100 Best Films of the 90s: Part 9 (#20-#11)

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-fucking-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 #20-#11. These will be weekly installments every Wednesday throughout the summer.

20. Naked

1993 / UK / dir. Mike Leigh / 131 minutes

cast: David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge, Greg Cruttwell, Claire Skinner, Peter Wight, Ewen Bremner, Toby Jones

David Thewlis delivers one of the best performances of the decade as the skeezy street rat, Johnny. Part intellectual, part animal, all conspiracy theorist edge lord piece-of-shit, Johnny slithers from one group of people to the next, exploiting and robbing most. Whether it’s his ex-girlfriend Louise (an excellent Lesley Sharp), a nurse (Claire Skinner), a security guard (Peter Wight) or even, Archie, the Scotsman with a tic (Trainspotting‘s Ewen Bremner.) Known for his warm domestic dramas, writer/director Mike Leigh is certainly showing an other side to himself here with a hard drama that is basically the inverse of anything warm or re-assuring. It’s an atypical masterpiece for the director, but a masterpiece none-the-less. (Not Available Anywhere – Write Your Congressman)

19. Saving Private Ryan

1998 / USA / dir. Steven Spielberg / 169 minutes

cast: Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti

Sweeping, powerful, gorgeous mainstream war movie that, while isn’t an anti-war film per se, doesn’t hold back in showing the horrors of battle. Yes, there’s blood and gore and guts, but Spielberg focuses more on the emotional anguish and fear of these soldiers. Tom Hanks delivers another typically outstanding performance as a squad leader charged with saving Private Ryan (Matt Damon – even back then, just showing up in the third act.) There’s a lot of great character development here among the squad with Giovanni Ribisi and Jeremy Davies really sticking out. This movie has been written about over and over again, so I don’t understand what the hell you want me to say? It’s great, let’s move on. (Streaming on SHOWTIME)

18. Toy Story

1995 / USA / dir. John Lasseter / 81 minutes

voice cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, John Morris, Erik von Detten, Laurie Metcalfe, R. Lee Ermey

The first and best (by a narrow margin) chapter in probably the most consistent film franchise of all time. All four installments are great (fight me, you fucking cowards) but there’s something about the simplicity and warmness of the original that still gets me to this day. It’s like the existential sadness of just being a play object rather than person and being forced to live for someone else who will eventually outgrow you. Maybe it’s also about becoming less and less useful as you age, including becoming less sexually desirable. There reaches a point where no one looks at your body anymore. Anyway, the Randy Newman soundtrack is banging and the sailing song always makes me cry. (Streaming on Disney+)

17. Barton Fink

1991 / USA / dir. Joel Coen / 116 minutes

cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand

One of the best and most subversive films about being a writer in the Hollywood system, Barton Fink follows its talented, but almost certifiably awkward titular character (John Turturro, in his best role) through a couple weeks of development hell. He’s making a smash on Broadway as a playwright so an eccentric studio head (Michael Lerner – Oscar nominated) decides to ship him over to L.A. to write a boxing picture. Before Barton can even get a word out, the studio head is praising him up and down, calling him an artist, proclaiming he can do no wrong. Confident, Barton writes a character-focused and realistic first draft of the boxing movie. This causes the studio head to absolutely lose his shit and threaten Barton, putting him in an emotional tailspin and time crunch to write something more Hollywood friendly. Just when he thinks his problems can’t get any worse he encounters an on-the-run serial killer (John Goodman) at his hotel who burns the fucking place down. Barton Fink perfectly mixes comedy and drama into something extremely cohesive, complete with a signature ambiguous Coen Brothers ending. ($3.80 rental on Amazon Prime)

16. Safe

1995 / USA / UK / dir. Todd Haynes / 119 minutes

cast: Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkely, James Le Gros, Susan Norman, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Mary Carver, Jessica Harper, April Grace, Dean Norris, Beth Grant

If David Thewlis gave the best leading male performance of the decade in Naked, the best leading female performance probably came from Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes‘ psychological horror drama, Safe. Basically it’s a coronavirus (now) or AIDs (at the time it was made) or any other type of pandemic type movie, surrounding a Los Angeles suburban housewife, Carol (Moore) who contracts a mystery illness that makes her allergic to her her surroundings. When she experiences terrifying Covid-like symptoms at a baby shower, she is rushed to the doctor and they have no idea what to do. Out of options, she leaves her husband, kid and home behind to seek treatment at a new age treatment community in the desert with people experiencing similar mystery symptoms. Exceptionally under-seen outside of the film nerd community, Safe is a terrifying and prescient 90s indie about not being able to fix yourself. ($3.99 rental on Amazon Prime)

15. Short Cuts

1993 / USA / dir. Robert Altman / 187 minutes

cast: Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey, Jr., Madeline Stowe, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Lyle Lovett, Lori Singer, Annie Ross, Alex Trebek

I mean, look at that cast up there. Have you ever seen such a group of so many brilliant actors? Short Cuts, Robert Altman‘s best film, is a sprawling character-based ensemble piece set over the course of a couple days in the city of Los Angeles. It follows the intersecting lives of twenty-two people from wildly different backgrounds from a birthday party clown and her husband who discovers a dead body on a fishing trip (Anne Archer, Fred Ward), an asshole cop (Tim Robbins), a recovering alcoholic (Tom Waits), a phone sex operator (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a movie makeup special effects artist (Robert Downey, Jr.) and even Alex Fucking Trebek as himself. None of these 22 people are Hollywood actors or producers, thank Christ. I’m guessing Altman got that out of his system with his previous film The Player, also featured a couple segments back on this list. This movie is also infamous for a bottomless but never topless Julianne Moore. (Not Available Anywhere – Write Your Congresswoman)

14. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

1996 / USA / dir. Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky / 150 minutes

A near impossible watch, but an important one. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s unbearably bleak and infuriating documentary follows a group of three teenagers accused of murdering, sexually assaulting and dismembering a bunch of three prepubescent boys. They soooo obviously did not commit the crime, but the small Arkansas town is convinced because they wear black and like Metallica. It’s difficult to watch these poor frightened teenage outcasts receive death sentences because the average I.Q. of this incest swamp of a town is 12. If I was putting together a Fuck Small Towns film festival this would be the closing film. God, I don’t think a documentary has ever made me more upset. (Streaming on HBOMAX)

13. Reservoir Dogs

1992 / USA / dir. Quentin Tarantino / 99 minutes

cast: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen, Kirk Baltz, Randy Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Eddie Bunker

My favorite movie as a child, and that should definitely concern everybody. I was 9 years old when I first saw Reservoir Dogs, in an Amsterdam hotel while my parents were at a dental conference. I was shocked but also elated. It was so incredibly violent and foul, it seemed like it was breaking all the rules of the other action/thriller films I had already seen at the time – T2, Predator, Aliens, Die Hard, ect. There was no hero, not even the undercover cop, who accidentally and instinctively shoots an innocent pregnant woman after she shoots him. The characters were racist, violent, sociopathic criminals, as they would be in real life. There wasn’t any killer with a heart of gold bullshit in this movie. These people were fucking human garbage, feral animals that would do anything for five figures. The movie doesn’t celebrate these people but it also doesn’t go out of its way to morally condemn them, because it doesn’t have to. Sure, there’s stylistic dialogue, three-dimensional characters and tremendous performances, but we don’t walk away from this picture liking any of these people. And that gorgeous blood, that beautiful red spread all over the frame like a Donald Judd painting. (Streaming on HBOMAX)

12. Being John Malkovich

1999 / USA / dir. Spike Jonze / 113 minutes

cast: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich, Mary Kay Place, Orson Bean, Charlie Sheen, W. Earl Brown, Octavia Spencer

Imagine having the scrotes to green light something as bat shit insane as this from a first time screenwriter. Sure, Kaufman had previously worked on The Diet Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show, but this was his first crack at the cinema. Imagine reading this script and being like “What the fuck? So Malkovich plays himself and there’s a portal into his brain, but the guy who discovers it is a sexually frustrated puppeteer whose wife pays more attention to their pet monkey than him?” Well, whoever green lit this is a genius because despite all odds it works, it works so incredibly well. This is a hilariously bonkers but ultimately profound story about how escaping your own life can never improve it. ($3.99 rental on Amazon)

11. Boogie Nights

1997 / USA / dir. Paul Thomas Anderson / 155 minutes

cast: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Nicole Ari Parker, Alfred Molina, Thomas Jane, Luis Guzman, Ricky Jay, Seymour Cassell, Robert Ridgely, Robert Downey, Sr., Melora Walters, Philip Baker Hall, Nina Hartley

Basically this is just PTA doing GoodFellas, but he does it so fucking well. This is one of the most explosively entertaining movies of the 90s, an impressive feat for something over two and a half hours. Perfectly capturing the 70s time period with meticulous detail Kubrick would be envious of, Boogie Nights follows a 17-year-old human jizz blaster (Mark Wahlberg in his best performance) and his hero’s(?) journey through the ever changing porn industry. He is helped by his own Obi-Wan, a veteran porn director with aspirations of being a real filmmaker (Burt Reynolds in his best performance) and his own Princess Lea, a coke-addled maternal porn star desperately trying to get back her child (Julianne Moore – not her best performance, but better than both Reynolds and Wahlberg combined). Boogie Nights much like GoodFellas, is a series of banger after banger scenes, an embarrassment of riches made all the more embarrassing by a string of fascinating supporting characters played by a universally excellent cast. (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)

20. Naked (1993)

19. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

18. Toy Story (1995)

17. Barton Fink (1991)

16. Safe (1995)

15. Short Cuts (1993)

14. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)

13. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

12. Being John Malkovich (1999)

11. Boogie Nights (1997)

See You Next Week for THE TOP TEN!

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