The best films of the 1990s came from filmmakers who not only had unique visions but who opened new doors to the endless possibilities of cinematic storytelling.
The ’90s were a moment of tremendous upheaval in international cinema. Here in America, the revolt against Hollywood’s bland output a decade earlier had resulted in a small window in which American independent cinema became commercially viable and started seeping into more mainstream fare. Young and exciting directors, most of whom are now A-listers, were given resources and able to make multiple films. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s big commercial films were in the hands of directors like Spielberg, Bigelow, Verhoeven, Woo and De Palma, as franchises continued to be invented rather than recycled.
On the international scene, the Iranian New Wave unloaded a treasure trove of new films, the great run of Hong Kong cinema was peaking and maturing, three great auteurs completely upended how films in Taiwan were made, and a pair of Danish directors with a dogma wanted to change how every film was made.
More than anything, what defined the decade was the emergence of individual filmmakers who not only had unique visions – every decade has its great auteurs – but ones who opened new doors to the endless possibilities of cinematic storytelling. Directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino reinvented cinema on their own terms and gained recognition as superstars for doing so, each winning major prizes at Cannes. Meanwhile, landmark films like “Hoop Dreams,” “The Celebration,” “Toy Story” and “The Matrix” pointed to ways technology could be used to make films in a different way.
Needless to say, no cinephile’s knowledge base is complete without a robust awareness of the 20th century’s final decade, and these 50 titles represent our sense of the most essential ones.