The 1990s were a particularly vital time for American cinema. Established filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, and James Cameron made some of the most memorable films of their careers, and new auteurs like Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino exploded onto the scene and redefined the way we view film. Dramatic changes in technology allowed an entire new dimension in special effects, and the end of the cold war challenged us to reflect on the Twentieth Century with a less self-congratulatory tone in our movies.
In order to determine what made up the very best movies of the 1990s, we tasked a dozen or so of our writers with establishing a universe of fifty films, and then voting on those films to ferret out the top twenty. The votes were weighted, with substantially more points awarded to high rankings than lower rankings, ensuring that even outliers that a few of us considered brilliant had a chance to make their way onto the list. Some surprises made our list (What About Bob, Terminator 2) while some huge films didn’t make the cut (Titanic, Schindler’s List).
Does your list match ours? Click through to find out! Here are Screen Rant's 20 Best Films of the 1990s.
21 What About Bob (1991)
When Bob (Bill Murray), a psychiatric patient with a litany of phobias takes an appointment with the acerbic and egotistical Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), neither of them imagined how much their lives would change. Bob’s good-natured stalking leads him to follow Dr. Marvin to a New Hampshire vacation home, where he wins the hearts of Marvin’s family while destroying the good Doctor’s mind in hilarious fashion. While not as lofty as some of the other films of its day, it marked possibly the end of "Saturday Night Live" style Bill Murray before filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Jim Jarmusch reinvented him as a "serious" actor.
This goofball comedy left behind the “me me me” 1980s, and director Frank Oz (The Dark Crystal) was able to pull off the heart-warming moments without succumbing to saccharine Hallmark Channel cliches. With excellent supporting performances by Julie Hagerty (Airplane!), Charlie Korsmo (Hook), and Kathryn Erbe (Oz), What About Bob gets things started with a comedy that has withstood the test of time and lands as a perhaps the most surprising entry on our list.
20 Rushmore (1998)
Bill Murray hits our list again with Wes Anderson’s (The Grand Budapest Hotel) sophomore film Rushmore. This quirky comedy proved a fertile ground for defining contemporary independent cinema and bringing it to the forefront of the film industry, winning Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director (Anderson) and Best Supporting Actor (Murray), and a Golden Globe nomination for Murray in the same category.
Rushmore teams Jason Schwartzman’s strange teenager Max Fischer with Murray’s industrialist Herman Blume in an unusual friendship — and in competition for the love of teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). The film was co-written by Owen Wilson (Zoolander) and hits on a number of key themes often seen in Wes Anderson films: paternal love between an older man and a younger protege (and the difficulty inherent in these relationships), outsiders in society in positions of adoration, and a nostalgia for a time which never quite existed.
19 The Usual Suspects (1995)
Director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse) catapulted Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) into superstardom when he cast the character actor and bit player in this crime drama where nothing is as it seems. This whodunit, told in a series of flashbacks narrated by Spacey’s Roger “Verbal” Kint, tells the story of the legendary crime figure Keyser Soze, and left audiences arguing around the water cooler for months about clues to its dramatic twist ending expertly hidden within the film.
The Usual Suspects was perhaps the best surprise ending in a decade with a penchant for them. Like Fight Club, The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense, audiences collectively gasped when the big reveal happens and all the clues that should have made it obvious are revealed in a damning montage. Kevin Spacey’s performance landed him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the name Keyser Soze still exists as shorthand for a mysterious criminal mastermind with a secret identity.
18 Forrest Gump (1994)
Director Robert Zemeckis timed his adaptation of Winston Groom’s 1986 novel Forrest Gump perfectly. In 1994, the world was changing faster than it ever had before. The Iron Curtain had fallen, and Russia, our nemesis of half a century, was suddenly our ally. We stood alone as a world superpower, with untold possibilities of greatness and dark whisperings of perils to come lurking in the news. Home internet was becoming ever more available, and with that year’s completion of the channel tunnel between England and France and the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, the world seemed more connected than ever. But the Yugoslav war pitted open fighting between Christians and Muslims, and though it did not lead to all-out war, Iraq massed troops on the Kuwaiti border and the United States deployed troops to Kuwait. It was an exhilarating and somewhat frightening time to be alive.
Enter slow, naive Forrest Gump. This gentle dimwit provided a touchstone to simpler times, and his repeated and accidental influence on less-than-simple events provided a humorous and safe explanation for the difficulties the world faced between the tumultuous sixties and the AIDS epidemic of the eighties. Tom Hanks’ performance as the lovable babe in the woods navigating war, politics, love, and tragedy provided just the nostalgic air a world in flux needed to breathe, and elevated him to bona fide A-list status as he scored his second consecutive Best Actor Oscar win.
17 Boogie Nights (1997)
Next on our list is the complete antithesis of Forrest Gump. Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) blew our collective mind with his ensemble drama following the life of an emerging porn star and the decline of a porn empire. With brilliant performances from Mark Wahlberg (Wahlburgers), Heather Graham (From Hell), Don Cheadle (The Avengers: Age of Ultron), Julianne Moore (The Big Lebowski), John C. Reilly (Step Brothers), William H. Macy (Fargo), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), and Burt Reynolds (Striptease), this bleak film stripped away the nostalgia for an earlier age and brought out all of the grit and pain bubbling under the surface of the disco era.
At the time, the film gained notoriety for the very large prosthetic Mark Wahlberg needed to wear to justify his...fitness...for his work in the porn industry. What lingers, however, is the undeniable success Anderson had in drawing out the very best performances from his cast. Perhaps no actor in this film has superseded their performance in Boogie Nights — unless it was in Magnolia, The Master, or There Will Be Blood, all also written and directed by Anderson.
16 Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Another “surprise” entry on our list, Terminator 2: Judgement Day lands here as much for its technological prowess as its acting, directing, or writing work. In this sequel to 1984’s The Terminator, James Cameron revisits his present-day attempt to prevent a future robot-controlled dystopia. Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his career-making role as a Terminator cyborg, sent back from the future. In the first film, his role was to kill the young John Connor, thus preventing a future resistance to Skynet robot rule over humans.
In this second installment, Robert Patrick (The X-Files) plays the T-1000, a next-generation Terminator sent by Skynet to complete the mission the old Terminator failed to accomplish in the first film. The original Terminator has been co-opted by this resistance, and has been sent back to protect young John Connor. While the new T-1000 has the ability to change its appearance at will — and the special effects used to morph the character were far ahead of their time in 1991 — the original Cyborg proves not so easily destroyed. This film is especially notable for debuting several infamous movie catchphrases, including “Hasta la vista, baby!”
15 The Matrix (1999)
Our voters kept the sci-fi love coming in the 14th entry on our list, the Wachowski’s bleak dystopian classic The Matrix. By 1999, home internet had fully landed, and it seemed virtually everyone was greeted at least once a day by a cheery voice announcing “You’ve got mail” from their AOL homescreen. The dot com boom was in full swing, and the novelty of having an entire world at your fingertips spurred a great deal of creativity, and no small amount of malaise.
The Matrix plugged directly into this malaise, dialing up our worst fears about everything around us being an illusion. Much like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Borg or Skynet of the Terminator franchise, The Matrix explores a world in which technology has gained sentience and enslaved humanity, this time as an energy source. Rather than war against the humans, however, our cyber overlords found it easier to deceive us into experiencing a mass illusion — living a life virtually which was indistinguishable from reality. Keanu Reeves performs at his best, and Hugo Weaving personifies menace as a living anti-virus program. With special effects that leveled-up the entire film industry, The Matrix lives on as part of the collective consciousness.
14 Good Will Hunting (1997)
Our list takes a hard left turn away from sci-fi and toward South Boston for our next entry, 1997’s Good Will Hunting. Written by and starring the then-unknown duo of Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) and Ben Affleck (Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice), the film adds new life to the old story of a working-class person discovering their hidden genius and escaping the trappings of their downtrodden life with the help of a demanding professor (Stellan Skarsgaard) and an unconventional therapist (Robin Williams).
While the story is a little trite, the mesmerizing performances of Robin Williams as therapist-cum-father figure and Minnie Driver as Matt Damon’s southie girlfriend lend an authenticity to the film. Williams won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Affleck and Damon shared another for Best Original Screenplay, and the film firmly established the late Williams as a strong actor and not just the manic clown he had come to be known as.
13 The Lion King (1994)
In this classic Disney film, an evil brother of a king commits regicide, defers the blame, and assumes the throne. Meanwhile, the rightful heir, after being away from the kingdom, returns to set things right. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re talking about Walt Disney’s Hamlet, but, in fact, the bard did provide ample source material for The Lion King.
This film, which won Oscars for Hans Zimmer’s Best Original Score and Elton John’s Best Original Song “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” captured memorable performances from Nathan Lane (The Birdcage), Jeremy Irons (Batman v Superman), and Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Its authentic portrayal of loss and betrayal, tempered by catchy tunes, laugh-out-loud moments, and a much happier ending than Shakespeare’s Danish Prince, has rendered The Lion King one of our most beloved films.
12 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
In yet another entry from 1994, The Shawshank Redemption is an emotional adaptation of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Powered by inspiring performances from Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, the film follows the relationship of a pair of convicts as it develops over decades in a Maine prison.
Although never a financial powerhouse, the film was lauded by critics. It received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as two nominations at the inaugural Screen Actor’s Guild awards. The film’s theme of finding dignity and worth despite living in an untenable situation has resonated with audiences in the decades since its release, and it's frequently cited as one of the all-time great films.
11 American Beauty (1999)
In what is perhaps the most aptly-titled film on our list, Best-Picture winning American Beauty is a deeply disturbing but equally beautiful movie. This beauty is visually defined by striking shots which pepper the film: verdant leaves bracketing a suburban street, a plastic bag dancing in the wind, rose petals covering the body of a naked teenager (Mena Suvari) on red sheets. Under this beauty, however, is turmoil; turgid lives defined by failing love and changing times. Director Sam Mendes (Spectre) won Best Director accolades for his efforts.
Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) and Annette Bening (Postcards From the Edge) each won Best Actor Academy Awards for their performances, and they lead a troupe of wonderful actors as a middle-aged couple falling out of love. However, it is Chris Cooper (Adaptation.) who steals the show in our opinion. His performance as a staunchly conservative, abusive military father who is unable to adapt to his suspicions of a gay son and his own closeted homosexuality still lingers nearly twenty years after the film’s release.
10 9. Unforgiven (1992)
In 1992, Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry) and Morgan Freeman (London Has Fallen) rescued the western genre from the disfavor in which it had resided for nearly two decades. Unforgiven eschews the good cowboys vs. bad Indians stereotype of the past and enters a more realistic world of frontier justice and blurred lines between right and wrong.
Eastwood plays a retired and reformed gunslinger who disavowed a life of sin and violence when he married his late wife. He’s not much of a farmer, and when a young gun comes to ask his help collecting a bounty from some prostitutes who were maimed by cowboys and denied justice by a transcendent Gene Hackman portraying the local Sheriff, he decides to take one last job. The particularly nuanced performance netted four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood), and best supporting actor (Hackman) on its eight nominations.
9 Toy Story (1995)
Extremely rarely, a film is so unique that it completely changes the way films are made for decades to come. 1995’s Toy Story is such a film. The first fully computer-animated feature film, Toy Story came to set the stage for how audiences today watch animated film, launching Pixar to huge success, and ultimately killing the hand-animated films which Disney and other studios had lived on for seventy years.
As tech-heavy, story-light films like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace illustrated, however, impressive effects and CGI are not enough to make a great film. Audiences demand a movie that has heart, that speaks to something within their life and provides a new lens with which to view it. Toy Story provides a window into growing up, and was loved by parents as much as it was by their children.
8 Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Tom Hanks makes his third appearance on our list with Steven Spielberg’s World War II masterpiece Saving Private Ryan. Just as Toy Story redefined the way animated films are made, Saving Private Ryan made an indelible mark on war films. The cinematography brought the audience directly into the combat, with hand-held cameras providing a first-person view into the incredibly graphic action. The film also made magnificent use of surround-sound technology, with explosions and gunfire seemingly happening everywhere around audience.
While Saving Private Ryan somehow lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to the pedantic period rom-com Shakespeare in Love, it garnered no shortage of accolades. From a Best Director Oscar for Spielberg to Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director, to a slew of wins and nominations in cinematography, acting for Tom Hanks, and music (John Williams’ score is perhaps his best work), Saving Private Ryan has earned its spot not just in the greatest war films, but in the greatest films of the 1990s.
7 6. Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is for many the film which established Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as serious actors. Director David Fincher so artfully layered the characters and the drama that very few who had not read Chuck Palahniuk's novel on which the film was based would know that Norton’s narrator was unnamed until the end of the film.
Fincher’s dark and chaotic vision was jarring to critics, and the film received very mixed reviews upon its release. Roger Ebert claimed that it was “loved by many, but not by me.” However, he also praised the undeniable skill with which the film was made. Many critics attacked the philosophy of the plot, comparing it to A Clockwork Orange and worrying about copycat behavior. Seventeen years later, however, Fincher’s vision of the madness lurking in the working drone has proven brilliant and influential, adding its dark color and influence to films such as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
6 Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature film was ahead of its time. It’s hard to argue that any director had a larger impact culturally or on the film industry in the 1990s than Tarantino. In addition to his eight feature films, over the years he’s considered working on major franchises including James Bond and even wanted to direct a Luke Cage movie. While that might no longer be in the cards, who wouldn’t want to see an episode of the forthcoming Luke Cage Netflix series — or even an entire season — penned and directed by Tarantino?
While Reservoir Dogs was clearly early Tarantino, he was already establishing his signatures. From his ensemble cast featuring Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Harvey Keitel, and Tim Roth to his whip-smart dialogue and retro soundtrack, the film is vintage Tarantino. Perhaps nothing defines a Quentin Tarantino project like violence, however, and Reservoir Dogs does not disappoint. However, while the film retains the feel of intense violence, very little actually occurs on screen. From officer Marvin Nash losing an ear to the movie’s final outcome, the audience is left to piece together what happened rather than seeing it in real time.
5 Jurassic Park (1993)
As computer technology exploded in the 1990s, so did the other sciences. With the then very recent ability to identify and replicate DNA on an individual level, our collective imagination overflowed with possibilities. From cloning humans to evil twins and shadowy organizations maintaining secret government databases, DNA technology was the science of the paranoid in the early nineties.
Steven Spielberg, working from a novel and screenplay by the late Michael Crichton, was just the man to capitalize on this newfound enthusiasm and fear. With advances in computer graphics, no longer necessary were the stop-motion animation and hand-drawn animation which limited earlier dinosaur films. Jurassic Park was a thrilling experience in the theater, with dinosaurs that looked so real, audiences were left to wonder if Spielberg had actually cloned them. While the CGI looks slightly dated by today’s standard, the wonder and adventure and experience of seeing this film still hold true.
4 3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
There is perhaps no film more thoroughly associated with movies of the 1990s than Pulp Fiction. The ensemble cast is brilliant, the film rescued John Travolta’s career, made a star of Samuel L. Jackson, and showcased a very dark pawn shop basement.
Unlike Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction did not hold back in showing intense violence on screen, which thrilled audiences and gave social critics palpitations. Tarantino did not shy away from tackling racial issues, including using the nearly-never-uttered “n-word.” It vividly depicted drug use, with Uma Thurman requiring an injection in the heart from a panicked Eric Stoltz. And no film since Deliverance has depicted rape in quite this way. Always controversial, Tarantino was both decried and lauded by the critics. His films, however, have been perennial favorites, and he is now regarded as one of the best filmmakers of all time.
3 Fargo (1996)
Joel and Ethan Coen made four films together in the 1990s, and truthfully, any one of those films could be on the list. From John Turturro's brilliant turn in Barton Fink, to Jeff Bridges’ sublime slacker as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers together made some fantastic films in the decade. But none of these tops the comedy, drama, and authenticity found in 1996’s Fargo.
William H. Macy gives the performance of his career as a hinky car salesman, swindling his dealership in a loan scam. When the jig is up and Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard needs money badly, he hires criminals to kidnap and ransom his wife in the hopes of convincing his wealthy father-in-law to pay. As the criminals drive to town to undertake the job, a trooper pulls them over, and he and a pair of witnesses are murdered. Frances McDormand, in a Best Actress-winning turn as local police chief Marge Gunderson, investigates the crimes and is led to Lundegaard’s dealership, where, under pressure, Lundegaard begins to feel his grip on the situation slipping away.
In turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and terrifying, Fargo plays to the fears of the outsider in small town America — and instilled fears of wood chippers which linger today.
2 Goodfellas (1990)
The greatest film of the decade was also one of its first. Martin Scorsese's mafia masterpiece Goodfellas, based on the 1986 non-fiction crime book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, chronicles the rise and fall of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in an organized crime family over three decades.
The film is quintessential Scorsese, pulling everything vital from his extremely talented cast and flinging it at the screen in brutal, unrelenting fashion. Featuring a montage of murder as Henry Hill murders his way up the mob ladder, the film particularly shines when Joe Pesci (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his trouble) is on the screen, but Robert De Niro (The Godfather Part II), Liotta, Paul Sorvino (Nixon), and Lorraine Bracco (The Sopranos) disappear into their roles and fill the screen with a realism which may be unmatched in mafia movies. Roger Ebert wrote that “no finer film has ever been made about organized crime, and we agree — at least not in the '90s!
1 Near Misses
Not every great film made the list. Here are the movies which received votes from our panel but didn’t make the final cut. Is excluding Titanic or Schindler's List sacrilege? Is The Dude having a hard time abiding with The Big Lebowski missing the cut? Did we forget to put your favorite in the basket? Let us know in the comments!
23. Schindler's List
25. The Big Lebowski
26. Silence of the Lambs
27. Malcolm X
28. Boyz N The Hood
32. Leaving Las Vegas
34. Set It Off
35. Dazed and Confused
36. Toy Story 2
39. Edward Scissorhands
40. The Player
42. Waiting for Guffman
43. Barton Fink
44. The Sixth Sense
46. Eyes Wide Shut
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