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The 90 Best Movies of the 1990s

July 10, 2012  |  1:56pm
The 90 Best Movies of the 1990s
What follows is a very unscientific gathering of the approximate collective opinions of our editors and film critics on the best movies of the 1990s. There are gaping holes, to be sure (even with a dozen nations on the list, foreign films are highly underrepresented, for instance). But we just couldn’t resist sharing with you some of the fun we had in reminiscing about one of our favorite decades in film history. Share your picks in the comments section below.

10. The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997)
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Insightful and real portraits of men of faith seem to elude filmmakers—it seems every preacher, especially, that appears on the silver screen is either a saint or a demon. There’s a whole lot of both—and then some—in Duvall’s Sonny Dewey. He’s simultaneously vain and humble, patient and hot-tempered, chaste and decadent. He’s a jumble of mixed motivations, as are we all. And he knows it. No wonder Robert Duvall refused to let anyone else take control of his beautiful script, and waited until he had the means to produce the film himself, with complete creative control. Only a man with so much passion for this project could have kept it safe from harm and brought such a masterpiece to the screen.—Michael Dunaway

9. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
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Max Fischer is one of the greatest and most original characters of the 1990s (who else could have saved Latin?), and Rushmore remains our favorite Wes Anderson film. But if the film introduced Jason Schwartzman, it also served as the pivot in Bill Murray’s career from broad comic to art-house juggernaut (Garfield movies excepted). Few films remain rewatchable into the double digits, but this one just keeps getting funnier.—Josh Jackson

8. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
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Seldom has a film, narrative or documentary, so probingly explored the American Dream. In this case, the version of the dream that young William Gates and Arthur Agee have bought into is redemption (and fortune and fame) through athletic achievement. That the odds are stacked so heavily against those dreams ever coming true only makes their dearest hopes that much more poignant. Steve James famously spent nearly eight years making the film, and despite its nearly three-hour running time, it doesn’t feel long at all. Every frame feels essential.—Michael Dunaway

7. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
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Based on real life mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill, Goodfellas is largely considered a high-point of Martin Scorsese’s career, and of the mob genre in general. Following the rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family, the 1990 classic takes on organized crime with equals parts humor and grit. Between the fantastic ensemble cast (Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci) and the intricate cinematography (film nerds could wax poetic about those tracking shots for days), Goodfellas brought Scorsese back into the directorial spotlight.—Katie King

6. Fargo (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 1996)
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In exploring the unsavory implications of “Minnesota nice,” the Coen Brothers created one of the most beloved, acclaimed and quotable films of all time — not just the 1990s. “Fargo” explores the tension that accompanies polite social norms and the quiet desperations they often mask, and many scenes are awkward enough to make your skin crawl. The emotional restraint displayed by Jerry Lundegaard and Mike is a thin and disingenuous veil over yearnings for money or companionship. The foil to this, obviously, is Marge Gunderson, who just really is that nice and hardworking and downright normal. Because of her and her husband’s gentleness, the movie makes you appreciate the art behind postage stamps much as it makes you cringe at the sound of a wood chipper.—Allie Conti

5. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
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The Shawshank Redemption lives up to the latter half of its name, displaying goodness and triumph in the face of injustice. It’s emotional without getting mired in its own sentimentality. Based on a Stephen King novel and directed by the man who went on to create The Walking Dead TV series, it’s surprisingly life-affirming. The only monsters are the men who abuse their power.—Josh Jackson

4. Three Colors Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993-94)
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Are we cheating? Okay, maybe we’re cheating. But at the very least, it’s a cheat that many of our colleagues have engaged in before. And since Krzysztof Kieslowski himself saw his three masterpieces Blue, White, and Red as a three-part story, we feel the cheat is justified. What’s unquestionable is the richness of Kieslowski’s achievement, or the impact the three films have had on world cinema. Taking as his inspiration the three themes of the French Revolution, captured in its eternal slogan Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite! (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood!), Kieslowski embarks on a quest to more fully explore his lifelong themes of chance, destiny, freedom, art and even transcendent meaning itself. In the face of such a unified vision, it feels belittling to evaluate the masterful performance of Juliette Binoche in Blue against the crisp dialogue in White against the lush cinematography in Red. One can only stand back at marvel at the Polish master’s accomplishment.—Michael Dunaway

3. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
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Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus follows multiple plotlines, while still deeply developing each of the film’s many principle characters—played more than ably by some of the decade’s greatest actors—Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards and Alfred Molina, to name but half. Father/child relationships are explored, but themes throughout are grand ones. Add in Tom Cruise’s best performance of his life and a killer soundtrack from Aimee Mann, and you have one of the greatest movies of the decade.—Josh Jackson

2. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
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It’d be hard to find a more inspiring, moving story to tell than that of Oskar Schindler. And before seeing this film, I assumed that Steven Spielberg was exactly the wrong person to tell it. But all thanks be to the movie gods that I wasn’t a studio head in the ‘90s, because Spielberg produced what was simply one of the most ambitious, wise, and moving motion pictures of our lifetime. The acting is superb—a career-making role for big lumbering Liam Neeson, so carefree and cocky at the beginning, so and concerned and determined in the middle, and so noble and humble at the end of the film. Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley are perfect in supporting roles. A host of unknowns give everything in their one moment on the screen. John Williams’s haunting score and Janusz Kaminski’s breathtaking black-and-white cinematography sparkle. But the script—oh, Steven Zaillian’s majestic script is the biggest star. He manages to take a Holocaust tale and turn it into a story of triumph, the story of how much one man can do, and the regret we’ll each someday have that we didn’t do much, much more. Oskar’s “I could have gotten more out” speech is almost too much to bear.—Michael Dunaway

1. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
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Don’t let all its references to cinema past fool you. Pulp Fiction defined the ‘90s. Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling mosaic of criminals and lowlifes arrived just in time to fan the flame of independent film and inspire countless imitators. Tarantino set out to show that one movie could have it all: unforgettable dialogue, virtuoso style, multiple stories, a circular timeline, violence, dancing, thrills, laughs, sex appeal—even a Christopher Walken cameo. Simply listing all the film’s iconic scenes proved too daunting for a short capsule review. Consider Howard Hawks’s definition of a great film as “three great scenes, no bad ones,” and Pulp Fiction has the potency of three masterpieces.—Jeremy Matthews

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