The Nine Most Important Films of the 1990s

The Silence of the Lambs

As we look back on the decade, it's interesting to see how the cinematic landscape has changed, and how it hasn't. This list calls attention to what I feel are the 9 most influential films released between 1990 and 1999. This has nothing to do with the urgency of the films' messages, or even how good the films are; in fact, I don't even like some of the ones I've listed below. But on aesthetic, technical, and even social levels, they're all milestones.

  1. Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino's 1994 postmodern gangster hipathon accomplished a great deal: it gave the greatest validation to the new wave of American independent film; spawned countless imitators; made John Travolta bankable again; cemented the careers of Bruce Willis, Samuel Jackson, Uma Thurman, and then-newcomer Ving Rhames; and turned Tarantino himself into a superstar (God help us).
  2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. What Pulp Fiction did for indie film, James Cameron's 1991 sequel did for Hollywood studio fare. True, action flicks had already been in vogue (thanks to the first Terminator), but this was the first to both use computer-generated effects to such a dizzying degree and crank up the budget sky high. Without T2 – and I'm not saying this is a good thing – we wouldn't have all the effects-heavy blockbusters that have dominated screens all decade, from Jurassic Park to The Matrix to Cameron's own Titanic.
  3. The Silence of the Lambs. This film singlehandedly begot the contemporary thriller, which throughout the '90s has mostly been based on the formula of terrifying serial killer vs. troubled cop. (See: Se7en.) Without question, the '90s have given us the darkest, most depressing films ever made in Hollywood, and we have Silence of the Lambs to thank for that.
  4. Scream. Almost as an antidote to the downer serial killer films noted above, Wes Craven returned to the top of the horror pile with this droll slasher flick, but it was new screenwriter Kevin Williamson who benefited the most from Scream's success. He created his own mini-genre of hip, winking horror films, jumpstarted our current insatiable thirst for teen-oriented movies and TV shows, and created quite a career for himself. [2013 UPDATE: Funny how things change over time. If I were to rewrite this list today, I'd replace Scream with Toy Story, a far more important movie because it opened the floodgates to the CG animated feature.]
  5. Clerks. Some guy comes out of nowhere with a $20,000 movie and it becomes a hit? Unheard of before Kevin Smith's raunchy slacker comedy. Even more than sex, lies and videotape, this affixed American independent film to the cultural radar – and made every would-be filmmaker in every suburb believe that he too could be the next Kevin Smith.
  6. The Celebration. Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's drama was the first official film in the "Dogme 95" movement (movies made without artificial light, post production sound effects, musical scores, pre-built sets, etc.) and is significant for one major reason: it was shot on digital video and it was treated not as a shot-on-video novelty but as a major motion picture – a work of art. As a result, the digital revolution has just begun, with much, much more to come.
  7. Chungking Express. Not too many people outside of Hong Kong saw Wong Kar Wai's cult hit. However, many of those who did see it are now the most important filmmmakers on the international scene. Its energetic new approach to splitting up film time, speed, and narrative itself has profoundly influenced directors all around the world. It's also completely revolutionized contemporary cinematography.
  8. The Blair Witch Project. I'm only including this because it is the first film to show the world that even an independent feature with little going for it could win massive success solely on hype. No longer do you need to spend $50 million in advertising to get the word out. Those would-be Kevin Smiths are now making their would-be Blair Witches. [2013 UPDATE: Though I'd still include Blair Witch on this list if I had to write it today, it's now clear that the film's real influence was over the "low budget 'found footage' style horror film", which is everywhere these days.]
  9. Three Kings. I had to include one film whose influence may have nothing to do with cinematic trends, but it is, I believe, important in that it is the first feature – made by a Hollywood studio, no less – to take a critical look at the Gulf War, the dark side of which had been ignored by the American public for too long. With the exception of Bulworth and The Insider, this is pretty much the only truly political Hollywood film all decade.