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)
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
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)
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
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
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
- American History X (1998) (not reviewed -- see the
Edward Norton gives his best performance yet.
- As Good As It Gets (1997)
Jack is Jack again and brilliantly funny.
- Babe (1995) (not reviewed -- see the
Chris Noonan takes modern technology and seamlessly creates a great story.
- Beauty and the Beast (1991) (not reviewed -- see the
Disney's best from the last thirty years, and a brilliant musical in its own right.
- Being John Malkovich (1999)
Malkovich malkovich, malkovich malkovich malkovich!
- Dead Man Walking (1995) (not reviewed -- see the
Tim Robbins' masterpiece is as big on drama as it is on politics.
- The English Patient (1996)
A sweeping epic reminiscent of the works of David Lean.
- In the Name of the Father (1993) (not reviewed -- see the
Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis team up again and score.
- L.A. Confidential (1997) (not reviewed -- see the
Curtis Hanson keeps noir alive in the 1990s.
- Little Women (1994) (not reviewed -- see the
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.
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)
This film should hopefully be a turning point for the horror
genre, which has not evolved significantly since Hitchcock's
Titanic (1997) (not reviewed -- see the
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
At the end of his career, Kurosawa makes his most intensely
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
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
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
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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