While not every movie released in the 1990s was a winner, it’s safe to say that it was an overall strong decade for cinema. There were a host of great films released between 1990 and 1999, and of those great ones, the selection is surprisingly diverse. It was a decade that saw the release of plenty of iconic blockbusters, compelling small/independent movies, and plenty of classic international films not in the English language, too.
What follows is a ranking of some of the best of the best, when it came to movies that were released in the 1990s. The following ranking aims to highlight genuinely great movies and/or movies that summarized the decade and its overall feel in some way. These movies have all endured and aged well to this day, and each one is essential viewing to movie fans both casual and fanatical.
30 ‘L.A. Confidential’ (1997)
Standing as an iconic example of neo-noir, L.A. Confidential is a compelling crime/mystery movie that’s expertly written and features a great cast. The plot sees several detectives all trying to get to the bottom of a brutal mass murder at a late-night diner, committed by someone armed with a shotgun.
It’s oozing with style, and benefits from very convincingly recreating Los Angeles in the 1950s for its setting. While the plot sounds straightforward on the surface, it’s the way it unfolds (and gets increasingly complex) that keeps things riveting, and it also helps that at a point, the story and its progression both become rather unpredictable.
29 ‘Scream’ (1996)
Some movies walk a fine line between playing certain tropes straight while parodying others, with the original Scream from 1996 being a great example of a film that does this for the horror genre. A familiar slasher premise is taken somewhat seriously, but also discussed and satirized, mainly thanks to the characters being aware of the “rules” found within horror movies.
It’s the kind of approach that could seem mean-spirited or condescending in the wrong hands, but thankfully filmmaker Wes Craven had the right hands for a movie like this. He takes what he did in 1994’s New Nightmare and refines/perfects the formula, making Scream one of the most essential horror movies of its decade.
28 ‘Trainspotting’ (1996)
There were plenty of gritty and down-to-earth movies released during the 1990s, but few proved to be quite as gritty and down-to-earth as Trainspotting. It’s a film set in Scotland, following a group of young people in the Edinburgh drug scene, honestly depicting the (literal) highs and crushing lows of drug addiction.
It’s a film that can be funny in one scene, tense the next scene, terrifying minutes later, and then crushingly sad shortly after. It shows the chaos of the characters’ lives in a compelling and remarkably balanced way, never shying away from the reality of such a lifestyle; both the good and the bad. It also had a surprisingly good sequel in 2017 that’s equally worth checking out.
27 ‘Thelma & Louise’ (1991)
Even if you know about its famous ending, Thelma & Louise is still a trip worth taking, seeing as it’s ultimately about the journey just as much as the destination. It’s one of the greatest road movies of all time, following two women who go on the run after one kills a man in self-defense, leading the two to bond while the law tries to track them down.
Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are both great as the title characters, and the film boasts a strong supporting cast that includes Harvey Keitel and (a very young) Brad Pitt. It’s expertly written and well-directed by the often reliable Ridley Scott, still proving entertaining and emotional to watch all these years later.
26 ‘Chungking Express’ (1994)
Is there a concrete plot to Chungking Express? It’s kind of hard to say. You could argue that there are two stories at play here, with one quite abruptly taking over the other at about the halfway point.
Maybe the better question would be “Does Chungking Express need a plot?”, seeing as it’s a movie one comes away from not knowing how to summarize, but being well aware that they’ve experienced something great. From its dreamy visuals to its great usage of music to its surprisingly hard-hitting emotional content, it’s a crime/romance/dramedy movie that tackles themes of loneliness, longing, and belonging better than just about any other, and is deservedly regarded as a classic.
25 ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994)
Forrest Gump is one of the most famous movies of the 1990s, and though it’s not perfect by any means, its positive qualities do arguably make it one of the best of the 90s, too. It follows the titular character as he drifts through life, approaching its ups and downs in his own way while unknowingly influencing numerous (and significant) historical events throughout the back half of the 20th century.
It’s a very sentimental and maybe even at times cheesy film, but it’s remarkably watchable, and much of its emotional content is suitably moving. For balancing comedy, drama, and heart very well, and for featuring a legendary Tom Hanks performance, Forrest Gump certainly delivers.
24 ‘Clueless’ (1995)
1990s teen comedies don’t really get much more iconic than Clueless, and it’s understandable why it’s often seen as a high point in the teen comedy genre overall. It follows a popular high school student named Cher as she influences the lives of those around her, only to feel threatened by another girl who becomes more popular than her after Cher gives her a makeover.
It’s one of those films that’s always been popular, but seems to get just a little more so with every year, to the point where it’s now an untouchable classic of the 1990s. It does a great job of updating Jane Austen’sEmmafor the 1990s, similarly to how another classic 1990s teen comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You, functioned as an update of William Shakespeare’sThe Taming of the Shrew.
23 ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)
Jurassic Park could arguably be the blockbuster movie of the 1990s. Just as Steven Spielberg made the objectively best shark movie of all time with 1975’s Jaws, so too did he end up making the dinosaur movie to which all others would be compared, seeing as 30 years on from release, nothing’s come close to Jurassic Park.
Funnily enough, for as great as it is, it’s not even the best Spielberg movie of 1993 (more on that one later), demonstrating how the director was truly at the top of his game at this point in his career. With special effects that still hold up, perfect pacing, great action/suspense scenes, and memorable characters, Jurassic Park is mass-appeal entertainment at its very best.
22 ‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)
Richard Linklater was one of the best directors of the 1990s when it came to small-scale, character-focused films (1995’s Before Sunrise exemplifies this well), but his best of that decade might be 1993’s Dazed and Confused. It follows a group of characters on the first day of the summer holidays, and is intensely nostalgic, thanks to it being set in 1976.
It’s mostly a comedy, and a fairly light-on-plot one at that, but the characters become very endearing and gradually more layered as the film goes on. It’s a good deal of fun, and it’s also very heartfelt, being guaranteed to move anyone who remembers with even a hint of fondness what it was like being a teenager, or anyone who still feels at least a little young at heart.
21 ‘Three Colors: Red’ (1994)
Between 1993 and 1994, acclaimed Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski made what’s now referred to as the Three Colors trilogy. Each film (Blue, White, and Red) focused on a different set of characters, and all dealt with themes of love, loss, and longing, even while having different tones.
It’s a fascinating thematic trilogy overall, and while it’s hard to single one out as being the best, the third film, Red, might be the one that ends up packing the biggest punch. It’s a slow but absorbing film that looks at the strange bond that forms between a part-time model and retired judge, tonally falling somewhere between the soul-crushing Blue and the oddly comedic White.
20 ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)
A bleak and perhaps even existential mystery movie played entirely for laughs, The Big Lebowski is easily one of the funniest movies of the 1990s. It follows The Dude – a strangely endearing slacker who drifts through life – as he goes on a bizarre and chaotic journey to get his rug replaced after he’s mistaken for a millionaire.
The plot is wild, and the film knowingly acknowledges the absurdity of it all, in the process making things that might otherwise seem confusing and frustrating feel hilarious. It’s a high point in the remarkably strong filmography of The Coen Brothers, and features iconic performances from its whole cast, especially Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.
19 ‘Fight Club’ (1999)
David Fincher’s 1990s got off to a somewhat rocky start when he directed the divisive (though not irredeemable) Alien 3, but things began to turn around for him in the following years. In 1995, he made the bleak and absorbing mystery/thriller film Se7en, and then in 1999, made one of the most beloved cult classics of all time with Fight Club.
It’s a very dark (and surprisingly funny) psychological thriller about a seemingly mild-mannered man who gets involved with an underground (and eventually revolutionary) fight club. With an iconically twisty narrative, a relentlessly fast pace, and plenty of creative visuals, it’s rightly held up as one of the decade’s best.
18 ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997)
A heartfelt coming-of-age drama that gave Robin Williams perhaps his best role, and proved to be a breakout hit for stars/writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting is indeed good. It’s a simple story about the struggles of young adulthood and unlikely friendships, but it mines familiar territory with expertise.
The result is a distinctly sentimental and very broad film that’s nevertheless hard to resist. The screenplay is a passionate and sincere one, and Williams’s win for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards was well-deserved (the screenplay won an Oscar, too).
17 ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)
1984’s The Terminator was a great small-scale time travel film, following one woman trying to escape a futuristic cyborg who’ll stop at nothing to see her dead. Somehow, the 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day ended up being even better, working just as well as the first when it came to being a sci-fi film while also having a bigger budget and more spectacular action.
Here, Sarah Connor returns, though her son – whose birth was trying to be prevented by the cyborg in the first film – has grown up, and himself needs to be protected by another foe from the future. It’s got heart, humor, and thrillingly explosive action sequences, and star Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been better.
16 ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)
A sprawling drama set in the 1970s and 80s which takes clear influence from the works of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, Boogie Nights is an entertaining and endlessly rewatchable film. It’s centered around the adult film industry, showing the ups and downs of working in and around it by following a large cast of characters.
Though director Paul Thomas Anderson does borrow liberally from those aforementioned filmmakers, he still makes this film his own, and the fact it’s comparative in quality to its spiritual predecessors makes the referencing easier to swallow. Anderson followed it up in 1999 with another great (and sprawling) drama featuring a huge cast of characters with Magnolia.
15 ‘The Matrix’ (1999)
Say what you want about the sequels (they are divisive, after all), but it’s hard to deny 1999’s The Matrix is an action/sci-fi classic. It follows a man who’s informed his whole reality is an illusion, and he’s given the option to join the fight against the forces maintaining that illusion while effectively keeping the entire human race enslaved, asleep, and unaware of the truth.
It raises interesting philosophical questions while also just being a fantastically entertaining story filled to the brim with awesome action sequences. The use of slow-motion has been parodied to death, but it still looks great, and the film’s mix of gunfights and hand-to-hand combat within such a unique science-fiction world still feels unlike anything else out there.
14 ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997)
It’s got some tough competition, sure, but Princess Mononoke is easily one of the best movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It follows a young man trying to rid himself of a curse, with his adventure getting him entangled in a dramatic conflict between an industrial village and the beings that inhabit a nearby forest.
In combining fantasy and adventure with an emotional storyline and a well-argued environmental message, Princess Mononoke is ambitious yet successful in tying it all together. Even those who aren’t usually fans of Japanese animation should seek it out, as it provides an undeniably unique, moving, and exciting viewing experience.
13 ‘Unforgiven’ (1992)
Of the various Westerns the legendary Clint Eastwood has appeared in, Unforgiven might well be his very best. It’s a dark and intense film that follows a retired bounty hunter taking on one last job after a corrupt small-town sheriff fails to properly enact justice on the perpetrators of a brutal crime.
It’s understandable why it did so well at the Academy Awards, including taking home Best Picture. It’s simply a Western that’s difficult to fault on just about any level, delivering a well-told story, great performances, and excellent visuals. It also stands out for the way it comments on – and deconstructs – the American Westerns of old.
12 ‘The Piano’ (1993)
Jane Campion became the first female director to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for directing The Piano. It was well-deserved, as The Piano is a haunting and unforgettable film, with its story following a mute woman who comes to New Zealand with her daughter after being sold into marriage.
It can make for a heavy watch at times, but the story is certainly memorable for the raw way it’s presented, and it’s also complemented well by beautiful visuals and a great score. It feels like the kind of film that will continue to age gracefully, with it having an undeniably timeless quality and feeling difficult to fault in pretty much any regard.
11 ‘Heat’ (1995)
Though his filmography is filled with iconic crime/action movies, Heat is arguably Michael Mann’s masterpiece. It’s a heist movie on an epic scale, running for almost three hours and splitting its time between showing a gang of thieves organizing an ambitious bank robbery and following a hot-headed detective and his team trying to stop the gang.
It’s all in the execution and ambitious scope, which makes what might otherwise be an ordinary cops vs. robbers movie into something grand, bold, and emotionally intense. It’s worth watching for the centerpiece action sequence alone, which easily ranks as one of the very best shootouts in cinema history.