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 THE TOP 10…
10. The Silence of the Lambs
1991 / USA / dir. Jonathan Demme / 119 minutes
cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Kasi Lemmons, Dan Butler, Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison, Brooke Smith, Tracey Walter, Diane Baker, Paul Lazar, Roger Corman
The only horror movie to ever win Best Picture and for good reason. This really set the bar high for serial killer/law enforcement cat and mouse thrillers, it somehow manages to be super lean considering the size of the story its telling while taking the time to fully develop characters and their relationships. Anthony Hopkins gets all the praise for Hannibal Lecter and while he’s amazing the movie truly belongs to Jodie Foster, who gives us a probably the most complex female horror protagonist we’ve ever seen. She’s a powerful, intelligent woman but unlike Ripley she isn’t written as a man, she’s totally and completely a woman and she isn’t afraid to show her vulnerability because it makes her stronger. And Foster plays her perfectly her scenes with Hopkins stand as some of the best duo acting scenes the movies have ever seen. It’s all beautifully put together by the late Jonathan Demme, who for a director that generally didn’t do thrillers is one of the most nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat cinematic thrill rides ever produced – especially that elevator escape sequence.
On the Trans Controversy: There is no trans controversy in Silence of the Lambs because Buffalo Bill is not a trans woman. The movie goes out of its way to state explicitly he is not trans. Buffalo Bill does however think he is trans. He tells himself this because it’s an easier truth for him than to admit to himself that he is in fact, just a homicidal maniac who wants to make a skin suit out of the women he butchers.
The filthy, unkempt anus of Film Twitter and Letterboxd Gen Z’ers have unfairly dragged this film through the mud, probably because they were bullshitting on their phones while watching this movie (the one and only time they half-watched it) and completely missed the part where Hannibal says, definitively, in plain fucking English — BUFFALO BILL IS NOT TRANS. God, I read the other day these fucking turds on Letterboxd were trying to say Pedro Almodovar was homophobic and transphobic and stigmatized AIDS because a character is upset when they test positive for HIV. My fucking brain hurts. (Streaming on AMC+)
9. Schindler’s List
1993 / USA / dir. Steven Spielberg / 195 minutes
cast: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Embeth Davidth, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Malgorzata Gebel, Mark Ivanir
Terry Gilliam hates this movie because he says Spielberg perversely turns the Holocaust into entertainment. While I certainly can see where he’s coming from, I disagree. I think Spielberg makes an incredibly important subject accessible for people who would normally wouldn’t read about the subject, much less rent the eight hour Claude Lauzman documentary, Shoah, with his fast-paced, accessible but still very respectful, Schindler’s List. He’s educating the masses on one of the most important history lessons of all time, how human beings can just decide one day to shed all empathy and systemically exterminate each other. As a story, Schindler’s List is expertly told and paced, a three hour and fifteen minute movie that feels closer to two hours. This is because there’s a perfect balance between character development and historical plot progression. Having brilliant actors, firing on all cylinders like Liam Neeson, Ben Kinglsey, Embeth Davidth and a chilling Ralph Fiennes also helps with the accessibility of the material. ($3.99 rental on Amazon)
8. A Brighter Summer Day
1991 / Taiwan / dir. Edward Yang / 237 minutes
cast: Chang Chen, Chang Kuo-chu, Elaine Jin, Lisa Yang, Wong Chi-zan, Lawrence Ko, Tan Chih-kang, Lin Hong-ming, Hung-Yu Chen, Wang Chuan, Chang Han, Chiang Hsiu-chiung, Lai Fan-yun
If there’s one film on this entire list absolutely no one who reads this is going to watch it’s Edward Yang‘s four hour historical arthouse drama A Brighter Summer Day about the first generation children of Mainland China refugees living in Taiwan who join street gangs because life is so goddamn hopeless under an oppressive military regime. Obsessed with Western culture and music, Elvis Presley in particular, from which a lyric of Are You Lonesome, Tonight? inspired the title, we get a window into these kids’ lives that seems wholly authentic. Mostly we follow a young teenager, nicknamed Xiao Si’r, meaning the fourth of five children. It’s 1959 and after failing some big bullshit placement test, he’s ushered off to night school, which I’m assuming is like their remedial school. There, he’s confronted with several bad influences, including rival gangs, one comprising of the children of the mainland China refugees (The Little Park Boys) and the other consisting of the children of the Taiwanese natives (The 217s). Even though he’s the son of refugees, he falls into the gang of natives and gets himself deeper and deeper into crime and violence and much like Henry Hill in GoodFellas, doesn’t find the acceptance, brotherhood or sense of belonging he’s searching for. Neither do any of the kids Si’r interacts with, a collection of six to eight fully realized and compelling child characters.
There’s Ma, a cocky little rich kid who is the son of a celebrated native military general. There’s Honey, a surprisingly philosophical teenage boss of the Little Park Boys, who is on the run from police after killing the 217’s former leader. We also got Sly, the ultimate “do you know who my dad is?” fuck boi whose dad owns the rec center, so he decides which bands get to play and who makes $$ off of ticket sales. Cat, my favorite character, Si’r’s best friend, a little rascal with the voice of an angel who aspires to be Elvis Presley. And of course we have our female love interest, Ming, gang leader Honey’s on again, off again girlfriend who Si’r begins a dangerous romance with. We also explore Si’r’s family, his older siblings, his patient, loving mom and his stressed out, disgraced father, forced into political corruption out of desperation.
The most amazing thing about A Brighter Summer Day is how it has all the ingredients of a boring, make your ass numb type of picture but you become so invested in the characters and learning about the history of this that you don’t even realize how much time has gone by. Gorgeously framed and perfectly directed by Yang, each scene flows into the next seamlessly. It’s like GoodFellas, Jr. mixed with West Side Story but in Chinese. Can’t wait to see his follow-up film, Yi Yi. (Streaming on Criterion)
7. The Big Lebowski
1998 / USA / dir. Joel Coen / 117 minutes
cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Ben Gazzara, David Thewlis, Tara Reid, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston, Sam Elliot, Peter Stormare, Jon Polito, Flea, Aimee Mann
Much like Mulholland Drive, The Big Lebowski is a film that must be seen more than once to have truly seen it. If you’re telling me you’ve seen The Big Lebowski after only watching it once, guess what? You’re a liar. You’ve never seen it. It’s far too intricate in its joke placement and mechanics to be fully digested the first time around, which is in itself hilarious, because it’s not often such flip material is given such a high concept treatment. This stoner comedy follows two eccentric but unmotivated middle-aged bowlers, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski and Walter Sobchak (Jeff Bridges and John Goodman – a pair made in movie heaven), tasked with retrieving the kidnapped trophy wife (Tara Reid) of a cranky old millionaire (David Huddleston) who might have been taken by nihilists or worse, Ben Gazzara. It’s like Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye taken further down the irreverently silly rabbit hole by way of Raising Arizona. At first glance it’s good but it really takes multiple viewings to see it as the masterpiece it is. Even Roger Ebert, who initially gave the movie a positive but unenthusiastic review, came around to adding it to his elite list of great, four star films. This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass. (Streaming on NETFLIX)
1996 / USA / dir. Joel Coen / 98 minutes
cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, John Carroll Lynch, Kristin Rudrud, Tony Denman, Steve Reevis, Steve Park, Larry Brandenburg, Larissa Kokernot, Melissa Peterman
If you ever want to watch Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel give a beautiful, passionate, metaphorical double blowjob, watch their At the Movies review of The Coen Brothers’ Fargo. That’s because The Coen Brothers are a filmmaker’s filmmaker, two incredibly talented brothers possessing an incredible understanding of the medium who make a different type of movie every time out of the gate. Starting their career with a shadowy modern film noir then transitioning into a screwball comedy and then an ode to 1940s Howard Hawks gangster pictures, a suspiciously semi-autobiographical black comedy about the mistreatment of writers in Hollywood and finally, a violence in suburbia drama with an darkly funny twist. Fargo takes place in what seems like the most wholesome place in America, Minnesota. Everyone talks polite and makes jello molds. They don’t like cursing and they’re big on family. Enter Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare who kidnap a car salesman’s wife, killing innocent bystanders along the way. The crime shocks the neighborly community and its up to pregnant cop Marge Gunderson (an Oscar-winning Frances McDormand) to solve the case. While Marge seems like a bumpkin on the outside, she’s actually an incredibly cunning and clever detective, able to throw off suspects with a goofy smile even though she’s piecing together how they committed the crime in her head. William H. Macy is equally as outstanding as a weasel car salesman whose lying and lying to keep up the lies he previously lied about get him into deeper and deeper shit. It’s become a bit of a cliche to peg Fargo as the best Coen Brothers movie, but it’s cited most often for a good reason. It perfectly showcases the Coen Brothers best ability, to seamlessly combine drama and terror with irreverent comedy without ever not seeming organic. ($3.99 rental on Amazon)
5. Hoop Dreams
1994 / USA / dir. Steve James / 170 minutes
Arguably the greatest American documentary ever made, Hoop Dreams takes you on one hell of an emotional journey, and then another one too. Following two high school basketball hopefuls growing up in the Cabrini-Green and West Garfield Park housing projects of Chicago, one stellar, one merely good, we seem them both get recruited by a private Catholic High School prep that specializes in grooming future NBA stars. The stellar one looks like he’s a prime candidate for a college scholarship while the merely good one gets his funding cut, drops out and gets catapulted back to the ghetto. His grades slip and it’s looking like he’s never get out. That’s basically what the movie is about, how fucked up and scary it is to be poor and on top of that, black in this country. The cards are stacked against you in a way where it’s clear they want you to stay subjugated to the ghetto. Unless you’re fucking Mozart 2.0 and somebody actually takes the time to notice you, it’s almost like the die is cast. This documentary runs a fast three hours and simply acts like a fly on the wall, observing these two teenagers. It’s not only about how gross the system is but also about the dignity of these people, of their families too, the less talented player’s mom’s graduation from nursing school or his dad’s mission to get clean from addiction (unfortunately, the dad was murdered while being the victim of robbery in 2004), or the more talented player’s parents and former NBA hopeful older brother (who was sadly murdered the day before 9/11 after being caught up in a love triangle.) You form real connections to these teens and their families, nothing feels forced, every plot point manifests organically. It’s a real slice of life but it takes a lot out of you. (Streaming on HBOMAX)
4. All About My Mother
1999 / Spain / dir. Pedro Almodovar / 104 minutes
cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, Candela Pena, Antonia San Juan, Rosa Maria Sarda, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Eloy Azorin, Toni Canto
My favorite Almodovar movie poses the theory that part of every human being is a woman. This is a wonderfully humane, moving, beautifully shot and very funny masterpiece about a nurse/former actress seeking refuge with a Madrid troupe of actresses performing A Streetcar Named Desire, after facing a horrible tragedy at home. Almodovar excels in taking soap opera level extravagant plotting and dialing it in to the point of where it’s as emotionally resonant as the most hard-nosed, realistic domestic dramas. This is also one of the only movies from the 90s where a trans character is played an actual trans actress and is portrayed as a complex, flawed and relatable human being that isn’t hastily labeled as either a martyr or a monster.
Fun Note: Pedro Almodovar is considered to be the best living filmmaker by Quentin Tarantino. ($3.99 Rental on Amazon)
3. Waiting For Guffman
1996 / USA / dir. Christopher Guest / 84 minutes
cast: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Matt Kesslar, Lewis Arquette, Brian Doyle Murray, Michael Hitchcock, Larry Miller, Don Lake, David Cross, Linda Kash, Paul Benedict, Paul Dooley
Hilarious but never mean-spirited mockumentary about a theater troupe in a small Missouri town putting on a play for their bicentennial celebration. Things never panned out for Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest) on Broadway, so he’s making the best of it in Blaine, MO as a community theater creative director. Casting his usual actors, married travel agents Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara) as well as a Dairy Queen employee Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) and the town dentist, Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), he sets out to set the town’s hearts on fire with a rousing original musical about how their small town came to be. When word gets out that a New York theater representative, Mort Guffman, will be attending their show, he assumes this means they could be gearing up for a Broadway run of the show. Featuring incredible performances by a uniformly excellent cast of comedic actors who improvise all of their lines and hysterically awful musical numbers written by the Spinal Tap boys (Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer). Film Twitter has recently set the film ablaze for its stereotypical representation of its only gay character, Corky, saying the joke of the entire film is that gay people exist. While there are some jokes involving his sexual orientation (never mean spirited but perhaps misguided by today’s standards) that don’t necessarily hold up today, I think the joke is more that Corky is completely delusional rather than extravagantly homosexual. It’s also a joke on how delusional everyone in the town is, that not only can they not understand that Corky is in fact gay but also that Blaine doesn’t offer everything the outside world does or that aliens didn’t once come to their town to host a pot luck dinner in the 70s. These people are insane all the way around. In a way, Waiting for Guffman explores a lot of the same themes and small town pitfalls Peter Bogdanovich did with The Last Picture Show, albeit in a more ridiculous way. (Streaming on HBOMAX)
2. Pulp Fiction
1994 / USA / dir. Quentin Tarantino / 154 minutes
cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Madeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Frank Whaley, Paul Calderon, Quentin Tarantino, Julia Sweeney, Phil LaMarr, Peter Greene, Duane Whitaker, Burr Steers, Bronagh Gallagher, Angela Jones, Steve Buscemi, Kathy Griffin
Although I don’t have it as the #1 movie of the 1990s, it’s arguably the single most influential work of the decade. Tarantino was like a Pikachu x 5 level phenomenon for the film community when this hit. Most people had never seen anything like it before, the small group of people who had seen Reservoir Dogs had sort of seen something like this before. Look, this along with the next entry on my list are absolutely impossible to write about because everything that ever needed to be said about them has already been said. So let me start off with sharing how I first experienced Pulp Fiction. I initially saw Reservoir Dogs while on vacation in Amsterdam and it made me take note of Quentin Tarantino. When I got back to the states I asked my dad if I could rent Pulp Fiction and the son of a bitch said no so one night around 2am it was on Encore (a spin-off of STARZ). I stayed up until almost 5am watching this movie and I honestly was pretty disappointed. Didn’t like it as much as Reservoir Dogs but the years have altered my opinion. This is a really fun, thrilling anthology of sorts with three stories that are all very solid. People give shit to The Gold Watch segment with Bruce Willis, mostly because of the Fabienne girlfriend character played by Maria de Madeiros. Look, she has to be a massive flakey pain in the ass because it’s what drives Willis back to his apartment to get that gold watch. The pawn star anal rapists might be a bit much but you could argue Tarantino was ahead of his time in his constant portrayal of cops as ACAB. Travolta and Thurman are both spectacular in their opening Vincent Vega & Marcellus Wallace’s Wife story, as is a very funny Eric Stoltz as an annoyed heroin dealer just trying to enjoy his cereal and watch his Turner Classic Movies. The stand-out segment of course is The Bonnie Situation with Samuel L. Jackson delivering one of his greatest and most entertaining performances as Jules Winfield, a man going through a spiritual form after divine intervention. The situation that leads them to Tarantino and his wife Bonnie’s house is hilarious even if the whole dead n—- storage back and forth is cringe city x1000 today. I just don’t buy Jules is going to let some small white guy yell the n-word at him repeatedly. But once a never cooler Harvey Keitel shows up, you forget about it and then we transition into that final diner confrontation, the scene of the film, where Jules absolves himself by absolving the two diner bandits. I still think there’s a weird scientific explanation to Jules and Vincent not getting shot by the trans Arquette sister, because why would a divine presence save these violent, low life motherfuckers. Pulp Fiction is not just a movie, but a modern day legend. It forever changed independent film and while it ushered in a wave of bad Tarantino imitations it also proved to stingy studio heads that they can trust auteurs again, something they refused to do since Michael Cimino fucked it all up with Heaven’s Gate. (Streaming on HBOMAX)
1990 / USA / dir. Martin Scorsese / 146 minutes
cast: Robert DeNiro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Tony Darrow, Mike Starr, Frank Vincent, Chuck Low, Frank DiLeo, Henny Youngman, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Catherine Scorsese, Illeana Douglas, Suzanne Shephard, Debi Mazar, Margo Winkler, Welker White, Julie Garfield, Frank Pellegrino, Tony Sirico, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, Paul Herman, Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Lip, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Vincent Gallo
Critics often cite The Godfather or its sequel as the best movies ever made about organized crime, but they’re wrong. GoodFellas is the best mafia movie ever made, period and the secret lies in Thelma Schoonmaker‘s incredible editing. This is a three hour movie magically condensed to under 2.5 hours because every shot has meaning. Every shot has momentum. GoodFellas is a giant boulder flying down a hill at 60 miles per hour, railing coke along the way. Gone are the transitional scenes that plague most epics, scenes like having to show a get into his car to drive to a place, here, we get just quick shots of people arriving/leaving places. It’s all set to a never ending soundtrack (43 songs in this movie!) marking the decades – 60s, 70s and eventually, the big sad coke party that was the 80s. The performances are all spectacular, Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his portrayal of Tommy DeVito (not Danny’s brother), the meanest, most psychotic gangster you could ever imagine. Ray Liotta gives us some of his best work as Henry Hill while Sopranos alum Lorraine Bracco gives us a wonderfully raw performance as Karen Hill. DeNiro doesn’t receieve enough credit for his work here as Jimmy Conway, arguably a scarier guy than Pesci’s Tommy because of his ruthlessness and cunning. He’ll smile at your face while he’s killing you from behind. Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese’s screenplay (based on Pileggi’s book Wiseguy) is perfect, Scorsese’s direction is perfect, that Ballhaus signature cinematography is perfect, everything about this fucking movie is perfect. Perfect, perfect, perfect. I’m done talking about it, get the fuck out of my face.
Fun note: Author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi‘s wife, Nora Ephron, wrote a comedic version of this story released the same year – My Blue Heaven. (Streaming on HBOMAX)