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.
40. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
The (very) late ’80s and early ’90s were, in my humble opinion, peak Tim Burton. With Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Ed Wood, it’s understandable that Burton would have difficulty continuing his streak of quality films that so beautifully capture his unique sense of style. Edward Scissorhands may not be Burton’s greatest film, but it’s certainly one of his most memorable. As Edward, Johnny Depp begins his decades-long working relationship with Burton in what is arguably his best Burton-related role. The production design is so imaginative, from the cookie-cutter, pastel-colored suburbia, to the gothic castle where the Inventor created Edward. The story itself is very much a modern fairy tale, think Beauty and the Beast, and is incredibly creative in its depiction of isolation. Burton’s talent for quirky characters and unconventional directing is on full display with Edward Scissorhands, and I really wish he would get back to telling these kinds of fantastical stories.
39. Friday (1995)
A stoner classic. Friday is full of all the carefree optimism that defines the genre, along with a sensible moral core. Chris Tucker’s comedic genius has never been put to better use. Yes, ostensibly it’s Ice Cube’s movie, but we all know Tucker is the true star. Many of the most memorable lines are delivered by Tucker with brilliant comedic force. For all of Friday’s great silliness, there are also some great serious undertones at play here. Ice Cube, co-writer DJ Pooh, and director F. Gary Gray flip the script on the typical inner-city black youth sub-genre of its time. Instead of the story being centered on a tragic death, Friday is a triumphant tale where everyone gets to live to see another day, while the bullies get their deserved comeuppances.
38. Audition (1999)
“Everybody in Japan is lonely.” The success of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu launched a flood of Japanese horror movies, most of them variations on the Ringu theme of dead, wet girls with long black hair taking revenge. In this wash of green-tinted sameness a few films stood out, like 2001’s Kairo (Pulse) and this, Takashi Miike’s breakthrough film. A quiet, disconcerting and almost (almost) romantic film for much of its length, the final half our descends into horror, madness and torture. Almost nothing of what comes before can prepare you for when Asami (Eihi Shiina) finally reveals to her would-be-suitor Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) what she’s really like behind her lies and prim demeanor. (Though that scene with the phone and the canvas bag should probably be a dead giveaway.) Unexpected, disturbing and layered with meaning, it’s one of Japan’s best horror films, one of Miike’s best films and one that will stick with you, long after the final scene. “Kiri-kiri-kiri.” *shudder*
37. Clueless (1995)
Among the many coming-of-age teen comedies released in the ‘90s, Clueless had the most recognizable one-liners, the boldest fashion, and (in my opinion) the best soundtrack. Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) is a rich Beverly Hills high schooler who helps two teachers find love in an effort to improve her grade. The good feels she gets from seeing their happiness spurs her to look for more good deeds to perform, and this leads to Cher and her best friend Dionne Davenport (Stacey Dash) taking new girl Tai Frasier (Brittany Murphy) under their wing. Shenanigans ensue, there’s the obligatory makeover montage, and in the end, everyone ends up finding love. Sandwiched between the humor and absurdity, there are moments of sincerity and seriousness. In the end, Cher and her band of Beverly Hills sidekicks had too much money and too little common sense (even for high schoolers), but they still had plenty of heart.
36. Léon: The Professional (1994)
This is just such a great film. Luc Besson is firing on all cylinders, pushing his “heightened realism” with operatic violence and overwrought sentimentality. I don’t mean that in a negative sense – you love and hate these characters (I’ve never hated a Gary Oldman character so much as I did Stansfield) to such a high degree. They dance on the edge of parody, they’re so stylized, but Jean Reno and Natalie Portman nail every moment and keep it grounded. And yeah, Oldman is freakin awesome as well. I mean how else can you buy a story about a sympathetic hitman, the 12-year-old girl he takes under his wing, and the evil DEA agent that tries to destroy them both? It should be stupid, but it’s Besson and his actors that perform some kind of alchemy to make The Professional one of the best films of the ’90s.
35. The Usual Suspects (1995)
When a docked ship suddenly set fire and everybody on board has been massacred, who do you round up? That’s right. The usual suspects. Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) is one of two survivors of the massacre and is brought in for questioning. He gives the detectives quite the runaround, with an elaborate story and that the whole thing was planned by a guy named Keyser Söze. Kint is able to convince the detectives that he had nothing to do with the massacre and they let him go. Only realizing too late that the entire story that they were given by Kint was nothing but one gigantic intricate web of lies.
34. Lone Star (1996)
“You start digging holes in this county, no telling what’ll come up.” Is Lone Star John Sayles’ best film? It’s tough to choose – he made Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, and The Secret of Roan Innish among other standout films. I’ve always had a soft spot for his genre work, of course, including Piranha, Alligator and The Howling, but those films were always his means to make the movies he really wanted to (that, and doing script-rewrites for films like Apollo 13 and ET). Despite its Oscar-nominated pedigree, Lone Star always seemed to harken back to those genre films for me, with a murder mystery providing the vehicle for a dark wit, insightful commentary and eccentric characters by the bucketfull. The film is jam packed with great actors – Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, and Frances McDormand (in some ways Lone Star is a hotter, drier, straighter cousin of Fargo) – but it’s really John Sayles that’s the star of this film. Nobody else gets away with a line like “It’s always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.”
33. Ed Wood (1994)
Who would have imagined that one of the best films of 1994 – and that’s a year that had The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Forest Gump, and The Lion King – would be a biopic of the director of one of the worst films ever made? To quote Paul Rudd “not me!” Only Tim Burton could make a film about such an outsider and misfit as Ed Wood and make him loveable and sympathetic to such a degree. Depp is great as Wood, but Martin Landau was a revelation as a drug-addicted and foul-mouthed Bela Lugosi at the end of his career. A loveable loser surrounded by eccentrics and optimistic in the face of every setback, Ed Wood is less a realistic biopic and more a sympathetic character study – but damn if it isn’t an entertaining one.
32. JFK (1991)
On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy is assassinated while visiting Dallas, Texas. Upon hearing the news, Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a district attorney in New Orleans has the idea to represent the alleged shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). However, Oswald is himself shot shortly thereafter. Three years later, Garrison still with JFK’s assassination in the back of his mind and decides he wants to reopen the case with a group of his associates. Upon their investigation, they find that the assassination was part of a conspiracy to eliminate Kennedy. When this film was released, the public was quite interested in this movie but were ultimately disappointed with the final product. Not because the movie was bad but because they thought they were finally going to get answers as to what really happened at Dealey Plaza all those years ago. But JFK wasn’t meant to give any answers, it was only intended to tell you what happened. And that is exactly what it did.
31. A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Taipei Story is what put him on the map and Yi Yi is what he’ll be known for but Edward Yang’s sprawling four-hour Romeo and Juliet-esque masterpiece is arguably his best movie. When Yang passed in 2007, only die-hard cinephiles knew how profoundly heartbreaking and devastating it was to lose him. Although he only made ten movies in his lifetime, that filmography is so strong, it’s impossible not to mourn his loss when you think of how many more great films we lost out on. But since most are completely unaware of his existence, his death was barely a blip on the internet radar. Obviously, that’s due to the fact that the vast majority of Americans give two shits about most directors working outside of the USA and even if they were aware of him, they still wouldn’t bother going to see it. Any movie with subtitles not named The Passion of the Christ just isn’t going to do well with today’s youth. General audiences aren’t going to sit in a theater and be forced to read for four hours. Either they can’t read fast enough or they equate foreign films to eating one’s vegetables and God knows America hates vegetables.
But if they had a more balanced diet, maybe they would’ve seen this and maybe they would’ve properly grieved his absence from cinema because A Brighter Summers Day is one of those movies that’s an undeniable gem. You just need to see it once to know it’s a perfect masterpiece and that the director knew exactly what he was doing. Even someone who is film illiterate, a complete dummy who doesn’t know mise en scéne from a MacGuffin, will still get something from this because emotional impact is universal. Yang doesn’t just point his camera at something pretty, he reveals the beauty of life through the intimacy and vulnerability of his characters and the gravity of death. This movie might devastate you or it might make you appreciate life that much more. Either way, you’ll be angry at yourself for putting it off for as long as you have.
What are some of your favorite ’90s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!