Total Recall

Rank The Freshest Movies of the 1990s

We count down the best-reviewed movie of every year from 1990 to 1999.

by | September 27, 2017 | Comments

The new Flatliners arrives in theaters this weekend, and with it a new crop of foolhardy young scientists determined to find out what happens after we die. Of course, many filmgoers found the answer in 1990, when the first Flatliners rounded up some of the hottest young actors in Hollywood (including Kiefer Sutherland, who makes a return appearance in this edition). Thinking back to that original outing has us feeling nostalgic for the ’90s, so we decided to dedicate this feature to a look at the freshest wide releases of the decade — and invite you to rank your own favorites along the way. It’s time for Total Recall!

1990: GoodFellas (1990) 96%

This masterfully frenetic Martin Scorsese hit looks at life in the Mafia through the eyes of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a onetime mobster who rose through the ranks as a young man before famously turning informant in the early ‘80s. Scorsese employed a stellar ensemble cast for Goodfellas, including old favorites Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and a number of future stars (among them Samuel L. Jackson) — but the movie’s real draw came from the terrible true story at its center, and how convincingly the seductive pull of the criminal lifestyle was portrayed. A respectable box office hit, it earned six Academy Award nominations, netting Pesci a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and its reputation has only grown over the decades since its theatrical debut. “You walk away,” wrote Richard Schickel for TIME Magazine, “tantalized by a view into the darkest part of yourself, glad that that part is still behind bars.”

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1991: Beauty and the Beast (1991) 94%

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

A huge, Best Picture-nominated hit during its original run — and a big success all over again during its repeated reissues — Disney’s version of this timeless tale is the one that comes to mind for multiple generations when they think of Beauty and the Beast. And while it may have taken a few storyline liberties with the original text (and while the IMAX and 3D additions don’t really improve the story), the most important part remains: As Jay Boyar wrote for the Orlando Sentinel, it “Moves us because we know that true love can sometimes seem like a mismatch. And also because, in love, we can all feel like captives or beasts.”

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1992: Unforgiven (1992) 96%

Periodic half-hearted revivals notwithstanding, the Western was in pretty poor shape by the early ‘90s, its blinkered view of the past discredited by generations of filmgoers raised on gritty screenplays and flawed antiheroes. Clint Eastwood, who made one of the few well-received Westerns of the ‘80s with Pale Rider, was just the guy to fix that — and so he did with 1992’s Unforgiven, a bitterly bleak rumination on the addictive futility of vengeance that united an impeccable cast (including Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman) and reaped a bounty of Oscars along the way. Observed Roger Ebert, “That implacable moral balance, in which good eventually silences evil, is at the heart of the Western, and Eastwood is not shy about saying so.”

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1993: Schindler's List (1993) 97%

(Photo by Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

Steven Spielberg circled Schindler’s List for years, concerned he didn’t have the skills or maturity necessary to dramatize the story of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi Party member who used his position as a German industrialist to save nearly 1,200 Jews during World War II. After trying to give the project away more than once (Spielberg’s candidates for his own replacement included Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese), he finally started filming in early 1993 — and the result is one of the most widely acclaimed movies of the ’90s, and the crowning achievement of Spielberg’s career. Liam Neeson, who was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, anchors the film as Schindler, lending depth and nuance to the portrayal of a man who started the war as a profiteer and ended it wracked with guilt over the lives he’d failed to spare, despite risking his life — and losing his fortune — to prevent the deaths of so many. It may have taken Spielberg time to feel he was up to the challenge of Schindler’s List, but in the end, he had nothing to worry about; as Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, “Rising brilliantly to the challenge of this material and displaying an electrifying creative intelligence, Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again.”

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1994: The Lion King (1994) 93%

(Photo by Buena Vista courtesy Everett Collection)

Disney bounced back with The Little Mermaid, soared to Academy Award-winning glory with Beauty and the Beast, and continued their hot streak with 1994’s The Lion King — the quintessentially Disney story of a young cub who’s exiled from his tribe and left for dead after his father is slain by his uncle, but survives to make his way back home and win justice for his family. As always, the studio tempered the story’s fairly grim beats with adorable animation and singalong songs (including Elton John’s Oscar-winning hit “Can You Feel the Love Tonight“), and the result was a massive worldwide hit that’s gone on to spawn a franchise that includes a hugely successful stage show as well as an upcoming live-action remake. None of it came as a surprise to critics like John Hartl of the Seattle Times, who opined, “It’s perhaps the closest Disney has come to creating a consciously mythical entertainment in the style of Star Wars. Yet like that film, it keeps its sense of humor and fun.”

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1995: Toy Story (1995) 100%

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

In 1937, Walt Disney Pictures turned conventional wisdom on its head by proving that animation — heretofore the realm of short films starring talking critters — could be successfully utilized to tell a full-length story starring realistic human characters. That film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, charted the path the studio — and animation pretty much in general — followed for almost six decades, until Pixar came along and changed everything with Toy Story. An eye-popping technical marvel with a heart to match its stunning visuals, it kick-started the growth of a studio whose unprecedented success would redefine an art form. Subsequent Pixar releases have deepened and refined the technology and storytelling approach seen here, but unlike pretty much anything else considered cutting edge in 1995, it still seems almost as fresh as it did on the day it was released. As Michael Booth of the Denver Post wrote, “It’s a landmark movie, and doesn’t get old with frequent repetition.”

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1996: Fargo (1996) 93%

(Photo by Gramercy courtesy Everett Collection)

A seven-time Academy Award nominee (and two-time winner) that now resides in the National Film Registry, this deliciously dark Coen brothers comedy tells the increasingly unpleasant tale of a car dealership manager (William H. Macy) who tries to get out from under his financial woes by hiring a pair of small-time crooks (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can fool his wealthy father-in-law into paying the ransom. A grisly comedy of errors ensues, with the kidnappers leaving a trail of death in their wake and a tenacious cop (Frances McDormand) in hot pursuit. More than 20 years after the Coens plumbed the depths of small-town intrigue to deliver their caustic cautionary tale, Fargo has gone on to inspire a consistently acclaimed television series, but there’s still nothing quite like the original; as Desson Thomson wrote for the Washington Post, it “Works like a charm. A really weird charm, that is.”

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1997: L.A. Confidential (1997) 99%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

In the midst of the ‘90s neo-noir movement that brought us films like Pulp Fiction and Heat, writer/director Curtis Hanson took a sharply retro approach with L.A. Confidential — and won two Academy Awards (against nine nominations) for his trouble. A ‘50s-set murder mystery involving mobsters, corrupt politicians, drugs, a pair of bickering cops (Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, making their American breakthroughs), and one righteous dame (Kim Basinger, who won one of those Oscars), Confidential managed to add to the genre’s history while paying its respects. As Roger Ebert put it, “L.A. Confidential is immersed in the atmosphere and lore of film noir, but it doesn’t seem like a period picture — it believes its noir values and isn’t just using them for decoration.”

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1998: The Truman Show (1998) 94%

Is it science fiction? A comedy? A drama? A psychiatric syndrome? Actually, 1998’s The Truman Show is all of the above — which has a lot to do with why it’s not only the best-reviewed film of Jim Carrey’s career, but a highwater mark for ’90s cinema in general. Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, the unwitting star of a wildly popular reality series engineered by a producer named Christof (played by Ed Harris), in which Truman’s life — complete with fake wife, fake friends, and a whole fake town — is lapped up by eager audiences. It didn’t net Carrey the Academy Award that many were anticipating, but The Truman Show has endured for nearly 20 years, and predicted the overwhelming popularity of reality television in the era to follow. In the words of Hollywood Report Card’s Ross Anthony, “this is clearly one of the decade’s cleverest, most original pictures.”

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1999: Toy Story 2 (1999) 100%

Considering how successful the first installment was — not to mention Disney’s original plan to make the sequel a direct-to-video affair — not many people would have been surprised if Toy Story 2 had fallen flat when it landed in theaters in 1999. But with Tom Hanks back as Woody, Tim Allen back as Buzz, and an adventure that took Andy’s toys on an adventure every bit as exciting as their first, the second Story proved that some movie characters really do have more than one story worth telling — and that even when it came to movies with numbers after the title, Pixar meant business. Speaking of business, Toy Story 2‘s was extraordinarily healthy, to the tune of a $485 million worldwide gross — and the public’s obvious enthusiasm for the movie was backed up by the critics, who duplicated the original’s 100 percent Tomatometer on the strength of reviews like Jeff Millar of the Houston Chronicle, who observed, “the Pixar people just get better and better.”

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