How do you even begin to choose just 90 films to represent an entire decade of cinema? That’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves ever since BFI Southbank announced its two-month retrospective, Nineties: Young Cinema Rebels.
With the season casting a very specific eye on the new voices that emerged between 1989 and 1999, we thought we’d cast our net a little wider, in a squabble-inducing attempt to shine a light on some of the very best films the decade produced.
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There’s no scientific method applied to the selection process here, and this isn’t a Sight & Sound poll involving hundreds of critics or filmmakers. It’s more a chance for us to highlight some of our favourite films from around the world.
This list of 90s greats could very easily have been at least double the size (in early drafts it was), but with only 90 spots available, some favourites – both ours and yours – are bound to be missing, the hope being that any frustration at omissions will be juxtaposed with a few new discoveries.
To keep things as varied as possible, we’ve allowed for only one film per director – in itself leading to some impossible choices. Take the ranking with as little or large a pinch of salt as you see fit; every film on this list is terrific as far as we’re concerned, and these things are always going to be subjective, with any and all grievances or nods of approval welcome.
90. Under the Skin (1997)
Director: Carine Adler
Before Morvern Callar, Samantha Morton was shining in another study of grief. Torn between conventional narration and sensorial impressions, Under the Skin centres on a young woman struggling to keep her feet on the ground. Following the death of her mother, Iris (Morton) enters into a self-destructive spiral, alienating everyone around her. Sleeping with strangers and spending all her money, she tries desperately to hold on to whoever will hold her. The film does not hesitate to go to extremely dark places, but Morton is our guiding light through this raucous, raw and emotional adventure.
89. I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991)
Director: Philippe Garrel
“Love comes and goes, you don’t know why.” It’s difficult to choose any single film by Philippe Garrel as representative of his work, given how inextricably intertwined his entire filmography is; how the films bleed and repeat into and across one another. They’re all, in one way or another, about his drug-fuelled relationship with German singer Nico and his disillusionment with the fallout from the summer of ’68. I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar is one of the most explicit in those terms, and a great place to start for Garrel newcomers. Charting the agonies of a love affair bedevilled by heroin, it’s as achingly introspective and haltingly poetic as anything he’s made.
88. One False Move (1992)
Director: Carl Franklin
The American crime picture has always traded in the price of getting rich. But it’s also been a tool for social critique, which was certainly the case in 1992, when three films seemed to be offering veiled commentary on America in the year of the Rodney King case. Of Ernest Dickerson’s Juice, Bill Duke’s Deep Cover and Carl Franklin’s One False Move, the latter might be the most elegiac, its tale of three criminals heading for an Arkansas showdown featuring great turns from Bill Paxton, co-writer Billy Bob Thornton and Cynda Williams. But it’s the tinderbox atmosphere created by Franklin that truly resonates, the film’s quieter moments carrying deeper themes of racial prejudice, class conflict and violence. Speaking to the present while retaining the tragic arc of the best thrillers, One False Move proves that despite being the land of opportunity, nowhere does fatalism quite like America.
87. Divorce Iranian Style (1998)
Directors: Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini
A milestone study in gender politics, Kim Longinotto’s and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s 1998 film follows a series of Iranian couples through the legal arrangements at the end of their respective marriages. Unfolding inside a Tehran court, where we hear that girls can get married at nine years old, Divorce Iranian Style champions a distinct subject-camera reliance, climaxing with the women’s attempts to negotiate their rights in an oppressive society. The directors re-teamed in 2001 for Runaway, a story about girls escaping their abusive homes, while Longinotto’s unique observational style and tenacity for capturing extraordinary female lives has proclaimed her prominence in documentary filmmaking.
86. Lessons of Darkness (1992)
Director: Werner Herzog
Beginning with the devastation of the Gulf War, the 90s marked the largest full-scale international crisis since the Cold War began. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of his oil-rich neighbour Kuwait was succeeded by George H.W. Bush’s ‘Operation Desert Storm’, wreaking havoc on Kuwait’s small communities and destroying the country’s natural reserves. Herzog said of his near-wordless, expressionistic work: “The film has not a single frame that can be recognised as our planet, and yet we know it must have been shot here.” Filmed a year after the US operation, Lessons of Darkness presents a vision of hell on earth, documenting the environmental disaster that followed in the wake of the war.
85. Out of Sight (1998)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh’s best film – there, I’ve said it – is a gorgeous noir of thwarted dreams and unwise love, scored to an Isley Brothers’ riff. Elmore Leonard’s characters are made flesh in Scott Frank’s zingy script, frontloading a hapless bank robber (George Clooney) and the gutsy U.S. Marshal (Jennifer Lopez, never better) he charms. On the margins sit the losers and thugs, including a rich man with a bad wig who taints all he touches. The highlight is a bar room seduction, symphonic in effect thanks to editor Anne V. Coates who worked on Lawrence of Arabia.
84. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Nobility and demons do battle in a Studio Ghibli classic animation, mostly hand-drawn and wholly bewitching. In it, a prince tries to ensure peace between a human settlement and the creatures of the forest around. In doing so, he is cursed and so begins another heroic journey, which may be his last. As a Hayao Miyazaki feature, it throbs with humanity, the director fuelled by anger as yet another war – this one in the former Yugoslavia – convinced him to go darker in theme and content. John Ford is another influence, his championing of those at the edges mirrored by the depiction of Irontown.
83. The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991)
Director: Theo Angelopoulos
Eternity and a Day may be the most celebrated of Theo Angelopoulos’s 90s pictures, earning him the Palme d’Or in 1998, but there’s every bit as much of a case to be made for the Greek master’s 1991 marvel The Suspended Step of the Stork, an explicitly humanist meditation on national, social and journalistic boundaries. A reporter covering the ghettoisation of immigrants at the Albanian border meets a stranger (Marcello Mastroianni), who may or may not be a radical politician who disappeared some years back. Shot through with Angelopoulos’s trademark, extended takes, these sequence shots find their apotheosis in a wordless pick-up scene across a crowded bar, an extraordinary wedding party on the divided banks of a river, and in the breathtaking majesty of a final shot for the ages.
82. Center Stage (1991)
Director: Stanley Kwan
The brief, fast life of Ruan Lingyu, the major star of Chinese silent films, bears analysis. She had only eight years on screen, starting with one-dimensional roles before more challenging, progressive material arrived. Her private life became fodder for the media, driving her to suicide in 1935, aged 24. Stanley Kwan foregoes the norms to recreate her life with clips, interviews and recreations. The casting of Maggie Cheung in the lead is inspired, evoking the magic and glamour that would create ‘The Chinese Garbo’, a figure of female agency who was so nearly lost to collective memory.
81. Cure (1997)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
The word ‘Cure’ might have earned a place in our glossary of terror next to ‘Ring’ and ‘Audition’ if Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s serial-killer thriller had ever been released in the UK. Our distributors missed a trick not trailing it as the ‘Japanese Se7en’. It’s a chilling mystery in which a spate of identically grisly killings are traceable to the malign influence of a former psychology student with apparent memory loss. With slow tracking shots down empty corridors, eerie videotape recordings featuring shadowy figures, and small details like spilt water inching its way over tiles that are amped for inexplicable creepiness, Cure is a sustained concerto of unease that gave an early warning of the millennial J-horror boom.
80. Ladybird Ladybird (1994)
Director: Ken Loach
Ken Loach’s best work contains unvarnished truths that few filmmakers are honest and steadfast enough to produce. Ladybird Ladybird is no exception. A naturalistic look at a troubled working-class woman’s struggle to get her four children back from social services, this harrowing drama features a nuanced, unsentimental lead performance by Crissy Rock as scouser-in-London Maggie (Rock won best actress at Berlin Film Festival). Through flashbacks we see Maggie grow up watching her mother become a victim of domestic violence and see the cycle repeat itself with Maggie’s own abusive partner. There’s hope when Maggie and kindly Paraguayan boyfriend Jorge (Vladimir Vega) have a daughter together, but her story is based on real life and inevitably stings as remorselessly as tales of the downtrodden tend to.
79. Perfect Blue (1997)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Reading like a trashy, oh-so-90s thriller on its surface – a pop star-turned-actress becomes psychologically unmoored when it seems there’s a connection between her online stalker and a spate of bloody murders – the late Satoshi Kon’s cult anime has fascinatingly modern concerns: obfuscation of truth and loss of privacy in the digital age, the relentless pursuit of fame in a world full of wannabe celebs, and above all toxic masculinity. Pre-dating #MeToo by some 20 years, Perfect Blue reserves particular scorn for the way young female stars are so often depicted one of two ways before their public – the victim or the whore – while being treated as studio property in private.
78. Traps (1998)
Director: Vera Chytilová
Don’t let its somewhat ludicrous premise fool you: like Vera Chytilová’s best-known work Daisies (1966), Traps is only a giddy and irreverent farce on a most superficial level. The film follows the disastrous attempts of two men – one government official and another working in advertising – to return to their normal lives after they are castrated in their sleep by the woman they raped. An uncomfortable, purposely enraging comedy, the film brilliantly unveils the complex web of ignorance, sexism and hypocrisy which indeed traps women at every turn, even in a supposedly ‘modern’ society.
77. Hyenas (1992)
Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s second feature adapts Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play, The Visit, turning a tragi-comic tale about how money corrupts into an allegorical farce about neo-colonialism. When rich Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate) returns to the small hometown of Colobane she offers the impoverished locals wealth if they murder local grocer Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf), a man who ditched her after their love affair left her pregnant decades earlier. Mambéty continues his exploration of Touki Bouki’s themes, particularly the worrying effects of power in the wrong hands. Colobane was also Mambéty’s hometown and it shows in the clear empathy with his characters and careful gaze of the camera across sun-baked vistas and dusty streets. The quizzical, almost magic-realist finale is not easily forgotten.
76. Clueless (1995)
Director: Amy Heckerling
Film fans watching Look Who’s Talking Too at the dawn of the 90s might never have guessed that writer-director Amy Heckerling’s next film – a full five years later – would be one of the decade’s great Hollywood comedies. “As if!” as Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) might have put it. But in refitting the matchmaking plot of Jane Austen’s Emma for the super rich kids of modern Beverly Hills (like a west-coast cousin to Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan), Heckerling arrived at one of the glories of the high-school-movie golden age. Clueless is such a smart and sweet-natured take on the tribulations of teenhood and privilege that even the genre’s time-honoured virginity-losing imperative is seen through a sharp satire on consumerism: “You see how picky I am about my shoes,” says Cher, “and they only go on my feet!”
75. Being John Malkovich (1999)
Director: Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze cut his filmmaking teeth with indelible music videos for Weezer, Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim before going bananas with Being John Malkovich, his debut feature, written by Charlie Kaufman. John Cusack plays office drone Craig, who finds a portal into the head of the eponymous actor in an NYC office building and rents it out to curious punters at $200 for 15 minutes. Craig’s co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) becomes obsessed with the Malkovich experience as it enables her to live out her transgender fantasies before Malkovich (playing a version of himself) finds out about the portal and things get even weirder. Kaufman’s script is his finest to date, and Jonze keeps things intelligible even as the plot takes increasingly wild psychological detours. Challenging but essential.
74. The Last Bolshevik (1993)
Director: Chris Marker
Chris Marker described his documentary as “a Citizen Kane-like inquest whose purpose would be not so much to achieve a biography, however fascinating, but to draw the portrait of an era through the portrait of a man.” The era was Soviet Russia, the man was Aleksandr Medvedkin, a forgotten filmmaker of the 1930s that Marker brought back into the spotlight almost by accident. A chance encounter and a shared passion for politics and cinema make Medvedkin slowly open up about his past. Marker explores Medvedkin’s artistic playfulness and perceptiveness — from his entertaining horse theatre to his movie-train, which travelled across the country for a year, creating films with and about the disgruntled workers in the kolkhozs — all serving to reveal how Medvedkin’s exceptionally firm belief in communism made him unprepared for the harsh realities of its botched execution.
73. Crumb (1994)
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Terry Zwigoff’s revealing portrait of American underground comic-book artist Robert Crumb has the spectre of death looming over it. For three years during the documentary’s nine-year making, Zwigoff claimed he slept with a pistol under his pillow, as a potential remedy for his extreme back pain. Even more troubling, a year after he was filmed, Robert’s brother Charles committed suicide. In this candid work, Crumb’s family, the youthful fondness for psychedelic drugs, and sexual proclivities prove to be the chief influences on his distinct oeuvre. There’s quiet intimacy in almost every scene as we follow the artist as he works and walks the streets of San Fransisco. We meet his wife, former girlfriends and colleagues, as well as his mother and second brother Maxon. Crumb ultimately appears as a bizarre, yet affable man. He refuses great riches and never sells out. Whatever his faults, we can’t help but admire his principles.
72. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch is a conscientious punk, making films about outsiders who rebel against systemic injustice even as they firmly believe in humanistic principles that many would deem old-fashioned. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is thus a hitman who follows the samurai rule and communicates with his Italian-American contractor Louie (the great John Tormey) only via carrier pigeon. The New Jersey mafia, however, is getting old, and as the new millennium approaches it has little patience for, and a racist distrust of, the antics of an efficient but secretive operator they hired for a job that didn’t go as planned. Jarmusch doesn’t pity his anachronistic hero but admires him, showing how his ideas, far from being obsolete, matter even more in a world in transition. One wishes more people had thought so too at the time.
71. Husbands and Wives (1992)
Director: Woody Allen
It’s difficult to separate Husbands and Wives from the context of its production, during which the Allen-Farrow scandal made worldwide headlines. The film signals its temperament from the get-go, as Carlo Di Palma’s abrasively interrogative camera charts the fallout from an announcement of separation by Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) to their friends Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow). It’s one of Allen’s most punishing examinations of disintegrating relationships; the nervous, jagged approach to form and disavowal of stylistic pleasantries effectively conveys the emotional bruises these characters routinely inflict on each other. “What is this thing called love?” the opening credits croon. Indeed. Up there among Allen’s best.
70. The Apple (1998)
Director: Samira Makhmalbaf
Shot in just 11 days at the tender age of 17, Samira Makhmalbaf’s multi-award winning debut is a daring docudrama that speaks directly to, and of, Tehran’s Islamic regime. Using video and film stock left over from her father Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film The Silence (1998), The Apple captures with a ferociously assured methodology the story of two sisters locked in their home for 11 years by their parents. Not a documentary in any rigidly defined sense, the film’s experiments with form and metaphor evince a precocious talent hurtling out of the gate, brimming with humanity, and perhaps a hint of commentary on her role as child actor in her father’s films.
69. All about My Mother (1999)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Penned and directed by Spain’s most internationally acclaimed filmmaker, All About My Mother is Pedro Almodóvar’s finest film, ahead of its time in its representation of transgender people. The title plays on Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) – as does the film itself, in its reliance on mentorship, betrayal and, of course, theatricality. Emotionally shattering, Almodóvar’s study in the essence of motherhood takes many forms, with deeper meanings held beyond the most superficially literal. Traversing all kinds of career peaks – formal, melodramatic, performative – Almodóvar’s love letter to womanhood in all its forms sees the filmmaker reaching for some of his most heartbreaking human truths.
68. Breaking the Waves (1996)
Director: Lars von Trier
Watching Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård in Chernobyl, memory races back to their first meeting in Lars von Trier’s equally shattering drama. She is the artless youngster raised to God and self-denial. He is the oil rigger who tempts her into a union that is at first happy, then tragic. Both have “a head full of scars”, which makes for a profound and harrowing undoing, with a diverse soundtrack that peaks with Life on Mars. Nothing in the director’s previous work prepared for this leap forward in style and confidence. It engulfs.
67. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Director: Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way is incredibly tense. Even though its tragic denouement is revealed early on, watching Carlito trying his best to avoid trouble throughout the film proves as distressing as it is thrilling. Al Pacino brings his persona as the godfather of mafia films to his portrayal of Carlito, a Puerto Rican antihero in his 50s, just released from prison only to find a new generation of criminals wreaking havoc in New York City, preventing his retirement. With his generous performance, Pacino makes Carlito’s voiceover monologues and profound tenderness ring true, while Sean Penn’s bizarre turn as a sleazy lawyer, by contrast, accentuates the cruelty of a world more savage than it has ever been.
66. Paris Is Burning (1990)
Director: Jennie Livingston
In search of the best voguer in the city, Jennie Livingston’s multi-award winning Paris is Burning brings together an array of vital interviews shot on the streets of New York and in the city’s ballrooms. One of the key documentaries, it gave a platform to the LGBTQ+ community to voice their feelings and violent experiences as struggling minorities. Released five years after the AIDS-related death of Rock Hudson – and at a time when ballrooms were dying – Paris is Burning was a reaction to the US government’s slow response to the AIDS pandemic, which contributed to an estimated one million AIDS cases by the end of 1990.
65. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Director: Gus Van Sant
A seminal film of the 90s New Queer Cinema, My Own Private Idaho ambitiously blends avant garde art cinema, road movie and social commentary, while magnificently melding two originally separate scripts into a coherent whole: the search of sensitive, narcoleptic street hustler Mike (a stunning River Phoenix) for his mother, alongside the tale of slumming it, heir-to-a-fortune friend Scott (Keanu Reeves), based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. With a style ranging from timelapse photography to dreamlike home movies to delicately acted scenes of intimate emotion, the film’s uniqueness may be summarised by some of Mike’s opening lines: “There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road … It’s one kind of place.”
64. Sonatine (1993)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Japanese polymath Takeshi Kitano wrote, directed, edited and starred in Sonatine, a Yakuza film with the dry philsophical enquiry and stillness of prime Jim Jarmusch. When weary Tokyo mobster Murakawa (Kitano) is sent to Okinawa to help solve a dispute with rival gangs, he smells a rat. After a bloody ambush in a bar, Murakawa and his crew lie low at a beach house. Half the film is devoted to criminals killing time by the seaside and, typically, reverting to childlike behaviour. Frisbee-throwing, impromptu sumo wrestling, traditional dancing, Russian roulette, the setting of booby traps and even close-range firework wars are all undertaken to combat the boredom. The result is a droll, funny and unusual crime feature that owes much to Waiting for Godot and Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime films while also offering satisfying shoot-outs aplenty and a laconic, charismatic turn from Kitano.
63. The White Balloon (1995)
Director: Jafar Panahi
The Camera d’Or (awarded to first-time filmmakers) went to Iran’s Jafar Panahi for a quietly honest and hilarious story of a young girl who wants one more goldfish to cherish. Aida Mohammadkhani is the impish child, sent to market with a single banknote which (spoiler alert) she has trouble keeping. The script, by Panahi’s mentor Abbas Kiarostami, was given out in snippets to the children to keep their performances fresh. Its ebullience is undeniable, and there’s some trace elements of political comment that would become more overt in future, seeing the director jailed and now under a travel ban.
62. Showgirls (1995)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Reviled upon its release, then celebrated by various underground cultures (from cinephiles to drag queens) for its campiness before book-length critical appraisals appeared, Paul Verhoeven’s rise-and-fall story of Las Vegas showbiz has now reached a unique cultural position. Even actress Elizabeth Berkley, who plays the feisty heroine Nomi Malone, has since reclaimed her controversial, bombastic performance. Across his filmography, Verhoeven loves going to seductive extremes to highlight how sick the conventions of modern (American) society are. One soon understands that, if the dramatic turns and emotions in Showgirls are often hilariously exaggerated, this is because they are driven by the unspeakable, barely hidden violence of men.
61. Ratcatcher (1999)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay had already made three acclaimed shorts – Small Deaths (1995), Kill the Day (1996) and Gasman (1997) – before tackling Ratcatcher, which fleshed out recurrent themes such as the experience of adolescence, a loss of innocence, and the consequences of momentary actions. Set during 1973’s Glasgow dustmen’s strike, the film follows a young lad, James, as he navigates a deprived childhood and the repercussions of a tragic accident. Ratcatcher draws on social realism yet moves beyond its limitations to create something exquisitely framed, poetic and comprising a cinematic originality – whether depicting a mouse travelling to the moon or simply a field of wheat – that heralded the arrival of a new British talent.
60. Kathapurushan (1996)
Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Spanning more than 40 years of Indian history, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s epic portrait of the artist as a young man finds the political inexorably intertwined with the personal. From the assassination of Gandhi through Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency to the rehabilitation of the Left Alliance in Kerala, the force of history is backgrounded but ever-present in protagonist Kunjunni’s story, guiding his actions and burgeoning ideological consciousness with an invisible but firm hand. An elliptical bildungsroman-in-miniature, steeped in local mythology, if the film’s tenderness and social conscience suggests Indian cinema’s grandmaster, Satyajit Ray, its political reckoning cuts with sharper claws.
59. JFK (1991)
Director: Oliver Stone
Hollywood’s foremost director of epic political thrillers took on the gig of a lifetime making a film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Stone’s gripping conspiracy yarn concentrates on New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his attempts to unravel the real ‘truth’ of the November 1963 presidential killing. The film’s eight Oscar nominations (yielding two wins for best editing and best cinematography) are perhaps appropriately, given the shadowy nature of the events depicted, only part of the story. Aside from Costner’s superb turn as the fraught Garrison, an extraordinary cast includes uniformly exceptional performances, particularly from Jack Lemmon, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, John Candy, Gary Oldman (as Lee Harvey Oswald) and, perhaps best of all, Donald Sutherland as government spook ‘X’. Factually, it’s nonsense, inventing speeches and people to suit the rabbit-hole of its dramatic ends. As far as its formal attributes go, not least the peerless editing, JFK is almost untouchable.
58. Cyclo (1995)
Director: Tran Anh Hung
The 90s were a great decade for the Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung, beginning with his Oscar-nominated feature debut, The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), and ending with his wonderful third film, At the Height of Summer (2000). Cyclo, his best to date, came in the middle, and earned him the Golden Lion at Venice. If it begins, with a stolen tuk-tuk, like Saigon’s answer to Bicycle Thieves (1948), the latter half of the film takes on a nightmarish, expressionistic hue. With its lush visuals and focus on the violent suffering of its impoverished protagonists at the hands of Tony Leung’s gangster, you could superficially say the style falls somewhere between that of Wong Kar-wai (especially in a club scene cut to Radiohead’s Creep) and Hou Hsiao-hsien, but the baroque surrealism belongs entirely to Tran.
57. Ossos (1997)
Director: Pedro Costa
Calling Pedro Costa’s 1997 film Ossos his most commercial effort may be a stretch, but it was the one that put the Portuguese director on the map, drawing good box office results in his country. Incidentally, it also ended up being a misleading indicator of what was to come for this endlessly curious, genuinely humanist filmmaker. Ossos follows the daily life and struggle of two sisters, Vanda and Zita, living in the slum town of Fontainhas, in Lisbon. Although Costa turns these women into characters, controlling his frame and narrative in generally traditional ways, he can’t help but capture and give centre stage to Vanda and Zita’s peculiar conditions and unbelievable strength. Costa’s sense for limited but precise natural lighting (a few rays coming through an ajar door, landing on a face), which he later further developed, immerses the viewer in this dark and unbearably real world, inspiring both respect for its inhabitants and anger at a society that tolerates such difficult existences.
56. Exotica (1994)
Director: Atom Egoyan
At first glance, the four characters at the centre of Exotica only seem connected by morbid economic transactions revolving around the routine of a lurid strip club. But from the very start, the film’s overpowering melancholy hints at the more personal nature of those connections. Exotica begins as a broken mirror, each of its characters an isolated fragment, their desire for love refracted by devastating past trauma into strange obsessive behaviours. Delicately unfolding the mystery behind their pain, Egoyan shows us the unbroken mirror as it once was, before gracefully making another out of his characters’ shattered lives.
55. Groundhog Day (1993)
Director: Harold Ramis
The 90s answer to It’s a Wonderful Life, Harold Ramis’s comic masterwork is a rare example of a high-concept movie where said concept is explored to perhaps its fullest potential. The scenario, of a deeply flawed man inexplicably forced to live the same day ad infinitum until he reaches some kind of existential realisation, has subsequently been rehashed in the likes of Source Code (2011) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014), but none of the imitators had Groundhog Day’s lead. Located in the sweet spot of Bill Murray’s career, between his strictly comedic early phase and later dramatic work, Groundhog Day features the actor’s ultimate performance: Murray as jaded weather man Phil Connors – discovering gravitas without sacrificing any of his trademark deadpan style.
54. Fargo (1996)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
A black comedy mischievously sold as true crime – Fargo’s opening text falsely claims its story of a kidnap-gone-wrong in cheery Minnesota is “told exactly as it occurred” – Joel and Ethan Coen’s popular breakthrough marks a stride forward for the brothers’ filmmaking craft. The Coens continue to have their fun with language – after the ornate dialogue of Miller’s Crossing and screwball patter of The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo’s dialogue is like Mamet done in the sing-song accent of the American midwest – but what they do in silence here might be even more impressive. Through a shot of a snowbound road stretching into forever, or a simple slow zoom on a television buzzing with static, Fargo is thick with unspoken dread about a world in which even the one good cop (Frances McDormand) can’t make sense of what people do.
53. Malcolm X (1992)
Director: Spike Lee
The studio wanted a conventional biopic of a little over two hours; Spike Lee, taking the reins from original director Norman Jewison after leading an outcry over a white filmmaker being hired to tell the Malcolm X story, gave them an epic of more than three. Using his post Do the Right Thing clout to give a prominent African American the kind of lavish attention that Hollywood biopics had previously only afforded white cultural icons, Lee breathlessly covers the many personal and political changes X underwent in his brief lifetime. Denzel Washington may have never been better than right here, as self-loathing hoodlum Detroit Red, the laser-focused, incendiary Malcolm X, and as the zen-like el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, each a distinct persona along the former Malcolm Little’s evolutionary path to peace.
52. Cold Water (1994)
Director: Olivier Assayas
Following the less than successful Une nouvelle vie (1993), which he’d shot with cumbersome Panavision cameras the previous year, the opportunity to go light and handheld on Super 16 was snatched by Olivier Assayas, effectively establishing the visual mode he’d adopt for the rest of his career. Coming-of-age tales rarely come as lyrical as this, or so miraculously calibrated to a structural scheme borne out of classic rock music. At its centre lies one of the greatest party sequences ever committed to film, followed by the aching beauty of its Nico-scored comedown. Virginie Ledoyen is sensational as the rebellious Christine, in one of the French maestro’s best.
51. King of New York (1990)
Director: Abel Ferrara
Imagine if Robin Hood swapped out his merry men for a cadre of trigger happy street toughs who laugh maniacally when their bodies are being pumped full of bullets. Abel Ferrara’s astonishingly seedy King of New York sees Christopher Walken’s angel of death newly sprung from Sing Sing, with a plan to consolidate the cartels (against their will, of course) so he can assume sole control of the city’s narcotics trade and filter money back into vital infrastructure and social care programmes. It presents a world of no half measures, where a wisp of happiness leads to extreme debauchery and the mildest levels of consternation and fear lead, inevitably, to grisly death.
50. Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Director: Julie Dash
Writer-director-producer Julie Dash’s only fiction feature to date was the first film by an African-American woman to get a theatrical release in the US. Dash’s drama focuses on the women of a Gullah community on the isolated Saint Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina. It’s 1902 and preparations are underway to migrate north. Island matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) is in no rush to give up the customs and history of her isolated family and friends, while her younger relatives are mostly full of excitement to see more of the world. Linear narrative and standard plot considerations are at a minimum but these are replaced by a thoughtful, poetic investigation of memory, ancestry and colonialism. Through a series of stunning images, Dash and cinematographer Arthur Jafa evoke a time and place that is at once esoteric and exotic, yet somehow familiar and comforting. Elliptical and wondrous.
49. Mother and Son (1997)
Director: Alexandr Sokurov
Not much happens in Alexandr Sokurov’s 73-minute lyrical elegy: a son tends to his dying mother, bears her on a dreamlike countryside walk and returns her to her deathbed. But it’s the canvas on which Sokurov crafts this minimal tale that’s so extraordinary. Images are distorted, stretched or blurrily hazy; they have the texture of painting, with landscapes of forests, fields and mountains evoking artists such as Caspar David Friedrich; natural sounds are heightened and long takes allow a stillness to emerge. Captured through the use of special lenses, mirrors and by filming through painted panes of glass, the resulting tableaux create art out of cinema – they produce a living (and dying) picture.
48. Palms (1994)
Director: Artur Aristakisian
Documentary rarely comes as confrontational as Artur Aristakisyan’s Palms. Shot without direct sound, and populated entirely by those living at the margins of the streets of 1990 Chisinau (the present-day capital of Moldova), the film serves as a direct address to notions of cinematic comfort and respectability. Beyond his matter-of-fact narration, Aristakisyan offers little by way of context, giving prominence over the course of 2.5 hours to the subjective experience of the street beggars forced to adopt their own systems of survival. It’s a film that forces our gaze onto the limits of corporeality; punishing, and distrustful, in its questioning of any so-called liberal agenda. Does the profundity finally lay in the difficulties of Palms’ perspective, or in the viewers facility to look away?
47. Green Snake (1993)
Director: Tsui Hark
A message to emergent or aspiring filmmakers: seek out Tsui Hark’s vaseline-lensed wuxia wig-out from 1993, Green Snake, as it’s an example of what you might call total cinema. Tsui films the action as if the camera has no weight or dimensions – any image is possible. It tells of a Buddhist sage ridding the world of pesky animal sprites, but meeting a formidable match in the white and green snakes (Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung). It’s a persuasive and playful critique of religious conservatism clashing with colourful erotic impulse. It’s all aimed specifically at China, though its depiction of empowered, sexually demanding and restlessly wily woman resonates the world over.
46. No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990)
Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Esteemed critic and novelist Gilbert Adair reckoned Manoel de Oliveira’s No, or the Vainglory of Command “one of the greatest historical films ever made” and if you can track down a rare copy you’ll see what he meant. The same year that found Hollywood (via Kevin Costner) squaring up to America’s shameful treatment of its natives, the Portuguese veteran went many steps further, framing his own nation’s entire military past as a series of blunders and vain misadventures. The episodes in question – plucked from across the centuries and depicted in various colourfully epic, pageant-like styles – are introduced in flashback as a truckload of musing soldiers travel through African jungle during the Portuguese Colonial War of the 1960s and 70s. For its kitsch excess, the fantastical depiction of the voyages of Vasco da Gama – as retold in Portugal’s national poem, The Lusiads – needs to be seen to be believed.
45. Wonderland (1999)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
British director Michael Winterbottom has spoken of how he was inspired by another 90s classic — Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) — when it came to making his crepuscular, London-set opus of tangled lives and pre-millennial tension. It’s a modern city symphony co-mingled with the soap opera-ish tale of three sisters looking for love, romance and, failing either of those, some basic stability from the various deadbeat men in their lives. It captures the streets of the capital with a starkness and clarity rarely seen in this decade, bypassing snowglobe landmarks in favour of bottling a feeling of heady, almost etherial disconnect that come from wandering alone through an urban metropolis.
44. Van Gogh (1991)
Director: Maurice Pialat
The last three months of Vincent Van Gogh’s life were as full of colour and pain as much of his art, and Maurice Pialat’s biopic captures it well. As The Washington Post archly noted, it “avoids the Ear Thing,” concentrating instead on the artist’s parlous mental health and complex friendships. There is Dr Gachet and his daughter, Marguerite, plus Vincent’s brother Theo and family, all of whom enjoy his company with varying levels of intimacy. Jacques Dutronc (a singer-songwriter who almost got cast in Raiders of the Lost Ark) is laudably intense and credible, as is the entire film.
43. Orlando (1992)
Director: Sally Potter
Given current concerns around issues of gender, identity and the fluid nature of both, Sally Potter’s postmodernist adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography, is, if anything, even more relevant today than in 1992. Following the long-lived eponymous aristocrat (a strikingly androgynous Tilda Swinton) through nearly four centuries of English history, and taking in a sudden change of sex along the way, Potter’s film contains much of interest to modern audiences. With its ironic tone, formally arresting images and a habit of employing fourth-wall-breaking asides – no, Fleabag didn’t invent them – Orlando feels very much like a 21st-century story before its time.
42. Taiga (1992)
Director: Ulrike Ottinger
While an eight-hour ethnographic documentary about Mongolian nomads may sound like a daunting proposition on the face of it, this ritualistic wonder from Ulrike Ottinger (Freak Orlando, 1981) proves nothing of the sort. Directed and shot by the German filmmaker, who spent years living among the Soyon Uriyanghai and Darkhad tribes of Northern Mongolia, it’s a film steeped in the rhythms of their everyday lives. Structured, much like the routines of its protagonists, according to the seasons, Ottinger eschews editorial commentary beyond the insertion of chapter cards, letting the inhabitants’ quotidian cycles play out through extended sequences. Hypnotic, humanist filmmaking of the highest order.
41. To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Director: Charles Burnett
Opening with a stunning dream sequence in which a sleeping man’s feet spontaneously burst into flame, To Sleep With Anger leaves the strict realism of Charles Burnett’s first two features behind, in favour of something more tangy and mysterious. Folk tales and superstitions are rarely out of conversation in the home of retired couple Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice), especially after Gideon’s old friend Harry (Danny Glover) shows up on the doorstep one day and asks to stay. Dangerously charismatic, Harry proceeds to cast a spell over Gideon and his entire dysfunctional family, a ne’er-do-well with a natural proclivity for disruption or, hints Burnett, possibly the devil himself.
40. Strange Days (1995)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
As a vision of the future, the Y2K-set Strange Days dated quickly; as a reflection of the period in which it was made, however, Kathryn Bigelow’s punk sci-fi remains vital. It’s a time capsule, filled with outdated tech, satin shirts and trip-hop, all wrapped up in the sweaty anxiety of powderkeg mid-90s LA and a more global anxiety about what surprises the new millennium might bring. Starring Ralph Fiennes, playing successfully against type as a scuzzy ex-cop who uncovers a conspiracy while dealing in black market video recordings of people’s memories, the film is also a departure for the ever-evolving Bigelow, following up dude-bro action staple Point Break (1991) and preceding her move into more overtly political territory in the 2000s with a grunge noir both action-packed and socially conscious.
39. After Life (1998)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Crowned as one of the great humanists in cinema by Roger Ebert, Hirokazu Koreeda started his acclaimed film career in the mid-90s. The sublime After Life sees a group of the recently deceased taken to a way-station en route to their respective eternities. Koreeda asked hundreds of ordinary people in Japan to talk about their lives on camera, some footage of which made its way into the film. We don’t know which interviews are real and which are scripted, but the magic of his filmmaking begins with a straightforward, albeit challenging, obligation his heroes need to lock in perpetuity: to remember just one of their happiest memories to be made into a short film.
38. La Cérémonie (1995)
Director: Claude Chabrol
People like to call Claude Chabrol the ‘French Hitchcock’, but did Hitchcock ever make anything quite so savage and insidious as La Cérémonie? It’s based on a Ruth Rendell novel and set in the French countryside, which might put you in mind of an ITV Sunday evening mystery – but two of the great actresses of our time are in it, so for that alone it’s really in another league. Sandrine Bonnaire plays the new maid — a bit simple of mind — at a well-heeled family’s Brittany mansion, while Isabelle Huppert is the local postmistress, who befriends her in order to wield her access and influence. Quite what her plan is – is she seeking some sort of revenge or class vendetta? – becomes the question mark that hangs with perverse ambiguity over one of the decade’s subtlest and most brilliant thrillers.
37. Hard Boiled (1992)
Director: John Woo
Hard Boiled is Hong Kong cinema so fierce that it opens with a teahouse-set gunfight fit to conclude any other actioner. Director John Woo establishes his lead – and then-regular star – Chow Yun Fat as mischievous cop ‘Tequila’ Yuen, out to bring down gun-smuggling mobsters with charismatic savvy and gun-wielding justice. Intricate plotting introduces Tony Leung as Alan, an undercover cop posing as a Triad assassin. Tension increases at a trajectory only matched by a remarkable body count. A spectacular warehouse battle bringing warring factions together was surely an inspiration for the double-crossing bullet opera of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (2016), while the hospital denouement is applause-worthy. After this, Woo took his stylish slow-mo and balletic mise-en-death to Hollywood for fame and riches. He’d earned it.
36. Heat (1995)
Director: Michael Mann
Michael Mann’s magnum opus arrived in the middle of the 1990s with a midnight mood and a grand criminal sweep that hasn’t been bettered in the quarter of a century that has passed since its release. Al Pacino plays street-worn Lt. Vincent Hanna, an indefatigable City of Angels robbery-homicide detective. Robert De Niro, in what, at the time of writing, is his last truly essential role, plays master thief Neil McCauley, a seasoned professional of monastic discipline and a dictator’s ruthlessness. Worth watching for the extraordinary shoot-out on LA’s streets alone, Heat is a beautiful epic that delivers in character and fascinating procedural detail. A masterpiece of crime cinema and a worthy companion to Mann’s Thief (1979).
35. Goodfellas (1990)
Director: Martin Scorsese
It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that, for the mob movie, there was before Goodfellas and there was after Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s rapid-fire chronicle of the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a real-life Lucchese crime family footsoldier who began his criminal career as a low-level hood torching cars in the 1950s and ended it in the 80s as a coked-out FBI informant, has proven so influential in its mix of gritty drama and directorial flash that it’s since become the genre’s signature style. How could it not? An exhibition of all the tricks Scorsese ever learned, Goodfellas is a kaleidoscope of technique, slick montage and time-jumps and heroic tracking shots soundtracked by wall-to-wall pop-rock and wry voiceover from Ray Liotta, never better than as the ever more detestable Hill.
34. Three Colours: Red (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s beloved Three Colours trilogy — and his career as a feature filmmaker — ended on a note of warm resignation with Red, taking its thematic motif from the ‘fraternal’ third of the Tricolour. Made at the dawn of the internet age, it opens with a telephone ringing inside a Belgian apartment, before we’re transported to a sea of wire conversations. A film of ephemeral, unexpected connections that takes a traffic accident as its dramatic catalyst, it re-united the filmmaker with the enchanting Irène Jacob. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the retired judge, at first seemingly impervious to Jacob’s singular charms, until Kieslowski’s fable kicks in, and the Polish master works his gentle, gestural magic on the strange nature of human relationships.
33. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Along with the fava beans and chianti, Anthony Hopkins brings a touch of ham to Hannibal Lecter. It also brought five Oscars and worldwide box office glory thanks to Jonathan Demme’s handling, distancing it from Michael Mann’s ice cold Manhunter five years earlier. The plot is near identical as FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) taps Lecter for help to track a killer, but Demme brings more conventional thriller mechanics to his telling, amping the drama with set-pieces and fluidity. Clarice’s interiority is likewise sketched very well indeed, thanks to clever framing of what she sees, and Foster’s obvious brilliance in letting her character bloom.
32. Before Sunrise (1995)
Director: Richard Linklater
Beginning the decade with the influential ensemble film Slacker (1990) – often credited with launching the 90s indie film movement – Richard Linklater would later devise a movie with just two people walking and talking. Inspired by his own experience of encountering a woman in a Philadelphia toy store, Before Sunrise sees protagonists Jesse and Céline meet on a train before spending 12 hours wandering Vienna, experiencing a romantic spark, and all the while realising that dawn and their inevitable parting is fast approaching. A philosophical meditation on self-discovery, time and romantic fulfilment, Before Sunrise is a smart, poignant brief encounter that feels entirely genuine – “romance for realists” as Linklater puts it.
31. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Director: James Cameron
It was the decade that James Cameron declared himself ‘king of the world,’ annihilating box office records with the seemingly unstoppable Titanic (1997) — only stopped, in fact, by the director himself, with Avatar in 2009. His best film came at the start of the decade, two years after The Abyss (1989) under-performed at the box office. Ever at the vanguard of VFX, Cameron’s experiments in the earlier film took full flight with T2. But effects work is only ever as good as what it’s bolted on to, and Cameron’s greatest strength has always been his peerless conceptualisation of an action set-piece. The storm-drain chase alone is a masterclass in directing prowess, the film itself one of the greatest action spectaculars of all time.
30. Rosetta (1999)
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
The first of two films to win the Palme d’Or for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Rosetta is breadline social realism as punishing thriller. What might in cinema-at-large be considered low stakes seem impossibly high here, the antagonist a system that prohibits social mobility for those unfortunate enough to have already passed a certain point of desperation. For 17-year-old Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne, giving the kind of naturalistic performance only somebody acting for the first time could), living in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother, the difference between merely surviving and something worse is finding a new job before the water is turned off, or the gas runs out.
29. From the East (1993)
Director: Chantal Akerman
An experimental anti-travelogue made as the Eastern Bloc teetered, Chantal Akerman’s piece is anything but conventional. It has none of the familiar comforts of script or narrative, but consists of long takes, shot in available light, of people and places in Russia, Poland and Germany. Subjects often look into the camera, returning our gaze and reflecting a place in time. We see the tableaux of the everyday, and read into it what we will. Akerman’s agenda – if there is one – is not easy to deduce, but it does memorialise a way of life that may never return.
28. Belfast, Maine (1999)
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Like Borges’s fabled map, the one so large and detailed that it covered the actual terrain, Frederick Wiseman’s expansive examinations of communities and institutions are so comprehensive and finely textured as to be films you visit rather than merely watch. Even if you’ve never pulled off the highway at the New England port town of Belfast, Maine, this mid-career milestone gives you a rich measure of the place: from the processing of sardines in its canning factories to the manner in which Moby-Dick is taught in its schoolrooms. A motto glimpsed in a local office – “Excellence is an art of inches” – encapsulates Wiseman’s method: over four and a bit hours, his precise scrutiny of a society’s specifics adds up to a vast canvas and a true American masterpiece.
27. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
It is practically impossible to disconnect Pulp Fiction from the idea of it in popular culture — but that is precisely the point. A postmodern masterpiece, Quentin Tarantino’s second film played with cultural signifiers and film tropes to lodge itself into the cultural consciousness of 1990s America. But if it remains so powerful twenty-five years after its Palme D’Or win, that is because it cannot be reduced to a cool gimmick. Unlike the alienating irony of others who tried to ape his style, Tarantino’s knowing approach has a sincerity and energy that commands the attention. His bright colours and close-ups, as artificial as they may seem, have the urgency and slightly unhinged quality of modern life.
26. Short Cuts (1993)
Director: Robert Altman
Stitching together a series of unrelated Raymond Carver short stories into one crisscrossing narrative involving 22 ‘main’ characters, Robert Altman’s cross-section of LA life over a few days circa 1993 might be the finest example of the director’s ability to see the bigger picture. Brief interactions between a libidinous cop (Tim Robbins) and a party clown (Anne Archer), a middle-aged waitress (Lily Tomlin) and a schoolboy (Zane Cassidy), or a baker and two grieving parents (Andie McDowell and Bruce Davison), make tremendous ripples for the members of Altman’s big society. Altman’s gift as the consummate ensemble filmmaker is to keep his audience invested in all of them.
25. Safe (1995)
Director: Todd Haynes
Julianne Moore plays a very different kind of Carol in Todd Haynes’ 1995 story of a mild-mannered California housewife whose empty existence may or may not be responsible for her increasingly serious allergy to 20th-century living. With the eeriness and cold, detached shooting style of a psychological horror, Haynes creates an air (or should that be smog) of ambiguous disquiet that leaves us wondering – as Carol progresses from nosebleeds to convulsions to isolation in a new age igloo-like pod – as to the causes of her condition. While some have read Safe as a metaphor for the Aids crisis of the 1980s, the film leaves us without the consolation of easy answers.
24. Underground (1995)
Director: Emir Kusturica
A blast of energy, soaked in Goran Bregovic’s euphoric Balkan brass sounds, Underground tells the story of two best friends falling for the same woman while fighting against the Nazis and supplying weapons to the Communist resistance. Filmed right in the middle of the Yugoslav wars and penned by Dusan Kovacevic, it’s an explosive depiction of resistance, camaraderie and exploitation and a comic metaphor for the conflict in southeastern and central Europe, highlighting the tragic realism of the war. Underground won the Serbian director Emir Kusturica his second Palme D’Or.
23. Naked (1993)
Director: Mike Leigh
Winning both Best Director and Best Actor (for David Thewlis’s Johnny) at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, Naked saw Mike Leigh move from modest domestic social comedy to a much darker, bleaker vision of contemporary Britain, specifically London. Centring around sharp-tongued, misogynist philosopher-vagrant Johnny, portrayed in a blistering performance of Mancunian-accented bile and degradation by Thewlis, the film takes in themes of sexual violence, alienation and millennial angst while encountering a wide range of characters from the margins of a society Thatcher claimed not to exist. Despite the odd tonal lapse – yuppie Jeremy is a caricature of moneyed, narcissistic nastiness – it remains one of Leigh’s most disturbing, electrifying films.
22. Jurassic Park (1993)
Director: Steven Spielberg
1993 was a banner year for Steven Spielberg, with one film eviscerating the summer box office and another securing him his first Oscar for Best Director. How do you choose between Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, with a remit here that only allows for one film per director? For all the historical and personal significance of Spielberg’s Holocaust masterwork, we’ll put our reputations on the line by claiming that Jurassic Park – shot by shot, set-piece by set-piece – is his supreme achievement of the 1990s. From the wonder of the first brontosaurus appearance and the iconic simplicity of the concentric ripples in a cup of water, to the peerless construction of the T-Rex attack. “Where’s the goat?” asks one of the kids as the king of the dinosaurs shows up for his dinner. As far as blockbuster cinema goes, the GOAT’s right here.
21. Unforgiven (1992)
Director: Clint Eastwood
It begins with a burial, a lone silhouette digging a grave as the sun burns its last on the horizon. It could be Clint Eastwood’s ageing gunslinger William Munny burying his wife, or it could be Eastwood himself laying to rest his career as a Western star. An exercise in myth-busting, Unforgiven, Eastwood’s final oater, finds Clint’s Munny riding into action one last time, revealing along the way that the (possibly self-propagated) reputation that precedes him, of a cold-blooded sharpshooter, doesn’t reflect the regretful, vulnerable man he actually is. A summation of Eastwood’s time as a – or perhaps the – Western icon, Unforgiven also perfectly summarises Eastwood the filmmaker: classical composition, complicated characters, and a melancholy that seems to permeate all his directorial work, only nowhere more poignantly than here.
20. The Quince Tree Sun (1992)
Director: Victor Erice
It’s only fitting that Victor Erice would paint the documentary portrait of meticulous Spanish artist Antonio López García, with both men sharing a distinctly unhurried yet scrupulous approach to their work (there’s almost a decade between each of Erice’s three feature-length films). Winner of both Jury and FIPRESCI prizes at Cannes 1992, The Quince Tree Sun documents the attempt of López García to capture the special, fleeting quality of autumn light upon a homegrown quince tree. At its own serene pace the film reveals the mysteries of the artist’s process and, with help from visiting friends, sheds light on López García himself. Watching paint dry has never been so compelling.
19. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
After four decades spent upending our understanding of what cinema could achieve, who expected Stanley Kubrick to return from a 12 year hiatus with a film like Eyes Wide Shut? Wildly misinterpreted upon release, the last 20 years have been kind to his tale of thwarted ego, marital jealousy and masonic amour fou: Dr Bill Hartford’s unconsummated search for intimacy across nocturnal New York plays like an extended gag at a Hollywood leading man’s expense, casting Tom Cruise as the ultimate cuck. It also boasts trademark, exquisite craft — at 400 days, the shoot was the longest in movie history, and it shows. Numerous subtexts — the presence of the soon-to-be-ex Cruise-Kidmans; Kubrick’s passing prior to release; Cate Blanchett’s recent admission that she, in fact, plays the orgy’s mysterious master of ceremonies — suggests a film still revealing its secrets to us. A rebuke to those believing Kubrick lacked a sense of humour, Eyes Wide Shut is the work of a filmmaker who stayed ahead of the game until the very end.
18. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Director: Steve James
The sports documentary that changed the game had Roger Ebert declare “it’s what the movies are for”. Conceived as a 30-minute short, the run time (and ambition) was soon lengthened. The reason: William Gates and Arthur Agee, students yearning for big time basketball. The game itself is a co-star, eclipsed by their social realities as African-Americans with no passport to privilege. Small moments have weight, thanks to a narrative that builds carefully and avoids clumsiness. It’s a technical marvel as well, with quick cuts and tight frames contain the drama of a film so thrillingly and timelessly real.
17. Chungking Express (1994)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
The film that put Wong Kar Wai on the cinephile map, Chungking Express is a low budget, French New Wave influenced tale of urban loneliness, melancholic yearning and heartbreaking romance, set in the chaotic hustle and bustle of a Hong Kong counting down to the 1997 handover ‘expiration date’. The story of two jilted lovesick cops and two very different women was distributed Stateside by Rolling Thunder, Quentin Tarantino’s short-lived Miramax imprint, after the director was reportedly moved to tears on first watching the film. With an exhilarating sense of cinematic style, a contemplative yet uplifting tone and a great soundtrack, Wong’s Express proved a runaway hit.
16. Pola X (1999)
Director: Leos Carax
A leading proponent of France’s cinema du look movement, which foregrounded aesthetic and stylistic concerns, Leos Carax became infamous in the early 90s for his wild extravagance on Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991). His next film, Pola X, took said extravagance as its entry point, charting the impending marriage of aristocratic scion, Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu). The opening act stands in sharp contrast to the literal plunge into darkness that follows with the arrival of a woman claiming to be his sister (Yekaterina Golubeva); her haunting, halting, introductory monologue in a darkened forest one of the premier sequences in 90s cinema. An adaptation of Herman Melville’s riches-to-rags yarn Pierre, or the Ambiguities (Pola X acronymically derives from Carax’s 10th draft of its French title Pierre, ou les ambiguïtés), the film was booed at its Cannes opening and languishes to this day on ill-serving DVD transfers. Wait for a big screen opportunity to drink in Carax’s parade of visual astonishments, accompanied by one of Scott Walker’s greatest scores.
15. The Piano (1993)
Director: Jane Campion
A breakout hit with audiences that also won ecstatic reviews, a Palme d’Or (still the only one for a female filmmaker) and a trio of major Oscars, Jane Campion’s The Piano was one of those 90s success stories that everyone seemed to be on board for. At first glance a period prestige project, Jane Campion’s film also delivered the shock of the new – its frank eroticism, violent emotions and unfamiliar setting in a subtropical backwater in mid-1800s New Zealand all proving an intoxicating cocktail. Holly Hunter is the mute Scottish woman who arrives at the ends of the earth for an arranged marriage with Sam Neill’s local squire, but is soon bartering into an arrangement of a different sort: winning back the keys of her beloved piano in return for intimacy with Harvey Keitel’s sailor-gone-native.
14. The Long Day Closes (1992)
Director: Terence Davies
It was “Coronation Street directed by Robert Bresson,” said one review of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). That same tone can be found in his follow-up, returning to the rainy Liverpool of his childhood and the life of young Bud (Leigh McCormack) and his family. There are remembrances of times past (the nit nurse) and joyous scenes with Bud’s adult sisters. But there’s more than frivolous recollection, showing how art can seep into life and shape it. Frames are shot exquisitely, light leaching away to the edges with painterly skill. In this world, cinemas are secular churches ministered by Judy Garland or Alastair Sim. Amen to that.
13. Time Regained (1999)
Director: Raul Ruiz
In 1999, being John Malkovich also meant being the Baron de Charlus, joining Catherine Deneuve as Odette and Emmanuelle Béart as Gilberte in this visionary adaptation of the final volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Keeping numerous time frames in motion like spinning plates, as the book’s narrator recalls his past life and loves during the belle époque, Time Regained unfurls as a vertiginous death-bed reverie. In perhaps his most widely seen film, Chilean fabulist Raúl Ruiz finds a dazzling visual approximation of Proust’s time-slipping storytelling. With his camera forever on the move, its planes of field in flux, the visuals seem magically unstable, as if the image itself is trip-wired with memories and tangents.
12. La Belle Noiseuse (1991)
Director: Jacques Rivette
The younger generation had their uses, of course, but the fact remains that many of the finest and most searching French films of the 90s came from the old men of the nouvelle vague – from Rohmer, Chabrol and Rivette. “It’s going to be a whirlwind, a cataract, a maelstrom,” La Belle Noiseuse’s own ageing artist, painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli), warns his new model (Emmanuelle Béart) of the trials ahead, after she inspires him to re-embark on a mothballed masterpiece. Rivette never gives us whirlwinds exactly, but this leisurely four-hour drama stands as one of the cinema’s most observant and mischievously suggestive films about artistic processes and the loaded dynamic between creator and subject.
11. The Puppetmaster (1993)
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
One of four masterpieces Hou Hsiao-hsien, a leading contender for the title of greatest living filmmaker, released in the 90s, The Puppetmaster continues the historical reckonings of the Taiwanese director’s previous picture, A City of Sadness (1989). Featuring a narrower subjective focus than the earlier film by virtue of its biographical account of a single life, that of the titular Geppetto Li Tian-lu, The Puppetmaster recounts his life under a half century of Japanese rule. Li narrates his own story, or a version thereof, as Hou elliptically leaps between past, present, fact and fiction; his singular, fixed-position camera rendering impossibly exquisite frames. Questions of national and personal identity are gradually foregrounded, drip-feeding philosophical and political truths — and the title’s double-meaning — through the compositions themselves. Patience is required, but its rewards prove transcendent.
10. Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
Directors: Aleksei German
If you saw Aleksei German’s final film, Hard to be a God back in 2013, you’ll be familiar with his singular brand of image-making. Hugely elaborate, densely populated sequence shots are his bread and butter, pulling your surprised attention in every direction at once, focal points seemingly at odds with the movement of the camera.
Khrustalyov, My Car! was German’s fifth film, and much like his last was more than a decade in the making, with every ounce of effort making it on to the screen. A straightforward narrative cuts through the all-enveloping chaos of the film’s visual scheme: in the spring of 1953, during the final days of Stalin’s rule, the so-called Doctor’s plot ensnares surgeon Yuri Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo). Branded a Jewish insurgent, his fears of capture come to pass when he’s carted off to a Siberian labour camp, horrifically brutalised en route.
Fans of The Death of Stalin (2017) should check out this, the real deal. Showing up the later film’s glibness, the penetrating depths of German’s satirical impulses speak of, and to, an embodied century of oppression. Uproariously funny, even as the regime’s depersonalising effects tighten their stranglehold, from start to finish, the tactility of the film’s mise-en-scene astounds.
9. An Autumn Tale (1998)
Director: Eric Rohmer
The final entry in Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons series, An Autumn Tale is also the most wholly realised, with a magnificent mix of Rohmerian characters expounding philosophically on loneliness, love and mid-life relationships, all alongside a masterful plotting of games, deceptions and reversals of Hitchcockian finesse. The storyline centres on widowed Rhone Valley vigneron Magali (Béatrice Romand), and two friends’ attempts to find her a lover, one by secretly placing a newspaper ad, the other by introducing Magali to her ex-lover as a tactic to deflect attentions away from herself.
While all the characters are worthy of comment, Magali especially is a gratifyingly complex creation, an assortment of prickly contradictions and quirks calcified (or, like her fine wine, matured) with age. She is independent, content with her work – seeing herself as an artisan – and yet longs for someone to share her life. She will not stand for game-playing, and the tension lies in viewers desiring her happiness but sensing all could be lost if dishonesties are revealed. Rohmer’s direction is subtle and unshowy, frequently shooting characters front-on so that we read faces as they outwardly deceive; his technique, particularly in relation to an expertly staged wedding scene, is as precisely honed as a well-trained vine.
8. Beau Travail (1999)
Director: Claire Denis
In harnessing the tactility of experience, Claire Denis makes films that are as vivid as reality, perhaps even more so: almost completely unencumbered by the impatient causality of narrative drive, the director takes the time to absorb moments in and of themselves, and not simply as steps towards a narrative conclusion. This is most clear — and most beautiful — in Beau Travail, where this sensibility brushes against the goal-oriented, impersonal routine of men in a French Foreign Legion training camp.
Obeying orders, reproducing the same tasks over and over again, the men in the legion are reduced to machines. But with no mission on the horizon, no real objective to their work, their everyday tasks take an almost ritualistic, bewitching air. Chief Adjutant Galoup (Denis Lavant), the narrator, is victim to this contradiction: when new recruit Sentain (Grégoire Colin) joins his section, Galoup is envious of the young man’s charisma, even attracted by him. But he feels betrayed when the Commandant (Michel Subor), whose orders give Galoup’s life meaning, grows fond of this boy who is his exact opposite. Torn with longing and despair, Galoup enforces his rule to deadly extremes and the film’s final scene, simultaneously cathartic and strangely stifling, is the perfect encapsulation of Denis’ cinema of control, fear and desire.
7. Sátántangó (1994)
Director: Bela Tarr
Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr and his fellow countryman, writer László Krasznahorkai wanted to make their seven-hour opus on human values back in 1985. But it was only a couple of years after the fall of the Communist rule in Hungary when Tarr’s adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s dystopian novel, Sátántangó kicked off. Tracking along the muddy Hungarian plains of Hortobágy, the film paints a small community of farmers in monochrome and with an intensity characteristic in Goya’s etchings.
Slowly introducing each of the characters in their natural environment, we soon realise that their degrading morale only finds solitude in the local pub. Tarr’s hypnotic shots reach the peak of his cinematic genius when half way through the film, all characters dance with each other in one of the longest shots in cinematic history: a single, eleven-minute take tapped out to the sound of an accordion. When the dancers finally drop, spiders start to sew their threads of invisible webs, quietly taking control of the sleepers’ faces – a wonderful analogy for the oppressive government whose restrictions stopped the production of Sátántangó in the mid-80s.
6. The River (1997)
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
In its way, The River is as scary as any of the decade’s horror movies. Tsai Ming-liang’s film begins a bit like Lee Chang-dong’s recent Burning, with our protagonist, Hsiao-Kang (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng), fatefully bumping into a woman from his youth. In this case, the chance encounter leads to him helping out on a film shoot. The director needs someone to play a corpse floating face down in the dirty Tamsui River. We’ve already watched her humorous attempts to make the scene work with a mannequin, but it’s too buoyant, too stiff. It seems only the living have what it takes to be dead.
Thing is that after this brief role, this snap decision to help out, Hsiao-Kang isn’t the same again. He develops chronic neck pain that won’t go away, and Tsai’s third feature simply follows his various futile efforts to seek a remedy.
By the 90s, Taiwanese filmmakers were leading the way in showing how atomised our lives were becoming in the big cities, defined less by the existential angst of old and more by the lonely business of being human amid the corporatised blankness of fast food joints, shopping malls and high-density apartment blocks. In The River, endless rain, leaking ceilings and fracturing family bonds all give the sense of a social fabric in the process of entropy. It’s a mute Taipei tragedy in which each humid frame makes us feel Hsiao-Kang’s apartness, and how improbable it is that his fate will register.
5. Close-Up (1990)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
In retelling the story of Hossain Sabzian, a cinephile who conned a family into believing he was celebrated filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Close-Up turns what was a sad experience for all involved into a lesson of both life and cinema. Abbas Kiarostami’s docufiction not only gives Sabzian a chance to explain himself — it also lets him fulfil his dream of working in film: like the other key protagonists, Sabzian plays himself in reenactments of the incident.
This touching generosity runs through the entire film, imbuing what would otherwise be a rather straightforward documentary procedural with great emotion. Though Sabzian is continually accused of being a liar and a thief, and though his defence isn’t always convincing, Kiarostami never gives in to contempt. What emerges instead is a portrait of a desperate man who, as self-pitying as he might be, is also the victim of society-wide economic problems – even the university-educated sons of the respectable family struggle to find work. But when others would succumb to this tension, Kiarostami keeps things loose and calm, though without ever being derisive of anyone’s pain or frustration. Beyond its self-reflexive treatise on the power of cinema, it is this great balancing act of compassion that gives Close-Up its lasting power.
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Director: David Lynch
From the vantage point of Twin Peaks: The Return’s critical success, and the esteem in which we hold the likes of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, some might presume David Lynch has always been as beloved as coffee and cherry pie. But those people are living in a dream. By Fire Walk With Me, Lynch was in a critical slump, his initially beloved television landmark cancelled after a catastrophic second season. Returning with a rejoinder possessing little of the show’s original whimsy, the response was savage, audiences baffled by its neon colour palette, obscurantist symbolism, and barely intelligible dialogue.
Time, distance and context make it easier to see this terrifying descent into the last days of Laura Palmer as a natural step over the threshold of the Black Lodge, a doorway Lynch himself had opened during his show’s (then) final episode. Deepening Peaks’ liminal mythology whilst channeling the spiritual occupation with dreams and trapped souls that has driven much of Lynch’s output since, this disorientating nightmare of a film opens up a space between strange worlds, yet remains grounded in a bone-shakingly harrowing depiction of Palmer’s abuse at the hands of her father. Driven by phantasmagoric imagery, the dramatic ferocity of Sheryl Lee and Angelo Badalamenti’s score, the result is the very definition of what we’ve come to think of as Lynchian, and is his most humane masterpiece.
3. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Director: Terrence Malick
1998 saw one of cinema’s great Lazarus acts, as Terrence Malick returned to feature filmmaking following a 20-year absence. It was worth the wait.
The Thin Red Line makes for fascinating comparison with Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, released the same year. Both films speak volumes of their respective creators – Spielberg declaring that man is defined by action (and a director by action-staging); Malick that individual action counts for little. No prizes for guessing whose film took home five Oscars.
A ponderous philosophical inquest about man’s capacity to find a semblance of inner peace amid the chaos of war, the film largely takes place in the breaths taken between battles. Where Spielberg and his men take a hero’s journey between set-pieces, Malick and his try to stay put, fashioning a makeshift equilibrium against the dictates of fate.
A tapestry of narrative voices speak their truths to – themselves, their sweethearts, their gods? We’re still some distance from the formal experiments of Malick’s later masterpieces, the interior monologues here still traditionally readable in psychological and narrative terms. Yet when has a $50m epic ever been – before or since – so intimately rooted in the most private thoughts and fears of its protagonists?
2. A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Director: Edward Yang
For many years this triumph of the New Taiwan Cinema proved difficult to see, but wider availability has only increased its reputation. Oft-cited as a kind of Taiwanese Rebel without a Cause – the film is based on a real-life incident of violence that relates to the film’s Chinese title of The Youth Killing Incident on Guling Street – Edward Yang’s four-hour epic, set against the political and social tensions of early 1960s Taipei, is so much wider in reach than Nicholas Ray’s CinemaScope melodrama.
The film centres around 14-year-old Xiao Si’r and his family, as the boy descends into delinquency and becomes increasingly involved in the rivalries between two local gangs, in part due to an adolescent desire for the attractive, enigmatic Ming. With a sprawling cast and an array of subplots, Yang takes in a tense world of simmering violence waiting to erupt – both personally and politically – a world of teenage angst, heartbreak and rock’n’roll, creating a film utterly specific to its time and place yet universal in its themes. Technically, A Brighter Summer Day is a tour de force of painstaking framing, naturalistic lighting – candles, flashlights and shadows are used to vital effect – and beautifully composed long shots, all adding to the film’s impressive sweep.
1. Crash (1996)
Director: David Cronenberg
For UK viewers at least, it’s impossible to separate Crash from the unprecedented furore that surrounded its release. Banned by Westminster council, subject to a sustained front-page campaign of vilification by the Daily Mail, and slandered in Parliament, it was impossible to escape the notoriety of what Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker described as being “beyond the bounds of depravity”.
The film touched a lot of nerves, and whatever the peculiarities of socio-political context that allowed such a tinderbox of absurdity to ignite, there’s little escaping the singular effects of David Cronenberg’s mysterious object even today.
The Canadian filmmaker has built a career on physicalising the repressed, on making metaphor flesh. His facility to chart the deepest chasms of human sexuality with Crash, to elucidate – much like Nagisa Oshima before him – the connection between sex and death through such quotidian means, speaks more to the horrors buried in the outraged viewer than the spare, professorial methodology applied by its creator.
Rooting his characters’ psychopathologies in contemporary, present-tense Toronto – a cinematic non-place as banal as J.G. Ballard’s Shepperton — amplifies the sense of disembodiment, the somnolent chill of its disconnect. For all its fender-bending, Crash largely glides.
It’s a romance, like most of Cronenberg’s work, empathetically attuned to the need for human connection, however marginally framed. Elias Koteas’ Vaughan may finally stand as the ultimate embodiment of the Cronenberg mode — the parasitic perspective and all its desires, literalised and, most importantly, humanised.