In case you haven’t heard, ‘90s trends are coming back hard. And the movies from the era are fertile ground for rediscovery.
Movies in the ‘90s were unlike any other decade’s. American independent film took off in a way it never had and never would again, with Sundance anointing new titans like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). Older legends including Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) and Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) were given the money and free rein to create some of the best movies of their careers. And as superheroes were just starting to heat up the box office, directors were still making massive original blockbusters (Face/Off) that broke through to audiences. Meanwhile, the decade’s grunge and alternative cultures ambled on, doing their own weird thing.
As we enter another new decade, it’s an ideal time to throw on your Seinfeld sweater and catch up with or rewatch some of the best that ‘90s movies have to offer, from the big to the small and intimate. Consider this unranked list just a starting point. Here are our picks for the best ’90s movies of all time.
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Well after he was seen as having passed his peak, Martin Scorsese went on a run of terrific movies that shared DNA with his earlier work while breaking out in new directions. Goodfellas is the ganger movie he was born to make: jazzy and funny, deranged and terrifying, punctuated by miraculous performances, and always somehow sure of where it’s going when its characters very much do not.
If the ‘90s were the slacker decade, Metropolitan was the tightlipped comedic rejoinder. Whit Stillman’s endlessly clever debut throws a middle-class kid into a throng of shark-like New York elites and watches what happens.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Owing in part to the explosion in indie production, the ‘90s were monumental for queer representation in movies. Here the hot-and-cold connection between two young male hustlers played by Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix—and the latter’s desperate search for something, anything like home—is one for the ages.
Point Break (1991)
In some ways, Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze and Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow all hit a peak with Point Break, a surfer-meets-FBI-meets-bank-heist thriller that juggles and nails it all, down to the Nixon mask. The look exchanged between Swayze and Reeves at the end was the bro-love climax for the century.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Silence of the Lambs bypassed the Academy’s horror bias before Jordan Peele’s Get Out scrambled mainstream tastes, leading people even then to say the familiar “I don’t like scary movies but I love…” Silence is horror, but it’s also essentially a two-hander drama between Anthony Hopkins as an uncompromising serial killer and Jodie Foster as a female FBI agent determined to find her footing in the murkiest corners of American life.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron didn’t make a sequel so much as he mounted the most incredible standalone spectacle disguised as a sequel in Terminator 2. That it still looks so good is reason enough for inclusion.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Poor Fire Walk with Me. Inevitably overshadowed by the media-phenom TV series that came before it, David Lynch’s surreal prequel is much more than a spinoff. It finally excavates Laura Palmer’s haunted soul, and sublimely reveals the very real terror surrounding her.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Short Cuts (1993)
Robert Altman fought his way back to relevance in the ‘90s, thanks mostly to the acclaimed The Player, but Short Cuts is richer, spinning in many revelatory directions with the help of the classic Raymond Carver short stories that provided the backbone of the screenplay.
Spike Lee’s most personal movie—a semi-autobiography made with his siblings about growing up in Brooklyn with a musician father—is also his most underrated. It doesn’t have any grand statement other than the humanism coursing through its episodic story, which is its great statement.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Roger Ebert considered Hoop Dreams the best movie of the ‘90s, and it’s a credit to the legacy of both him and the film that it holds up so well. Never less than clear-eyed about the paths of its NBA-aspiring kids, its power comes from an accumulation of detail that’s still rare in this golden age for documentaries.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Esquire once polled readers on what movie they thought defined the ‘90s. They overwhelmingly responded: Pulp Fiction. It’s not hard to see why. Then a brash young upstart, Quentin Tarantino blended the trashy and the philosophical which proved the right recipe for Hollywood’s new moment, turning what was essentially an art stunt into a blockbuster. It’s still endlessly re-watchable: a hangout movie in which the boredom of car-bound, burger-chowing LA life is inevitably punctuated by abrupt, shocking violence.
If it wasn’t the best comedy of the ‘90s, Clueless was unquestionably the comedy of the ‘90s: a slyly thoughtful reworking of Jane Austen’s Emma seen through the prism of delightfully ignorant, spoiled LA high school kids, from coiffed preppies to stoned skateboarders. They’re much smarter and sweeter than they sounded at the time—at least, sporadically—and they defined the shared fictional language of a generation.
Dead Man (1995)
Neo-Westerns had a brief moment in the ‘90s, and they don’t come stronger than New York City cool guy Jim Jarmusch’s oblique take on the genre starring Johnny Depp.
Most heist movies would love to be Michael Mann’s sleek, dense exploration of the parallel lives of career criminals and the authorities hunting them—all desperately clinging to their skills. The scenes between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino alone make this incomparable.
Call it a masterpiece, call it trash, call it (more accurately) a trashterpiece—audiences are still calling for Showgirls. That’s not just because the cult classic so fully inhabits the sleazy world of Las Vegas stripping, from dive bars to upscale hotel “revues” (or as Gina Gershon wisely whittles down the vibe: “You have great tits… I like nice tits”). It’s also because director Paul Verhoeven’s style is irrepressible, Elizabeth Berkley’s thrashing is even more so, and the movie is smart enough to end by winking at us.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread) has proved himself over and over again as a director with a singular vision, but if we’re being honest, this is still him at his most purely fun and cinematic, Valley porn melodrama and all.
Long before John Wick and the “gun fu” revolution, John Woo was making major action movies as if they were operas. The premise of Face/Off is as absurd (facial transplants made easy for criminal activity!) as the execution is astonishingly precise, setting off a series of unforgettable set pieces. Finally, the movie is big enough to accommodate Nicolas Cage’s acting.
Jackie Brown (1997)
It might be sacrilegious to some to say, but Quentin Tarantino outdid his own game with Jackie Brown, his best movie. No longer preoccupied with just jolting his audience (though there’s still plenty of that), he accesses his soulful, romantic side with the melting chemistry between Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Their heat underlines and heightens every turn in the Byzantine caper plot, and lingers long after the twists.
Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin, Smiley Face) still hasn’t gotten the critical reevaluation he so justly deserves. But the ‘90s Sundance rebel’s so-called “Teen Apocalypse” trilogy (we were so innocent then) is a good place to start. Fairly described as “Beverly Hills 90210 on acid,” Nowhere explores the mysterious, funny-until-they’re-bleak actions of a group of LA young things, leading to one of the most audacious endings ever.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen brothers have made plenty of other great movies, but the one people return to most is the saga of the Dude. In no small part because he still abides.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
The Thin Red Line represents a fascinating transitional period for Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, Tree of Life). Coming long after his early Hollywood work, it nevertheless saw the director gifted with a huge budget and stars to create a kind of thrilling tone poem about war—before Malick got too high on his own supply.
Beau Travail (1999)
Few foreign movies made their stamp on the American arthouse audience like Beau Travail. The sensually provocative Claire Denis’s stunning, scorched-earth drama follows French Foreign Legion soldiers in Africa circling each other like underfed lions. It’s overactive testosterone as dance as military infighting.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
It’s hard to imagine Spike Jonze making his name in any other decade than the ‘90s when the music video director joined writer Charlie Kaufman for… well we still don’t exactly know what it means beyond its own visceral inner workings, from absurdly tiny office space to creepy puppets to the coolest cast to get spewed out of the highway.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (oh, to be back in the ‘90s tabloid industry) stripped down for the Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, but it’s less explicit than most people remember. Cruise lives a WASP’s tortured night of the soul, stumbling on revelations about himself and the eerie, cloistered, moneyed world around him that make one shudder along with the intense classical music.
Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s coldly exacting direction found a perfect partner in the absolutely batshit writing of Chuck Palahniuk, lending the novelist’s work perhaps more importance than it deserves. Watching the world end at the turn of the millennium—or a shredded Brad Pitt beat the pulp out of a roomful of guys—never felt so right. The first rule of Fight Club fandom is you keep rewatching until you’ve memorized every line.
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