The best movies from the ‘90s
The 1990s were the end of an entire millennium, and to some extent, the decade’s best movies reflected that momentous occasion. It can be difficult to summarize an entire decade of cinema, and there are more great films released in a given decade than you could count with 10 hands.
Even so, the movies below are the quintessential films of the decade. Some of them were massive blockbusters, others were a bit smaller in scale. What unites them all, though, is the lasting legacy they left behind, which has helped to shape the cinematic landscape as it exists today.
The highest-grossing movie of the decade, Titanic was a phenomenon. The epic, more than three-hour running time is justified by the swooning romance between Kate Winslet’s Rose and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack of the early acts, and the tragedy and destiny of the entirety of the ship’s passengers. Titanic is sentimental and earnest, and it works because James Cameron was able to execute that vision with precision, scale, and a lot of heart.
The Matrix changed the landscape of Hollywood cinema and rattled us with fantastic imagery in a way that few movies had previously, and the effect of the story still ripples through our culture today. The movie paved the way for films such as 2010’s Inception and is infinitely prescient on the current state of the world. The Matrix was a cinematic gift, and the concept and philosophy behind the red pill/blue pill dynamic has infiltrated pop culture to an extreme that it is still referenced today.
Beauty and the Beast
Following a 30-year hiatus, Disney animation returned with a vengeance in the ’90s, and there are a number of movies released by the studio that could qualify for this list, but Beauty and the Beast was the first animated movie to receive a best picture nomination, and it stands above the rest. The fairytale features incredible songs, lush animation, and tells a remarkably adult story in a package that children can handle. It’s stood the test of time and it’s truly a great movie.
Quentin Tarantino made three films in the ’90s, and by the end of the decade, he was a phenomenon. The infinitely quotable Pulp Fiction remains his defining film for many, not just for its all-star cast, but also for Tarantino’s fresh take on story-telling. He plays fast and loose with the timeline, and it keeps the viewer on edge. The segmented style of filmmaking has been imitated since Pulp Fiction’s release, and the audience was introduced to an underworld of organized crime and drug use that we never knew existed. Tarantino wrote his own ticket after Pulp Fiction, a film that defined a generation and will never be forgotten.
Spike Lee followed up Do the Right Thing, one of the best movies ever made, with another masterpiece in Malcolm X. It stars Denzel Washington in the titular role, and chronicles Malcolm’s rise to prominence and his ultimate assassination. Lee’s script and direction are superb throughout, and Denzel Washington cemented himself as the leading man.
The Silence of the Lambs
Silence of the Lambs is a horror film with procedural elements. The right hand keeps you busy while the left hand pulls the sheet back to reveal the bloody truth. It is the story of two monsters, sort of like Dracula vs. The Invisible Man. Jodie Foster is the link, she anchors the plot. With her moral seriousness, she sort of acts as the ground reality between Jamie Gumm’s gruesome cosplay and Hannibal Lecter’s lip-smacking merriment. Director Jonathan Demme obviously did not restrain Hopkins as he swallowed huge swaths of scenery. Silence of the Lambs made our list because it is the most compelling detective story ever portrayed on film.
Goodfellas is about a boy who wants to be in the coolest club: the mob. Girls, guns, piles of cash, fun, and excitement. He gets in over his head and one day the party is over. The punishment is he has to live like a regular person, no more thrills. Scorsese whips it along through several decades like a circus master. Displaying an amazing control of tone, he juggles many types of violence, marital farce, ghastly humor, and period detail, and ratchets up the tension like crazy. An awesome display of filmmaking prowess, he flips the American dream like a pancake and turns up the flame. This movie makes our list of the best ’90s films, but the truth is, it may be one of the best of any decade.
An epic documentary chronicling the lives of two Chicago teens who have aspirations to play basketball professionally, Hoop Dreams is about how difficult that path is. In zooming in on the lives of these two boys, Hoop Dreams manages to tell a story about race and class in America. They see basketball as a chance at salvation, but the system is not set up for them to succeed. At turns hopeful and tragic, Hoop Dreams made our list because of its sheer honesty, and is an all-time great documentary.
Starring Frances McDormand as the very pregnant, dogged small-town sheriff Marge Gunderson and William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the blundering criminal and central antagonist, Fargo is utterly charming. Jerry, a car salesman, needs money, and it’s unclear why. So he hatches a plan to have his wife kidnapped as a means to finagle the money from his father-in-law. He and the kidnappers manage to bone it up, with tragic results. Fargo is imminently re-watchable and terribly clever, and it deserved a place on our list.
An all-time great comedy with the quintessential Bill Murray performance at its center, Groundhog Day is absolutely iconic, and our list simply would not be complete without it. Murray plays Phil, a TV weatherman who is met with an unusual set of circumstances when he discovers that he must relive the same day over and over again, with no end in sight. The repetitive nature works on every level, and we’re delighted each time Phil wakes up to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”. Groundhog Day is an unqualified triumph, and it’s likely the best comedy of the ’90s.