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The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

The further one sifts through the decade’s offerings, the more surprising its highlights seem.




The 100 Best Films of the 1990s
Photo: Kino Lorber

By the current timetable of cultural recycling, pop artifacts tend to look their most dated—no longer fresh and new, but also not yet easily filed as products of their time—roughly 15 to 20 years following their initial conception. That became painfully clear when, and this isn’t to speak for the rest of the Slant writers, I set about the task of re-watching some of the 1990s movies I’ve long considered favorites, and even more so as I finally set about to catch up with some of the other movies my colleagues were endorsing. Beyond the leftover ‘80s-hangover effect, there’s also the fact that some of the most beloved and influential ‘90s movies helped kick off trends that have, in the years since, curdled into cliché and downright annoyance. Hence, over-familiarity and premature antiquity form a minefield that makes determining the last analog decade’s best films uniquely tricky.

Still, the further one sifts through the decade’s offerings, the more surprising its highlights seem. This is, after all, the decade during which Terrence Malick broke his two-decade-long sabbatical from filmmaking, a fugue only Stanley Kubrick came close to rivaling, both creating masterworks well worth the wait. The decade when all sorts of Eastern cinema broke through, from sensual Hong Kong mixtapes to cerebral Iranian puzzle boxes. The decade where Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David Cronenberg, Steven Spielberg, and others who made their names during the American New Wave of the ‘70s all broadened their horizons and confirmed their artistry, even with next-generation filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, David Fincher, Todd Haynes, and Quentin Tarantino all nipping at their heels. The decade where a commercial tie-in to a hit TV show could also be perhaps the strangest, most confounding wide-release film of its era (which should’ve surprised no one, given David Lynch’s involvement). The decade that saw a talking pig (Babe) competing against another one (Mel Gibson) for the Best Picture Oscar. The ‘90s were all that and still found room for Aleksandr Sokurov holding a landscape shot for 40 minutes, James Cameron breaking the $100-million-budget ceiling, Chantal Akerman people-watching, and at least two anarchic, if not downright Marxist, sequels to hit children’s movies. Dated? This decade is daft punk. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the films that ranked 101—200.

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

100. Side/Walk/Shuttle

Camera. Elevator. City. Ernie Gehr has always been adept at opening up the world in surprisingly simple ways, a trait that he shares with many of his fellow travelers from the realm of structuralist film (Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, George Landow, etc.): His great Serene Velocity is, very literally, the product of a guy moving a camera around in a hallway. In Side/Walk/Shuttle, he takes to the glass elevator attached to San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel and rides its 24 stories up and down, constantly shifting the orientation of his camera to offer images of the city as a site of flux, freed from gravity to rearrange itself in perpetuum. While the sensual and emotional experience of all these new views is enough to make one’s life richer (the phrase “city symphony” has never seemed quite so apt), Gehr’s film is also a deeply visceral reminder that the world contains so much more than we can ever know; written out, that’s just a cliché, but the experience of watching Side/Walk/Shuttle is so dizzyingly unforgettable that Gehr might’ve been better served borrowing a title from that other great San Francisco movie and calling it Vertigo. Phil Coldiron

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

99. The Sweet Hereafter

Let’s face it: In the hands of a lesser director, Russell Banks’s novel about a bus crash that kills most of a small town’s children easily could have been played for weepy melodrama, whereas Atom Egoyan brings his decidedly chilly aesthetic to bear on this wintry tale of woe. By reshuffling the storyline into nonlinear building blocks, Egoyan allows a thematic and causative rhyme scheme to slowly emerge, analogous to the film’s recurrent use of Browning’s “Pied Piper” poem as a leitmotif, thus elevating the material into something truly “strange and new.” Witness the parallel opening scenes, both of which hinge on the endearment “Daddy”: In the first, Ian Holm’s lawyer must contend with his addict daughter’s abusive tirade, which repeatedly invokes the word as an ironic taunt. The second scene seems to portend a much more supportive, if not positively bucolic, relationship between aspiring young singer Nicole (Sarah Polley) and her father Sam (Tom McCamus), though, as it develops, their bond is far more troubling than it first appears. Budd Wilkins

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

98. The Iorn Giant

As far back as the marvelously old-fashioned The Iron Giant, Brad Bird was envisioning nostalgia-rich universes rich in wit and moral inquiry. Hogarth, a B-movie-obsessed, coffee-drinking latchkey kid from 1950s Maine with a Pee-wee Herman bike, sees his sci-fi dreams come true after a big metal giant crash-lands in his hometown from destinations unknown. Bird doesn’t intend the film as Cold War allegory (the kids at school tellingly ignore a cutely alarmist newsreel about atomic warfare), but as a toothy commentary on the sometimes perilous consequences of our fear of the other. The finale is heartbreaking. As for the heart it breaks, it’s located in the message conveyed by very crucial two-become-one juxtapositions: Hogarth’s eyes lighting up when he hears about the robot for the first time inside his mother’s diner and the many shots of the giant’s eyes absorbing and registering life. “You are what you choose to be,” says Hogarth during a crucial scene, to which the giant responds, “Hogarth.” The Iron Giant is many things, above all else a poetic fairy tale about our essential goodness and friendship as a ritual of communion. Ed Gonzalez

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

97. Santa Sangre

Puppetry and the penis come together in no laughing fashion in avant-crude cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s macabre circus comedy. Playfully toying with the madhouse-as-societal-microcosm template from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, more overtly, Tod Browning’s iconographic Freaks, Jodorowsky equates coming of age with coming into a state of inherited insanity. Though big-top brat Fenix has been marked early on (in excruciatingly bloody fashion) with the tattoo of his father, his soul remains in bondage and service to the will of his devilishly devout mother, who early in the film loses her arms in an act of seemingly self-provoked martyrdom. The conflict tears his allegiance asunder, and takes the film down with him. Santa Sangre, which sometimes suggests Fellini orchestrating a hallucinogenic slasher flick, leaves no communion wafer untarnished in its depiction of crazy, stupid faith. That the director cast his two sons to play the film’s tortured central character would have even Freud nervously looking down into his box of popcorn. Henderson

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

96. Naked Lunch

Anyone who classified William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch as “unfilmable” clearly didn’t have David Cronenberg in mind when they read it, because the raw material of that gonzo epic couldn’t be more up his alley: bug powder, talking typewriters, sadistic doctors, orgies-cum-bloodbaths, talking assholes, bountiful supplies of heroin, children “watching with bestial curiosity” as “flesh jerks in the fire with insect agony,” the lot of it a bizarre mélange of grotesqueries and nightmare visions inflected with the insight of Freud and a bit of folkloric William Tell grandeur. And so Cronenberg, naturally, bursts the whole thing apart from inside, transforming a trip through the mind of Burroughs into an oblique biopic about him, plopping the author into the text and letting him run wild. The film takes symbols and words and characters from the novel and imagines speculative real-world corollaries, drawing a through line from the drug-induced hallucination to the mundane thing that produced it. Calum Marsh

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

95. Drifting Clouds

The cinematic world of Aki Kaurismäki is, like any true auteur’s, immediately recognizable: Infused with a deadpan humor that nearly balances out a cynical worldview, his films stand with Finland’s working stiffs (who are prone to an exaggerated stiffness), sympathetic characters set against colorful, slightly askew backdrops. Drifting Clouds, a succinct, deceptively simple tale of an unemployed married couple struggling to find work, is a fine distillation of this sensibility, notable for being one of Kaurismäki’s finest and most accessible films. Though the couple, potently played by Kati Outinen and Kari Väänänen, find themselves caught in downbeat circumstances, and the film is dedicated to Matti Pellonpää, a Kaurismäki regular who died before production started (and whose real childhood photo substitutes as a picture of the couple’s deceased child), Kaurismäki keeps his mournful film buoyed with humor. When Väänänen’s dissatisfied husband character demands his money back for a film he didn’t like, he’s reminded that not only did he not pay for it, he needs to pick up his dog from the concession stand. Like Chaplin before him, Kaurismäki uses this kind of bittersweet humor not only to laugh off the economic blues, but as the panacea for life. Kalvin Henely

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

94. Point Break

Embracing and crystallizing countless macho-genre tropes in a way that’s simultaneously amusing and awesome, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break provides the same type of high-octane thrills sought by its story’s crew of president mask-wearing, extreme sports-loving bank robbers. Those villains are led by Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, a surfer guru whose new age-y ethos (and long, flowing blond locks) are so inviting that even former football star turned undercover cop Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves)—sporting, without question, the best protagonist name in the history of action cinema—can’t fully resist his charm. Throw in Gary Busey as Utah’s sidekick, Lori Petty as the girl that woos Utah, and a host of robbery, skydiving, and wave-riding sequences that Bigelow helms with clean, forceful vigor, and it’s a film whose sillier elements find a way to coexist with its legitimately kick-ass action—never more so than in a superb foot chase through back alleys that concludes with an unsuccessful Utah firing his gun into the air and screaming in inadvertently hilarious frustration. Nick Schager

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

93. Babe: Pig in the City

The success of Babe was unprecedented, not unlike its own central underdog character, but the audiences that flocked to the charming original couldn’t seem to take George Miller’s brilliant, twisted sequel. Drunk on more than a little of the then-brewing pre-millennium tension, 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City carries its predecessor’s torch into darker, quixotic territories, bursting at the seams with folkloric witticism and hellzapoppin’ imagery. Babe the sheep-herding pig must conquer the slings and arrows of the titular everycity (complete with the Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood sign, and the Sydney Opera House) when the bank threatens to take away his beloved farm, located as it is, “just a little to the left of the 20th century.” Singing mice and a noble, quotable duck are the most memorable of the film’s Homeric cast of outcast animals, and throughout their alternately delightful and frightful adventures, there’s no shortage of insight into life’s hardships and joys. Rob Humanick

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

92. Princess Mononoke

Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is many things: fantasy, action adventure, a cautionary tale about man’s relationship with nature. But above all else, it’s a work of stunning visual artistry. The masterful Studio Ghilbi director’s 1997 animated film is awash in amazing sights, none greater than that of the Boar God, a creature whose skin is a tangled, flowing coil of serpents, and whose grip on hero Ashitaka’s arm injures him so badly that he must seek help in a deep forest where man, and his industrial revolution, seek to destroy the lands overseen by the titular princess, raised by a regal wolf god. Environmental desecration and the transition from a mystical fairy-tale past to a modern future underscore the action, but none of those themes would resonate nearly as strongly as they do were it not for Miyazaki’s visuals, which meld expressive facial features and complex CG-enhanced details to create a wholly unique and mesmerizing vision of wonders far beyond the scope of the rational world. Schager

The 100 Best Films of the 1990s

91. The Addiction

In The Addiction, Christopher Walken stars as a withered version of his drug lord from King of New York, a vampire king with all the knowledge in the world, but little power. His infection is political and personal awareness and Kathleen (Lili Taylor) takes to it with fear, then resistance, and finally rapture. She’s a foot soldier, helping to build an army with other HBO Stars of Tomorrow in order to preserve the integrity of a Big Apple that had more personality when it was a little more rotten. This stealth, beguiling creature of a film—so alternately jejune, funny, and scary—teems with big ideas about cultural and personal malaise. Through the film, Abel Ferrara extends a great line from one of Smashing Pumpkins’ most popular songs, released that very same year: “The world is a vampire, sent to drain.” The song’s title, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” like the movie, combines poetry and violence. A political song, a political movie—perhaps the most fabulously serpentine political one of Ferrara’s career, a quivering nexus of AIDS allegory, identity crisis, historical unease, and socio-economic panic. It’s a small world after all, but Ferrara’s is becoming the smallest of all. Keep it alive, by any means possible. Gonzalez

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