Back in 2019, I marked the end of the decade with a huge countdown of my favourite films of the 2010s; Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone was my top pick. I figured it was about time to run another massive countdown of my favourite films, and this time I have picked the 1990s: 300 feature films from 1990 to 1999, in my personal order of preference.
The 1990s were a special decade for me when it comes to film. I was going to the cinema roughly once a week. I studied cinema at university as an elective while undertaking a theatre and drama degree. I spend several years towards the end of the decade as a buyer for the family video rental library, and that meant seeing pretty much every major Hollywood release between 1997 and 1999.
There will, of course, be films missing. Perhaps I did not see it – I certainly was not watching the number of foreign films that I do now – and perhaps I simply did not like it as much as the majority. To save time for those who know my tastes well, Starship Troopers did not make my top 300. The list is not definitive. The specific order of the films is spontaneous and pretty arbitrary. There are many films I enjoyed that did not make the list. I would love to know your thoughts in the comments. Let’s celebrate the 1990s.
#300. Executive Decision
(1996, USA, d. Stuart Baird.)
What starts as a very generic B-grade action flick turns half of the genre conventions on their head. Steven Seagal was at the peak of his popularity when he headlined Executive Decision, playing the leader of an elite military team tasked with sneaking onto a hijacked 747 in mid-flight and rescue its passengers. The thing is – spoiler alert – Seagal gets sucked out the plane half an hour in, and the rest of the film is headlined by its supporting cast of nerdy strategists and technicians: Kurt Russell, Joe Morton, Oliver Platt, and Halle Berry. The cast (which also includes John Leguizamo and David Suchet) lifts the material. Noted editor Stuart Baird does a solid job taking the director’s seat.
#299. Young and Dangerous
(1996, Hong Kong, d. Andrew Lau.)
An adaptation of a Hong Kong comic about youthful rebels working within a Causeway Bay triad. It was made quickly and cheaply by director Andrew Lau, but a combination of energetic direction, popular source material, and a ‘lightning in a bottle’ cast of Hong Kong’s best and brightest made it a runaway smash hit. So popular was the original film that two sequels were rushed out to cinemas in the same year, and ultimate led to a total of five sequels, a prequel, six spin-offs, and a remake. Star Ekin Cheng’s hair became so famous it as good as deserved its own on-screen credit.
#298. The Prophecy
(1995, USA, d. Gregory Widen.)
An under-the-radar cult hit from writer/director Gregory Widen, best known for writing the original Highlander and Backdraft. This modestly-scaled supernatural thriller was another film to luck out on casting, starring Christopher Walken, Eric Stoltz, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, and Viggo Mortensen. Walken was superb as the angel Gabriel, fighting on Earth to finally resolve an ongoing war in heaven. While it never hit the popularity or longevity of the Highlander films, it did manage to find a large enough audience to sustain several direct-to-video sequels. Ignore them: in this case, its the original inventive film that is the only bit to which it’s worth returning.
#297. October Sky
(1999, USA, d. Joe Johnston.)
A criminally under-seen historical drama from director Joe Johnston (Rocketeer, The Wolf Man) about real-life engineer Homer Hickam, who as a teen was inspired by the Soviet Union’s launch of the Spuntik satellite to build his own rockets in rural West Virginia. The film was huge break for Jake Gyllenhaal, just two years before he scored a major critical hit with Donnie Darko. The supporting cast includes Chris Cooper and Laura Dern. It is an uplifting family drama, but never reduces or simplifies the characters in the process.
#296. Beyond the Mat
(1999, USA, d. Barry W. Blaustein.)
Professional wrestling, which had previously hit unprecedented highs in the 1980s era of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, reached a fresh peak in the 1990s. Barry W. Blaustein’s excellent documentary Beyond the Mat was there to witness it: the theatricality, the excess, and the violence. Sure the violence was staged, but Blaustein’s film demonstrated how that made it no less dangerous. A dramatic high point? Seeing hardcore wrestler Mick Foley take a horrifying beating in the ring – and then seeing the reaction of his family to what happens on video. It’s emotional stuff, and highly illuminating.
#295. Lake Placid
(1999, USA, d. Steve Miner.)
Steve Miner had certainly directed a fair share of horror film before Lake Placid, including Friday the 13th Part 3, Halloween H20, and Warlock. What those films lacked that Lake Placid provides is a winning comedic screenplay by TV writer/producer David E. Kelley. It turns out getting the creative person behind Picket Fences and Ally McBeal to pen a giant crocodile movie gives you unexpected levels of snark, sarcasm, some of the funniest dialogue of its year, and a foul-mouthed Betty White. This film even brings one of the most unexpected casts for a horror movie, including Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Brendan Gleeson, and Oliver Platt.
#294. Demolition Man
(1993, USA, d. Marco Brambilla.)
On paper, Demolition Man reads like just another underwhelming action vehicle for Sylvester Stallone. When watched on screen, it is an unexpectedly funny satire of a future California where foul language results in immediate fines, and going to the toilet involves knowing what the shells do. The best part of the film is that it’s cast are uniformly in on the joke. Critics who lambasted it at the time for being ridiculous and silly missed the point. Stallone and co-star Wesley Snipes fit it brilliantly, but the real surprises for this Hollywood slice of cheese are former Yes Minister star Nigel Hawthorne and a pre-fame Sandra Bullock.
#293. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
(1990, UK/USA, d. Tom Stoppard.)
Playwright Tom Stoppard took it upon himself to direct the film adaptation of his 1966 play – an absurdist work set during the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The result is very much an actor’s film, heavy on performance and dialogue rather that production design or photography. Its leading double act of Gary Oldman and Tim Roth is utterly superb, and – if you’re in the mood for it – manage to sustain a film that was clearly much better off remaining a play. Richard Dreyfuss is also a talented asset as the Player King.
#292. American History X
(1998, USA, d. Tony Kaye.)
Behind the scenes it was a dreadful mess, with star Edward Norton taking over the production during the editing phase, and director Tony Kaye fighting to take his name off it. We will probably never fully know what Kaye intended the film to be, but it is clear that Norton’s version is a powerful and aggressive anti-racism statement that doesn’t pull the sorts of punches that Hollywood is prone to. It does not quite manage to sell its protagonist’s shift to neo-Nazism and back, but thankfully Norton’s performance manages to paper over most of the cracks. There’s strong supporting work too by Avery Brooks and Terminator 2‘s Edward Furlong.
#291. The Thin Red Line
(1998, USA, d. Terrence Malick.)
Everybody seemed to go crazy for The Thin Red Line before they saw it. Its director, Terrence Malick, had scored two massively acclaimed hits with Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). Then he had effectively dropped off the radar, and didn’t make another film until this one 20 years later. Critics largely appreciated it. General audiences, sold on a World War II epic starring George Clooney, Sean Penn, John Travolta, and Nick Nolte, bristled at its artistic pretension and philosophical attitudes. Viewed with more accurate expectations, and further distanced from the more tradition Saving Private Ryan (released a few months before it) and The Thin Red Line shines. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack piece “Journey to the Line” is one of the best pieces of film score of all time.
#290. Fantasia 2000
(1999, USA, d. Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas, and Paul and Gaetan Brizzi.)
When Walt Disney’s animated musical anthology Fantasia was released in 1940, it was intended to be the first in an ongoing series of animated short collections based on classical music. Poorer than expected box office and the advent of World War II put paid to that ambition, but strong home video sales in 1991 convinced Disney’s company to attempt a second shot at the concept. Supervised by nephew Roy E. Disney, the second Fantasia is a mixture of the great and not-so-great but proves the concept is a worthy one. The climactic “Firebird Suite” remains as good a sequence as Disney has ever produced. Sadly Fantasia 3 was cancelled halfway through production due to that pesky poor-than-expected box office.
#289. Toy Story
(1995, USA, d. John Lasseter.)
Truth be told, Toy Story is not as good as its three sequels. Nor is it one of the best films produced by Pixar Animation Studios. It was, however, the first feature film for Pixar, and the first fully computer-animated feature in history. Watched today it is visually shaky and primitive, and its screenplay does not quite gel together like it should, but it is an extraordinary step forward for both animation and cinema. One could even argue it is, despite its faults, the most important film of the 1990s. Certainly commercial American cinema today would be very different without it.
#288. The Big Steal
(1990, Australia, d. Nadia Tass.)
If there is an overall tone to Australian cinema in the 1990s, it is what is often derisively referred to as ‘quirky comedy’. Many genres of cinema are prohibitively expensive for a small industry like ours, but not comedy. Placed in contemporary settings, and given a particular irreverent, rebellious tone, the 1990s Australian comedy generated a range of box office powerhouses that extended well into the next decade. The Big Steal, directed by Malcolm‘s Nadia Tass, sees Ben Mendelsohn’s teen protagonist Danny seek revenge on an unscrupulous car dealer (Steve Bisley) who deliberately sold him a faulty car. It’s the kind of authority-defying lark that made our comedies so popular.
#287. The Legend of 1900
(1998, Italy, d. Giuseppe Tornatore.)
Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore will likely always be best regarded for his 1988 masterpiece Cinema Paradiso, which became a significant global hit. I have always held a soft spot for his less well-known, wonderfully romatic 1998 drama The Legend of 1900. It tracks the life story of 1900 (Tim Roth), a baby born and abandoned on an international cruise ship who goes on to spend his entire life onboard. It is whimsical, sweet, and charming. Roth is superb, as is co-star Bill Nunn. Its best sequences, which embrace the film’s musical focus, are as wonderful as they are memorable.
(1993, USA, d. Renny Harlin.)
A great popcorn thriller, Cliffhanger has a simple concept – basically Die Hard on a mountain – and a sparking, quip-filled screenplay co-written by star Sylvester Stallone. Something remarkable about the film is that despite starring and co-writing it, Stallone gives all of the best lines to the villain. John Lithgow does not waste them, and Renny Harlin – whose career in the 1990s careered from this to Die Hard 2, and from The Long Kiss Goodnight to Cutthroat Island – does a rock-solid job of capturing it on screen. Bonus points for a good supporting cast that includes Michael Rooker and Northern Exposure‘s Janine Turner.
#285. Hard Target
(1993, USA, d. John Woo.)
Cliffhanger stood out from the crowd with a funny script. Hard Target does so by bringing director John Woo to Hollywood for the first time. While nowhere near Woo’s best Hong Kong-directed films, Hard Target packs one hell of a visual punch, and uses Jean-Claude Van Damme more effectively than almost all of his other films. It also opened the door for more Hong Kong directing talent: both Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam were directing Van Damme films soon afterwards. Lance Henriksen is particularly impressive here as the villain: a stunt mishap saw his coat catch on fire. Henriksen, swearing and throwing the blazing coat to the floor, didn’t even break character.
#284. Dick Tracy
(1990, USA, d. Warren Beatty.)
Even more than 30 years on, Dick Tracy remains a perplexing film. Upon release it was unfairly forced into Batman‘s shadow. The period setting, comic book origins, and Danny Elfman score probably didn’t help, but the truth is this is a tremendous film in its own right. The bold use of colour is sublime, deliberately giving the film an artificiality that allows it to resemble its comic book origins more vividly than any other film before or since. As director and star, Beatty (terrific is Tracy) assembles a jaw-dropping cast to support him including Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Mandy Patinkin, Glenne Headly, Charlie Corsmo, Charles Durning, and others. Even Madonna gets in on the act, performing a range of original Stephen Sondheim numbers in addition to her femme fatale role. The more you look at Dick Tracy the more remarkable and unlikely it becomes.
#283. Young Guns II
(1990, USA, d. Geoff Murphy.)
Young Guns (1988) was an entertaining pulp western about Billy the Kid that was cast with a raft of ‘brat pack’ talent including Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Keifer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Dermot Mulroney. Released two years later, Young Guns II took the same popular set-up as before but then progressively destroyed them over the course of a much bleaker, miserable sequel. Geoff Murphy does a great job directing the piece, while a combination of Alan Silvestri’s score and Jon Bon Bovi original songs make it one the best sounding films of its year. Estevez is particular is outstanding in this.
#282. Pump Up the Volume
(1990, USA, Allan Moyle.)
Christian Slater plays a quiet, lonely high school student who runs his own pirate radio station at night, causing a local commotion and driving his classmates to rebellion. It marks a key early role for Slater, matched here with the always-entertaining Samantha Mathis, and despite some pretention in the delivery it’s a heartfelt and honest depiction of teen life in late 20th century America. It’s weird that Moyle wrote and directed something so emotionally resonant; his subsequent youth film Empire Records is a strange poster child for mid-90s mediocrity.
(1995, USA, d. Amy Heckerling.)
Writer/director Amy Heckerling does a great job here, adapting Jane Austen’s novel Emma as a teen movie. The real achievement, however, is in the acting. Alicia Silverstone both made and crippled her career in the leading role of Cher. She is charming and delightful to watch, but it largely typecast her in one go. Even more impressive is the late Brittany Murphy is winning comic turn as Cher’s friend Tai. Murphy was such a natural, seemingly effortless comic presence that she lifted pretty much every film she was in. If there’s one thing that drags the film down, it is the ill-advised romance between Cher and her step-brother Josh. It’s ickily close to incest, not to mention statutory rape.
(1995, USA, d. Kevin Reynolds.)
Everybody’s favourite punching bag in 1995 has, over time, emerged as one of the decade’s more accomplished science fiction films. Everybody talked about how much money Waterworld cost, but not enough about how much that budget is up there on the screen. It looks phenomenal, and boasts interesting world-building, percussive action sequences, and a great over-the-top villain performance by Dennis Hopper. It’s got a great James Horner score as well. This is not the only Kevin Costner film to make the list: some days I feel like he gets as under-appreciated as Waterworld does.
#279. White Men Can’t Jump
(1992, USA, Ron Shelton.)
Director Ron Shelton is the king of the American sports film, having helmed the likes of Bull Durham (1988), Tin Cup, and The Great White Hype (both 1996). When it comes to his best work, it is a run-off between his crime drama Dark Blue (2002) and this: 1992’s smash hit in which Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson play street basketball hustlers. The film supercharged the careers of both actors, but the real MVP here is Rosie Perez. That she didn’t experience the same career uplift as her male co-stars is something close to criminal.
(1990, UK/USA/Italy, d. Franco Zeffirelli.)
There is a remarkable creative choice in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet: it begins very slowly, with actors delivering Shakespeare’s iconic dialogue at a snail’s pace. After a short while, their pace accelerates. Half an hour in, and they’re speaking fluently, and – having been slowly dropped into the Elizabethan language – the audience is following along perfectly. Then there’s the genius of taking 1990s Hollywood’s most tortured and angry man Mel Gibson, famous as the furiously unstable Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, as history’s most famous literary mental health case. The script is beautifully cut down for the big screen as well.
(1997, Japan, d. Takeshi Kitano.)
Takeshi Kitano is remarkable filmmaker, who started his career as an Osaka traditional comedian but who, by the 1990s, had segued into a career directing bluntly brutal crime dramas. Hana-Bi seems particularly bleak: Kitano plays an exhausted police officer with a paralysed partner and a terminally ill wife, who robs a bank to pay off his debts to the yakuza. This is brilliantly made: Kitano not only stars and directs but write the screenplay and edited the film. Even more remarkable is that the Kitano who makes films like Hana-Bi is the same man who makes light, gentle fare like Kikujiro and A Scene from the Sea.
#276. 10 Things I Hate About You
(1999, USA, d. Gil Junger.)
Clueless may have got there first in adapting classic literature as teen drama, but 10 Things I Hate About You does it best. In adapting Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew it manages to rework its contentious narrative into something smarter and more relatable. What is particularly impressive is how well it scored in assembling its cast. It was a key film in building Heath Ledger’s fame, but also boasts pitch-perfect comedy turns by Julia Styles, Joseph Gordon Levitt, David Krumholtz, Alison Janney, Gabrielle Union, and Larisa Oleynik. It is the best kind of teen comedy: the one smart enough that it’s just as enjoyable for adults.
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