The 1990s is probably my favourite decade for cinema, in no small part because it was the decade in which I really started to engage with film beyond simply enjoying the movies. This is the second set of 25 great films from the decade I have produced, and we are loosely counting down from 300 to 1. A few notes before we kick off round two: most of these films I originally saw on release at the time, which means the countdown has less non-American films than such a list likely deserves. In addition the specific order of the films is pretty arbitrary this far up in the list, so do not worry too much about which film is where. The important thing is that these are all films that I really like.
#275. Arlington Rd
(1999, USA, d. Mark Pellington.)
There are few directorial debuts in this decade stronger than Mark Pellington’s unsettling, conspiratorial thriller Arlington Rd, which a man (Jeff Bridges) begins to suspect his new neighbours (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) of untoward behaviours. It takes a few logical leaps here and there, that may strain the patience of viewers less willing to roll with it, but for stomach-dropping dread there aren’t too many 90s thrillers that are better. Hope Davis is great in support, and the soundtrack is by the amazing Tomandandy.
#274. Velvet Goldmine
(1998, USA, d. Todd Haynes.)
The death of a glam rock star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) inspires a British journalist (Christian Bale) to go digging into his life. David Bowie strenuously opposed the idea of people making biopics of his life, and Velvet Goldmine ably demonstrated that those wanting to make them could do so much better. This film is fictional, and features fictional characters, but there is a vivid line to draw between the characters onscreen and the real-life figures that inspired them. It’s got a great cast too: not just Meyers and Bale but Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, and Ewan MacGregor. Haynes is a great filmmaker: this is the first of his films I saw.
(1994, USA, d. Roland Emmerich.)
I was not a particular fan of Universal Soldier, the 1992 action-thriller by writer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich. I actively hated their 1996 disaster epic Independence Day. In between they made Stargate, a science fiction film that smashes together ancient Egyptian mythology, military action, and planetary romance. The screenplay is the weakest part – it kind of fails in pulling together its three-act structure – but it has piles of atmosphere, beautiful production design, and genuinely outstanding performances from Kurt Russell, James Spader, and Jaye Davidson. Most of all, in the cinema it gave me the same feeling that the original Star Wars used to give me. MGM may have squandered the property somewhat – the TV franchise was not a patch on the film – but the original still stands up as superb popcorn entertainment.
#272. The American President
(1995, USA, d. Rob Reiner.)
The American President can be enjoyed on two levels. Firstly, it is a smartly written and delightfully warm romantic comedy-drama, in which a Washington lobbyist (Annette Bening) shares a romance with the President of the United States (Michael Douglas). It’s got a great cast, a great script, and is so smoothly assembled. On other level entirely, it is must-see viewing for fans of television drama The West Wing. Aaron Sorkin wrote both, and the film is effectively a pilot for the latter. They even both star Martin Sheen.
#271. The Long Kiss Goodnight
(1996, USA, d. Renny Harlin.)
It feels odd to include two Renny Harlin features within two posts, but despite an overall legacy of moribund direction in ordinary action films he did occasionally knock the ball right out of the park. The Long Kiss Goodnight was his second collaboration with by this point ex-wife Geena Davis after the notoriously cheesy Cutthroat Island, and stands poles apart from it. Davis does some exceptional contemporary action, is paired very well with Samuel L. Jackson, and it all rides marvellously on a screenplay by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Good Guys).
#270. Hocus Pocus
(1993, USA, d. Kenny Ortega.)
Kenny Orgeta’s Halloween-themed blend of musical, comedy, and children’s horror was not a commercial success in cinemas, but it found a loyal audience on both home video and particularly cable television in America where it became a seasonal hit. The film features a group of typically precocious young protagonists battling a trio of Puritan-era witches played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy (Sister Act), and Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s these three that are clearly having the most fun – and the fun is infectious. A long-delayed sequel followed in 2022.
#269. Scream 2
(1997, USA, d. Wes Craven.)
Spoiler warning: the original Scream is turning up further down this list. Scream 2 is an admirable sequel, however, providing plenty of new shocks and scares for slasher fans. It also replaces the original’s knowing, self-aware references to horror convention with the same style of takes on horror sequels. It is also a funnier take on the material: when Wes Craven chooses to accompany every scene of Dewey Riley (David Arquette) with Hans Zimmer’s Broken Arrow theme, it is comedy gold.
#268. The Birdcage
(1996, USA, d. Mike Nichols.)
Mike Nichols’ popular remake of French hit La Cage aux Folles tends to suffer in comparison, but I think it is important to remember one was a French film for French audience and the other American for American audiences. On its own turns, this is a wonderfully and surprisingly touching comedy about a middle-aged gay couple (Nathan Lane and Robin Williams) meeting the conservative parents (Gene Hackman and Dianne Weist) of their son’s fiancee. There is no doubt it has dated, but given its context it is a wonderful film. Nathan Lane really became a major star out of this, and Williams’ performance is heartfelt.
#267. Kindergarten Cop
(1990, USA, d. Ivan Reitman.)
Arnold Schwarzenegger made a bunch of comedies in the 1980s and 1990s, and with all due respect to his Terminatorship this is the only one that’s good. Pitting an undercover Schwarzenegger against a classful of small children effectively neuters his standard action-oriented strengths, rendering him a helpless, flailing mess. Reitman’s direction is solid, and supporting performances by Pamela Reed and particularly Oscar-winner Linda Hunt are real highlights. Just be careful of the oh-so-90s musical score, which simply refuses to let up for the whole 111 minutes.
#266. Men in Black
(1997, USA, d. Barry Sonnenfeld.)
Yeah the screenplay is smart, the source material inspired, and the visual design eye-poppingly weird, but the most valuable element of Men in Black by far is Tommy Lee Jones’ bone-dry comedic delivery. There is an early scene where he is sitting on a couch listening to the wife of a man killed by a giant alien cockroach, and his barely tolerant narrowing of his eyes is a masterpiece of comic subtlety. Frankly Jones is award-worthy in this film, and I mean that with absolute sincerity. There were three sequels to this, each diminishing further in value, but the original still stands.
#265. Deconstructing Harry
(1997, USA, d. Woody Allen.)
I think there is a very good argument to be made that the 1990s was the last decade where Woody Allen could be relied on to write and direct properly decent films. There are films after this point that are very good, but there was less consistency as he grew older. Deconstructing Harry is one example, and one for which I have always had a soft spot. Of course there’s the elephant in the room: the 1990s was also the decade when Allen was accused of child abuse, and became better known for his private life (marrying his ex-girlfriend’s daughter) than his creative work, so I understand if others can’t appreciate or watch his films any more.
(1997, USA, d. James Cameron.)
When you are looking for the biggest films of the 1990s in terms of audience, reach, and cultural footprint, to me it feels like a race between Jurassic Park and Titanic. The latter seems to get dismissed critically: the earnest tone is easily mocked, as is the lack of complexity. In the theatre the film’s true achievements are far more obvious. This is big-screen spectacle without parallel in its decade. It is not the rudimentary romance that attracts an audience’s emotions but the sheer scale of the disaster. The loss of life. The drownings. The mother putting her children to bed rather than save them. The man who jumps fruitlessly to his death from the rising stern. In a big dark room with a few hundred other viewers, it’s a hell of a journey.
#263. Being John Malkovich
(1999, USA, d. Spike Jonze.)
The concept of Spike Jonze’s feature directing debut sounds like some sort of ridiculous comedy: there is a door inside an office building that leads one inside the mind of American actor John Malkovich for several minutes, and then dumps you out next the New Jersey turnpike. While it is ridiculous and certainly a comedy on some levels, little prepares you for just how unexpectedly melancholic, creepy, and ultimately how strange horrific Being John Malkovich is. The three leads – John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener – are fantastic. Malkovich plays himself brilliantly. Charlie Sheen, playing a version of himself as Malkovich’s best friend, is sublime.
#262. I Stand Alone
(1998, France, d. Gaspar Noé.)
Argentinian director Gaspar Noé has done his most accomplished work in the 21st century, but it was in the 1990s that he started writing and directing the provocative and edgy works that would come to help form the so-called ‘new French extremity’. I Stand Alone is a feature sequel to his groundbreaking short Carne, and follows a disgraced butcher (Philippe Nahon) from violent crimes to incarceration and a series of demeaning jobs and encounters. It is confronting stuff, but it’s also artful and particularly bleak. Later works like Irreversible and Climax could not exist without I Stand Alone breaking into the territory in the first place.
#261. The Bird People of China
(1998, Japan, d. Takashi Miike.)
A wonderfully absurd and odd comedy from Takashi Miike, in which a mid-level salaried worker is dispatched to Yunnan, China, to inspect a potential seam of jade – yakuza minder in tow. Once there he finds an entire village of ‘bird people’, who are keen to accept the conveniences of the modern world in return for their treasure – but what is the cost? It’s a slow and rather gentle comedy, worlds away from the visceral crime and horror flicks for which Miike is best known, and rather unlike anything else. It’s a strange pleasure.
(1995, UK, d. Oliver Parker.)
Kenneth Branagh is clearly an outstanding Shakespearean actor, but I find he is at his best when he doesn’t simultaneously direct the film. Othello showcases him at his absolute best, playing villain Iago with a twisted combination of spite, loathing, and a simmering lust. When he says “I hate the moor”, you believe him. Oliver Parker uses a massively pared-down script here, focusing on the emotion and the action while distilling the language down to its essence. Laurence Fishburne is a predictably superb Othello, as is Irene Jacob and Anna Patrick as Desdemona and Emilia. The 1990s was a great decade for film adaptations of Shakespeare.
#259. Les Amants du Pont Neuf
(1991, France, d. Leos Carax.)
A romance between a drug addict (Denis Lavant) and an artist with a growing disability (Juliette Binoche) is the basis for this bizarrely epic and beautiful film from Leos Carax. The production of the film is almost as legendary as the film itself: a broken-up three-tear shoot, budget problems, and what ultimately became the biggest budget for a French film up to that point. It is a film of captivating scenes and moments. I have not rewatched this in many, many years and I can feel it begging to be rediscovered.
#258. Donnie Brasco
(1997, USA, d. Mike Newell.)
Johnny Depp, back when he really delivered strong performances, plays an undercover agent infiltrating the New York mafia – a task that leads him to mob enforcer Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino). This is a great two-hander, with both actors doing remarkably subtle work, backed up by a strong screenplay and a solid supporting cast. The 1990s was a great decade for American crime films; this is only one example. Director Mike Newell strikes me as rather underrated: his 1990s work also included Enchanted April, Pushing Tin, and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
(1998, USA, d. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook.)
Part of the Disney Renaissance (a period that starts with The Little Mermaid and ends with Tarzan) was a gradual adoption of live-action visual language and CGI to hand-drawn animation. The result was a string of hugely popular animated films that worked as spectacle for a mass audience rather than as simply children’s entertainment. Mulan still boasts the musical numbers and talking animals for which Disney was best known, but it is also an outstanding action epic. The avalanche sequence remains tremendously effective even today. Even more significantly, this is the film that broke Disney’s all-white line of princesses.
#256. Star Trek: First Contact
(1996, USA, d. Jonathan Frakes.)
When Paramount abandoned plans for an eighth series of Star Trek: The Next Generation in favour of a feature film, the resulting work – 1994’s Star Trek: Generations – suggested that they may have made a terrible mistake. Thankfully First Contact, released two years later, righted the ship somewhat. Strong action-oriented direction by Jonathan Frakes provided an energy that Generations had lacked, and the Aliens pastiche generated by the villainous Borg made the film a fan favourite. Alfre Woodard, Alice Krige, and James Cromwell prove a talented support to the much-loved TNG cast.
(1998, USA, d. Stephen Norrington.)
For the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wesley Snipes can say “you’re welcome”. The first theatrical success based on a Marvel Comic proved the value of those comic book characters, and soon led to Fox launching the X-Men and Columbia Pictures Spider-Man. You know the rest. This is pulpy, enjoyable fun headlined by a purposefully ridiculous performance from Snipes that absolutely commits to the tone and content, and refuses to ridicule it. Stephen Norrington pitches the film perfectly as B-grade entertainment. It knows exactly what it needs to be, and it does it with apparent ease. Guillermo Del Toro’s sequel was just as good, while David Goyer’s third film was a bit of a disaster.
#254. Death Becomes Her
(1992, USA, d. Robert Zemeckis.)
Like much of Robert Zemeckis’s post-Back to the Future work, Death Becomes Her was dominated by state-of-the-art visual effects. In this case, however, they were used not in aid of an action-adventure but a pitch-black, savage satire of the upper class obsession with cosmetic surgery. It is a wonderfully entertaining movie, not simply because of the smart script but also because its central cast – Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep in particular – play so aggressively against type. They are clearly having a world of fun, and that feeling is infectious. It would be rude to not also mention Goldie Hawn’s brilliant, funny performance as well.
#253. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
(1991, USA, d. Nicholas Meyer.)
The director of the best Star Trek movie returned in 1991 to direct the second-best. While The Undiscovered Country lacks the urgent, obsessional vibe of The Wrath of Khan, is provides something almost as good. Like the best of the original Star Trek, it works as a parable for contemporary society and cleverly mirrors the fall of the Soviet Union with a similar crisis in the Klingon Empire. William Shatner benefits from great writing, each of his regular co-stars get their own moments to shine, and Christopher Plummer damn-near steals the entire movie as the maniacal, Shakespeare-quoting General Chang. This is the swansong for the original series cast; it is celebrated so effectively that Avengers: Endgame stole it’s end credits sequence.
(1998, USA, d. Michael Bay.)
In one of those classic cases of two Hollywood studios competing with two films based on the same premise, 1998 saw Disney’s Armageddon go head-to-head with Dreamworks’ Deep Impact. Both featured attempts to save the Earth from being struck by a giant object in space, and to be honest both were fairly successful. Armageddon was definitely the winner by box office, but to be honest it also beats Deep Impact simply by being a world of fun. The genius of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson as producers was that they cast world-class actors to paper over any deficiencies in their script. This film may star Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, but it is driven by the likes of Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, and Billy Bob Thornton.
#251. The Game
(1997, USA, d. David Fincher.)
1995’s Seven was a grim masterpiece of grand guignol, and 1999’s Fight Club was a zeitgeist-driving icon, and in-between David Fincher directed this underrated, twisted thriller about a bored millionaire (Michael Douglas) invited into a mysterious ‘game’ that threatens to destroy his career, fortune, and possibly even his life. Like all Fincher films it is immensely stylish and impeccably designed. Douglas brings his considerable talent and charisma to bear on it, and people like Deborah Kara Under and Sean Penn do brilliant support. I feel as if time is slowly leading us to forget The Game; we shouldn’t.