Main      Site Guide    
At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Best Films of the 1990s

"Best film" lists don't carry a lot of weight with me, because they can never be definitive. Certainly it's impossible to list the objectively best films of all time definitively. It's a little more possible to list one's favorite films, but even then, tastes change over time.

However, I do think such lists serve as great recommendation guides for other film lovers. That and the fact that I'm a sucker for lists and statistics in general motivated me to begin my own series of Top 10 lists -- begun over three years ago, I might add. Because I have not seen a great number of the potential foreign language contenders, I'm restricting this list to English language films only. This means leaving off movies I truly love, like The Red Violin, but it's the fairest thing to do under the circumstances.

Eventually, I'll have a Top 10 list for every decade back to the 1920s, but some decades are going to take more time than others, because I don't want to publish a list until I've seen all the films I suspect might be candidates for it. Even so, I'm bound to miss some, and I reserve the right to tweak these lists if I see films in the future that belong on them. But I'll try to keep them as stable and unchanging as possible.

Here, then, are my favorite films of the 1990s. First, the honorable mentions, listed in alphabetical order.

Honorable Mention. Babe (1995)

Who'd have thought a movie about a talking pig would earn a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars? Babe illustrates just how little a one-line summary of a movie's premise can say about it. The film is a delight from start to finish: genuine and rife with whimsy, sure to touch even the most cynical of viewers.

Honorable Mention. Braveheart (1995)

The best historical character epic in decades, Mel Gibson's Braveheart is a tale of amazing breadth. It's a powerful emotional experience; the plight of the characters is heartrending, the photography is stunning, and the battle scenes, more grisly and unyielding than any prior cinematic effort, are as capable of thrilling as shocking. The development of the characters has some rough edges, the only reason the film didn't make the Top 10.

Honorable Mention. Forrest Gump (1994)

Robert Zemeckis broke new ground with the comedy-drama Forrest Gump, bringing an original vision to life with then cutting edge special effects. The cast brings such completely original characters to life so vividly; Hanks' performance was so fresh, the Academy Awards gave Tom Hanks an Oscar for the second consecutive year. Comedy and drama are seldom blended happily together, and never before had a movie looked quite like this one.

Honorable Mention. Heat (1995)

Michael Mann's crime epic pits a cop (Al Pacino) against a thief (Robert De Niro) in what sounds like the most simple of plot cliches -- the cat and mouse game -- but which is actually a thoroughly original work due to the broad scope of the film. Most movie characters don't have lives that extend beyond the demands of the plot, but Heat delves into the private lives of the characters and makes the main story thread all the more engrossing for it.

Honorable Mention. Noises Off (1992)

It's hard to find a comedy with such raw energy and relentless comedy. The pace never lets up, and while the comic timing is imperceptibly close to perfection, the calculation is well hidden beneath the chaos. This isn't the cleverest or most sophisticated comedy I've seen, but it might just be the funniest.

Honorable Mention. Titanic (1997)

Titanic was so mind-bogglingly popular and successful that the backlash against it was mind-boggling as well. Paradoxically, it damaged star Leonardo diCaprio's career for a number of years, as he came to be known as a passing fad of teenaged girls, even though he had already established himself as respected character actor in independent films. The backlash against Titanic is wholly undeserved; James Cameron's romantic epic is inspired and brilliant: a moving story and a visual feast.

10. Quiz Show (1994)

Director Robert Redford's best film, his Oscar-winning debut of Ordinary People notwithstanding. The quiz show scandal of the 50s is recreated with unforgettable portrayals of Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) and Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a razor sharp script, and a unique visual look and feel.

9. Dead Again (1991)

Dead Again is the best Alfred Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. In part, this is because director Kenneth Branagh and writer Scott Frank did more than borrow the gothic look of Rebecca and the Master's style. Dead Again is an original creation, a beautifully and tightly crafted thriller, with something new to discover even after repeated viewings.

8. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

With 1989's The Little Mermaid, Disney resurrected the flagging genre of the animated film. The revival raged so strongly and so long that by the end of the 1990s, Disney's first substantial competition in the genre had emerged. 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1999's Tarzan came close, but Beauty and the Beast, containing just the right balance of heart and humor, is the best in Disney's second wind. The songs and score are the crowning achievements of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and the gorgeous animation broke new technical ground with the ballroom scene.

7. L.A. Confidential (1997)

The best film noir of the modern day, L.A. Confidential is real treat, featuring a relentlessly winding story and unforgettable characters. Ostensibly, it's a murder mystery, but it's also a character piece, a suspense film, and a beautiful showcase of visuals that reconstruct a glorified, romanticized look of 1950s Los Angeles.

6. Short Cuts (1993)

Robert Altman's Short Cuts is a masterpiece, thought-provoking and darkly funny at the same time. It chronicles the stories of roughly two dozen characters, each with minutely fractional perspectives of the bigger picture. By watching how these characters go about their daily lives in near total ignorance of how they impact those around them, it triggers a lot of thought about how little we know of others in our own lives. The camera is all-seeing, for the most part, but even so, the movie joins stories in progress, and the credits roll before they are over. In real life, stories never have true beginnings or endings.

5. Pleasantville (1998)

It's gimmicky and morally questionable, yet overcomes both problems by its sheer creativity and, ultimately, resounding symbolism. I personally disagree with this film, not just morally but philosophically as well, and yet it provides such a wealth of food for thought that I cannot help but admire it. It helps, of course, that it's utterly hilarious.

4. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Director M. Night Shyamalan shocked the world, both by his film and by its unforeseen success. There may not be another film with a more satisfying and unpredictable surprise ending, but The Sixth Sense is so much more than its ending. The best scene, in fact, is a "simple" unscored conversation between a boy and his mother, which achieves an emotional climax powerful enough to draw tears. Shyamalan is unafraid to build suspense through tone and mood, rather than resorting to obligatory action scenes. The result is chillingly effective.

3. Barton Fink (1991)

1996's Fargo earned them most of their recognition, but Barton Fink is the crown of the Coen Brothers' career. It has a devilishly clever sense of humor, mind-boggling dialogue, and, while not a horror film, is one of the most frightening films in recent memory. The movie is eloquent but mercilessly savage in its mockery of the inner workings of Hollywood.

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg reinvented the war movie by plunging his camera into the midst of the fighting and showing just how horrifying and disorienting it must have been to have stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day. The film is famous for the opening 25 minute sequence, but it remains brilliant to the last, finding human truths, some of greatness, some of tragic honesty, in its characters. The heart of this movie is to pay honor to the veterans of the war, and certainly no other film has made me appreciate more what they have done for our country. But Saving Private Ryan is broader in scope: it asks and explores broader moral questions, too, and knows just when to step back and let us draw our own conclusions.

1. Schindler's List (1993)

How ironic that Steven Spielberg would be responsible for the two best films of the 1990s and that both would deal with World War II in some way. And yet the two films are utterly unlike; the similarities stop there. While Saving Private Ryan told the story of men on the front lines, Schindler's List is about the Jews living under the oppression of the Third Reich and about a German businessman who stuck his neck out to save as many of the Jews as he could. Liam Neeson should have earned an Oscar for his powerful performance as Oskar Schindler. One scene after another illustrates with chilling clarity yet brilliant artistry the depth of the prejudices, ignorances, and inhumanity the Nazis had for the Jews, and yet the movie is ultimately one of hope; that one man can make a difference in even the most hellish of societies. No mere words can do justice to Schindler's List's great accomplishment as a work of art and as a moving depiction of the Jews' plight during the war. It has and will endure as one of the greatest films ever made.

-- Samuel Stoddard