had no idea whether they were watching fiction or fact. Long after the shroud of mystery has been lifted off this Rosetta stone of shaky-cam spookiness, its genre-defining technique has yet to be topped. STC

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Player’ (1992)

Only a director with such a consistently troubled relationship with Hollywood like Robert Altman could satirize Tinseltown dealmaking so cleverly that it resuscitated his career in the process. A calculating studio executive named Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) murders a screenwriter while trying to outmaneuver his competition, while a slew of celebrity cameos take aim at everything from movie star personalities – including some of their own – to the cutthroat business of show. Alternately languid and merciless, The Player rightfully ensured that Altman would be able to finance his iconoclastic visions for another 15 years – which itself feels like the movie-industry equivalent of getting away with murder. TGi

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Crumb’ (1994)

In 1995, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s work was known mainly to comics connoisseurs and ex-hippies – so consider Terry Zwigoff’s documentary a vital public service, one which encouraged a wider appreciation of a great American artist. But it’s the intimate, revealing interviews with the creator of Zap Comix and his eccentric brothers, however, that separates this from a gajillion other artist bio-docs. What could have been a mere portrait becomes a bigger-picture look at a family of troubled geniuses  – two of whom were marginalized by society, and one of whom turned outré ideas into cult success. NM

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Trainspotting’ (1996)

A generational manifesto and arguably the great U.K. film of the decade, director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge’s brilliant Britpoppy take of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel exploded off the screen with a cheeky vigor. It stubbornly refused to mine its grim subject matter (Scottish heroin addicts trying to eke out an existence amid the squalor of modern Edinburgh) for any sort of tight-lipped social realism or moral judgment. While some condemned the film for glamorizing heroin usage, the misadventures of Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his gang of “small-time wasters” – including the horrifying scene where our hero hallucinates being menaced by a zombie baby – hardly made a smack habit seem like something to aspire to. This is hardcore. DE

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ (1997)

A ruinous picture about a community torn apart by unfixable tragedy, Atom Egoyan’s exquisite adaptation of Russell Banks’ 1991 novel is heartbreaking even in summary: A school bus plunges into an icy lake, and 14 children are dead. In the midst of this unthinkable moment, a big-city attorney (Ian Holm) arrives in town to “direct their rage” into a class-action lawsuit. Egoyan plumbs the material for delicate fable-like resonances and the darker, buried trauma of failed parenting. Actor Sarah Polley, only 18 at the time of shooting, taps into a blue-bleak vein of survivor’s guilt; her quiet, cryptic turn is the movie’s soul. JR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)

An elegy for the counterculture of the 1960s, a tribute to Raymond Chandler, a loopy shaggy-dog story, a look into the dog-pull-gun-on-dog world of big-league bowling – the Coen Brothers’ eminently quotable cult crime-caper comedy is all of these things and oh-so-much more. Jeff Bridges gives one of his most delightful and enduring performances as the Dude, the White Russian-quaffing, Eagles-loathing paragon of mellowness who finds himself continually dragged into stressful situations beyond his making. Initially considered something of a letdown, The Big Lebowski is one of those films that gets better with each viewing – especially when “doing a J,” Dude-style, is part of the experience. And if you don’t think so, well, that’s just your opinion, man. DE

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘My Own Private Idaho’ (1991)

Gus Van Sant’s third feature weaves together two vital strands of early-Nineties alternative culture: New Queer Cinema and Pacific Northwest grunge. But it’s more fever dream than trend report, following River Phoenix’s tender, narcoleptic hustler from Seattle and Portland to the Midwest (see title), and then to Italy on a quest to find his long-lost mother. Its structure is a patchwork of vignettes, threaded with the Shakespearean tale of the rentboy’s best friend and unrequited crush (Keanu Reeves) and interrupted by a montage of stories from real street kids. The same bracing combination of melancholy and bitter humor that suffuses the best Nirvana songs makes these mismatched elements cohere – and elevates the film beyond the cultural context in which it was created. JB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997)

Western audiences first caught wind of the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki via this dark fairy tale, the story of an exiled prince who gets a demon’s curse put upon him and finds himself caught in the middle of a war between forest spirits and the human ironworkers who threaten to destroy it. This decidedly grown-up cartoon is remarkable for the striking beauty of its imagery, in which leaves blowing in the breeze and severed limbs flying through the air are rendered with equal splendor. And unlike a lot of animation of the time, Miyazaki’s eco-friendly fable didn’t shy away from moral complexity; there are no real bad guys here, only strong personalities whose good intentions are at direct odds. JS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Heat’ (1995)

Heralded as the first onscreen pairing between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino since they traded eras – but not scenes – in The Godfather Part II, Michael Mann’s stylish, no-nonsense crime thriller delivers not one but two epic stand-offs between the two acting titans, and an operatic L.A. crime saga truly worthy of their best efforts. The methodology and mentality of both cops and crooks are detailed with painstaking professional verisimilitude, and the question becomes: Do we want these criminal masterminds to get away with their crimes, or get caught by their law-abiding counterparts? Meanwhile, a murderer’s row of A-list supporting actors help turn this influential heist flick into an eclectic portrait of two communities on opposite sides of the law, both battling for survival in a zero-sum game. TGi