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.
80. The Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) | Home Alone (1990)
If you were like me and grew up on a steady diet of The Three Stooges or Looney Tunes, then you absolutely loved the Wet Bandits. Well, maybe I should say you loved what was done to the Wet Bandits. Though not the main characters of Home Alone, Harry Lime and Marv Merchants were the antagonists to Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister. Harry and Marv are low level robbers who decide to rob Kevin McCallister’s home during Christmas. Why “Wet Bandits”? Marv is obsessed with a catchy name. So, after a break-in Harry turns on every faucet in a attempt to flood the robbery scene; hence “Wet Bandits.” Harry and Marv don’t grow or progress through the film, but they are the perfect comedic foils for Kevin and of course they get caught in the end. I never watch Home Alone for the heart-warming family story of Kevin McCallister, I watch it for the flame-throwers and hot door knobs.
– Ralph Hosch
79. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) | American Beauty (1999)
The last two characters I had to write up were Lester Burnham and Bodhi from Point Break. On the surface, the two characters seem like they couldn’t have less to do with each other, but I think that there’s a point in American Beauty where Lester Burnham is on his way to becoming his own version of a Bodhi. A less exciting, more pedestrian version of Bodhi, maybe, but I think Patrick Swayze’s carefree surf guru-cum-philosopher would appreciate and maybe even respect Lester’s journey from forgotten man to the assertive man he becomes just before meeting his unfortunate end. Because if there’s any point to the character of Bodhi, it’s to challenge Johnny Utah’s understanding of the world, to get him to loosen up and color outside the lines a little. And if there’s any point to American Beauty, it has to be that, even though we all have roles we have to play, we shouldn’t have to be imprisoned by them. While playing those roles, we shouldn’t lose track of who we are or who we were before we came to play all of those different roles, and, even though we may be a respected businessman or father or teacher or FBI agent or what have you, maybe it’s ok to wear a loud shirt from time to time, smoke a joint every now and again, and just live a little.
Lester’s rebellion isn’t as dramatic as Bodhi’s choice to live his life as a bank robber and big surf chaser, but he’s no less interesting for it. And probably a lot more relatable. Especially today.
– Billy Dhalgren
78. Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) | The Fugitive (1993)
Tommy Lee Jones as Marshal Sam Gerard gets all the praise for The Fugitive – and his character is the breakout performance – but it doesn’t work without Ford’s Kimble. (See the unsatisfying spin-off U.S. Marshals to see what I mean.) To be fair, Kimble is presented as sympathetic and, most importantly, innocent from the earliest parts of the film, allowing us to invest and identify with him for the entire running time. Harrison Ford brings an edge to his patented flustered everyman, making the good Doctor believable as a regular (if accomplished) guy managing to keep one step ahead of law enforcement while engaging in action-star heroics. It’s his dedication, focus and drive to find his wife’s killer that keeps us invested, though, and what turns Gerard’s professional antagonism into something like respect and, maybe, even friendship. The Fugitive is a film with two protagonists, and one doesn’t work without the other.
– Bob Cram
77. Corporal Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies) | Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Like many of you, for the longest time, I hated Corporal Timothy Upham. He wasn’t brave or cool, he was a “nerd”, he tried bringing a typewriter on the mission with him and the biggest reason most people don’t like him is that he is considered a coward.
However, over the years, my opinion has changed of this character. Much like each character in Romero’s Night of the Living represents a portion of the population and how we would act in a world-ending event, Upham portrays a particular type of person that could be any one of us if we were faced with the same situation. We don’t like to admit we would be a coward or scared, of course. We want to be the leader of high integrity like Captain Miller or the coolest sniper around like Private Jackson. Nobody wants to be an Upham but you don’t know what you would do until you are in his position. Upham has become one of my favorite Spielberg characters for exactly why people don’t like him and he adds a whole different layer to an already great film.
– Vincent Kane
76. Maggie / “Amber Waves” (Julianne Moore) | Boogie Nights (1997)
Boogie Nights might have launched Marky Mark into the acting spotlight, but it also proved that Julianne Moore was a talented actress on the rise. Moore excels as “Amber Waves”, Jack Horner’s leading lady and maternal figure for the younger actors on set. Amber actually cares about her “children” and offers them a loving and supportive shoulder. It’s hard not to imagine this is the sort of relationship she could have with her own son, whose custody she finds herself in battle for with her ex-husband. Although the court eventually rules that she is an unfit mother due to her porn career and drug use, the audience has seen quite the opposite. She is respected in her film community for both her talents and in her role as a nurturer and support system. The court may think she is unfit to care for her son, but as Boogie Nights proves, there is no bigger (and caring) heart than the one pumping in Amber’s chest.
– Marmaduke Karlston
75. Herman Blume (Bill Murray) | Rushmore (1998)
A good actor/director partnership is a thing of beauty. You would think seeing the same actor(s) in your favorite directors movies would grow tiresome but the exact opposite happens. Collaborations like Jackson and Tarantino, Mifune and Kurosawa and De Niro and Scorsese result in a product better than the sum of its parts. Either one makes the other one better and vice versa. Whether you like the films of Wes Anderson or not, his work with Bill Murray more than deserves to be in that conversation. Anderson singlehandedly revitalized his career and in turn, Murray has given him the best work he’s ever done. Before Rushmore, he his roles were either comedic or dramatic, never both. Herman Blume is shades of everything. He’s hilariously deadpan but also clearly broken. He hates his sons, his wife and his life, so when a young man ropes him into schemes, he’s more than willing to jump right in. And when that relationship sours, he’s also more than willing to use his money to fuck him up. Who other than Murray could play a convincing romantic lead and a child abuser in the same movie and still get laughs?
– Sailor Monsoon
74. The Narrator (Edward Norton) | Fight Club (1999)
The first time I saw this film I was blown away by the performances. Both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are stellar in their diametrically opposed roles. And while Pitt is utterly fantastic as Tyler Durdin, I feel like Norton’s performance of the insomnia main character is equally as impressive. He’s the everyman. He’s the one we all relate to most. And he’s the one who drives the story. It’s hands down one of David Fincher’s best films and now I want to watch it again.
– K. Alvarez
73. Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) | Magnolia (1999)
Tom Cruise’s single greatest performance. (Well, this one too.) But in all seriousness, Frank T.J. Mackey may not be quite as “iconic” as other characters on this list — looking closer at the most meaningful films of the decade, it’s damn near impossible to overstate the importance of this installment. Mackey is the dynamic, explosive, intense, nuanced, fractured, and emotional connective tissue for Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark ensemble fable, Magnolia.
In many ways, Cruise’s Frank Mackey still remains an avatar for American toxic masculinity; an avatar for unhealthy suppression; an avatar for sleazy commercial success; an avatar for the flawed and the wounded. And it just may be the perfect pairing of actor and character meeting to craft a unique sense of intensity that would’ve slipped into the unintentionally comical arena in the hands of anyone else. No, Frank T.J. Mackey isn’t the most “memorable” character from the ’90s . . . but he may be one of the most subversively important.
– Mitch Roush
72. Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) | The Fifth Element (1997)
While unfortunately typifying the Born Sexy Yesterday trope, The Fifth Element’s female lead is still a brilliant character. Perfection played to perfection by Milla Jovovich, Leeloominaï Lekatariba Lamina-Tchaï Ekbat De Sebat balances comical childlike wonder and preternatural badassery. The emotional core of a story could get lost in a film like The Fifth Element, what with all the weird and wonderful things happening on screen at any given time, but Jovovich’s Leeloo is always bringing the humanity back to the proceedings as the heart of the movie.
– D.N. Williams
71. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) | Trainspotting (1996)
Renton is pretty much the straight man in Trainspotting. When the straight man is a jobless, heroin-addicted junkie and criminal, you know you’re in for a good time. He doesn’t have a lot going for him but considering the company he keeps and the situations he gets himself into, it’s impossible not to root for him. There is definitely a smarter side to Renton, as he tries to see through the bullshit of everyday life. This is summed up perfectly in his opening monologue about choosing life. Ewan McGregor plays the role to perfection and he really managed to pull the junkie persona off. One look at him in the latter stages of the movie and it should put you off trying hard drugs for life.
– Lee McCutcheon
What do you think of the selection so far? Who are some of your favorite ’90s characters? Maybe they will show up further on the list!