I spent the 1990s in high school and college, so naturally I’ve seen more movies from these ten years than any other period, by far. Most of this is taken up with mediocre and even terrible films, but there’s a lot of great ones as well, enough that I think this decade stands up well with the best film decades ever.
As always, the years are ranked by peak (how good the best films are) and depth (how many great films there are). Of course, all of this is limited to what I’ve seen.
10. 1990 – The competition this time is pretty tough, as every year this decade has at least a handful of films I consider great. This, the worst year of the 90s, is no exception, with masterpieces like Miller’s Crossing, Goodfellas and great movies such as Akria Kurosawa’s Dreams, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, and Guy Maddin’s Archangel. The problem with this year is depth, there just aren’t that many good movies here, at least not compared with every other year of the decade. Best: Miller’s Crossing. Most Overrated: Dances With Wolves. Most Underrated: Joe Versus The Volcano.
9. 1997 – A similar problem afflicts 1997, though it’s nonetheless much better than 1990. After a fine top five of Boogie Nights, Happy Together, Taste Of Cherry, Lost Highway and Starship Troopers, the year thins out pretty quick. There are still some fine films (Jackie Brown, The Ice Storm, Fireworks), but it isn’t a particularly deep year. Best: Boogie Nights. Most Overrated: LA Confidential. Most Underrated: A Life Less Ordinary.
8. 1993 – A slightly lesser version of the next two years on the list, with a bit less depth and not quite as good a peak. There are, as with all of these years, some great films at the top: Three Colors: Blue (my favorite of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy), Dazed And Confused, True Romance, Searching For Bobby Fischer, and Six Degrees Of Separation. There are quite a few other very good movies (The Tai Chi Master, The Age Of Innocence, Menace II Society, Schindler’s List), but this year’s only got good films into the 40s, whereas the next two years make it into the 50s. Best: Three Colors: Blue. Most Overrated: Philadelphia. Most Underrated: Searching For Bobby Fischer.
7. 1998 – A much better peak noses this year ahead, led by another Coen Brothers masterpiece (The Big Lebowski) along with The Thin Red Line and Rushmore. Other great films include Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Flowers Of Shanghai, Shunji Iwai’s April Story, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and Abel Ferrera’s New Rose Hotel. Hollywood provides some pretty good movies as well: There’s Something About Mary, Rounders, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Out Of Sight, Meet Joe Black, Pleasantville and He Got Game. Best; The Big Lebowski. Most Overrated: Saving Private Ryan. Most Underrated: New Rose Hotel.
6. 1995 – Very even with 1998. Both years have very good peaks (this year is led by Dead Man, Seven, Heat, Kicking And Screaming and Party Girl) and a good amount of depth (95 also provides Fallen Angels, Sense And Sensibility, Before Sunrise, City Of Lost Children, To Die For, 12 Monkeys and Smoke). I have them pretty much even through their top 20 movies or so, 1995 begins to pull away ever so slightly in the 30s, with Toy Story, The Usual Suspects and Safe ahead of A Simple Plan, What Dreams May Come and Croupier. With a total of 88, I’ve seen more movies from 1995 than any other year. I did not attend many classes that year. Best: Dead Man. Most Overrated: Welcome To The Dollhouse. Most Underrated: Party Girl.
5. 1991 – One of the best peaks of the decade pushes this year to the fifth spot, despite it’s not having quite as many decent films as the previous two years. That peak comprises eight masterpieces: Days Of Being Wild, Slacker, The Double Life Of Veronique, Barton Fink, Les amants du Pont-Neuf, Hearts Of Darkness, Raise The Red Lantern and one of my personal favorites, LA Story. By no means is that the extent of the good films either. There are fine works by Jim Jarmusch, Oliver Stone, Jonathan Demme, Chantal Akerman, Tsui Hark, Errol Morris and Gus Van Sant. Best: LA Story. Most Overrated: Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Most Underrated: LA Story.
4. 1999 – A good peak, with comparable depth to the previous sixth and seventh-ranked years, 1999 moves ahead of them thanks to the fact that I’ve seen fewer bad movies from this year than any other, which makes a convenient tie-breaker. The year’s topped by Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and a quartet of unusual mainstream films: The Matrix, Fight Club, Election and South Park. Other highlights include Ghost Dog, The Road Home, Three Kings, Existenz, Office Space, The Iron Giant, Topsy-Turvy and 6ixtynin9. 56 of the 59 movies I’ve seen from this year I’d say are not bad. best: Eyes Wide Shut. Most Overrated: American Beauty. Most Underrated: The Road Home.
3. 1996 – A couple more good movies this year (there are films worth watching into the 60s) and the best movies are better as well. Topped by Trainspotting, The English Patient (which has become weirdly underrated in recent years, something I don’t understand at all), Big Night, Bottle Rocket, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Irma Vep. There’s a good mix of American indies and mainstream fare as well: Swingers, Bound, Lone Star, Fargo, Hard Eight, Mars Attacks!, Mission: Impossible, Scream, Beautiful Girls, Romeo + Juliet, Happy Gilmore, Waiting For Guffman and When We Were Kings. And some solid foreign films: Chacun cherche son chat, Rumble In The Bronx, Black Mask, and Prisoner Of The Mountains. Best: Trainspotting. Most Overrated: Jerry Maguire. Most Underrated: The English Patient.
2. 1992 – It doesn’t have quite as many not-terrible movies as the previous two years, but this year’s top 30 is better, and so is its top 20 and top 10 as well. There are at least seven masterpieces: Unforgiven, Last Of The Mohicans, Hard-Boiled, Reservoir Dogs, Glengarry Glen Ross, Centre Stage and Simple Men. Orlando, Singles, The Player and Bob Roberts arguably fall into that category as well. It’s a diverse year, with good Hollywood (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Few Good Men, Wayne’s World) foreign (Supercop, Strictly Ballroom, The Royal Tramp, Once Upon A Time In China II) and indie films (El Mariachi, Bad Lieutenant and one of my wife’s favorites, The Crying Game). Best: Unforgiven. Most Overrated: Aladdin. Most Underrated: Singles.
1. 1994 – A fairly easy choice as the best year of the decade, as this year has both the best peak and the most depth of any other year. There are at least eight masterpieces (Chungking Express, Pulp Fiction, Sátántangó, Three Colors: Red, Drunken Master II, Fist Of Legend, Ashes Of Time, Quiz Show) with another four films that arguably belong in that category (The Shawshank Redemption, Eat Drink Man Woman, Clerks and Ed Wood). Fine films of all genres, costs and nationalities litter the 65 or so worthwhile films from this year: PCU, Cabin Boy, the Last Seduction, Exotica, Reality Bites, Four Weddings And A Funeral, Hoop Dreams, Wing Chun, To Live, Shallow Grave, Leon The Professional, Before The Rain, heavenly Creatures, Crumb, Barcelona, Oleanna, The Hudsucker Proxy and Once Were Warriors. Best: Chungking Express. Most Overrated: Forrest Gump. Most Underrated: Quiz Show.
And here are the directors with at least two films in my top tens for each year of the 1990s. Normally I’d have a picture of the director to go along with it, but I’m crazy about this new Criterion cover:
Wong Kar-wai – 5
The Coen Brothers – 4
Ang Lee – 3
Quentin Tarantino – 3
Jim Jarmusch – 3
Krzysztof Kieslowski – 3
Richard Linklater – 3
Martin Scorsese – 3
Abbas Kiarostami – 2
Paul Thomas Anderson – 2
The Wachowski Brothers – 2
Hou Hsiao-hsien – 2
Wes Anderson – 2
David Fincher – 2
Michael Mann – 2
Zhang Yimou – 2
Tim Burton – 2
Clint Eastwood – 2