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.
70. The Piano (1993)
Jane Campion sure can photograph the heck out of New Zealand. The Piano is one of the most stunningly shot movies of the ’90s. The grace that the camera is able to capture isn’t just of the landscape, but of the characters who inhabit it as well. Holly Hunter is terrific in the lead role as Ada, and Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin are absolutely stellar in their supporting roles. The magic here is still courtesy of Campion. The tenderness she exhibits in telling this story is ever-present in just about every frame of The Piano and the ending will serve as a great reminder of why we love movies.
69. Groundhog Day (1993)
Groundhog Day is a classic comedy that tells the tale of TV weatherman and complete schmuck Phil Connors (Bill Murray), who gets stuck reliving the same day over and over again while visiting Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual event of a groundhog predicting the weather. As continually he relives the day, Phil moves through all of the feelings, from disbelieving to carefree to desperation. He eventually looks for an end to his situation through any means necessary, and when all means fail, he finally begins to embrace the experience as an opportunity to become a better human.
Murray turns in an iconic performance, hilarious yet endearing throughout (somehow even when he’s being an ass). Andie MacDowell as his producer and eventual love interest is eternally delightful. But Groundhog Day is more than just a lot of laughs and some romance. It’s an examination of the many layers of the human experience; of the way time and circumstance shape our lives; and of the importance of seeing how our every word and every deed — no matter how small — has the potential to dramatically change the people and world around us.
68. Crash (1996)
Met with controversy upon its Cannes premiere (a controversy that made it almost impossible to see for a long time), the film thrusts you into the kinky underworld of car-crash fetishists who can only find arousal by flirting with death at hundreds of miles per hour. Cronenberg dissects the self-destructive erotic rituals of these damaged individuals with detached fascination; revealing a hint of joylessness behind their morbid ecstasies. In a mad world of hyper-technological development where the lines between man and machine blur together, anything from steering wheels, rear windows, windshields or hand brakes can become the ultimate turn-ons. But that’s not what the movie is about. Cronenberg sees into the future with perfect 20/20 vision. It, like most of his work, is about the constant pursuit of stimulation and how perversions evolve with technology.
67. Starship Troopers (1997)
I’ve often wondered whether satire or cautionary tales are actually effective at influencing culture away from whatever bad behavior is being satirized or warned against.
I think Starship Troopers falls into this category.
Although I was unaware at the time of Trooper’s release, several professional movie critics interpreted director Paul Verhoeven’s film as pro-authoritarian. I guess it’s clear now that wasn’t the case, and Wikipedia tells us that the movie is now considered one of the best science fiction films of all time, but I have to wonder: if the people who study movies for a living didn’t know Troopers was a satire at the time, how the hell was the rest of us supposed to know it? And more importantly, since Starship Troopers was accompanied by a toy line and later spawned an animated series, how exactly were young kids supposed to be sophisticated enough to discern the film’s true message? Isn’t it just as possible the movie could have had the opposite effect on them?
At the end of the day, I don’t know that it mattered. Starship Troopers wasn’t just a bust with critics, it flopped at the box office. And from what I remember from the time, no one who actually liked the film thought that deeply about it. Hell, I must not have been a very perceptive 21-year-old, because I never even considered the political commentary that is so obvious to me now. Starship Troopers had cutting-edge CGI effects, lots of guts and gore, cool space scenes, some nudity, and great action. Is it smarter than all that? Yes, I suppose it is. Maybe even too smart for its own good.
66. Rushmore (1998)
To be honest, I barely remember Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket. I vaguely remember liking it, but I couldn’t describe it in any way. Rushmore I remember, and the memory feels more like a Wes Anderson film, if that makes sense. It doesn’t quite have that specific “look” you associate with films like The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel, but what it does have is eccentric characters, great music, a quirky sense of humor, and Bill Murray. Rushmore was really the film that created Bill Murray’s “indie cred” film career, and he’s excellent as retiring millionaire Harold Blume. Jason Schwartzman is nominally the star of the film, and his Max Fischer stands as one of Anderson’s memorable characters, not the least because he’s something of an autobiographical stand-in for Anderson himself. The heart of the film is a combat d’amour between Harold and Max for the affections of a teacher, played with wit and grace by Olivia Coleman. Also look for Brian Cox in a small role as a teacher frustrated with Max’s focus on his extracurriculars (especially putting on plays).
Peculiar, funny, warm, dark, and sometimes just odd, Rushmore is a gem of a film. A Wes Anderson film, in other words.
65. Magnolia (1999)
If there’s one thing that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is certainly not missing, it’s ambition. The audacity of someone to make something of this magnitude at 29 and have it not be a total failure is beyond impressive. But instead of just making a movie that doesn’t suck, PTA made a beautifully constructed tapestry of interweaving tales that crescendo into a bizarrely touching climax. Come for one of Tom Cruise’s best performances (watch him bare his entire soul). Stay for a movie that crawls deep into your emotional core and firmly supplants itself as an all-time favorite flick.
64. Taste of Cherry (1997)
KISS, an acronym for “Keep it simple, stupid!”, is a design principle noted by the U.S. Navy in 1960 that could easily apply to screenwriting. The simpler the concept, the more engaged your audience will be. How’s this for simple: a middle-aged is intent on killing himself and seeks someone to bury him after his demise. After some unsuccessful attempts, he finds a man who is up for the task because he needs the money, but his new associate soon tries to talk him out of committing suicide. It’s as simple and easy to understand as It’s a Wonderful Life but with more dramatic heft because there’s no angel magic to fix everything. It’s a story about a suicide that’s the most life-affirming thing you’ll ever see.
63. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
When I think back on the movies I saw in theaters in the 90s, I’m actually shocked at the variety of films I chose to go see at such a young age. Now, sure, I can attribute a few of these to girls dragging me to shit I didn’t want to see (Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet), but most of them are movies I simply chose to go see. For whatever reason.
When it comes to Eyes Wide Shut, I’m not sure what that reason could have been, because I was 23 years old at the time, and when my buddy and I walked out into the stark Texas summer day, we had no idea what we had just seen. We didn’t have the context or life experiences for it. We weren’t married at the time. Shit, probably neither of us had steady girlfriends for that matter. We didn’t have careers, homes, or really even lives to draw on.
The thing is, even though the movie went completely over my head at the time, I didn’t dislike it or regret seeing it. And it was something I never stopped thinking about. Even as days turned into weeks, and months turned into years, Eyes Wide Shut was something that just kind of hung out somewhere in my mind waiting to be brought out again and reexamined. Something in the movie, even if only subconsciously, stuck with me. I think that’s part of why it endures.
62. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Pixar had a monstrous hit on their hands with 1995’s computer-animated Toy Story so it was a no-brainer that they would push a sequel through. Four years later, they delivered Toy Story 2 – originally a direct-to-video feature to theaters. How often are sequels as good as the original? Probably not often, but it happens. What about a sequel to an animated feature? That has to be rare. Very rare. But Toy Story 2 manages to do it. Some may even argue it’s better than Toy Story. After Woody is stolen from a family yard sale, Buzz and the gang set out to rescue him from Al McWhiggin, a toy store owner and toy collector. As Woody looks for a way to escape, he meets a cowgirl named Jessie, a horse named Bullseye, and Stinky Pete the Prospector. They explain that he’s the star of Woody’s Roundup, an old children’s show. With this new information, and fear that Andy will soon grow tired of him, Woody contemplates staying with Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete as they plan to travel to Tokyo to take up in a museum. Toy Story 2 does not lose any of the charm or humor from the first movie. If anything, it improves both, as well as the animation. With the addition of Jessie and Bullseye, Pixar has only added to its long list of wonderfully memorable characters. If Toy Story 2 is not better than Toy Story, then it’s certainly equal in terms of how great it is.
61. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
After her father’s death, a nineteen-year-old is forced to marry the fifty-year-old lord of a powerful family. The lord already has three wives, each of them living in separate houses within the great castle. The competition between the wives is tough, as their master’s attention carries power, status, and privilege. Each night he must decide which wife to spend the night and a red lantern is lit in front of the house of his choice. And each wife schemes and plots to make sure it’s hers. It’s a four-way power struggle that starts off comedic but soon things get out of hand. You will come to love all of the concubines and will completely understand why they want the lantern so bad and the lengths they’ll go to get it. It’s a humanist story that everyone can relate to. And my god is it beautiful.
80-71 | 60-51
What are some of your favorite ’90s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!