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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.

40. “Daughters of the Dust” (1991)

“Daughters of the Dust”

Kino International

Yes, this is a seminal, groundbreaking pioneering piece of cinema made by an African American woman, but one thing that the recent restoration of Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” revealed is that it is also a stunningly beautiful film. Filmed on St. Helena Island on a shoestring budget, Dash’s Sundance-acclaimed debut captures the Gullah islanders, a close-knit community that lives according to older traditions of their culture, just off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. The modern society is a pull for the younger generation as soon they will make the trip to the new world just a short boat ride away. Dash’s lyrical visual portrayal of this community celebrates its beauty and familial bond, but through an elegiac lens as a generational cycle comes to an end. A near-perfect achievement. –CO

39. “Se7en” (1995)

Seven Brad Pitt Morgan Freeman

“Se7en”

Peter Sorel/New Line/REX/Shutterstock

In that car ride out to the desert with Kevin Spacey, as he sat handcuffed and seemingly powerless in the back seat, there was a mounting sense of unease — that somehow, the killer was still in control, and that literally anything could happen. That a film could build to this type of third act moment speaks volumes to the deeply unsettling feeling that led us to this point. Over the years, David Fincher’s filmmaking would become less baroque as he added layers of humor, irony and complexity that were harder to unpack – leaning less on someone else’s script and cinematography to help tell the story – but this unfiltered view of his raw directing talent is just as exhilarating. Darius Khondji’s monochromatic photography, with its special silver retention process, is one of the best-shot films of the last 40 years. –CO

38. “The Celebration” (1998)

The Celebration

“The Celebration”

October Films

When it premiered at Cannes in 1998, the film made with a $700 one chip DV camera sent shockwaves through the film world – lighting a fire under the digital narrative movement in the U.S. – while at the same time making director Thomas Vinterberg and his compatriot Lars Van Trier’s scribbled-in-45-minutes manifesto (Dogma 95) the start of a technologically-fueled film movement to shed artifice for art that set the tone for 20 years of low budget (and some not so low budget) filmmaking. The story of a son confronting the family’s patriarch at his birthday gathering about the horrors of the past, the film chronicles a family falling apart under the weight of the buried truth being pulled up by the roots. Vintenberg uses the camera’s inability to handle the natural low light, and the subsequent breaking up of the grainy image, to perfectly match the disintegration of the family over the course of the day turning to night. Like Bennett Miller’s one-person doc “The Cruise,” Vintenberg’s film showed how the textured look of the inexpensive DV camera could be used expressively in the spirit of 16mm films in the ’60s and ’70s. Above all else, though, “The Celebration” is an incredibly powerful story, well told, and fueled by youthful cinematic energy. –CO

37. “Point Break” (1991)

Point Break

“Point Break”

20th Century Fox

Before you laugh it off: It’s hard to imagine Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t well aware of the over-the-top machismo, barking dialogue and homoerotic undertow of the film she was making. While the filmmaking is thoroughly modern, in many ways “Point Break” is a throwback to when a great studio director transcends the script’s dime-store philosophy and the limitations of cast to create something incredibly fresh and new. With the film’s poetic approach to bodies in motion, you can sense both Bigelow’s art and philosophy background at play, as the ideas are in the images that transcend the cheesy surfing metaphor to explore what it means to be free. Whether you believe the straight-laced undercover cop (Keanu Reeves) can’t bring himself to take down the guru bank robber (Patrick Swayze) because of genuine feelings of love, or part of his metaphysical journey, that this is all wrapped into a surfer heist film with some of the rawest and exciting action sequences ever committed to the moving image speaks to the talent of a visionary director who, 26 years later, still cranks out masterpieces. –CO

36. “Miller’s Crossing” (1990)

Millers Crossing

“Miller’s Crossing”

20th Century Fox

Much like Dashiell Hammett – whose “Glass Key” inspired “Miller’s Crossing” – the Coens invent their own (“what’s the rumpus?”) dialogue in their tip of the hat to the twisty pulp and gangster stories of decades past. There’s one word that keeps coming up throughout the screenplay: heart. “Admit it isn’t all cool calculation with you – that you’ve got a heart – even if it’s small and feeble and you can’t remember the last time you used it,” Marcia Gay Harden (playing the femme fatale) tells protagonist Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). And that’s what this film is about more than anything. The Coens delight in all the con man maneuvering, double-meaning tough guy talk and a gloriously serpentine plot, along with the way their hero is better and smarter at the game than anyone else. Yet the end of the film (one of the greatest last shots ever) reveals how empty and heartless this fun game has been. That you have to take apart the twisty story to reveal the buried character depth and see Reagan has actually looked into his heart and plotted his way out of the game is the biggest and most profound insight into the heart of the Coens in their 30 years behind the camera. —CO

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