The Best Films of the 1990s
by James Berardinelli
Note: This list is now final.
The Top 10 of the 1990s
(Presented In Order)
#1: Schindler's List (1993)
Was there ever any doubt that Schindler's List would wind up at the top of this list? (Judging from the e-mail "guesses" I have gotten, no.) When I first reviewed this film in 1993, I was using a 0-10 scale, and Schindler's List became the first and only movie I ever honored with a "10." That does not imply that the film is perfect, but, all things considered, it is surely one of the best motion pictures ever committed to film. Director Steven Speilberg can work for another 40 years, and he may never equal what he has accomplished with this movie. Despite the grisly subject matter, this film is essentially about uncovering a kernel of hope and dignity in the midst of a monstrous tragedy. The story of Oskar Schindler's sacrifices for the Jews sets this apart from other Holocaust dramas. The acting is flawless, and the black-and-white cinematography is stunning. Uncompromising in its portrayal of good, evil, and all the shades in between, Schindler's List offers a clear view of human nature laid bare: hatred, greed, lust, envy, anger, and, most important of all, empathy and love. Because this film touches us so deeply, the catharsis has a power that few -- if any -- other moments in film history can match. And that's what establishes this as a transcendent motion picture experience.
#2: The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
The Sweet Hereafter, director Atom Egoyan's 1997 masterpiece, is one of those extremely rare movies that stays with a viewer not just for months, but for years. It's hard to overstate the devastating impact of this poignant film. If Egoyan makes a misstep anywhere in the nearly two-hour production, I can't find it. An emotionally-wrenching and intellectually-demanding exploration of the effects of grief on a small Canadian community, The Sweet Hereafter is haunting, eloquent, and proves just how impressive a motion picture can be. During
the course of this 110-minute, emotionally-turbulent experience, Egoyan doesn't ask easy
questions or propose simplistic answers. This is film making at its most powerful: drama capable of shaking the soul, yet free of even the slightest hint of manipulation, sentimentality, or mawkishness. Ultimately, perhaps the most amazing thing about The Sweet Hereafter is not the style, the acting, or the cinematography (all of which are exceptional), but the way the film successfully juggles so many themes. While the film is not as brutal as Tim Roth's The War Zone, its overall impact is as great, if not greater.
#3: Goodfellas (1990)
It wasn't easy deciding the order of the Top 3 films. Any of them could have been #1, and my final choice was only made after spending a rainy day watching all three back-to-back-to-back. Goodfellas ended up with the Bronze Medal, but that in no way diminishes its status as perhaps the greatest and most viscreal motion picture made by one of the best living American directors: Martin Scorsese. With this movie, Scorsese has scored a trifecta, having one of the Top 10 films of the 1970s (Taxi Driver), the 1980s (Raging Bull), and the 1990s. Goodfellas is as compelling and absorbing as any crime drama I have ever seen. The script shows all the facets of these characters; they are all fully developed individuals capable of great good and great evil. The moral ambiguity of their lifestyle is treated with a shrug. The story, which spans a quarter of a century, has an epic feel despite its intimate perspective. And, as is often true of Scorsese's work, Goodfellas is a masterpiece of visual composition. Employing the services of German-born cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, the director eschews a static camera, always keeping the canvas of his film fluid. There are long pans and innovative flourishes, all designed to enhance the mood and involve the viewer in the action. If there's an area of weakness in this film, I can't find it. Indeed, few (be they critics or average movie-goers) will object to the statement that Goodfellas stands alongside The Godfather as one of the two greatest mob stories ever presented on film.
#4: Hamlet (1996)
Kenneth Branagh's full-length, unexpurgated version of Hamlet is not only the grandest and most glorious spectacle of the 1990s, but it is the second-longest film to reach U.S. theaters during the decade (the longest: Gettysburg ). As with all great Shakespeare adaptations, this one does not demand familiarity with the Bard to be appreciated, but such knowledge can only add to the richness of the experience. Hamlet is one of the most frequently filmed of Shakespeare's plays, but Branagh's version stands as not only the best filmed adaptation of this title that I have ever seen, but the best cinematic expression I have come across of any of Shakespeare's works. One of the things that Branagh brings to this adaptation is an amazing visual sense. From start to finish, this is a stunningly beautiful film, filled with vibrant colors, startling camera angles, and costumes and production values that are among the best of the decade. Yet, even amidst the spectacle of the visual elements, the narrative is never upstaged. A key to great cinema is to use time and place to augment the story, and that's what Branagh accomplishes here. Branagh was born to make this film. Hisprevious forays into Shakespeare (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing) have been excellent, but nothing prepared me for the power and impact of this motion picture.Few movies during the '90s have engaged my intellect, senses, and emotions in quite the same way. This is four hours very well spent.
#5: The Three Colors Trilogy: Blue (1993), White (1994), and Red (1994)
Some might consider it to be cheating to group these three movies together, but this is a case in which the sum truly is greater than the individual parts. If Three Colors was broken apart and the components were presented as three stand-alone entities, only Red would have stood a fighting chance to make the end-of-the-'90s Top 20. On the other hand, viewed as a whole, the trilogy definitely deserves to be here. Even White, the "weak sister" of the three, has greater depth and resonance when seen as the middle chapter rather than as a stand-alone film. Kieslowski constructed these three movies to illustrate the principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. While they succeed at that, they also do much more. These are powerful, emotionally rich, and impeccably photographed films with unforgettable characters. One treat that viewers watching the films one-by-one might not notice is the difference in tone. Blue is a deeply-felt drama about grief. White is a dark comedy about reaching equality in a marriage. And Red is a stylistic meditation on fate. Taken apart, they represent three fine motion pictures. Together, they are a masterpiece.
#6: The War Zone (1999)
The War Zone is a devastating motion picture; it's the kind of movie that stuns an audience so absolutely that they remain paralyzed in their seats through the end credits. It does not deal in euphemisms nor does it hide the physical and emotional brutality of the act from viewers. What director Tim Roth has accomplished is nothing short of brilliant, but it is also incredibly daring, because the film has no commercial prospects. No matter how many critics trumpet The War Zone's merits, viewers will not flock to see it; the subject matter is too upsetting and daunting. Yet for sheer force of emotional power, I have not seen the movie's like in years. Three months after seeing this movie, nearly every scene remains crystal clear in my mind. That happens so infrequently that when a film achieves such a feat, it deserves to be singled out and trumpeted. The movie also features two astonishing performances (by actor Ray Winstone and actress Lara Belmont) and a host of strong support. Another amazing thing about The War Zone is that it is by a first-time filmmaker. Roth has learned from the best, however, and, in bringing this movie to the screen, he has perhaps trumped all of his mentors.
#7: Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
I don't think I've ever seen a movie quite like Raise the Red Lantern -- not a surprising admission, considering how infrequently productions possessing this degree of emotional impact and narrative quality come along. The film is widely recognized as a defining example of modern Chinese cinema. It is also one of the most sublimely beautiful and openly disturbing films of the 1990s. The story, which transpires within the confines of the estate of a rich man in feudal China, tells of the plotting and maneuvering of a group of wives as they seek to curry their husband's favor. The Chinese government didn't approve of Raise the Red Lantern, and it doesn't take much imagination to see this film as a parable for the corruption of modern society in China. Thematically, Raise the Red Lantern is an epic, but, in terms of physical scope, it is an intimate motion picture. Lead actress Gong Li and director Zhang Yimou, who collaborated numerous times on screen while an off-screen relationship simmered, are at the apex of their talents. Neither before nor after have they equalled the spell they have woven here (although To Live comes close). Raise the Red Lantern is one of those all-too-rare motion pictures capable of enthralling an audience while they're watching it, then haunting them for days thereafter.
#8: Dances With Wolves (1990)
Dances With Wolves is Kevin Costner's tribute to what was once the most popular genre in the world -- The Western. And what a tribute it is! Winner of the 1991 Best Picture Oscar, this is a gem of a motion picture -- a movie possessing incredible emotional depth, stunning visuals, and one of the best scores of the 1990s. An epic in every sense of the word, Dances With Wolves is the tale of Lt. John Dunbar, a Union officer who finds himself alone on the frontier. After making contact with the Sioux, he becomes enthralled by their culture and falls in love with one of their women. Never before in a major motion picture (and certainly not in a Western) have Native Americans been portrayed with such sensitivity and nobility. But there is far more to this film than just a "revisionist" approach -- Dances With Wolves is grand, triumphant filmmaking, full of moments to make spirits soar and the heart burst. After the failure of The Postman, Costner may never again direct, but, even if he doesn't, he can be proud of this singular achievement. For three hours, Dances with Wolves transports us to another world, and that's the mark of a great motion picture.
#9: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is likely the closest the motion picture industry will ever come to bottled adrenaline. Kinetic, colorful, and exhilerating, this inventive mix of action/adventure, slick dialogue, and black comedy became a lightning rod for both criticism and adulation during its highly successful U.S. theatrical run. The most frequent attack on the film claimed that director Quentin Tarantino had not done anything inventive -- he was merely recycling the best parts of other movies. And, while there's an element of truth to that charge, the fact is that the real brilliance of Pulp Fiction lies in the way that all the disparate elements have been mashed together. The movie is unique -- not because everything it does is new, but because there's a freshness to the way in which each scene is put on screen. Now, four years later, the Pulp Fiction phenomenon has dimmed, leaving in its wake a tremendous source of entertainment whose luster has not been diminished by the early 1995 backlash. Tarantino may never again approach what he achieved with this motion picture, yet he will still be regarded as one of the most important and influential directors of the 1990s. And Pulp Fiction will forever stand as one of the decade's bloodiest crown jewels.
#10: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Not only do I think Beauty and the Beast is the best animated motion picture of the 1990s, but I believe it to be the most impressive movie of its kind ever to be released (that encompasses all contenders, including the great Disney Golden Age classics like Snow White and Japanese anime). To date, it is the only animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (it lost to the undeserving Silence of the Lambs). The true strength of the movie isn't the sterling animation or the lively, Broadway-style musical numbers -- although both of elements greatly enhance the film's level of quality. Instead, it's the depth of character development evident not only in the leads (Belle and the Beast), but in the supporting cast as well. The men and women inhabiting this world are as real as those in the best live-action motion pictures. We form a bond with them and develop an investment in their futures. The screenplay does not talk down to adults, but speaks to them as loudly and lucidly as it does to children. There is no other animated film that I can watch as frequently and enjoy as fully every time.
The Runners-Up, or The Next 10
In arriving at my Top 10 List for the 1990s, I scoured literally thousands of movie titles, and re-watched dozens of films. Ultimately, there were some excruciatingly difficult decisions, and many worthy movies were left off the list. So, in an attempt to highlight some great films that didn't quite make the cut, I present the "Runners-Up List." Every one of these pictures is a solid four-star effort, and they're all available on video. If there's something here that you haven't seen, rush out and rent it asap. You will not be disappointed.
Of course, there are other top movies from the '90s that didn't make the Runners-Up List. To locate them, peruse the 3 1/2 and 4 star lists in the review archives.
By some odd quirk of fate, more than half of these titles are from 1995, one of the few years of the decade not to place a movie in the Top 10. Whatever else that may mean, it certainly indicates that 1995 was one of the best years of the '90s when it came to top quality entertainment.
- Before Sunrise (1995): This is, quite simply, the best romantic comedy I have ever seen. In bringing Beyond Sunrise to the screen, director Richard Linklater fashions a modern-day romance that is both original and enthralling. Before Sunrise - the simple story of two young people who meet on a train through Europe and spend a memorable night in each other's company - is movie magic for lovers and would-be lovers alike. In an era when even the best romantic comedy/dramas tend to be formula-driven, this movie defies expectations by focusing on fully developed characters and rich dialogue. Before Sunrise is about life, romance, and love. It magnifies the little things, paying scrupulous attention to the subtleties and mannerisms of body language. Linklater's film speaks to both the heart and the mind.
- Braveheart (1995): The victor at the 1996 Academy Awards ceremony, Braveheart was one of the most remarkable epics to be brought to the screen during the 1990s. While its scale recalls some of the great Hollywood pictures of years gone by, its grittiness is thoroughly modern. Borrowing from masters like Sam Peckinpah and David Lean, Mel Gibson crafts an exceptional cinematic meal where the flavoring is perfect and there's never a hint of blandness. Its 170 minutes fly by with remarkable agility; viewers become so enraptured that they forget to look at their watches. Consistently exhilerating and occasionally touching, Braveheart is an example of cinematic grandeur at its best.
- Contact (1997): Robert Zemeckis' Contact -- about a young astronomer's first encounter with an alien life form - shows what special effects can do for a movie when they're used in the service of a story, rather than the other way around. Contact is one of those rare big-budget motion picture that places ideas, characters, and plot above everything else. The film takes the richness of astronomer Carl Sagan's bestselling 1985 novel and re-invents it for the screen. All the elements are not only in place, but effectively realized; Contact offers a little bit of almost everything - spectacle, drama, romance, suspense, and science fiction - and touches both the emotions and the intellect by blending them into a smooth and seamless whole.
- Courage Under Fire (1996): Borrowing a key element from Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, director Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire traces one event during the Gulf War from different points-of-view. This movie gains its power by affirming that the cost of war isn't the inevitable eradication of every trace of human dignity and heroism; acts of valor stand out because they are contrasted with the barbarism that results from the battlefield transformation of thinking men into heartless killers. The campaigns of Courage Under Fire that leave the deepest impression aren't those involving ground troops and air cover, but the deeper, more personal struggles of the main character. Courage Under Fire is profound, intelligent, and moving, and understands both the bigger picture and the smaller one.
- Cry, The Beloved Country (1995): This 1995 film version of Alan Paton's landmark novel about racial inequities in South Africa is entirely faithful to its source material. Paton's themes are brought home with devastating, soul-crushing impact through a production that captures the book's spirit as adeptly as it recounts the narrative. There is not a false note in Cry, the Beloved Country. Every scene is an example of near-perfect composition and execution. The acting, by veterans James Earl Jones and Richard Harris, could not be better; their initial on-screen meeting here carries an emotional impact of almost unspeakable force. Rarely does a motion picture touch the heart as deeply as Cry, The Beloved Country.
- Dead Man Walking (1995): This movie, one of 1995's most controversial, approaches the difficult and divisive subject of the Death Penalty by giving personality to both sides of the issue. Writer/director Tim Robbins recognizes that there are no clear-cut answers, and, as a result, his script is never skewed or one-sided. As a film about capital punishment, Dead Man Walking is effective, but the true brilliance of this picture is the way it stretches beyond the political arena to touch on a myriad of other themes -- revenge and redemption, crime and punishment, and fear and salvation. Dead Man Walking could easily be manipulative or exploitative, but it is neither. A dark film that will disturb and profoundly affect many viewers, this hard-hitting drama neither accepts nor offers quarter.
- Exotica (1995): After years of making interesting but flawed films, Canadian director Atom Egoyan puts all the pieces together with Exotica, a brilliant and heartbreaking study of loss, grief, eroticism, and the links between all three. Developed using a non-conventional, non-linear method of storytelling, Exotica baffles and beguiles until the end, when everything snaps into focus with the force of a lightning bolt. On the surface, the movie might appear to be about sex and lust, but that's just the lid on a pit of deep emotional quicksand. This is a painful motion picture because it exposes truths about the human condition that we feel uncomfortable with, and often would prefer to ignore.
- Gettysburg (1993): Civil War buffs celebrated the arrival of Ronald Maxwell's Gettysburg by jamming theaters to see this 4-plus hour epic which, to date, represents the most accurate and amazing depiction of the key battle of the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. Based on Michael Shaara's acclaimed novel, The Killer Angels, Gettysburg balances our perspectives of the war by spending equal time in the Union and Confederate camps. The battle scenes are incredible, not only in terms of verisimilitude but in the way they manage to keep the level of tension and adrenaline at a consistently high pinnacle. Over 50,000 were killed or wounded during this pivotal battle, and Gettysburg breathes life and logic into the reasons for this. Yet it does far more than function as a text book come to life. The film is adept at the tricky art of pacing, and just as the slower, dramatic elements of the relax us, the rousing battle scenes start anew. Even for those with minimal interest in history, Gettysburg is powerful enough to captivate.
- Les Miserables (1995): The idea behind this film is nothing short of brilliant, and the strength of its execution lifts the final product to the level of a masterpiece. Claude Lelouch's Les Miserables is a motion picture triumph: an epic drama that takes the themes of Victor Hugo's novel and transplants them to the twentieth century. Rather than merely re-telling a popular story, Lelouch takes ideas, plot strings, and themes from the novel and applies them in a unique and effective manner to the greatest tragedy of this century: World War II and Hitler's Final Solution. No recent film has so ably intersected a classical novel with a modern story. This version of Les Miserables doesn't merely regurgitate Hugo's tale; it's something simultaneously new and timeless. Viewers will rarely find a more powerful, cathartic, and ultimately satisfying narrative.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998): So many plaudits have been heaped upon this film that there's little I can add here, other than to emphasize that it was robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by a fickle group of voters with a memory span of about three seconds. Saving Private Ryan is among the most devastating films ever made about war, and it contains the most intense 30 minute sequence (the Omaha Beach invasion) that I have ever experienced in a movie theater. Consistently compelling and, by turns, wrenching and touching, Saving Private Ryan presents the reality of war, not the romanticization of it. There's no good and evil here; there are no heroes and villains. The characters are just men trying to win battles so they can go home, and the tragedy is that, as in real life, many didn't make it. Of all the movies of 1998, Saving Private Ryan had the greatest impact and will long be remembered as the standout of the class.
© 1999 James Berardinelli