The Top 20 Greatest Movies Of The Nineties

Ah, the 1990s – the decade that brought you indie-cinema breakouts and bullet-time blockbusters, fight clubs and foul-mouthed clerks, charismatic cannibal serial killers and “Choose Life!” sloganeering, Rushmore Academy overachievers and Royales with Cheese. Looking back on the movies that made the Nineties such a surprisingly fertile period for filmmakers and film lovers, you can see how so much of the foundation for the past few decades was laid so early on, from the rise of documentaries as a mainstream phenomenon to the meta touches that would turn so many mix-and-match movies into wax museums with pulses. Sundance was to independent auteurs as Seattle was to grunge rockers. We would hang with slackers and Scottish junkies, smooth-talking criminals and abiding dudes. We would get cyberpunk as fuck. We would know kung fu – whoa!

So we’ve assembled a crack team of film fanatics, culture vultures, pop-culture pundits and various critics to weigh in on the 20 greatest movies of the Nineties. Crank up your dial-up connection, crack open a Zima and let the arguments begin.


20. ‘Dead Man’ (1995)

Johnny Depp / Everett Collection

Filthy, nasty, funny, ponderous and peyote high, Jim Jarmusch’s anti-Western is the coolest black-and-white slow-burn in all the land. Johnny Depp, back when the man could do no wrong, plays William Blake, a timid accountant whose journey west quickly spirals into violence and vengeful justice. His companion is an unlikely Native American sidekick named Nobody (Gary Farmer); the whole thing may or may not take place in the afterlife. From Neil Young’s staggeringly great, broke-down Morricone-esque score to Iggy Pop as a campfire drag mother, Jarmusch’s deconstructed oater is like a 19th-century nightmare filtered forward into a country that’s no less dumb, guilty or lost. EH

19. ‘Fight Club’ (1999)

Edward Norton, Brad Pitt / Everett Collection

David Fincher’s brutally violent, visually stunning adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel is so perfectly pitched that flippant young punks can see it as call for antisocial mayhem and older establishment types could read it as a repudiation of Nineties nihilism. Give credit to stars Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, two leads who embody the yin and yang of macho self-destruction – especially when a certain killer twist kicks things into a different gear. Though it keenly described the rootlessness of middle-class Gen-Xers, its insights into a specific end-of-the-century alienation still apply: to the anti-materialistic progressives and the alt-right; to #NotAllMen activists and GamerGaters; and to any recklessly angry type who find a community that allows them to indulge their worst impulses. NM

18. ‘Paris Is Burning’ (1990)

Everett Collection

Before Madonna appropriated ball culture in “Vogue,” first-time director Jennie Livingston trained her camera on the Harlem-based scene, where “houses” hosted wildly inventive drag battles and functioned as surrogate families for gay men and trans women of color. Performers speak eloquently on how racism, homophobia and poverty have deferred their lifelong dreams of fame and fortune; one starry-eyed young dancer is murdered. Detractors have accused Livingston of exploiting her subjects, but the film remains a crucial snapshot of a community whose influence might otherwise have been erased by a mainstream culture that plundered it for ideas. JB

17. ‘Toy Story’ (1995)

Buzz Lightyear, Woody / Everett Collection

Nothing looked like Pixar’s tale of action figures and the kid who loves them when the company’s inaugural offering hit screens – fast-forward one decade-and-beyond later, and nearly everything looks like it. As the first full-length computer-animated movie, it was destined to be a historic achievement, but what John Lasseter’s instant classic proved, beyond the obvious marvels of technique, was that CGI could have all the whimsy, warmth and depth of hand-drawn animation in the right hands. The digital sandbox may be cutting-edge, but Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang’s spirit of friendship and adventure feels as old as childhood. ST

16. ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)

Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature set the table for everything that followed: the skewed-chronology storytelling, which turns it into heist movie without a heist; the pop culture references, like the opening disquisition on the true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”; and the eclectic soundtrack, which will forever associate Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” with the gruesome spectacle of a cop getting his ear sliced off. But Reservoir Dogs would end up being even bigger than than its creator – it’s the opening salvo to an indie revolution. After an era dominated by Merchant/Ivory productions, a wave of bloody genre films suddenly turned the arthouse into the grindhouse. Things would never be the same. ST

15. ‘The Matrix’ (1999)

The major sci-fi film of 1999 was supposed to be The Phantom Menace– and then a true mind-bender emerged, setting the agenda for the next century’s blockbusters. The Matrix is a dazzling combination of radical political messaging, kick-ass action sequences and a brilliant premise: Anonymous hacker Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) learns that he’s living in an elaborate simulation orchestrated by robots that have enslaved humanity; naturally, only he can stop it. Filmmakers Lilly and Lana Wachowski brought the world bullet-time visual effects and wire-fu fight scenes, grafting a postmodern hipness onto a classic hero’s journey. But just as meaningfully, they tapped into the culture’s pre-millennium tension, envisioning a frightening near future in which humanity would be ruled by the very technology it had created. TGr

14. ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)

Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds / Everett Collection

Imagine Robert Altman’s Nashville raunchily transplanted to the San Fernando Valley – with a couple of bloody, Tarantino-esque shoot-outs thrown in for kicks. And boom, you have Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling tale of the late Seventies/early Eighties porn business, an epic group-character study that totally nails the effervescent sleaziness of the last days before AIDS without ever settling for easy disco-ball nostalgia. Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy and Heather “Rollergirl” Graham are all unforgettable as members of director Burt Reynolds’ dysfunctional porn family, while Mark Wahlberg’s breakout turn as priapic prodigal son Dirk Diggler put his Marky Mark days behind him forever. It’s the announcement of a bold new filmmaking talent, a beautiful look back and a hint of things to come. DE

13. ‘Fargo’ (1996)

Frances McDormand / Everett Collection

Joel and Ethan Coen’s darkly comic snowbound noir stars William H. Macy as Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, a Midwestern every-schmo who hires a couple of small-time criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife in the hopes of pocketing the ransom money once her wealthy father pays up. Like almost everything this would-be criminal mastermind touches, though, the plan goes wildly off the rails. People end up dead, things fall apart and pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in a iconic, Oscar-winning performance) is determined to doggedly trace the blood trail back to its hapless source. It’s a startlingly original procedural, one that deftly pairs sweet-natured satire – those accents! – with shocking violence – that woodchipper! – and slowly, ever-so-politely emerges as one of the standout gems of the Coens’ considerable career. GM

12. ‘Beau Travail’ (1999)

Behold, the Foreign-Legion reimagining of Billy Budd you never knew you needed. French director Claire Denis takes Herman Melville’s final novel of military life and mancrushes, drops it into modern-day West Africa and turns the story of a handsome rookie recruit (Grégoire Colin) and an envious sergeant (Denis Levant) into an impressionistic dismantling of first-world masculinity. Cinematographer Agnes Godard films scenes of blinding daytime marches and late-night club revelries with a palpable sense of heat; using everything from opera arias to Neil Young’s “Safeway Cart,” Denis transforms the troops’ maneuvers into musical numbers. Coming at the end of the decade, this landmark movie felt like a breath of fresh, and equally humid-as-hell air blowing into an often stale late-Nineties’ Euro-arthouse scene. And just when you think things can’t get anymore dynamic, Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” comes on, Levant hits the dance floor and you fall into a state of delirium. DF

11. ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993)

Bill Murray / Photofest

Caddyshack meets A Christmas Carol in Harold Ramis’s warm-hearted, wisdom-filled comedy, as Bill Murray’s self-important TV weatherman gets his karmic comeuppance by reliving the same small-town Pennsylvania day over and over until he gets it right. The movie star is at his wise-guy best here, playing a blithely sarcastic sexist who initially views his metaphysical predicament as a license to indulge in bad behavior consequence-free. Then he bottoms out and eventually realizes that he’s better off becoming a standup guy. Nineties rom-com queen Andie MacDowell is the woman who wins his heart. (Bonus rewatch surprise: a young Michael Shannon in his feature film debut as one half of a newly married couple very excited about Wrestlemania tickets.) Repeat viewings are essential. GM

10. ‘The Piano’ (1993)

Anna Paquin, Holly Hunter / Everett Collection

Merchant-Ivory monopolized prestige period films until Jane Campion’s strange, unruly, expressionistic fable shattered everything. Holly Hunter stars as Ada, a mute 19th century mail-order bride sent with her precocious young daughter (Anna Paquin) from Scotland to New Zealand to be with a fussy husband (Sam Neill). Her piano is her only voice, refused until a rough neighbor (Harvey Keitel) trades land for the instrument. The brute agrees to return it to Ada for lessons that belie his burgeoning love – and, eventually, hers. The startlingly original gothic romance beguiled the Cannes Film Festival, making Campion the first woman ever to win the Palme d’Or. Oscar noticed, too: Hunter and Paquin nabbed acting awards, while Campion won Best Screenplay. SG

9. ‘Chungking Express’ (1994)

Brigitte Lin / Everett Collection

You only need to watch Wong Kar-wai’s ode to all the lonely people once to permanently alter your consciousness – after that, you’ll never be able to hear “California Dreamin'” without imagining Faye Wong dancing to it. The Sixties rock song is only one of many all-over-the-map influences the Hong Kong-based director imports into the fluorescent-lit film’s twinned tales of the lovelorn and the lost. Characters sewn together from spare bits of Old Hollywood and French New Wave archetypes sip Mexican Sol Cerveza and frequent a takeout joint where gyro meat spins on vertical rotisseries. The heroes of this chaste romance are two cops struggling to move on after breakups; one becomes infatuated with an outlaw in a blonde bombshell wig, while his doppelganger is covertly courted by a gamine who sneaks into his apartment to clean. More distinctive than even the lovers’ charming quirks is Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s smudgy, impressionistic visual style, which immerses the viewer in a celluloid dreamscape that only adds to its swooning potency. JB

8. ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

Denzel Washington / Everett Collection

Spike Lee had hoped that his biopic about the slain Civil Rights leader would have the epic sweep of classic movies like Lawrence of Arabiaand Gandhi. In fact, the director achieved something even greater: A historical drama, a compelling character study and a political essay all at once. As we watch Malcolm (played by Denzel Washington in one of the finest performances anyone anywhere has ever given) go from happy-go-lucky party-boy to smalltime hoodlum, convict to rabble-rouser, political leader to family man and beyond, we see how the cumulative impact of the lives he’s lived come to transform his thinking. This is not a historical portrait captured in amber; it’s a living, breathing movie that is as much about the here and now as it is about the mercurial era of its subject or the moment the movie was released into theaters. BE

7. ‘Slacker’ (1991)

Everett Collection

The London Calling of Nineties cinema arrived at the exact pivot between one decade (and one America) and the next. Richard Linklater’s career-long obsession with time – what it does to us and what we make of it – starts right here. Dispensing with plot, recurring characters and fixed locations, this free-form excavation of Lone Star eccentricity wanders around Austin, Texas, trailing the talky troubadours of a generation defeated by Reagan and prepped for Clinton-era cynicism. It’s a chronicle of its moment, encapsulating the bar-stool conspiracies and nihilistic philosophies of a very specific post-post-hippy college town, while also absolutely nailing an evergreen sense of uneasy freedom, U.SA.-style. All this and Madonna’s pap smear results, ready for sale. EH

6. ‘Close-Up’ (1990)

Hossain Sabzian (right) / Everett Collection

Awakening Western eyes to a global strain of sympathy that knew no borders, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami was the art-house “discovery” of the 1990s: a tenderhearted humanist who gave lie to the reductive politics of the day. Kicking off the decade he would come to dominate, Kiarostami released this radically original docu-fiction hybrid, flecked with sneaky humor and a deeper anxiety about borrowed notions of identity. On its surface, the film is the story of a con artist: Hossain Sabzian loves movies and wants to be famous. Somehow, he doesn’t have a problem lying to a stranger that he is well-known Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. One thing leads to another, and our bogus hero is invading a family’s home under false pretenses, all while digging himself deeper into a colossal pit. Close-Up extends the ruse into a feature-length cringe – until it drops its gloriously compassionate endgame, a meta-touch that helped push the medium into uncharted territory. JR

5. ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson / Everett Collection

Take two chatty hitmen. Add in a coke-snorting femme fatale, her mobster husband, a boxer on the run, some basement dwelling hillbillies and a low-rent Bonnie and Clyde robbing a diner. Drench the whole thing in the comprehensive pop cultural obsessions of its creator, and voila – you have the Royale With Cheese of 1990s independent cinema. No other film of the decade had the instant adrenaline-shot-to-the-heart impact of Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the films that formed his cinemania – it doesn’t feel like a defining movie of the decade so much as the Nineties itself, achingly hip and deliriously footnoted and endlessly quotable. Posters hung on dorm walls; parodies sprouted up overnight; even the soundtrack, filled with extremely well-curated surf rock and vintage smooth R&B, was inescapable. Building on the rat-a-tat dialogue and funny-to-violent whiplash of his debut Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s sophomore movie is where his signature style really comes into its own – few other filmmakers can claim to have their surname turned into a adjective after just two features. We’re still feeling the aftershocks of this seventh-art earthquake decades later. BT

4. ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)

Anthony Hopkins / Everett Collection

The infamous mask, those giant moths, the grotesque handiwork of not one but two chillingly nicknamed homicidal maniacs, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” – it’s been decades since Jonathan Demme’s serial-killer thriller swept the Oscars and scared the beejesus out of audiences, and none of its indelible images or best lines have faded from our collective memory. The late, great director and screenwriter Ted Tally immediately makes you complicit in this Faustian bargain between Jodie Foster’s promising FBI cadet Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ savage bon vivant Hannibal Lecter – every conversation with Hannibal Lecter turns into a strange, singular flirtation. (Which doesn’t mean the creators ignore the era’s casual chauvinism; check out the way Demme frames the library assistants staring Starling down.) Everything plays out like a perverse Pygmalion: She deciphers his enigmatic clues while he isolates the trauma that makes her tick and schools her in the proper etiquette of the psychopath. Clarice is warned not to let Hannibal into her head, but she does – and now we’ll never get him out of ours. PR

3. ‘Safe’ (1995)

Julianne Moore / Everett Collection

It starts with a truck farting out fumes, or maybe it’s that “totally toxic” new couch: For some reason, San Fernando Valley housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore, brilliantly brittle) is sick. The spooky genius of Todd Haynes’ near-abstract masterpiece is that it never pins down an answer (Fruit diet? A chemical-heavy perm?), putting us on exploratory paths that few movies dare. Set in a soulless, deodorized 1987 but very much of its right-here-right-now moment, Safe plays like an indictment of suburban America: “Where am I?” Carol asks, on the verge of mental collapse. Hyperventilating at a friend’s baby shower, she could be reacting to expectations she can’t meet. Unspoken by name is the AIDS virus, for which the film is often read as a metaphor. But this indie-cum-disease-of-the-week thriller extends far beyond even that diagnosis, into the kind of existential ennui that would make Michelangelo Antonioni beam. Provocatively, Haynes gives his timid character the impulse to make a change – but at what cost to her freedom? It’s a movie that will frighten you of just about everything. JR

2. ‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994)

Arthur Agee / Everett Collection

The movie that smuggled long-form observational documentary into multiplexes, gave birth to a generation of filmmakers and made mass audiences reckon with the challenges of being young, poor and black in America – the one that Roger Ebert called “the great American documentary.” Shot over six years and presented over three breathless hours, this Oscar-nominated epic from filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert follows teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee, wildly talented basketball players from Chicago’s south side, as the young men go from playground to gymnasium, from courtside dramas to myriad struggles at home. Even a quarter of a century later, with its protagonists having drifted into middle age,Hoop Dreams still plays like a buzzer beater. And that’s because it tells a story still largely unheard in popular art, one that comes alive through a gathering of complex, intimate details, and takes the time to trace the twists and turns, thrills and indignities that only real life can offer. It’s a full-on, time-tested American masterpiece. EH

1. ‘Goodfellas’ (1990)

Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro / Everett Collection

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Martin Scorsese’s woozy, dizzy adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s slice-of-Mafia-life book Wiseguy is many things: a social anthropology study, an epic look at the American Dream, a coked-up nightmare, a nostalgic look back at an age when made men were made men, a head-spinning display of virtuosic filmmaking, the blueprint for the modern organized-crime saga and a peerless look at a world where you might be slapped on the back or shot in the face. “Mob guys love it, because it’s the real thing,” Pileggi told GQ. “They say, ‘It’s like a home movie.'” And as you watch Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill go from up-and-coming crook to cosa nostra bigwig to Witness-Protection-Plan “average nobody,” you realize you’re getting a funhouse-mirror reflection of an old-fashioned U.S. of A. bootstrap success story, complete with bespoke Italian suits, bulging cashrolls and Bolivian-marching-powder meltdowns.

Every performance, from the holy trinity of Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (“Funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?”) to the round-the-way guys in the background, feels pitch-perfect. Its movie-mad references run the gamut from The Godfather to The Great Train Robbery; its soundtrack incorporates everything from Bobby Darin to Donovan, the Stones to Sid Vicious. (After that murder montage, filmmakers are essentially forbidden from using Layla‘s coda to score a scene ever again.) Its influence is incalcuable – you don’t get a million moving-camera showstoppers without that Copacabana tour, and you definitely don’t get the Tarantino, et al., mix of black humor and horrifying violence without Goodfellas‘ getting that combination down to a science first. And though Scorsese had made great movies before and would make great ones after this, this Mob-flick hit feels like a summation of his culturally specific, universally thrilling cinema about men on the edge. There are movies that may be more emblematic of the Nineties, but this was the one that set the pace for the entire decade – a high mark that left most other contenders to the throne looking like schnooks. DF

Please wait...

And Now... A Few Links From Our Sponsors