Sunday, 13 November 2011

Best films of the 1990s

Is this the greatest decade in cinema ever?  In my opinion, absolutely YES!  After giving some love to the 70s and 80s, it's time to turn to the final decade of the first century of cinema.  Now up until this point, I've been content to share the love for my top 10 films of the decades but for the 90s, it's a very different story. 

Perhaps as this was the decade of my teenage years, this is where I started to get serious about film.  Perhaps I've seen more 90s films than films produced in any other decade.  Or perhaps this is just the most exciting time for cinema that I can imagine.  The point is a top 10 would not do this decade justice.  So I've taken the easy way out.  Here's my top 30 of the 90s:

30. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) Redefined horror for the new century.  Forget killers in masks, pretty teens, and lashings of gore.  This went back to a low-budget, slow-build suspense and less-is-more approach to horror.  Built a brilliant backstory and did some convincing myth-making to complement the on-screen horror.

29. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998) Renewed the British obsession with cockney crime capers, inspired Tom Cruise to stand up and shout at the screen 'this film rocks' and became an effortlessly cool, consistently quotable, fun, funny and stylish comedy gangster classic.  Guy Ritchie has never topped it but came close with the similar but lesser Snatch.

28. Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)  The best of the 'Die Hard on a...' action films that flooded into cinemas in the 90s.  Keanu Reeves vs Dennis Hopper in a lift then a bus then a train.  Introduced Sandra Bullock as one to watch in a film so high concept, it sounded ridiculous on paper.  A bus that can't drop below 50mph and the opening set-piece involving people trapped in a lift make this an edge-of-your-seat action classic.  Just don't mention the jumping bus bit.

27. Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)  The film that gave us Woody and Buzz, not to mention Sid the psycho kid next door and his bedroom full of monstrous creations.  Smart, funny and with incredible, groundbreaking  visuals, this should be the pinnacle of Pixar if they didn't just keep dazzling audiences with new films.  Full of memorable supporting characters, the toy soldiers and claw worshipping aliens deserve special mention.

26. The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)  Proving Jim Carrey was more than just an OTT, gurning comedy star, this satire on the future of reality TV is remarkably prescient.  Ed Harris plays God to Carrey's boy in a bubble as the film takes humorous pot shots at product placement, big brother and fame and celebrity.  Carrey is brilliant at the comedy and the drama, Laura Linney great as his hysterical wife and the ending is heartbreaking and uplifting all in one.

25. The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994) A film production that will be remembered at least for the accidental death of star Brandon Lee, this is a tragic tale of revenge with an excellent grungey soundtrack and a beautiful gothic creation of a city plagued by heinous criminals.  Violent but heartfelt and featuring a great performace from Michael Wincott as despicable villain Top Dollar, it's also got some fantastic action as Lee's indestructible Eric Draven takes on a room full of bad guys with guns.

24. Human Traffic (Justin Kerrigan, 1999)  Capturing the spirit and sounds of the 90s clubbing scene, this is a film full of creative visuals, quotable dialogue and a great cast of up and coming British stars.  Danny Dyer is cool as drug-dealing Moff, John Simm and Lorraine Pilkington have a touching relationship that includes one of my favourite screen kisses and the whole film totally rejects the 'drugs are bad' dogma of so many other films.  These characters get off their heads at the weekend to escape the monotony of their lives and in the words of Bill Hicks 'have a real good time'.

 23. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990) The pinnacle of Burton's career and the best Depp/Burton collaboration that exists.  Lonely Edward gets brought down from his isolated castle to stay in suburbia.  Burton paints the ordinary people of the town as an odd, colourful bunch with no excitement in their lives.  The women in the film are crass stereotypes, but Depp's performance and the theme of getting below the surface of people to see their true colours elevates this to classic fairytale status.

22. Mallrats (Kevin Smith, 1995)  Forget Clerks, the critics, the box office, the film festivals, this is the film that got me into the work of director Kevin Smith.  Featuring one of the coolest and funniest characters and a career best performance from Jason Lee as slacker 'mallrat' Brodie, the film is filled with memorable characters and quotable dialogue.  Jay and Silent Bob steal scenes, as do Michael Rooker and Ben Affleck as the villains.  This is a pre-Judd Apatow romantic comedy that will make the guys in the audience laugh harder than the girls.

21. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) With this, Speed and The Matrix, Keanu looked like the king of action cinema in the 90s.  But this film belongs to the late Swayze.  His Bodhi is a surfing Yoda, a prototype Tyler Durden that robs banks to finance an endless summer of waves and freedom.  Bigelow directs some thrilling action scenes featuring skydiving, foot chases through suburbia and two men rolling around in the waves.  It's gayer than Top Gun and all the better for it.

20. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) Mendes' first film is beautiful, emotional and original.  Looking closer at the pain, repressed desires and sadness lurking beneath the surface of so many suburbanites, Alan Ball's script creates interesting, rounded characters that are understandable and often relatable.  Like so many other films in the 90s it shows that all is not well with the middle classes.

19. The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) The last entry for Keanu on this list is a mind-bending action sci-fi extravaganza.  Comic book and manga inspired visuals, astonishing action set pieces and bullet-time photography made this a visual feast but the ideas behind the narrative posed interesting and intriguing philosophical questions that left audiences just as gobsmacked.  Shame the whole trilogy didn't live up to the promise of this first film but this is still a classic piece of science fiction cinema.

18. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) Along with The Blair Witch Project, Scream redefined the horror movie in the 90s.  With a brilliant postmodern slasher film opening and a pretty shocking Drew Barrymore gutting, the film spills the blood of characters that know horror movie conventions and still can't outsmart/outrun a masked psycho with a knife.  The references come thick and fast in a knowing, winking at the audience horror slasher satire that succeeds at making the audience laugh and... yes, scream.

17. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) Heavy handed direction, editing and scoring make this film a perhaps overly stylised race drama, but the performances and killer ending are unforgettable.  Yes the black and white, excessive slow motion and OTT music can be a distraction, but the films best scenes tone it down and focus on tightly scripted dialogue and a brilliant, terrifying performace from an almost unrecognisable Norton.  Giving this much of a platform to a scarily articulate racist thug is a controversial and risky approach but the narrative makes it very clear that its message is one of love, not hate.

16. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) I'm ashamed to say that before this film, the Holocaust was an obscure piece of history to me.  Yes I knew 6 million people had been killed but that figure did not sink in until I saw Spielberg's masterpiece.  Beautiful black and white punctuated by devastating moments of colour, this film has some of the most shocking scenes in the history of cinema.  Ralph Fiennes is absolutely terrifying, Neeson and Kingsley superb but it's scenes like the liquidation of the ghettos, the burning of piles of bodies that still make me shake years after seeing the film.

15. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) Surely the best prison drama ever made.  Spawning countless Morgan Freeman voiceovers and another fantastic Darabont-directed prison movie in The Green Mile, Shawshank is an emotional and unexpectedly feel-good piece of traditional storytelling and filmmaking.  The central relationship between Tim Robbins and Freeman is a joy to watch unfold and the ending is a classic twist; unforgettable and incredible but completely in tune with the rest of the films theme of hope in the face of adversity.

14. Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990) Along with Unforgiven, Costner's film redefined/killed the Western genre for good.  Perhaps it is over long and self-indulgent but so is Braveheart and at least this isn't directed by a loony.  Like Avatar, a white man goes to live with the natives/savages, this time on the frontier of the new America and finds their culture to be beautiful, inspiring and worth trying to save and fight for.  The final words that scroll onto the screen are devastating, reminding viewers of the truth of the story that has unfolded.

13. Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)  A film that transports the viewer through recent American history from the 50s to the present, taking in the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and AIDS as signs that the times are a-changing even as our hero stays his same simple self.  Some have criticised the percieved conservatism of the story; Gump does what he's told, fights for his country, doesn't question authority or experiment with the excesses of the drugs and sex of the 60s and 70s.  The love of his life Jenny does question, does rebel and does experiment and she pays for it.  But deep down this is a charming film with a sweet love story, great music, great performances and a real sense of America as a vibrant and dynamic country.

12. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993) I've got a soft spot for films set over a short space of time.  See also La Haine, Human Traffic and Mallrats on this list for other films set over 24 hours.  Like Mallrats, D&C contains Ben Affleck as another bullying bastard, but also delves into the lives of very ordinary teenagers out to have fun, chase the opposite sex and get high/drunk together.  The characters are well observed, the music gives a real sense of the time and place and the up and coming cast includes many now famous faces.  It's also a great coming-of-age story for the younger characters.

11. Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996) It looks like it's been directed by a hyperactive child with quick-cut editing, whip pans, crash zooms, and more colour than a box of crayons, but the MTV style is just what the classic tale needed to make it fresh and relevant to a modern audience.  I know Shakespeare purists will shake their head and tut but the guns, the sex and the tightly edited script, as well as the incredible soundtrack all add up to R+J being a supremely stunning assault on the senses.  DiCaprio and Danes also make a great screen couple with excellent performances and another of film's greatest kisses (in the elevator at the party).

10. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) It's impossible to forget the first time you see the opening D-Day battle on the big screen with surround sound.  Forget Spielberg's other 90s classic Jurassic Park, it's his darker self that dominated the 90s with this and Schindler's List.  The action is incredible and though the based on a true story narrative meanders after the opening assault, it finds it's way again in time for another final battle that is incredibly emotional.  The visual style of the film is amazing and hugely influential; never has a war film felt so real.  Hanks gives possibly the finest performance of his career.

9. Goodfellas (Martin Scorcese, 1990)  I'll be honest I probably don't appreciate Scorcese as much as most.  But this film is near-perfect.  Liotta gives a career best performace and is surrounded with the brilliance of Pesci, De Niro and Sorvino.  It's a flashy film with a stunning tracking shot, cool freeze frames and a great soundtrack but it's the wonderful voiceover that guides the audience through this crime epic.  When Henry Hill (Liotta) gets too nose-deep into the cocaine, the film's style reflects the protagonist's state of mind and paranoia with wit and flair.  If there had to be just one, this is Scorcese's masterpiece.

8. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) Reservoir Dogs was just a starter for this main dish.  Opening with hip dialogue, another great freeze frame and great music over the credits, this is the film that brought non-linear narratives back into the mainstream for years to come.  Resurrecting the careers of many a Hollywood veteran (Travolta, Keitel, Willis) as well as giving Samuel L.Jackson the role that would cement him as the baddest motherf*cker in cinema, this is Tarantino at his coolest, funniest and most brilliant.

7. Boyz n the Hood (John Singleton, 1991)  With an incredibly low budget, director Singleton made this ghetto classic at the age of 23.  Superb performances from Cuba Gooding Jr and Ice Cube and a realism that comes from Singleton's own experiences poured into the script and filming on location in South Central make this an urgent and powerful film.  The message is hammered home in scenes with Laurence Fishburne as the only father and role model that the young characters have to look up to but the different paths taken by the young men in the story highlights the plight of young African Americans without resorting to negative stereotypes.

6. Seven (David Fincher, 1995)  Featuring Kevin Spacey as the deluded but genius killer, Brad Pitt as a cocky young cop and Morgan Freeman as the wise old detective, Seven is breathtaking.  This trio, along with director Fincher and scriptwriter Andrew Kevin Walker are responsible for one of the most unrelentingly dark and disturbing serial killer thrillers of all time.  Forget The Silence of the Lambs, Spacey is ten times the psycho Lecter/Hopkins is.  The cinematography, the mise-en-scene and the brooding soundtrack kicked off by Nine Inch Nails over the opening credits blends together to create an unsettling film that may brighten visually at the end but darkens thematically as it draws to its grim, bleak, pessimistic conclusion.

5. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) Another great soundtrack, another director (like Tarantino) inspired by the French New Wave directors and another film about drugs.  Boyle showed early promise with Shallow Grave, but blew minds with this mixture of surreal visuals (toilet diving, overdose burials), pumping sounds and creative cinematography and editing.  Yes the cast look a bit too cool (starting a panic about heroin chic) but the performances are faultless.  Renton, Spud and Begbie are unforgettable characters and the film takes an unflinching look at the ups and downs of heroin addiction in an honest, fun and incredibly stylish way.

4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) Sorry to bang on about it again but this is the best sequel ever.  Taking the template of the first film with a killer and a protector sent from the future, this sequel ups the stakes by having both killer and protector being robot terminators, throwing in a young boy that needs protecting and making the T-1000 a worthy antagonist to Schwarzenegger's born-again hero.  The truck vs bike chase is a classic action scene but with so many set-pieces to choose from, this film has it's pedal to the metal virtually from the start and rarely lets off.  The story is genius and the special effects are still brilliant.

3. Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)  I admit it's got faults; the script has moments of weakness and as a result DiCaprio isn't at his best consistently.  But Kate Winslet plays Rose as a sympathetic but strong victim of circumstances seemingly beyond her control and Zane is a great (almost sympathetic) villain.  Never mind that though.  The huge set, the use of minatures and CGI all blend seamlessly together to re-create a wonder of human invention, the luxury liner herself.  Cameron's real footage of the ship at the bottom of the ocean is haunting and sobering compared with the hysterical, unbearably tense and brilliantly crafted last hour of the ships maiden voyage (and the film) as Titanic sank.  It's the details that I love.  Yes Cameron shoehorned in a pair of fictional star crossed lovers for the audience to care about but so much of this film is actually filled with  historically accurate detail that needs to be relished on repeat viewings such as the inclusion of Molly Brown's attempts to get the lifeboats to return, Guggenheim getting dressed in his best for the sinking, the baker being the last one into the water.  The scale of the tragedy is ably highlighted by the scale of the production that re-creates it.

2. La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) So relevant and insightful, the French cabinet had a special screening, this is a masterful first film made on a meagre budget, shot in black and white and filled with creativity and righteous anger.  It's been called anti-police, but it's more pro-youth.  The central trio of characters, Said, Hubert and Vinz wander the streets of their estate aimlessly.  But on this day Vinz has found a gun in the preceding night's riots.  Wanting to get revenge for the police brutality that is a part of their daily existence, Vinz insists he's going to kill a cop.  Following the youths over 24 hours, the film stylishly shows the boredom of their lives with long flowing tracking shots, explosive editing and incredibly realistic performances from the leads.  Yes it's subtitled, slow-paced and yes it's in black and white.  But this film will grab you and leave you shaken with its brilliant open ending that suggests the troubles it addresses are far from over.

1. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) No surprise here as I've already stated my undying love for this film before.  So good I had to see it three times in the cinema, this film is too perfect to sum up here.  Rarely can a film change your life but this is a film that I can honestly say did.  Introducing me at age 18 to completely different ways of thinking than I had ever contemplated, Tyler Durden made quite an impression.  With his Marxist, anarchist, fascist, anti-society, anti-capitalist speeches, Pitt's performance and Jim Uhls' script (from Chuck Palahniuk's book) shook me to my core.  I didn't go out and start a fight club, I didn't blow up any credit card companies and I didn't give away all my savings and go and live in a deteriorating house on an industrial estate but I did start to think a little differently.  And I did let go of the steering wheel on the way home from the cinema (though evidently not for long enough).  However it's not just the script and the ideas that make this the best film of the 90s.  It's the pre-millenial angst, the foreshadowing of 9/11 and the contemporary relevance in the wake of the Columbine killings.  It's the style with Fincher showing his true genius at handling the technology of cinema.  It's the black as ink comedy.  And it's Helenha Bonham Carter as Marla.  It's all these things that make Fight Club absoultely impossible to not talk about.

Honourable mentions must go to a couple of films that I love but didn't quite make it.  Toy Soldiers (Die Hard in a boarding school!) and Robin Hood: Prince of Theives (Costner's mullet and accent won't stop me loving this).

If you haven't seen any of these, I insist you must!  What are you waiting for?  What's your favourite movies of the 90s?  Any I've missed on this list?  Am I wrong or is this the greatest decade in cinema history?


  1. very cool list there buddy! I think you could easily swap in thin red line to replace either blair witch, titanic, mallrats, scream, party people & lock stock (personally I'd switch titanic or blair)

  2. Thin Red Line's beautiful but not one I would watch again and again (in fact I think I've only see it a couple of times), it should really be in any list of the 90s best films but I've got some wierd tastes as you can see. Thanks for reading!

  3. I do agree with Simon about The Thin Red Line, it was so beautifully made and directed, one of my favorite war films.

    However, this is a fantastic list! I am not sure off the top of my head what my favorite would be. Maybe Shawshank, maybe GoodFellas, not sure.

    Excellent work!

  4. Thanks Matt, so much love for Thin Red Line, perhaps I need to dig it out and re-watch it after so many years!

  5. yeah 90s were the best!I want to watch La Haine again now!

  6. Interesting that I should see La Haine here! I am watching it in my Media Studies class at school. Studying it for representation of ethnicity and youth :) It is a good film. lots of the films on here I have seen and they are great! nice list!
    I shall follow your blog now :) Be sure to check me out>

  7. @Tom Enjoy studying La Haine, I'm also teaching about it at the moment for A2 Film Studies. I'm following u 2, looks like a great blog u got! Thanks for reading!


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