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.
50. Slacker (1990)
An argument could be made that Slacker is the most important film of the ’90s. There were films that advanced computer-generated effects like Toy Story, The Matrix, and Jurassic Park; films that became so indelible, you instantly think of them when thinking about the decade itself and some changed the industry in such a profound way that we still see the changes almost a quarter of a century later. The ’90s produced a lot of important and influential films but the most important thing to come out of that decade was the rise of “the Indie.” Directors like Tarantino, Smith, Rodriguez, Aronofsky, and many others hit the scene like a nuclear bomb and Hollywood, in an uncharacteristic move on their part, embraced them. Nowadays, an indie darling will immediately get signed to a multi-million dollar property because they’re easier to manipulate by the studio to deliver exactly the film they want without worrying they’re going to rock the boat. The studios don’t care about making art anymore, just pumping out products, but rewind the clock almost three decades and that wasn’t the case. And that all started because of Slacker. Linklater’s rambling hyperlink ode to Texas came out of nowhere and showed that anyone with a camera can be a filmmaker, as long as whatever is in the frame is entertaining. And boy howdy, are the eccentric residents of Austin entertaining. Those locals include a backseat philosopher, some enlightened riff-raff, a young woman trying to hawk Madonna’s Pap test to anyone within a 50-foot radius of herself and many, many others. Linklater will go on to make many similar films in this mold but he never bettered this or even got close.
49. The Truman Show (1998)
As this list has shown, the ’90s were a great decade for film. But, they were also a great decade for Jim Carrey, who broke onto the scene in 1994 with back-to-back-to-back comedy hits Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber. After doing a few more comedy films and to avoid being typecast, Carrey decided to mix things up and tackle a dramatic role: Truman Burbank in Peter Weir’s 1998 psychological satire film The Truman Show. While reality TV was beginning to emerge in the early ’90s, The Truman Show premiered just one year before Big Brother, which lead to a reality TV boom that has only grown over the last 20 years. However, despite networks continuing to insist that reality TV programs are largely unscripted, The Truman Show presents us with the truth, with an Oscar-worthy performance from Carrey that deserved recognition from the Academy. The Truman Show is one of those films that should be required viewing for anyone obsessed with reality TV as it shows the falseness of reality television and how there is nothing real about reality TV.
48. City of Hope (1991)
A multilinear anthology that juggles about fifteen different stories, City of Hope is like a series of shorts strung together by a loose thread each dealing with an injustice in some way. The characters overlap occasionally, with some being major players in other characters’ stories and some being little more than a cameo. Although the film becomes at times a game of “spot the actor”, it never leans into its cameo-centric cast. Each character, each actor, and each segment is important in weaving a tapestry of greed and corruption and ultimately hope. At first glance, the title seems facetious, with the ending being a dark punchline to the entire affair but much like Joe Morton’s character’s arc, you have to have hope in this world. The film doesn’t offer any solutions to the city’s woes nor does it show you the outcome of some of the film’s triumphant moments because that’s not what the film is about. It’s not about happy endings or winning the battles, it’s about what we do after we’ve lost. Do we still go on even though the fight is impossible to win? And what would compel someone to fight the unwinnable fights? Hope.
47. Perfect Blue (1997)
If Darren Aronofsky and David Lynch got together to make an Anime film, it still might not be as weird and warped as Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. There is an overarching theme of identity and perception, with murder, voyeurism, and dissociative identity disorder all featured. The blurring between fantasy and reality is expertly done. You, the viewer, are purposefully put in the position where you are trying to ascertain what is real and what is being imagined. The basic plot follows a member of a Japanese pop group, who after achieving fame switches paths from music to pursue an acting career. It can be a difficult watch and features some gruesome scenes, but at only 82 minutes long the time flies by.
– Lee McCutcheon
46. Casino (1995)
Casino has always been my favorite Scorsese movie. It’s a three-hour-long epic soap opera that is perfectly paced and filled with drama. The three heavyweight leads (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Sharon Stone) are absolutely outstanding and do everything to bring you into their world — the dark underbelly of Vegas, covered up by its glittering lights. For me, Pesci and Stone both produce their career best. One of the constant highlights throughout Casino is the conversations between De Niro and Pesci. Most of these were improvised, with only a start and end point set out by the director. It’s a technique that worked perfectly, with the scintillating dialogue elevating Casino to its classic status.
– Lee McCutcheon
45. Trainspotting (1996)
An iconic movie, full of iconic moments. From the ‘Choose Life’ opening to the infamous worst toilet in Scotland scene, every minute of Trainspotting is a memorable one. It’s a grimy look at drug use and abuse in Edinburgh, and more than any other film I can think of, makes you root for a group of law-breaking junkies. The soundtrack is perfect, the performances are exceptional, and Danny Boyle really started to show off his directorial skills in what was only his second film. It’s a movie that still makes me laugh out loud. Which, when considering I’ve watched it at least a dozen times, is no mean feat. Choose your future. Choose life. Choose Trainspotting.
– Lee McCutcheon
44. American History X (1998)
This is one of those movies that once you watch it, you may never watch again. But, it is definitely one that you will never stop thinking about after. This scene alone will stay in your mind forever. Trust me. I really liked the use of black & white flashbacks intertwined with the color of present day. It really helped show the characters in a different light and how they have grown/changed. I have to say though that I’d really like to see Tony Kaye’s cut of the film. I’m sure it’s not all that different but it is a little shorter. I find it funny that a first-time director, would demand the same autonomy and respect that Stanley Kubrick got. Crazy, right?
43. Princess Mononoke (1997)
I’ve been obsessed with animation since I was a kid (Pixar in particular), so I eventually started to find endless praise for the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. It goes without saying that the animation of all of these works is stunningly beautiful, but I’ve had a difficult time connecting as deeply with the Japanese storytelling at times in some of his other most heralded works including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. But something about Princess Mononoke hit me differently and was able to break through that cultural barrier. It’s a beautifully drawn and told story of the complex balance between man and nature, and the dangers of tipping that balance. The visuals alone make this one of the most creative films of the 90s, as Miyazaki transports you to one pic fantasy world of natural Gods and human warriors. The character design specifically of Ashitaka, on his deer-like steed, and the feral spirit-girl San stand out.
42. Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown often feels like the forgotten Quentin Tarantino film. It doesn’t feature a lot of the over-the-top style or genre film aesthetic that defines so many of his other projects. In many ways, this is his most mature film. It’s sexy and romantic in ways that his other films aren’t. The narrative is presented in a mostly straightforward way. It’s also his only adapted screenplay. However, for all the elements that make it a detraction from a typical Tarantino film, many of his hallmarks are still there. Most notable are the incredible characters brought to life here by Tarantino’s one-of-a-kind amazing dialogue. Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster are all spectacular in the film’s lead roles. Sprinkle in a great cameo from Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro playing against type as a pot-smoking schlub and you’ve got a 90s classic.
41. Chungking Express (1994)
I love a movie that sucks you in immediately. Chungking Express’ poetic language (both spoken language and cinematic language) is absolutely intoxicating from the first frame. One sign of a great movie is its ability to introduce you to new concepts, ideas, and emotions. Before watching Chungking Express, I never knew that expiring canned pineapples would elicit such a strong emotional response from me. This is the power of extraordinary filmmaking. Wong Kar-wai’s tale of the endless cycles of falling in and out of love, dreams, and desires, and the consequential milliseconds that determine their outcomes attract audiences in the same that the film’s characters attract each other. Chungking Express is full of effortless cool and emotional honesty. It’s a hard movie to not fall in love with.
60-51 | 40-31
What are some of your favorite ’90s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!