In the 1990s, independent film struck the world like it’s never been struck before. This was the time of some of the greatest movies of all time, and the origin of some of the most talented directors of our time. This was truly a difficult list to make, purely because there were just so many amazing films that came out in these ten years. However, I have narrowed it down to my nine favorites, as this is the nineties after all.
9. “The Matrix” (1999)
“The Matrix” follows Neo, a young hacker who finds out that he’s been living inside a simulation, and is chosen to rebel against the A.I forces who control it. As cheesy as this movie is (and it truly does have more cheese than the average pizza), it does not get enough credit for all the incredible things it does, and how big of an impact it has had on how films are made. The script is equal parts ambitious and fascinating, mixing the average action flick with serious philosophical themes. The film’s awing “bullet time” effect, is filmed with an insane camera rig that has multiple cameras filming all at the same time, will never cease to amaze me. This effect works in tandem with the film’s outstanding stunt choreography, which only further proves the point that there should be an Oscar category for these incredibly stunt performers and choreographers. Many laugh about Keanu Reeves’ less-than-stellar performance, but it fits the film almost perfectly. It’s a fun action romp, with a generous sprinkle of existential ideas. It’s certainly a weird film on paper, but it translates to the screen with near perfection.
8. “The Lion King” (1994)
“The Lion King” follows Simba, a lion king who is the heir to his father’s throne, who after the murder of his father, must learn what it means to live up to his legacy. I would not usually consider myself a fan of animated films, but this film is truly something special. It’s one of the most powerful films of the medium. All the performances are positively incredible, especially James Earl Jones as Mufasa, and Jeremy Irons as Scar. The soundtrack by musical dream team Elton John and Tim Rice, with a score by the iconic Hans Zimmer, is absolutely phenomenal. It is as catchy as it is deeply moving. The animation is also some of the most breathtaking of all time. It truly does make me sad that 2D animation is considered to be “a thing of the past” because some of the visuals in this film are not only the best of the animation medium but some of the best visuals in a film as a whole.
7. “Se7en” (1995)
“Se7en” (pronounced “Seven” and not “Se- Seven- en,” as one would initially read it) follows detectives, Somerset and Millis, as they try to find a serial killer who’s obsessed with the “seven deadly sins.” The film is very dark. In both a figurative and literal way. It serves as a perfect representation of the “grunge” era that came to rise in the decade, and an outstanding renovation to the neo-noir genre. Brad Pitt, in particular, does amazing in his role as Detective Mills. Though his delivery of “What’s in the booox!” has been endlessly “memed” since the film’s initial release, it works devastatingly well in the context of the scene. This serves as one of the earliest examples of Fincher’s style and still stands as some of the best of his work.
6. “The Big Lebowski” (1998)
“The Big Lebowski ” follows Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, an easy-going slacker who is mistaken for millionaire Jeffery Lebowski. This leads to an investigation as to why the original Lebowkski was sought after, and just who exactly did ruin The Dude’s rug. The Coen Brothers, much like David Fincher, love to toy around with the noir genre. However, while Fincher tries to modernize the genre, The Coens love to add slight twists to the genre. In “Fargo,” this meant swapping the usual bustling city location with a quiet small town, deep in North Dakota. In “The Big Lebowski,” this means swapping the quick and cunning detectives of Bogart’s era with… well… a guy who calls himself “The Dude.” This results in one of the most objectively funny movies that I’ve ever seen. The screenplay by the Brothers is as sharp, however, it still has a relaxed sense to it. It truly is one of the best comedic screenplays of all time. This is further aided by Jeff Bridges, who gives such an amazing performance as The Dude that a literal religion has been formed based on the character. John Goodman and Steve Buscemi do wonderfully as The Dude’s sidekicks, the Vietnam war veteran Walter Sobchak and the mousy Donny respectively. As a whole, this is the perfect film to sit back, put your feet up, and simply have a fun time with.
5. “Heat” (1995)
“Heat” follows the chase between a workaholic cop, Lt. Vincent Hanna, and slick robber Neil McCauley. This film is the very definition of “Cool.” Micheal Mann’s style, shown off in previous works such as “Thief,” and the show “Miami Vice,” is one that might not be immediately noticed, but most certainly felt. His distinctly classy criminals, neon visuals, and synthetic scores have had its influence heard in films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 hit “Drive,” and even video games such as “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.” However, this film serves as something of a magnum opus of this style. Everything about it feels incredibly clean and polished, almost as if the film were made by a fine machine (Would that make it “Mann-made”?). Al Pacino and Robert De Niro give some of the best performances of both of their careers as the Lt. Hanna and MacCauley respectively. Pacino uses his trademark energy to give a further understanding of the frantic nature of his work, which is perfectly contrasted to De Niro’s cooler, much more subdued nature. It’s a near-perfect cat and mouse tale that keeps its audience biting their nails at every second.
4. “Jackie Brown” (1997)
“Jackie Brown” follows its titular character caught in a complex web of love, crime, justice, and money. I’m not particularly a fan of Tarantino’s work. It more often than not just feels like a lot of self-indulgent style with nothing of any real substance. However, “Jackie Brown” is positively chock-full of the real power and punch that his work normally tends to be missing in his work. Pam Grier’s performance in this as Jackie Brown is absolutely sensational in every sense of the word. A performance that is only rivaled by the phenomenal performance of the late Robert Forester. To say that this is simply an underappreciated Tarantino gem would be an extreme understatement. Its got its share of flashy-crime-film-ness, but as a whole, it’s a movie about love, loyalty, maturing, and heartbreak. It ultimately feels like a peek into this alternate timeline where Tarantino grew up. Where, after he had made his first two features, “Reservoir Dogs” & “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino ultimately decided he wanted to use his established style to make more sensitive and emotionally-focused works of art. This is, sadly, the timeline we will never get to see. The only film that could possibly compare to where he was going with “Jackie Brown” is his most recent effort “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which never truly reaches the emotional density that this one does. So, for now, “Jackie Brown” remains as the greatest film in Quinten Tarantino’s filmography.
3. “Silence of The Lambs” (1991)
“Silence of The Lambs” follows Clarice Starling, a young F.B.I agent who, with the help of psychopathic cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, tracks down serial killer “Buffalo Bill”. This film has disturbed me to my core ever since I first saw it. Primarily, because of Anthony Hopkins’ haunting performance as Lecter. This performance has gone down in the history books as a masterclass in acting, and for good reason. Every simple gaze is a piercing stare. Every small movement feels deliberate, like a predator in the wild. Every single line of dialogue is told with equal parts playfulness and power. It’s absolutely hypnotizing to watch, but don’t get me wrong, his performance is not all. Jodie Foster gives an amazing performance as Clarise Starling, a woman pulled into this dark side underworld of killers, who hunt purely for kicks. Ted Levine also does brilliantly as Buffalo Bill. Every second he’s on screen, the immediate instinct is to look away, but he, much like Hopkins, is indefinitely compelling to watch. The horror genre has many truly outstanding films, however this sits as one of the best of the very best.
2. “Malcolm X” (1992)
“Malcolm X” follows the life story of the titular Civil Rights leader. Spike Lee has always been a phenomenal director, a fact that I raved about in my “Top 8 of the 80s” article. This film does nothing but prove the fact. It is a truly epic film that is comparable to the scale of “Lawrence of Arabia.” Everything about this film is absolutely astonishing. One thing that bugs me about most biopics is that they normally just play into the legendary status of whoever they’re making the movie about. This movie does play into Malcolm’s legendary status in some parts, but for most of the movie, the viewer is forced to see him as just a man, with fears and insecurities just like anyone else. This approach to the biopic is unusually refreshing. Of course, this would not work if it weren’t for Denzel Washington’s amazingly humble performance. The movie is three and a half hours, but it barely feels like any time has gone by whenever I watch it. The runtime shouldn’t scare anyone away, as the three hours are incredibly rich in character and story. All I’m saying is, if people can partake in 8 hour binges of the new season of “Stranger Things,” then people can watch this truly outstanding cinematic tour de force.
“Clerks” follows two clerks at a convenience store as they try to power through their long shift. With a shoestring budget, Kevin Smith was somehow able to completely revolutionize how films could be made. The movie doesn’t have what anyone would consider a traditional “plot” but it’s still an absolute joy to watch. It captures the essence of working a long shift at a job you don’t like with some fun co-workers. Overall, it’s a fun movie to watch with buddies, and just kinda hang out. It’s simple, it’s sweet, but it’s certainly a fun time.
“The Player” (1992)
“The Player” follows movie tycoon Griffin Mill, trying to figure out just which of the many writers he turned down is sending him death threats. This is certainly a film that grows on you. It’s a pretty humorous satire on Hollywood, the Hollywood system, and the prototypical “Hollywood ending.” Much like “Clerks,” this too doesn’t have a real “plot,” but captures the energy of Los Angeles, where just about any given person has a headshot or a pitch.
“Bringing Out The Dead” (1999)
“Bringing Out The Dead” follows burnt out paramedic Frank Pierce, as he tries to get himself fired to no avail. This film is the 4th collaboration between writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese, and it’s most certainly their most underrated one. Anyone that has ever gone a week with little to no sleep will most certainly find themselves relating to this one. Nicolas Cage, a genuinely great actor, does a great job as Pierce.
1. TIE: “Goodfellas” (1990) & “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
“Goodfellas” follows the rise and fall of mobster Henry Hill, and “The Shawshank Redemption” follows the friendship between Andy Dufresne and Red, two prisoners at the Shawshank Prison. These are two of the most objectively perfect films of all time. I don’t think I could possibly choose between the two. So, I didn’t, and I refuse to face any sort of judgment about it from anyone! “Goodfellas” has an energy that is completely incomparable to anything else. The performances of Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, Robert De Niro as James Conway, and especially Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito and Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill are INCREDIBLY stellar. The soundtrack is absolutely genius, and not only captures the era in which the songs are featured, but also fit perfectly with Hill’s mindset at the given moment. The absolutely legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker gives the film a pace that keeps each and every single scene incredibly compelling. However, it can’t in any way compare to “The Shawshank Redemption.” The film is an absolute roller coaster of emotions. It’s funny at points, it’s tragic at points, and at other points, incredibly uplifting. The performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman work incredibly well off of each other as Dufresne and Red respectively. It also just looks beautiful, as it is one of the earlier works of prolific cinematographer Roger Deakins. In conclusion, the two of these are truly perfect movies, and I could not possibly choose one or the other.
Again, this was one of the hardest lists I’ve ever had to make, as many absolutely perfect films came out in the 1990s. The decade is beloved by many far and wide for the art that came out in the decade, and the films are positively no different.