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The 50 Best Films of the ’90s, From ‘Pulp Fiction’ to ‘Groundhog Day’

The best films of the 1990s came from filmmakers who not only had unique visions but who opened new doors to the endless possibilities of cinematic storytelling.

5. “Chungking Express” (1994)

"Chungking Express" (1994)

“Chungking Express”

FilmStruck

Wong Kar-Wai’s ’90s output (“Days of Being Wild,” “Ashes of Time,” “Fallen Angels,” “Happy Together”) was staggering, but it was “Chungking Express” – aided by Tarantino, the newly minted cinema god after “Pulp Fiction,” bringing the film the U.S. – that brought him international recognition. Two intersecting stories of lovelorn cops set adrift in a crowded, lonely city, Wong’s masterpiece finds beauty in the pain of being lost in this world. The filmmaker creates an incredible sense of mood and feeling with a bold and expressive use of color, composition and his unique slow motion blurring effect, which he juxtaposes with other fleeting moments using an ephemeral editing style that doesn’t care too much about plot. The result is an expansive sense of the emotions of characters often trapped inside themselves. –CO

4. “Groundhog Day” (1993)

Groundhog Day

“Groundhog Day”

Columbia Pictures

Watch this film enough times and you’ll discover three remarkable things. One, the unlocking of Bill Murray’s potential as a performer and the depth of his persona (which was later exploited by Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola). Two, a poignant life lesson that mixes “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Buddhist philosophy, which somehow does justice to both the complexity and simplicity of that religion. Three, a script that taps the full storytelling potential of the medium in a way no comedy had ever done before or since. Watch it once, you still have an incredibly enjoyable comedy that’ll put a smile on your face. –CO

3. “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Pulp Fiction

“Pulp Fiction.”

Miramax

Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up to “Reservoir Dogs” had to deliver on a ton of hype and expectations, but the writer-director went beyond the call of duty with this story of two mob hit men, a gangster, his wife, and a pair of dimwitted robbers whose four stories intertwine in one of the most deliciously violent crime-dramas ever made. Tarantino somehow endears the audience to soulless men, particularly John Travolta’s Vincent and Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules, who can take a break from a  philosophical conversation to murder a group of twentysomethings and pick up right where they left off as if nothing had happened. Unimaginably graphic and violent, the film is also one of the most stylistically innovative movies of the decade, without skimping on plot, and picked up a well-deserved Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

2. “Close-Up” (1990)

Close-Up

“Close-Up”

The Criterion Collection

“Close-up” doesn’t just get to the essence of Abbas Kiarostami; it gets to the essence of cinema itself. Like its subject — a man who impersonated Mohsen Makhmalbaf, another Iranian auteur — the film is many things at once: documentary, fiction, reenactment, raw footage. Kiarostami was frequently self-reflexive throughout his massively influential career, an approach that was rarely more rewarding than it is here: You can feel “Close-up” growing into more than it initially appears to be even if you can’t tell what form it will eventually take on. —MN

1. “Goodfellas” (1990)

"Goodfellas"

“Goodfellas”

Tribeca Film Festival

Martin Scorsese is hardly the first person to explore America’s fascination with organized crime — and the long history of movies about them.

Beyond the violence, exploitation and theft, the mob represents a bullying of the working stiff trying to eek out a living that runs counter to the American dream. And yet that sense of belonging to a family ruled by a code — dictated by a melting pot of international traditions — with the power to deliver frontier justice in a world ruled by bland, corrupt institutions is uniquely appealing.  Of course, the American gangster film tradition dates back all the way to early silent shorts like “The Great Train Robbery” and “The Musketeers of Pig Alley.”

Scorsese grew up in the midst of these tropes. He was that young boy at the beginning of “Goodfellas” watching the unbridled men who ruled his neighborhood out the window, but unlike his protagonist Henry Hill, he was a small kid, weak with asthma, and stuck inside watching movies.

For Scorsese, this wasn’t simply an intellectual exercise — though no one does his research and has a cultural and historical approach to filmmaking like Marty — but rather it was deeply felt and personal. What’s truly remarkable about “Goodfellas” (not just for a mob movie, but any movie) is the way it embodies all these contradictions but utter clarity.

Every scene of “Goodfellas” simultaneously captures both the horror of, and our fascination with, the mob. Scorsese achieves a documentary-like historical realism in front of the camera, which then in turn guides us through the dizzying magic of going in the back door at the Copa, the unexpected eruption of violence from men with no moral compass, and the cocaine-fueled paranoia of wondering if the cops are on your tail. Scorsese’s masterful sound design, soundtrack and voiceover alter our relationship with what we see on the screen, as not a beat of this film is off. Few movies have ever fired on all cylinders so well, all cranking to their max, working in perfect unison.

And the final contradiction: “Goodfellas” is one of the most intellectually complex and challenging films of the decade, while being so easy to watch again and again. –CO

Honorable Mentions

The following films had the support of at least two members of the IndieWire Staff: “Audition,” “Babe: Pig in the City,” “Bad Lieutenant,” “Barton Fink,” “Bottle Rocket,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Casino,” “La Ceremonie,” “The City of Lost Children,” “Crash,” “The Cruise,” “Defending Your Life,” “The Double Life Of Veronique,” “Face/Off,” “Fallen Angels,” “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” “Fight Club,” “Kids,” “Gummo,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” “Flowers of Shanghai,” “The Fugitive,” “Happy Together,” “La Haine,” “Hard Boiled,” “Heavenly Creatures,” “Husbands And Wives,” “Irma Vep,” “The Iron Giant,” “Jackie Brown,” “Jerry Maguire,” “King of New York,” “The Legend of Drunken Master II,” “Léon: The Professional,” “The Limey,” “Lost Highway,” “The Lovers on the Bridge,” “Malcolm X,” Metropolitan,” “A Moment of Innocence,” “Office Space,” “The Piano,” “The Player,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Public Housing,” “Quiz Show,” “Sátántangó,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Secrets & Lies,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Show Me Love” (aka “Fucking Åmål”), “Run Lola Run,” “Short Cuts,” “Showgirls,” “Slacker,” “Strange Days,” “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Taste of Cherry,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Three Colours: Blue,” “Three Kings,” “Through the Olive Trees,” “To Die For,” “To Sleep with Anger,” “Topsy Turvy,” Total Recall,” “True Romance,” “The Truman Show,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Van Gogh,” “La Vie de Bohème,” “The Virgin Suicides,” “Vive L’Amour,” “The Wind Will Carry Us”

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