The ’90s were a moment of tremendous upheaval in international cinema. Here in America, the revolt against Hollywood’s bland output a decade earlier had resulted in a small window in which American independent cinema became commercially viable and started seeping into more mainstream fare. Young and exciting directors, most of whom are now A-listers, were given resources and able to make multiple films. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s big commercial films were in the hands of directors like Spielberg, Bigelow, Verhoeven, Woo and De Palma, as franchises continued to be invented rather than recycled.
On the international scene, the Iranian New Wave unloaded a treasure trove of new films, the great run of Hong Kong cinema was peaking and maturing, three great autuers completely upended how films in Taiwan were made, and a pair of Danish directors with a dogma wanted to change how every film was made.
More than anything, what defined the decade was the emergence of individual filmmakers who not only had unique visions – every decade has its great auteurs – but ones who opened new doors to the endless possibilities of cinematic storytelling. Directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino reinvented cinema on their own terms and gained recognition as superstars for doing so, each winning major prizes at Cannes. Meanwhile, landmark films like “Hoop Dreams,” “The Celebration,” “Toy Story” and “The Matrix” pointed to ways technology could be used to make films in a different way.
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Needless to say, no cinephile’s knowledge base is complete without a robust awareness of the 20th century’s final decade, and these 50 titles represent our sense of the most essential ones.
50. “Before Sunrise” (1995)
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Romance movies suffer from more cliches than nearly any other film genre, which makes pulling off the boy-meets-girl story structure a big challenge. It’s miraculous how effortlessly Richard Linklater pulls it off in “Before Sunrise.” Part of it has to do with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, two actors who turn every scripted line into something close to improvised truths, but a lot has to do with Linklater’s sensitive directorial touch. Capturing each conversation in long, unbroken takes, he allows his actors to spark a real connection in front of the viewer’s eyes. Their chemistry bristles with the innocence and excitement of first love, and it makes the intimate structure of “Before Sunrise” feel like it has the sweeping scope of a grand romantic epic. There’s a reason every walky-talky romance in the years since have been measured up to what “Before Sunrise” achieves. It’s profound filmmaking of the highest order. –Zack Sharf
49. “Trainspotting” (1996)
Second only to dreams, nothing sparks the visual imagination of directors like the challenge of translating the experience of being high. And yet too often drug movies only succeed at translating the paranoia, altered pacing and drudgery, and not the euphoria that gets them hooked. With “Trainspotting,” Danny Boyle connects the joys of being high with the anti-establishment rebellion against homogeneity, all driven by a soundtrack that thumps to a generation’s “Lust for Life.” The film doesn’t skip the restlessness and pain of withdrawal, nor the emptiness of human relationships in the clear light of day, but the music combined with Ewan McgGregor’s witty voice over and a colorful cast of characters keeps the film humming until McGregor is able to make some important self discoveries. –CO
48. “Jurassic Park” (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel about a theme park of cloned dinosaurs once again raised the bar for science fiction films, using cutting edge CGI technology that made dinosaurs look real for the first time in the history of cinema. “Jurassic Park” frightened and captivated audiences in equal measure, balancing terrifying chase scenes with a hungry T-Rex and moving depictions of friendly prehistoric herbivores. Though the film centers on a paleontologist couple played by Sam Neill and Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum steals many scenes as the data scientist Malcolm, along with Wayne Knight’s corrupt computer programmer Dennis. —GW
47. “Wild at Heart” (1990)
The Samuel Goldwyn Company
With all due respect to the radical “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” and “Lost Highway,” David Lynch’s best film of the ‘90s remains the “Wizard of Oz”–inspired tale of Sailor and Lula. Few onscreen couples have loved each other as tenderly as these two (played by Nic Cage and Laura Dern), who make their way down the road hoping for a happy ending even as they face one nightmarish scenario after another (Bobby Peru, anyone?). “Wild at Heart” also deserves credit for popularizing Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” a lovesick ballad that’s hotter than Georgia asphalt. —Michael Nordine
46. “Starship Troopers” (1997)
Of all the things that Paul Verhoeven’s dark comic look at the future of authoritarian warfare presaged, the way that “Starship Troopers” uses its “Would you like to know more?” refrain seems most prescient now. The creature design still holds up and the uniforms basically became a template for modern football gear, but that curiously-placed question almost seemed to envision an internet-based future of media silos and confirmation bias. As authoritarian tendencies are seeping into politics on a global scale, “Starship Troopers” paints shiny, ugly insect-infused allegories of the dangers of blind adherence and the power in targeting an easy enemy. It’s a finely-calibrated exercise in tone, finding the satirical sweet spot between the horrors of a war movie and the winking indictment at those who’d misinterpret its message. –Steve Greene