Best Films of the 90’s

December 16, 2009

A previous post listing my choices for the best films of the last decade proved more popular than expected (currently the post with the most comments and more hits in a few weeks than most entries have managed all year) so, blatant opportunist that I am, I decided to extend this obsessive, trivial practice to cover the preceding decade. However, compiling the list below further emphasized how premature the list was for the 00’s. It was much easier to get a top 50 here, for example, and several of the entries below were viewed some time after the conclusion of the decade in which they were made. Once again, the criteria for selection are films that I have actually seen, how much I enjoyed them and how I consider their wider cultural and cinematic impact.

Now, let us dispense with the foreplay and proceed to the main event……

D Wigfield’s Top 50 Best Films of the 90s

With the benefit of greater hindsight, the ranking here is a little tighter and more confident that it was in the previous list for the 00’s. There are, of course, several glaring omissions that I will probably struggle to justify. Some of the more gross and egregious ones will be down to my never having seen them and others will be down to having been simply forgotten about (although that raises obvious questions to their appropriate place in such a list anyway).

As before, I shall provide a brief explanation to my #1 choice. I first came to the Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing when I was about 13 years old and it marked the start of a deeper understanding and awareness of what a film could be in my mind at the time. The Coen’s third film saw them riffing heavily on the stylistic and narrative elements of hardboiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett whilst crafting their own original vision that was equal parts homage and parody of the gangster movie genre. This is not to say Miller’s Crossing is a mere stylized prank. The film is beautifully shot and features an expertly-crafted Byzantine plot, outstanding performances, the Coen’s trademark dark humour and an intriguing study of the human heart, honour and loyalty. The gangster genre parody elements, from the exaggerated Tommy Gun battles to the quirky, invented slang (entirely free of profanity); although clever and well-executed, operate on arguably the most superficial level of Miller’s Crossing. Crucially, it is a film that explores themes of friendship and betrayal, “loyalty and ethics” as one character, the excitable Johnny Caspar, explains to us in the opening scene. The Coen brothers had an utterly outstanding decade as filmmakers in the 1990s. Miller’s Crossing remains my favourite film from their considerable body of work (if forced to choose, I’m likely to call it my favourite film of all time) and it’s my choice as the best film of the 90s. “Everyone’s so goddamn smart. Well, we’ll go down to the Crossing and we’ll see who’s smart.”

*(It proved much trickier than I expected to move this symbol, π, the symbol for “Pi”, from a Word document on to this page. However, that is the proper title for my #8 choice above – the debut feature by Darren Aronofsky. It looks like a single lower case “N” in the list but I’m too much of a pedantic fanwank to put it in there as “Pi”.)

Update: Last minute changes resulted in the removal of Man Bites Dog at #48 and Crash at #46, respectively. I had criminally overlooked John Singleton’s Boyz ‘N the Hood and the seminal French film La Haine and they deserve both those spots more than my initial choices. The presence of Crash was due to misplaced loyalty for the work of David Cronenberg. This will be compensated for in an inevitable forthcoming 80’s list.

More updates: Because I can’t leave this shit alone…..A magnificent, scarcely-known gem from 1995 was Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. Hit me like a blow to the chest that I had forgotten about it. It replaces Robert Altman’s Short Cuts at #43.



  1. Oh, David.

    You had me at Miller’s Crossing. I knew you were a fan, but “if forced to choose, I’m likely to call it my favourite film of all time” is spot on. I love the hell out of this film, both on the same level and for different reasons as you. As an amateur philologist and lover of etymology, I am completely enamored of the invented slang everyone speaks–which sounds at once tough and comical.

    “What’s the rumpus?”
    “Take your flunky and dangle.”

    What’s more, for me, is that it revives the lost art of banter in film. Hearkening back to a time when brandishing a gun was the last resort, and “smart guys” battled with tough talk and witticisms. The exchanges between Tom and Eddie the Dane are absolute gold in this regard. (The two detectives in Barton Fink also successfully achieve a similar effect.)

    It even posits homosexual overtones of all the macho, gangster posturing. (“Mink is Eddie Dane’s boy.”)

    I remember seeing the trailer when I was maybe 10 years old, but never seeing the film itself until years later. Until No Country for Old Men came around, there was no film that could truly challenge it for my Coen Bros. affections, and I’m the biggest Coen Bros. fan I know.

    Not only does it contain a Byzantine plot–which, like arguably every Coen Bros. film in existence, requires and rewards repeat viewings–but the protagonist himself is a Byzantine complexity. It’s not entirely clear whether Tom himself knows why he’s doing what he’s doing, which makes it even less likely that his enemies will discern his motives. He manages to be smart AND lucky, and is quick enough to turn the tables on those who oppose him.

    “Look into your heart.”
    “What heart?”

  2. I perhaps downplayed the fact that I love everything about Miller’s Crossing. Even though I talk about certain elements being superficial, I’m still as into them as any deeper part of the film. The script is goddamn dynamite.

  3. Golden dynamite. And it’s their THIRD film. THIRD. They made two films before it, films that were completely different in tone, and then did MILLER’S CROSSING. I could go on and on and on about this film.

    Even more impressive was that they got writer’s block during the writing of it, took a break and then wrote Barton Fink before coming back to finish Miller’s. (I’m sure you’ve seen it, but if not, Tom Regan’s apartment building is the Barton Arms.)

  4. I have indeed noticed the Barton Arms allusion.
    The other, more subtle, one I missed until reading up on Miller’s recently was that that there is a newspaper in Miller’s Crossing with the headline “Six Dead In Hotel Fire”, alluding to the climax of Barton Fink.

  5. LA HAINE would definitely be high on my list, top 10 for sure!

    “..The film focuses on a single day in the lives of three young friends in an impoverished multi-ethnic housing project (a ZUP – zone à urbaniser en priorité) in the aftermath of a riot. Vinz (Vincent Cassel), who is Jewish, is filled with rage. He sees himself as a gangster ready to win respect by killing a cop, and models himself after Travis Bickle from the film Taxi Driver. Saïd – Sayid in some English subtitles – (Saïd Taghmaoui) is a happy and talkative Maghrebin who tries to find middle ground between his two friends’ response to life. Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is an Afro-French boxer and drug dealer. The quietest of the three, he sadly contemplates the ghetto and the hate around him. He is probably the only one who has a minimum of consciousness about the state of things. He wants to simply leave this decadent world of violence and hate behind him but does not know how since he lacks the means to do so.

    A friend of theirs, Abdel Ichaha, has been brutalized by the police shortly before the riot and lies in a coma. Vinz finds a policeman’s revolver, lost in the riot. He vows that if their friend dies from his injuries, he will use it to kill a cop…”… Mehr anzeigen

    its a damn good film, one of my all-time favourites. i think you can find the whole movie on youtube with subtitles, but the beautiful black&white is worth to own on dvd.

    here is a clip:

  6. As David mentioned, we’ve been doing our debating over on Facebook, so I thought why don’t we bring the discussion here to The Gibberonica and give David some page hits.

    Anywho, here is my rough Top 20 for the 90s. This list is likely to change between now and, I dunno, 9:00 p.m. GMT, so grains of salt, etc. That being said, number one remains number one (my reasons are posted above).

    20 – Heat

    19 – Boogie Nights

    18 – Leon

    17 – Fargo

    16 – The Last of the Mohicans

    15 – Malcolm X

    14 – The Big Lebowski

    13 – Rushmore

    12 – Goodfellas

    11 – The Matrix

    10 – Boyz N The Hood

    9 – Pulp Fiction

    8 – Shawshank Redemption

    7 – The Iron Giant

    6 – Hard Eight

    5 – Usual Suspects

    4 – L. A. Confidential

    3 – Hoop Dreams

    2 – Unforgiven

    1 – Miller’s Crossing

  7. Yes, quite right, Young-Chuck-‘un! (What the fuck do I call you here, anyway?)
    Too much discussion has been wasted on a *ahem* popular social networking site.

    Should Stewart Gray, a good friend of mine despite his utterly perverse and baffling antipathy for Heat, ever wander in here he should know I have a proposal for him regarding this blog and a debate of sorts. I might even manage to get others involved as I have actually encountered another Heat naysayer my age. Fucking shocking, but I suppose if you travel far enough…..

  8. Nice call on La Haine, Elio.
    I criminally overlooked that one, ended up chopping some ill-considered choices and putting it in there. Really my list breaks down into only 4 or 5 “tiers” with films being placed in decemvirates (yeah, I looked that up, fuck y’all, I needed a good word for “group of ten”), meaning I don’t see much discernible difference between #21 and #29.
    The top ten is tighter and more strict, though.

  9. So, some serious “Cins” of mine – Hard Eight and Hoop Dreams.

  10. Don’t sweat the Cins, David. I think mine are more egregious (mortal?). Are you sitting down?

    The Thin Red Line
    Anything from David Lynch (but I believe we talked about this)

    Which is sad because I know I would love them.

    Feel free to call me Chuck (or just James, honestly) around these parts.

    You’re right as well about the difference between, say, 21 and 29 being negligible, but when you get down to the top 10 it becomes more cutthroat.

  11. Seriously, you would fucking love The Thin Red Line. It’s a shame that Jim Caviezel has been in such shitty movies since.

  12. yeah La Haine, i thought you’d like that film! (i see you included it in your list, the #46 link tho says True Romance)

    never seen Thin Red Line, tho from all the love for your #1 i get the feeling it’s a bigger Cin not to know Miller’s Crossing…

  13. Shit, Elio, I’m all over the fucking place. Yes, thank you, that should be corrected now. La Haine where it should be.

    It occurred to me today that I forgot to include the film Land and Freedom by Ken Loach. Fucking incredible film, extraordinarily well made and I forgot all about it. Might have to craft a whole separate post on it as penance.

  14. Jeez-us. The Coen brothers just owned the 90’s, didn’t they?

    Some new CINS of mine: Naked, Delicatessen, Eyes Wide Shut, The Fisher King, and The Thin Red Line.

    Good call on Clockers and Shallow Grave.

    You can add me to the band of Heat naysayers, though I’m not that fervent about it. It was just a very underwhelming experience.

    Whoa, you replaced Short Cuts and Man Bites Dog? It’s okay, I’ll give ’em a nice warm place to sleep on my list, whenever I put it together.

    You should add some commentary on at least the top five, if not the top ten. You totally nailed Miller’s Crossing. I read Hammett’s The Glass Key a while back and the relationship between Tom and Leo is taken straight outta that book, along with some lines, almost verbatim. Those damn geniuses. No one steals and makes something their own the way the Coens do.

  15. Gawd-damnit, Shwitts, don’t talk to me about what has been cut and what hasn’t….I can barely settle on this shit as it is and, quite frankly, a “Top 60” would just look silly. 60 is a gay number, gayer than any preceding number by at least a factor of four (except possibly 44, that’s some gay shit right there, like two impertinent queers with their hands on their hips).
    Just imagine if the list went on you’d find Short Cuts, Man Bites Dog, Crash, True Romance, just hovering out there.

  16. But seriously, Joe-Sh, joshing aside….(arf)

    A Heat naysayer is just what I need. I’m rapidly running out of time to do a piece on Heat before the year is out (blog activity will be completely down from Dec 22 to Jan 4) so it will probably be January before I can get this plan moving.I’ll get back to you about it then if I need your help.

  17. “like two impertinent queers with their hands on their hips.”

    And now I officially will never look at 44 the same way ever again.

    As for Heat naysaying, do you need some points to counteract? Do you need something to help stoke the fire within? Okay, I’ll try my best. In fact, I’m going to look up that dinner scene between DeNiro and Pacino just to see if it’s as bland as I remember.

    … watching it…

    Okay, how about the fact that the movie felt like it would’ve gone straight-to-video if it weren’t for Pacino and DeNiro. So full of cliches. And not, like, reimagined archetypes approached from a fresh direction, just straight up: cliches. And trite, trite, dialogue.

    “This is the only way I know how to be.”

    “You get in my way, I will take you down.”


    Be gentle. God, I feel like I’ve become Mr. Naysayer lately. Whether it’s Avatar, or Clash of the Titans or shitting on your love of Heat. What has happened to me? I swear, I love films! And fun! I am by no means any enemy of fun.

  18. Muthafuck…..

    Hold on, that’s not what I need, I don’t want to go into it until I’m ready…..and you’re already swinging for the fucking fences.

    Gimme a day or two.

  19. Yeah… your post defending Heat might already be too late. “Joe Shwitters” hit the nail on the head. If you watch it again, you’ll just see how lame it really is. Another Michael Mann film that fails to deliver — along with recent outings such as “Miami Vice” and “Public Enemies”. Casting hot actors is no substitute for a story well told.

  20. Ew. I feel so dirty for submitting a comment. Talking about things in terms of top ten is so __ (left blank at the risk of sounding condescending) And yet I can’t help but be drawn in. The urge is irresistible and unstoppable. David! Get these ‘cine-file’ friends of yours to write some proper posts for the blog. The opinions here are too well articulated and thoughtful to be hidden among the comments.

  21. Ye gods! Heat naysayers up in this bitch like fuckin’ termites….I’m more motivated than ever to get a post out on it.

    Trashing one of my favourite films on my birthday too, Nick. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?*

    Y’know, I’ve long thought about asking those guys if they want to put something up here but I’ve always felt it a bit much since my name is all over this thing – “Wigfield’s Gibberonica”. I didn’t want to give the impression that they’re my employees or something or that their contributions would be seen as subordinate to my own. Notice that I’m unconcerned with you appearing as my bitch in the same regard, Nick (that was one for Heat).

    Also, I’m pretty sure they’re pretty busy with their own shit (one guy is writing comics and the other is balls-deep in some course work and has his own blog anyway).

    *(Joseph N. Welch)

  22. I should add, Nick, that my friend Josh (or Joe Shwitters as above or Fuckflap McShittlesquirtz, since he too is a Heat naysayer) was the guy who started the Naptown Cinefiles blog that got me into all this. He also recommended I start my own blog and has helped with a lot of technical questions. He also made the title banner for the blog for me. He’s done more than enough and I am very grateful.

  23. Didn’t mean to jump the gun up there, but I guess I accomplished what I wanted. I can’t wait for your piece on Heat, your Heat piece, your hot piece of…

    What did you think of Collateral, Nick? So far that’s the only Michael Mann movie I’ve really liked. And Manhunter is pretty good, too, with Brian Cox’s original Lecter and that freaky performance by… oh what’s that guy’s name? Timothy something… Tom Noonan!

    Oh the Cine-files… another abandoned project to add to my Junkyard of Shame. I’ve actually been trying to get back into that blog account (forgot the password) so I could take down all that spraypainted shit I Photoshopped in there. It seemed like such a funny idea at the time, to make it look like some morons broke in and defaced everything. But now I look at it and I’m like, “Agh, too much.” Not that anyone’s even been to the site. Though I did receive a very nice comment about my Cassavetes rant from some French film student. They really love him over there.

    Anyway, as always, glad it got you writing, Wigz, and I’m glad to be of any help. I think I’ll get back to my Random Acts blog to post my Top something-something Movies of the Decade list, which might get me back to writing regularly again.

  24. Been away from the party for a bit it seems. I was too busy doing blow at Studio 44 in West Hollywood to comment on recent events…

    It would appear that maybe I need to rewatch HEAT as I’ve not seen it in a few years. All this naysaying is a bit disconcerting and now I’m all worried that nostalgia for Michael Mann doing a crime film–a film that I feel he intended to be the epitome of the cops and robbers film and, now that I think about it, a film that looks to have influenced Nolan’s The Dark Knight (i.e., the thin line between hero and villain)–may have affected its placement on my own list of 90s films.

    Personally, I prefer Collateral because it’s a much tighter film (until the ending where Cruise is all Terminator) and I had no idea where it was going, and I mean that in a good way. I need to rewatch that as well, especially now that I live in L.A. A friend of mine who lived in L.A. for years described it as a backhanded love letter to the city.

    And, having seen neither THIEF (with James Caan) nor MANHUNTER (with Brian Cox), I have to say that my favorite Michael Mann film is still LAST OF THE MOHICANS. I will love that damn film forever.

    It looks like I *might* have a chance to absolve myself of one of my main CINS. On January 7 out here, one of the theaters is showing THE THIN RED LINE. As much as this city can get on one’s nerves, the fact that they’ll screen anything you’d want to see (including a theater that shows ARMY OF DARKNESS at midnight every. single. Friday. night.) makes everything else a little more bearable.

  25. Whoa! I always forget he directed Last of the Mohicans. Add that to my list of Josh-Approved Mann Films.

    And Army of Darkness… every Friday night… *breathing heavily*

    That’s… *gasping for air*… oh god…

    so awesome…

    It would be even better if they did Evil Dead II as that’s the most brilliant of the bunch and I could, literally, watch that every Friday night, but either way… *sigh*

  26. Dr. Swartlequartz (or whatever your name is), it may in fact be Evil Dead II. I can’t remember…

    After checking the website, it seems I was off a bit. It’s ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW *every* Saturday night at midnight, and “unique movies every Friday night at midnight.”


    My love for Last of the Mohicans is strange in that I find it difficult to articulate exactly why I love it so much. Most other films I’d call favorites I can easily go on and on about for hours (and have), but this one escapes me. It feels to have sprung fully formed from James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, with nothing removed or added.

  27. McShittlesquirtz: Sorry I didn’t reply until now. Collateral is one of the most underrated movies of the 00’s and would certainly make a list of movies, should I deign to compile one. It’s a pure cinema experience — where it doesn’t matter if it would ever really happen or not, it’s just an awesome story and it deals with big existential issues at the same time as it’s an awesome action movie. And it stands up to repeat viewings. I this movie works on the same level as classics like Rope and Rear Window in my opinion.

    I could go on and on. Maybe I’ll save it for a counterpoint after David’s Heat article.

    Michael Mann’s films are good because he does a good job with action. That’s what I like about Last of the Mohicans, plus that jig in the soundtrack — when it’s laid over the more orchestral music it’s amazing — even though it’s just Daniel Day Lewis in a wig running in slow motion.

    But that’s a recipe for success in filmmaking: VERY COOL MUSIC + SCENE PLAYING OUT IN SLOW MOTION. (Evidence 2001: A Space Odyssey, Reservoir Dogs, everything ever made by Wes Anderson, and about 10,000 other examples)

  28. And in response to another discussion on this thread: a weekly screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t nearly as surprising or quite as cool as a weekly screening of Army of Darkness.

    Out of curiosity: just who, and how many out there, love this film so much that a city screen it every Saturday night?? It gets screened multiple times a year in a cinema near my place in Toronto too, especially around Halloween. I know they throw toast at the screen and all that shit, but it’s still weird.

    However that same cinema in Toronto also screens Big Lebowski a few times a year and Miller’s Crossing. I guess that means Toronto is better than L.A.?? 😉 just kidding.

  29. Just to clarify, Nick, I got a bit mixed-up re: weekly screenings of Army of Darkness/Evil Dead II. It just so happened that when I went by the theater on two separate occasions, the Nuart was screening it and it just so happened to be a Friday on both occasions. Rocky Horror is EVERY Saturday at midnight, but Fridays at midnight are open to a whole heap of other offerings, not just Sam Raimi’s films.

    There’s a theater out here (http://www.newbevcinema.com/calendar.cfm) that (apparently) does midnight screenings of Inglourious Basterds and Reservoir Dogs at least once a month.

    However, having been to Toronto with its east coast flavor (I hail from the east coast, so I’m crazy biased), excellent public transportation system and true bevy internationalism (read: ladies from many nations), not to mention its wonderful theaters and kick-ass film international film festival, I have to side with Toronto over L.A. as well.

  30. Nice to see “Clockers” on there. Not many people remember that one… I’m a big fan though. 😉

  31. Clockers is awesome, and it’s been too long since I last saw it. Excellent cast playing brilliant characters. Delroy Lindo, man, that guy is just criminally under-used these days.

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