The 1990s were an exciting decade, as it was a time of relative peace as the Cold War concluded the previous decade, and the eventual global conflict of the War on Terror would not start until the early 2000s. Whether one digs the ’90s vibe or not, everyone can agree that it was unique and iconic. Besides fashion trends, gadgets, and music, many notable movies also emerged during the decade; action films became more exciting, the horror genre was revitalized, and epic dramas dominated the box office. Thirty years later, many of these movies remain iconic. Even someone who was not born in that decade likely knows many films from the decade and is still feeling their impact today.
The ’90s were a decade of films marked by the star-power vehicle, a trend less common in 21st-century blockbusters. The rise of the independent film scene with the Sundance Film Festival becoming the hot spot for visionary new filmmakers who would redefine the Hollywood scene. With that in mind, what were the films of the decade that are still cited and watched by audiences today? Here are the best movies of the 1990s, ranked.
Update January 31, 2024: If you consider yourself a ’90s child, you’ll be happy to know this article was updated with fresh content.
20 Scream (1996)
- Release Date
- December 20, 1996
Horror master and groundbreaking film pioneer Wes Craven helped revitalize the dwindling public interest in the slasher and horror genre with the big-screen pop culture phenomenon Scream. Ultimate scream queen Neve Campbell famously starred as Woodsboro resident and teenager Sidney Prescott, as she and her high school friends are terrorized by a psychopathic killer who mercilessly stalks them and torments them by calling them before their impending murders.
Craven Helps Resuscitate Horror in Hollywood
While there are plenty of other trailblazing films of the ’90s, few were able to achieve what Craven did with Scream, as the director not only sparked a resurgence of popularity with slasher movies but also launched a lucrative and enduring film franchise that changed the face of horror. The involvement of major movie star Drew Barrymore, whom many believed would be the lead protagonist, helped add to the overall public interest, and audiences were left stunned when she was brutally murdered in the opening sequence. Scream is celebrated for its satire, playful meta-humor, and iconic villain, which led to more esteemed actors appearing in the horror genre. Stream on Paramount+
19 Good Will Hunting (1997)
Good Will Hunting is the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a troubled teen with a genius-level IQ who accepts work as a janitor at MIT. After Will solves a university-level math problem, his intelligence is discovered by Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), who offers to mentor Will. Shortly thereafter, Will is arrested for assaulting a police officer. Professor Lambeau secures a deal for Will to get leniency. However, he must agree to see therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams).
Cinema’s Ultimate Dynamic Duo
Good Will Hunting won Robin Williams an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The Oscar-winning screenplay was written by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The pair would reunite as co-writers nearly 25 years later (on their first screenplay since Good Will Hunting) for Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, and Damon would also star alongside his longtime pal in Affleck’s most recent directorial endeavor, the critically acclaimed sports drama Air. Stream on Max
18 The Lion King (1994)
A Disney movie would inevitably end up on this list, and The Lion King is perhaps one of Disney’s most beloved animated films of all time. This classic features a stunning score by Sir Elton John and a voice cast that includes notable names like James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, and Whoopi Goldberg. The Lion King was a box office sensation and, to this day, is still the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated movie of all time.
An Unforgettable Disney Classic
In 2019, Disney brought The Lion King to the big screen once again with a photorealistic computer-animated remake directed by Jon Favreau. After all these years, the story of The Lion King still resonates with audiences. The Lion King stands tall among Disney classics overseen by Walt Disney himself, like Snow White and the Seven Drawves, Cinderella, and Fantasia. Stream on Disney+
17 Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino made his glorious cinematic film debut when he wrote and directed the neo-noir crime film Reservoir Dogs, enlisting the talents of actors like Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and Tim Roth to portray a group of gangsters who plan to steal diamonds from a jewelry store but find the seemingly straightforward heist complicated when one of the criminals reveals themself to be a police informant. Naturally, chaos, murder, and mayhem ensue in the fallout.
Tarantino’s Marvelous Debut
Tarantino showcased his signature flair for violence and profanity in the universally-lauded cult classic, which was named by Empire as the «Greatest Independent Film of All Time». The gripping movie was heavily inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, with the popular director stating, «I didn’t go out of my way to do a rip-off of The Killing, but I did think of it as my ‘Killing’, my take on that kind of heist movie.» Reservoir Dogs remains one of the most influential and important independent films and helped pave the way for Tarantino’s decorated career. Stream on Paramount+
16 Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 is based on the true story of the lunar mission of Apollo 13. Astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) find themselves in life-threatening circumstances when an oxygen tank explodes. The spaceship shuttle’s scheduled moon landing is called off, and the crew must fight for their lives as they try to return safely to Earth.
Authenticity is Key
Nominated for a dazzling nine Academy Awards, Ron Howard’s film remains one of the best portrayals of NASA and space travel to this day. The revered director went to great lengths to ensure the docudrama was as accurate and authentic as possible, and not only did he consult NASA’s assistance but he also had the lead trio attend the U.S. Space Camp and participate in training exercises inside a simulated Lunar Module and Command Module. Howard’s sharp attention to detail has led to the thrilling picture being regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Rent/Buy on Prime Video
15 Fargo (1996)
- Release Date
- March 8, 1996
The Coen brothers were on fire all throughout the ’90s, gifting audiences with a slew of fantastic films like Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, and, of course, their exceptional black comedy crime masterpiece Fargo. Frances McDormand was brilliant when she starred as the pregnant and determined Minnesota police chief Marge Gunderson, chronicling her efforts to solve a gruesome homicide carried out by two dangerous criminals (Steve Buscemi & Peter Stormare).
An Award-Winning Spectacle
Fargo premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or, with Joel Coen receiving the Best Director Award at the prestigious ceremony. For her scene-stealing performance as Gunderson, McDormand nabbed an Oscar for Best Actress, and the acclaimed picture also won Best Original Screenplay while also earning five other nominations. Fargo was named one of the «30 Most Significant Independent Films» of the past thirty years by the Independent Film & Television Alliance and remains one of the Coen brothers’ most esteemed cinematic contributions. Stream on Max
14 Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson showcased his distinct and refreshing directorial style when he helmed the engrossing period dramedy Boogie Nights, centering on an ambitious busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) as he is taken under the wing by powerful porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and transformed into sensational adult-film star Dirk Diggler in 1977 California. Gifted stars like John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, and Julianna Moore round out the stellar ensemble in the epic and engaging flick.
Anderson’s Fearless Filmmaking
Boogie Nights helped establish Wahlberg as one of Hollywood’s most exciting leading men while also cementing Anderson’s status as a true filmmaking visionary, with the ability to depict deeply-flawed, dysfunctional characters expertly. Boogie Nights is heavily regarded as Anderson’s greatest work and has been praised for its bold storytelling, unapologetic themes, and fantastic soundtrack. Rent/Buy on Apple TV+
13 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Nearly every horror movie fanatic has seen The Silence of the Lambs and for good reason. Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee asked to interview imprisoned serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who is believed to have information on another serial killer roaming the streets. Foster and Hopkins play beautifully off each other in scenes that are haunting to watch.
Major Oscars Sweep
The chilling masterpiece is one of only three in history to ever sweep the «big five» awards at the Oscars. Anyone who has seen the movie will be familiar with Hannibal Lecter’s most bone-chilling quote: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” It launched a horror franchise, and Hannibal Lecter stands as one of cinema’s most iconic movie villains. Stream on Max
12 Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is arguably the best film in David Fincher’s career and one of the most influential movies of the 1990s. The film starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter was a box office disappointment when it was released, but it found new life on home video. The film tackled the zeitgeist of the mentality of white-collar individuals of the 1990s, similar to other 1999 films like Office Space and American Beauty.
Pop Culture Gold
Fight Club is a complex movie that some viewers often misinterpret, but that makes it a fascinating piece of pop culture. The message can be so clear-cut but also go over many viewers’ heads. Fight Club is a movie that will still be talked about for years to come and stands as an encapsulation of the 1990s mindset, with The New York Times rightfully dubbing the film as the «defining cult movie of our time.» Stream on Peacock
11 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
The final film for legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut, is an erotic psychological drama that stars then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, playing a husband and wife in a film who have become diseased with their marriage. The film is one of the darkest Christmas movies ever, as it deals with fears of sexual inadequacy, adultery, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Better With Age
At the time, the film received positive reviews, but they were more mixed, and many were a little disappointed by Kubrick’s last film (the movie was released four months after he died), and audience reaction was extremely negative gaining a D- CinemaScore. But as the years have gone on, time has been kinder to the movie, and many see it as one of Kubrick’s best. Martin Scorsese wrote in the intro for Michel Ciment’s book Kubrick: The Definitive Edition,
«When Eyes Wide Shut came out a few months after Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, it was severely misunderstood, which came as no surprise. If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you’ll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.»
Today, Eyes Wide Shut is a beloved film that is both beautiful, haunting, and emotionally devastating and one of the best movies to come out of the 1990s. It was a great way to end the decade and also a great final film for a legendary filmmaker. Rent on AppleTV+
10 The Matrix (1999)
Regarded as one of the finest sci-fi films ever to grace the silver screen, the highly influential cyberpunk juggernaut The Matrix famously follows computer programmer and skilled hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) as he embarks on a reality-defying journey to a dangerous underworld along with a captivating stranger, ultimately discovering a nefarious cyber-intelligence is altering his world. Reeves is joined by Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss in the revolutionary special effects picture, with the trio helping launch a lucrative and celebrated Matrix franchise that continues amassing a new and passionate fanbase. The most recent installment of the pop culture phenomenon, The Matrix Resurrections, was released in 2021, with Reeves and Moss reprising their iconic roles.
A Mind-Bending Impact
While not it seems hard to imagine a world before The Matrix hit theaters, in the spring of 1999, when it arrived, audiences had never seen anything like it before. It featured mind-bending visuals and mixed a variety of genres together to create something unique. It was a film very much of its era, speaking to the anxieties of a world just on the verge of a new millennium and both the power and fear of the internet and machines becoming part of everyday life. While everyone expected The Phantom Menace to be the groundbreaking movie of 1999, it was, in fact, The Matrix that had audiences talking. Stream on Max
9 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Arnold Schwarzenegger was right on the money when he iconically declared, «I’ll be back» in the original ’80s blockbuster hit, and he famously reprised his epic role as the titular cyborg in the sci-fi action extravaganza Terminator 2: Judgment Day. James Cameron returned to direct the exhilarating sequel, which follows the Terminator as he is reunited with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and tasked with protecting her young son John (Edward Furlong) from the shapeshifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick).
A Rip-Roaring Good Time
Terminator 2 became the highest-grossing film of 1991, raking in over $520 million at the box office and garnering widespread praise for its spellbinding visuals, thrilling action sequences, and revolutionary makeup and special effects. The follow-up is now regarded as one of the greatest sequels ever created as well as one of the sci-fi genre’s most prominent pictures, and it won four Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects. Terminator 2: Judgement Day can be seen as the movie that really kicked off the 1990s in full fashion, as it redefined what a blockbuster film would be for the decade. Stream on Paramount+
8 Toy Story 2 (1999)
While Toy Story might have been a groundbreaking landmark movie, Toy Story 2 surpassed its predecessor in every way. The film showed exactly what Pixar was capable of doing, achieving not just state-of-the-art visual effects but also powerful emotional character moments while not forgetting to tell an entertaining, humorous story. Toy Story 2 is not just a great animated movie but a great movie overall.
A Truly Sensational Sequel
The beloved sequel featured newcomers like Joan Cusack and Kelsy Grammer joining the star-studded ensemble cast that famously included Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Don Rickles, and it is one of the rare films that currently holds a 100% Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score and is considered far superior to the original. Toy Story 2 took home the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and is just as celebrated (if not more) than the ’95 hit. Stream on Disney+
7 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption is a prison drama based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It follows Andy Dufresne, a wrongfully convicted banker who must adjust to prison life. The film is a timeless classic that is quite often included on lists of the greatest films ever made. Ironically, upon the theatrical release of the film in 1994, it barely recouped its production budget.
An Underrated ’90s Classic
Despite its low earnings, it went on to become regarded as a cinematic classic thanks to its provenance on cable. It remains one of the best movies of the ’90s because of its powerhouse performances, poignant and provocative storyline, and Morgan Freeman’s effortless and witty narration that keeps the audience engaged from beginning to end. Rent/Buy on Prime Video
6 Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Lauded as one of the greatest cinematic triumphs of all time, Steven Spielberg’s heartrending epic war drama Saving Private Ryan features a superb cast of Hollywood greats led by Tom Hanks and Matt Damon and recounts the harrowing events surrounding the Normandy landings and graphic Omaha Beach assault during World War II in 1944 France.
Spielberg at His Finest
Damon appears as the titular character, who is bravely sought after by Army Rangers Captain John H. Miller (Hanks) and his loyal squad after his brothers are killed and he goes missing in action. The influential and groundbreaking Spielberg hit was a box office success and rightfully nabbed five Academy Awards (including Best Director for the legendary filmmaker), and is often regarded as one of Spielberg’s finest creations. Stream on Paramount+
5 Jurassic Park (1993)
Another Spielberg entry (and certainly not the last), Jurassic Park was one of the most successful films of the decade. The movie featured groundbreaking CGI that changed Hollywood overnight. Yet Speilberg also managed to make a compelling story grounded in great performances from the movie’s excellent ensemble cast. This massive blockbuster continues to be popular today, with five current movies in the franchise and the sixth film having been released earlier this year.
An Enduring & Lucrative Franchise
Jurassic Park continues to delight audiences today and generated a massive movie franchise. The most recent entry, Jurassic World: Dominion, was released in 2022 and reunited the original stars Sam Neil, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum, and went on to earn gross over $1 billion at the box office while proving that moviegoers still can’t get enough of dinosaurs and the enduring series. A fourth film is reportedly in the works at Universal, with the sequel eyeing a potential 2025 release. Stream on Netflix
4 Titanic (1997)
- Release Date
- November 18, 1997
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give heartbreaking performances in this visually stunning historical drama. Based on the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15th, 1912, Titanic had sweeping success at the Academy Awards and the box office, winning a massive 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (James Cameron), Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects. To date, only Lord of the Rings: Return of the King has been able to match the number of Academy Awards won by a single film.
A Groundbreaking Cinematic Spectacle
The central relationship, epic scale, incredible effects, and memorable music contribute to it being one of the greatest films of the ’90s, and Titanic also became the most successful movie of the decade. It held the title for the highest-grossing movie of all time until it was dethroned by director James Cameron’s follow-up film Avatar in 2009. The gorgeous romantic disaster skyrocketed DiCaprio and Winslet to superstardom and also spawned an endearing, decades-long friendship between the two Hollywood greats. Stream on Paramount+
3 Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is perhaps Quentin Tarantino’s most popular film. Told out of order in a non-linear jumble, Pulp Fiction was the Palme d’Or winner of 1994 at the Cannes Film Festival. The iconic crime film touted an illustrious, star-studded cast including John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman and continuously lands on critics’ lists of the best movies ever.
Tarantino’s Magnum Opus
Quentin Tarantino received a slew of awards for his cinema-changing masterpiece, including the Oscar and BAFTA Awards for Best Original Screenplay, which is still quoted frequently today. While Reservoir Dogs might have launched Tarantino’s career, it was Pulp Fiction that made him a superstar director and also helped solidify the 1990s independent film scene. Stream on Max
2 Goodfellas (1990)
- Release Date
- September 12, 1990
- Martin Scorsese
Goodfellas is a Martin Scorsese-directed adaptation of crime writer Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy. It chronicles the life of former mafia man turned informant Henry Hill. Goodfellas is no doubt a contender for Martin Scorsese’s best film and the best movie to come out of the ’90s. It is a work of art from every angle, the outstanding performances by the late and great Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, the eclectic soundtrack, and most importantly, the realism in the narrative.
Scorsese’s Phenomenal Mob Classic
The legendary director felt Pileggi provided an honest portrayal of the mob lifestyle, and reading the book led to him knowing exactly how he wanted to tackle the adaptation: «To begin Goodfellas like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. I think it’s the only way you can really sense the exhilaration of the lifestyle, and to get a sense of why a lot of people are attracted to it.» Goodfellas would go on to lay the groundwork for every mob movie that would come after. Rent/Buy on Prime Video
1 Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List tells the story of the Polish Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson before he became an unlikely action superstar), a businessman who employs and tries to help victimized Jews amidst the turmoil of World War II. Schindler’s noble actions helped save the lives of over 1,000 Polish-Jewish refugees, with the poignant and deeply moving picture being based on the Thomas Keneally novel Schindler’s Ark.
A Deeply Touching Tribute
The historical drama has a nearly perfect rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and an audience score of 97%, inspiring critics and moviegoers alike despite its whopping running time of three hours and 15 minutes. The exceptional film won Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg and remains an incredibly powerful and important film to this very day. The New Yorker declared that Schindler’s List will «take its place in cultural history and remain there.» Rent/Buy on Apple TV+