The 90 Best Movies of the 1990s

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40. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)
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After making a comeback with his showbiz satire The Player, Robert Altman staked his newfound Hollywood capital on this ambitious, three-hour passion project. Short Cuts loosely adapts nine short stories and one poem by Raymond Carver and turns them into an interlocking tale of Los Angelenos struggling to form personal connections. Altman’s cast includes Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Tom Waits, Andie MacDowell, Lyle Lovett, Fred Ward, Lily Taylor, Jack Lemmon, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr. and Lily Tomlin. Framed with aerial insecticide spraying at the beginning and an earthquake at the end, Short Cuts doesn’t quite strive for the same accumulating punch of Altman’s similarly-sprawling Nashville, but had an enormous influence on film dramas of the following 20 years, particularly Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winner Crash.—Curt Holman

39. The Matrix (Andy & Lana Wachowski, 1999)
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It’s easy to look back at The Matrix now and mock some of its excesses (especially when you look at it through the lens of the far inferior sequels). But I’ll never forget walking into a movie theater, seeing the original for the first time, and having my mind utterly blown. Even if you aren’t fascinated by the Christian-Buddhist mystical layers of the story, it works so well as a parable of finding and accepting the truth about oneself, it’s simply one of the coolest action flicks ever. Plus: “I know Kung Fu.” How can you resist that?—Michael Dunaway

38. Office Space (Mike Judge, 1999)
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Great comedy almost always has a dark heart. (The flipside is also true of great horror: it almost always teeters on the edge of farce). But this makes sense. Laughter is our response to absurd and unexpected contradictions; comedy needs its darkness to fully flourish. Mike Judge, the writer/director of Office Space, knows this well. His humor concerns the lowest, saddest schmucks on the corporate ladder (thus 99% of us can relate) who mostly feel dead inside, turning to Kung Fu reruns and cheap beer to escape. It’s a subject as old as capitalism itself: most of us are unhappy, not doing what we want, feeling our dreams escaping us more and more with each passing day. For protagonist Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), his goal is one of the funniest and most subversive in cinema history: independently, from no wellspring of societal angst (unlike, say, The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock), he wants to do nothing. And besides being a hilarious antidote to scores of boring predictable cookie-cutter hyperactive hero-protagonists that populate seemingly every movie (the Office Space pitch meeting: “the hero’s goal is nothing!”), it feels absolutely real, and is what the corporate rat race deserves in an anti-hero: the do-gooder replaced by the do-nothing. It also helps that Judge has a perfect cast. Together, they turn caricature into depth, a cartoon (the source material) into vivid life. Importantly, they also make a very funny movie. My vote for the best film of the 90s.—Harold Brodie

37. Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991)
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Who can forget Ice Cube as Doughboy, waxing poetic on the “life in the perspective if God was a bitch”? Oscar-nominated for his unflinching portrayal of life in the ghetto, it is difficult to believe that director John Singleton was just getting started. His freshman effort was a story of tragedy and triumph—and one that brought about immense public, private, and academic discourse on the state of America, as experienced by its second-class citizens. Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett rounded out an unforgettable cast. One could argue that Boyz n the Hood participated in the genre of blaxploitation, but Singleton’s classic was really an attempt to make the ‘hood tale an American tale, and to incite positive social change in doing so.—Shannon Houston

36. The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kie?lowski, 1991)
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Krzysztof Kie?lowski’s 1991 film actually merits the type of praise that’s too often lavished by unimaginative critics or overreaching marketing departments on any movie that has dreamy music and a touch of fable. “Magical,” “luminous,” “haunting”—The Double Life of Veronique reminds the viewer what it takes to deserve such praise. Irène Jacob plays two women identical save for some location-based variations of name and circumstances. Despite being strangers (albeit identical ones), both share a bond that the Polish director refuses both to explain or mitigate. In a century where so many great works (and artists) have been fixated upon the chasms that divide us, Kie?lowski instead insists there’s more connecting us than we can possibly know.—Michael Burgin

35. Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)
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Surely somewhere on the Internet there’s a catalog of all the potboiler plays that have been turned into lifeless movies; wherein the minimal settings came off as flat rather than intimate or claustrophobic, and the surgically written prose came off as stilted rather than impassioned. Glengarry Glen Ross is the exception and the justification for all noble stage-to-screen attempts since. This adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play about workingman’s inhumanity to workingman still crackles today, and its best lines (and there are many) have become ingrained in the angrier sections of our collective zeitgeist. James Foley directs the playwright’s signature cadence better than the man himself, and the all-star cast give performances they’ve each only hoped to match since. Mamet, for his part, managed to elevate his already stellar material with his screenplay, adding the film’s most iconic scene, the oft-quoted Blake speech brilliantly delivered by Alec Baldwin. This is a film worthy of a cup of coffee and, as we know, coffee is for closers only.—Bennett Webber

34. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)
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There’s a danger in making things look too easy. Smooth often doesn’t wow critics, and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight is nothing if not smooth. Perhaps the smoothest movie of the decade. As well as the coolest. And the sexiest. The sheer acting talent he assembles for the film is impressive enough—George Clooney in the best of his early roles, Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, Luis Guzman, Dennis Farina, Viola Davis. The plot, courtesy of the great Elmore Leonard, crackles and pops, and Soderbergh knows enough to keep it moving, but also when to slow it down. But perhaps the most mind-boggling of his triumphs in the film is that he wrangled such an iconic performance from Jennifer Lopez. Now that’s directing genius.—Michael Dunaway

33. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)
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“Ya been took! Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray! Run amok!” When director Spike Lee introduced us to Detroit Red, he reminded the world of a specific time in American history more readily forgotten by some than others. Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lee (in typical fashion, with a brilliant score and with the grand influence of French cinema throughout) brought us the story of a troubled boy who could have easily become any unknown black man in the ‘60s—who indeed, almost did until he committed his life to Allah and The Nation of Islam. Denzel Washington perfectly, eerily embodied the role of the young Detroit Red who would become Malcolm X. As a team, Lee and Washington (along with Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz) created the perfect biopic, where all that we assumed about an icon was troubled or complicated by this new translation of his life.—Shannon Houston

32. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)
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The opening sequence, with Ewan McGregor’s scathing “Choose life” monologue and Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” accompanying the antics of a group of Scottish heroin junkies, explodes with youthful exuberance unmatched since The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. The first act conveys the rush of drug use and flouting social taboos, while the rest of Trainspotting shows its antiheroes’ misdeeds catch up to them. Kelly Macdonald (the voice of Brave’s Princess Merida) and Robert Carlisle support McGregor with superb performances, while future Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle proved himself to be a major filmmaker. Incidentally, Trainspotting counts as one of Boyle’s multiple “bag of money” movies.—Curt Holman

31. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
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In the face of grotesque sequels, lesser prequels and numerous parodies, The Silence of the Lambs still stands as a cinematic work of art among crime dramas. Winning the five gold rings of Oscar-dom (best picture, best director, best actor, best actress, best screenplay) Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the murderous Hannibal Lecter proves the worth of surrounding one of cinema’s greatest thespians with a stellar supporting team. Director Jonathan Demme deftly wields the brush of that talent to bring audiences into the dark, sadistic world of Dr. Lecter while leaving them gasping at the twists and turns of novelist Thomas Harris’ gruesomely wonderful story. As what happens with all great films, second and third viewings fail to diminish the ride.—Tim Basham

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