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 successful. Everything seemed copacetic, which lead to everyone doing their own thing. Studios weren’t competing nor copying but instead, had a healthy rivalry. Animation was back in a big way and was evolving in terms of technology and maturing in terms of storytelling.
It was a fertile period for cinephiles and with that came a wellspring of iconic movies that we took for granted. We didn’t appreciate how many new masters it was producing, the big swings the old masters were taking or how quickly it was taking cinema in terms of innovation. And since we’re all still drunk in love with the goddamn 80s, this decade doesn’t seem to be getting any love any time soon. This list is a reminder of how many bangers this decade produced and why it deserves more respect.
These are the 100 Greatest ’90s Movies of All Time.
10. Fargo (1996)
Let’s make one thing clear – Roger Deakins should have won his first Academy Award for his work on this movie. The cinematography of Fargo is as crucial to its efficacy as anything else. The geography of the film’s location is as much of a character as any of the people who inhabit it. And because it’s The Coen Brothers, we can be assured that the characters are going to be classics. With the exception of Marge Gunderson (played by the always terrific Frances McDormand), all of the characters here are bumbling morons who can’t help but have their incompetence get in the way of what they wish to achieve. It’s within the incompetence where The Coens get to fully thrive as filmmakers. Their witty writing and sharp dark comedy come to full life in Fargo. The iconic moments are too many to name, but we can all agree that this movie changed our collective view on woodchoppers forever.
– Raf Stitt
9. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
I took a roadtrip last summer and made a quick detour to see if I could find the strip mall where my family went to the movies when I was a teen. Of course, the theater was long gone. A big “For Lease” sign had taken the place of the marquee. The game room next door where I had pumped so many quarters into Afterburner (the one with the cockpit you sat in) was now a pharmacy.
I put my face up to the glass and tried to remember how it had once looked. Empty and dark, there was no sign that it had ever been anything other than an empty space in a strip mall.
But as the June sun beat down on the sprawling concrete parking lot, I could almost smell the popcorn and hear the low rumbling sound coming from behind the theater doors. I imagined I could hear the opening notes of Brad Fiedel’s score for Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Like the sound of blood pumping in my ears, the sound of the drums was punctuated by the metallic clanging of hammer on anvil.
Buddump bum buddump. Buddump bum buddump. Buddump bum buddump.
And then that low, mournful synth tune.
Suddenly I was back in the darkened auditorium in the summer of 1991. Cameron’s nightmare images of a devastated Los Angeles lit by the purple light of plasma rifles flashing across the screen and Linda Hamilton’s chilling monologue informing us that 3 billion people had died on August 29, 1997–6 years into my future.
I felt a tug at my side and looked down. It was my daughter. She wanted to know what this place was and why we had stopped here.
I had to think before I could come up with an answer.
“This is where I learned to dream” I said.
8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
When it comes to suspenseful thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs is pretty much perfect. Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lecter is easily the most memorable thing about the film. His cold and calculating demeanor is chilling, and when he does suddenly explode with violence, it’s shocking. But there is so much more to The Silence of the Lambs than Lector. Jodie Foster is integral to binding the whole film together, anchoring all with a quiet and understated performance. You also have the opposite of Lecters villain in Buffalo Bill. He is an entirely different type of terrifying. Yes, he’s pretty much a cookie-cutter psychotic serial killer, yet he is just what the movie needs for contrast. The Silence of the Lambs won 5 academy awards in a wide range of categories and it’s easy to see why. It also holds up incredibly well on a rewatch today.
– Lee McCutcheon
7. Heat (1995)
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Two of the greatest actors of their generation, if not the two greatest to ever have graced the screen. It took a long time for the two of them to share it, but the wait was worth it. Throw in the stylish Michael Mann as director, Val Kilmer in a vastly underrated support role, and it’s hard to see how Heat could have went wrong. The shootout scene is one of the greatest in cinematic history. The gunfire was recorded live instead of dubbing it in later with pre-recorded sound effects, which really intensifies the action. It’s so realistic, apparently U.S. Marine recruits study it as an example of how to properly retreat while under fire. In contrast, the cafe scene where Pacino and De Niro finally come face to face and share the screen has no action. But it is just as exhilarating. Unrehearsed, it’s two Hollywood greats at their raw and passionate best.
– Lee McCutcheon
6. Toy Story (1995)
I honestly cannot believe that Toy Story was released in 1995. How is this possible? This is a movie that had such an effect on audiences, and animation as a genre, that it continues to feel as imaginative and innovative thirty years later as it did when it was released. For adults, the nostalgia for their childhood toys will no doubt be felt when they watch this movie, just as children will find joy and entertainment in Woody and Co.’s antics as they struggle with the fears of being replaced by new toys, a dangerous move, and the next door bully. Every toy featured in this film has a purpose and by the end, you can’t imagine Andy going on without any of them. It’s a witty, charming movie that tugs at the heartstrings. You will no doubt become as attached to Andy’s toys as Andy himself, which means you should probably be warned that Toy Story’s sequels pack an even greater emotional punch.
5. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
To many, there is no such thing as a perfect film, but I will fight you to the death to convince you that The Shawshank Redemption is as close to perfection as a film can get. Its theme of hope is something that continues to resonate, perhaps more so today than when the movie was first released in 1994. On the surface, Shawshank may just come across as a prison drama, but it’s so much more. It’s a beautiful story of love and friendship between two men, while one seeks freedom and the other, redemption. The performances, the cinematography, the direction, and score… so close to perfection that I hope Academy voters feel really stupid about their choices. There is a reason the cast and crew of this movie have been approached over the past twenty-eight years by people who just want to tell them that the movie changed their lives. Celebrities and filmmakers constantly name The Shawshank Redemption as their favorite film or the film that inspired them to get into the business. It’s arguably the best movie of the 1990s and perhaps, of all time.
4. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix revolutionized what film could accomplish. There was a time when movies were watched only for the sake of entertainment. The Matrix made people realize that movies could also be thought-provoking. It made people wake up, peek beyond the veil, and see that there was more to life than the life that they were living. People could relate to Thomas Anderson because he worked a dead-end job that he wasn’t happy with and wanted more out of life. The fact that the slow motion was parodied in many movies that followed and that the red pill and blue pill are still referenced to this day makes this movie one of the most important and influential movies in pop culture ever made.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
Simply put, this one of the most powerful movies of all time. A definitive “if this doesn’t shake you to your core, you simply don’t have a soul” movie. The subject matter is as essential of a topic that a film can cover. It feels odd to celebrate the cinematic greatness of Schindler’s List because of horrific nature of what it’s depicting. Spielberg is however on top of his game in every directorial facet. This is not just his most masterful film but probably his most personal (at least it was until The Fabelmans recently took that honor). The fact that Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park came out in the same year speaks volumes to Spielberg’s singular status as one of the greatest directors to ever live. Schindler’s List is an essential movie. One that teaches us about how compassion can triumph even against the worst evils the world has to offer. As odd as it may seem, and as difficult as it is to watch at times, it’s ultimately a fairly hopeful film – a film that wants us to choose love.
2. Goodfellas (1990)
You can keep The Godfather and The Sopranos. When it comes to watching gangsters on screen, I’ll take Goodfellas every time. Widely considered one of director Martin Scorcese’s finest films, Goodfellas is an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 nonfiction book Wiseguy. It follows the real-life story of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) as he rises through the ranks of organized crime in New York City from 1955 to 1980, before eventually entering witness protection.
This portrayal of mob life, narrated largely by Liotta’s Hill interspersed with commentary from his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco), is raw, visceral and at times nearly suffocating in its intensity. Powerful performances from Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci carry the movie as it races to its conclusion at break-neck speed.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction defines the decade when it comes to the rise of the independent film that was happening at the time and it put Quentin Tarantino, one of the most influential modern filmmakers, on the map. His dialogue was something fresh that movie moviegoers hadn’t experienced, it actually felt real. It didn’t feel like they were reading off of a script but that some of the topics the characters were talking about were so mundane, it could be just like a regular conversation. The fact that the film is told with a non-linear story method makes this a movie that deserves to be rewatched over and over until the audience is able to piece everything together and even then it feels like you are missing something. But that is the best part about Pulp Fiction, you get to rewatch one of the best movies ever made.
20-11 | ’90s Characters
What are some of your favorite ’90s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!