1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
We’ll start with the obvious. Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling revision of the gangster flick is one of the most iconic films of the last thirty years. The Royale with cheese, the mysterious briefcase, the five dollar milkshake, the adrenaline shot, the wallet that says BAD MOTHER FUCKER on it, and of course, the gimp - all moments referenced, pored over and parodied since. Its influence has been felt in dozens of stylized, hyper-violent movies over the years, and will long sit comfortably in the annals of great and popular cinema (and its poster on the walls of dorm rooms everywhere).
2. Ed Wood (1994)
Dir. Tim Burton
What is perhaps Burton-Depp Movie Co.’s best film is arguably their least well-known, having made just under $6 million in the US. The film is a comedic biopic of famed B-movie director Ed Wood, most famous for making Plan 9 From Outer Space, often considered one of the worst movies of all time. Wood’s character is charming and naively enthusiastic, truly believing that he’s making great cinema; the performance is one of Depp’s many greats.
3. Seven (1995)
Dir. David Fincher
The film that first foreshadowed Fincher’s stance as one of today’s best directors, Seven tells the now-well known story of two detectives hunting down a serial killer who’s choosing his victims based on the seven deadly sins. This modern take on the noir genre features one of many famous film twists (that many have spoiled) and an opening credit sequence that sits among the greats.
4. Run Lola Run (1998)
Dir. Tom Tykwer
Much like Pulp Fiction, this film’s erratic narrative structure really opens you up to the different ways that stories can be told and shown. Lola receives a call from her criminal boyfriend informing her that he needs 100,000 marks in the next 20 minutes, otherwise his boss will kill him. We then see Lola try to get the money for him, three separate times, all starting the moment she gets the call. Trippy, ja?
5. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Dir. Richard Linklater
Speaking of trippy (and dorm room posters), Dazed and Confused is often celebrated as the premier love letter to 70’s youth and high times. Centered around the last day of school in 1976, soon-to-be seniors hunt down and haze the soon-to-be freshman, all the while planning a massive party to kickstart the summer. While it failed to be a sleeper box office hit, it later gained cult film status, featuring many familiar faces including Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey.
6. American Movie (1999)
Dir. Chris Smith
A must-see for aspiring filmmakers, this documentary follows Mark Borchardt, a down-on-his-luck suburbanite with dreams of completing Northwestern, a film he’s wanted to make for years but lacks the funds. In an effort to raise said funds, he sets out to complete Coven, a horror film he began but never finished. As Mark struggles with inexperienced crew members and his own addictions, he tries to stay afloat long enough to see his pet project realized. Funny and touching, the film has since gained cult status.
7. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
A 90’s period piece made in the 90’s, Lebowski is arguably the biggest cult film since The Rocky Horror Picture Show (gotta say, it’s a lot easier cosplaying as The Dude than Frankenfurter). The film contains layers upon layers of hilarity, from its straight-up wackiness to its wonderful parody of mystery, noir and crime films. Endlessly quoted and revered to the point of having “Lebowski fests” in both the US and UK, as well as a life philosophy called Dudeism, the film has amassed a gigantic following despite a pitiful box office run. But hey man, that’s cool.
8. The Piano (1993)
Dir. Jane Campion
A haunting and beautifully shot film, The Piano proves that not all great cinema in the 90’s was highly stylized. Ada, a mute Scotswoman who expresses herself mainly through her piano, is sold into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman, Alistair. She then befriends and has an affair with a sailor. While seeing the trailer for this as a kid would’ve put me to sleep, it was quite touching a decade later in film class.
9. Clerks (1994)
Dir. Kevin Smith
The film that spurred Kevin Smith’s career centered around two slackers as they face a rather mundane but poignant day. While the direction leaves something to be desired, the clever and vulgar dialogue was the first example of what would later become one of Smith’s trademarks (along with Jay and Silent Bob). The film has since become a landmark for those looking to vicariously vent their frustrations against soul-sucking jobs and, more importantly, life.
10. Chasing Amy (1997)
Dir. Kevin Smith
Following Clerks (since hardly anybody talks about Mallrats), Smith served up the story of a man falling in love with a lesbian, exploring sexual mores in an ever more progressive society, as well as the simple, raw awfulness of love and sex. It serves as a wonderful reminder to any adult in a relationship the difference between their partner’s past and present.
11. Goodfellas (1990)
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Arguably Scorsese’s most iconic film, Goodfellas chronicles Henry Hill’s downward spiral into the gangster realm of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Supported by the wonderful team of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, the film is considered one of the greatest crime films of all time, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with The Godfather. Scorsese’s raw violence coupled with vintage tunes created the template with which many directors like Quentin Tarantino now work.
12. The Birdcage (1996)
Dir. Mike Nichols
Based on the 1973 French play La Cage aux Folles, the plot centers around a young engaged couple deciding to finally have their parents meet; the only problem is that his father owns a drag club and is in a domestic partnership with its main star, while her father is an ultraconservative Republican senator. Hijinks ensue as they try to keep things from exploding. The film was a hilarious hit and was later nominated for a GLAAD award.
13. American History X (1998)
Dir. Tony Kaye
A blistering look at Neo-Nazis in southern California, the film centers around a reformed skinhead attempting to pull his younger brother out of the movement before it’s too late. Featuring Edward Norton in possibly his best performance, American History X is one of the most provocative films on race in America, and is probably the main reason anyone knows what ‘curb-stomping’ is nowadays.
14. Fight Club (1999)
Dir. David Fincher
With what has become an anthem of anti-establishment angst, Fincher ended the decade on a high note. With its hyper-stylized, jumpy style, the film is visually engaging while its ideology is even more tantalizing to us lower rungs of the social ladder. While no one can enter the Internet without learning of its ending, it’s still worth a watch or three, as it speaks volumes to anyone who feels disenfranchised.
15. Falling Down (1993)
Dir. Joel Schumacher
Speaking of disenfranchised and fed-up with the system… Michael Douglas in Falling Down takes all of our petty annoyances at a changing world and fights back with bullets and baseball bats. A powerful black comedy, Douglas’ rampage is the wet dream of the angry white male, but never makes the mistake to make him the hero of the story. The film also serves as a reminder to Batman & Robin viewers that Joel Schumacher is not a complete hack.
16. Benny & Joon (1993)
Dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik
Featuring a young Johnny Depp at the beginning of his career as the character actor of his generation, Benny & Joon features two eccentric young folks falling in love, with Depp dusting off old vaudeville/silent film routines to woo Joon. While some have criticized the film’s portrayal of mental illness as trivial, the film is bubbly and touching and hard not to enjoy.
17. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Dir. Terry Gilliam
(Yes, this is the last Depp film.) Trippy, warped, ludicrous, inane, cray cray - all suitable words to describe Gilliam’s twisted, drug-fueled trek through Sin City, based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name. In development for decades, the film had people such as Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese and Ralph Bakshi trying to get involved, the film has ended up a cult favorite, with polarized views from critics; interesting, considering Gilliam’s alleged quote that “I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time.”
18. Trainspotting (1996)
Dir. Danny Boyle
Danny Boyle’s kinetic style shines through in this British film about a group of Scottish heroin addicts struggling with their addiction and their life in squalor. With creative effects, Boyle animates these struggles with aplomb, while the film’s opening monologue is a defiant cry against expected social norms.
19. Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Dir. John Singleton
This is the only film on the list that I actually did see in the 90’s. I was ten years old, staying at a motel during a road trip, taking advantage of the free cable, when I came upon it. After watching it for about an hour, I changed my mind about ever wanting to go to California. John Singleton’s tale of three childhood friends in South Central LA is haunting and non-apologetic about it; one of many visions of America that we wish we could ignore, but can’t.
20. Happiness (1998)
Dir. Todd Solondz
Speaking of the ugly sides of society… Happiness is an ensemble of stories about the hidden lives of ‘regular’ suburbanites, including a pedophile and a pervert with a fondness for making obscene phone calls. The film depicts these subjects blatantly, out in the open of the crisp, clear sun, causing an uncomfortable mixture. Not an easy film to digest, but it’s important for art to ask tough questions; in this case, asking whether or not sick, depraved human beings are really just seeking happiness like the rest of us.
21. Heat (1995)
Dir. Michael Mann
A film that has been brought up numerous times in recent years for its inspiration on The Dark Knight, Heat was initially famous for its on-screen pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Though they really only shared one scene together, it was one of the highlights of the film; the actors filmed it with no rehearsal and two cameras rolling simultaneously in an effort to capture a genuine unfamiliarity and spontaneity between them. On top of that, the film as a whole is a complex, weaving crime epic that serves as one of the genre’s best and smartest.
22. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Dir. Brian De Palma
Continuing on the same note as Scarface, De Palma and Pacino teamed up ten years later to tell the tale of a newly-freed criminal vowing to rid his life of crime. He is soon lured back into that world by trying to help out his cousin, and the influence of his seedy cokehead lawyer. While the story is a bit of a gangland retread, it’s also very well done by a masterful team of the genre.
23. LA Confidential (1997)
Dir. Curtis Hanson
Continuing the trend of Great Crime Films of the 1990s is the story of LAPD detectives in 1950’s Hollywood, revolving around multiple homicides, corruption and celebrity. The film is another scintillating crime drama, imploring its viewer to perk up their ears and listen to every little detail so as to not lose track of what’s going on and what’s really going on; this film succeeds at building tension beyond sprays of bullets.
24. Wag the Dog (1997)
Dir. Barry Levinson
As a kid, I couldn’t imagine a more boring movie than a movie about politics. However, the labyrinthine world of American politics can be both disappointingly disheartening and cynically hilarious. The film concerns a Washington spin doctor and a Hollywood producer teaming up to fake a war with Albania, distracting the American public from a White House sex scandal just days before the election. Made prior to Monica Lewinsky and the Sudan bombings, Wag the Dog is a wonderful political satire, even if you have no confidence that it would never actually happen.
25. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Dir. Bryan Singer
Winding out both the list of Great Crime Films of the 1990’s and Awesome Twists Ruined by the Internet, The Usual Suspects is a mind-bender of misleading information and doubt. After a drug bust goes bad, the only unharmed survivor is taken in and interrogated, whereupon a tall tale is told about the infamous Keyser Soze. If you’ve heard the twist already, like I had, the film is still more than worth seeing; I was fooled anyway.
26. Boogie Nights (1997)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Perhaps my favorite film of this bunch, Paul Thomas Anderson’s odyssey of the rise and fall of a porn superstar is engaging and hilarious. Many of the characters, from Wahlberg’s airheaded Adonis to Burt Reynolds’ director with delusions of grandeur, are what you’d expect, but Anderson draws them with subtle humane depth. The colorful lights of 70’s disco shine bright with the spirited soundtrack, and Anderson’s trademark long shots really draw you in. A true gem.
27. Chaplin (1992)
Dir. Richard Attenborough
Some know Robert Downey Jr. now as one of the biggest movie stars in the world, while some remember him for his past drug problems, but what he’s always been is a great actor, and his talent is deftly displayed in this Oscar-nominated role as Charlie Chaplin, the original movie star. Spanning the actor-director’s life from beginning to end, it’s both a great rise-and-fall story and a look back at the very early days of Hollywood.
28. Misery (1990)
Dir. Rob Reiner
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Misery is the story of a famous writer who’s recently killed off his most popular character; during a road trip, he gets in an accident during a blizzard and is then rescued by a nurse proclaiming to be his biggest fan. Once she learns that her favorite character has been killed off, she traps and tortures him, ordering him to rewrite the story. Kathy Bates’ portrayal of Annie is incredibly psychotic and one of the great modern screen villains. A great, simple thriller.
29. Rushmore (1998)
Dir. Wes Anderson
Following his first film, Bottle Rocket, Anderson’s breakout film showcases a precocious and ambitious young student who befriends a tired industrialist, and the ensuing love triangle they create with a widowed teacher. It helped establish Anderson as the offbeat but warmly endearing auteur that he is today, and remains one of the smarter comedies of the decade.
30. Election (1999)
Dir. Alexander Payne
Rounding out the end of the list is another cutthroat student comedy, this one concerning one girl’s ambitious bid for Student Council President and the teacher whose sudden determination to take her down is coupled with his deteriorating personal life. Skewering both high school and real world politics, the film has drawn some comparison to the Presidential Election that would happen a year later, showcasing the battle between the rigid know-it-all (Gore) and the likeable dummy (Bush). The film was also a sign that Payne would go on to become one of the great American directors of the next decade.