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


Academy Awards for 1991 Films
Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description

Barton Fink (1991), 116 minutes, D: Joel Coen

Beauty and the Beast (1991), 84 minutes, D: Kirk Wise
Arguably the most successful Disney animated film of all time, this film was the first animated feature film to ever receive a Best Picture Academy Award nomination, before a separate category was created for Animated Films. It was based on the classic 1756 fairy tale (written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) and the importance of inner beauty. There were almost a dozen previous film incarnations, the most notable being the silent 1922 version and Jean Cocteau's French film La Belle et La Bête (1946). Beauty and the Beast returned the Disney animation studios to their former glory. The story told about a French peasant girl (Paige O'Hara) who was treated kindly by a monstrous Prince-turned-Beast captor (Robby Benson) and fell in love with him. The beautiful artwork and colors were supplemented by a well-written song score, from the Oscar-winning title song to the jaunty "Belle" and "Be Our Guest," all written by Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. It was also the second Disney film to combine its famous hand-drawn animation with computer graphics (The Rescuers Down Under (1990) was the first), as well as the first Disney animated movie to use a fully-developed script prior to animation. After this, Disney would release more huge traditionally animated hits in the summer, both commercial and critical, such as Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Mulan (1998) and The Emperor's New Groove (2000), before deciding to close their hand-drawn animation wing in 2003.

La Belle Noiseuse (1991, Fr./Switz.) (aka The Beautiful Troublemaker), 240 minutes, D: Jacques Rivette

Boyz 'N The Hood (1991), 107 minutes, D: John Singleton
Spike Lee's landmark black-oriented films in the 80s inspired a new generation of African-American film-makers, including 23 year-old John Singleton, who soon joined Lee as an influential black moviemaker in the early 1990s. This coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical debut film became one of the highest-grossing films ($57 million) ever directed by an African-American. With his film, Singleton became the youngest nominee for Best Director in Academy history, and the first African-American to be nominated as Best Director. The ghetto drama followed the lives of three hoods growing up in South Central LA, marked by gang violence, economic hardship, and police brutality. Ties to the 'hood endangered the lives of the inner city friends, who made efforts to escape the cycle of poverty and violence in their communities. In the climactic scene after a drive-by shooting, gangbanger Darrin 'Doughboy' Baker (rap star Ice Cube in his screen debut) carried his half-brother Ricky's (Morris Chestnut) dead body home to their mother (Tyra Ferrell). Mirroring the film itself, some violence and trouble between gang members occurred when the incendiary movie opened in various theaters.

Bugsy (1991), 136/149 minutes, D: Barry Levinson

City Slickers (1991), 112 minutes, D: Ron Underwood
Director Ron Underwood's western-adventure comedy told about a group of three life-long companions - all unhappy, bored 30-ish, white-collar males experiencing mid-life crises and suffering from middle-age; they often joined together to resolve their issues using a process of self-discovery - in particular, by taking adventure 'vacations' (i.e., bull-running, target-parachute jumping, etc.) or weekend warrior outings. The three urban New York thrill-seekers were Manhattan radio-ad salesman Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal), supermarket manager Phil Berquist (Daniel Stern) and sporting goods salesman Ed Furillo (Bruno Kirby). At Mitch's 39th year birthday party, Ed and Phil's birthday gift to Mitch was a 2-week, escapist "adventure trip" driving cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. The group of urban mid-lifers arrived at Stone Canyon Ranch in New Mexico, where they met the other "city slicker" guests, ranch owner Clay Stone (Noble Willingham), and soon after their crusty, weathered Southwest trail boss - Curly Washburn (Best Supporting Actor-winning Jack Palance). A few days later, the group commenced the cattle drive toward Colorado, suffering a number of mishaps, including a stampede that destroyed the campsite, a dying cow in labor that gave birth to a calf that Mitch named Norman, Curly's fatal heart attack, the destruction of the group's food supply by the drunken camp cook named Cookie (Tracy Walter) when he drove the horse-drawn cook-wagon into a ravine and also broke both legs, the desertion of often-drunk ranch hands Jeff (Kyle Secor) and T.R. (Dean Hallo) who were guiding the group, and a heavy rainstorm that swelled the river and almost claimed Mitch as a drowning victim. After successfully arriving in Colorado at Clay Stone's ranch with the herd, Stone announced how he would reward the tenderfoots with refunds for their experience, but that the cows were destined to be sold to a meat packing company. During their last day together in a moment of self-reflection, the three discussed their plans for the future; Ed intended to impregnate his young wife and have children within a more committed relationship, while Phil told how he would "start over" after his upcoming divorce in a new relationship with recently-single Bonnie (Helen Slater) in the group; and Mitch declared that he had envisioned what Curly described as his "one thing."

Class Action (1991), 110 minutes, D: Michael Apted
The tagline of this pot-boiling dramatic thriller summarized the plot: "For the plaintiff...Jedediah Tucker Ward. For the defense...Margaret Eleanor Ward. Nothing Personal. It's just Father vs. Daughter in the fight of their lives." Whistle-blowing, 'grand-standing' personal injury lawyer in San Francisco - idealistic and crusading Jedediah Tucker Ward (Gene Hackman), felt he was obligated to protect the public from corporate abuse. He sued Argo Motors on behalf of his plaintiff Steven Kellen (Robert David Hall) whose wife was killed in a car accident. She was in an Argo sedan, the Meridian, when its gas tank exploded in the crash. He claimed safety violations and criminal negligence. Jedediah surmised that the car manufacturer knew that the cost of recalling cars and fixing them to be safe would be higher than paying victims' damages. Argo's defense attorney, representing Argo's president Dr. Getchell (Fred Dalton Thompson), was Ward's estranged daughter, Margaret "Maggie" Eleanor Ward (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who was working her way up the ladder of a slick corporate law firm. She viewed her father as hypocritical on account of his numerous affairs during his marriage to ailing Estelle Ward (Joanna Merlin). The conservative, by-the-book Maggie was paid by the hour, while her father took the case on a contingency basis (and at a set percentage rate if he won), with assistance from Nick Holbrook (Laurence Fishburne). She was assisted by supervisor-partner Michael Grazier (Colin Friels), a romantic interest. The two strong-willed, rival lawyers battled it out, bringing their personal family issues to the courtroom. One turning point came for Maggie when she discovered a previously-concealed, unfavorable engineering report by Dr. Pavel (Jan Rubes), claiming that there was an electrical fault or defect in the Meridian. Its left-turn blinker could cause an explosion if it was in an accident. When she decided to turn over the report to her father, she realized that Michael had destroyed it. During testimony, Jedidah accused Maggie - and her law firm - of destroying the report (did it exist or not?) as part of a cover-up - it became evident that Michael had committed perjury. Jedidah confirmed that the report had existed (by the testimony of a witness) and had been known to both Dr. Getchell and Michael. In the surprise ending, it was revealed that in the middle of the trial, Jedidah and Maggie decided to conspire together to expose both corrupt entities: Argo and Michael - thereby forming a new partnership.

Delicatessen (1991, Fr.), 95 minutes, D: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

The Double Life of Veronique (1991, Fr./Pol./Norw.) (aka La Double Vie De Veronique), 98 minutes, D: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Enchanted April (1991, UK), 95 minutes, D: Mike Newell

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), 130/137 minutes, D: Jon Avnet

JFK (1991), 189 minutes, D: Oliver Stone
A controversial, speculatively revisionistic, historical epic surrounding onetime New Orleans DA Jim Garrison's (Kevin Costner) investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963. Director/co-writer Oliver Stone based his intriguing interpretation in this docu-film thriller on the well-publicized and alleged conspiracy theories of the obsessed attorney about the mystery of the death, based upon the testimony of a number of unreliable witnesses. This complex, provocative courtroom film featured a cavalcade of stars, with cameos and supporting roles by such actors as Tommy Lee Jones (in an Oscar-nominated role as Clay Shaw, the CIA agent whom Garrison charges with the murder of Kennedy), Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Donald Sutherland (as the mysterious "X"), Laurie Metcalf, Walter Matthau, John Candy, Vincent D'Onofio, Sally Kirkland, Ed Asner, Kevin Bacon, Wayne Knight, Michael Rooker, Gary Oldman (as accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald), and Garrison himself as Justice Earl Warren. Stone employed innovative, masterful and impressive film editing (with quick cuts and use of various film stocks) through the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia (who won Oscars), and he created, through gripping cinematography, a tense, kinetic atmosphere that mirrored the whirlwind of memories, incidents and scenarios that played out in Garrison's mind. The trial scene in the last half of the film featured three very memorable segments: an analysis of the famous Zapruder film, the scornful rejection of the Magic Bullet theory, and Garrison's impassioned closing argument, finishing with him staring directly into the camera, and saying: "It's up to you." The movie also featured stirring music by John Williams that accentuated the emotional themes. The film received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Director (Oliver Stone), Best Adapted Screenplay (Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar), Best Original Score (John Williams), and Best Sound Editing, with two Oscars: Best Editing, and Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson).

Let Him Have It (1991, Fr./UK), 115 minutes, D: Peter Medak
The historically-related crime drama's tagline clearly stated: "The shocking story of an unbelievable miscarriage of justice" - the film's title had a double meaning. In the 1950s, 19 year-old Derek Bentley (Christopher Eccleston) was a dim-witted (mental age of 11), reclusive, working class member of a South London family, subject to epileptic seizures due to head injuries suffered in the early years of WWII during the Blitz. In 1952, he had just been released from reform school for petty vandalism, against his father William's (Tom Courtenay) wishes. The illiterate Bentley became friends with 16-year-old small-time hoodlum Chris Craig (Paul Reynolds), who had an imprisoned older brother Niven (Mark McGann). Chris fantasized about being a gangster after watching American crime movies, and collected an arsenal guns. The two were surprised by police officers while breaking into the rooftop of a empty London warehouse. Armed with a gun, Craig opened fire and killed constable Sidney Miles (Robert Morgan), possibly with Bentley's urging, and wounded officer Sgt. Fairfax (Tom Bell). Because of his age, Craig could not be tried as an adult for murder, but Bentley could. The magistrate for the case was pompous, opinionated Lord Goddard (Michael Gough). During the trial, the prosecutors were relentless, and the Judge rushed to judgment. Sgt. Fairfax testified that Bentley had incited Craig to shoot the officer by yelling: "Let him have it, Chris!" Both Bentley and Craig denied he had ever said those words (they were probably fabricated) - they weren't incriminating even if they were said. Bentley's lawyer even argued the opposite point: "Let him have it, Chris!" meant "Give him the gun, Chris!" Neither Derek's parents or other character witnesses ever attested to Derek's condition and disabilities. And Derek (and Craig) both stated that Derek was unaware of Craig's gun. Craig was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment (he served 10 years and was released in 1963) for firing the fatal shot. Bentley was sentenced to hang for inciting Chris to shoot and kill, and he was executed in 1953 at the age of 19 (within a month of his conviction). Twelve years after Bentley's hanging in 1965, England's Parliament abolished the death penalty. In mid-1998, a British appeals court posthumously righted one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in court history by fully exonerating Derek Bentley. The court found that Bentley had been denied a "fair trial which is the birthright of every British citizen."

Mediterraneo (1991, It.), 96 minutes, D: Gabriele Salvatores

My Own Private Idaho (1991), 102 minutes, D: Gus Van Sant

Naked Lunch (1991, Can./UK/Jp.), 115 minutes, D: David Cronenberg
Director Cronenberg wrote the disorienting, ambiguous screenplay based upon William S. Burroughs' incoherent 1959 novel of the same name (and several other works, plus the novelist's own life). He attempted to subjectively film the writer's own surrealistic drug-fueled, hallucinatory and disconnected episodes. In the delirious and complicated sci-fi dramatic anti-story, insecticide-addicted NYC exterminator William "Bill" Lee (Peter Weller) (Burroughs' own pseudonym and alter-ego) shot his also-addicted wife Joan (Judy Davis) to death while playing the "William Tell" party trick. [Note: This Burroughs tragedy actually occurred in 1951 in Mexico.] The stone-faced husband stepped into his unconscious when he went on the lam to a nightmarish, constantly-changing fantasy place named Interzone (resembling Tangiers or Casablanca). He believed he was a secret-agent/spy under the mysterious control of other forces, including a dictating, beetle-like typewriter (with a QWERTY keyboard as an organ and a pink pulsating anus-sphincter), and a Mugwump alien. For the remainder of the film, the dead-eyed Lee (with repressed homosexual urges) typed out self-reflexive "reports" (the basis for his published book) before again cathartically killing the specter of his dead wife - doppelganger Joan Frost (also Davis) - in order to fully accept himself.

Point Break (1991), 117 minutes, D: Kathryn Bigelow

Raise the Red Lantern (1991, China/HK/Taiwan) (aka Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua), 125 minutes, D: Yimou Zhang

Rambling Rose (1991), 112 minutes, D: Martha Coolidge

The Rapture (1991), 100 minutes, D: Michael Tolkin

The Silence of the Lambs (1991), 118 minutes, D: Jonathan Demme
Director Jonathan Demme's superbly-crafted, harrowing film was one of the most taut, suspenseful, psychological thrillers ever produced. It was the first horror film to win the Academy Award Oscar for Best Picture, and only the third film in Oscar history to win the "Big Five." Its subject matter, about two mass murderers: a trans-sexual serial killer of victimized women and a cannibalistic doctor, became highly controversial. The film jump-started a series of Hannibal franchise films that lasted from 1986 through 2007. Ted Tally's screenplay was based on Thomas Harris' 1988 best-selling novel of the same name. [Note: An earlier thriller in the Hannibal series, director Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986), was based on another 1981 Harris novel - titled Red Dragon.] The main female character was a raw, vulnerable and novice FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who was sent by senior special agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to conduct an interview with an insane, notorious, cobra-like, psychiatrist turned sociopath Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who was housed in a claustrophobic, underground prison cell in a Baltimore state hospital for the criminally insane. The genuinely-frightening, violent film was structured with four intimate exchanges in a cat-and-mouse bargaining game (of quid pro quo) between the deranged, contemptuous, hypnotic serial killer and Clarice. In exchange for her haunting, deepest secrets and tormented memories about her low-class childhood and the slaughter of lambs (that she desperately wanted to save), she was supplied with clues about the identity and methods of another threatening serial killer named Jame Gumb, dubbed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Gumb kidnapped plump females, starved them, and then skinned them (plus stuffed a rare moth chrysalis in their throats). He was currently holding his latest victim Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) - the daughter of US Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker). The film's exciting denouement found Clarice face to face and alone in the home of "Buffalo Bill," where she was stalked in his dark basement before she shot him dead. The epilogue revealed that escaped prisoner Lecter was now on the loose in the Bahamas, and cunningly planning to have "an old friend for dinner" - his detestable nemesis Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald).

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), 137 minutes, D: James Cameron
James Cameron's well-executed, action-packed sequel to the earlier film of the same name was financed with a huge $102 million budget. The sequel was made possible by Cameron's hugely successful blockbuster Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989). Unlike The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day would gross twice its budget domestically (at $205.9 million) while its worldwide take was $520.9 million, despite a running time of over two and a half hours. This science-fiction blockbuster won four technical Academy Awards. The chief selling point, aside from the computer-generated special effects and dazzling, non-stop action sequences, were the two major stars, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton, who starred in the original. It would be followed by a mildly successful sequel, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), in which only Schwarzenegger returned and faced off against a female "Terminatrix." Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator (cyborg) character of the first film, The Terminator (1984) told everyone: "I'll be back" - and proved it with this film. The film explored issues of fate, responsibility, loyalty, and the essences of humanity. It took place 11 years after the events of the first movie, in the year 1995. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) was now in a mental institution after attempting to blow up Cyberdyne Systems, and for acting delusional and insane over thoughts of an apocalypse. Her son John Connor (Edward Furlong) had become a rebellious foster child. This time, two cyborg terminators were sent from future Earth -- a T-800 model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) similar to the one from the first film, and the other, a prototype T-1000 (Robert Patrick), who had the ability to 'morph' his body into any solid shape, impersonate other persons and even camouflage himself with the background. One was sent to protect the future leader John, the other to kill the boy who would lead humans to victory over the cyborgs.

Thelma & Louise (1991), 128 minutes, D: Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott's film from first-timer Callie Khouri's screenplay was a pseudo-feminist, female-buddy and road movie that examined the themes of liberation, free will, revenge, female empowerment from oppression, self-discovery, and the nature of criminality. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis), a naive Arkansas housewife starved for adventure, was unhappily married to a cheating, verbally-abusive and arrogant salesman named Darryl (Christopher McDonald). She set out to have a weekend trip with her worldly-wise best friend, a coffee-shop waitress named Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon). At a truck-stop en route, Thelma loosened up after a few drinks and became flirtatious. One of the customers, would-be rapist Harlan Puckett (Timothy Carhart), threatened Thelma in the parking lot - and she was questionably saved by Louise who killed the man before the rape occurred. In their flight from the law, the federal authorities, and the police, they began driving to Mexico in a red 1966 Thunderbird convertible, and committed further serious crimes. Brad Pitt had a bit but memorable, pure beefcake role as sweet-talking J.D., a cocky, hitch-hiking cowboy (and thieving con-artist) who stole from Thelma in a motel after seducing her. The pair's flight as fugitives became one of liberation, as they not only cast off their daily shackles, but discovered their inner desires and personas and became defiant outlaws, while being pursued by a sympathetically-protective detective named Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel). The box-office hit, similar to other couple-on-the-run films such as You Only Live Once (1937), They Live By Night (1949), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974), and The Sugarland Express (1974), was stirring to watch, especially in its final scenes, which included an encounter with an offensively-lewd truck driver, the awe-inspiring aerial shot of their T-bird being chased by a legion of blaring police cars in the American Southwest, and the famous freeze frame ending depicting their ultimate freedom as they ascended - and descended - into the Grand Canyon.

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