The 10 Best Films of the 90s
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Article by Mark Dujsik
This was the decade that I got into film. It was also a decade of very personal growth. I started really watching movies when I was about 12, and here I am making a list of the films that touched me or made an impact on me in some way during that time (and even some a few years before then). These are all important films; they have impacted movies that followed and have also impacted the lives of the people who have seen them. When you think about it, that is the most you can expect from a film, and all of these are prime examples of the best that filmmaking has to offer.
10. Dead Man Walking (1995)
Tim Robbin’s thoughtful, intelligent, and, most importantly, objective look at capital punishment is a masterpiece of incredible emotional complexity and a perfect example of how a film can engage an audience in serious thought about a complicated political and human rights issue. Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon give two of the best performances of the decade, and their scenes together ring of truth, compassion, stubbornness, and ultimately forgiveness. At a time when films seem afraid to tackle big issues, Dead Man Walking is a powerful testament to the impact film can have on an individual’s conscience.
9. Fight Club (1999)
The most recent film on this list is also the most daring. An audacious attack on materialism and capitalism, Fight Club was, and still is, misunderstood and condemned as anarchistic and fascist. However, ten years down the line, it will most likely be seen as a masterpiece and one of the most influential films from the decade. Edward Norton proves he is one of the best actors of his generation and also one of the best working in film today, and Brad Pitt once again sheds his "pretty-boy" image to turn in a haunting and intense performance as a man many will quote with gusto without realizing they have fallen into the trap.
8. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The single most surprising and inspirational film on this list, The Shawshank Redemption was all but ignored in theaters, but with a slew of Oscar nominations, it found life on video. It has become a phenomenon all its own and is even listed, at this time, as the second greatest film of all time on the Internet Movie Database, just behind The Godfather. The film’s message of hope in the face of injustice is perfectly portrayed, and it is a film many will return to and many more will discover as time progresses.
7. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Leaving Las Vegas is first and foremost a love story. It is one of the most offbeat love stories on film, but it also deserves to be placed with the best. Material that is essentially melodrama is raised to grand emotional heights by two incredible performances by Nicolas Cage, as an alcoholic screenwriter, and Elisabeth Shue, as a Vegas prostitute, both of whom realize they need the other. The decision to shoot on 16mm gives the film an edgy and documentary-like feel, and the material itself is powerful and operatic.
6. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is a film that has been often-imitated and never matched. It is easily the most influential and most analyzed film of the decade. The big question is: Why? There is nothing revolutionary or profound, yet people have dissected the film to find many hidden meanings and religious undertones. Are they there? I have noticed them also, but what makes it special and unique is its brazen storytelling and darkly comic moments. It is pulp, to be sure, but it has somehow risen above that level to become greatly respected in many circles—including mine.
5. Goodfellas (1990)
The Godfather may be the my choice as the best film ever made, but Goodfellas is the best mob film. How is this possible, you may ask? The Godfather created a glamorized and glorified Mafia, making it a modern Camelot of sorts, while Goodfellas went for stark realism. This is the mob as it must be: ruthless, unforgiving, primitive, influential, and highly organized. Full of great performances and a style that has been copied many times since, Martin Scorsese’s opus has come to exemplify the modern crime epic.
4. Fargo (1996)
Since their 1984 debut Blood Simple, the Coen brothers have come to represent offbeat and cerebral American filmmaking at its best. Fargo is the Coens at their best. Based on a "true" story, this is the tale of a kidnapping gone horribly and outrageously awry. This is not new material, but in the hands of Joel and Ethan, it is the most unique film of the decade. How else do you describe a film that includes a pregnant police chief, Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox, a tan Sierra, and the most unusual and economic use of a wood-chipper ever captured on film. While all the performances are top-notch, William H. Macy and Frances McDormand propel the story with their own unequaled creations.
3. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Director Curtis Hanson’s triumphant return to film noir is simply the best entry in the genre since Chinatown. While the story twists and turns through 1950s Hollywood, its plot never gets in the way of continually developing characters. The ensemble cast is flawless and contains early and outstanding performances by now up-and-coming stars Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. The rest of the cast includes Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, and James Cromwell, who all turn in first class performances. At a time when old-fashioned filmmaking is rare or exploited, L.A. Confidential is the real deal.
2. The Thin Red Line (1998)
When Terrence Malick’s first film in twenty years was released, it unfortunately came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan. Ryan shows war the way it actually is, while The Thin Red Line questions why war exists at all. The film is dreamlike in structure and execution. Images are placed upon images that say something about human nature while an almost continuous voice-over by the participants plays on the soundtrack. Sometimes we know who is speaking, and other times, we do not. It was not until my fourth viewing that I was able to follow one individual soldier’s story. However, that is not the intention. This film is existential in its philosophy, and each individual is no more important than another. By the time the film ends, we realize it is not about a squadron at Guadalcanal; it is about everyone.
1. Schindler’s List (1993)
This is the film by which Steven Spielberg should, will, and probably wants to be remembered. It is devastating in its realism, heartbreaking in its conclusion, and important in its remembrance. It is a film of sheer emotional power, unequaled in American cinema. It is a film many will and should return to in decades to come, and it will forever stand as a memorial to the lives lost in the Holocaust and a testament to the importance of each and every individual life.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola’s sumptuous film reinvents a classic and dazzles the senses with its primarily visual storytelling.
Breaking the Waves (1996)
A story about love and faith that is audacious in its themes, style, and complete immersion in deep emotions.
Ed Wood (1994)
An offbeat biography of the man called the worst filmmaker ever is also a strangely moving story of a man doing what he loves to do.
The Ice Storm (1997)
Ang Lee’s shattering look at the culture of the 1970s is equally thought-provoking and moving.
Oliver Stone’s epic story of one man’s investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy embodies the American public’s shock and bewilderment.
Malcolm X (1992)
The life of a truly and unfortunately misunderstood African-American leader is grandly told in Spike Lee’s extraordinary biography.
A great ode to artistic and individual expression, Pleasantville is at times satirical and at others poignant, but it is always technically and visually superb.
Wes Anderson’s sophomore effort, it is the story of a talented young man and embodies teenage angst, wonderment, and possibilities.
A darkly comic and, at times, deeply disturbing look into the drug underworld of Edinburgh is a brilliant display of style and substance living in harmonious coexistence.
The Truman Show (1998)
Peter Weir’s important film is about the relationship between life and art and the need for a separation of the two.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.