The 15 Best Movies of the 1990s, Ranked

Remember the 1990s? We got so many great movies during those years. Here are the most decade-defining movies of the 90s!
The 15 Best Movies of the 1990s, Ranked

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The 90s were a great decade for movies: the rom-com genre was at its height; comedies were made of gold; horror flicks were genuinely terrifying; detectives were reclaiming their noir heyday; indie films and blockbusters pleased all alike.

Indeed, some of our favorite movie franchises began during the awesomeness of this decade, not to mention this was the time that started the Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid.

Here are my picks for the greatest movies of the 1990s that have left an enduring and memorable legacy to this day.

15. Clueless (1995)

Directed by Amy Heckerling

Starring Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy

Comedy, Romance (1h 37m)

6.9 on IMDb81% on RT

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, so many—including myself—are still obsessed with this one.

14. The Matrix (1999)

Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski

Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss

Action, Sci-Fi (2h 16m)

8.7 on IMDb88% on RT

Influenced by cyberpunk and Japanese animation, Lana and Lilly Wachowski ended up creating a sci-fi film in 1999 that would influence the medium for decades to come.

The tone of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, the popularity of the comic book film genre, the advancements in special effects—all of these things are 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 that's run by sentient machines. He's also prophesied to be The One who will free all mankind from enslavement to the machines.

Today, people say strange sightings and minor miracles are "glitches in the Matrix." It's gone beyond cinema and into our everyday vocabulary, even sparking entire conspiracy theories!

13. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson

Crime, Drama (2h 34m)

8.9 on IMDb92% on RT

Quentin Tarantino has put out a lot of hits across his filmography, but none have been more iconic than his independent noir flick Pulp Fiction. Split into seven chapters, Pulp Fiction is told non-chronologically—and that's just 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 a MacGuffin in action.

As the narratives interweave, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Christopher Walken, and Bruce Willis all make appearances. Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and was hailed as a self-reflexive, masterfully written touchstone of postmodern cinema.

12. Trainspotting (1996)

Directed by Danny Boyle

Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller

Drama (1h 33m)

8.1 on IMDb90% on RT

This list is crowded with Hollywood classics, but what about the Brits? During the 1990s, British cinema was having its own boom way across the pond. You've probably even seen a bunch of them.

There were avant-garde films like Orlando and Shallow Grave; cultural homages like Velvet Goldmine and Sense and Sensibility; Hugh Grant rom-coms like Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral; and historical biopics like Chaplin and Elizabeth.

But Trainspotting is my UK entry of choice, hurtling at us in a drug-fueled rage from up north. Danny Boyle set up his trademark style in Trainspotting, which centers on a group of heroin addicts in Scotland.

Grimy, trippy, funny, and occasionally revolting, Trainspotting is as much about the depravity of addiction as it is Edinburgh's poor economy, all tied up with an anti-consumerist narration from Ewan McGregor.

11. Jurassic Park (1993)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum

Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 7m)

8.2 on IMDb91% on RT

Before movie franchises were the norm, blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones (both thanks to Steven Spielberg, king of nostalgia and whimsy) were such treats to watch.

The Jurassic Park series now has six installments, each one edging further away from the magic of the first. Not only was it a great escapist adventure that unfolded in a theme park of resurrected dinosaurs, but it also made several big technological leaps!

Hook, Schindler's List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and two Jurassic Park films... It was an impressive decade for Spielberg, but still comparatively quiet against some of the director's fuller decades!

10. Goodfellas (1990)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci

Biography, Crime, Drama (2h 25m)

8.7 on IMDb96% on RT

Martin Scorsese is the king of gangster movies, and Goodfellas remains his most beloved film of the genre. Mean Streets, Gangs of New York, The Irishman... sure, they're all brilliant and worth watching, 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. It's based on the 1985 book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi.

9. The Truman Show (1998)

Directed by Peter Weir

Starring Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney

Comedy, Drama (1h 43m)

8.2 on IMDb95% on RT

The Truman Show (as well as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) was a hint to the spiritual awakening and existential interests of Jim Carrey to come, who seems to always be talking about the nature of reality and power of manifestation nowadays.

Apart from its super intriguing and original premise—about an average man who lives his entire life in a fake town with his day-to-day activities broadcasted live on television 24/7 without his knowledge—The Truman Show also mulls over some potent philosophical themes.

Truman's studio dome might be an extravagant production, but to him it is fully reality (until he realizes it's not). And that raises a frightening question: Who's to say we aren't mistaken about ours, too?

The fact that he's called Tru(e)man hints to the film's overarching narrative of spiritual enlightenment, with Truman being symbolic of maya (the veil of illusion in Hinduism).

8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn

Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 58m)

8.6 on IMDb95% on RT

Few horror films have made even a fraction of the impact that The Silence of the Lambs made. Audiences have developed an insatiable taste for serial killers over the past few decades, and Hannibal Lecter was one of the first.

The psychopathic cannibal is eerily portrayed to perfection by Anthony Hopkins, and what sets Lecter apart from other on-screen psychos are his manners and intellect. He's educated, deceptive, and speaks with a creepy sense of calm that's downright uncanny.

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.

7. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore

Comedy, Crime (1h 57m)

8.1 on IMDb80% on RT

The Coen brothers are the perfect marriage of indie and Hollywood, bringing the weird and wonderful to mainstream audiences.

Their golden age happened between the late-1980s to the 2000s, with Raising Arizona, Fargo, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, and Miller's Crossing making cinephile headlines.

I'm choosing The Big Lebowski as the best 90s Coen comedy, which now has a cult status to match A Clockwork Orange and American Psycho.

Its iconic humor is primarily due to protagonist "The Dude," portrayed by Jeff Bridges in a permanent stoner-hippie getup with White Russian in hand. Don't be surprised by the handful of psychedelic montages!

The Big Lebowski is also a match for Quentin Tarantino's foot fetish, following the bizarre sequence of events that occur after a mann pees on The Dude's favorite rug. It's pretty much the only thing that disturbs his calm (stoned) demeanor!

6. Fight Club (1999)

Directed by David Fincher

Starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter

Drama (2h 19m)

8.8 on IMDb79% on RT

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 an underground fight club.

The plot twists, hidden clues, cinematography, anti-capitalist agenda... there's just so much to pick apart! David Fincher directs this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel, imbuing it with his usual shadowy color grading and sculpted dialogue.

5. The Green Mile (1999)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Starring Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse

Crime, Drama, Fantasy (3h 9m)

8.6 on IMDb79% on RT

The Green Mile is up there among the saddest movies that'll make you weep. It's not about war or lost romance, but about a death row inmate with supernatural powers and his prison guard who has a UTI.

As a 90s flick starring Tom Hanks, you know this one's going to be either heartwarming or heartbreaking. So, where does the sobbing come in?

Set in 1930s Louisiana, the supernatural John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) is sentenced to death because of his race, not because he's guilty. And though his magical powers can take other people's pain away, it means he has to suffer that pain himself.

The Green Mile prides itself on its use of juxtaposition—in genre (realism drama meets fantasy), characters (love them or loathe them), and expectations (Coffey's towering build mismatches his childlike soul).

4. Forrest Gump (1994)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise

Drama, Romance (2h 22m)

8.8 on IMDb71% on RT

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 meager IQ of 75, Forrest leads a pretty eventful life: he's a Vietnam War veteran, a table tennis champion, a fisherman, a philanthropist, a world-famous runner, a millionaire. And the best part? Forrest achieves all of this by accident!

Director Robert Zemeckis's film is based on the 1986 novel by Winston Groom, and it's sure to warm the old cockles.

3. Good Will Hunting (1997)

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

Drama, Romance (2h 6m)

8.3 on IMDb97% on RT

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 while in college) form the perfect patient-therapist duo in Gus Van Sant's drama.

Matt Damon's Will Hunting is a genius in disguise, working as a janitor at the local university and getting drunk on the 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, social class, and heartbreak, resonating just as much today as it did when it first came out.

2. Titanic (1997)

Directed by James Cameron

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane

Drama, Romance (3h 14m)

7.9 on IMDb88% on RT

A fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio and his blustering old-school romance with Kate Winslet had viewers swooning over Titanic. Sure, James Cameron's epic was torture to make, but it was 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 1990s.

The first half of the movie takes us on a whirlwind journey of socially improper love between a homeless man and a high-class woman who's stuck in an arranged marriage.

The second half recreates the experience of passengers on board the RMS Titanic in 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 audiences in awe, who gasped and cried their way through the couple's doomed love story.

1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Directed by Frank Darabont

Starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton

Drama (2h 22m)

9.3 on IMDb91% on RT

Voted one of—if not the—best movie ever made, I couldn't leave The Shawshank Redemption off 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's "the only guilty man in Shawshank."

While everyone else claims they're innocent, Andy is the only prisoner who actually is. It's a shame he's serving a double life sentence! Though you wouldn't think it from his calm aura and the way he "strolls, like a man in a park without a care."

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.

Other honorable mentions:

  • Home Alone (1990)
  • Pretty Woman (1990)
  • Thelma & Louise (1991)
  • Dazed and Confused (1993)
  • Schindler's List (1993)
  • Léon: The Professional (1994)
  • Braveheart (1995)
  • Se7en (1995)
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997)
  • 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Keep going with our complete series of articles on all the greatest movies by every decade: