The 1990s: A Decade of Film

Feature article by Matt Heffernan
February 10, 2000

The 1990s was the eleventh decade of motion pictures. However, the films of the 1890s bore little relation to their descendants a century later. The feature film didn't come along until the 1910s, and most films were still shorts. The films of the 1990s are a varied bunch. Advanced digital imaging became affordable even for modestly-budgeted films. The blockbusters used their incredibly high budgets to push technology to incredible limits. Yet, at the same time, the independent film saw a huge resurgence, and it looks like Hollywood is going through a major change in the new millenium. Just last year, we saw how a film like The Blair Witch Project can beat a film like Wild Wild West at the box office, yet cost a miniscule fraction for production. But studios are responding by making more provocative films than they have in the last 25 years.

In all, the 1990s was a good decade, so let's take a look at my picks for the very best films produced during that time.

1. GoodFellas (1990) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
Martin Scorsese started out the 1980s with Raging Bull, and made the best film that would come out for the rest of the decade. He started the next decade in the same fashion, taking the true story of mafia informant Henry Hill and making an astounding film. A brilliant screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi (based on his book Wiseguy) and great performances by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Oscar winner Joe Pesci, combined with Scorsese's ingenious direction, make this the best film of the decade.

2. Schindler's List (1993) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS VHS Widescreen
Steven Spielberg's masterpiece about the Holocaust is one of the few deserving winners of the Best Picture Oscar from this decade. It's an incredibly entrancing experience, the 197 minute running length passing by with great ease. It made huge stars out of Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, but the success of the film was secondary to its moving true story.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
Not all the great films of the decade were taken from life. Frank Darabont took a rather small story by Stephen King and made a beautiful film. Tim Robbins is wrongly imprisoned, but he learns to make the prison work in his favor. Exquisitely shot by Roger Deakins, and featuring an incredible performance by Morgan Freeman. Virtually ignored at the box office, this film finally found a loyal following on video.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
Spielberg strikes gold again with another World War II drama. The recreation of the D-Day storming of Normandy Beach is one of the most brilliant sequences ever filmed. The rest is an intelligent look at the psychology and politics of war.

5. Fargo (1996) VHS DVD
The best comedy of the 1990s was originally advertised as a true story, but that was the biggest joke of all from filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. William H. Macy hatches a plot to have his wife kidnapped, then take a cut from his father-in-law's ransom. Frances McDormand gives the performance of a lifetime as the small town sheriff who cracks the case.

6. Pulp Fiction (1994) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
If not the best film of the decade, Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece is at least the most important. It brought independent film to the forefront of American pop culture, and made John Travolta a major star again to boot.

7. Boyz N the Hood (1991) VHS DVD
John Singleton's first film is a stunning look at life in South Central Los Angeles. Cuba Gooding, Jr. has the star-making role of a young man who tries to lead a normal, decent life amongst the violence and social illness of his neighborhood. It spawned a huge wave of similar films, ranging from Menace II Society to Friday.

8. American Beauty (1999) VHS DVD
Already selected as the best film of 1999 in my previous article, Sam Mendes's directorial debut is an instant classic. A great cast and a remarkable screenplay by newcomer Alan Ball.

9. Shakespeare in Love (1998) VHS DVD
This film from the brilliant minds of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard is wonderfully entertaining and by far the best romantic comedy of the decade. Whether it deserved the Best Picture Oscar over Saving Private Ryan is questionable, but its enormous appeal is certainly worth something.

10. JFK (1991) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
Oliver Stone managed to make one more great film before he fell into an abyss of self-indulgence. A huge cast and an incredibly complicated story are masterfully woven together to create a compelling film. It may run at over three hours, but it never slows down for a minute.

Ten more worthy films

Here are ten films that nearly made the top ten, but will have to settle for the second tier. They are listed in alphabetical order.

  • American History X (1998) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS DVD
    Edward Norton gives his best performance yet.
  • As Good As It Gets (1997) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
    Jack is Jack again and brilliantly funny.
  • Babe (1995) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS DVD
    Chris Noonan takes modern technology and seamlessly creates a great story.
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb)
    Disney's best from the last thirty years, and a brilliant musical in its own right.
  • Being John Malkovich (1999) VHS DVD
    Malkovich malkovich, malkovich malkovich malkovich!
  • Dead Man Walking (1995) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS DVD
    Tim Robbins' masterpiece is as big on drama as it is on politics.
  • The English Patient (1996) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
    A sweeping epic reminiscent of the works of David Lean.
  • In the Name of the Father (1993) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS DVD
    Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis team up again and score.
  • L.A. Confidential (1997) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
    Curtis Hanson keeps noir alive in the 1990s.
  • Little Women (1994) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS DVD
    A brilliant adaptation that transcends any label of "chick flick."

A great group, with Spielberg the only director of multiple entries. If you look at the actors, eight appear in two out of the twenty: Steve Buscemi, James Cromwell, Ralph Fiennes, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Joe Pesci, Susan Sarandon, and Kevin Spacey.

Special Recognition

Here are some films that don't necessarily belong in the top twenty, but deserve to be recognized for their contribution to the art.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) VHS DVD
This film should hopefully be a turning point for the horror genre, which has not evolved significantly since Hitchcock's Psycho.

Titanic (1997) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS VHS Widescreen DVD
I know it's just another sappy love story, but nobody knows how to film destruction like James Cameron.

Yume (Akira Kurosawa's Dreams) (1990) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb) VHS
At the end of his career, Kurosawa makes his most intensely personal film.

And Bob Dole thinks Natural Born Killers was a "nightmare of depravity"

No decade is without its stinkers, and the 1990s has some ripe ones. Here are some examples of films gone horribly wrong.

Independence Day (1996) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb)
No other film has made me worry more about the mental state of America. When a film this mindless becomes such a huge hit, it makes us look like a nation of idiots, easily amused by loud noises and shiny objects.

Street Fighter (1994) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb)
Jean-Claude Van Damme in a movie based on a video game? You know it has to be bad, and boy, does it deliver. Worse yet, it was Raul Julia's last theatrical film -- an eternal insult to his memory.

But for the absolute nadir of filmmaking in the 1990s, I have to turn to...

Showgirls (1995) (not reviewed -- see the IMDb)
Once-promising director Paul Verhoeven takes screenwriter Joe Eszterhas down with him in what is easily the most idiotically pretentious film I have ever seen. Not even a constant stream beautiful naked women was enough to sustain interest. It fails completely as drama or erotica. Even its merit as an unintentional comedy is severely limited.

And now, we bid adieu to the 20th century

It was a great time to be alive, and we have seen the film develop from a novelty to the most accessible form of art. Everybody likes the movies, and the 1990s will give us some fond memories. How this artform will change in this new millenium is impossible to predict. Will celluloid be replaced by digital projection? Not if I can help it. Will there be holodecks like on "Star Trek", and watching a two-dimensional drama would lose interest? No, we are voyeurs, and the silver screen gives us a comfortable way to watch discreetly. I look forward to even more wonderful films, and I will be there, documenting as long as I can.

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© 2000 Matt Heffernan