As if. While the ‘90s may still be linked with a wide variety of dubious holdovers — including curious slang, questionable fashion choices, and sinister political agendas — many of the decade’s cultural contributions have cast an outsized shadow on the first stretch of the 21st century. Nowhere is that phenomenon more obvious or explicable than it is at the movies.
The ’90s began with a revolt against the kind of bland Hollywood product that people might kill to see in theaters today, creaking open a small window of time in which a more commercially viable American independent cinema began seeping into mainstream fare. Young and exciting directors, many of whom are now major auteurs and perennial IndieWire favorites, were given the resources to make multiple films — some of them on massive scales. Meanwhile, the industry establishment responded to the sudden influx of new talent by entrusting its biggest tentpoles to the idiosyncratic likes of Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Verhoeven, John Woo, the Wachowskis, and Brian De Palma, resulting in franchises that felt more invented than recycled, even when they were exactly that.
On the international scene, the Iranian New Wave sparked a class of self-reflexive filmmakers who saw new layers of meaning in what movies could be, Hong Kong cinema was climaxing as the clock on British rule ticked down, a trio of major directors forever redefined Taiwan’s place in the film world, while a rascally duo of Danish auteurs began to impose a new Dogme about how things should be done.
More than anything, what defined the decade was not just the invariable emergence of unique individual filmmakers, but also the arrival of artists who opened new doors to the endless possibilities of cinematic storytelling. Directors like Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Wong Kar-wai, Jane Campion, Pedro Almodóvar, and Quentin Tarantino became superstars for reinventing cinema on their own terms, while previously established giants like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch dared to reinvent themselves while the entire world was watching. Many of these greats are still working today, and the movies are all the better for that.
To best capture the full breadth, depth, and general radical-ness of ’90s cinema (“radical” in both the political and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles senses of the word), IndieWire polled its staff and most frequent contributors for their favorite films of the decade. We asked for the movies that had them at “hello,” the esoteric picks they’ve never forgotten, the Hollywood monoliths, the international gems, the documentaries that captured time in a bottle, and the kind of blockbusters they just don’t make anymore.
The result is our humble attempt at curating the best of a decade that was bursting with new ideas, fresh energy, and too many damn fine films than any top 100 list could hope to contain.
This article includes contributions from Carlos Aguilar, Samantha Bergeson, Christian Blauvelt, Robert Daniels, Jude Dry, Ali Foreman, Steve Greene, Susannah Gruder, Proma Khosla, Leila Latif, Ryan Lattanzio, Chris O’Falt, Katie Rife, Zack Sharf, Emma Stefansky, Natalia Winkelman, and Christian Zilko.