The Top Tens: The 1990s

Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten films fitting certain topics. Each month, we feature an alphabetical list of films along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.

The 1990s had a broad array of support from filmmakers and films alike. Only two films pulled in three citations: Beauty and the Beast and Schindler’s List. Babe, Fargo, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day were the only others with multiple citations. On the directing side, Steven Spielberg, Anthony Minghella, Robert Zemeckis, and the directing team of Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise each had two films on the list.

After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.

The Introductions

Wesley Lovell: My development as a cineaste began in the 1990s, which means this decade has more than a few films that made a strong impression on me. I could hit a Top 50 and not be ashamed of any of them. However, I had to narrow down to a scant ten. Here are several that represent the cream of what I saw.
Peter J. Patrick: Some of these films seem like they were released only yesterday, although they are all nineteen to twenty-eight years old this year. Only two of them, Schindler’s List and Forrest Gump, were Oscar winners for Best Picture. Three others, Gods and Monsters, The End of the Affair, and The Talented Mr. Ripley weren’t even nominated for Hollywood’s highest honor although they were nominated for Oscars in other categories.
Tripp Burton: The 1990s were the decade where I discovered film, and with the Disney Renaissance, the emergence of Pixar, Miramax and the peak of independent cinema, and the emergence of CGI, it was a great time to discover films of all kinds. It is also interesting that my list contains four films from 1991 — a little before my peak movie watching, but I will argue one of the great cinematic years of all time.
Thomas LaTourrette: I think I found this the most difficult top ten list yet to create. After watching several movies, I had only three films that I knew would be there, Groundhog Day, Il Postino, and Heavenly Creatures. Babe soon got added to the list, but I was not sure where it would go after that. I had not realized that having seen most of these films in the theaters when they came out, it would be harder to judge them. There were a lot of films that I liked, but it became much harder to say that they were deserving of a top ten spot. As always, there was not enough time to see all the films again or for the first time that I would have liked to have watched for this. Thus Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, a film I remember liking when it came out almost twenty years ago but my memory of it was not good enough, did not make the list without a chance to see it again. In a revision at some future point it might make it on, but sadly will not be on this one. I am happy with the ten that are here, both for their quality and the differing styles, so enjoy.

American Beauty (1999)

(dir. Sam Mendes) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This film follows the collapsing of a marriage and their American dream life. The husband quits his soul-killing job, the wife starts an affair with a fellow realtor, and their daughter is torn between two friends who both come with major baggage. Yet the film is so much more than that as it weaves through the stories and keeps them all interesting. I do have some mixed feelings about this film now, both with its tale of a man who obsesses about the friend of his teenage daughter and with the fact that the man is played by now-disgraced actor Kevin Spacey. But it is well made enough to merit being on this list and receiving the Oscars that it did. The fact that it can show that watching a plastic bag swirl in the wind can be magical is reason enough for it to be here.

Babe (1995)

(dir. Chris Noonan) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Children’s films may have come of age in the 1980s, but they became something far more exciting in the 1990s: broadly acceptable films that had great moral lessons while appealing both to children and adults alike. One of the surprise greats of the decade was a little film about a pig who wanted to be a sheepdog. This simple and charming tale was among the best of the decade and was rightfully nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Director Chris Noonan showed that Disney had not cornered the market on making children’s films that could still charm adults. A local farmer ends up winning the runt of a pig at a fair and is not sure what to do with it. All the barnyard animals talk to each other, so we know what they are thinking and where their prejudices lie. They have their own problems to sort out as the farmer takes a bigger interest in the pig and its abilities. The movie culminates with him entering Babe into a sheep herding contest, which discombobulates the judges, but makes for a satisfying ending to the film. That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

(dir. Gary Toursdale, Kirk Wise) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Disney’s renaissance, which began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid reached its zenith early with not just the greatest animated film ever made, but one of the greatest films ever made. The adaptation of a French fairy tale was a tale as old as time while feeling downright modern with its self-reliant heroine. The stirring vocals and performances make for one magical evening.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The first fully animated feature nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and the best animated feature in Disney history since the glory days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. Buoyed by a superb Broadway-style score and voiced by Broadway veterans Robby Benson as Beast, Paige O’Hara as Belle, Richard White as Gaston, Rex Everhart as Maurice, Jerry Orbach as Lumiere, David Ogden Stiers as Cogsworth, and Angela Lansbury, who lent her voice to the glorious title song as Mrs. Potts, the singing teapot.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Disney animation has never been better than this, the perfect blend of their beautiful hand-drawn animation, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s timeless score, and a perfectly selected voice cast that never feels stunty. This movie thrilled me as a kid and it thrills me now, just as it thrills my kids today.

Contact (1997)

(dir. Robert Zemeckis) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Like animation and children’s films, science fiction had something of a rebirth in the 1990s. While most of the genre’s films were dealing with the destruction of the world, alien invasions, or strange encounters, this adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel was unlike anything else produced in the 1990s in that it had genuine philosophical questions to answer while never letting the audience see the aliens. It was a potent film with a terrific performance from Jodie Foster.

Dead Man Walking (1995)

(dir. Tim Robbins) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – This was only the second time that actor Tim Robbins wrote and directed a feature film, earning an Oscar nomination for his direction and steering his partner Susan Sarandon to an Oscar as real-life nun Helen Prejean on whose book the film was based. The usually loquacious Sarandon eschewed lengthy talk in favor of listening to others speak for most of the film. Oscar nominee Sean Penn’s character of the condemned man was a composite of two real-life convicts who were executed in Louisiana in the previous decade.

Defending Your Life (1991)

(dir. Albert Brooks) Commentary By Tripp Burton – I would argue that this is one of the most perfect romantic comedies of all time, with Meryl Streep at her most casual, Albert Brooks at his most honest, Rip Torn at his grumpiest, and a look at humanity and the afterlife that is hilarious and frighteningly cutting. It is as warm as it is cynical, and melds those two sides of Brooks’ filmmaking perfectly.

The End of the Affair (1999)

(dir. Neil Jordan) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Neil Jordan’s definitive version of Graham Greene’s novel was previously filmed by Edward Dmytryk in 1955. Starring Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson, Peter Cushing, and John Mills, it was well done but suffered a bit due to the censorship of the day. This version starring Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes, Stephen Rea, and Ian Hart in the roles of the straying wife, her wartime lover, her cuckolded husband, and the private detective hired by the wartime lover to find her couldn’t be topped. Moore and Roger Pratt’s cinematography were deservedly Oscar-nominated.

The English Patient (1996)

(dir. Anthony Minghella) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Writer/director Minghella took Michael Ondaatje’s interesting but dense book and turned it into a modern epic. The movie jumps back and forth between the end of WWII and the days preceding it when a multinational team was working on mapping the desert and digging up old archaeological sites. A Hungarian count falls in love with a married Englishwoman and they start an illicit affair. As the movie jumps in time, people wonder if he was a Nazi spy or at least a collaborator. Minghella deftly weaves the disparate stories and timelines into a cohesive whole and creates a film that is long but never dull.

Evita (1996)

(dir. Alan Parker) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – While the musical genre was working on its own renaissance that peaked in the 2000s, this film began it all. Adapting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical drama to the big screen, director Alan Parker brought the spectacle of the Broadway show to the silver screen with a splash of inventive furor and strong central performances from Madonna in the title role and Antonio Banderas as the dramatic foil Ché. With lush musical numbers and big, broad scenes, this film showed that musicals could still be solid performers at the box office.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

(dir. Stanley Kubrick) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Director Stanley Kubrick died not long before his final film was to release. Burdened by a studio’s insistence that the graphic sexuality be covered up before it could be released as an R-rated feature, the film suffers minorly from the decision, Kubrick’s genuine vision standing starkly in front of the audience. A passionate saga of sexual betrayal, recriminations, and a compelling statement on fidelity, Eyes Wide Shut was even more fascinating in its unrated version.

Fargo (1996)

(dir. Joel Coen) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – One of the funniest movies ever made, some audiences were afraid to laugh during its presentation thinking it disrespectful to laugh at events described in the opening credits as “based on a true story.” It wasn’t, of course, that was just one of the film’s conceits. It took a long time for stars Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi to find more iconic roles, but they eventually did with Three Billboards, Shameless, and Boardwalk Empire but they and we will always have Fargo.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – The Coen Brothers are perhaps the most masterful filmmakers of our generation, and this crime dramedy is their masterpiece: it is funny, it is frightening, it is thrilling, it is heartbreaking, it is mysterious, and it is brutal all at the same time. There isn’t a wasted breath in this film and, cemented by career-best work from Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi, it is one of the great achievements of the 1990s.

Forrest Gump (1994)

(dir. Robert Zemeckis) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Tom Hanks agreed to make this Oscar-winning audience pleaser about the life an autistic man with a low I.Q. who was anything but a simpleton on condition that it be historically accurate. He received no salary, but his share of the profits netted him $40 million, and a second Oscar the year after his first for Philadelphia. He has since refused all requests to film a sequel and none have been made. Hanks receives top notch support from Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Robin Wright, and Sally Field.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

(dir. Mike Newell) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Screenwriter Richard Curtis and director Mike Newell crafted one of the best romantic comedies in years. A group of friends, led by Hugh Grant’s Charles, meet up at the weddings and the funeral over the course of several months. Charles meets an American woman who he falls for, but the timing never seems to work out for them, and the third wedding is in fact hers to another man. The movie rests on the capable charms of Grant, but all of the friends are exceptionally well cast too. Even when it turns serious at the funeral with John Hannah reading W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues, the movie never veers into mawkishness. Romantic comedies are notoriously difficult to pull off, but this one stays buoyant all the way through.

Gods and Monsters (1998)

(dir. Bill Condon) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Condon’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for this insightful biography of the last days of Frankenstein director James Whale is one of just three films to win that award without being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The Bad and the Beautiful and Sling Blade are the others. Acting nominations went to Ian McKellen for his superb portrayal of Whale and Lynn Redgrave for her portrayal of his German housekeeper patterned after Irish actress Una O’Connor who acted in several of Whale’s classic films.

Groundhog Day (1993)

(dir. Harold Ramis) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Co-writers Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin created a modern day classic comedy in this film. The perfectly cast Bill Murray plays a cynical and unhappy weatherman who was having to cover the Groundhog Day celebrations in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. An unexpected blizzard keeps him, a cameraman, and producer in town. He goes to sleep but wakes up again with it being February 2nd all over again. No matter what he does, he keeps waking up to the same day. The movie makes the continual loops funny, occasionally touching, and often unexpected. Murray has perhaps his best starring role, but is ably assisted by the warm presence of Andie MacDowell who plays the producer that he eventually comes to love.

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

(dir. Peter Jackson) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Before he made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson directed this psychological drama about the attachment two teenaged girls form with each other. This New Zealand-set story is based on actual events and the spoken diary entries are verbatim from one of the girl’s own writings. They become obsessed with each other, much to the worriment of their parents and spend time creating stories and figures from a made-up world. The movie shows them retreating into this fantasy world with almost a magic realism, which would not have been easy to pull off. From the beginning of the film, one knows that they have killed one of their mothers, and the movie builds towards this inevitability with both a sense of wonder and dread.

Howards End (1992)

(dir. James Ivory) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The high point of Merchant-Ivory’s literary adaptations is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind with career-high performances from Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samuel West and very fine ones from Vanessa Redgrave, Joseph Bennett, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, and others. E.M. Forster’s masterpiece about the injustices of class distinction finally made right by the subtleties of karma (what goes around comes around) couldn’t have been better represented.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

(dir. Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – While the popularity of Disney’s animated films was on the verge of taking a nosedive, The Hunchback of Notre Dame showed that the mouse house still had quality product to offer. A lighter adaptation of the heavy Victor Hugo novel took the ideas at the heart of the Gothic classic and turned them into a compelling look at religious piety and hypocrisy, but turned most of its attention towards a story of acceptance for all outcasts, regardless of how they look or where they come from.

The Ice Storm (1997)

(dir. Ang Lee) Commentary By Tripp Burton – The greatest period pieces perfectly capture a time and place while also feeling timeless, and Ang Lee’s look at the suburban sexual revolution of the 1970s is a film of its setting, a film of the 1990s, and a still modern look at our own urges. The cast is exceptional, the score haunting, the mood of the film cold and emotionally resonant, and it is a film that has sadly never been embraced as the masterpiece that it truly is.

JFK (1991)

(dir. Oliver Stone) Commentary By Tripp Burton – It is rare for a film to become a cultural phenomenon and a critical darling, but JFK checks all of the boxes: it is artistically daring, intellectually brutal, stylistically cutting-edge, while also changing the political landscape of America and leading to real-world changes. Today, it is still as thrilling and brilliant as it felt 25 years ago. Oliver Stone’s clever casting choices and bold use of film stocks and editing techniques have been copied many times, including by Stone himself, but never matched.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

(dir. Wayne Wang) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – A film that seems to have been largely forgotten by modern audiences, Wayne Wang’s exploration of Asian culture gave us unique stories that followed the lives and losses of four Asian women as their daughters reflect on the past and the present. A simple, elegant story that spans decades tells a most passionate, life-affirming, and universal story about the love and sacrifice mothers go through to protect their children.

Jurassic Park (1993)

(dir. Steven Spielberg) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Spielberg again shows that he is great at combining suspense and humor. One knows from the beginning that the dinosaurs will get out of their cages, but he keeps it tense and slowly builds to some frightening set pieces. Watching the water rippling in a glass while the t-rex approaches was a great way of showing what was happening without really showing what was happening. There are also moments of warmth and humor between the characters. The film has begotten many sequels, which have never lived up to the sense of wonder or critical reception of the original. It also helps that John Williams wrote a brilliant score for the film.

L.A. Confidential (997)

(dir. Curtis Hanson) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – A modern noir masterpiece rivaled only by Roman Polanski’s Chinatown made twenty-three years earlier, this film from James Ellroy’s novel is based on a series of true crime events that rocked Los Angels in the 1950s. The performances of Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kim Basinger remain the best of their respective careers with the performances of Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Ron Rifkin, and Graham Beckel almost as memorable.

Il Postino (Il Postino)

(dir. Michael Radford, Massimo Troisi) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This charming, if bittersweet, film chronicles the friendship that develops between the poet Pablo Neruda and the sad sack man who is hired to deliver his mail to him while he is in exile in Italy. The postman is in awe of the poet and wants to learn how to write poetry so that he can woo a new woman in town. The postman is played with such warmth by Massimo Troisi that one cannot help but root for his success with the lovely Beatrice. Star, co-writer, and co-director Troisi put off having heart surgery in order to complete the film and died the day after filming was completed, so he never knew of the success of the film or the superb critical reception it received.

Princess Mononoke (1999)

(dir. Hayao Miyazaki) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – While Disney’s animated offerings were beginning to fade by the end of the decade, another master animator, often called the Japanese Disney, released the first of two brilliant films that energized American interest in Japanese animation. Hayao Miyazaki’s animated adventure followed a young girl as she comes of age in a fantastic setting. While the animation is of typical style, what boosts the film beyond much of what Western animators had put out is its rich and fascinating story.

Schindler’s List (1993)

(dir. Steven Spielberg) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Although Steven Spielberg had tried his hands a few times at traditional dramatic narratives, including the wonderful The Color Purple, it wasn’t until 1993 that he showcased his adeptness at all forms of cinema by presenting the black-and-white adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s book. Exploring the incarceration of millions of Jews during the Holocaust, Spielberg deftly handles the material with humanity and stark realism. It’s a frightening portrait that must be seen even if its subject matter is incredibly dire.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Spielberg’s multi-award-winning film about the Holocaust was based on Australian author Thomas Keneally’s 1982 Booker Prize winner Schindler’s Ark. The most expensive black-and-white film since 1962’s The Longest Day, this and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial are the two films for which Spielberg would like to be remembered. Most likely he will be. Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ralph Fiennes as the vile Amon Goeth, and Ben Kingsley as a composite of three real-life assistants to Schindler have never been better.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Many of our most important historical epics are often not our most artistically accomplished films — often times, in order to tell a story that has to be heard, too many compromises have to be made on screen. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is an exception to that rule. It is a film that gave us a definitive chronicle of the Holocaust while also giving us an artistically accomplished film that uses all of the tricks of the cinema that Spielberg knows so well to emotionally devastate us. It is an important film, not only in subject matter but in quality, and the rare film that lives up to every bit of hype that surrounds it.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

(dir. M. Night Shyamalan) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Most people now know the famous trick ending of this film, but, even going in to watch it again, I still found it a well-done film. Writer/director Shyamalan has never achieved the success that he did with this film. Haley Joel Osment, a brilliant young actor, plays a boy who can see dead people, and the nervousness and fright this causes him makes him an unpopular student. A child psychologist (Bruce Willis) tries to work with him to help him, and his caring mother (Toni Collette) offers what support she can. A sense of foreboding seeps through the film as the boy tries to figure out what to do with his gift or curse. It is a great modern day thriller.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

(dir. Anthony Minghella) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Patricia Highsmith’s stylish thriller was previously filmed by René Clement as the brilliant Purple Noon nearly forty years earlier, but Minghella tops even that with Matt Damon and Jude Law in the roles once played by Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. Gorgeously filmed on location in Italy and New York, the film also benefits from the supporting performances of Gwyneth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett, Jack Davenport, and Philip Baker Hall among others.

Taste of Cherry (1997)

(dir. Abbas Kiarostami) Commentary By Tripp Burton – There is nothing easy about Taste of Cherry — not the main character’s struggle to find a way to die, not the way that Abbas Kiarostami challenges the audience at every moment, and not the way the film tests our patience or our understanding of reality — but it may be one of the most rewarding movies of the 1990s. Kiarostami was a master, and in a decade marked by films that pushed the boundaries of film to be bigger and flashier, this is a masterpiece of minimalism. It is a film that must be seen, not only to understand cinema but to help understand life and death.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

(dir. James Cameron) Commentary By Tripp Burton – James Cameron’s Titanic defined the cinema of the 1990s in many ways, but it is his earlier Terminator 2 that defines Cameron in the 1990s. It pushes the boundaries of what is possible with visual effects that are still frighteningly effective today, but it also is a series of action sequences that are perfectly crafted and a screenplay that feels flawless. Every piece of the film fits together, every moment is both thrilling and meaningful, and it sets the bar for what a sequel should do: it upends everything the earlier film taught us about this world and takes its characters to new, yet completely understandable, places. There has never been a better action film.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – The fact that I had the original Terminator on my list of the 1980s’ top films, almost kept this one from being on this one. Once again an android is sent from the future to kill the woman and her son who will eventually lead the rebellion against the machines. The new terminator is every bit as single-minded in its pursuit of them as the original was, but boasts a liquid metal alloy that allows it to change its shape. In quite the twist, the terminator from the first film, still played by Arnold Schwarzennegar, is reprogrammed to save the life of Sarah Conner. Director James Cameron keeps the action and explosions coming with finesse, and the advancements in special effects since the first film show the new terminator’s ability to morph with spectacular realism. This is one of the few sequels that might even be better than the original.

Toy Story (1995)

(dir. John Lasseter) Commentary By Tripp Burton – The last 25 years have given us many Pixar masterpieces, but they may have never quite matched the brilliance they reached right out of the gate. Toy Story isn’t their deepest film, and visually it can feel a little quaint next to what they have accomplished since, but it is the template of a whole new genre of film and it still thrilling and hilarious today.

The Truman Show (1998)

(dir. Peter Weir) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Inventive energy flowed through the 1990s and one of the most creative of endeavors released that decade was Peter Weir’s masterful direction of Andrew Niccol’s astute script for The Truman Show, a film about a man who has grown up on a television stage filled with actors. What sets Truman, a never better Jim Carrey, apart from everyone else on the sound stage is that he believes it’s all real. A fascinating look at the eventual dominance and increasing incredulity of reality TV, the film was years ahead of its time.

Waiting for Guffman (1996)

(dir. Christopher Guest) Commentary By Tripp Burton – No film of the 1990s makes me laugh as hard as Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman. It has a flawless ensemble of great comedians, it is at every turn absurd and completely believable, and, pound for pound, it has more jokes than any other film of the decade. It is the perfect comedy.

Wesley’s List

Peter’s List

Tripp’s List

Thomas’ List

  • Babe
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Contact
  • Evita
  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Schindler’s List
  • The Truman Show
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Dead Man Walking
  • The End of the Affair
  • Fargo
  • Forrest Gump
  • Gods and Monsters
  • Howards End
  • L.A. Confidential
  • Schindler’s List
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Defending Your Life
  • Fargo
  • The Ice Storm
  • JFK
  • Schindler’s List
  • Taste of Cherry
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • Toy Story
  • Waiting for Guffman
  • American Beauty
  • Babe
  • The English Patient
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • Groundhog Day
  • Heavenly Creatures
  • Il Postino
  • Jurassic Park
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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