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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

Denzel Washington

Everett Collection

8

‘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

Everett Collection

7

‘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

Hossain Sabzian (right)

Everett Collection

6

‘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

John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson

Everett Collection

5

‘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

100 Best Movies of 1990s

Anthony Hopkins

Everett Collection

4

‘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

Julianne Moore

Everett Collection

3

‘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

Arthur Agee

Everett Collection

2

‘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

Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro

Everett Collection

1

‘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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