Eight years ago I was super excited about my top 25 of the 2000s, posted on this blog about four weeks after the decade ended. (Read here if you're interested.)
I was excited enough that I wanted to go back and retroactively post my top 25 of the 1990s. But just scanning the list of my favorite titles of the decade gave me a headache. How would I ever narrow it down to just 25? The impossibility of the task put my ambitions more or less permanently on ice.
Well, maybe less permanently.
I've now got my excuse -- and also an excuse to go more than just 25 deep.
The first podcast I started listening to back in 2011, Filmspotting, is in the final four of their annual Filmspotting Madness tournament, which pits various films or film personalities in a March Madness-style tournament of 64, whittling it down to just one winner over a period of six weeks. Listeners choose a winner in all the duels by voting in polls on their website. Previous installations have focused on actors and actresses (2015), directors (2016) and last year, the films in the Filmspotting pantheon (films that have been deemed ineligible for their weekly top five lists because they're just too great and have been talked about too much).
This year is the first year in a three-year plan. In 2018 they're trying to determine the best movies of the 1990s, and they will follow that in 2019 with the best movies of the 2000s. That'll time out perfectly to be discussing the best movies of the 2010s when everyone else is talking about that in the early part of 2020.
What more excuse did I need?
Now, when I selected my top 25 films of the 2000s back in 2010, I did it completely organically. I narrowed my selections down to maybe 40 candidates, rewatched a good ten films in that January alone, and then produced the top 25 only from my own conclusions about their quality and my affection for them.
"What other way would there be to do it, Vance?"
Well I'm glad you asked. The easiest way to do it would be to just look at my Flickchart. The chart can and would tell me what my top 25 movies of the 2000s were based on the decisions I've made in various duels over time, which have led to an exact ranking for every film I've charted. If I believed it to be 100% accurate, it would arguably be the best way to go.
But I didn't necessarily believe it would be 100% accurate. Plus, making a list is a creative process. Even if my Flickhart list would be evidence of my own thought process on the topic, as recorded over a long period of time, there are enough variables in the decisions I've made that I didn't feel comfortable just having the website spit out my answers for me. I wanted to generate them on my own, if only for the aesthetic value of the exercise, of consciously considering and selecting them with only this context in mind.
And that's what I'll do in two years when it's time to choose my best of the 2010s. But the 1990s? Remember that headache I told you about that they gave me?
So I decided this time, I would just let Flickchart do its job. It'll be a lot easier on me, especially in a post I want to just crank out in a timely manner. Besides, it's a bit more honest, isn't it? I won't be selecting movies I think will gain me credibility but I don't really love, though I hope you know me well enough to know I don't do that anyway. These will be my favorites, pure and simple, a result of having selected them over time in a series of individual decisions governed by honest preferences.
I'm inclined to write a blurb about each one, but you don't need to read 64 blurbs. Twenty-five seems about right, as that's what I also did back in 2010. Twenty-five short blurbs, because many of these titles are ones you likely know, love, and know everything great about already.
So, in time for the championship game between Michigan and Villanova in college basketball's actual March Madness tournament, here's what Flickchart tells me are my top 64 films released between 1990 and 1999:
64. Short Cuts (1993)
63. Groundhog Day (1993)
62. Se7en (1995)
61. The Professional (1994)
60. Ulee's Gold (1997)
59. Smoke Signals (1998)
58. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
57. Misery (1990)
56. Trainspotting (1996)
55. Wayne's World (1992)
54. Total Recall (1990)
53. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
52. Toy Story 2 (1999)
51. Awakenings (1990)
50. A Man of No Importance (1994)
49. The Crow (1994)
48. A Simple Plan (1998)
47. Thelma & Louise (1991)
46. Speed (1994)
45. Before Sunrise (1995)
44. The Crucible (1996)
43. Swingers (1996)
42. Contact (1997)
41. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
40. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
39. Apollo 13 (1995)
38. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
37. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
36. Happiness (1998)
35. The Sixth Sense (1999)
34. Three Kings (1999)
33. My Cousin Vinny (1992)
32. Boogie Nights (1997)
31. Dave (1992)
30. Dances With Wolves (1990)
29. Philadelphia (1993)
28. Malcolm X (1992)
27. The Player (1992)
26. Starship Troopers (1997)
25. The Matrix (1999) - The two most influential films of the decade bookend my top 25, with The Matrix clocking in here. This barely made my top 25 of 1999, landing at #22 on my year-end list, but I couldn't have known at that time how it would change cinema and grow in stature. I don't just love The Matrix because of its reputation, though. I love it because it's almost perfectly realized, and is a total whiz bang of a movie.
24. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - I still remember watching this on a date in 1991 and feeling enthralled by it. And though I haven't revisited it more than twice in the ensuing years, that feeling of being enthralled has never left me. It has one of the most iconic characters/performances of all time, and it set a new standard for serial killer movies that made it almost as influential as my #25 and my #1.
23. Strange Days (1995) - Rarely is technology in a science fiction film used so successfully to find the heart of the story. This is a movie about love, loss and the loss of love in a scuzzy near future that is looking more and more like our own, in the film that showed me Ralph Fiennes could play a hero as well as a monstrous Nazi, and reminded me that Angela Bassett is just awesome.
22. 12 Monkeys (1995) - Another great head trip takes my next spot. Bruce Willis' first comeback (would that be fair to say?) has one of its true highlights in Terry Gilliam's film about a virus and time travel and, well, quite a bit else. It's Gilliam through and through and though that might disappoint us nowadays in light of his recent support of Harvey Weinstein, it was great then, and I won't deduct credit from the movie in retrospect.
21. Galaxy Quest (1999) - A comedy so good I saw it in the theater on consecutive nights. This loving Star Trek lampoon may be in my top ten comedies of all time and gave me a permanent fondness for Tim Allen (who will also appear later on this list). The cast also includes Sigourney Weaver and Sam Rockwell and I could just go on and on in a lovefest about this movie. It's got heart, it's got great production design and it's funny as hell.
20. Titanic (1997) - My heart will go on, and so will my affection for Titanic. I just can't quit it. (Wait, now I'm crossing my movie quotes.) A theatrical viewing of this in 3D a few years ago confirmed that I still love my #1 movie of 1997 and that I'd be happy on almost any occasion to sit down and watch it for three hours and 15 minutes. Some Titanic defenders might swear their appreciation for it is purely technical, but what can I say, I love the love story too.
19. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) - The movie I would have least expected to appear on this list if you asked me after I first watched the trailer for it. "Who is this Hugh Grant character and why does he think he's so great?" Well, the answer is because he is so great, and this movie is delightful as hell -- even with Andie MacDowell in it. This is like comfort food for me. I own it and come back to it regularly.
18. Dumb and Dumber (1994) - The fact that Dumb and Dumber is only my 18th favorite film of the 1990s shows you how crazy good this decade was for me. I could watch this movie any time of the day or night. I used to say that if this came on TV I would be unable not to watch it until the end, though I'm not sure how many times that actually happened. It makes me shoot milk out of my nose. "Ah lahk it a lot."
17. Flirting With Disaster (1996) - David O. Russell was never better than in the 1990s, and this is his best of three great films from the decade. This is the very definition of the modern screwball comedy and it just flies from one great set piece to the next. I've never liked Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni or Richard Jenkins better -- though Stiller has another reason to be praised in 1996 coming up later on the list.
16. Election (1999) - It's appropriate that Alexander Payne's best film comes right after Russell's, since for a while I thought of them both as personal favorites who couldn't do wrong. For a while. They've both gone comparatively astray for me recently, but Election is prime Payne, when his wicked humor combined perfectly with structural narrative playfulness to produce something utterly rewatchable. Strangely, it's a feel good movie even though most of the characters are bad.
15. Ghost (1990) - As with Titanic, you'll never take the romantic out of me. This was Titanic before Titanic, a film to which I was slavishly devoted on first viewing with its high concept ideas and a romance that made me swoon. But guess what? This one holds up too. I watched it a few years back and I continue to think it has one of the best and tightest scripts of any film I've ever seen. If Ghost told me it loved me, I'd say "Ditto."
14. Schindler's List (1993) - I finally sat down for my second viewing of Schindler's List last year, 24 years after my first -- which confirmed it was not just hanging around the upper end of my Flickchart on reputation alone. This is still an epic accomplishment of almost unbelievable quality and importance, feeling almost like a documentary in spots, yet it's also got a truly cinematic villain that allows it to function, in some respects, like a Spielbergian popular entertainment. The ending still slays me.
13. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) - I saw T2 before I saw The Terminator, so the latter never stood a chance. James Cameron's best film will always be one of my most mind-blowing exposures to special effects of all time, but it doesn't get by on the T-1000 alone. It was a brilliant decision to reclaim Arnold Schwarzenegger as the hero of this series, and a whole host of iconic imagery follows from that. It's one of my favorite action movies of all time, and that scene of nuclear apocalypse still gives me the willies.
12. Bound (1996) - Bound has spent time in my top 20 overall on Flickchart; that's how much I love it. I simply love spending time in the company of such interesting characters who make such smart decisions within the context of a tight noir gangster thriller, and the hot lesbian sex doesn't hurt either (yuk yuk). The Wachowskis' debut feature is still their best, and it gets remarkable narrative mileage from just the sets of two adjacent apartments. All scripts should be this intelligent.
11. The Iron Giant (1999) - You've cried in movies before, but how many of them still reduce you to tears after a fifth viewing? That's about how many times I've seen Brad Bird's masterpiece all the way through, and I still get that lump in the throat at the end. It's a simple and wondrous snapshot of a particular time in Cold War America with a message of friendship and non-violence that's the perfect antidote to it. Simply put, one of my favorite children's movies of all time.
10. Defending Your Life (1991) - Surely the most obscure film to place so high on my list, Albert Brooks' afterlife romantic comedy nails both the romance and the comedy. He and Meryl Streep have never been so laid back and lovely as they navigate an afterlife processing station where they must convince a judge that they deserve to move on to the next plain of existence, or be sentenced to return to Earth to give it another try. It's high concept and marvelously joyous, with a useful message about confronting fear thrown in for good measure.
9. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) - The highest ranked 1990s film on my chart to just miss my top 20, though it's been as high as 12th or 13th in the past. David Mamet annoys me more often than he wins me over, but this is the massive exception to that, a foul-mouthed and dialogue-heavy look at four men trying to sell worthless investment properties in order to stay afloat. "Third place is your fired." Alec Baldwin's monologue would probably be enough, but then there's the rest of the movie. A tour de force of writing and acting.
8. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) - Yet another film whose backlash has never been a consideration in my affection for it. Shawshank is a masterpiece, pure and simple. It'll never be my #1 film, but I understand why it's #1 on IMDB, and I would never begrudge someone who called it their own favorite movie. It's a depressing prison movie that sings on the strength of its script, acting, and message of hope in the face of total hopelessness.
7. Unforgiven (1992) - Another exception after Glengarry. I have historically not loved the western, though I've developed an appreciation for it in recent years. Yet I've always loved Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's best film and one of the most thoughtful examinations of morality, heroism and the consequences of violence that I've ever seen. "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he has, and all he's ever gonna have." "Well I guess they had it coming." "We all got it coming, kid."
6. Goodfellas (1990) - And this is the first of the current Filmspotting final four to make my list, with two more ahead. I guess Filmspotters have good taste. What can a person say about Goodfellas other than that it is an absolute flat-out classic, as confident a display of the mastery of the cinematic medium as exists. We bow before the cinematic god that is Martin Scorsese.
5. Run Lola Run (1998) - I had a sub-par viewing of Run Lola Run a few years ago. And then a few weeks ago I saw it again and remembered why I didn't penalize it on my Flickchart for that sub-par viewing. A symphony of editing, music and cinematic derring do, Tom Tykwer's film is a singular experience that also gets you in and out in only 80 minutes. Its narrative invention is combined with a philosophical, existential approach to fate that is also thought-provoking. Dense and rich.
4. The Cable Guy (1996) - No rational argument will explain why this movie is ranked above some of the other films on this list, but I can tell you that few films that I've ever seen so largely exceeded my expectations for them. The film that made me love Jim Carrey has so much going on that I could never possibly do justice to it in five lines of text. Let's just say that this became a personal cult favorite with friends and has since become a measurable part of my identity as a cinephile. And here's that other Ben Stiller accomplishment I was telling you about. He should get more credit for it.
3. Fargo (1996) - The film up against Goodfellas in Filmspotting's final four. I may not have realized until they made a fantastic TV show version of this movie just how singular of a creation it is, using trademark Coen elements to carve out an absolute distinctive cinematic landscape that ties together comedy, tragedy and melancholy. If it weren't this funny, I probably wouldn't love it as much as I do, but the same is true if it weren't this tragic. Somehow, you aren't depressed as hapless Minnesotans leave a trail of bodies as they just try to make better lives for themselves.
2. Toy Story (1995) - And my #1 children's movie of all time is not one of the classics from Disney's mid-century height, but the first film released by Disney's subsidiary, Pixar. Pixar's first feature arrived fully formed, from the technology used to animate it to the whip-smart dialogue and script. Oh, and the heart -- the tons and tons of heart. Like with Galaxy Quest, I saw this on consecutive days in the theater, and many times since then. Pixar has never bested it.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994) - The other Filmspotting finalist (it goes up against Silence of the Lambs), Pulp Fiction is my #4 film of all time and the highest ranked film that I saw after I became a cinephile. The number four also represents the number of times I saw it in the theater, still a record. A narrative pretzel that simply blew my mind and instantly elevated any number of its scenes to all-time iconic status. This movie showed me what filmmaking could be, could do, and remains one of my most influential viewing experiences of all time. It doesn't take this top spot by accident or by default; it's fully deserved.
To show you just how much I love this decade, all 64 of these films are listed within my top 200 all time on Flickchart. Short Cuts gets in just under the wire at #199, though it's a perfect cut off because my #65 is then #208 overall. That means 32% of my top 200 are films from the 1990s, nearly a third.
Here is a breakdown by years for each:
1990 - 8
1991 - 5
1992 - 9
1993 - 4
1994 - 8
1995 - 7
1996 - 7
1997 - 5
1998 - 4
1999 - 7
I don't consciously think of 1992 as a great year for cinema, but clearly I thought it was. This was also a bit of an important in my maturation as a film fan, as 1992 straddled my freshman and sophomore years in college, when this was all start to mean so much more to me. That was also the year I had my first collegiate film class. Probably no coincidence there.
Oh, and just so they could cheat and add a few more titles, the Filmspotting guys had eight play-in games, allowing them to add eight more titles to the list. In case you're wondering, my next eight are: Truly Madly Deeply, Natural Born Killers, Looking for Richard, Bottle Rocket, Quiz Show, Close-Up, The Blair Witch Project and Carlito's Way. And yeah, I'm sure I could easily make arguments for these over some that came ahead of them. Tough decade.
I should mention that although I had a lot of the big titles in common with the Filmspotting 64, I did diverge from them in a number of other ways. Only 24 of their 64 overlapped on my list. I suppose I'm happy with that, as a cinephile gains his or her personal identity more on the basis of idiosyncratic favorites than the ways he or she conforms to conventional wisdom. Filmspotting themselves even accounted for their own preferences in making this list, as producer Sam van Halgren fought to have The Insider included even though it didn't make any of the major lists they used to figure out the most beloved films of the decade. More power to you, Sam.
I'm a bit alarmed that so few of these films are in a language other than English. As much as I love my 1990s, I know I have big blind spots in that decade, a function of what was available to me at the time I was falling in love with these movies and what I've prioritized going back to see. One of the few films that made the Filmspotting cut that I haven't seen, for example, was Chungking Express, a movie I believe I'd love if I could get my hands on it. I tried to watch it last year for Asian Audient, but could not borrow or rent it from anywhere, and didn't feel it warranted going to the lengths of purchasing it. So I've still got some work cut out for me.
But in early April of 2018, as random a time as any other, this is how I feel about that great decade, and I'm sticking to it.