The 1990s are both overrated and underrated when it comes to movies. The highs may not have been all that high, but the lows weren’t as bad as the eighties and the middles were solid. It was a workmanlike decade in film, and there’s nothing wrong with that, really. The one negative thing I would say about a lot of the movies of the era was that even the independent films feel like their corners have been rounded off a bit. Everything feels really commercial, which is not always bad, but can be a little bit sad.
Just as with my list of favorite songs of the nineties, I feel like I must be forgetting some candidates here. I also fully admit that there are quite a few critically acclaimed movies from the nineties that I’ve never watched; for instance, I haven’t seen four of the ten Best Picture Academy Award winners from the decade. For some reason, even though I say over and over that these lists are of my favorites, and not necessarily the best, I still feel the need to qualify everything. Anyway, let’s get started. Here they are, my twenty five favorite movies of the 1990s:
25) Romeo + Juliet (1996)
I can’t really sit through this entire movie anymore. I need someone to edit it down for me and just cut out the 45 or so minutes of meaningful glances and mournful stares. But I love the concept and the aesthetic of it, and the opening sequence is one of my favorites ever. Unfortunately I can’t find just that bit on YouTube, so I’m posting this trailer (which actually makes the movie look much worse than it is) instead.
24) Clerks (1994)
Kevin Smith is kind of like the Dave Matthews of directors. Clerks and Under the Table and Dreaming both came pretty much out of nowhere in 1994, and were met with commercial and critical success. Both Smith and Matthews were praised initially (and rightly so) for their unique style. Both kept doing pretty much the same thing, and slowly lost fans, through fatigue and a drop in quality of the product they were producing, and eventually became kind of the epitome of uncool in their respective fields. Not people that were terrible at what they did, but people of whom it was embarrassing to be a fan. And yet both maintain, to this day, a core group of hardcore fans that don’t really seem to realize that nobody else cares anymore.
Anyway, I LOVED this movie when I first saw it on VHS. Not surprisingly, I was around 13 at the time. I was also a fan of Mallrats, and loved Chasing Amy when it came out. I thought that Jason Lee was the second coming of Jimmy Stewart. Have I ever considered buying any of these on DVD? No. Let’s leave them locked up in the Nineties Time Capsule.
23) Home Alone (1990)
I saw this on Christmas Day, 1990 with my mom and sister, and it has remained a Christmas tradition for me pretty much every year since. It’s a movie that is fun to quote both ironically and non-ironically, and has a plethora of lines that would be great status updates, as Johanna and I have proved in the past.
I honestly think Macauley Culkin is great in this. I mean, he’s a child actor, so the fact that his delivery is a little wooden at times should be expected, and he makes up for it with his comedic timing. The kid knew how to sell a joke.
22) Tombstone (1993)
I haven’t seen this movie since high school, probably, but unlike so many movies I loved back then, I don’t actually dread rewatching it. I think this one would hold up. It’s not like I thought it was a masterpiece at the time; it was just a really fun movie, and I’m guessing it’s still fun. Also worth noting is the fact that Kevin Costner’s similar movie, Wyatt Earp, was released a year later and is absolutely terrible.
This, along with number 15 below and The Ghost and the Darkness (an honorable mention), led me to only half-jokingly start telling people that Val Kilmer was my favorite actor. The guy has charisma, and is great here as Doc Holliday. I’m your huckleberry, indeed.
21) A League of Their Own (1992)
My old friend Jason once swore that he had seen this movie one thousand times. When it was pointed out to him that this would work out to once a day for almost three years, he quickly backed down from his claim.
This movie seemed great, and then seemed sort of cheesy, but then it aged really well and kind of seems great again. Tons of wonderful lines here, and I’m not just thinking of “There’s no crying in baseball!,” I’m talking about things like “Hey cowgirls, see the grass? Don’t eat it.” Tom Hanks is just ridiculously good at what he does; obviously he’s not a Daniel Day-Lewis type of acting talent, but he is just so insanely likeable. He effortlessly carries movies like this. Add to all of that a song that has wormed its way into the deepest recesses of my mind and you have a winner.
20) Election (1999)
I like all of Alexander Payne’s movies, but I don’t love any of them. There’s just something weird and distant about them that I’m guessing is supposed to add to the realism but just makes everything feel really stagey. This is my favorite of the bunch, though.
One time back in high school I was watching this movie while my mom was in the room reading a magazine, and one of the teacher characters started very graphically describing having sex with Reese Witherspoon’s character, Tracy Flick. I didn’t know whether to address it or not, and my mom was not very convincingly pretending she hadn’t heard it. That was one of the more uncomfortable moments of my life up to that point.
19) The Sandlot (1993)
My sister and I went to see this together at the Savoy 16 (then the 10 or 14, I think). I didn’t take advantage of being able to walk to the movie theater as a kid often enough.
Considering the era in which it was released, this movie is a minor miracle. Early-nineties children’s movies were, for the most part, only appealing to kids. It’s not that they weren’t good; I loved movies like The Little Rascals, Little Big League, and Richie Rich. But they didn’t worry too much about entertaining the adults that had to escort the children. This movie, while obviously not as appealing to all age groups as today’s Pixar movies (which are arguably not even children’s movies anymore), at least threw adults a bone.
18) The Fugitive (1993)
This is the continental divide in Harrison Ford’s career. Most of what he did before it is great and everything after it is terrible. Seriously, go look at his filmography. It’s remarkable.
This movie absolutely holds up today and is one of the best Saturday afternoon basic cable movies from a decade that mastered the art of the Saturday afternoon basic cable movie. One thing has always bothered me, though. Why did they think they could film a movie that takes place in northern Illinois in the Great Smoky Mountains? The famous dam scene? Yeah, we don’t have things like that in Illinois.
17) Groundhog Day (1993)
I love both young, absurd, goofy Bill Murray and old, reinvented, wistful Bill Murray, but this mid-career stuff always seems sort of weird to me. The transition was a bit rough, but I’m glad he made it to the other side.
This is the type of movie that doesn’t get made that often anymore. It’s a weird, high concept film that manages to be a romantic comedy that is almost directed more at men than women and a broad comedy that is also really smart. The nineties wasn’t the best era for amazingly well-made, artistic masterpieces, but there are a ton of really enjoyable movies like this one that we don’t see greenlighted nowadays.
16) Hoop Dreams (1994)
My sixth grade class and I all took a field trip and walked over to the Art Theater in Champaign to watch this movie. I ate it up and loved it even then. Considering that I was twelve and this is a nearly three-hour-long documentary, that’s saying a lot. I’m pretty sure that this movie was kind of a rarity at the time; most documentaries back then were of the PBS variety. This was a really groundbreaking movie, and when it didn’t get nominated for an Oscar it caused such an uproar that the academy had to change the voting process. All that said, this was Roger Ebert’s choice for best movie of the nineties, which seems like a bridge too far.
15) The Saint (1997)
That’s right, I have The Saint in my top 15. I love this movie. I still have a crush on Elisabeth Shue because of it. I don’t cringe when Val Kilmer is pretending to be a South African artist. I own the soundtrack, even. You are not talking me out of this.
This reminds me: shouldn’t we have cold fusion figured out by now?
14) Run Lola Run (1998)
This is an outstanding movie that I haven’t seen in years and really need to rewatch. Unless I’m forgetting something, this is my favorite foreign film of the nineties. I’ve barely seen any foreign films from the nineties, though, so that doesn’t count for much.
According to IMDB, the director of this, Tom Tykwer, is involved in an adaptation of What is the What, one of my favorite books. I’d love to see it happen, but IMDB has been known to lie about projects still in development. I’d also love to see Franka Potente in more things; I was hoping she would get a bump after the Bourne movies, but it doesn’t seem to have really happened.
13) Office Space (1999)
Don’t get me wrong, I think this movie is absolutely hilarious, but 13 seems really high. Either I’m forgetting a lot of movies, or the nineties were thin in the quality department.
This movie deserves credit for really refining the genre of office humor. A lot of these jokes are still being recycled by people a decade later. It’s mostly notable to me, though, for two reasons: 1) this is the only time I’ve ever found Jennifer Aniston to be likeable, and 2) it provided me with the line “I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it,” which works in a ton of situations, and which I still use to this day.
12) Fargo (1996)
Even by today’s standards this is an odd movie; at the time, it must have really been singular in its weirdness. It’s impact seems to have faded over the years, though; it was number 84 on the AFI’s original “100 Years…100 Movies” list in 1998, but was removed for the 2007 update, even though only four films released after it were added.
11) Aladdin (1992)
This topped my list of favorite Disney movies and I summed up my feelings about it there, for the most part. As I said at the time, I’m almost terrified to watch it again, because it seems like the odds are high that it would be a disappointment.
10) Three Kings (1999)
If I had told you in 1991 that before the decade was over one of the guys from NWA, the guy that played the handyman on The Facts of Life, and Marky Mark, of Funky Bunch fame would not only all be legitimate movie stars, but would come together and make a modern classic of a war movie, you would have thought I was crazy, right? Life is funny sometimes.
9) American Beauty (1999)
This was a smack-me-in-the-face, wake-up call kind of movie for me in high school. I mean it REALLY blew me away. I think, at some point, enough people had made fun of it that I started to get embarrassed about liking it so much, and I started to talk myself out of it for no real reason. Although it is sort of painfully earnest at times, and that is a lot easier to digest as a wide-eyed youth.
8 ) Pulp Fiction (1994)
Johanna’s dad took her to see both this and Natural Born Killers in the theater in 1994 when she was eleven. It must have been a very formative year for her.
7) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Remember earlier when I was talking about Saturday afternoon basic cable movies? Here is possibly the most perfect example of that genre of all time. TNT would not have been playing this three times a week for years if it weren’t pulling solid ratings every time.
It’s a glossy, inspirational period piece based on a Stephen King novella, so it feels really uncool to love it. But this is an amazingly well made movie. One wrong note and this sort of thing can fall flat very quickly (see director Frank Darabont’s follow up The Green Mile). Everything comes together perfectly here.
6) Jurassic Park (1993)
I’ve mentioned before that I saw this in the theater seven times. By the end of the summer of 1993 I was having to lie to my parents about what I was going to see because they refused to pay for this again. I also remember that this was the first movie I saw that had the surround sound, speakers on the walls thing going for it. When I saw it with my sister, she had to have her feet up on the chair in front of her the whole time because she was worried that velociraptors were going to attack her from underneath her chair.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park was on TV today, and I honestly can’t believe that Steven Spielberg directed it, too. Every third movie or so he really mails it in.
5) Fight Club (1999)
I am apparently a much bigger fan of director David Fincher than I ever realized. Se7en is an honorable mention on this list, The Game is a cool movie that is very underrated, this is a absolute classic, Panic Room was enjoyable enough, and Zodiac made the honorable mentions of my best of the 2000s list. Maybe I should see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button after all. I recently found out that he is making a movie about the founding of Facebook and I could not be more excited.
4) The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Matt Damon coming off of Good Will Hunting and Saving Private Ryan, Gwyneth Paltrow coming off of Shakespeare in Love, Cate Blanchett coming off of Elizabeth, Philip Seymour Hoffman coming off of great parts in Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski, and Jude Law just starting to blossom, all together in a cool, stylish movie set in 1950s Italy. No wonder this is so great. It’s such a shame that Anthony Minghella passed away.
I was so shocked the first time I saw the pivotal murder scene, not only because I had no idea it was coming, but also because the way the blood seeped out of the oar wound (that must sound odd to someone who hasn’t seen this; I’m attempting to avoid major spoilers) was one of the more disturbing things I’ve ever seen in a movie, for some reason. It still grosses me out.
3) GoodFellas (1990)
This is both my favorite Martin Scorsese movie and my favorite gangster movie; I don’t need to see Dances with Wolves to know that there is absolutely no way that it should have won Best Picture at the Oscars (the other three nominees that year were Awakenings, Ghost, and The Godfather Part III; yikes). It’s this, and not The Godfather, that really serves as the touchstone for modern gangster films and television shows, in my opinion. It’s less operatic and epic and more episodic and character driven than Coppola’s gangster films.
2) Good Will Hunting (1997)
So, just like on my 2000s favorite movie list, I find myself putting something sort of cheesy at number two. But, as I said about Amélie, I am a complete sap for this movie. It introduced me to Matt Damon, Elliott Smith, and in a way, Boston, all of which I would grow to love as the years went on. This is the type of movie that I would expect to like less as I grew up and became more cynical, but it just hasn’t happened, for some reason. On a trip last year I was looking for something to watch at night on the limited channel selection at my hotel. The ridiculous happiness and excitement I felt when I stumbled onto this movie as it was just starting shows how much I love it.
I’ve posted the video of Smith playing “Miss Misery” at the Oscars before, but I can’t resist putting it up here again because it is such a sublimely odd moment.
1) Rushmore (1998)
Here it is, my favorite movie of the nineties, my favorite comedy ever, and possibly my favorite movie, period, of all time. I love every minute of this movie. Max Fischer just clicked completely with me, and remains one of my favorite characters of all time. I mean, what more can I say? I cut photos from magazine stories about Rushmore out and hung them on my wall. I just totally drank the Wes Anderson Kool-Aid. I was like a hype man for The Royal Tenenbaums when it came out during my first year of college. I argued with people about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and I even did my best to talk myself into The Darjeeling Limited. I’ve mellowed out a bit with the Anderson hyperbole, but this one sticks with me. In my opinion, it’s a perfect movie.
Honorable Mentions: American Movie (1999), Chasing Amy (1997), The City of Lost Children (1995), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Elizabeth (1998), Forrest Gump (1994), Friday (1995), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), Half Baked (1998), Kundun (1997), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), The Mighty Ducks (1992), Pleasantville (1998), Rounders (1998), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), Se7en (1995), Trainspotting (1996), The Truman Show (1998), The War Room (1993), Wayne’s World (1992)