Greatest Films of the 1990s
Greatest Films of the 1990s

Greatest Films of the 1990s
1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999


Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description

All About My Mother (1999, Sp./Fr.) (aka Todo Sobre Mi Madre), 101 minutes, D: Pedro Almodovar

American Beauty (1999), 120 minutes, D: Sam Mendes
The tragic, absurdist, dark domestic tale of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who calmly narrates his own story posthumously a la Joe Gillis from Sunset Boulevard (1950) - he's a "chronic loser" and American suburbanite family man who is unable to speak his mind or actually feel much of anything. But in a mid-life awakening, he becomes infatuated with his self-loathing daughter Jane's (Thora Birch) under-aged cheerleader friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). After enduring too many years of a demeaning job, and a dysfunctional marriage to his obsessive-compulsive, adulterous realtor wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), while feeling disrepect from Jane -- who has fallen for the drug-peddling, video-voyeur neighbor next door Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), Lester decides to make radical, ultimately fatal changes to his suburban life. A Best Picture-winning film.

Audition (1999, Jp./S.Kor.) (aka Odishon), 115 minutes, D: Takashi Miike
This very unsettling Japanese psycho-horror film from Takashi Miike opened with single father Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) grieving over the loss of his wife from a terrible illness. After seven years, the lonely middle-aged widower, with the aid of a movie producer friend, staged fake movie auditions to find a suitably refined female partner. His ultimate bride-to-be was a seemingly-perfect selection - a demure, polite, smooth-skinned, fragile, dutifully-humble 21 year-old ex-ballerina named Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), but she became a disturbed, avenging angel, reminiscent of Kathy Bates in Misery (1990) - with an ominous burlap sack moving in the center of her apartment. The final 20 minutes were excruciating to watch, as Asami exacted sadistic torture and dismemberment revenge on Aoyama for exploiting her in the mock audition. She drugged and paralyzed him, then used acupuncture needles to poke his entire body, including his eyelids. With piano wire, she sadistically and gleefully wire-sawed off his left foot (and then his right foot), before Aoyama awoke from a dark nightmarish dream - or did he?

Being John Malkovich (1999), 112 minutes, D: Spike Jonze

The Blair Witch Project (1999), 87 minutes, D: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
This coarsely-made, offbeat independent film from Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick was a media-savvy cult horror film, released at the dawn of the ubiquitous camcorder revolution, and a precursor of reality TV. Remarkably, the chilling, anxiety-producing horror film became one of the most profitable of all time although there were no stars, no large marketing budget, no real script (it was mostly improvised), no state-of-the-art special effects, and no creatures/monsters. The low-budget scare-fest - a surprise hit and media sensation of the "found footage" fake documentary subgenre, told about an urban legend (the Blair Witch) who was blamed for mutilating murders and strange disappearances. During a horrifying October 1994 camping trip and investigation of the local legend by no-name actors - three Montgomery College amateur student film-makers (Heather, Joshua, and Mike), the trio vanished in Maryland's Black Hills Forest (near Burkittsville) but left behind their recorded video. Many believed that their story was true, rather than the ingenious marketing hoax that it was.

Boys Don't Cry (1999), 116 minutes, D: Kimberly Peirce

Bringing Out the Dead (1999), 121 minutes, D: Martin Scorsese

The End of the Affair (1999, UK/US), 102 minutes, D: Neil Jordan
Writer/director Neil Jordan's adaptation of Graham Greene's 1951 WWII novel was an achingly-real lovers drama of misunderstanding (retold from multiple viewpoints). In the setting of 1944 Britain seen in flashback, Oscar-nominated Julianne Moore portrayed ethereal, restrained yet philandering mistress-lover Sarah Miles. Although married to Henry (Stephen Rea), she engaged in an affair with her husband's best friend, disenchanted novelist Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes). For unknown reasons, during one passionate love-making session when a rocket-bomb exploded in the building and Bendrix was injured, she abruptly stopped seeing him. The second half of the film, a few years later, revealed her heart-breaking reason for ending their affair. During a religious epiphany, she had bargained with God to save his life from the explosion, in exchange for not seeing him, and she had to keep her promise when Bendrix's life was spared.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999), 159 minutes, D: Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick's last completed film was titled 'eyes wide shut,' to imply self-contradictory opposites: at first being exposed or tempted, and then reflexively turning away or retreating. It was taglined simply with three words: "Cruise. Kidman. Kubrick." Tom Cruise starred as prominent, affluent NYC doctor Bill Harford, supposedly happily-married to Alice (real-life Nicole Kidman). In the opening sequence at a fashionable Christmas party, both were separately propositioned - jarring their comfortable conjugal state of marital harmony. He was ignorant of the fact of her past sexual infidelity with a naval officer (imagined fantasy or real?) which she confessed to him after smoking pot. This propelled him onto his own prolonged, risky and dangerous night-long quest for sexual intimacy (also portrayed possibly as a waking dream or fantasy), including a controversial masked ball orgy sequence and the self-sacrifice of a nude masked reveler. He survived his traumatic, baffling encounters to return 'redeemed' to his wife - who bluntly encouraged them to resume their sexual lives together, although with an uncertain future.

Fight Club (1999), 139 minutes, D: David Fincher

The Insider (1999), 157 minutes, D: Michael Mann

The Iron Giant (1999), 86 minutes, D: Brad Bird

Magnolia (1999), 188 minutes, D: Paul Thomas Anderson
Creative writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's challenging third feature, an ambitious, artful, soap opera-like drama (at over three hours length) featured a compelling, bold and overlapping multi-strand narrative. The melancholy lyrics of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann underscored the film's motifs. Set in the San Fernando Valley over 24 hours, the ensemble-casted film reflected the emotional desperation and personal traumas of many bruised characters - a disparate collection of misguided, sad and miserable souls plagued by fractured relationships. Themes of life's meaning, the twists of fate and life's regrets, the painful and haunting past ("We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us"), the elusiveness of love and pervasiveness of death, and the transcendent, surprise raining of frogs from the sky (biblically-true) highlighted the exhilarating piece. Superstar Cruise memorably portrayed Frank Mackey, a sleazy, cock-worshipping, stud-huckster who evangelized with 'Seduce and Destroy' seminars for sex-starved woman-haters. Julianne Moore portrayed Moore Linda Partridge, the strung-out, grieving trophy wife of aging, terminally-ill TV producer Earl (Jason Robards). In one of her best scenes as a psychologically-fragile, obscenity-spewing, distressed wife, she had just collected his drug order for morphine. She had an epic breakdown toward two prying pharmacy clerks for their callous insensitivity, for asking questions and for treating her suspiciously: "I'm sick. I have sickness all around me and you f--king ask me my life? What's wrong? Have you seen death in your bed? In your house? Where's your f--king decency?" Paranoid and self-loathing, she was dealing with her husband's imminent death and her own guilt over marrying him for his money, and would soon attempt suicide with a drug overdose.
By its end, one recalled the narrator's conclusion from the off-beat prologue - that some coincidences can't be explained: "…strange things happen all the time."

The Matrix (1999), 136 minutes, D: Andy and Larry Wachowski
The Wachowski Brothers' popular, imaginative, visually-stunning science-fiction action film - the first in a trilogy with inferior sequels: the somewhat successful but critically derided The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and the artificially-expanded The Matrix Revolutions (2003). A computer software company techie programmer and illegal hacker named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) (with screen name alias Neo) is contacted by the mysterious, vinyl-clad heroine Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and the super-cool, messianic space-ship captain Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who is the leader of the rebel forces. He is told (with an Alice in Wonderland reference) via his computer: "The Matrix has you. Follow the white rabbit." Neo is informed that he is the champion or chosen one to save Mankind from a malevolent, sentient machine race, that has entrapped all of humanity, in the year 2199!, inside a computer simulation (The Matrix) dreamworld, and tricked them into believing that the simulation is reality. The Artificial Intelligence system also uses the brains and bodies of the trapped human beings as expendable "living batteries." Freed by this knowledge, Neo soon learns to take advantage of the Matrix, bending the malleable laws of physics to his will, such as impossible feats of physicality (such as running up walls or leaping impossibly high) and altering his perception so dramatically that he sees bullets in flight in order to dodge them. The true standout of the film is the menacing Machine Army agent "Agent Smith," played with a tongue-in-cheek, edgy pseudo-serious flair by Hugo Weaving, whose mannerisms recall 1950's Cold War governmental "Men In Black" agents. The Matrix became best known for its revolutionary visual effects - airborne kung fu, 3-D freeze frame effects with a rotating or pivoting camera, and bullet-dodging. The film became a smash hit, featuring elaborate fighting and stunt sequences, as well as a convoluted screenplay that blurred the edge between reality and fantasy without losing the audience's grasp of the story.

The Sixth Sense (1999), 105 minutes, D: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's twisting and tense film about ghosts rejuvenated the suspense thriller. It was designed as an investigation into how/why a haunted, psychic young boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) was seeing the spirits of dead people ("I see dead people"). Subdued Philadelphian child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who counseled disturbed clairvoyant patient Cole, also feared that his marriage to depressed, uncommunicative and forlorn Anna (Olivia Williams) was disintegrating and becoming distant. And then his marital worries were suddenly justified in the film's well-known concluding reveal - he was one of the dead people or ghosts seen by the troubled boy.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999), 88 minutes, D: Trey Parker

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), 131 minutes, D: George Lucas
See Star Wars series.

The Straight Story (1999), 111 minutes, D: David Lynch

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), 139 minutes, D: Anthony Minghella

Three Kings (1999, US/Australia), 115 minutes, D: David O. Russell
Set during the first days after the cease-fire was declared in the First Persian Gulf War in March of 1991, David O. Russell's groundbreaking, unconventional, powerful and genre-defining war comedy followed a group of American servicemen (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) who possessed a map (found in an enemy soldier's butt cheeks) and went after promised treasure within Iraq - stolen gold bars that Iraq leader Saddam Hussein had acquired from Kuwait. Jaded Special Forces Green Beret Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) joined the opportunistic group of good ol' boy, rogue Americans for a fortune-hunting quest, but mostly found the harsh realities and consequences of the senseless, morally-chaotic war in its aftermath, including obscene violence. The most spectacular, talked-about segment of the potent, anti-war film was a close-up of a bullet's trajectory as it pierced a body, plowed through tissue and entered the liver to release blackish bile into the abdominal cavity.

Topsy-Turvy (1999, UK), 160 minutes, D: Mike Leigh

Toy Story 2 (1999), 92 minutes, D: John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Ash Brannon
The sequel, Toy Story 2 (1999), far surpassed the original in terms of the quality of animation, voice acting and script, as the themes from the first film -- obsolescence and loyalty -- are explored even more deeply. Woody (voice by Tom Hanks) faces the reality that not only do toys get damaged, but that children inevitably grow up and forsake their childhood playthings. While Andy is at cowboy camp, Woody (regarded as a valuable collectible) is kidnapped by greedy toy collector Al (of Al's Toy Barn). He soon discovers that he was once a legend in the 60's, on a TV show called Woody's Roundup, complete with the usual wide array of merchandising tie-ins. He also realizes that he's the final missing piece in the collector's Woody's Roundup set, with fellow toys Cowgirl Jessie (voice by Joan Cusack), prospector Stinky Pete (voice by Kelsey Grammer), and Woody's faithful horse Bullseye. Woody faces the choice of living forever with them in a museum display in Tokyo, or leaving and returning to Andy, thereby dooming his newfound friends to be sent back into abandonment and storage, and facing his own dilemma that he won't last another year as Andy's favored toy. Toy Story 2 and Chicken Run (2000) would influence the Academy to finally take animated films more seriously with the new Best Animated Feature Film category that debuted with Oscar-winning Shrek (2001), another CGI-animated feature.

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