The best '90s movies: the best films of the '90s ranked
UPDATED: The very best '90s movies - a glorious decade in film
As you will see from this best '90s movies guide, the Nineties was an era of essential, classic movies. This was the decade of Spielberg, of action blockbusters that weren't faintly embarrassing or packed to the gills with superheroes, and the time when the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and The Coen Brothers came to prominence.
UPDATE: There is a change at the top of our best '90s movies list, with Pulp Fiction overtaking Shawshank Redemption. Director Quentin Tarantino's sophomore effort is a complex tapestry of crime tales, told out of order in the most majestic way possible. Tarantino's first feature Reservoir Dogs is also on the list and it is celebrating its 30th birthday this year.
Yes, the '70s was an era of groundbreaking creativity, and the '80s saw the advent of the blockbuster, but the '90s was a quintessential mix of both, resulting in a miasma of big-budget hits, and quirky, inventive cult hits.
This is our list of the 30 best '90s movies, plenty of which are also the best movies on Netflix right now.
Upvote your favourite. And if we've left out your favourite film of the decade, let us know at the bottom of this article.
The '90s not your top era? Check these out:
- These are the best movies of the 2000s
- The best 80s movies you need to watch today
- These are the best 70s movies - an amazing decade of film.
Best 90s films
1. The Shawshank Redemption
One of many great adaptations of Stephen King works, this was the ultimate sleeper hit, only just recouping its cost at the box office but going on to become one of the biggest-selling videos and DVDs of all time: astonishingly, at one point, 1 in 5 UK households owned the title. Set in the Shawshank prison, it tells a story of two great friends and the effects of prison life upon them and their fellow inmates and featured towering performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, as Red, the film’s wise narrator. An enduring epic.
2. Pulp Fiction
The second Tarantino movie to feature in this list is just as deserving of its place as the first. Pulp Fiction was thoroughly postmodern in composition, featuring a cut-up storyline, extreme violence juxtaposed with humour and extensive use of pop cultural references. It also managed the not-inconsiderable feat of revitalising John Travolta’s faltering career. Featuring a host of killer lines and great moments, it is no exaggeration to say that it changed cinema forever.
You can’t beat a classic gangster film - and this was one of the very best. Liotta, De Niro and Pesci excel under Scorsese’s direction, providing a fantastic exposition of the mob lifestyle - the downfalls and violence, but also the glamour. A critically-acclaimed movie, and the first in a trilogy of Scorsese crime epics: Goodfellas was later followed by Casino and The Departed. Also notable for containing the 11th-highest F-word count in movie history, with exactly 300.
4. The Matrix
The Wachowskis went for epic in every sense of the word with The Matrix. An ambitious sci-fi plot involving religion, myths and philosophical thought experiments, together with cutting edge special effects - particularly the ultra-slow ‘bullet time’, it created, appropriately enough, its own distinctive world and style. And it also had a brilliant baddie, in the form of Hugo Weaving’s demented Agent Smith. Even two decades on, it’s a high point for action cinema.
5. The Silence Of The Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs was a landmark movie in the horror genre, becoming the first film of that type to win a Best Picture Oscar (in addition to taking the other four of the ‘top five’ categories). Featuring a claustrophobic atmosphere and a tight script, the film was dominated by the towering performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, who turned Hannibal Lecter into an iconic movie character despite just 16 minutes of screen time. A sleeper hit, it very soon became one of the most famous films of the decade.
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
James Cameron’s epic cost an enormous $94m to make - 15 times the amount of its predecessor - but he spent it wisely, creating one of the all-time best Hollywood action blockbusters, and a more than worthy sequel. Schwarzenegger was again on top form, but it wasn’t just the action and the effects which made this film: as one critic put it, it was very much a ‘machine with a human heart’, after all, who’d have thought you’d be in tears at a robot disappearing into a vat of molten steel?
7. Jurassic Park
Everyone holds a place in their heart for Jurassic Park. A critical and box-office smash alike, the movie took humankind’s eternal fascination with dinosaurs and allied it with a fantastic storyline and groundbreaking special effects. Under the watchful eye of Steven Spielberg, the movie took over from his own E.T. to become the highest grossing film worldwide at the time. The shaking glass of water followed by the T-Rex eye remains one of the most iconic movie moments ever created, with the Raptors in the kitchen scene not far behind. Watch this and you’ll be in T-Rexstacy.
Seven (or, as it was often infuriatingly styled, Se7en), took the centuries-old idea of the seven deadly sins and created a masterpiece of a film, dripping with tension, suspense and gore. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed with aplomb by David Fincher, the film was a smash, helped in no small part by the superb chemistry between the two cops, played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, together with a truly stunning ending.
9. The Usual Suspects
Featuring fantastic performances, a densely packed and incredibly tight script, and twists aplenty - including one of the greatest of all time near the end - The Usual Suspects is a glorious romp of a movie. Despite a budget of just $6m, it was a box-office hit, rapturously received by the critics. In addition, almost by design, it rewarded multiple viewings and thus replicated its success on the home video market.
10. Schindler's List
Steven Spielberg spent ten years deliberating on whether to take on the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who turned from Nazi exploiter to a saver of lives, repeatedly offering it to fellow directors. Thankfully, for movie history, he went ahead and created a cinematic masterpiece which won seven Oscars and indelibly etched itself into the memory of everyone who saw it.
11. Toy Story
You would have got long odds on the tale of a set of toys, their adventures, and their hopes and fears, produced by a company making its first film, becoming not only a landmark in film animation, but the first of what has been described as the greatest movie trilogy of all time, but that’s exactly what happened with Toy Story. The first full-length computer animated film, it turned Pixar - backed by Apple guru Steve Jobs - into a global brand and household name, and ushered in a new era of animation. But the story was the star, with a tale of friendship and heroism that appealed to adults and children alike.
12. Fight Club
Like The Shawshank Redemption, this film went nowhere near to achieving box office smash status, but gained a lease of life upon DVD release, establishing it as a cult classic. Eliciting love and hate in equal measures from critics, the crucial attribute it had was that it elicited a reaction: Fight Club’s nihilism and violence meant that everyone had an opinion on its merits, and what it meant. We probably shouldn’t be writing this though; you all know what the first rule of Fight Club is…
13. Groundhog Day
A film so iconic that its name is now widely used as a description of a situation that repeats itself over and over again. A film so iconic that its name is now widely-used as a description of a situation that repeats itself over and over again. A film so iconic…where were we? Sorry, a deceptively simple idea, that creates a brilliant story, this is, without doubt, one of the best and most influential films of the 90s.
14. Good Will Hunting
From the minds of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck before they became Hollywood elite, Good Will Hunting is the story of a WIll Hunting (played by Damon) who is a caretaker at a high school but also turns out to be a genius mathematician. It features fantastic performances from Damon and Robin WIlliams, who co-stars. The movie was a huge hit with audiences, critics and award bodies alike, picking up the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
An instant classic, Fargo made the Coen Brothers household names and propelled character actors Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy to big-name status. But it’s Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand) who steals the film. One of the all-time greatest movie cops, she slowly pieces together the puzzle of a spate of killings in Minneapolis, before the film comes to a thrilling conclusion. *Warning: Contains inventive use of a woodchipping machine*
16. The Sixth Sense
A creepy, psychological thriller, The Sixth Sense was an enormous box office smash, and ensured that if anyone came up to you and saying “I see dead people”, you gave them a wry smile rather than running a mile. It’s quite hard to say much more about this film other than (a) it turns out Bruce Willis can act and (b) there is something of a twist towards the end…
17. Reservoir Dogs
A bolt from the (Mr) blue, Reservoir Dogs brought writer-director Quentin Tarantino to the world’s attention, as well as a serious amount of swearing and violence. The story of the aftermath of a botched diamond heist and the subsequent search for answers and recriminations provided a gripping story, soundtracked by a series of classic tracks. We can never quite listen to ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ without feeling a slight throbbing in our ears. A cult classic that still retains its power to shock today.
Superbly stylish, effortlessly cool and French, Leon was an unusual tale. An orphaned 12-year-old girl - portrayed by a young Natalie Portman in a performance that catapulted her to fame - finds refuge with a loner hit-man, who gradually teaches her the ways of his world. Violent, graphic, but with heart and affection, Leon remains undoubtedly a classic of the decade.
Michael Mann spent fifteen years trying to get Heat made, including making what was essentially a simplified TV version, L.A. Takedown, in a bid to get the project noticed. Tense, eloquent, sleek and thoughtful, it not only brought Pacino and De Niro together on-screen for the first time, it was also thought to have inspired several real-life shootouts.
20. The Lion King
A true coming-of-age adventure if ever there was one, The Lion King follows the story of Simba, a lion cub who is set to become king of the pride-land, as he searches for his destiny. Featuring one of the greatest soundtracks around - Circle of Life, anyone? - The Lion King was first released in 1994 and became an instant classic for children (and adults) the world over. It makes you laugh, cry, hide behind the sofa as the hyenas approach and, more importantly, sing your lungs out.
21. The Big Lebowski
The second Coen Brothers film on the list, this is a very different kettle of fish to Fargo. Endlessly quotable and packed with memorable characters, it’s the most cultish of cult classics, a profane, rambling, hilarious shaggy-dog story of a movie anchored by an instantly iconic central performance by Jeff Bridges as The Dude. Anyway, enough analysis, let’s go bowling.
22. L.A. Confidential
A stylish, seductive and smart film based on the bestselling novel by James Ellroy, LA Confidential took the relatively unknown Antipodeans Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, and catapulted them to fame. Murder, corruption and ambition abound as three concurrent stories intertwine and unravel in a beautifully detailed rendering of 1950s LA. Kim Basinger won an Oscar for her performance as a Veronica Lake lookalike sex worker in this pitch-perfect, cerebral noir.
23. Home Alone
This Christmas comedy classic sees 8-year-old Kevin McCallister, played by Macauley Culkin, accidentally left home alone by his family after acting out and being ordered to sleep in the attic the night before their holiday to Paris. McCallister finds himself defending the family home from two burglars as his family battle to make it back to Illinois, setting all manner of traps to catch the dastardly duo,
Sometimes all you need is a straightforward plot, and a whole load of tension and action. Speed was an exhilarating rollercoaster of a movie based on a simple idea of a bomb going off on a bus if it dropped below 50mph. The breakneck action never stops, while Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper are absolutely perfectly cast. Plus who can ever forget Alan Ruck’s scene-stealing performance as an out-of-his-depth tourist? “Oh darn.”
One of the most iconic British films of all time, let alone simply of the 90s, Trainspotting’s place in this list is beyond questioning. Director Danny Boyle created a fast-paced, fantastically black comedy in the grimmest of circumstances: the bleak surroundings of a group of heroin addicts. Featuring strong performances throughout and an absolutely killer soundtrack, the film was a cultural touchstone for a generation. No trains in it though.
26. The Truman Show
There can’t be many films that are so influential that they have a syndrome named after them - but this is one of them. Joel Gold, a psychiatrist revealed that, by 2008, he had met 5 patients that believed their lives were reality television shows, and thus “The Truman Show delusion” was created. Released a year before Big Brother smashed reality TV into the mainstream, this was a brilliantly clever, profound and prescient exploration of what ‘reality’ really is, with a masterful turn from Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, the unwitting star of his own TV show.
27. Boyz N The Hood
Astonishingly, John Singleton was just 23 when he directed this classic and hard-hitting account of life on the LA streets of South Central. With rapper Ice Cube, from the notorious group NWA - themselves from that area - starring, the movie had the necessary authenticity, and realness, to gain respect from the critics and the people on the streets that it profiled. The cinematic counterpart to that era’s gangster rap musical movement, this is an undoubted classic of the genre.
The tragic love story that never was - yes, that's right (spoiler alert) Rose and Jack were never actually aboard the real Titanic - Titanic tells the tale of the ill-fated steam liner that sunk on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Hitting an iceberg mid-voyage, the pair of lovers are faced with a tough decision, as Jack remains locked below deck and Rose is swept along by first class passangers.
29. Being John MalkovichView now at Amazon (Rent or Buy)
Being John Malkovich may have been released at the beginning of the year 2000, but it's a 1999 movie officially, so it'll make the list. Just. This quirky fantasy-meets-comedy has a fantastic cast with John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener, as well as John Malkovich and Charlie Sheen playing themselves. It's hard to tell you much about this movie without giving away some of the best twists and turns, but it's about a strange office and a strange tunnel that's behind a filing cabinet. The rest you can maybe guess from the title.
30. The Thin Red Line
At 170 minutes long, Terrence Malick’s war movie undoubtedly counts as an epic. Featuring a huge cast of big names - some of whom became bigger names after starring in what would be Malick’s first film after a 20-year hiatus - and it was a huge undertaking for all involved. Despite turning none of its seven Oscar nominations into awards, it’s still one to add to your list the next time you have a spare three hours.