The 20 Best Movies of the 1990s

Ian Holm and Sarah Polley in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997).
Ian Holm and Sarah Polley in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997). / New Line Cinema

The last decade of the previous century—of the previous millennium—was an exciting time for movies. Fueled by Sundance, independent films were on the rise, with new voices like Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater emerging. The Hollywood studios, having exercised too much control and churned out too many generic products in the 1980s, started giving filmmakers more leeway, and established directors like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg continued to make great movies. Here are 20 films released between 1990 and 1999 that we consider the best of the decade.

1. Goodfellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese, who made best-of-the-decade films in the 1970s and '80s, kicked off the '90s with what many consider to be the high point of his career: a fact-based, testosterone-fueled gangster movie with iconic performances by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci (who, yes, is like a clown to us). In many ways, it felt like the movie he’d been born to make, combining his favorite elements of crime, Italian-Americans, moral ambiguity, and swearing.

2. To Sleep with Anger (1990)

Dismissed with lukewarm reviews on first release, this independent drama by Charles Burnett (whose underground Killer of Sheep was one of the indie high points of the '70s) came to be better appreciated with time. Now it's held up as yet another example of a great filmmaker never getting his due in the mainstream, with a sizzling performance by Danny Glover as a devilish visitor who upsets a group of distant relatives.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Not only did a gory horror film win Best Picture at the Oscars that year, it also won the other four top categories—Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay—a feat achieved only twice before (by It Happened One Night and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Turns out America has a taste for cannibalism when it’s impeccably acted, smartly directed (by Jonathan Demme), and creepy as all hell. It remains one of the best examples of "art-house" horror.

4. Boyz n the Hood (1991)

John Singleton became the youngest person (a record he still holds) and first African-American to be nominated for Best Director for this personal, street-level account of life in urban black America. It was a seminal moment for black representation in movies, referenced countless times in other films and in hip-hop music, and it launched the film careers of Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Angela Bassett.

5. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

After falling to a low point in the 1980s, the Disney animation division began a renaissance with The Little Mermaid (1989) that continued—and perhaps even reached its zenith, depending on your view—with this gorgeous, humane, richly entertaining musical take on a classic fairy tale. The first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, it’s one of the most beloved movies of any genre.

6. Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood, an actor since the 1950s and director since 1971, made good (if not great) movies in the '70s and '80s, then reached the pinnacle of his filmmaking career with this violent anti-violence Best Picture winner. With weighty performances by himself, Gene Hackman, and Morgan Freeman, it also won Oscars for Eastwood as director and star (plus one for Hackman and one for the editing) and proved there was still life left in cinema’s oldest genre: the Western.

7. Raise the Red Lantern (1992)

From China came this sumptuous, colorful drama about a rich man’s young concubine in the 1920s. The exotic location, time period, and customs make it a “foreign” film, but Gong Li's lead performance drives home the universality of its themes. Director Zhang Yimou established himself as a master of intimate and emotionally beautiful art.

8. Schindler’s List (1993)

Like Scorsese, Spielberg had made best-of-the-decade films in the '70s and '80s before reaching his peak in the '90s. We could have put two just from 1993 on this list—the other being Jurassic Park—but it was Schindler’s List that earned Spielberg his first directing Oscar (and only Best Picture win so far) and cemented his status not just as a populist purveyor of entertaining fizz but a serious, capital-F Filmmaker. (Truth be told, we’d rather re-watch Jurassic Park, though.)

9. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Few would blame us for putting all of Quentin Tarantino’s first three movies on this list, but as much as we love Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Jackie Brown (1997), it’s his sophomore effort that made him a household name, launched a thousand imitations, and inspired countless young people (usually dudes) to become filmmakers. Don’t hold the copycats against it, though: Pulp Fiction is as exhilarating and ballsy now as it was in 1994.

10. Before Sunrise (1995)

Richard Linklater came onto the scene with popular back-to-back movies about Gen-X slackers: Slacker (1990) and Dazed and Confused (1993)—but followed them up with this mature, minimalist romantic drama about two strangers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) meeting on a train and having only one evening to spend together.

11. Fargo (1996)

For their sixth movie, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen returned to a favorite subject—bumbling criminals—and introduced a new one: the singsong Minnesota accents of their homeland. People went around talking like Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) for months after its release, but the film’s dark comedy, righteous heroes and pathetic wrongdoers made it resonate even longer.

12. Boogie Nights (1997)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight (1996), went largely unnoticed. But his second one, this sprawling rags-to-riches story about L.A.’s pornography business in the 1970s, put him on the map permanently. Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds were frequently singled out by awards-giving bodies for their supporting performances, but the amazing cast also included Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alfred Molina, all playing strong, identifiable characters.

13. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel about the aftermath of a deadly school bus accident in a small town is a somber fairy tale about the various ways people respond to tragedy and our human tendency to avoid responsibility. It’s rapturous, agonizing, and complex, and while Egoyan has continued to make quality movies, he’s never regained this level of subtle mastery.

14. Waiting for Guffman (1997)

Thirteen years after This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest—Nigel Tufnel himself—directed his own mockumentary that did for community theater for Spinal Tap did for rock bands. Semi-improvised by Guest and fellow comedy luminaries Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, and Parker Posey, it straddled the line between merciless and affectionate as it skewers delusional strivers and small-town pettiness. The only people who don’t like it are bastard people.

15. Titanic (1997)

James Cameron’s historical romance earned plenty of backlash when it became the highest-grossing film of all time, but now both pendulums have swung the other way: It’s not the top earner anymore, and people openly admit it’s a sweeping, rousing, entertaining epic that achieved the rare combination of incredible financial success and artistic merit (regardless of how much room there was on that floating door).

16. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

If it seems unfair to let one director have two spots on this list, take it up with Spielberg, who made two undisputed masterpieces in this decade (three, if you count Jurassic Park). This one, with its famously brutal opening sequence and gripping account of World War II heroism, is a culmination of of many of Spielberg’s interests, and is still one of the most viscerally powerful explorations of the horrors of war and the heroes who rise above it.

17. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Coming on the heels of Saving Private Ryan, this other World War II epic from 1998 might have gotten lost in the shuffle if it hadn’t been outstanding in its own right (not to mention director Terrence Malick’s first movie in 20 years). Rambling, messy, bloody, mournful, and vexing, it’s the mad counterpart to Spielberg’s more staid view of the war.

18. The Matrix (1999)

How much has changed since The Matrix? The bullet-time visuals it pioneered, which blew everyone’s minds at the time, have become commonplace, even overused; and the directors, then known as brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, have come out as trans women and are now Lana and Lilly. How fitting that a movie about the complexities of identity and reality would be made by a pair of siblings with personal knowledge of it—and who were geniuses at conceiving heady sci-fi stories, to boot.

19. Fight Club (1999)

David Fincher’s flamboyant adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s transgressive novel has been dangerously misinterpreted by young men who don’t realize Tyler Durden isn’t a hero. Don’t hold that against the film, though, which offered a scathing, satirical take on “toxic masculinity” before that phrase was even in common usage.

20. The Iron Giant (1999)

While Disney was enjoying its animation renaissance and Pixar was starting to change the world of computer animation, Warner Bros. was quietly putting out this poignant and thrilling ‘toon about a boy who befriends an enormous robot in the middle of Cold War paranoia. Besides the boy-and-his-robot story, it offers sad commentary on warmongering and gun-worshipping—which might explain why it did poorly at the box office and had to wait a few years to be fully appreciated for the classic it is.