The 1990s were a very volatile period in international cinema. In America, new films protested against the mediocre filmmaking of the previous decade and pushed the boundaries of what avant-garde really meant. Independent films became more commercially viable and seamlessly entered the mainstream consciousness. New directors, like Quentin Tarantino, were given a platform to showcase their exciting and fresh voices and they ended up changing Hollywood’s ethos for the better.
The decade was primarily marked by the emergence of a new generation of auteurs who reinvented the methods of storytelling in cinema and brought their remarkable visions to a wider audience. The ‘90s will always be remembered fondly for the vast output of brilliant films and the establishment of new cinematic norms.
Here is a look at some of the greatest films of the decade that have remained relevant and will continue to be so for years to come.
Top 10 cult classic films of the 1990s:
10. Dazed and Confused – Richard Linklater, 1993
Richard Linklater’s 1993 film, Dazed and Confused, is a brazen depiction of the dominant hedonism of the ’70s.
Set in 1976, the film celebrates the joys of drinking beer, smoking pot and the nihilistic outlook of a postmodern world where consequences cease to matter. Set to the last day of the academic year, all institutional structures are rejected, in an iconoclastic fervour, by a group of high school students in Texas.
Although Dazed and Confused was marketed as a teen comedy by Gramercy Pictures, it is a much more meaningful take on the lost freedom of youth.
9. Groundhog Day – Harold Ramis, 1993
With an innovative plot and a convincing performance by Bill Murray, Groundhog Day is another cult classic from the ’90s.
Masquerading as a romantic comedy, the story follows the life of Phil, a weatherman working for a local station in Pennsylvania as he relives the same day over and over again. In the beginning, he is bitter and treats everyone with contempt but as he is forced to confront the morality of his own actions, a sense of empathy changes his understanding of the universe.
In the eternal winter of life, it teaches us to be kind to each other because it is only what we do to and for each other that defines the world.
8. Reservoir Dogs – Quentin Tarantino, 1992
In 1992, Reservoir Dogs facilitated the overnight transformation of Quentin Tarantino from an obscure unproduced scriptwriter and part-time actor to one of the most influential filmmakers of the ‘90s.
Tarantino does away with the normative, sequential depiction of crime (a bank robbery, in the case of Reservoir Dogs). The film jumps back and forth between pre and post-robbery events, occasionally putting the narrative on pause to let the characters discuss seemingly irrelevant topics such as the importance of tipping.
Tarantino masterfully conducts a philosophical inquiry of violence by showing what happens before and after the robbery but not the robbery itself.
7. Fargo – Coen Brothers, 1996
Though it has been made into a popular Netflix series and many viewers know Fargo only by the show, the series is derived from the 1996 film by the Coen brothers who are among the most eminent filmmakers of America. The project arrived as their attempt to completely eliminate the familiarity of the true crime genre and to make it something truly extraordinary.
With explicit murders and merry detectives, the film takes us to snow-covered Minnesota where spilt blood readily stands out in comparison to the all-encompassing white.
6. Trainspotting – Danny Boyle, 1996
This 1996 film is a cinematic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. Trainspotting poses an incessant but a necessary demand: that the people who occupy the lowest rungs of society, the addicts, deserve our attention and our concern too. Mark Renton—played by Ewan McGregor—is a heroin addict with no prospects and no ambitions. The film follows him on his adventures to finance his drug habits while other people automatically neglect him.
Danny Boyle exposes the hypocrisies of society in this cinematic tour de force and makes us question whether we are truly free or not.
5. The Big Lebowski – Coen Brothers, 1998
Arguably the best film that the Coen brothers ever produced, this 1998 masterpiece presents a comedic revision of the stereotype of the detective noir genre through the character of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges). The philosophy it preaches is a doctrine of laziness. As cases keep piling up, the urgency of detective stories is beautifully challenged by a detective who does not want to get up from his couch.
The Big Lebowski is a smooth journey through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles full of experimental artists, cult members, and bowling-league superstars.
4. The Silence of the Lambs – Jonathan Demme, 1991
Based on the extremely clever novel by Thomas Harris, next up we have Jonathan Demme’s 1991 eponymous psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs. In what is undoubtedly one of the most memorable additions to the legacy of cinema from the ‘90s, Anthony Hopkin’s powerful performance as Hannibal Lecter enhances an already compelling story of crime and psychological manipulation.
With five Academy Awards to its name, The Silence of the Lambs is a rare culmination of excellence in all departments.
3. Being John Malkovich – Spike Jonze, 1999
Being John Malkovich is a truly unique film and will always stand out as a very special part of cinematic tradition.
Thanks to the directorial talent of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant screenplay, the film challenges so many genres at the same time. Kaufman’s writing takes precedence in the order of calibre because he manages to create a meta-fictional exploration of the human condition through stunning narrative devices and simple allegory.
It answers the age old question: “What if we could be someone else?”
2. Fight Club – David Fincher, 1999
“The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club”.
Well, since we have to talk about it as a part of this feature, here goes: David Fincher’s Fight Club, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, is a refreshing take on the dark world of mental disorders like depression and schizophrenia. Comic and bleak at the same time, Fincher draws us into a Hobbesian nightmare with his delicate camera work and makes us feel as if we are a part of the revolution.
Fight Club has become a vital part of popular culture as well as critical theory. Fincher’s exquisite film deserves to be visited time and again.
1. Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino, 1994
Tarantino’s magnum opus, Pulp Fiction requires no introduction.
One of the most iconic films of all time, it is considered to be the most influential film of the 1990s. The Oscar-winning script by Tarantino and Roger Avary is an intersection of multiple narratives, featuring Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, in the role that reignited his career, as hit men who have philosophical conversations on mundane topics like French names for American fast food products (like the characters in Reservoir Dogs).
Through outrageous violence, witty exchanges and a self-indulgent exploration of language, Pulp Fiction has managed to become the most memorable film to come out of that decade.