With movies on the ropes during the pandemic, it’s hard to remember that they once ruled American popular culture. In the 1990s, the latest film by Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese or David Fincher was an event not to be missed, while a teen comedy like "Clueless" could become a must-see hit thanks to strong reviews and word of mouth. Romcoms and action films reigned at the box office even as Hollywood’s old molds were broken by young filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith.
Meanwhile, Black cinema saw a remarkable rebirth, Asian culture took the spotlight with "The Joy Luck Club" and women heard a rallying cry in "Thelma and Louise." All in all, a great decade for movie fans.
Here are 30 movies that defined the 1990s. All titles are available at Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play and Vudu.
THE TOP FIVE
PULP FICTION (1994) A mix of post-modern cool, outlaw chic, amoral violence, and retro rock and roll, Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" wasn’t just the movie of the moment, it was a cultural game-changer. Suddenly, movies were awesome again, music was fun again and John Travolta was back on top. Uma Thurman became our new screen siren and Samuel L. Jackson was everywhere. Everything about the movie became fashionable: surf rock, ‘70s blazers, film noir, Christopher Walken. More than 25 years later, the movie still hasn’t gone out of style.
FIGHT CLUB (1999) Edward Norton and Brad Pitt play doppelgangers who seek enlightenment through violence in this sleazy, stylized satire-thriller. Director Fincher flips countercultural rebellion on its head, drawing a jagged line from consumer malaise to freewheeling rebellion to domestic terrorism. Still frightening, funny and grotesque, with a gritty score by electronica mavens the Dust Brothers.
THE MATRIX (1999) This story of a corporate drone (Keanu Reeves) who discovers his world is actually a computer program defined a cyber-hacker-virtual zeitgeist that was not quite fully upon us (and gave us a red-pill-blue-pill meme that’s still in use). With its morphing visual effects, martial-arts-influenced choreography and slo-mo time warping, the movie made the techno-thrillers of the past look quaint and set a standard for the next 20 years.
TRAINSPOTTING (1996) In down-and-out Edinburgh, a group of heroin addicts and petty criminals squander their lives and have a great time doing so. Danny Boyle’s gritty and grimly funny coming-of-age film (based on Irvine Welsh’s novel) helped define the beautiful-loser ethos of the alt-rock ‘90s: drugged out, too cool, going nowhere. The soundtracks (two of them featuring Iggy Pop, Blur, Pulp and Underworld) are among the best of all time.
TOY STORY (1995) Few films can lay claim to changing an industry, but this Pixar production — the first entirely computer-animated feature film — did just that. Remarkably, the movie felt warm and human rather than cold and mathematical, and the toy characters (Tom Hanks as cowboy doll Woody, Tim Allen as action figure Buzz Lightyear) would go on to become our friends for the next 25 years.
DRAMAS AND BLOCKBUSTERS
TITANIC (1997) Every decade has its great cinematic love story, and the '90s had this Oscar-winning, record-breaking, box-office juggernaut about two lovers on a doomed luxury liner. With its dazzling production and soon-to-be-superstars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, it was a welcome throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
GOODFELLAS (1990) Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and an unforgettable Joe Pesci brutalize their way through the last heyday of the Mafia in this fast-moving, coke-fueled, rock and rolling masterpiece from Scorsese. It made "The Godfather" look like a museum piece, paved the way for Tarantino’s career and remains an inescapable influence on crime movies.
THELMA & LOUISE (1991) Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are women on a road trip that takes a wrong turn into attempted rape and murder. Callie Khouri’s script pushed an envelope that could never be resealed: Here was a movie where women insisted on living their own lives, no matter what the price. Movies of many stripes — from "Promising Young Woman" to "Frozen" — owe this one a debt.
THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993) Wayne Wang’s sensitive translation of Amy Tan’s novel about Chinese-American women and their mothers was a triumph for Asian representation — and still is. It remains one of only a handful of major studio movies with a majority Asian cast and a contemporary story (some others are 1961’s "Flower Drum Song" and 2018’s "Crazy Rich Asians"). Despite critical praise and solid box office, the film was snubbed for Oscar nominations.
BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) Onetime rapper and underwear model Mark Wahlberg proved to the world he could act in this film about a porn star whose heyday in the 1970s gives way to desperation and crime in the '80s. Paul Thomas Anderson’s fast-moving drama borrowed more than a little from Tarantino (awesome outfits, lots of music and the resuscitation of a faded star, Burt Reynolds), but also heralded the arrival of one the great filmmakers. With Julianne Moore, Heather Graham and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997) It’s hard to remember that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were still "rising" stars when their little screenplay made it to the screen (the studio reportedly wanted Pitt and DiCaprio for their roles). Their story about a South Boston roughneck who turns out to be a genius became a smash hit, earning Oscars for supporting actor Robin Williams (as a kindly therapist) and for the young writing duo. The whole project showed that indie culture had gone mainstream: Singer-songwriter Elliot Smith even performed his nominated song "Miss Misery" at the Oscars.
THRILLERS, HORROR AND ACTION MOVIES
POINT BREAK (1991) An FBI agent (Keanu Reeves) must infiltrate a band of surfing bank robbers (!) led by a mystical guru named Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Kathryn Bigelow’s action movie is one of the silliest and greatest of all — a heady mix of macho fantasy, cognitive dissonance (the robbers’ masks are former U.S. Presidents) and muscular filmmaking. Endlessly watchable.
BASIC INSTINCT (1992) When it comes to the White American Male, nobody has played him better than Michael Douglas. In a series of button-pushing thrillers (from 1987’s "Fatal Attraction" to 1998’s "A Perfect Murder"), Douglas played men driven — and undone — by sexual hubris. Here Douglas meets his match in Sharon Stone, a femme fatale for the ages; her uncrossed legs would create one of the biggest stirs in cinema history.
TRUE ROMANCE (1993) Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette play a couple drawn into a world of violent crime in this Tony Scott filmed with a script by Tarantino. It was one of the first of the decade’s many outlaw-chic movies — "Wild Things," "Love and .45," "Natural Born Killers" — and remains a cult favorite for its pop-culture references (kung-fu flicks, Elvis Presley) and impassioned dialogue: "You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool."
SEVEN (1995) Fincher’s thriller about a psychopath (Kevin Spacey) whose elaborate murders are inspired by the seven deadly sins took horror into new realms of aesthetic and thematic ugliness. With an opening credit sequence by Kyle Cooper that reflected alt-rock music videos (and would inspire many more), "Seven" opened the door for a new wave of morbid horror, from "Saw" to "Hostel."
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) The Coen Brothers were the echt-‘90s filmmakers: subversive, cynical, wickedly funny, possibly sincere, always self-aware. That’s this movie in a nutshell. Jeff Bridges plays the role he was born for, The Dude, a hippie holdover shambling through what seems to be a film-noir satire. It’s a comedy, but the movie itself seems to be kidding. Stuffed with obscure references, odd cameos (is that a toeless Aimee Mann?) and general weirdness, the movie developed an almost frighteningly devoted cult that lives on.
THE PLAYER (1992) Hollywood satires have always been vicious, but Robert Altman’s had more bite than most. Tim Robbins plays a studio exec who murders a screenwriter (an extreme example of how Hollywood treats its creatives) then realizes someone knows he’s guilty. With more than 60 show-biz cameos from Angelica Huston to Lyle Lovett to Buck Henry, numerous in-jokes and a self-referential ending, "The Player" is a look at Hollywood through a postmodern lens.
THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998) Reality television was still in its infancy when Peter Weir’s movie about an amiable young man (Jim Carrey) who discovers that his whole life has been one giant television series broadcast to a world he’s never known came out. To some extent, "The Truman Show" was the "Network" of its day, a movie that mirrored our fears about where the media was heading and, it turns out, confirmed them.
ROMANCES AND ROMCOMS
JERRY MAGUIRE (1996) At a time when professional sports, skin color and outsized wealth were less fraught topics in the movies, this Cameron Crowe gusher struck a chord with audiences. Tom Cruise’s romantic speeches to Renée Zellweger ("You complete me") and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s mantra "Show me the money" became catchphrases for a generation. In a decade dripping with irony, this movie sold sincerity. It earned $273 million at the box office.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998) A romantic comedy with foul language and gleefully gross humor may sound like a familiar formula today, but not in the late ‘90s. To tell the story of a lovelorn man (Ben Stiller) who tries to woo his high school crush (Cameron Diaz), the Farrelly brothers mixed their usual bodily function jokes with a surprising amount of tenderness. The result: an R-rated date movie that took in $369 million.
PRETTY WOMAN (1990) As sexist fairy tales go, Garry Marshall’s glossy, post-‘80s romcom about a prostitute (Julia Roberts) and a Gordon Gekko-esque millionaire (Richard Gere) couldn’t be any plainer. Audiences ate it up to the tune of $463 million, making it one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time.
YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998) The previous pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, "Sleepless in Seattle," was a bigger hit, but this romcom bears the ultimate ‘90s stamp: the AOL logo. The fascinating new world of email and the internet gave a modern twist to a very old story (the script is based on a play that became 1940’s "The Shop Around the Corner"). Directed and co-written by the great Nora Ephron.
FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994) The first collaboration between writer Richard Curtis and star Hugh Grant — he plays a bachelor bipping and bopping between lovers and friends — this is the movie that launched a thousand British romcoms. With Andie MacDowell and Kristin Scott Thomas.
THE BOYDGUARD (1992) This star vehicle for Whitney Houston as a famous entertainer who falls for her bodyguard (Kevin Costner) hit the sweet spot between glossy romance and action-thriller. Critics howled, but the movie earned a whopping $411 million.
INDIES AND UPSTARTS
CHASING AMY (1997) Remember when comics were edgy and hip? Indie darling Kevin Smith ("Clerks") scored a Hollywood hit with this story about a comics creator (rising star Ben Affleck) who dates a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams). Despite some crude humor, Smith’s movie wears its heart bravely on its sleeve. The soundtrack (never released, alas) includes Liz Phair, Soul Asylum and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) On a Eurail train, a starry-eyed American (Ethan Hawke) convinces a gimlet-eyed French girl (Julie Delpy) to spend an evening in Vienna. If Gen X has a cinematic poet laureate, it’s surely Linklater, who seems to know that this movie — one of the most romantic ever made — is both a glossy fantasy and a precious snapshot of fleeting youth. The leads would make two sequels with their director, aging as they go and making this first installment all the more poignant.
BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991) The Black cinema renaissance of the 1990s began with John Singleton’s tough-as-nails drama about a group of teenagers coming of age in South Central Los Angeles. It provided breakout turns for Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube, generated a soundtrack that hit No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart, and paved the way for a Black cultural explosion of movies, television and rap music throughout the decade.
TEENS AND YOUNG ADULTS
CLUELESS (1995) Jane Austen’s "Emma" goes to Beverly Hills in this candy-colored teen film from director Amy Heckerling. It turned Alicia Silverstone, as a frivolous rich girl with the impossible name of Cher, into a pop-culture sensation and gave an early role to Paul Rudd as the serious-minded college boy she falls for. Sharply funny but brimming with love for its characters, the movie is a ‘90s gem that hasn’t aged a day.
CRUEL INTENTIONS (1999) This Manhattan rich-kid version of "Dangerous Liaisons" features an of-the-moment cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar (already a star thanks to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), real-life sweethearts Ryan Philippe and Reese Witherspoon, and a campy Selma Blair. It’s preposterous, pretentious fun.
RUSHMORE (1998) Wes Anderson’s first great film was a different kind of coming-of-age film. Where the cinematic teens of the ‘80s were obsessed with sex and status, Anderson’s hero, Max (Jason Schwartzman), is a precocious, pretentious mini-gadfly with an eye for his teacher (Olivia Williams). The offbeat humor and cultural influences from Hal Ashby to J.D. Salinger combined into something fresh. This was also where Bill Murray began his transformation from broad comedic star to hipster icon.