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Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese pick the 10 best films of the 1990s

Two film heavyweights in conversation, getting to the nitty-gritty. The critic and the auteur: Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese. Invited to Chicago to whittle down the best ten films of the 1990s, Scorsese takes a seat with Ebert and they get down to it. Just prior to the countdown, Ebert recalls the Chicago Film Festival in 1967, when he reviewed Scorsese’s first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, stating in the review that he thought that Scorsese would go on to become a great director. “And boy, was I right,” Ebert adds with a wry smile. And boy, was he…

Martin Scorsese is widely heralded as one of America’s greatest film directors. He has received multiple accolades and awards, including an Academy Award, three Primetime Emmy Awards and a Grammy. Five of his films have been inducted into the National Film Registry for their ‘cultural, historical or aesthetic significance. He emerged in the 1970s and ’80s for his films largely based on his Italian-American upbringing in New York City, including Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990). His films often focus on insecure men caught up in demanding careers such as crime, sport, or more traditional American working-class jobs.

Roger Ebert was an American film critic and journalist, regarded as the nation’s most influential and prominent voice in film criticism. He began his career at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 and worked there until he died in 2013. His work enabled the difficult concepts often found within cinema to be more easily understood by a lay audience and thus, spread his love of both American and world cinema to the masses. His website remains online as an archive of his work.

Roger Ebert’s top 10 films of the 1990s:

Ebert goes heavy on the drama and the crime in his top ten films of the 1990s, which seemed to be quite the go-to for filmmakers of the decade. He even gives a cheeky nod to his guest at number three, and his number one film of the decade may cause a stir, especially given the quality of the previous nine selections.

Let’s get into it…

10. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Directed by Oliver Stone and adapted from the books On the Trail of the Assassins (1988) and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy (1989), JFK examines the lead-up to the assassination of former American president John F. Kennedy. Initially caught up in controversy (many American newspapers accused Stone of taking liberties with historical facts), it drew critical praise and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Ebert: “A dazzling stylistic recreation of the paranoia, suspicion and mystery that still surrounds the Kennedy assassination.”

9. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992)

An epic biographical drama about the African-American activist, portrayed by Denzel Washington. Based on Alex Haley’s 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he collaborated with X on before his death. It also features cameos by Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Searle and former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Ebert: “Denzel Washington’s great performance as the charismatic black leader that provided an angrier, more radical alternative to the voice of Martin Luther King.”

8. Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)

Based on the semi-autobiographical 1990 novel by John O’Brien of the same name. An alcoholic Nicolas Cage drives to Las Vegas from Los Angeles with a trunk full of booze and develops a romantic relationship with a hardy prostitute played by Elizabeth Shue. Cage subsequently won the Golden Globe for Best Actor for his performance.

Ebert: “Great performance by Nicholas Cage as a suicidal alcoholic and Elizabeth Shue as a Las Vegas call girl who gently accompanies him on his doomed final journey.”

7. Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier, 1996)

Set in the Scottish Highlands in the 1970s, Breaking the Waves concerns a troubled young woman (played by Emily Watson) and the love she has for her husband, who has become physically immobilised in a work accident and then asks her to have sex with other men.

Ebert: “Emily Watson as a simple Scottish girl from a repressive background and Stellan Skarsgard as the oil rig worker who makes her dizzy with love.”

6. Schindler’s List (Stephen Spielberg, 1993)

Historical war drama directed by Stephen Spielberg, featuring Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, a German entrepreneur who saved the lives of many Jews by employing them in his factories. It also stars Ralph Fiennes as Nazi Officer Amon Goth and Ben Kingsley as Schindler’s accountant Itzhak Stern.

Ebert: “Liam Neeson as a daring and good-hearted man who saves the lives of eleven-hundred Jews by conning the Nazis with their own cruel rules.”

5. Three ColoursRedWhite and Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1994) 

A collection of three psychological drama films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. Each of the films represents a political ideal in the motto of the French Republic: liberty, equality and fraternity. The films are also named after the colours of the French flag.

Ebert: They look at the way our lives are lived at the mercy of fate, coincidence and blind chance.”

4. Fargo (Coen Brothers, 1996)

Frances McDormand stars in this black comedy crime drama as a pregnant police chief in smalltown Minnesota, alongside William H. Macy as a car salesman in a financial and emotional crisis, and Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as two venture criminals. It recieved widespread acclaim and has since spawned a Coen Brothers-produced TV show based on the Fargo universe.

Ebert: The most remarkable thing about Fargo is the way it combines a genuinely exciting and ingenious crime plot with such a good-hearted portrait of a plucky policewoman. And the photography makes the weather into a character, too–that cold white snowy wasteland where cars won’t start and even the cops wear Elmer Fudd hats. Fargo — one of the best films of the decade.”

3. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

He just couldn’t resist, could he? Sat across from the man who made the damn thing, Ebert makes Scorsese’s mob crime film his number three pick of the 1990s. An adaption of the 1985 book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. The film tells the story of Henry Hill’s rise to power in the criminal underworld and his subsequent fall as that power consumes him.

Ebert: “The visual style of Goodfellas subtly keys off the movie styles of the decades it considers, and the rhythm relentlessly builds, until at the end, as Henry Hill senses capture growing closer, we realise we’re breathlessly running right along with him. Goodfellas combines wisdom about human nature with a spellbinding story, and it’s one of the best films of the ’90s.”

2. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino,1994)

Iconic. The telling of multiple crime stories taking place across Los Angeles, Pulp Fiction is widely regarded as Tarantino’s masterpiece. It boosted the careers of Uma Thurman, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson and earned them all Academy Award nominations. The film itself won Best Original Screenplay. This is a must-watch and it is unsurprising to see it so high up Ebert’s list.

Ebert: “If you follow the characters through the loop-the-loop of the plot, you also find that most of them do find personal redemption in one way or another so that Pulp Fiction becomes a comedy masquerading as hard-boiled. And it’s a complete original, which unfortunately inspired way too many other young filmmakers to write way too much Tarantinian dialogue. They knew the words, but not the music.”

1. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)

Originally planned to be a 30-minute short film for PBS, the actual filming took five years and produced 250 hours of footage. Follows two young African-American high school students and their dreams of making it as professional basketball players. Despite its long runtime and unusual genre for commercial success, it grossed over $11 million worldwide.

Ebert: “It started as a half-hour documentary about two inner-city kids named William Gates and Arthur Agee, who were promising basketball players in junior high school. But then the film just kept on growing as it followed their lives covering almost five years –as they’re both recruited by a suburban high school basketball powerhouse, and fate makes a twist in their destinies. To me, the greatest value of film is that it helps us break out of our boxes of time and space, and empathize with other people – it lets us walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Martin Scorsese’s top 10 films of the 1990s:

Scorsese, it seems, couldn’t make his mind up. Straight away, we have a tie for the tenth spot, which makes you wonder what other pictures he had to leave off the list.

Like Ebert, Scorsese goes in heavy on crime dramas but also opens us up to his knowledge of world (and particularly Asian) cinema. For some reason, his top pick wasn’t actually made during the decade in question. Perhaps he wasn’t invited in for the 1980s edition and had been saving it up ever since.

Here we go…

10. Tie between Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) and Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Heat is an American crime drama starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jon Voight and Val Kilmer. Depicts the tussle and relationship between a Los Angeles police detective (Pacino) and a career criminal (De Niro) while also homing in on their troubled personal lives. Marks De Niro and Pacino’s first on-screen appearance together.

Scorsese: “A biography of one of the most daring political leaders.” / “A thrilling crime drama by one of the finest filmmakers in America, with a brilliantly cold, minimal look, with great performances by Bob De Niro and Al Pacino.”

9. Fargo (Coen Brothers, 1996)

Fargo is one of three films that both Ebert and Scorcese selected as part of their top ten. The film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2006 and is one of only seven films to achieve such an accolade in its first year of eligibility.

Scorsese: “I liked the whole picture because it’s sort of a comedy of manners. It’s a movie that once it’s on, if it’s on television I’ll keep watching the whole thing. I get caught up in it.”

8. Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)

Based on J.G. Ballard’s disturbing 1973 novel of the same name, a film producer, following a car crash, finds himself involved with a group of people who are sexually aroused by car crashes while trying to rekindle his relationship with his wife using his newfound fetish.

Scorsese: Genuinely erotic, but also profoundly disturbing. Beautifully controlled and completely unconventional.”

7. Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)

Wes Anderson’s directorial debut, as well as brothers Owen and Luke Wilson’s acting debut. A commercial failure, yet critically praised, Bottle Rocket follows three good-natured friends who attempt to go on a crime spree, whilst realising they do not know the first thing about crime.

Scorsese: I love the people in this film who are genuinely innocent, more than even they know.”

6. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)

The second of the three films that made both Ebert and Scorsese’s final cut. This was von Trier’s first film after the founding of Dogme 95, a filmmaking movement started by Von Trier and fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. The manifesto of the movement was to create films based solely on the traditional methods of storytelling and acting, to serve as a departure from the use and over-reliance on special effects and technology.

Scorsese: “A genuinely spiritual movie that asks what is love and what is compassion.”

5: Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrera, 1992)

Neo-noir crime film from King of New York director Abel Ferrara. During his investigation of the rape of a young nun, a compromised New York police detective with a healthy narcotics problem (Harvey Keitel) attempts to find redemption and change his ways.

Scorsese: “Starring my old friend and collaborator Harvey Keitel. He has always taken risks as an actor in the nineties, and in this film in particular, he really reached his prime.”

4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

Kubrick’s final film. An erotic, almost dream-like film based on the 1926 novella Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler. It follows the story of Dr Bill Harford, played by Tom Cruise, who departs on an insane sexual adventure through the elite underworld of 1990s New York, during which he gains access to a secret society and takes part in their masked orgies. Kubrick died just six days after he showed the final cut to Warner Brothers.

Scorsese: I think a lot of people were looking at Eyes Wide Shut from the wrong angle – it’s not to be taken literally. It’s Manhattan as you’d experience it in a dream, where everything feels familiar but very strange. And I think Eyes Wide Shut is a profound film about love, sex, and trust in a marriage, about learning to take things day by day, and either accepting or ignoring whatever unpleasant truths come along. It’s also a film I cherish because it puts you in the authoritative hands of an old master, with a style that flies in the face of every modern convention.”

3. A Borrowed Life (Wu Nien-jen, 1994)

The directorial debut of Taiwanese filmmaker Wu Nien-jen. An autobiographical story about an impoverished family in the Taiwanese backsticks in the 1940s and ’50s; a time when the Japanese rule of the island was ending, and the reign of Communism was about to begin.

Scorsese: “The camera remains still, it lives with the characters, and it observes their most difficult emotional interactions with a restraint that often becomes painful. This is a movie that forces you to re-think how you view movies. If you go with it, if it clicks for you, the results are very rewarding.”

2. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Mallick, 1998)

An epic war film and the second screen adaption of James Jones’ 1962 novel of the same name. A fictionalised account of the Battle of Mount Austen, a military engagement between the United States and the Imperial Japanese forces in the hills near the Matanikau River on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Stars Sean Penn, Elias Koteas and Ben Chaplin. The title is taken from a Rudyard Kipling poem in which he calls British foot soldiers, “the thin red line of heroes”.

Scorsese: “The Thin Red Line works very differently from most films. As you watch it, you wonder: What is narrative in movies? Is it everything, and if so, is there only one way to handle it? I realize now that each of the four top movies on my list moves at a very slow tempo. If Malick had just done a straightforward narrative, could he ever have achieved the kind of poetry he does here, or made a film where you really come to see the world as a primaeval place? I don’t think so.”

1. The Horse Thief (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986 – exception made by Scorsese himself)

Technically not allowed on this list given its year of release, The Horse Thief follows the titular horse thief, Norbu, as he attempts to support his struggling family in Tibet. He tries to change his thieving ways but has no choice but to continue, given his family’s plight. Intimate depiction of one of Tian’s longtime fascinations: China’s ethnic minorities, and the traditional Buddhist rituals that accompany their lives.

Scorsese: “It was made in Tibet by the mainland Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang. The story of the film is as simple and elemental as the lives of the people it depicts: a man is ostracized from his tribe for stealing horses, his living conditions become so severe that his son dies, he repents and is accepted back into the fold, and he’s forced to steal horses again to keep his second child alive. This is what life is all about: struggling to keep your family alive. Horse Thief was a real inspiration to me. It’s that rare thing: a genuinely transcendental film.”

So, quite a varied list on which to feast your eyes when you’re seeking some classic nineties cinema! Watch the complete countdown below.