This is part of our 90s Week series. Read more here.
Ask some people what their favorite decade in film is and odds are you’ll get a handful of different answers. Some love the 80s as it was the decade where blockbusters came of age, and that means it’s home to many of the most popular, culturally relevant movies. Some younger viewers might answer with one of this century’s two decades. You can’t blame them (and you shouldn’t mock them) as it makes sense to love the movies you grew up with. Some of us wiser, more savvy, and fine — older — movie lovers might point to the 70s. (Because seriously, 70s movies are the best.)
The one guarantee, though, when asking this question, is that pretty much no one will claim that their favorite decade in film is the 1990s. (Well, no one but our own Kieran Fisher anyway.) Not even the people who themselves came of age then.
It’s a weird realization as, aside from the rise of poor CG effects, the decade is just as home to numerous amazing, beloved, and memorable movies as the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. You can probably think of more than a few off the top of your head, but as a public service, we’ve gone ahead and put together a list of the 50 best films of the 90s. Our picks come from our entire staff — we vary in ages, tastes, geographic locations, and preference in shoe wear, but we all love movies. It was an arduous task filtering through the hundreds of films nominated, but below are the best, our favorites, the ones that have held our affection across the 20 to 30 years since they premiered.
Keep reading to see The 50 Best Movies of the 1990s.
50. The Piano (1993)
Period pieces, particularly when the period in question is the 19th century, generally have two flavors: Victorian novel adaptations and biopics about the aristocracy. It’s a world of tight corsets, witty repartee, and definitely no nudity. Like, maybe in a painting or a statue or something, but not a breathing human person. And then there’s The Piano. It’s got the corsets, but in terms of content, Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set drama surrounding a selectively mute Scottish woman (Holly Hunter) forced into an arranged marriage and her daughter born out of wedlock (Anna Paquin) feels like a giant “up yours” to typical period piece conventions, and it is glorious. There’s mud and violence and male full-frontal courtesy of Harvey Kietel. The gorgeous score might be entirely classical, but if The Piano was a person, it would definitely be a rockstar — the sort that throws fits and trashes hotel rooms but everyone lets them get away with it because they’re so damn talented, and musicians are a moody lot, y’know? (Ciara Wardlow)
49. The Fisher King (1991)
Cinematically, New York can be a lot of things, from “a concrete jungle where dreams are made of” to the “Horror City” that Pauline Kael recognized on screen in the ‘70s. For Terry Gilliam in 1991, it’s a little of both, mashing up the fairytale and the nightmare, as if anticipating the Giuliani cleanup and Disneyfication that was coming for the crime-ridden metropolis. Robin Williams bridges worlds as Parry, a yuppie professor turned homeless cavalier on a delusional quest to find the Holy Grail and a romantic pursuit of a wonderfully awkward Amanda Plummer. Boozy Jeff Bridges, Oscar-winning Mercedes Ruehl, a fabulous Michael Jeter, and wheelchair-bound Tom Waits hold reality in place while Grand Central becomes a ballroom dream and Central Park is overrun with fiery hallucinations as well as Williams’ little fella flappin’ in the breeze. I love it, especially in June, hooooow about yoooou? (Christopher Campbell)
48. Chungking Express (1994)
Fraught relationships look the best when Wong Kar-wai frames them in one of his yearning masterpieces. Such is Chungking Express. Softly lit and framed with voyeuristic intimacy, the film is profoundly yet inexplicably resonant. This is all thanks to the wistful contemplations, almost-touches, and stolen glances underpinning its frenetic, emotionally charged story. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t also peppered with unexpectedly, welcomed moments of levity. Chungking Express’ poetic expression of love and desire simply works because as dreamy as it looks, there is a marked amount of truth about it. (Sheryl Oh)
47. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
When John Singleton did not see his experience on screen, he went out and made his own damn movie. Boyz N the Hood began life as part of his application to USC and quickly sold to Columbia Pictures after graduation. Trusting no one else to tell his story, Singleton insisted on the director’s chair. He surrounded himself with talent equal to prove themselves, casting Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube as two friends trapped in an impossible cycle of violence. The film pushes its characters to the brink of despair, exposing a system designed to keep everyone in their particular boxes. Relief can only come from within, and Singleton offers hope even when he’s screaming at the willfully ignorant population that lives outside of Crenshaw. (Brad Gullickson)
46. Audition (1999)
You will see other horror represented on this list of the decade’s top films, but none quite like Takeshi Miike’s adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s novel Audition. The film, in the immediate years after it was released, was discussed in almost hush tones, bubbling rumors of the intensity, violence, and horror that lay behind what is ostensibly the set-up for a lighthearted rom-com. A widower, incapable of getting back into the dating world, has a buddy stage a fake casting call all in hopes of finding new love. And while he does find love, perhaps deservedly so for this creepy meet-cute, it may not be the kind of love he had hoped for. In the waning years of the ‘90s teen slasher boom, Audition feels almost like an aperitif for the coming storm of films from the New French Extremity or the torture porn trends of the ‘00s. The film injected the end of the decade with a different kind of energy then what we were seeing from Japan at the time, while still feeling just as influential. With a focused story, relying on unrelenting tension to craft its effective scares, this type of extreme cinema can become deeply personal, shocking you well before the torture begins. And no matter how ready you think you are for that final act, trust me, you aren’t. (Jacob Trussell)
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