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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

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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