20. Braveheart (1995)
Mel Gibson’s stirring, vigorous historical epic about Scottish nationalists taking on the more powerful English is a throwback to ’50s filmmaking – big battles, yes, but also attentive to the love scenes and most of all to the sense that heroic individuals shape history, even if they lose, because they’re so inspiring to others long after they fall.
19. Fight Club (1999)
Forgiving the chaotic (and alarmingly pro-terrorist) final act requires a flexible imagination and an acknowledgment that it’s all tongue-in-cheek. But for most of its running time David Fincher’s hard-hitting action-satire remains a landmark film for its visual inventiveness, its famously unexpected twist, and its sly rejection of feminization as a worthy goal for modern men.
18. The Matrix (1999)
Though derivative of The Terminator and other films, the Wachowskis’ brainy sci-fi film stands up to repeated viewing, turning highbrow ideas into a propulsive, provocative entertainment.
17. Casino (1995)
Second only to Goodfellas among Martin Scorsese’s sprawling crime exposes, this look into corruption in 1970s Las Vegas asks Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci to stick a little too close to their Goodfellas roles, but the film is painstakingly, fascinatingly detailed in its vision of a city ruled by cruelty, cynicism and vice.
16. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Emotionally drenched in a way than its slightly more childish predecessor and successor, the second installment had all the wit and fizz of the other two films but made much of its darker themes about abandonment and the inevitable loss of childhood.
15. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
It’s easy to forget how dead animation was in the 1980s before The Little Mermaid and this movie showed that such films could engage adult audiences with superb art work, Broadway-caliber showstoppers and a resonant, moving story with genuinely endearing characters.
14. Titanic (1997)
James Cameron merged technical wizardry with the romantic appeal of films like Gone with the Wind and Doctor Zhivago in a film that took a story everybody thought they already knew and made it fresh and surprising.
13. Unforgiven (1992)
Chillingly bleak, this revisionist Western fable tweaked the Clint Eastwood brand by turning him into an avenging angel while reflecting soberly on the price of violence. Smart dialogue and memorable supporting characters like those played by Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris made this one a model for how to update a genre that had gone stale.
12. Schindler’s List (1993)
For decades, the Holocaust seemed like too large a subject to fit into a single film, so it was a daring choice for Steven Spielberg, often derided as too glib and commercial for serious subjects, to approach. By narrowing his focus and finding a story that featured goodness as well as evil, Spielberg turned what could have been a miserable experience into an enlightening character study.
11. The English Patient (1996)
Combining a classic Hollywood love triangle with lush, exotic locations and the urgency of World War II, this ingeniously-plotted film is a love story, adventure, travelogue and history lesson combined into one gorgeous, thrilling package.
10. The Lion King (1994)
The importance of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) in reviving Broadway musical-style animation shouldn’t be underestimated, and Pixar’s entry into filmmaking with Toy Story (1995) was revolutionary, but it’s the African saga based on Hamlet that gave animated storytelling a depth, seriousness and resonance it hadn’t had since Pinocchio. Now that we’re used to seeing one or two great animated films a year, it’s hard to remember how special it was for a movie to carry so much appeal to both adults and kids.
9. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A flop when it was released, this tale of a prisoner who escapes from lockup and rebuilds his soul was both a rousing yarn and a soul-nourishing inspiration that featured a classic performance of immense humanity by Morgan Freeman.
8. True Romance (1993)
Even more than Quentin Tarantino’s rough-edged Reservoir Dogs the year before, this Tony Scott-directed adaptation of Q.T.’s would presage the master writer’s later obsessions with the intersection of crime, comedy and pop culture as a small-time hood (Christian Slater) with a bag of money takes to the road while consulting with the ghost of Elvis. The disturbingly brilliant Sicilian Scene starring Dennis Hopper as Slater’s father and Christopher Walken as the mobster who wants to find the boy is one of the finest confrontations ever put on film.
7. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
The classic example of a film that only gets better the more you see it, this scorching and much-quoted dissection of manly competition features caustic work by Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin as shady dealmakers whose firm sells highly questionable property to suckers plucked off the streets.
6. True Lies (1994)
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fantastically entertaining 1990s films include Total Recall (1990) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but this mashup of a sitcom with a James Bond story was better than either, a slick, fast-moving vehicle full of outrageous stunts such as a horse chase through the streets of D.C. and up an elevator. The movie is almost impossible to turn off.
5. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Improving on his previous best work The Untouchables, wild-eyed director Brian De Palma tamed his more extravagant impulses and stuck to a lean and polished story of a criminal (Al Pacino) trying to go straight but undone in part by his sleazy lawyer (Sean Penn). The film’s recreation of disco-era New York grime is even more evocative than the Pacino film that was actually made there in the mid-70s, Dog Day Afternoon.
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
A very funny tale of a curmudgeonly weather man (Bill Murray) who finds himself reliving the same day again and again turns unexpectedly mesmerizing as he slowly discovers that a seemingly hellish situation can, with acceptance, become an opportunity for personal growth. The film’s lightly worn religious and philosophical implications are a textbook example of how to impart a cute Hollywood comedy with real meaning.
3. Goodfellas (1990)
The Godfather, as great as it was, was also essentially and undeniably wrong: Mafia hoods are not noble, tragic heroes. As seen in Martin Scorsese’s gloriously honest, fact-based story of the rise of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), they’re scrambling, often hilariously self-defeating little creatures driven by cynicism, laziness and stupidity.
2. Trainspotting (1996)
Fast, mean, tough-minded and unsentimental, Danny Boyle’s exploration of the lives of low-life heroin-addicted Scottish scum was a sucker punch to countercultural types who think outcasts are heroes. A frenzied rave of a movie, it nevertheless makes clear how savage, despicable and depleted are the lives of drug addicts.
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Crime movies would never be the same after Quentin Tarantino fully realized his vision in only the second film he directed. Replacing banal tough-guy chat with hilariously discursive cultural commentary, filling up the background with intensely interesting weirdos (each of whom, like the Gimp, deserved a movie of his own) and devising the smartest and most tantalizing plot of the decade made Pulp Fiction a landmark event in American cinema, often imitated but never equalled.