Most decades within the 20th century have something for which they are best known. For example: the 1920s were known for prohibition; the 1950s saw the rise of television as a means of mass communication and entertainment; and the 1970s had, well, disco. But the closer you get to the present, the more things seem to kind of blur together. The final decade of the century perhaps isn’t far enough away from us to have any significant stand-out trend. And maybe it never will. If we could pick, however, we’d probably say that what the 1990s had was cinema.
Sure, it’s hardly the first decade to see the widespread popularity of film, but there was something special about the movies that came out back then. Maybe its just us, but they don’t seem nearly as dated as films that came out less than a decade prior. It could be a unique set of coincidental circumstances – like the rise of digital technology, a boom in unique storytelling, and that a handful of visionary directors all existed at the same time – but we’d like to think that, whatever the reason, the 90s will go down as one of the best times for movies ever. The fact is, many of the films of that decade, now nearly 20 years passed, still hold up well today. See for yourself as you read through the following list of our picks for the 30 best movies from the 1990s.
Not only did this movie introduce the often-parodied “plastic bag floating in the wind” trope, but it also features one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances of his entire career. That is, so long as you can get past the painfully uncomfortable opening scene and really dig into this very emotional drama. Following the story of a family as the patriarch of the family goes through a mid-life crisis, this film offers plenty of laughs, tears, and a few gasps by the end of it.
The Big Lebowski
Certainly the most well-known if not the best Coen brothers film, The Big Lebowski is a pretty strange comedy film story-wise and structurally speaking. That being said, it is no less a classic staple of multiple generations. This quirky tale of mistaken identity stars Jeff Bridges (as The Dude), John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and more. This flick is full of lines you’ll be quoting for years to come, even if you walk away from it not really sure what it was all about.
Boyz N The Hood
Starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Lawrence Fishburne, Ice Cube, and Angela Basset, this film is widely credited as having opened the doors for future urban and black films to be made. But, since we are not here to rant about racism in Hollywood, we’ll instead say this: Boyz N The Hood is an excellent film about what it was like to grow up in the Crenshaw ghetto of Los Angeles during the 1990s and, if you’re at all a fan of hip hop culture, it’s a must see movie.
Before Mel Gibson got himself into a whole lot of trouble, you might remember that he was actually a highly lauded actor who was nominated for several academy awards. And Braveheart was the movie that garnered him his only two wins – one for Best Director and the other for Best Actor. The story follows the semi-true story of William Wallace, a Scotsman who helps begin a revolt against King Edward I of England. Not only is it an incredibly well produced story, but this action-adventure movie offers some of the best cinematography of all time.
If you’ve ever seen any of the Charles Bronson Death Wish films from the 70s and 80s and you enjoyed them, then Falling Down is a movie you’re going to want to see. Starring Michael Douglas and, surprisingly, directed by Joel Schumacher, this film follows the story of a recently laid off defense worker as he rampages through the city, lashing out at everything he views as unfair about society. It’s violent and action packed and a welcome reprieve from the too-sentimental films that so frequently are pushed upon us by Hollywood.
Another brilliant Coen brothers film, Fargo actually earned the film’s lead actress, Frances McDormand, an Oscar. In fact, the brothers also received one for Best Writing, as well. Balancing on the line between drama and comedy, this film is a cult classic in every sense of the term. But don’t let that status fool you, it’s also just a great movie overall. It also stars William H. Macey, as well as Coen brothers’ favorites Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare – both of whom also appeared in The Big Lebowski.
Based on a Chuck Palahniuk book of the same name, Fight Club is the story of a disenchanted office worker suffering from insomnia as he escapes the grueling boredom of his normal life by forming an underground fight club alongside a cavalier soap maker. If you’ve never seen the movie, we won’t spoil it for you, but trust us when we say that this flick offers one of the best twist endings of any movie ever. It stars Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, and – believe it or not – Meat Loaf.
This action/adventure/drama isn’t just one of the best movies of the 90s – it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this and go out and watch it. This 6-Oscar-winning flick, which was directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars Tom Hanks in the titular role, tells the story of a simpleton as he makes his way through a series of historical events and learns about the world on the way. It’s not an easy movie to describe without giving it away, but it can be said that it is equally parts charming, heartbreaking, and fun.
Long before Ice Cube was asking “are we there yet?” he starred alongside Chris Tucker in this uproarious comedy. The premise is simple, following the story of two friends as they try to figure out how to pay their dope dealer for $200 of marijuana (which they have already smoked) by 10 pm on a Friday night. It’s a pretty polarizing flick whose enjoyment is dependent upon whether or not you appreciate inner city comedy and hip hop culture, but we definitely do, so it’s made our list.
We don’t think there’s any doubt that Martin Scorsese is the king of gangster movies, having directed films such as Casino, The Departed, and – our personal favorite – Goodfellas. It stars Robert, De Niro, Ray Leota, and Joe Pesci as a trio of friends who work their way up the mafia ladder. What you might not know, however, is that it is based off of a non-fiction book titled Wiseguy, by Nicholas Pileggi, about the real life mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill. If you like mafia movies, this one is a must-see.
As far as heist movies are concerned, you can’t do much better than Heat. Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Val Kilmer, and follows the fictionalized version of a real-life crime spree in 1960s Chicago. While this movie was a big success and is still a superb crime flick, it actually got a rocky start as a television pilot that no networks picked up entitled L.A. Takedown. And while we’d never wish anyone a failed TV project, we’re just glad that it resulted in what can perhaps be called the greatest heist movie of all time.
While this might be one of those “you had to be there” kinds of movies, it still makes our list for how clever, charming, funny and fun it is. Following the story of an 8-year-old boy who is left behind while the rest of his family leaves for a Christmas vacation, this was the flick that really introduced the world to Macaulay Culkin. And while he didn’t quite make it out of childhood stardom, his appearance in Home Alone is still one of the greatest performances by a young person in any movie ever. It also stars Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, and has a surprise cameo from the late John Candy.
When talk of a movie spinoff surfaces over 20 years later, we are forced to assume it has something to do with the staying power of the original film. Such is the case with Steven Spielberg’s Hook. This re-telling (or, perhaps more accurately, sequel) of the classic Peter Pan story has a pretty incredible cast that includes Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith, and more. And while our hopes are tempered, we’d love to see a Rufio spinoff, if only for our chance to yet-again chant the character’s name.
For a movie released over 20 years ago – and one of the first to heavily feature computer generated images – Jurassic Park holds up surprisingly well. Perhaps that’s because we have no frame of reference for what dinosaurs really looked like, or perhaps it’s a testament to the master craftsmen behind the movie. In any case, this horror-heavy action-adventure movie, based on a book by Michael Chrichton, is one of our favorite Steven Spielberg-helmed projects of all time.
Leon: The Professional
From Luc Besson, the mastermind behind sci-fi masterpiece The Fifth Element and Lucy, comes this film about an assassin who takes in a 12-year-old girl after her family is murdered. Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, and a very young Natalie Portman, this movie is full of Besson’s signature quirks and, though the subject matter is certainly on the rougher side of the tracks, manages to still be funny and heartwarming at times. The highlight of this film is inarguably the relationship between Leon and Mathilda, as the former teaches the latter the nuances of his craft so that she, in turn, can get revenge for her family. It’s a cult classic at worst, one of the best movies ever at best, and is definitely worth a watch one way or another.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels
If you are a fan at all of Jason Statham, then you probably have Guy Richie and this film to thank for his stardom. If you aren’t, don’t sweat it, because this movie is far removed from the over-the-top action he is well known for today. In fact, this movie is far closer to a cerebral thriller than anything else and is an excellent watch for anyone who likes to be kept guessing (and appreciates a measure of British humor along the way). Just be prepared to wade your way through some pretty heavy accents, though, as nearly every character in this film has an extremely thick one. So long as that doesn’t bother you, this movie could easily end up one of your favorites – if it isn’t already.
This science-fiction adventure movie was the first entry in an epic saga and is easily the best entry into the series. It played on a refreshingly original premise, that being the possibility that we are, in fact, all living inside of a simulation and have been enslaved by machines that we created. It’s different enough from the Terminator series that we can hardly call it derivative and was loaded with some of the most original fighting sequences we have ever seen. It stars Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, and (our personal favorite) Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith.
Penned and directed by Mike Judge – the mastermind behind Beavis & Butthead, Idiocracy, and King of the Hill – this comedy movie didn’t receive nearly as much praise as it deserved when it came out. Still, it has since garnered a loyal cult fanbase and ranks amongst the most quoted movies of all time. This movie is a love letter to anyone who has ever had to work in a dreary office and will likely be as relevant for years to come as it is now. It’s definitely not a big-budget comedy, but that’s probably a good thing in this case, as it could easily have been ruined by an excess of funds. It stars Ron Livingston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Diedrich Bader, and Jennifer Anniston.
Starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves, this is one of those movies that definitely didn’t necessitate a remake, but got one anyway. If you saw the one that came out recently, we’re sorry. Cheer yourself up by watching the far superior original. The storyline is basically the same – an FBI agent goes undercover to catch a gang of surfing bank robbers – but the toned down pacing and action works in a way that over-the-top skydiving sequences just can’t replicate.
In all likelihood, Pulp Fiction will go down as the best Quentin Tarantino movie ever made. And that’s saying a lot because so many of his movies are such superb works of art. It follows several complex and intertwined storylines that you have to see to really grasp and is masterfully acted by the likes of Tim Roth, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, and a whole throng of others. Though it’s primarily a crime drama, this movie has plenty elements of and comedy, as well. And if you haven’t seen it by now, then the time has come.
Another masterful crime drama from Quentin Tarantino, this movie can probably be credited as to why the director was given the reigns on Pulp Fiction. It tells the tale of a jewelry heist gone wrong and the subsequent paranoia that sets in as the group of criminals responsible begin to suspect that one of them is, in fact, a police informant. This movie doesn’t rely on elaborate sets or crazy action sequences, but it still manages to be incredibly enthralling and entertaining. It’s a superb spin on the whodunnit mystery thriller and will keep you guessing until the end.
Saving Private Ryan
There’s an interesting metric floating around the internet about how much it would cost in real life to save Matt Damon from the movies he’s performed in. This is the film that started that all. Alongside Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, and – believe it or not – Vin Diesel, this movie follows a group of American soldiers during World War II as they travel from the banks of Normandy behind enemy lines to save a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action. Directed by Steven Spielberg, this movie is a harrowing and, at times, incredibly sad movie to watch, but it is also a masterpiece of storytelling and cinematography.
Starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, this incredibly chilling thriller follows the story of two city cops as they try to unravel a series of brutal sin-based serial killings. It’s a superb example of a crime procedural with plenty of drama, horror, and a genre-breaking ending that has gone on to become one of the most iconic cinematic moments of all time. Just remember that this movie also features a good deal of violence and definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. That being said, if you can stomach it, this is an incredibly film about the folly of human nature.
The Shawshank Redemption
Based on a short story by writer Stephen King, this is another movie that ranks not just amongst the best of the 90s, but the best of all time. It stars Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, a man wrongfully accused of murder, as he bonds with lifelong prisoner Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (played by Morgan Freeman) during his incarceration. There’s a whole lot more to this movie, including all of the stereotypical misfortunes one might find in prison, but they are presented extremely well through a beautifully told story of common decency, humanity, and – of course – redemption. If you’re interested in reading the original, the short story is called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”
The Sixth Sense
If you’ve ever heard anyone utter the words “I see dead people,” and you’ve wondered where it comes from, The Sixth Sense is your answer. Whereas Home Alone features the best comedic performance by a child, this movie holds the award for best child performance in a drama/horror. It was the breakout hit of director M. Night Shyamalan and was also the start of his signature (and often parodied) pattern of twist-endings. It stars Bruce Willis alongside Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment. And it’s the perfect movie for anyone who likes ghost stories or is interested in picking apart director-included symbolism in films – watch for the color red in this one.
The Silence of the Lambs
For most people, The Silence of the Lambs was the movie that introduced them to one of the most unnerving movie characters of all time, Hannibal Lecter. And it’s a testament to both the story and Anthony Hopkins that Lecter is so frightening, because he’s kept behind bars and out of reach for the entirety of the film – which by all rights shouldn’t be as scary as it is. What’s perhaps most unnerving about it, however, is the fact that the character doesn’t blink once throughout the movie. Go ahead and watch it to see for yourself. And then watch the sequels and prequels, because they’re all quite good.
While we wouldn’t go so far as to claim that this movie is the greatest western of all time, it definitely ranks near the top. A part of that is because it follows the story of a true American cowboy hero, Wyatt Earp, and his family and friends. But we’d be remiss in our duties if we didn’t also give credit to the incredible performances of the actors in those roles, including Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday; Powers Boothe as Curly Bill; Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo; and Kurt Russel, Sam Elliot, and Bill Paxton as the Earp brothers. If you even remotely enjoy western action movies, you have to see this one.
For those of us who grew up in the 90s, Toy Story told the incredible tale of what our playthings do when we’re not in the room. What we didn’t know was that the movie wasn’t just great for kids, but was something that even adults could enjoy. And that’s what earns it a spot on our list: staying power. In classic Disney fashion, this family movie manages to stay relevant even this far since its initial release. It also helps that the flick features the voices of actors such as Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, and more.
Starring Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, and Val Kilmer, this movie is kind of like Pretty Woman, except made much more action-packed and violent thanks to the fact that it was penned by none other than Quentin Tarantino. And, in classic Tarantino fashion, it’s a complicated film rife with comedy, romance, and a heavy list of cameos that include James Gandolfini, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Walken, and Brad Pitt. He may not have directed it, but this is still one of the best films Tarantino has ever had a hand in.
The Usual Suspects
Another entry that proves that the 90s were the decade of Kevin Spacey, this movie features a twist ending that rivals that of even Fight Club or The Sixth Sense. The complicated story is told from the perspective of Roger “Verbal” Kint (played by Spacey) and is difficult to explain without giving anything away. And, trust us, you’ll want to see the ending for yourself. It also stars Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Gabriel Byrne, and Stephen Baldwin.
The 30 Best 80s Movies
If your taste in movies starts a little bit further back in time, then check out our list of the best 80s movies.
HiConsumption is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more