Looking back on it now, the 1990s were a fairly quiet and calm decade, both here in the U.S. and around the world. The Cold War had ended and things just hummed along. The economic convulsions of the Dot Com Bust and the collapse of the global banking system were waiting for us in the decade to come. Things were pretty good. The economy was in solid shape, housing was still largely affordable, and one of the big controversies of the day was whether we should go back to school uniforms.
In fact, thinking about the 1990s makes me nostalgic and bored all at once.
The decade also happened to produce some outstanding films—compelling, entertaining and, in many cases, unforgettable. Here are my choices for the best movies of the 1990s, both domestic and foreign.
The Best American Movies From the 1990s
Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic in which the bad guys are not “good fellas” at all. Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book about the mafia, Wiseguy, we have brilliant performances from Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta. Pesci’s performance is particularly disturbing. He plays psychopathic gang associate Tommy DeVito and his casual violence and explosive temper are terrifying. The film features both of Scorsese’s parents. His mother, Catherine Scorsese, plays De Vito’s mother who dotes on her awful son. Scorsese’s father, Charles, appears in a prison scene cooking a gourmet dinner. The editor on this film (and a frequent collaborator of Scorsese’s) is Thelma Schoonmaker, who did a remarkable job cutting this film together, particularly the sequence near the end when Liotta’s character is making dinner and running criminal errands.
I grew up in Minneapolis, and my mother always claimed that Minnesotans don’t have an accent. I believed that until I moved to New England and people there made fun of my accent. “What accent?” I remember thinking. “Minnesotans don’t have an accent.” Turns out we do and that accent is employed to distinctively charming effect in this bloody masterpiece from the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, about crime in a grim and unforgiving Midwestern winter landscape. Frances McDormand steals the movie, playing a plain-spoken small-town detective, Marge Gunderson. This movie just keeps getting better every time I see it.
As Southern California boomed in the post-war era, thousands of African Americans began to leave the South and migrate outward—many to Los Angeles—in hopes of finding a place free from the racism that ground down their lives in the South. Turns out, Los Angeles (and its militarized police department) was not the promised land they had hoped for. By the late 1980s, the large African American communities of South Central and Watts, damaged by the cumulative effect of decades of racism, had become desperate communities riddled with gang violence, murder, and drugs. It was part of America that was largely ignored in popular media until director John Singleton turned his considerable talents to this tale of growing up and coming of age. He delivered one of the first great portraits of African American life in one of the hardest neighborhoods in the US—South Central Los Angeles in the early 90s. This movie opened up these often insular neighborhoods to a wider America and had a huge cultural impact.
One of only three pictures to win all five of the major Academy Awards, this masterful crime thriller remains as intense and upsetting as it was nearly 30 years ago when it debuted. Jodie Foster is magnificent as a young FBI agent and Anthony Hopkins is suitably and deliciously menacing as the evil Hannibal Lecter. The taut screenplay was written by Ted Tally, and the film was directed by Jonathan Demme. It’s as nerve-wracking a movie to watch today as it was when it was released nearly 30 years ago.
Steven Spielberg made two astounding World War II films in the 90s. It has been 75 years since the U.S. entered the final year of that cataclysmic war. It would be well worth your time to see both of these movies again to remind yourself what we were fighting for and what it was like to have fought and died there.
This is one of the most cleverly conceived comedies ever made. A vain and egotistical Pittsburgh weatherman gets stuck in Punxsutawney, PA, on Groundhog Day, when a snowstorm closes the roads. He wakes up the next morning and realizes he is reliving the same day over and over again until he is transformed—almost against his will—into a decent, thoughtful, and even romantic person. This is director Harold Ramis’s crowning achievement. Any movie that has this scene in it is worth watching over and over again. It gives me chills every time I watch it. Perfectly written, perfectly acted, perfectly directed:
The Best Foreign Films of the 1990s
The Three Colors Trilogy: Blue (1993), White (1994), and Red (1994)
This trilogy of French films by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski may be watched individually or all together in any sequence. The names of the films are the colors of French flag and the tricolors stand for the principals of the French revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. Each film tells a unique story of modern French life and many of the characters appear in the other movies. For instance, Juliette Binoche’s character is a central figure in Blue, but she only appears as a minor character in White. This concept of a trilogy of stories about unrelated characters whose lives are interlocked could have weighed down the films, but in fact, it enlivens them.
Blue is a moving film about a woman who loses her husband and child in a car accident and then tries to isolate herself in the mourning process but finds she needs human connections.
White is a dark comedy about a Polish immigrant in Paris who loses everything in a humiliating divorce and then concocts a variety of cons to ultimately get back at his ex-wife.
Red is, in my opinion, the best of the three (but all are very, very good). It’s a tale of the frustrating romance between a fashion model in Geneva and a man in London and how it is disrupted by a pregnant German Shepherd and an eavesdropping judge. Confused? Give it a try. Any one of these movies is outstanding, but taken together they form a magnificent tapestry of modern life. This will make a great weekend’s worth of movie watching.
Luc Besson is one of my favorite directors. He made my favorite action movie of all time, Leon The Professional (1994). I could easily have substituted that action masterpiece for this one, but I decided on Nikita because this is the first action film that I can think of that centers around a female lead. Anne Parrillaud stars as a young woman who is sentenced to life in prison after killing a police officer during a robbery. In prison, her death is faked and she is absconded away and trained to become a killing machine. This is a great action movie, and that woman Nikita? She’s bad, bad, bad. Lots of fun.
This is a gorgeous costume drama set in 1920s Hong Kong. It tells the story of a young woman who becomes the fourth concubine of a wealthy man in the waning years of the Chinese warlord era. It’s one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made. Directed by Zhang Yimou and starring the breathtaking beautiful Gong Li, who turns in a remarkable performance, this is a movie you absolutely should not miss.
This is the best martial arts movie of all time. Jackie Chan stars in this story set in early 20th century China about some ginseng and, well...the plot really isn’t the point of a martial arts movie. It’s the fighting! And the scenes here are spectacular. How good is it? Time magazine put it on its list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. This is the movie to watch, especially if you’ve never seen or enjoyed a martial arts movie. It’s dazzling.
This may be the best movie of the decade in any language. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s takes a fearless look at issues of life and death, transsexuality, AIDs, and faith. It’s actually difficult for me to pick my favorite Almodovar movie because he has made so many wonderful movies. But this one has to rate at the top. This is a story about going on with your life when that seems just about impossible. A middle-aged woman, who is a nurse working with patients awaiting transplants, has to come to terms with the death of her 17 year-old son in a traffic accident. Get out your handkerchiefs. This movie will move you and inspire you—a true testament to living your life the best you can after a tragic and intimate loss.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.