The 90s decade was a great time for movies: the rom-com genre was at its height; outright comedies were made of gold; horror flicks were genuinely terrifying; indie films and blockbusters pleased all alike.
Indeed, some of our favorite movie franchises began during the awesomeness of the 1990s. Not to mention this was the decade that started the Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid.
Here are our picks for the most popular and most iconic movies of the 90s that have an enduring and memorable legacy to this day.
10. Goodfellas (1990)
Martin Scorsese is the king of gangster movies, and Goodfellas remains his most beloved. Mean Streets (1973), Gangs of New York (2002), The Irishman (2019)… sure, they’re all brilliant. But everybody knows Goodfellas reigns supreme.
Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, Goodfellas is brimming with tension and shootouts. Scorsese’s use of the long take has been feverishly analyzed by film students and cinephiles as he takes us through the seedy underbelly of Brooklyn.
Set in the 1950s, Goodfellas follows one man’s rise through the ranks of the Italian mob. Goodfellas is based on the 1985 book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi.
9. Clueless (1995)
“Ugh, as if!”
Cinematically speaking, Clueless may not be the most sophisticated film to come out of the 90s. But man, is it iconic! Made back when chick-flicks weren’t quite so cringe and predictable, Clueless boasts a popping wardrobe and tons of memorable lines.
Technically, Clueless is an adaptation of the 1815 Jane Austen novel Emma, but you wouldn’t know it. Alicia Silverstone stars as a rich and shallow high school student who ends up falling for her former stepbrother (played by Paul Rudd).
Clueless isn’t just fun to watch. It’s actually quite highly regarded in cinema’s feminist circles. From the tartan suits to the 90s soundtrack, we’re still obsessed.
8. Pulp Fiction (1994)
“I’m sorry, did I break your concentration?”
Quentin Tarantino has put out a lot of hits in his day, but none more iconic than his independent noir flick Pulp Fiction. Split into seven chapters, Pulp Fiction is told non-chronologically—and that’s only one of its many quirks.
John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson open the movie as two foul-mouthed, short-tempered, incredibly entertaining hitmen who are seeking a briefcase. A stunning example of the MacGuffin in action.
As its narratives interweave, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Christopher Walken, and Bruce Willis all make an appearance. Pulp Fiction won the Palme D’or at Cannes and was hailed as a self-reflexive, masterfully written touchstone of postmodern film.
7. Fight Club (1999)
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“I don’t want to die without any scars.”
The first rule of Fight Club has been broken many, many times. In fact, film buffs haven’t stopped talking about Fight Club since it was released way back at the tail end of the 1990s.
Brad Pitt stars as Edward Norton’s zany new buddy, who stands against all forms of materialism. Inspired by his lifestyle, Norton (known only as “the narrator”) ditches his apartment to run a fight club.
The plot twists, hidden clues, cinematography, anti-capitalist agenda… there’s just so much to talk about! David Fincher directs this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, imbuing it with his usual shadowy color grading and sculpted dialogue.
6. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
“Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
Sad but wise words. Voted one of the best movies ever made, we couldn’t leave The Shawshank Redemption off of this list. Based on the 1982 Stephen King novella, The Shawshank Redemption mostly takes place in a 1940s prison.
Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) isn’t your usual criminal. After he’s sent to prison, he quickly befriends Red (played by Morgan Freeman) who is “the only guilty man in Shawshank.”
Frank Darabont’s classic movie grabbed viewers by the heartstrings. A strong connection is formed with its sympathetic characters, who we watch as they grow and develop across a 20-year span.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
“Good evening, Clarice…”
Few horror films have made even a fraction of the impact that The Silence of the Lambs made. Audiences have developed a taste for serial killers—fictional or not—over the past few decades, and Hannibal Lecter was one of the first.
The psychopathic cannibal is eerily portrayed to perfection by Anthony Hopkins, who went on to star in the subsequent Hannibal franchise. What sets Lecter apart from other on-screen psychos is his intellect. He’s educated, deceptive, and speaks with a creepy sense of calm.
Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI agent who picks Lecter’s brain to help solve another case. Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece thriller won six Academy Awards in 1992.
4. Forrest Gump (1994)
“Life is like a box of chocolates…”
Forrest Gump swarms with catchy, quotable phrases. A fine example of the bildungsroman genre, Forrest Gump also went on to win multiple Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for Tom Hanks, who starred as the dumb-but-lovable optimist Forrest.
“I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is,” Forrest pleads to the troubled love of his life (played by Robin Wright). Despite his IQ of 75, he leads a pretty eventful life: Vietnam War veteran, ping-pong champion, fisherman, philanthropist, world-famous runner…
Forrest Gump achieves all of this by accident. Director Robert Zemeckis’ film is based on the 1986 novel by Winston Groom, and is sure to warm the old cockles.
3. Good Will Hunting (1997)
“How d’you like them apples?”
You’ve probably heard this film raved about a million times, so let’s make it a million-and-one. Robin Williams and Matt Damon (who also wrote the original script with co-star Ben Affleck during college) form the perfect patient-therapist duo in Gus Van Sant’s drama.
Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is a genius in disguise who works as a janitor at the local college and gets drunk with his mates on weekends. But after he “secretly” solves a near-impossible mathematical equation, he’s forced into therapy in exchange for not going to prison.
Good Will Hunting addresses some important topics surrounding masculinity, domestic abuse, class, and heartbreak, resonating just as much today as it did when it first came out.
2. Titanic (1997)
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“I’m king of the world!”
A fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio and his blustering old-school romance with Kate Winslet had viewers swooning over Titanic. James Cameron’s epic was torture to make, but totally worth it!
Not only is Titanic one of the most famous films in all of cinema, but it also shattered box office records back in the 90s.
The first half of the movie takes us on a whirlwind journey of socially improper love between a low-born young man and a high-class young woman stuck in an arranged marriage.
The second half recreates the experience of passengers on board the RMS Titanic of 1912 as it hits an iceberg, splits in half, and sinks to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.
The sheer scope of Titanic had 90s audiences in awe, gasping and crying their way through the couple’s doomed love story.
1. The Matrix (1999)
“Free your mind.”
The Matrix has to take number one spot, simply because of how much it has shaped cinema—and continues to do so today. Lana and Lilly Wachowski directed this sci-fi classic, taking influence from cyberpunk and Japanese animation.
The tone of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, the popularity of the comic book film genre, the advancements in special effects—they’re all partly due to the success of The Matrix.
Keanu Reeves stars as computer programmer Neo who’s “woken up” to the reality of the Matrix—a simulated world ran by sentient machines. He’s also prophesied to be the One who will free all mankind from enslavement to the machines.
Today, people attribute strange sightings and minor miracles to “glitches in the Matrix.” It’s gone beyond cinema and into our everyday vocabulary, even sparking an entire conspiracy theory. The fourth movie, The Matrix Resurrections, is set to release in December 2021.
Other honorable mentions:
- Home Alone (1990)
- Pretty Woman (1990)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Schindler’s List (1993)
- Léon: The Professional (1994)
- Seven (1995)
- The Big Lebowski (1998)
- The Truman Show (1998)
- The Green Mile (1999)