I was recently challenged to create a list of my top 25 films of the 90’s.
It was much harder than I anticipated.
The 90’s produced some absolutely stellar movies (particularly in the latter half), and since it was the decade in which I came of age both as a cinephile and as a person, it was often difficult to determine whether a film genuinely belonged on the list, or whether I wanted it to be there for purely sentimental reasons.
In some cases, the difference was impossible to determine – particularly when it comes to the ordering of my list. I’ve already made some tweaks during the drafting of this post and (truth be told) things like this are never truly 100 percent set in stone. I could keep tinkering with the order. In fact, I’ve delayed posting this because I keep wanting to tinker… But let’s leave things as they are. Some of these are so close to call anyway.
Before I get to the list itself, I’d like to give some recognition to those films that didn’t quite make the cut. Some of these films are undeniably awesome pieces of cinema, but personal taste is personal taste. I like ‘em, I just don’t love ‘em. Others had a huge personal impact on me growing up, but which I couldn’t in good conscious squeeze on to this list.
Here are the runners up in alphabetical order (because ordering the top 25 otherwise was frustrating enough). Trust me, this is just the short list:
Now for the list itself, in ascending order (of course!):
Derided by some due to being sickly-sweet sentimental, that is what actually makes the film work. Yes, it manipulatively tugs at your heart strings, but so long as it still brings tears to your eyes, does it really matter? Deftly balancing tenderness, humor, and outrageous hamminess, it ultimately has a lot to say about finding beauty in life even in the worst possible circumstances, and about the sacrifices a parent will make for their child under any circumstances. As will become evident after seeing the rest of the list, I rate this Holocaust film above Schindler’s List.
24. El Mariachi
Robert Rodriguez is a folk hero to every aspiring filmmaker of my generation, and his debut picture still stands up as an inspirational achievement. Far superior to his English-language remake (Desperado), El Mariachi has an unapologetic rawness to it in all regards. It’s a fun ride, and it leaves you feeling like “Fuck yeah, I can do that.”
23. Dumb and Dumber
Dare I say perhaps the best comedy ever made? Certainly the best of the 90’s. Hence its place on this list. It was a cult hit back in the day, but now it’s regarded as a masterpiece of crude humor. Unlike a fine wine, the antics of Harry and Lloyd haven’t matured over time, but they’re still just as funny as ever.
22. Con Air
BBC Radio 1 DJ Scott Miles used to forgo the traditional star-rating system whenever the weekly movie review segment cropped up on his show, and instead posed the benchmark-of-quality question “Is it better or worse than Con Air?” You can’t really fault him. Con Air is outrageous fun. It’s a thinking man’s action movie, highly quotable, and it’s got Nicholas Cage in his action hero prime. What more do you need?
21. Human Traffic
In the absence of Clueless, this is the most 90’s movie on this list. Filmed around my former stomping grounds, it’s the tale of four friends enjoying a wild weekend of clubbing in Cardiff in the golden age of Ecstasy. I never had the experiences portrayed, but my gosh – the pure energy of this film is more than sufficient.
20. Wild At Heart
Wild At Heart is the quintessential David Lynch experience. It’s got sex, violence, fantasy, his trademark contractually-obligated duality, and one hell of a duck’s eye scene. One of these days, I’m going to sit down and write a short book on this movie alone. That’s how rich this film is. Mind-blowing stuff.
19. Pulp Fiction
The film that not only defined Tarantino’s career, but the entire vibe of late-90’s independent American cinema. Don’t forget, Pulp Fiction was the film that made both John Travolta and French Nouvelle Vague relevant again. Unarguably the best – and most important film of 1994. Fuck you, Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption.
Nowadays, it seems like everyone has either forgotten about Miller’s Crossing entirely or collectively come to regard it as a lesser Coen picture. But this film deserves to be on this list. It’s classic Coens and laid the blueprint for some of their more recent mainstream hits. For my money, though, this remains superior to anything they’ve done in years.
A solidly made period piece that feels both contemporary and immediate. Thank you to the late, great Anthony Minghella. Boosting a cast of young stars who would grow into the A-listers of tomorrow (now today), this is a superb adaptation of an equally incredible novel. A perfect film.
You’re pissed this isn’t in the top ten, aren’t you? Sorry. As great a film as this is – perhaps my favorite of all of Scorsese’s – my personal preferences won out. There are so many memorable moments in this film, that it begs to be rewatched every few years. Standout scenes have got to be the helicopter surveillance and Joe Pesci’s doing his “You think I’m funny?” routine.
The second of three Coen brothers films on this list. They had one hell of a decade in the 90’s. The fact that this faux-true story movie has remained such a cultural touchstone and now inspired a TV show two decades later says it all.
14. Eyes Wide Shut
You have no idea how hard it was to find a screenshot online that didn’t have full frontal nudity in it. Sheesh. After a 12 year absence, Kubrick returns to the silver screen with this, his final film, released mere months after his death. It is not just one of the best films of the 90’s, it is one of the greatest films of all time. As with any film made by Kubrick, however, writing about it does it no justice. Go watch it again.
Lynch once described this as his most experimental film. The average punter probably thought the auteur behind Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive had finally, truly lost it when they heard that. But as someone who has studied his work in considerable depth, I understand precisely what he’s talking about. It’s a quiet, subtle, and tender film made all the greater by Angelo Badalamenti’s hypnotic score.
12. American Movie
Fuck me. If El Mariachi was the film all director wannabes should watch, then this is the one they’d best avoid. It’s a tough watch that makes you confront the awful truth that not all dreams come true. Not everyone can be a success, not matter how hard you try. I couldn’t watch this film in one sitting the first time around. I had to take a break. That’s how much of an effect it had on me. In a way, it’s inspiring, but it also clobbers you around the head like a wet fish of harsh reality. You cannot help but feel for Mark Borchardt and worry that maybe you’re going to end up just like him. It’s sad. And to think of hacks like Ratner and Roth enjoying profitable careers…
Forget The Lion King, this was the best film of Disney’s 90’s renaissance. Well-drawn characters (in every regard) and charming songs make it a perennial favorite. Lest we forget, it was the first ever animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar – and the only one to achieve the honor in an age when nominees were limited to just five per year.
10. Jackie Brown
The best film that Tarantino has ever made. Probably the best he’ll ever make. Pulp Fiction is the one that popular opinion continues to champion, but the world portrayed here is much more realized. The fact that it was adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel probably didn’t hurt. This is Tarantino as his most mature and disciplined. A fantastic achievement.
Finally following up Days of Heaven after a 20 year hiatus during which time he apparently worked as a cobbler in France, this was Terrence Malick’s masterpiece… until he made the next one. A stunning meditation on war, love, nature, and civilization, this is certainly one of the top two or three war movies ever made. If you find the roll call of on-screen talent impressive, just consider what must have wound up on the cutting room floor!
This is it. The pinnacle of the Coens’ careers. For years I resisted the fact that it was their best film, but eventually I came to my senses. For every time and place, there is a man. That man is the Dude.
I’ve been called a Wes Anderson apologist before, but there is honestly nothing to apologize for when it comes to Rushmore. A whimsical coming-of-age tale that continues to inspire other filmmakers to this day, this set the scene for Wes’ unique and continually-evolving cinematic style. The first of his many collaborations with both Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. Great soundtrack too.
6. Fight Club
Yes, I’m going to talk about it. And yes, I made that joke. (So sorry!) This isn’t this high on the list just because it’s a genuinely great film, it also made a huge impression on me in my late adolescence. In addition to the mind-blogging story – with direction to match – it’s also a treasure trove of philosophy regarding modern masculinity, society, and Western culture in general. If anything, it’s not talked about enough.
What do you know, a teen movie about sex that is actually extremely mature? Compared to today’s crude comedies sex comedies, there is a reason why this is so well regarded by those of us who call ourselves 90’s kids. This modern update of Dangerous Liaisons is polished and professional-looking, boasts incredible performances from its four young stars, and possesses a confident juxtaposition of coolness and vibrancy that elevates it far beyond what any “teen movie” has done either before or since.
I love this movie. So much so that I’ve already written an entire blog dedicated to it. This movie just came along at the right time in my life when I was becoming aware of the beauty of cinematic art and was starting to think about what my adult future might possibly hold in store for me. Although it’s maybe lost a touch of that magic for me over the years, in fairness I have watched it a whole lot of times. It will always hold a special place in my heart.
So much greatness in this film… Scott J. being rejected by Dirk; Little Bill’s suicide; Amber Waves and Rollergirl doing Coke; Dirk, Reed, Todd and Rahad; Buck in the donut shop… It’s epic, honest, funny, and devastating. There are new joys to discover each time you watch it, and just thinking about the best moments already discovered makes me watch to watch it again immediately.
I grew up on classic Spielberg; Close Encounters and Raiders in particular remain favorites to this day. Jurassic Park is up there among his very best. As a child, it captured my imagination. It was a true thrill ride and I still love watching it today. Like most guys my age, I can probably quote the entire thing – and I do love throwing those quotes into everyday conversation every opportunity I get!
Surprise, it’s another Paul Thomas Anderson film in the top three! Lacking a lot of the humor and indeed the warmth of his previous film, you might wonder why I chose Magnolia over Boogie Nights to top this list. Truth is there is some humor here – there’s also a whole lot of empathy and pathos. The general style of the film is restrained melodrama and everything about it just cuts you to the core. What other film dares to combine stories of extraordinary coincident, a cop narrating his life out loud, Tom Cruise in the performance of his career, and frogs falling from the sky? An epic film, and in my mind unquestionably the best of the decade.
Alright, let the second guessing begin. Please share your comments (and your own lists if you’ve a mind to) below…