There has never been a decade in film quite like the ’90s. It was a time where foreign and independent films were as big as blockbusters. Unlike today where Disney has a monopoly on entertainment, it felt like cinema at that time was one giant sandbox where everyone could play. Auteurs from decades past were making movies alongside indie darlings. Hell, even documentaries were big. It was a fertile period for cinephiles and with that came a wellspring of iconic characters. There was bullet dodging hacker ninjas and Bible quoting hitmen. Charismatic cannibals, Scottish junkies, philosophical slackers and clerks who weren’t supposed to be here today. They made us start fight clubs, believe in ghosts and quote shagadelic spies ad nauseum. These are the characters that made the decade as beloved as it is.
These are the 100 Greatest ’90s Characters of All Time.
10. Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) | Toy Story (1995)
There may be no more iconic ’90s duo than Buzz and Woody (although there’s still one more to go on our list). The pair have stood the test of time, spawning three more movies over three decades. Tom Hanks (Woody) and Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear) gave iconic performances as the sheriff and space ranger toys, starting as enemies and ending as best friends. The juxtaposition of cowboy and astronaut fits perfectly with Woody’s fear of becoming obsolete, which we can all identify with. And grown men cried when the duo finally parted ways in the latest instalment in the franchise, Toy Story 4.
– Jacob Holmes
09. Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) | Clueless (1995)
May I please remind you that it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty. There’s been something of a resurgence in popularity with the movie Clueless over recent years, and while the film itself embeds itself deeper and deeper into pop culture canon over time, Alicia Silverstone’s yellow plaid clad performance as Cher Horowitz becomes all the more iconic. As we all know, Clueless is an update on Jane Austen’s Emma, but it doesn’t take the easy route and simply put old characters in a different environment with a new coat of paint. Cher Horowitz is jut as era-specific as her inspiration. An archetypal valley girl, hell, maybe THE archetypal valley girl. Can anyone even compete? As if!
– D.N. Williams
08. Neo (Keanu Reeves) | The Matrix (1999)
Neo man. NEO. Every article I’ve ever read about the character goes on about how Neo is an anagram of One and, of course, he’s THE ONE. But Neo also means new, and when The Matrix came out it was definitely something new. The mix of philosophy, cyberpunk, cutting edge special-effects and “kung-fu” seemed to come out of nowhere and blasted all of our brains with cool idea after cool idea and awesome image after awesome image. None of that was going to work worth a damn without great characters, though, and we got those in spades as well – Morphius, Trinity, Agent Smith. The bottom line, though, is that the original Matrix film is your classic Hero Discovered story – and they had to nail the hero cold or it would have been just another cool looking, but empty film that we don’t really need to see again. Like… I dunno, every other Wachowski film I can think of.
Keanu Reeves was not an obvious pick for the character of Neo. He was actually the sixth choice after actors like Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio – his low rank probably due to a string of box office misses that included another cyberpunk-themed film, Johnny Mnemonic (which, I have to admit, my friends and I referred to as Johnny Moronic). I can’t imagine the character as anyone but Reeves, though. From simple Thomas Anderson who spends his nights as hacker “Neo” to reluctant action hero and savior to, finally, an almost godlike superman, Reeves’ flat affect and simple charisma work some undefinable magic to win us over and get us to root for him, even when he’s getting his ass kicked by Agent Smith. At its heart it’s a simple story, despite all the glitzy distractions, and that’s why I still love it and this character so much. I wanted to see him survive, I wanted to see him win, and I wanted him to be The One. The Wachowskis hit this one out of the park and if the subsequent films weren’t quite as good, well, the Hero Defined is just never as exciting as a great origin story. The best heroes are ones we all want to be and, god help me, I really wanted to be Neo. And if I can’t be The One, can’t I at least download some software so I can know kung-fu?
– Bob Cram
07. Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) | The Usual Suspects (1995)
Fine. I guess this makes sense why Kevin Spacey’s John Doe is not in the Top 10, because his “Verbal” Kint is another great performance by him. He really was on a roll in the 90s. The whole time he plays the meek, mild mannered Kint in a way I don’t think anyone else could. Terrified of the ruthless crime lord Keyser Söze, Kint is interrogated by the police throughout the film, however as he continues to give the police information you realize he is not really reliable or what he seems to be.
“And just like that … he was gone.”
– K. Alvarez
06. The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) | Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron’s original vision for the Terminator character was that of an Everyman, a man who could blend in with his surroundings. That makes sense from a narrative standpoint. As infiltration units, a regular looking guy would be far less conspicuous than the hulking bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzengger. But as a visual medium, sometimes logic takes a backseat to what looks good on camera. As much as I like Lance Henriksen (Cameron’s original choice for the role), I don’t think Cameron’s low budget horror/sci-fi film would have had the cultural impact it ended up having with him in the title role.
But since the Terminator franchise deals in alternate possible futures, let’s assume for a second it would have been a hit. Would Cameron’s idea to play the Terminator against type in the sequel have played the same with an Everyman in the lead role? Would the idea for Judgement Day have even occurred to the writer/director or would the sequel have been completely different?
Fortunately, in our reality’s continuity, Schwarzenegger was cast in the role and we got a sequel that has been lauded as one of the greatest action films of all time. And one of the most interesting aspects of that film is Cameron’s choice to have Schwarzenegger’s T-800 fill the role of good guy. Not only does it make for great comic relief, it imbues a character that the audience only knows as a ruthless killing machine with pathos. The audience actually ends up caring about a character that the first film taught us is an unfeeling, murderous robot. When Schwarzenegger lowers himself into the molten metal at the end, we are genuinely sad (I wasn’t crying, it was my allergies, bro). For ourselves, for John, and for the Terminator. That’s a genius bit of writing on Cameron’s part, but it might have doomed the franchise to endless repetitions of the same formula by anchoring it to Schwarzenegger’s star power. But I can accept that, because Cameron’s two nearly-perfect films are worth an entire catalog of shitty sequels.
– Billy Dhalgren
05. Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Even if you haven’t read the books or seen the film, you’ve heard of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. His reputation is undeniable. You know who he is and, more importantly, know what he’s done. That is the testament of a monumental character. Sir Anthony Hopkins himself certainly made a feast out of the role. Truly a generational achievement of unsettling, seductive, disturbing brilliance. You can’t take your eyes off of him and yet, you feel him peering into your soul waiting for his moment to take a delicious nibble — both spiritually and physically. It’s one of the few perfect performances in a decade of groundbreaking cinema. And if that doesn’t convince you, remember this… Hopkins was on screen for only 24 minutes and 52 seconds in The Silence of the Lambs and still managed to bring home the Best Actor Oscar anyway. That is what we like to call legendary.
– Mitch Roush
04. Genie (Robin Williams) | Aladdin (1992)
Disney exploded on the scene in the ’90s with a renaissance of iconic films. Several of their characters have appeared on this list already. But none more iconic than Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. Genie is lightning in a bottle, letting Williams loose to do just about anything he wanted — even impressions that don’t fit the time period or setting. But it all makes sense when hilariously spouted off or sung by Genie. But in typical Williams fashion, he brings just as much heart as humor to the role and his relationship with Aladdin arguably overrides that even of Jasmine. When the live-action remake came around, nobody was wondering how they could cast Aladdin or Jasmine, the question was how they could ever reconjure the magic of Genie. That says something.
– Jacob Holmes
03. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) | The Big Lebowski (1998)
March 6th is The Day of the Dude, the highest of holy days in the religion know as Dudeism. You read that right. There is a religion based around the philosophy and lifestyle of The Dude. While there’s something non-Dude-ish about codifying a religion around someone who is adamantly about not codifying things – “That’s just, like, your opinion, man” – there are some things we can say about the man and just let him be the rug that ties the whole thing together.
The Dude knows you can be right and still be an asshole. The Dude will not let aggression stand. The Dude knows the most important part of a car is sometimes the Creedence tapes in it. The Dude knows that sometimes all it takes is a rug to really bring the room together. The Dude knows that even with the porn of the future you’ll still have to jerk off manually. The Dude knows that sooner or later you’re going to have to face the fact you’re a goddamn moron. The Dude abides.
There are many things we can know about The Dude – the El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing – but we can never really know THE DUDE. We can only be happy that there IS a Dude. “It’s good knowing he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ her easy for all us sinners.” I can take comfort in that. I hope you can too.
– Bob Cram
02. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) | Fargo (1996)
It’s not typical for a film’s hero to not make their first on screen appearance until 30 minutes into the proceedings. But then again Marge Gunderson is not a typical film hero. Wonderfully played by Frances McDormand and superbly written by the Coen Brothers, Gunderson simultaneously flips the script on what it means to be a great cinematic cop, while holding true to what makes us love them. She’s intuitive, intelligent, and doesn’t take crap from anyone. She’s whimsically charming, but commands respect from everyone she encounters. She brings a polite warmth to the Minnesota cold. She’s the only competent soul in a film full of buffoons. Even with limited screen time and operating on the periphery of the film’s action, Fargo is clearly Marge Gunderson’s movie. If that doesn’t make you an all-time great character, it’s hard to say what will.
– Raf Stitt
01. Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) | Pulp Fiction (1994)
I am so pleased to bring you the number one and greatest dynamic duo of the ’90s. Jules and Vincent! Who the fuck would have ever picked John Travolta for one half of this pair other than Quentin Tarantino. I mean really??? But man do the two of them just work so damn well together. I couldn’t see it ANY other way now. The seemingly random and trivial dialogue between the two of them is unbelievable. Sure Tarantino writes dialogue better than most other writers/directors working today, but the two of these guys work so well together you want to hang out with them in real life. This movie sparked so many copycats and rip-offs, and none can ever compare to the original. It is quintessential 90s at its best.
– K. Alvarez
20-11 | Next Decade
What did you think of the list? Who were some of your favorite ’90s characters that didn’t show up? Tell us who you think should have made the cut down in the comments!