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.
20. Titanic (1997)
Can you think of a movie since 1997 that has triggered such an insane cultural response as James Cameron’s Titanic did when it was released? It was an immediate hit, remaining at the top of the box office for eleven consecutive weeks. It played in theaters for a whopping ten months and became the highest-grossing film of all time until Avatar surpassed it in 2009. With Jack and Rose’s forbidden poor boy/rich girl love story amidst an infamous, historical event, Titanic appealed to a wide variety of audiences. Having rewatched it recently, I was reminded why I enjoyed it so much. The visual effects are just as impressive today as they were back in 1997. The score is hauntingly beautiful and I loved how Cameron intertwined a fictional love story against the backdrop of one of the greatest tragedies in history. James Cameron may be a somewhat polarizing figure in Hollywood, but the man knows how to direct a film, especially a large-scale blockbuster. Titanic is a movie that could have sunk commercially and critically – indeed, many were predicting it would – but it continues to be relevant and beloved by movie fans all over the globe. Deservedly so.
19. Before Sunrise (1995)
Before Sunrise is the rare film that proves you don’t need a big budget, A-list actors, or really much of any plot to make a great movie. Set largely in Vienna, Austria, the movie follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) who, after meeting on a train, spend a night wandering the city and talking about life and love. What makes the movie memorable is the palpable chemistry between Hawke and Delpy. As the night goes on and they begin developing feelings for each other, it feels authentic rather than cliché.
18. Boogie Nights (1997)
This Paul Thomas Anderson film is an abundance of rollicking excess for the full first act as Mark Wahlberg gets pulled into the burgeoning ’70s world of pornographic film. There are a few hints along the way that there is a deeper darkness lurking under the surface, as William H. Macy watches helplessly as his wife engages with multiple men. At practically the exact midpoint of the film, that darkness rises to the forefront in a masterful tonal shift as Macy commits suicide at a party. At times wildly funny, and others tensely gripping, Boogie Nights encapsulated the thrills and ills of the rise and fall of one of the world’s most controversial industries.
17. Election (1999)
It’s time for a new school president, and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), believes that she is the right woman for the job. Tracy is an overachiever and everyone seems to have faith in her as she is running unopposed. However, one person feels differently about Tracy’s position. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) seems to have a bone to pick. Being responsible for counting and tallying up all of the ballots, Jim has a last-minute thought. He decides to throw a few votes in the garbage. Resulting in Tracy losing the election and the school presidency going to another student. Karma catches up with Jim after his sloppy discarding of the votes is later found by a custodian. This leads Jim’s life on a downward spiral that he is incapable of escaping.
16. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
I was a sophomore in high school when Glengarry Glen Ross came out. It wasn’t something I would have gone to see at the theater, but I probably saw it a dozen times or more when began airing on Showtime.
And if my family didn’t live 15 miles from town and if Showtime weren’t the only movie channel we had when I was a kid, there’s a pretty good chance I never would have watched this masterpiece. I wasn’t particularly sophisticated when it came to movies back then. I liked movies with Arnold shooting stuff, Seagal breaking limbs, and anything with explosions or cool special effects.
Glengarry Glen Ross doesn’t have any explosions. There are no special effects. There aren’t even any broken limbs in the movie. In fact, nearly the whole film takes place on one set. It’s kind of a Who done it? , but there’s no murder. There’s no threat of murder. No rifles hanging on walls waiting to be fired in the third act.
And yet Glengarry Glen Ross is riveting. It’s infinitely rewatchable. The dialogue is quotable. The characters are memorable. And even though the movie consists basically of a bunch of salesmen sitting in rooms talking to each other, it’s perfectly paced and will keep you on the edge of your seat.
15. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan would have to be on this list just for the initial landing on the beaches of Normandy. A movie that Spielberg wanted to be nothing like your standard World War II movie and yet is like the apotheosis of EVERY World War II movie. There are no heroes. They are all heroes. Even Upham, who really embodies the fear and horror of someone who really shouldn’t be in combat, but there he is. Screwing it all up, just like most of us would. The plot MacGuffin of finding the lone surviving brother of a family – “Like finding a needle in a stack of needles.” – isn’t even a heroic or moral act, despite Horvath’s pronouncement that it might be the only decent thing they do in the war. It’s a PR act – throwing away multiple lives to save one. That’s not really the point though. If there is one, it’s that cliched notion that war is hell – and that real people went through that hell.
Despite the film being as difficult, terrifying and realistic as it is (did I mention that opening sequence yet?), Saving Private Ryan was immensely popular. It influenced every war movie that came after it and inspired an entire way of shooting violence and combat. It led to a resurgence in interest and media about World War II, including shows like Band of Brothers, movies like Flags of Our Fathers, and if you’ve ever played a combat video game – like the Medal of Honor series or (for me) the Call of Duty series – those all owe a debt to Spielberg’s film. Maybe, like Oliver Stone seemed to think, it glorified a “good war.” Maybe it was meant to be anti-war. I don’t know, I just know there were war movies before Saving Private Ryan and war movies after. And we live in the after.
14. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
I very clearly remember when The Blair Witch Project began its legendary marketing campaign. It played on the belief that the Blair Witch legend was real, and that the three filmmakers within the movie were real people… and had really disappeared deep in the woods of Burkittsvile, Maryland. There were missing flyers distributed, interviews, and fake newspaper articles posted on the movie’s website. It definitely bamboozled me into believing the entire thing was real (I was youngish, okay?) The marketing campaign was a major success, bringing audiences to the theaters in droves. The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first “found footage” film, but it absolutely became the one that re-energized and popularized the genre, inspiring hundreds of imitations. Beyond that, the movie itself does a fabulous job of building tension, leaving the terror to the imagination of its audience. It’s a genuinely spooky film that effectively divided audiences. Personally, I don’t need blood or a monster reveal, I just want to be scared and The Blair Witch Project succeeds in that.
13. The Lion King (1994)
There are several classics from Disney’s ’90s renaissance, but The Lion King is almost undisputed as the crown jewel. The opening sequence, one of the best movie openings ever, immediately sheds any preconceptions of what an animated movie can be. From the opening shot, you are bathed in the majesty of what is to come. The score by Hans Zimmer is sweeping and iconic, not to mention the numerous hit songs within the runtime. Initially pitched to Disney execs as “Bambi in Africa,” the story served as a milestone for many kids in the years since its release with its depiction of Mufasa’s death and its message of having to face life’s toughest challenges head-on. It’s as beautiful an animated film as ever produced by the Mouse House and continues to be one of the first movies to come to mind when you hear “Disney” despite the studio’s sprawling empire.
12. Being John Malkovich (1999)
“Do you think it’s kind of weird that John Malkovich has a portal?” I own Being John Malkovich on HD-DVD. I don’t know why that’s relevant. Possibly it’s not. I’m just saying. There is so much packed into this movie, it’s like Charlie Kaufman put every weird idea he ever had into the script, a collection of abnormal cells that metastasized into a weird and wonderful cancer. None of this makes any sense, really, but watching the movie makes me think like this. Or talk like this. Or maybe it’s just some guy (Sailor? Is that you?) typing this out with my fingers. Kaufman and director Spike Jonez crafted an impossibly odd movie about a failed puppeteer (John Cusack) who discovers a portal into the head of John Malkovich (uhh… John Malkovich) and that’s quite possibly the least weird thing about the movie. Throw in cabals of immortality seeking old folks, Cameron Diaz discovering she’d really rather be a man, “Malkovich, Malkovich. Malkovich?” and any of another half dozen oddities. It’s strange. It’s awesome. It’s impossible, yet it exists. No offence to American Beauty, but how the hell does that win for best screenplay over this? “The truth is for suckers, Johnny Boy.”
11. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is called upon to treat a child, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), At first, Malcolm doesn’t know what is wrong with Cole, as he is hesitant to talk or reveal anything but after their first meeting, Malcolm decides that he is willing to take Cole on as a patient and wants to help him in any way he can. Once Cole warms up to Malcolm, he finds out that Cole has an ability that he never thought was possible. Cole claims that he is able to see dead people, that they walk around as if they were still alive and able to communicate with them. Flabbergasted by this, Malcolm is unsure if he believes Cole but continues to help him anyway.
30-21 | 10-1
What are some of your favorite ’90s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!