Top 10 1990s Films That Defined The Decade

Neal Damiano takes a look at 10 great 1990s films that helped define the decade. Hollywood embraced independent voices (in Boogie Nights and Clerks) while continuing its love of the blockbuster (Independence Day) as well as embracing emerging technology to push the boundaries of computer animation (in live action 1990s films like Jurassic Park and fully animated films like Toy Story).

10. Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)

Toy Story 2, Film, Pixar animationToy Story was not only technologically groundbreaking but very entertaining in its own right. This first Pixar feature is funny and heart-warming. It features lively voice performances from Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Toy Story is one of those films that’s impossible to watch without a smile on the face.

9. The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)

The Matrix, Film, Top 10 Films, Keanu ReevesA searingly iconic film for its inventive fashion, sonic soundtrack and astonishing special effects. The Matrix was a game changer in every aspect from the storyline to the cinematography. But besides all the amazing visuals it also makes you think about life: what is real and what is illusion.

8. Fargo (The Coen Brothers, 1996)

Top 10 Frances McDormand FilmsThe Coen Brothers are not for everyone, their quirky humor is an acquired taste. However, in 1996 they struck a nerve with American audiences with Fargo. The Coens created unforgettable characters – inspiring Frances McDormand to one of her finest performances – many of whom do some pretty grotesque things. Steve Buscemi is brilliant in an over-the-top performance as Carl, a low down criminal who’s a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. It’s a kidnapping-gone-terribly-wrong film and none of the people aside from McDormand’s well-meaning Marge Gunderson have redeeming qualities. Fargo shows a very particular way of life in the Midwest.

7. Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)

One of the better big Hollywood production films of the 1990s, Steven Spielberg’s has a grand scale but an intimate quality built around characters we care about. The CGI effects are astonshing for the time. Never before had dinosaurs enjoyed such realism. It started a very successful franchise.

6. Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1997)

Boogie Nights - Top 10 FilmsPaul Thomas Anderson’s film was a huge hit for the breakout director in the 1990s. Set in the midst of the porn industry in the 1970s, we get a vivid look into the seedy underbelly of the business. What really makes Boogie Nights outstanding is the acting: there are flawless performances from just about every actor in the film. Porn was becoming acceptable pop culture by the time the 1990s came around but never before have we got such a candid look into the industry from a mainstream perspective quite like Boogie Nights.

5. Home Alone (Columbus, 1990)

I believe Home Alone was not intended to be a holiday film but it became a Christmas classic. Not only was it hilarious and heartwarming but it made child star Macauley Culkin a household name. A witty story of a clever kid who gets left at home at Christmas and has to fend off criminals. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are incredibly entertaining as madcap criminals. Home Alone appeals to all ages which is why it managed to gross $285 million at the box office.

4. Clueless (Heckerling, 1995)

Clueless - Alicia SilverstoneA typical story of a rich girl dealing with everyday tribulations of high school, Clueless is nevertheless distinguishable in how it delivers its story with such wit and hilarity, bringing John Hughes style teen comedy sensibilities to a 1990s audience. Alicia Silverstone’s charisma radiates in this film and made her quite a star commodity through the decade. Clueless influenced so many films in the 1990s. I can easily say we wouldn’t have Mean Girls or Jawbreaker without it. The film is definitely noteworthy for clique comedies that came later.

3. Independence Day (Emmerich, 1996)

Top 10 Films Where The US President Appears To Be Non-PartisanIn the decade of the Indie film boom Independence Day was a blockbuster hit and such an enthralling film. aliens are coming and their main goal is to destroy earth. It is quite a spectacle with massive spaceships shooting fire down on cities, the total annihilation of the human race their goal. Who do we call on for our saviour – Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum of course. I’m not the biggest Smith fan but he is very commanding here uniting the survivors for one last attack against the intruders.

2. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)

Top 10 Movie Monologues - Pulp Fiction - Top 10 FilmsQuentin Tarantino’s 1994 film defined how crime-drama was going to be in American cinema for the rest of the decade, the film often imitated but rarely matched. It’s also noteworthy for reinventing John Travolta’s career and underlining the talents of Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson. With Tarantino’s fascination for pulp crime novels of the 1950s he created a masterpiece that had a lingo and style all its own.

1. Clerks (Smith, 1994)

Clerks - Top 10 FilmsClerks is the ultimate salute to Generation X. Two slackers discuss meaningless pop culture banter inside a convenience store. Some critics describe it as David Mamet with d*ck jokes but I find this hilariously short-sighted. Yes, Smith’s heavy use of dialogue is what makes the film so funny. The dichotomy of pessimistic Dante verses apathetic Randal is so darn entertaining. It’s a simple concept from which Kevin Smith utilizes his limited resources and writes about what he knows, creating one of the funniest independent films of the 1990s. The film went on to Sundance Film Festival in 1994 and ended up being bought by Miramax. The movie is still revered by many today and now considered a cult classic.

Written and compiled by Neal Damiano

Your turn: what are your fave 1990s films that defined the decade?

About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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    Callum Reply

    Great selection of 1990s movies. I’m surprised by how many films from the decade are still classed as favourites of mine.

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    Roger Keen Reply

    There are three I would add: Silence of the Lambs, Goodfellas, and Schindler’s List. I’d take off Clueless, Independence Day and Home Alone.

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    Callum Reply

    Just having a think of other influential/decade defining 1990s films and thought of The Blair Witch Project. That started a found footage boom. I think Titanic deserves a shout because of how much money it made and how the film really resonated with audiences. It’s a good film to highlight the breakthroughs in special effects tech in the 1990s with James Cameron pushing the boundaries prior to Avatar.

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      Roger Keen Reply

      Cameron was doing it (pushing tech’s boundaries) before – and better than Titanic – with Terminator 2 in 1991.

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    CineGirl Reply

    Great list Neal. Really good choices. I’d put forward Speed as an alternative/addition to the blockbusters that left a mark in the 1990s.

  5. Dan
    Dan Reply

    Great selection of 1990s films, each defining the decade in their own ways. Clerks is a great example of the independent scene during the decade and the film stands up so well today. I think Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction and The Matrix are others that jump out as defining films from the decade. And great to see Toy Story included. That changed the face of animation.

    For me, I’d have to include Terminator 2 for how it showcased how special effects were going more digital but, in Cameron’s safe hands, doing so without looking out of place.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Pretty tough task picking just ten from the decade. You picked a lot of truly terrific films. Glad to see Clerks make your number one slot. Pulp and Jurassic Park and ID4 are all really good choices as well. The Matrix could easily be number one.

    I too would take Terminator 2 and replace something like Clueless. It’s so hard to narrow it down to just ten. You could put Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan in here as well.

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    Ashley Townsend Reply

    I think Schindler’s List should be on here. One of the best 1990s films.

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    Reed Reply

    True Romance.

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    Jacob H. Reply

    For me, five films define the 1990s: Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and Pulp Fiction.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    Interesting read Mr Damiano.

    I’ve got my own two bits’ worth:

    Reservoir Dogs before PF (some of the stuff in PF was pretty laboured; RD was a much tighter work); Carlito’s Way (the film when De Palma really, and finally, nailed it); Trainspotting (one of the few films that blew my mind when I first saw it in the theatre); Man Bites Dog (a brave, albeit sorid, masterpiece); Con Air (a movie that brought a lot of contemporary Hollywood elements together in a reasonably clever way); Natural Born Killers (took a while for others to catch up with Stone and Richardson) and Zentropa (another European masterpiece, von Trier’s Dogville may be another contender here).

    Keep up the good work.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      All great films.
      Thanks for reading, Mark Fraser.

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    Rory Fish Reply

    Reservoir Dogs always feel like a more seminal piece of work from Tarantino over the glossy Pulp Fiction. As such it’s a more defining film in the 1990s, particularly in how it preempted a lot of Miramax’s 1990s output and success during the decade.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Reservoir Dogs is a great film.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    One of us has to bring it back to the horror angle…SCREAM definitely revived the genre, brought it back to life. It should be on here as well, imo of course.

  13. Dan
    Dan Reply

    And Scream brings another 1990s connection to Miramax through Weinstein’s subsidiary Dimension Films which released a whole host of good and bad slasher films during the decade, revitalising the genre’s image and bringing to my attention (as I was in my early teens when Scream was released). Kevin Williamson – in part because of Dawson’s Creek – was one of the stars of the decade (Scream and Scream 2 are great; he also made Teaching Mrs Tingle which is underrated).

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    Pauline Reply

    Pulp Fiction is what I think of when I think of 1990s movies. Clerks is a great number one though.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Thank You!

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    Jonny Downs Reply

    Great list. All perfect entries but I would have liked to have seen Reservoir Dogs make the top 10

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