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The Best Movies of the 1990s, from Goodfellas to Schindler to Everything Tarantino
*Originally published on White Cover Magazine...
The 90's died about 15 years ago. Or 13 years ago, because Who Let The Dogs Out was a hit towards the end of 2001, if memory serves. And the Academy Awards in 2000 honoured the films of the year before, as the Academy Awards has always done. American Beauty won Best Picture, beating out The Insider, The Sixth Sense, The Green Mile, and The Cider House Rules. There are more "the"s in that list than CBS's weekday schedule.
And American Beauty is still being honoured as a 90's film, falling somewhere near the back of the front 10 in Rolling Stone magazine's '25 Best Movies of the 1990s" – behind Goodfellas, The Big Lebowski, and Pulp Fiction, which placed in the top three.
And isn't that a pretty typically hindsight-y top three? You've got Scorsese's magna carta in there, kicking off the decade with a loss to Dances With Wolves in that year's Oscars. (They had to know that was a mistake at the time, but they ignored it like they ignored Saving Private Ryan next to Shakespeare in Love, too.) You've got Pulp Fiction, easily the most defining movie of a decade where Tarantino emerged and laid waste to whatever fundamentals of screenwriting Lee Strasberg was teaching the generation before, and making L.A. look so cool and dirty and gross and iconic and awesome and awful in the process. (Tarantino had two more films in the Top 25, by the way, with True Romance and Reservoir Dogs. And Kill Bill came out in 2003, just a little too late for the age of neon.)
And then you've got The Big Lebowski, a panned and failed cult classic from Joel and Ethan Coen. You don't have to love it – not everyone will. The 90's was, after all, only a cool decade long after it was over... just like Lebowski, actually. The actors it laid on a platter in front of you – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, the toes of Tara Reid, and the voice of Sam Elliott – were fused together at the time and ignored as one, but 16 years later they play off each other like the 2003 Florida Marlins, a collection of "Who?"s and misfit toys that actually had a championship-calibre core.
What made The Big Lebowski so great then is also what made it so misunderstood. I'm not saying it's ahead of its time. But the 90's was, really, a decade of counter-culture – Nirvana, ripped jeans, coffeeshops, and twenty-somethings loving horrible music just because their parents hated it. (I guess, in that last way, it was like every other decade.)
But coffeeshops and twenty-somethings turned into Starbucks. Add live music and you had Friends. Batman turned into Schumacher's Batman. Whatever grit there was was neutered for something easier to digest, as it always is.
And The Big Lebowski made fun of all of that. That's why it's appreciated now, and why it was passed over then.
And it's funny, when you read the list below, because you see that contradiction bouncing off itself. The Shawshank Redemption came fourth (and is the highest-rated film EVER on IMDB.com) and I never really liked the movie all that much. It was well-done, sure. Tim Robbins is great. And it launched Morgan Freeman's career as a narrator. But it was soft, in my opinion. It talked about difficult topics and never showed them. (Whatever Shawshank talked about – like prison rape or murder, for example – American History X actually quite graphically filmed it.) Watching a prison film from the mid-90s is much like watching a war film before Private Ryan or Schindler's List.
If a movie about war, prison, AIDS, cancer, drugs, or genocide can't subject its viewer to true, uncomfortable torture, then it's not doing its job.
The Top 25 Movies of the 1990s, according to Rolling Stone's readers poll:
1. Pulp Fiction
It's three hours long because it's worth three hours of your time. And a repeat viewing or two, as well.
2. The Big Lebowski
You can probably take the movie's most famous quote – "Sometimes you eat the bar, and, well, sometimes the bar eats you" – and frame it on your wall.
Dare I say, it's probably a little dated now, but only because every other actor has copied and pasted from what Scorsese invented and then perfected – and he perfected it with this film, the first real film about New York mafioso and maybe the last real film about New York mafioso.
4. The Shawshank Redemption
I said enough about it above. Good flick, though. Just overrated in my opinion, sorta like Springsteen.
5. Fight Club
It actually took me about 10 years to watch this movie. That's not 10 years since it came out, but 10 years since people first started calling me crazy for having never seen it. I sorta get why they were mad at me now, 15 years after it was released.
6. Forrest Gump
Simply, one of the most enjoyable movies you'll ever see. And, if you're 10 years old or so, like I was when I first saw it, one of the most educational movies you'll ever see, too.
You know that little rant I went on about how prison movies and war movies can't be good anymore unless you torture their viewers? Ditto here, for drugs. (And Requiem for a Dream, too.)
8. Reservoir Dogs
Tell you what, if you haven't seen this yet, watch every other Tarantino film there is first. Because Reservoir Dogs was his first. And then, watch Dogs and as soon as you see the movie open with that long, long intro that's all dialogue and debates on Madonna and tipping waitresses, you'll go, "Oh..."
9. American Beauty
I have heard it's been criticized since it came out in 1999. I have no idea why... really, I don't.
10. The Usual Suspects
Forgive Stephen Baldwin's acting and focus on the rest of the film, because it earned this ranking.
11. Dazed and Confused
This film – and the fact that it was ignored when it came out – is another exhibit in the case that Richard Linklater is Hollywood's understated genius, a director focused on the quality of his work and the long game.
You already know Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey are great actors. But if tabloids and a career on magazine covers have misled you, Brad Pitt is pretty damn good at his job, too.
13. True Romance
The summary of the video below is, "Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper are gods among men," which should make you want to watch anything.
15. Silence of the Lambs
Fun fact: this is the last film to win the Academy Award for all five major categories – Best Picture, Best Director (Demme), Best Actor (Hopkins), Best Actress (Foster), and Best Screenplay – and only two did it before it, with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and It Happened One Night.
16. The Matrix
For some reason, whenever I think of the 1990s, I think of The Matrix. And then I think of Columbine. And then I think about something else.
17. Schindler's List
A perfect film.
18. Saving Private Ryan
The most groundbreaking war film ever made. Period.
19. Boogie Nights
Take this and compare it with There Will Be Blood – made 20 years later – and then try to tell me Paul Thomas Anderson isn't the greatest director under the age of 50.
The most underrated movie I've ever seen. Again, period.
22. Jurassic Park
The best special effects of all-time, considering when it was made. This movie, about dinosaurs ripping about a theme park and tearing stupid humans in half, still stands up after 20 years and a whole bunch of other stuff from Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, and Roland Emmerich that ripped it off... not even Star Wars has that kind of lasting visual appeal.
I suppose calling this Clint Eastwood's masterpiece if sort of like calling Goodfellas Scorsese's masterpiece, in that it's his most well-known to a younger generation (well, and Gran Torino), but giving it a title like that does some disservice to everything he did before.
Never seen it, sorry.
25. Dumb and Dumber
The most quotable film of all-time, and I'd say the funniest, just for its sheer consistency to bust guts from start-to-finish.