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The 50 best films of the ’90s (1 of 3)

Few talk about the ’90s as a filmmaking renaissance on par with the late ’60s and early ’70s, but for many of the film critics at The A.V. Club, it was the decade when we were coming of age as cinephiles and writers, and we remember it with considerable affection. Those ’70s warhorses like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman posted some of the strongest work of their careers, and an exciting new generation of filmmakers—Quentin Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Coen, Wong Kar-Wai, Olivier Assayas, David Fincher, and Wes Anderson among them—were staking out territory of their own. Presented over three days—with two 20-film lists, then a separate one for the top 10—our Top 50 survey was conducted in an effort to reflect group consensus and individual passion, with the disclaimer that all such lists have a degree of arbitrariness that can’t be avoided. (On Thursday, we’ll run a supplemental list of orphans, also-rans, and personal favorites that will undoubtedly be quirkier.) One more note before digging in: Filmmakers who had a particularly good decade were often divided against themselves in the voting. Which Coen brothers movie is the strongest? Which color from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy shone the brightest? Peel slowly and see…

50. Dead Man (1995)

After a protracted battle between director Jim Jarmusch and Miramax head Harvey Weinstein ended in a bitter stalemate, Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic “acid Western” wasn’t released so much as booted out of the trolley car and left to rot. It was an all-too-fitting treatment of a film whose eponymous hero, an accountant played by Johnny Depp, travels west by train to the town of Machine, an Industrial Age hellpit that seems destined to eat him alive even before a gunfight leaves him mortally wounded and on the run from bounty hunters. But Jarmusch’s mesmerizing black-and-white odyssey, charged by a rib-rattling Neil Young guitar score, acquired a few prominent champions and a devoted cult following during its brief run in theaters. Of its many pleasures—Robby Müller’s evocative cinematography, its picture of a Wild West tamed by the forces of violence and industry, its philosophical journey from life to death, its acute sensitivity to American Indian culture—perhaps the greatest is that Dead Man is still resolutely a Jim Jarmusch movie, not far removed from the fish-of-out-water comedy of Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law. Same fish, different era. 

49. American Movie (1999)

Before advances in technology democratized filmmaking—if only to an extent—it required a potent combination of talent, self-delusion, and berserk self-determination to get a film made independently. Chris Smith’s wonderful 1999 documentary American Movie chronicles the tragicomic misadventures of Mark Borchardt, a filmmaker with an abundance of the last two qualities, if not quite the first, and his chubby musician sidekick Mike Schank, as they struggle to make Coven, a low-budget horror film they hope to crank out to fund the film Borchardt really wants to make, a magnum opus called Northwestern. American Movie suggests a latter-day documentary version of Ed Wood: Borchardt shares the late filmmaker’s strange charisma and gift for roping others into his dream world, no matter how preposterous, unlikely, or silly it might be, as well his determination to make movies by any means necessary, even if that means forgoing even the faintest pretense of professionalism and giving in to a childlike sense of play. Smith’s strangely beautiful, quintessentially Midwestern cult classic is a darkly funny but ultimately sympathetic valentine to the need to create in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 

48. Ed Wood (1994)

In retrospect, Tim Burton—whose career has grown steadily less interesting as his budgets have increased—seems like precisely the wrong person to laud the work of Ed Wood, whose Plan 9 From Outer Space has been called the worst movie ever made. (Although if he were around today, Wood would be the new Tommy Wiseau.) But Ed Wood is filled with genuine affection for Wood’s no-budget creations—cardboard tombstones, rubber octopus, and all—and it finds genuine pathos in Wood’s relationship with Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), then an aging addict who died before Plan 9 had finished. Johnny Depp’s lead performance, a rare (for him) balance of mischief and discipline, is a career highlight, and Bill Murray’s brief turn as a melancholy homosexual opened the door for Rushmore and Lost In Translation.

47. Starship Troopers (1997)

Paul Verhoeven’s gonzo satire was destined, even designed, to be misunderstood. An action spectacle with the heart of a Grade-Z creature feature, the movie was derided as “90210 in space,” missing the fact that Verhoeven deliberately cast blandly good-looking actors as fodder for the movie’s militaristic mill. Stealing shots from Triumph Of The Will, the story of a society abandoning individual rights, and even identities, in response to an alien invasion, Starship Troopers is a wicked, acidic comment on how easily people can be convinced to trade freedom for security. That it also functions for the unaware as a full-throated Fascist recruiting ad is part of its brilliance. Verhoeven admits and even indulges its appeal before turning it inside out.

46. Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Years before he conquered the world by bringing Tolkien’s Middle-earth to life, Peter Jackson made his reputation as a serious filmmaker (following several gross-out horror-comedies) with this fact-based account of the homicidal friendship between two teenage girls in 1954 New Zealand. Just to show off, he also discovered both Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, playing best friends (with vaguely implied benefits) who retreat into a fantasy world they create together, realized by Jackson as a phantasmagorical magnification of their construction-paper fortresses and Plasticine figures. When one of the girls’ mothers takes steps to separate them, things turn ugly, but the film is less interested in the sordid details of the real-life crime than in depicting the overwhelming fervor of adolescence, when everything feels like either the most glorious experience of your entire life or the end of the universe. 

45. The Limey (1999)

Steven Soderbergh had already racked up plenty of accolades, but the back-to-back release of Out Of Sight and The Limey in 1998 and 1999 firmly established him as one of the most vital and protean filmmakers of his era. A revenge thriller told as an acid flashback, The Limey slips between time frames and points of view, mingling its onscreen story with its actors’ histories: Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda—cannily cast as a sleazy countercultural entrepreneur—are riffing on their screen personae as much as they’re playing roles, although Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs keep their cinematic reference points below the surface. It’s a head-scratcher whose mysteries deepen on repeat viewings, but it predates Soderbergh’s decision to separate his art films from his entertainments—an Ocean’s 12 here, a Bubble there—so even those puzzling over The Limey’s fractured narrative can delight in the moment when Luis Guzmán gazes dreamily over the smog-shrouded Los Angeles skyline and muses, “You could see the sea out there—if you could see it.”

44. Metropolitan (1990)

Whit Stillman’s debut about the “urban haute bourgeoisie”—uptown, upper-class New York teens navigating debutante season—is set in a world that’s acknowledged as outdated even to those participating in it. But being aware of the ridiculousness of their status doesn’t stop them from also taking it seriously. Animated by Stillman’s hilarious, clever, puffed-up dialogue, the characters are overeducated and spend an awful lot of time in formalwear, but their personal dramas are of a very normal and relatable variety. The contrast between the struggles they undergo with romance and friendship and the efforts to intellectualize them are as poignant as they are comical, and the film manages to make a pricey cab ride to the Hamptons into a ridiculous but noble gesture.

43. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Before he became a creator of bloated, stilted worlds and a crafter of ham-fisted allegories, James Cameron established himself as a smart genre specialist with a nifty, low-budget little 1984 B-movie called The Terminator, which launched his directorial career and catapulted its funny-talking lead to superstardom. With 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron brought the low-budget virtues he learned during his apprenticeship with Roger Corman—economy, focus, novelty—to the big-budget realm. The superior sequel implicitly acknowledges that between The Terminator and Terminator 2, Arnold Schwarzenegger had become both a huge action hero and a bit of a comic figure, casting him as a good guy this time around and making the bad guy a new, more advanced Terminator (Robert Patrick) capable of adopting any shape or form through the miracle of a new science-fiction technology called morphing. Where Schwarzenegger was clunky and huge—though blessed with unstoppable determination and momentum—Patrick was sleek and slippery, a shape-shifting android demon terrifying in his unpredictability and superhuman malleability. Like Avatar, Terminator 2: Judgment Day pushed the boundaries of technology forward; only this time, Cameron used computer-generated imagery as a powerful tool to expand the visual and storytelling vocabulary of film, and not as an end unto itself. 


42. All About My Mother (1999)

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar dedicated All About My Mother to “actresses who have played actresses,” which describes much of the film’s cast, to various metaphorical degrees. The story starts when a 17-year-old is fatally injured by a car while chasing a stage actress, hoping for an autograph. His mother then ameliorates her grief by seeking out his father, now a transvestite dying of AIDS. The setup comes straight out of a soap opera and sprawls outward from there, with a death in childbirth, an Alzheimer’s-stricken father, a witty transsexual prostitute, and many more colorful, theatrical events and characters. But over and over, Almodóvar brings his melodrama back to the idea of people choosing their own families and identities, and playing roles with each other that define their interactions. It’s anarchic and clever, like so many of the director’s films, and emotionally resonant in a big Douglas Sirk way; but it’s also touching in its deep-seated feelings for women, and the personae people adopt to defend themselves or make their lives functional. 

41. Raise The Red Lantern (1991)

Shot in three-strip Technicolor, a process that had long since been abandoned in the U.S., Zhang Yimou’s heartbreaking historical drama makes the most of its titular pigment. The story of a merchant’s daughter (Gong Li) who becomes a wealthy man’s concubine is both achingly romantic and breathtakingly controlled, befitting a story whose underlying theme is the battle between order and freedom. Outside of his native China, Zhang’s movie was widely interpreted as a parable of rebellion against a repressive government; at home, of course, he denied it, protecting a career that has become less transgressive as Zhang’s need for state funding has increased. (See the tepid, overblown The Flowers Of War for proof.) Although it still awaits a video transfer that will do its limpid colors justice, Raise The Red Lantern still stands as a high-water mark, not only for Zhang’s career, but also for his entire generation of Chinese filmmakers.

40. Trainspotting (1996)

Danny Boyle’s stylish second film (after 1994’s Shallow Grave) stars Ewan McGregor as the core of a loose, fairly obnoxious band of buddies variously addicted to heroin, sex, and violence. But it’s just as accurate to say the film stars Boyle’s visual imagination, which comes into play as he attempts to portray onscreen the subjective feeling of a drug high, a drug overdose, a drug withdrawal, and the long, boring, flat days a drug addict experiences after kicking the habit. Perfect casting and a terrific soundtrack help him considerably, but Trainspotting is at its best when it gets subjective, following McGregor through so many moods and moments that the actual plot—what little of it there is—seems beside the point.

39. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Yeah, yeah. Hate it if you must, but at least acknowledge that the breathless hype surrounding The Blair Witch Project’s initial release created expectations that no horror movie could possibly meet. Thing is, it’s not really a horror movie, except in the broadest possible sense of the term. The most unnerving moments occur in broad daylight, as the film’s three protagonists gradually unravel through sheer exhaustion and begin to turn on each other. Perhaps it’s for the best that The Blair Witch Project’s method has rarely, if ever, been replicated since: Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez sent three novice actors toting two cameras into the woods without a script, giving them less and less food over the course of several days and disturbing their sleep with strange noises. The performances this technique elicited bugged a lot of people, but that’s arguably because audiences rarely see emotional extremity quite this real on a movie screen. When Heather Donahue performs her much-celebrated, much-mocked flashlight monologue near the end, part of her obviously knows that she’s acting, but there’s a significant part of her that’s genuinely and unmistakably on the brink of losing it. 

38. Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control (1997)

From his first feature, 1978’s Gates Of Heaven, director Errol Morris has shown an abiding interest in eccentrics, visionaries, and eccentric visionaries, but Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of profiling four of them at once. There’s no real-world relationship that links Morris’ fascinating subjects—a wild-animal trainer, a mole-rat specialist, a topiary gardener, and a robot scientist—so he does all the linking himself, making intuitive yet profound associations while cutting between them. What he finds foremost is a gallery of obsessives, each accomplished in their narrow and peculiar areas of expertise. Beyond that, Morris’ montage sequences, with their Fellini-esque carnival-of-life quality, offer ruminations on life, death, and human consciousness, and a cohesive picture of men whose jobs involve creating order out of chaos. It’s a one-of-a-kind film by the most original documentary stylist of his time. 

37. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

James Foley’s film adaptation of David Mamet’s stage play isn’t hugely cinematic: It takes place in just a couple of locations, and keeps the camera movement and editing flash to a minimum. It’s only a few steps above a stage production captured on film. But it’s still a stellar experience, thanks to a phenomenal cast, all operating at the top of their games: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, and Alec Baldwin (appearing in a single, indelible scene written to help expand the movie) all attack Mamet’s crisp dialogue with a tense, revved-up energy that crackles through the entire film. The script doesn’t waste a line, and the film doesn’t waste a look or a gesture. Lemmon’s richly realized salesman, covered in flop-sweat but desperate to get back on top of his game so he doesn’t lose his job, represents one of the strongest performances on his impressive résumé, but all of the acting in Glengarry Glen Ross is terrific. It’s a taut, endlessly quotable piece, full of twists and tension.

36. L.A. Confidential (1997)

By the mid-’90s, Curtis Hanson had earned a reputation as a talented journeyman, a hardworking director whose name hardly anyone knew. But a string of early-decade hits (Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The River Wild) won him the clout to take on an ambitious dream project: James Ellroy’s borderline-unadaptable 1990 novel L.A. Confidential. Part noir, part cross-section of 1950s L.A., the film cast a pair of then-barely known Australian actors—Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe—as cops whose differing approaches to their jobs puts them at odds with one another, until evidence of crimes bigger than either had ever imagined brings them together. Working with screenwriter Brian Helgeland, Hanson streamlines the plot and tones down the era-appropriate racism of Ellroy’s novel, but captures the novel’s sense that creeping rot touches both the city’s upper echelons and lowest depths. It’s a stylish but substantial crime film wrapped around a history lesson and acted with brio by a cast determined to do more than just fill out a bunch of handsome period clothes.

35. Naked (1993)

Were we to compile a supplementary list of the ’90s’ best performances, David Thewlis would surely be somewhere very near the top. Naked is essentially a lacerating record of his improvisational descent into hell, fashioned into coherent yet still quasi-maniacal drama by writer-director Mike Leigh. First seen apparently raping somebody in a dark alley—at best, it’s a consensual encounter that’s gone horribly wrong—Thewlis’ Johnny heads from Manchester to London to seek out an ex-girlfriend (Lesley Sharp), with whom he quickly becomes irritated. Indeed, everything irritates Johnny, who would be insufferable if not for the razor-sharp wit that inflects his nonstop series of sarcastic observations and cruel attacks. (Leigh contrasts Johnny with a more upscale but far less intelligent sadist, thereby raising uncomfortable questions about how much inexcusable behavior we’ll accept, and on what terms.) It’s a dazzling feat of sustained defensive aggression, like watching an Olympic diver perform a double somersault tuck into the Grand Canyon. And the movie, which is almost entirely nocturnal, affords it an arrestingly Stygian context.

34. Seven (1995)

In another filmmaker’s hands, it could have been so cheesy: A brink-of-retirement detective (Morgan Freeman) and his hotshot young replacement (Brad Pitt) contend with a diabolically brilliant serial killer whose murders, they gradually realize, illustrate the Seven Deadly Sins. Thankfully, the script landed on the desk of David Fincher, still smarting from the studio interference he’d experienced making Alien3. Fincher committed wholeheartedly to the film’s pitch-black heart (with an assist from Pitt, who threatened to walk if the original, gruesomely downbeat ending was changed), crafting one of the most relentless nerve-janglers of the modern era. That a film so suffused with disgust for the urban nightmare should reach its nihilistic climax in a deserted field miles outside of the pointedly unnamed town is just one of its many discordant elements. There’s a half-hearted attempt at a marginally hopeful fadeout, but the overall effect is that of a kick in the gut (or a bit lower). What’s in the box? The remnants of your faith in humanity, that’s all.

33. The Matrix (1999)

Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix became a sensation almost from the moment it was released, thanks to an exciting trailer—with Keanu Reeves dodging bullets and cool-looking characters practicing martial arts in mid-air—and thanks to word-of-mouth that claimed this was the first American sci-fi in years that had the goods. Even now, after two decades of other films aping The Matrix’s visual style and special effects, the original remains instantly hooky, with one grabby scene after another. The plot itself has a highly satisfying structure, first introducing super-hacker Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Reeves), then having Neo discover that there’s another layer of reality beneath what his conscious mind has always known. This is a classic hero’s journey, bolstered by the feeling of revelation.

32. Close-Up (1990)

A true one-of-a-kind film, Close-Up finds Abbas Kiarostami revisiting an incident in which a devoted film fan pretended to be acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, duping a family of Makhmalbaf admirers in the process. The impostor is a man named Hossain Sabzian, who was caught and convicted, and here, Kiarostami has him reenact his act of deception, casting all the other real-life principals as themselves as well (and bringing in the real Makhmalbaf for good measure). It’s a study in truth and illusion, one that arrives at no conclusions as to where one ends and the other begins, or as to why Sabzian did what he did. It doesn’t have to, either: Kiarostami’s playful, and ultimately profound, offhand post-modernism goes deeper than any pat conclusions ever could.

31. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (1996)

Sixteen years, three additional documentaries (including the forthcoming West Of Memphis), several high-profile celebrity champions (most notably Johnny Depp and Metallica), and a face-saving Alford plea agreement later, the West Memphis Three are finally out of jail. But while the full story of their path to freedom is plenty compelling, this initial record of the case—in which three Arkansas teens were convicted of murdering and sexually mutilating three smaller boys, mostly on the basis of their interest in death metal and the occult—is about much more than a simple miscarriage of justice. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky earned the trust of the community and were rewarded with an unprecedented emotional intimacy; so vivid are the “characters,” and so plentiful the “twists,” that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that it’s non-fiction. It’s a testament to the film’s profound and contradictory survey of human nature that it would still be indispensable even if the West Memphis Three had been acquitted and their story had ended happily right there.

Next: The next 20, featuring Robert Altman, the Coen brothers, Steven Spielberg, and more. See our top 10 here, and the outliers and personal favorites that didn't make the list here. Listen to what we have to say about how the decade changed cinema here, and see the '90s films we hate the most here.