Over the course of 2023, FictionMachine has been celebrating the best films of the 1990s. Today we’re counting down from 225 to 201, a group that includes franchise blockbusters, literary adaptations, and a couple of the most quotable cult comedies of their decade.
225. Army of Darkness
(1992, USA, d. Sam Raimi.)
Sam Raimi’s third Evil Dead film demonstrated a much larger ambition than its predecessors, throwing hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) back in time to fight a skeleton army with a shotgun and chainsaw. It’s a more openly funny film than Evil Dead 1 and 2, but still keeps their chaotic energy despite the rise in budget. The franchise may not represent Raimi at his best, but it is certainly where he built his reputation. Decades on, and it remains eminently quotable, like all decent cult films should be.
224. Tomorrow Never Dies
(1997, USA/UK, d. Roger Spottiswoode.)
It may have been 1995’s GoldenEye that reworked James Bond for a new generation, but its the sequel Tomorrow Never Dies that emerges as the most innately 1990s of Bond films. The faster pace and contemporary action sequences are one giveaway, as is the inclusion of Michelle Yeoh as a fellow agent just as capable as Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. The real giveaway? David Arnold’s inventive score, which relies on the likes of Moby and the Propellerheads to infuse it all with a sense of ultra-90s electronica. It also nails its villain, replacing despots and Russian agents with a smug media baron (Jonathan Pryce).
223. The Talented Mr Ripley
(1999, USA, d. Anthony Minghella.)
Anthony Minghella’s slick, luxurious adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel means business, with a tight screenplay and beautiful production values – not to mention some terrific performances by Matt Damon, Jude LAw, Gwyneth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and others. It’s Damon who is particularly impressive, delivering one his best-ever turns as the disturbing, difficult, and weirdly seductive Tom Ripley. I feel this film has been forgotten to a large extent, and that’s a shame. It’s one of the best Highsmith adaptations I have seen.
(1996, Canada, d. David Cronenberg.)
David Cronenberg adapts J.G. Ballard’s novel with a perfect amount of frank sexuality and uncomfortable body horror. It is difficult to decide whether to be attracted or repulsed; in truth the film manages both. Holly Hunter and James Spader are both great, but the film seems particularly strong when highlighting more underrated actors like Elias Koteas and Deborah Kara Unger. It’s a typically provocative, Cronenberg-esque work that I’m sure has any many people who loathe it as love it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
221. La Femme Nikita
(1990, France, d. Luc Besson.)
Luc Besson may be a problematic director to enjoy these days, but La Femme Nikita remains one of the best action-thrillers of its decade. Its outstanding premise, in which a drug addict criminal is secretly lifted from execution to be retrained as a spy, has been remade officially (The Assassin/Point of No Return), unofficially (Black Cat), on television (two multi-season shows with the same title), and even inspired a mini-genre of derivative works (The Villainess comes to mind). Anne Parillaud is sensational in the title role. Jean Reno made such an impression as another killer that an entirely separate movie was made about a similar character (Leon).
220. New Dragon Gate Inn
(1992, Hong Kong, d. Raymond Lee.)
King Hu’s original Dragon Inn (1967) is widely claimed to have invented the modern wuxia genre, due to its combination of wandering Chinese heroes, isolated inns, and furious near-human sword fights. Raymond Lee’s 1992 remake, produced by Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark, re-visits the original through a vibrant early 1990s lens. What makes it seem particularly iconic is its cast: local megastars Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai, and then-up-and-comer Donnie Yen as the villain. It was an exciting time for Yen: this role was wedged between his award-nominated turn in Once upon a Time in China II and his breakout starring role in Iron Monkey.
219. Interview with the Vampire
(1994, USA, d. Neil Jordan.)
A widely anticipated adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel, Interview with the Vampire shocked everyone by allowing Tom Cruise a starry turn as the villain for once – he nailed it – as well as featuring a tremendous, of-the-moment cast. It caught Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas on the verge of stardom, and effectively launched Kirsten Dunst’s career. It was a tremendous start to a promising franchise – one that spluttered and died when Warner Bros took eight years to produce a risible sequel, Queen of the Damned, with an entirely different cast.
(1992, USA, d. Phil Alden Robinson.)
In the end, it’s all about the cast. Phil Alden Robinson’s timely thriller about hackers, spies, and freedom of information is smartly written and well directed, but it excels on the backs of Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, Mary McConnell, Ben Kingsley, and James Earl Jones. Casts this strong are rare – they have 13 Oscar nominations between them, and three later received lifetime achievement awards. Aykroyd in particular is impressive, doing stellar work in a less comedic film than usual.
217. Wild At Heart
(1990, USA, d. David Lynch.)
David Lynch kicked off the 1990s with this fabulous black comedy, which included two of the perfect pairings of actor and director ever with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern in the lead roles. The critical response in America was largely negative. In France the Cannes Film Festival awarded it the Palme d’Or. Thankfully history has been rather kind, and Wild of Heart now seems to rank pretty highly with most people. For one thing it represents peak Cage.
216. Eyes Wide Shut
(1999, USA, d. Stanley Kubrick.)
There is a weird phenomenon with Stanley Kubrick, where each time he directed a new film it would be savaged critically, and declared inferior to his earlier works. A Clockwork Orange wasn’t as good as 2001 until Kubrick went on to direct Barry Lyndon, at which point Orange was reappraised as a masterpiece. The Shining was declared no match for 2001, Orange, and Lyndon, and of course a few years later Full Metal Jacket was declared inferior to The Shining. Kubrick died before Eyes Wide Shut was released; there is no subsequent work to allow us to re-evaluate it, and we really need to. This idiosyncratic, weirdly puritanical odyssey is a masterpiece of repression and paranoia.
215. The Virgin Suicides
(1999, USA, d. Sofia Coppola.)
Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel is adapted with delicacy and grace. The performances are superb, the score by French group Air is hugely effective, and the overall tone is both dreamlike and meditative. For a directorial debut it is astonishing; even as a film drama in general, The Virgin Suicides is a tremendous creative success. Sofia Coppola proves at her first shot that she’s a filmmaking talent on a par with her own father Francis.
(1999, USA, d. Antonia Bird.)
The original director of this horror-western hybrid walked off the set three weeks into production, leading British filmmaker Antonia Bird to pick up the reins and get Ravenous over the finish line. The final product was a commercial failure, but over time luckier audiences managed to discover this wonderful made, bleakly funny tale of 19th century cannibalism for themselves. An excellent cast lacked a bona fide star to ensure its success, but barrels along brilliantly thanks to Robert Carlyle, Guy Pearce, David Arquette, and others.
213. The Quick and the Dead
(1995, USA, d. Sam Raimi.)
Raimi’s deliberately exaggerated, hyper-pulpy western is one of his most underrated films. It expresses a gleeful joy for genre, hitting every key beat, icon, and tone in a kitchen-sink manner that makes it a wall-to-wall entertainment. What is particularly great is its ensemble cast: Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, Leonard Di Caprio, Russell Crowe, Lance Henriksen, Keith David, Roberts Blossom, Tobin Bell, and Gary Sinise – all together in the one film. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is marvellous.
(1996, Australia, d. Scott Hicks.)
The film may possibly exaggerate its subject matter – Australian pianist David Helfgott – more than a tad, but Scott Hicks directs several outstanding performances – both Geoffrey Rush and Noah Taylor as Helfgott, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as his father Peter. Rush in particular captures the real-life Helfgott with sympathy and realism. It is a superb drama in general, with a great screenplay by Jan Sardi and some wonderful music. One of the finest Australian films of the 1990s.
211. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
(1998, UK, d. Guy Ritchie.)
Ritchie’s debut feature film remains one of his best, exploding into cinemas fully-formed with an overtly stylised London crime focus and a beautiful handle on comedy. Truth be told, Ritchie has been partially riding on the back of Lock, Stock ever since – Snatch may be the more accomplished exercise in Cockney attitude and rattling self-aware dialogue, but this is where the house style was first employed. Arguably more significant than establishing Ritchie’s own career, the film also discovered millennial action superstar Jason Statham: a hero so unflappably deadpan that he can survive any preposterous action vehicle into which he appears.
(1997, USA, d. James Mangold.)
It was not the case that nobody ever believed Sylvester Stallone was a decent actor: he shot out of the gate with 1976’s Rocky, gaining widespread acclaim, and gained strong notices for First Blood (1982). It was more the case that Stallone’s subsequent career of simplistic action fare and seemingly endless sequels allowed audiences to forget, and left his talents broadly untested. James Mangold’s 1997 neo-noir gave Stallone a dramatic role worth playing, and then challenged him to act against some of America’s greatest: Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta. The result was near perfection. This is brilliantly performed film.
209. In the Mouth of Madness
(1994, USA, d. John Carpenter.)
No great disrespect intended towards Village of the Damned, Vampires, or Ghosts of Mars, but it is probably fair to refer to In the Mouth of Madness as John Carpenter’s last great movie. Nothing Carpenter directed afterwards had as much inventiveness, atmosphere, or – bottom line – plain decent quality. It’s got a great lead role for Sam Neill, at the time in an apparent mini-renaissance of genre productions (Madness comes wedged between Jurassic Park and Event Horizon). This Lovecraft-inspired effort is an underrated little gem.
208. The Young Americans
(1993, UK, d. Danny Cannon.)
Ever the supporter of new independent filmmakers, Harvey Keitel headlines this slick and effective back streets thriller about an American cop (Keitel) sent to London to help track down a wanted gangster (Viggo Mortensen). Danny Cannon’s promising debut as director was sadly followed by Judge Dredd (1995), which pretty much torpedoed his career until he co-established and ran TV’s lucrative CSI franchise. MVP for this film? Musical composer David Arnold who jumped from here to Stargate, Independence Day, and every James Bond feature from Tomorrow Never Dies to Quantum of Solace.
(1990, USA, d. Ron Underwood.)
There is something to be said for the solid B-picture: the unassuming genre film that jumps onto the screen, does whatever it has to do, and then rolls the credits in good time and with a minimum of fuss. Tremors is a pitch-perfect monster movie, with a likeable cast, a dead simple premise, and a willingness to be as knowingly silly as it needs to be to sell the idea of countryside hicks fighting giant underground monsters. Kevin Bacon is a wonderful lead, but it’s Fred Ward who shines as the sidekick.
206. Strictly Ballroom
(1992, Australia, d. Baz Luhrmann.)
In adapting his independent theatre production into a feature film, Baz Luhrmann not only launched an iconic work into the Australian mainstream; he sparked off one of the most widely debated and artistically divisive directorial careers in cinema. It seems, barring a few ambivalent viewers, one either loves Luhrmann’s aesthetic or they don’t. This, a story of finding the freedom of creativity in a repressive and formalised ballroom dancing league, is honestly still one of his best.
205. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion
(1997, USA, d. David Mirkin.)
This knowing, immensely quotable comedy didn’t set the world on fire when it passed through cinemas, but it has spent decades now building up a dedicated, earnest fan following. It defies expectations, turning what seems a silly comedy about ditzy blonde girls into something genuinely quick smart and sharp. The cast make the film absolutely sing: not just Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow in the title roles, but particularly Janeane Garofalo and Alan Cumming as their former classmates. This is honestly one of those films I can watch over and over without ever tiring of it.
(1990, USA, d. Jerry Zucker.)
Today Ghost is half-remembered for the pottery-based parodies more than the film itself. It is easy to forget that it was based on a rock-solid screenplay, and featured an outstanding cast including the late Patrick Swayze (never more popular), Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg. A lot of people even forget that Goldberg scored an Oscar for her performance. This is a beautiful film: endearing, emotive, and directed with a surprisingly sweet, gentle touch by director Jerry Zucker – then best known for silly comedies.
203. The Cable Guy
(1996, USA, d. Ben Stiller.)
Ben Stiller’s directing follow-up to Reality Bites is an unexpectedly dark, savage blend of annoying-friend comedy routine and stalker-based thriller. There are plenty of jokes, but most pack an unexpectedly uncomfortable edge. While there are signs that studio Columbia Pictures had some of the pointier edges shaved away, there is still so much here that is bold and rather daring. Coming after a string of hugely popular Jim Carrey vehicles, The Cable Guy was met with an audience tiring somewhat of the phenomenon. It’s a deep shame – of the entire early rush of Carrey vehicles (Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber, The Mask) this is unassailably the best.
202. Police Story 3
(1993, Hong Kong, d. Stanley Tong.)
It’s true that this third instalment of Jackie Chan’s crime-fighting franchise is not as well put together as its two predecessors, but then one doesn’t really watch Chan’s films for their scripts and stories. Where this one, released in the USA as Supercop, really gains some ground is in the casting of Michelle Yeoh as the film’s female lead. For once the heroine gets to go toe-to-toe with Chan in the action stakes, and in this case Yeoh honestly gets the most jaw-dropping stunts to perform. She remains at the time of writing the only Oscar-winning actress to have ridden a motorcycle off a ramp and onto the roof of a moving train.
201. Office Space
(1999, USA, d. Mike Judge.)
Writer/director Mike Judge has produced a string of comedic works over the years – notably his two animated series Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill. Among his films, Office Space is the best. It feels like the pinnacle of the slack worker genre that typified a lot of 1990s filmmaking, and forms it into a clarion call for disaffected employees the world over. Very much like Romy & Michelle (above), it is immensely quotable, carries real rewatchability value, and is enhanced enormously by its supporting cast – in this case Gary Cole and Stephen Root.