The 50 Best Movies of the 90s
25. Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison
Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson can hangout with Bilbo, Frodo, and all those other pint-sized Middle Earth dweebs all he wants, but studied cinephiles know what’s up: Jackson’s best movie remains Heavenly Creatures, a small, dark, emotionally devastating drama he made seven years before fucking with his boy J.R.R. Tolkien.
Melanie Lynskey (who later, unrecognizably, co-starred on Two and a Half Men as Charlie Sheen’s obsessive neighbor) and a then-unknown Kate Winslet play a couple of New Zealand daydreamers who fantasize about a fictional land called Borovnia, get disturbingly close to one another, and, ultimately, get caught up in a murder.
There’s a creepy sexual undercurrent alive throughout Heavenly Creatures, adding tons of uneasy subtext to the film’s lavishly shot, hallucinogenic dream sequences. By playing the real-life-inspired subject matter as more fantasy than reality, Jackson blurs the line between innocence and psychosis. It’s the anti-Frodo. —MB
24. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Tara Reid, David Huddleston
Does The Big Lebowski make a great deal of sense? Not really. Is it so oddly original that its friggin’ brilliant? You bet your ass. Jeff Bridges immortalized his slacker kingpin status as The Dude, a pothead bowler who mistakenly goes on a bender complete with kidnappings, goofy action, and run-ins with Tara Reid when she was still really hot. That’s really the closest this Coen Brothers cult fave comes to having a streamlined plot.
Much like Raising Arizona, though, The Big Lebowski isn’t about meticulously drawn-out narrative. It’s simply an excuse to watch a bunch of prestigious actors (Bridges, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Philip Syemour Hoffman) act like buffoons for two hours under the control of the Coen Brothers in top form. —MB
23. Rushmore (1998)
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox, Mason Gamble, Connie Nielsen, Luke Wilson
Wes Anderson’s films are an acquired taste. The critically hailed writer-director populates his well-manicured films with charming yet socially inept characters. The fixation on symmetry and consistently wry humor has been the source of scorn for later efforts like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. But Rushmore, thr first film to put Anderson on the map, is more than a collection of tics and quirks.
The film makes its hero an arrogant nerd (a spot-on Jason Schwartzman) who gets caught up in a love triangle with his academy’s first grade teacher (Olivia Williams) and a strange millionaire (Bill Murray, in his resurrection role).
Whenever Schwartzman and Murray go toe-to-toe, Rushmore is sublimely hilarious; Anderson finds ways to make otherwise loathsome characters (a self-righteous 15-year-old geek, a rich prick) seem sympathetic. You’d probably want to knock Schwartzman’s character out in real life, but, in Rushmore, you root for him. —MB
22. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård
Known best as the film that landed Ben Affleck and Matt Damon the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the plot of Good Will Hunting is part of the popular imagination: genius works as janitor but is great at math, talks about apples a lot. Jokes aside, the film remains a powerful piece of work about potential, inertia, friends, and the trauma of the past. —VC
21. Kids (1995)
Director: Larry Clark
Stars: Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson
L’enfant terrible Harmony Korine was 22 when he penned the screenplay for Kids at the behest of photographer-turned-filmmaker Larry Clark, whose work has always fixated on youth in the raw. They met in Washington Square Park, where Korine was skating.
The park appears in the film, when Telly and Casper, the main male characters, wander through for drugs, skateboarding, and a fight. Telly is 16 and HIV positive.
The film takes no stabs at analysis, it only documents the teens as they go about their business in Manhattan, getting high, having sex, talking, and in Telly’s case, spreading HIV. The matter-of-fact attitude may be too cold for some (not to mention ethically questionable), but there’s no question of the film’s power, or of the comfort of Clark behind the camera. —RS
20. The Matrix (1999)
Directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong
Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s so bold, creative, and technically advanced that it leaves audiences in a state of oh-shit wonderment, saying to themselves, “Hollywood still has it like that?”
Back in 1999, that’s exactly what the Wachowski brothers’ sucker punch of a sci-fi revolution known as The Matrix did, enduring through some incoherent plot points with camerawork and effects that redefined the genre. Not to mention, the remarkable achievement of turning Keanu Reeves into something more than a vapid acting drone, if only momentarily.
n The Matrix, the Wachowski bro’s influences are on front street: kung fu cinema, Japanese anime, Philip K. Dick ideology, cyberpunk. It’s all there as computer hacker Neo (Reeves) fights his way through cyber-tyrants in an alternate dimension, a freedom mission that the directors stylize with filmmaking previously unseen, such as now-infamous, and often rehashed, bullet-time camera trickery. When reflecting upon the impact of The Matrix, it’s wisest to completely disregard both of its ball-dropping sequels, which sadly proved that the Wachowskis were as overzealous as they were slightly overrated. —MB
19. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Director: Ron Shelton
Stars: Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Rosie Perez, Kadeem Hardison, Tyra Ferrell
If you ever need lessons on trash talking, look no further than White Men Can’t Jump, a source of infinite comical insults. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harelson star in this basket ball comedy that is so much more than a basketball comedy. It is not the first time we have seen a movie where sports are a tool to try to overcome racial boundaries; Remember the Titans and Glory Road are prime examples. But this movie is not nearly as emotional.
It is, however, frustrating to watch the two characters get caught in the cycle of gambling. But you get so distracted by the humorous dialogue that you forget that the characters are actually stuck in a serious, and slightly dangerous, situation. Although it would have been so much more hilarious to see Charlie Sheen, one of the other actors considered for the role, play the role of Billy Hoyle instead of Harrelson, the two leading actors have amazing chemistry on the court and on screen. —VC
18. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Stars: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves
It’s pretty clear that the ’90s were all about Keanu Reeves: The Matrix, The Devil’s Advocate, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, you name it. Yet again, he does not let anyone down in My Own Private Idaho alongside the very talented River Phonenix. Gus van Sant, another film icon of the ’90s, tells the story of two teenagers on the road to self discovery and, because van Sant is merciless, they seem to never discover anything.
But like most of van Sant’s projects, everything is up to interpretation. The film is not as confrontational as his other films, but that does not mean that it is the kind of movie you would want to watch on your first date, unless you’re that kind of guy. My Own Private Idaho tries to grasp the feeling of change, or lack thereof, in a raw and symbolic way that makes you think about the movie for weeks after having watched it. —JS
17. Point Break (1991)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, Lori Petty, John C. McGinley
Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is now known for the contemporary military thrillers The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but those recent Academy Award darlings aren’t the most interesting things about Ms. Bigelow. For genre fans, her diversified, unclassifiable earlier catalog is what’ll forever endear her in their hearts. For horror lovers, there’s Bigelow’s underrated vampire flick Near Dark, and for action movie buffs, there’s the immortal Point Break, the best movie to ever marry cop drama with surfer criminals and Richard Nixon masks.
As a look into the alternative lifestyle of Southern California surf culture, Point Break feels equal parts authentic and hammy, which is part of its sun-soaked charm. Fortunately, Bigelow had more on her mind than just hanging ten—at its core, Point Break is two hours’ worth of bro-mantic, sharply edited, no-holds-barred cinematic adrenaline, with epic shootouts, high-concept heists, and Keanu Reeves kicking ass as a dude named Johnny Utah. Whoa, indeed. —MB
16. Dumb & Dumber (1994)
Director: Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Stars: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly, Karen Duffy
The title says it all. Dumb and Dumber is the ultimate moron comedy, a loosely connected series of doofus episodes and idiotic dialogues that, ironically, achieves a sort of genius aura.
Credit is absolutely due to Carrey and Daniels, two masters of comedic timing and line delivery. Their classic bits are innumerable: “soup du jour,” the most annoying sound in the world, Aspen. The list goes on. Mentioning any of those scenes to a guy friend who can’t recite them line for line is enough to terminate a friendship.
Women have Steel Magnolias, or whatever other weepy crap chicks love; us fellas have Dumb and Dumber, and, nope, we’re not ashamed of it. —MB
15. JFK (1991)
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Sissy Spacek
Sticklers for historical accuracy may want to avoid Oliver Stone’s JFK. No stranger to conspiracy theories, Stone fashions a 189-minute argument against the widely accepted notion that Lee Harvey Oswald—the man who killed President John F. Kennedy—acted alone. And because of that, JFKis, unsurprisingly, a polarizing film.
Whether you’re invested in such political theories or not shouldn’t affect the experience of spending three-plus hours living in Stone’s version of 1960s courtroom hysteria. Despite its epic running time, JFK fires at a breakneck pace, powered by excellent performances (particularly from leading man Kevin Costner, playing New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison) and the same kind of mysterious intrigue that makes the best kinds of “based on true events” movies (like, say, Argo) thrilling despite the fact that we all already know the outcome. —MB
14. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Gabriel Mann, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palmintieri, Pete Postlethwaite
On its surface, The Usual Suspects sounds like a hybrid of Reservoir Dogs and Rashomon, with its exploration of an elaborate criminalistic plot gone wrong, as recounted by its seemingly untrustworthy lone survivor. And, truth be told, that’s exactly how director Bryan Singer’s twisty thriller plays out. Except that, well, it’s much more complicated than that.
Without divulging too much of the film’s enigmatic pleasures, The Usual Suspects takes the traditional thieves-gone-wild premise and, like Tarantino’s aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, totally subverts it with a large dose of Agatha Christie-level intrigue.
Who is Keyser Soze? Why would these loser deviants sign up for what’s so clearly a suicide mission? And how in the hell were Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie able to pull the imaginary rug out from under viewers with a final reveal that should be obvious but is nonetheless a mind-scrambler? —MB
13. The Lion King (1994)
Director: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Stars: Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Ernie Sabella, Robert Guillaume, Whoop Goldberg, Cheech Marin
Normally, kids don’t line up to see something that’s a mash-up of Hamlet and the Biblical tales of Joseph and Moses, yet Disney succeeded in making that happen with The Lion King. Guess all it takes is Elton John. Props to the singer for letting Disney introduce kids to heavier topics, like a beloved father getting trampled by a stampede of wildebeests. (We’re still not over it.)
The Lion King is one of the most heart-wrenching stories told through American animation, and a staple on the DVD shelves of families across the country. It broke new ground with its use of CGI animation, and went on to spawn one of the most popular (and stomach-able) Broadway musicals ever. It’s the fifth longest-running show in The Great White Way’s history and the highest grossing show of all time.—TA
12. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Director: Abel Ferrara
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Zoe Lund
Just because he’s tasked with investigating the brutal rape of a local nun doesn’t mean that Harvey Keitel’s beyond-corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant doesn’t have time to smoke crack, snort coke, gamble, get busy with a hooker or two, and masturbate in front of a couple of teenagers. Some of which requires him to flaunt his member for all the world to see. (Harvey must’ve liked the way it looked in the spotlight, too, because he whipped it out again a year later for Jane Campion in The Piano.)
Is it all a bit over the top? Absolutely. Revolting at times, too. But scratch below the surface of all the shock value that has defined director Abel Ferrara’s career and the message here is clear: Religion is the only thing that can kill one’s personal demons.
Of course the road to redemption is not always clearly marked. In the case of Bad Lieutenant, it’s the battered nun’s lack of desire for vengeance that ultimately nudges The Lieutenant toward the side of the righteous. But he’s got a long climb out of the hole he’s already dug for himself. (It’s also fun to point out the irony of another of Keitel’s starring roles in the same year: mobster Vince LaRocca in the similarly divine Sister Act. Praise thy Keitel!) —JW
11. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Ted Danson
Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s hard-hitting account of World War II’s pivotal D-Day, doesn’t skimp on the sentiment. With a large ensemble of colorful characters, led by Tom Hanks’ resilient army captain, Spielberg levels the viewer with a series of visceral battle sequences, but also intricate characterization. And the central story is a knockout: Matt Damon plays a missing soldier whose three brothers have been killed in action, inspiring Hanks to lead a search-and-rescue mission to save one man, even though many will be killed in the process.
The conflicts of “Should many die to help one?” provide sufficient emotion for Spielberg to milk, but the film’s book-ending flashes to modern times are its ripest suppliers of visual waterworks: Damon’s character, now an old man, brings his family to Hanks’ grave, a powerful image strengthened by the sight of an American flag and an evocative score.
Sentiment aside, the opening is necessary viewing for film lovers, especially in light of the recent fascination with ordeal movies that render painful experiences in minute detail, works like Amour and Hunger. —MB
10. Fargo (1996)
Director: Joel Coen and Coen
Stars: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare
The Coen brothers have always worked aspects from multiple genres into their films, with Fargo being a prime example. Some may see it as a simply a crime drama, but that would ignore the supremely deadpan humor that twists the movie into something far more unsettling.
A pregnant police chief (Francis McDormand) is investigating a series of murders around the town of Fargo, North Dakota, while also following the exploits of a man (William H. Macy) who’s hired two criminals to kidnap his wife. Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi play the hired help. They couldn’t be any lousier at their jobs.
The tragic pair brings humor out of the mundane macabre, like in the scene where they bicker like a married couple over how to split their newly-stolen car. Buscemi nurses a gunshot wound the entire time. Should you feel guilty about laughing? The Coens remain stone-faced, daring you to react. —JS
9. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Director: Frank Darabont
Stars: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows
Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Paul Newman and Robert Redford were all considered to play the role of the wise “Red” in The Shawshank Redepmtion but all paled in comparison to the magical, and incredibly honest, Morgan Freeman, who steals the spotlight from the true protagonist (Tim Robbins.)
Shawshank doesn’t question whether or not the inmates Shawshank Prison are rightly imprisoned because they are more concerned with how they deal with the situation once they are sentenced for life. This heartwarming film teaches audiences that they should “get busy living, or get busy dying.” If you haven’t seen the movie, you should get busy watching.—VC
8. Heat (1995)
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson
Heat focuses on two men, one a thief (Robert De Niro) and the other a detective (Al Pacino). The two play a cat and mouse game where both know a heist is being plotted as each man keeps a close eye on the other.
Pacino. De Niro. Together at last. Michael Mann’s Heat is more than just a caper film, it’s a crime saga that not only explores the professional lives but also the personal relationships of men who know nothing beyond their occupation. Plus it features one of the best shoot out scenes we’ve ever seen. —VC
7. Se7en (1995)
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey
Se7en transformed David Fincher from a simple music video director into a true visionary of cinema. The movie is about two detectives (played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) who try to solve the case of a serial killer who seems to be knocking off his victims to the tune of the seven deadly sins. It’s a gritty, realistic thriller that doesn’t just get to us because of the violence, but because of the psychological aspects as well.
Each murder scene is modeled after one of the sins from the Bible, with the most disturbing being “lust” and “sloth.” It’s an intense piece of filmmaking that is so raw and unnerving that it tends to stick with you well after it’s over, and with good reason. The final 10 minutes of the picture features one of the most shocking and, frankly, nauseating scenes of the past few decades of American film. We’ll guarantee that you’ll never open a box without this scene flashing through your mind ever again. —JS
6. Jurassic Park (1993)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough, Jeff Goldblum, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Bob Peck
To dudes who grew up loving dinosaurs, Jurassic Park tickled their fancies like none other. Adapted from a Michael Crichton novel, Steven Spielberg’s dinos-are-back adventure benefited greatly from the late visual effects giant Stan Winston’s awe-inspiring dinosaur animation, life-sized creations that looked scary as hell and moved with convincing agility.
As in Crichton’s book, the prehistoric beasties are reincarnated through scientists’ experiments with fossilized dino-DNA; designed as an expensive, private island attraction, Jurassic Park quickly becomes the stomping grounds for angry velociraptors, a hungry T-Rex, and acid-spitting creatures.
The magic of Jurassic Park, like the best of Spielberg’s films, lies in its ability to make the fantastical seem tangible; from the first time we see a brontosaurus munching on leaves to the vicious Tyrannosaurus Rex’s frightening introduction, the dinosaurs more than earn eye-rubbing disbelief. Well, at least they did when we were still in elementary school. —MB
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine
A horror movie winning the Academy Award for Best Picture? That seems like an impossibility, yet The Silence of the Lambs managed to sweep all five of the main Oscar categories (including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay) back when it was first released. An anomaly? Sure, but it was also a matter of undeniable quality—The Silence of the Lambs is a gruesome, no-punches-pulled masterpiece of suspense.
Playing the now-iconic serial killer Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins took a character from author Thomas Harris’ same-named novel (released in 1988) and turned it into the world’s most charismatic flesh-eater. Sure, Lecter feasts on human coverings and insides with the class of a rich man snacking on caviar, but he’s someone who’ll simultaneously drink high-priced Chardonnay. With intelligent discourse and a velvety smooth pitch, Lecter is the most dangerous kind of villain: A brilliant charmer who’s also a skin-devouring baddie. Your mother would be defenseless. —MB
4. Toy Story (1995)
Director: John Lasseter
Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, John Morris
In addition to the fact that Pixar’s first feature opened the door for other classic movies from the brilliant studio (such as Up and Monster’s Inc.), Toy Story‘s witty script and groundbreaking images prompted many critics to call it the greatest animated film ever made. And not without reason—27 animators worked diligently on the film, illustrating every detail, down to each blade of grass, to tell the story of the misadventures of two lost toys trying to find their way home.
However, Toy Story’s greatest achievement is its balance of nostalgia, childhood wonder, and misty-eyed adult humor. That’s the blend every kid’s movie aspires to. —TA
3. Boogie Nights (1997)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Burt Reynolds, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham
Don’t worry, you don’t have to watch this at 1 a.m. with the volume down low. It’s a movie about the porn industry, but it doesn’t play into the smuttier areas as much as you’d think. Boogie Nights follows one man’s up and coming (pun) career in the porn industry and the people he meets there. That includes a vet (Julianne Moore), a tycoon (Burt Reynolds), and Rollergirl (Heather Graham) who never takes her skates off, not even when performing.
The movie’s greatest surprise (besides the size of the main character’s penis) was Marky Mark, Mr. Calvin Klein Undies himself, in the starring role as famed fucker Dirk Diggler. Wahlberg brought a grounding all-American appeal (with a dash of innocence) to the what would otherwise be a risky sell to the general public.
If you’ve ever wondered what the Golden Age of Porn must’ve been like, slap this on your Netflix queue.—TA
2. Goodfellas (1990)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino
It’s a bold statement, but one that’s easily justified by the movie itself: Goodfellas is Martin Scorsese’s best movie. And, yes, that’s weighed against films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Just try not to watch Goodfellas every time it’s on television, or try not to act like Henry Hill’s (played by Ray Liotta) first piece of dialogue (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”) isn’t one of cinema’s best opening lines.
Or attempt to call anything else the greatest gangster movie ever made. Quickly paced, deeply characterized, and exceptionally acted, Goodfellas accomplishes the ballsy and admirable balancing act of portraying organized crime as both desirable and devious. Like Hill, you’re mesmerized by its dangerous allure, and just as he descends into a world of shit, you, too, feel the mafia world’s oppressive, no-way-out stranglehold.
One last challenge: Twenty-three years after the fact, try to not yelling “Bullshit!” about Dances with Wolves beating Goodfellas out for both Best Picture and Best director at the Academy Awards. Notice how Kevin Costner’s Civil War drama is nowhere to be found within this countdown. Not that we’re bitter. —MB
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Christopher Walken, Christopher Walken
Has any other film in recent memory spawned more imitators than Quentin Tarantino’s breakout smash? And not just crime movies. Everything from Donnie Darko to Juno has borrowed from Pulp Fiction’ssmart synthesis of pop culture detritus. What separates the originator from the pale imitations though, is the sense of real stakes.
Ultimately, the movie isn’t punch-line after punch-line. You remember the humor, the talk of foot massages and brain matter, but it all serves a serious end. The final scene in Tarantino’s most celebrated work, where the hitman Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) explains his philosophy on life resonates in a way that goes beyond references to ’70s cult TV. —JS