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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

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Three Colors: Blue’ (1993)

Blue isn’t the warmest color in the first installment of Krzyszstof Kieślowski’s trilogy based on the French flag: It begins with Julie (Juliette Binoche) waking up in a hospital and learning a car accident has killed her husband and child. Grief turns her cold; she’ll slowly, eventually thaw, but not before the filmmaker challenges the entire notion of liberté via his numbed heroine. Few have used the title color so expressively, whether in the reflection of a sonogram or the swimming pool that Binoche uses to work out her sorrow. A highlight of the Polish director’s filmography and the decade’s arthouse explorations of life, death and rebirth. KYK

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Magnolia’ (1999)

A dying man calls out to the son he abandoned; a game show host numbs his illness with booze; a whip-smart kid crumbles in the spotlight; a former child prodigy loses his grip on reality. If anyone can thread these seemingly disparate character arcs together into a gripping narrative and pull off a modern-day plague of frogs, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson. Backed by a sorrowful Aimee Mann soundtrack and featuring Tom Cruise’s most memorable performance to date (“Respect the cock!“), this interconnected epic about wising up is a surrealist, quasi-biblical look at life and its odd, amphibian-filled coincidences. To paraphrase narrator Ricky Jay, strange things happen to us all the time – it’s how we choose to deal with them that ultimately define us. AS

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Out of Sight’ (1998)

Like a Bogart-Bacall romance rebooted for a post-Pulp Fiction world, Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel pairs George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez as a bank robber and U.S. marshal, respectively, who meet cute in the midst of a prison break. Of course they look like movie stars; of course they fall in love. With its witty dialogue, gritty Detroit backdrop, a stellar cast of supporting players (including Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn and an uncredited Samuel L. Jackson) and a killer retro-jazz soundtrack by David Holmes, Out of Sight is loaded with low-key joys. But the film’s greatest thrills come from watching the sparks fly as Clooney (definitively proving he was more than the sum of his E.R. haircut and his nippled batsuit) and Lopez play cat and mouse with each other, despite
knowing that their chosen professions will forever keep them apart. DE


‘Rushmore’ (1998)

Wes Anderson’s second film quickly established the dapper, quirky auteur’s style and motifs: the Sixties British Invasion soundtracks, the distinctively attired characters, the cluttered dollhouse sets, the middle-aged mopes yearning for vanished glory. But the way he takes on this love triangle involving an over-scheduled private school teen (Jason Schwartzman), a depressed millionaire (Bill Murray) and a widowed teacher (Olivia Williams) then gives it such an unexpected emotional depth deflects all those he’s-just-a-twee-hipster-with-a-nice-record-collection digs. Even a scene of multiple generations dancing in slow motion to the Faces becomes a tear-jerker. And it’s ground zero for Murray’s incredible sad-sack career second act. NM

'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999)

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999)

When Stanley Kubrick’s final, posthumous film – a dreamlike journey through a surreal underworld of sex, power and humiliation, starring then real-life husband-and-wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – opened in the final year of the millennium, there was plenty of grousing: Where was all the down ‘n dirty Tom-Nicole sex we’d been promised? Why did everything feel so slow and unreal? What were those weird music cues? Of course, similar gripes had greeted previous Kubrick films, including The Shining, and much as with that horror masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut‘s reputation has steadily, deservedly risen. Everything here – from the grimy-yet-beautifully-textured cinematography to the incantatory dialogue, the heightened performances to the red herring-filled plot – serves to create the feeling of a waking dream, one filled with ineffable longing. BE

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Kids’ (1995)

A teensploitation film fed by fear of AIDS, Larry Clark’s controversial, verité-style debut nonetheless captured a raw, reckless day in the life of real New York City adolescents as told by one of their own: 19-year-old screenwriter/skater kid Harmony Korine. Boys and girls (but mostly boys) unhinge their jaws, and their insatiable appetites expose at least three characters to the HIV virus while another young woman (Chlöe Sevigny, in her breakout role) is sexually assaulted. Kids is a time capsule, and its Lou Barlow-helmed soundtrack gleefully suggests that teens in the Nineties had surrendered to apathy and excess without even an assist from Nirvana. But this putative cautionary tale turned to prophecy when two of the film’s stars (Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce) died tragically within a decade of its release. PR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Barton Fink’ (1991)

“I’ll show you the life of the mind!” Joel and Ethan’s Tinseltown adventure finds the brothers at their most wonderfully baffling: Are any of the scenes happening inside the main character’s head? (And, seriously, what’s in the box?) John Turturro is the pompous New York playwright who cashes in on his Broadway success by selling out to Hollywood, which only results in writer’s block, murder and frequent visits from John Goodman’s sublimely unctuous insurance salesman. It’s as much a poisonous showbiz satire as it is a dark portrait of American anti-Semitism – and a film about creative stagnation in which the ideas and inventiveness never let up. TGr

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Dead Man’ (1995)

Filthy, nasty, funny, ponderous and peyote high, Jim Jarmusch’s anti-Western is the coolest black-and-white slow-burn in all the land. Johnny Depp, back when the man could do no wrong, plays William Blake, a timid accountant whose journey west quickly spirals into violence and vengeful justice. His companion is an unlikely Native American sidekick named Nobody (Gary Farmer); the whole thing may or may not take place in the afterlife. From Neil Young’s staggeringly great, broke-down Morricone-esque score to Iggy Pop as a campfire drag mother, Jarmusch’s deconstructed oater is like a 19th-century nightmare filtered forward into a country that’s no less dumb, guilty or lost. EH

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Fight Club’ (1999)

David Fincher’s brutally violent, visually stunning adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel is so perfectly pitched that flippant young punks can see it as call for antisocial mayhem and older establishment types could read it as a repudiation of Nineties nihilism. Give credit to stars Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, two leads who embody the yin and yang of macho self-destruction – especially when a certain killer twist kicks things into a different gear. Though it keenly described the rootlessness of middle-class Gen-Xers, its insights into a specific end-of-the-century alienation still apply: to the anti-materialistic progressives and the alt-right; to #NotAllMen activists and GamerGaters; and to any recklessly angry type who find a community that allows them to indulge their worst impulses. NM

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Paris Is Burning’ (1990)

Before Madonna appropriated ball culture in “Vogue,” first-time director Jennie Livingston trained her camera on the Harlem-based scene, where “houses” hosted wildly inventive drag battles and functioned as surrogate families for gay men and trans women of color. Performers speak eloquently on how racism, homophobia and poverty have deferred their lifelong dreams of fame and fortune; one starry-eyed young dancer is murdered. Detractors have accused Livingston of exploiting her subjects, but the film remains a crucial snapshot of a community whose influence might otherwise have been erased by a mainstream culture that plundered it for ideas. JB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Toy Story’ (1995)

Nothing looked like Pixar’s tale of action figures and the kid who loves them when the company’s inaugural offering hit screens – fast-forward one decade-and-beyond later, and nearly everything looks like it. As the first full-length computer-animated movie, it was destined to be a historic achievement, but what John Lasseter’s instant classic proved, beyond the obvious marvels of technique, was that CGI could have all the whimsy, warmth and depth of hand-drawn animation in the right hands. The digital sandbox may be cutting-edge, but Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang’s spirit of friendship and adventure feels as old as childhood. ST

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)

Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature set the table for everything that followed: the skewed-chronology storytelling, which turns it into heist movie without a heist; the pop culture references, like the opening disquisition on the true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”; and the eclectic soundtrack, which will forever associate Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” with the gruesome spectacle of a cop getting his ear sliced off. But Reservoir Dogs would end up being even bigger than than its creator – it’s the opening salvo to an indie revolution. After an era dominated by Merchant/Ivory productions, a wave of bloody genre films suddenly turned the arthouse into the grindhouse. Things would never be the same. ST

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Matrix’ (1999)

The major sci-fi film of 1999 was supposed to be The Phantom Menace – and then a true mind-bender emerged, setting the agenda for the next century’s blockbusters. The Matrix is a dazzling combination of radical political messaging, kick-ass action sequences and a brilliant premise: Anonymous hacker Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) learns that he’s living in an elaborate simulation orchestrated by robots that have enslaved humanity; naturally, only he can stop it. Filmmakers Lilly and Lana Wachowski brought the world bullet-time visual effects and wire-fu fight scenes, grafting a postmodern hipness onto a classic hero’s journey. But just as meaningfully, they tapped into the culture’s pre-millennium tension, envisioning a frightening near future in which humanity would be ruled by the very technology it had created. TGr

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)

Imagine Robert Altman’s Nashville raunchily transplanted to the San Fernando Valley – with a couple of bloody, Tarantino-esque shoot-outs thrown in for kicks. And boom, you have Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tale of the late Seventies/early Eighties porn business, an epic group-character study that totally nails the effervescent sleaziness of the last days before AIDS without ever settling for easy disco-ball nostalgia. Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy and Heather “Rollergirl” Graham are all unforgettable as members of director Burt Reynolds’ dysfunctional porn family, while Mark Wahlberg’s breakout turn as priapic prodigal son Dirk Diggler put his Marky Mark days behind him forever. It’s the announcement of a bold new filmmaking talent, a beautiful look back and a hint of things to come. DE

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Fargo’ (1996)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s darkly comic snowbound noir stars William H. Macy as Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, a Midwestern every-schmo who hires a couple of small-time criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife in the hopes of pocketing the ransom money once her wealthy father pays up. Like almost everything this would-be criminal mastermind touches, though, the plan goes wildly off the rails. People end up dead, things fall apart and pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in a iconic, Oscar-winning performance) is determined to doggedly trace the blood trail back to its hapless source. It’s a startlingly original procedural, one that deftly pairs sweet-natured satire – those accents! – with shocking violence – that woodchipper! – and slowly, ever-so-politely emerges as one of the standout gems of the Coens’ considerable career. GM

beau travail

‘Beau Travail’ (1999)

Behold, the Foreign-Legion reimagining of Billy Budd you never knew you needed. French director Claire Denis takes Herman Melville’s final novel of military life and mancrushes, drops it into modern-day West Africa and turns the story of a handsome rookie recruit (Grégoire Colin) and an envious sergeant (Denis Levant) into an impressionistic dismantling of first-world masculinity. Cinematographer Agnes Godard films scenes of blinding daytime marches and late-night club revelries with a palpable sense of heat; using everything from opera arias to Neil Young’s “Safeway Cart,” Denis transforms the troops’ maneuvers into musical numbers. Coming at the end of the decade, this landmark movie felt like a breath of fresh, and equally humid-as-hell air blowing into an often stale late-Nineties’ Euro-arthouse scene. And just when you think things can’t get anymore dynamic, Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” comes on, Levant hits the dance floor and you fall into a state of delirium. DF

groundhog day

‘Groundhog Day’ (1993)

Caddyshack meets A Christmas Carol in Harold Ramis’s warm-hearted, wisdom-filled comedy, as Bill Murray’s self-important TV weatherman gets his karmic comeuppance by reliving the same small-town Pennsylvania day over and over until he gets it right. The movie star is at his wise-guy best here, playing a blithely sarcastic sexist who initially views his metaphysical predicament as a license to indulge in bad behavior consequence-free. Then he bottoms out and eventually realizes that he’s better off becoming a standup guy. Nineties rom-com queen Andie MacDowell is the woman who wins his heart. (Bonus rewatch surprise: a young Michael Shannon in his feature film debut as one half of a newly married couple very excited about Wrestlemania tickets.) Repeat viewings are essential. GM

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘The Piano’ (1993)

Merchant-Ivory monopolized prestige period films until Jane Campion’s strange, unruly, expressionistic fable shattered everything. Holly Hunter stars as Ada, a mute 19th century mail-order bride sent with her precocious young daughter (Anna Paquin) from Scotland to New Zealand to be with a fussy husband (Sam Neill). Her piano is her only voice, refused until a rough neighbor (Harvey Keitel) trades land for the instrument. The brute agrees to return it to Ada for lessons that belie his burgeoning love – and, eventually, hers. The startlingly original gothic romance beguiled the Cannes Film Festival, making Campion the first woman ever to win the Palme d’Or. Oscar noticed, too: Hunter and Paquin nabbed acting awards, while Campion won Best Screenplay. SG

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Chungking Express’ (1994)

You only need to watch Wong Kar-wai’s ode to all the lonely people once to permanently alter your consciousness – after that, you’ll never be able to hear “California Dreamin'” without imagining Faye Wong dancing to it. The Sixties rock song is only one of many all-over-the-map influences the Hong Kong-based director imports into the fluorescent-lit film’s twinned tales of the lovelorn and the lost. Characters sewn together from spare bits of Old Hollywood and French New Wave archetypes sip Mexican Sol Cerveza and frequent a takeout joint where gyro meat spins on vertical rotisseries. The heroes of this chaste romance are two cops struggling to move on after breakups; one becomes infatuated with an outlaw in a blonde bombshell wig, while his doppelganger is covertly courted by a gamine who sneaks into his apartment to clean. More distinctive than even the lovers’ charming quirks is Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s smudgy, impressionistic visual style, which immerses the viewer in a celluloid dreamscape that only adds to its swooning potency. JB

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

Spike Lee had hoped that his biopic about the slain Civil Rights leader would have the epic sweep of classic movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi. In fact, the director achieved something even greater: A historical drama, a compelling character study and a political essay all at once. As we watch Malcolm (played by Denzel Washington in one of the finest performances anyone anywhere has ever given) go from happy-go-lucky party-boy to smalltime hoodlum, convict to rabble-rouser, political leader to family man and beyond, we see how the cumulative impact of the lives he’s lived come to transform his thinking. This is not a historical portrait captured in amber; it’s a living, breathing movie that is as much about the here and now as it is about the mercurial era of its subject or the moment the movie was released into theaters. BE

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Slacker’ (1991)

The London Calling of Nineties cinema arrived at the exact pivot between one decade (and one America) and the next. Richard Linklater’s career-long obsession with time – what it does to us and what we make of it – starts right here. Dispensing with plot, recurring characters and fixed locations, this free-form excavation of Lone Star eccentricity wanders around Austin, Texas, trailing the talky troubadours of a generation defeated by Reagan and prepped for Clinton-era cynicism. It’s a chronicle of its moment, encapsulating the bar-stool conspiracies and nihilistic philosophies of a very specific post-post-hippy college town, while also absolutely nailing an evergreen sense of uneasy freedom, U.SA.-style. All this and Madonna’s pap smear results, ready for sale. EH

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Close-Up’ (1990)

Awakening Western eyes to a global strain of sympathy that knew no borders, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami was the art-house “discovery” of the 1990s: a tenderhearted humanist who gave lie to the reductive politics of the day. Kicking off the decade he would come to dominate, Kiarostami released this radically original docu-fiction hybrid, flecked with sneaky humor and a deeper anxiety about borrowed notions
of identity. On its surface, the film is the story of a con artist: Hossain Sabzian loves movies and wants to be famous. Somehow, he doesn’t have a problem lying to a stranger that he is well-known Iranian
director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. One thing leads to another, and our bogus hero is invading a family’s home under false pretenses, all while digging himself deeper into a colossal pit. Close-Up extends the ruse into a feature-length cringe – until it drops its gloriously compassionate endgame, a meta-touch that helped push the medium into uncharted territory. JR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

Take two chatty hitmen. Add in a coke-snorting femme fatale, her mobster husband, a boxer on the run, some basement dwelling hillbillies and a low-rent Bonnie and Clyde robbing a diner. Drench the whole thing in the comprehensive pop cultural obsessions of its creator, and voila – you have the Royale With Cheese of 1990s independent cinema. No other film of the decade had the instant adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart impact of Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the films that formed his cinemania – it doesn’t feel like a defining movie of the decade so much as the Nineties itself, achingly hip and deliriously footnoted and endlessly quotable. Posters hung on dorm walls; parodies sprouted up overnight; even the soundtrack, filled with extremely well-curated surf rock and vintage smooth R&B, was inescapable. Building on the rat-a-tat dialogue and funny-to-violent whiplash of his debut Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s sophomore movie is where his signature style really comes into its own – few other filmmakers can claim to have their surname turned into a adjective after just two features. We’re still feeling the aftershocks of this seventh-art earthquake decades later. BT

silence of the lambs

‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)

The infamous mask, those giant moths, the grotesque handiwork of not one but two chillingly nicknamed homicidal maniacs, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” – it’s been decades since Jonathan Demme’s serial-killer thriller swept the Oscars and scared the beejesus out of audiences, and none of its indelible images or best lines have faded from our collective memory. The late, great director and screenwriter Ted Tally immediately makes you complicit in this Faustian bargain between Jodie Foster’s promising FBI cadet Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ savage bon vivant Hannibal Lecter – every conversation with Hannibal Lecter turns into a strange, singular flirtation. (Which doesn’t mean the creators ignore the era’s casual chauvinism; check out the way Demme frames the library assistants staring Starling down.) Everything plays out like a perverse Pygmalion: She deciphers his enigmatic clues while he isolates the trauma that makes her tick and schools her in the proper etiquette of the psychopath. Clarice is warned not to let Hannibal into her head, but she does – and now we’ll never get him out of ours. PR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Safe’ (1995)

It starts with a truck farting out fumes, or maybe it’s that “totally toxic” new couch: For some reason, San Fernando Valley housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore, brilliantly brittle) is sick. The spooky genius of Todd Haynes’ near-abstract masterpiece is that it never pins down an answer (Fruit diet? A chemical-heavy perm?), putting us on exploratory paths that few movies dare. Set in a soulless, deodorized 1987 but very much of its right-here-right-now moment, Safe plays like an indictment of suburban America: “Where am I?” Carol asks, on the verge of mental collapse. Hyperventilating at a friend’s baby shower, she could be reacting to expectations she can’t meet. Unspoken by name is the AIDS virus, for which the film is often read as a metaphor. But this indie-cum-disease-of-the-week thriller extends far beyond even that diagnosis, into the kind of existential ennui that would make Michelangelo Antonioni beam. Provocatively, Haynes gives his timid character the impulse to make a change – but at what cost to her freedom? It’s a movie that will frighten you of just about everything. JR

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994)

The movie that smuggled long-form observational documentary into multiplexes, gave birth to a generation of filmmakers and made mass audiences reckon with the challenges of being young, poor and black in America – the one that Roger Ebert called “the great American documentary.” Shot over six years and presented over three breathless hours, this Oscar-nominated epic from filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert follows teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee, wildly talented basketball players from Chicago’s south side, as the young men go from playground to gymnasium, from courtside dramas to myriad struggles at home. Even a quarter of a century later, with
its protagonists having drifted into middle age, Hoop Dreams still plays like a buzzer beater. And that’s because it tells a story still largely unheard in popular art, one that comes alive through a gathering of complex, intimate details, and takes the time to trace the twists and turns, thrills and indignities that only real life can offer. It’s a full-on, time-tested American masterpiece. EH

100 Best Movies of 1990s

‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Martin Scorsese’s woozy, dizzy adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s slice-of-Mafia-life book Wiseguy is many things: a social anthropology study, an epic look at the American Dream, a coked-up nightmare, a nostalgic look back at an age when made men were made men, a head-spinning display of virtuosic filmmaking, the blueprint for the modern organized-crime saga and a peerless look at a world where you might be slapped on the back or shot in the face. “Mob guys love it, because it’s the real thing,” Pileggi told GQ. “They say, ‘It’s like a home movie.'” And as you watch Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill go from up-and-coming crook to cosa nostra bigwig to Witness-Protection-Plan “average nobody,” you realize you’re getting a funhouse-mirror reflection of an old-fashioned U.S. of A. bootstrap success story, complete with bespoke Italian suits, bulging cashrolls and Bolivian-marching-powder meltdowns.

Every performance, from the holy trinity of Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (“Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?”) to the round-the-way guys in the background, feels pitch-perfect. Its movie-mad references run the gamut from The Godfather to The Great Train Robbery; its soundtrack incorporates everything from Bobby Darin to Donovan, the Stones to Sid Vicious. (After that murder montage, filmmakers are essentially forbidden from using Layla‘s coda to score a scene ever again.) Its influence is incalcuable – you don’t get a million moving-camera showstoppers without that Copacabana tour, and you definitely don’t get the Tarantino, et al., mix of black humor and horrifying violence without Goodfellas‘ getting that combination down to a science first. And though Scorsese had made great movies before and would make great ones after this, this Mob-flick hit feels like a summation of his culturally specific, universally thrilling cinema about men on the edge. There are movies that may be more emblematic of the Nineties, but this was the one that set the pace for the entire decade – a high mark that left most other contenders to the throne looking like schnooks. DF

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