100 Best Films of the 90s – Part 8 (#30-#21)

The 90s was one of my favorite decades for film, with the emergence of Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, John Singleton, Paul Thomas Anderson and other less famous artists. It was a Renaissance for crime dramas as well, all seeming to stem from the success of GoodFellas and Pulp Fiction, and veteran blockbuster filmmaker Steven Spielberg proved to be one of the best directors of not just action, but high drama with his incredible work on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

This was also a great decade for raw, in-your-face documentaries with the sad but hopeful Hoop Dreams and the absolutely devastating Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, not to mention Jennie Livingston‘s thrilling, hilarious and extremely emotional look at NYC drag queen balls, Paris is Burning.

I’ve seen roughly 800 films from this decade, but here are my top 100, continuing with #30-#21. These will be weekly installments every Wednesday throughout the summer.

30. Heat

1995 / USA / dir. Michael Mann / 170 minutes

cast: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Val Kilmer, Amy Brenneman, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Hank Azaria, Diane Venora, Natalie Portman, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Mykelti Williamson, Dennis Haysbert, Ted Levine, Wes Studi, Kevin Gage, Tom Noonan, William Finchter, Henry Rollins, Tone Loc, Jeremy Piven, Xander Berkely

Sprawling crime epic that manages to cram eight hours worth of story into two hours and fifty minutes. It’s a tight, action-packed, fully realized crime drama with one of the best and most realistic movie shoot outs ever put to film. Al Pacino is an insane police detective who will yell at you about your wife’s ass. Robert DeNiro is a quiet, calculated criminal who loves books about metals but hates furniture. An armored truck robbery gone terribly wrong leads Pacino to DeNiro‘s back door and the two meet at a local diner to sniff each other’s asses. Fireworks ensue, but who will out-heat the other guy? Michael Mann‘s action epic was underrated upon release but has since achieved masterpiece status in the collective minds of film buffs everywhere. Heat does garner criticism for not being long enough or letting its several supporting characters breathe, and I think that’s a valid criticism. If this were made today it would be an eight episode miniseries on a streaming giant, but since it was made in 1995 and TV did not exist in the capacity it does today, we get a monolith story shoved tightly into a three hour runtime. No option was perfect, but I think making this a truncated feature film versus a long TV miniseries in 1995 was the best option. I mean, imagine clunky 8 hour CBS miniseries with Steve Guttenberg and Steven Webber facing off. Ok, I’d watch that. (Streaming on STARZ)

29. Lone Star

1996 / USA / dir. John Sayles / 135 minutes

cast: Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Matthew McConaughey, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton, Frances McDormand, Ron Canada, LaTanya Richardson Jackson

One of the thoughtful and poignant films ever made about racism, Lone Star follows three families in a small Texas border town – a white family, a Mexican family and a black family. Each family goes back at least three generations in the town, and sit relatively comfortably within the community in 1996. Sam (Chris Cooper), the town sheriff is well liked because his father (Matthew McConaughey), who was also the town sheriff, is a beloved legend around these parts. In fact, he’s so well remembered and loved, the town is about to dedicate a building or name him after something (can’t really remember), but that’s when a thirty year old body is found out in the desert, that might have been linked to this town sheriff they all loved. The film goes in and out of flashback, from all three families, to reveal that this sheriff character isn’t the saint everyone chooses to remember him as. And that’s what Lone Star is really about, the lies we tell ourselves to feel more comfortable in our world. The characters in this confront them to different effects. Some gain clarity but most outright refuse it, continuing with the lie simply out of comfort. ($4.20 rental on Amazon)

28. Se7en

1995 / USA / dir. David Fincher / 127 minutes

cast: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree, John C. McGinley, Reg E. Cathey, Leland Orser, Michael Masse

After the production hell of Alien 3 and his massive blow ups with 20th Century Fox execs, many people assumed director David Fincher would never work again. I think even he didn’t think he’d work again. But along comes this opportunity to direct an exceptionally well-written screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker headlined by four future Oscar-winning actors in the lead roles. Fincher completely made a name for himself with Se7en, a dark thriller that took a familiar dime store detective story and put a deranged but superbly unique spin on it. It’s considered a classic today and has inspired countless insipid Hollywood imitations as well as some really worthy successors. It also features one of the most suspenseful third acts a movie has ever had. ($3.99 rental on Amazon)

27. Secrets & Lies

1996 / UK / dir. Mike Leigh / 142 minutes

cast: Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook, Lee Ross, Lesley Manville

The way Mike Leigh makes his movies is just the coolest thing ever. First, he writes a broad outline of his movie and then casts his actors. Through a weeks long rehearsal process, the actors improvise dialogue, while Mike takes note of what he likes. From there, he combines elements of the actors’ improvisation into a screenplay, and then the actors and him reconvene for filming. Of course this would all be shit if the actors fell through, but Leigh’s ensembles and especially this one are practically flawless. Brenda Blethyn plays Cynthia, a very depressed and lonely woman living with her angry and super mean daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). One day, Cynthia receives a phone call from her birth daughter, Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), searching for answers on why she was given up for adoption. The two form a unique friendship which comes to a head at the angry daughter’s birthday party thrown by her Uncle Maurice (Timothy Spall – maybe his best performance) and his broken wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan). This is an extremely warm movie besides being an extremely emotional one, but it’s absolutely one of the best family-based domestic dramas I’ve seen. (Streaming on HBOMAX)

26. Magnolia

1999 / USA / dir. Paul Thomas Anderson / 189 minutes

cast: Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters, Alfred Molina, Michael Bowen, Emmanuel Johnson, Melinda Dillon, Felicity Huffman, Thomas Jane, Luis Guzman, Patton Oswalt, Ricky Jay, April Grace, Michael Murphy, Paul F. Tompkins

Although it’s basically a remake of Robert Altman‘s Short Cuts, Magnolia still manages to be a surprisingly inventive people-struggling-in-L.A. ensemble piece with a dozen or so fascinating characters. Three hours and nine minutes fly by as we become more and more invested in how these people’s lives intersect or will intersect, all the way laughing, recoiling and ultimately empathizing with them. Stand out performances include Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s beautifully tender take on a hospice nurse becoming too attached to his patient (Jason Robards), a booming but never over-the-top performance from Julianne Moore as a gold digger struck with immense guilt over her infidelity as cancer slowly eats away at her eighty-year-old millionaire husband (Jason Robards) and of course, Tom Cruise as an angry, hyperactive and delusional men’s rights activist forced to deal with his father’s (Jason Robards) impending death. There’s other stories too with equally as impressive performances, such as the dramatic estrangement between a famous game show host (Philip Baker Hall) and his meth-addled daughter (Melora Walters), a child game show contestant (Jeremy Blackman) resenting his father (Michael Bowen) for basically mooching off his prize money and using him as a prop, a former child winner of the game show (William H. Macy), struggling to stay employed and move on with his life and, of course, a police officer (John C. Reilly) in love. (Streaming on Cinemax)

25. L.A. Confidential

1997 / USA / dir. Curtis Hanson / 138 minutes

cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell, David Straithirn, Ron Rifkin, Simon Baker, Paul Guilfoyle, Graham Beckel

This is a big, glamorous, crime thriller epic that maybe without the boobs or swearing is closer to something that would have been made during the time it takes place – the 50s, rather than the period it was made – the 90s. Three wildly different detectives (a boy scout (Pearce), a bad boy (Crowe) and an attention whore (Spacey)) must solve a giant mass murder in a Hollywood diner that is somehow tied to an underground brothel where politicians and celebrities frequent as well as corrupt officers within the LAPD. Problem is, the LAPD has a major image problem with the public after an extremely horrific incident where drunk cops brutally beat Mexicans in holding cells during a Christmas Eve party at the precinct. So the higher ups really won’t let the boys do a thorough investigation because they’re in such a hurry to find anyone to pin this mass murder on and earn back some of the public trust. Kim Basinger won a supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of a call girl caught up in the middle of everything. This is a superbly entertaining and fairly unpredictable noir murder mystery that’s well over two hours but feels like 90 minutes. (Streaming on STARZ)

24. The Sweet Hereafter

1997 / Canada / dir. Atom Egoyan / 112 minutes

cast: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Tom McCamus, Gabrielle Rose, Alberta Watson, Bruce Greenwood, Maury Chaykin

An American ambulance chaser lawyer (Ian Holm – absolutely brilliant) travels to a small Canadian town to try and persuade the townsfolk to sue a school bus manufacturer after a bus crashes on the ice and kills a good portion of their children. This more or less tears the town apart, with grieving parents dead-set on suing and other grieving parents resenting the presence of an ambulance chaser exploiting their loss for a massive payout. Tensions boil and we get so many wonderfully tense and sometimes heartbreaking one-on-one encounters with different townspeople, all incredibly well-developed, complicated characters. Canadian acting veteran Bruce Greenwood and Sarah Polley, as a paralyzed bus accident survivor, particularly stand out. Bring tissues. (Watch Free on IMDB TV!)

23. Jackie Brown

1997 / USA / dir. Quentin Tarantino / 154 minutes

cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert DeNiro, Michael Bowen, Chris Tucker, Sid Haig, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Jr., Lisa Gay Hamilton, Hattie Winston, Aimee Graham

A huge departure in tone for Quentin Tarantino, whose previous two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, had a sort of insane manic energy to them. Here Quentin isn’t looking for loud, he’s looking for mellow. Jackie Brown is a soulful character study first and a heist thriller second, fully delivering on the promise of both, but never putting plot before characters, ever. Pam Grier is phenomenal as the titular character, a forty-something flight attendant for a shitty little airline, barely making enough to scrape by. Samuel L. Jackson, never better as Ordell Robbie, is a low level gun runner who delusionally thinks he’s a criminal mastermind . He most certainly is compared to his bumbling accomplice played against type by Robert DeNiro or his would-be femme fatale but more Janice Soprano beach bunny girlfriend (Bridget Fonda). They all have Jackie running money back and forth on flights to Cabo San Lucas, probably the only reason she’s able to afford an apartment sans roommates in Los Angeles. One day, Jackie gets pinched by an eccentric ATF agent (Michael Keaton) and a cranky detective (Michael Bowen), and is presented with an opportunity to get out of jail free if she sets up Ordell. Jackie, smarter than almost everyone around her, decides to play both sides against each other with the help of an equally clever bail bondsman (Robert Forster – in an Oscar nominated performance) who finds himself in the middle of this whole mess. At two hours and thirty four minutes, the movie never falters or becomes anything less than interesting. The performances all great, the needle drops are as good as anything in Tarantino‘s career and unlike any other Tarantino movie, this one is not in a big hurry to get anywhere. It has the balls to slow down and let you look at the characters and their motivations under a microscope. (Streaming on HBOMAX)

22. The War Zone

1999 / UK / dir. Tim Roth / 98 minutes

cast: Ray Winstone, Lara Belmont, Freddie Cunliffe, Tilda Swinton, Colin Farrell

In late 90s, both Tim Roth and Gary Oldman (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) got behind the camera to make their feature film debuts about abusive and shouty English families, both starring Sexy Beast‘s Ray Winstone as the dad. Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth was one of the loudest and scariest I’ve seen, but it felt lacking in a point or nuance. The War Zone on the other hand, is a painfully honest but surprisingly sensitive domestic drama with unbelievable, powerhouse performances, especially from Ray Winstone and newcomer Lara Belmont as the daughter who bares the brunt of the incestual sexual abuse perpetrated by the dad. This is a rough watch but a rewarding experience because it’s not about showing the most awful rape scenes imaginable, it’s about how human beings, especially children, internalize or deal with abuse from family members. The War Zone isn’t for everyone, it comes with the strongest trigger warning out of any film on this list, but for those who can handle it, it’s truly meaningful art. ($3.99 rental on Amazon Prime)

21. Terminator 2: Judgement Day

1991 / USA / dir. James Cameron / 137 minutes

cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Joe Morton, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jenette Goldstein, Xander Berkely, Earl Boen, Danny Cooksey, Leslie Hamilton

Mainstream action movies don’t get better than T2, period. Because directors like Cameron know (or used to know) the greatest special effect is an engaging story with likeable characters. Jenette Goldstein morphing her arm into a giant metal spear to stab her husband through the throat while he’s trying to drink milk doesn’t mean anything if you don’t care about these people. Arnold Schwarzenegger is back but this time he’s a good terminator, sent on a mission to protect a child Edward Furlong from being murdered by the ultimate A.I. assassin – Robert Patrick as a cop. Furlong wants to see his mom, so they break Linda Hamilton out of a mental hospital and go fire guns in the desert. Look, people will be watching Terminator 2: Judgement Day another thirty years from now, when the 90K Blu Brain chip deck is released. That was my best attempt at science-fiction writing. How good was it? (Streaming on NETFLIX)

The List So Far…

100. Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997)

99. Jurassic Park (1993)

98. Batman Returns (1992)

97. Strange Days (1995)

96. Scream (1996)

95. To Sleep with Anger (1990)

94. My Cousin Vinny (1992)

93. Hard Eight (1996)

92. The Sandlot (1993)

91. Con Air (1997)

90. Home Alone (1990)

89. Wild at Heart (1990)

88. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

87. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

86. Man Bites Dog (1992)

85. Total Recall (1990)

84. Metropolitan (1990)

83. Out of Sight (1998)

82. The Fugitive (1993)

81. Heavyweights (1995)

80. Point Break (1991)

79. The Birdcage (1996)

78. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

77. Misery (1990)

76. Speed (1994)

75. Dumb & Dumber (1994)

74. Big Night (1996)

73. Face/Off (1997)

72. La Haine (1995)

71. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

70. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

69. Dead Alive (1992)

68. The Truman Show (1998)

67. Trainspotting (1996)

66. One False Move (1992)

65. Nixon (1995)

64. The Usual Suspects (1995)

63. Hamlet (1996)

62. Fallen Angels (1995)

61. The Piano (1993)

60. The Lion King (1994)

59. The Ice Storm (1997)

58. Election (1999)

57. Peppermint Candy (1999)

56. Office Space (1999)

55. Princess Mononoke (1997)

54. Quiz Show (1994)

53. Life Is Sweet (1990)

52. American Movie (1999)

51. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

50. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

49. Paris Is Burning (1990)

48. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

47. Rushmore (1998)

46. Groundhog Day (1993)

45. Crumb (1994)

44. Perfect Blue (1997)

43. Unforgiven (1992)

42. The Age of Innocence (1993)

41. The Celebration (1998)

40. Boyz N the Hood (1991)

39. The People vs Larry Flynt (1996)

38. Toy Story 2 (1999)

37. The Player (1992)

36. Hard Boiled (1992)

35. JFK (1991)

34. Happy Together (1997)

33. Dazed & Confused (1993)

32. The Matrix (1999)

31. Happiness (1998)

30. Heat (1995)

29. Lone Star (1996)

28. Se7en (1995)

27. Secrets & Lies (1996)

26. Magnolia (1999)

25. L.A. Confidential (1997)

24. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

23. Jackie Brown (1997)

22. The War Zone (1999)

21. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

See You Next Wednesday with #20-#11

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