While having a large library of streaming titles to choose from is undoubtably a good thing, browsing Netflix can often be overwhelming. Sure, there are ways to sift through the thousands of movies on Netflix’s servers (using specific genre codes, for instance), but even then, there are still tens or hundreds of titles to choose from for each sub-genre.
And what happens when you want to find films from a specific decade? Looking at each movie’s year of release can be even more of a hassle. Luckily for you, reader, I’ve sifted through those release dates for you and pulled out 10 (choosing from 10 is much easier than choosing from, say, 10,000) of the very best from the 1990s (listed in no particular order).
Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood. – Walt Disney
Here’s an abbreviated version of the list, without the descriptions included in the full-length list below:
- Reservoir Dogs (1992)
- Forrest Gump (1994)
- The Truman Show (1998)
- The Sandlot (1993)
- Clerks (1994)
- Unforgiven (1992)
- Groundhog Day (1993)
- Following (1998)
- Braveheart (1995)
- Pulp Fiction (1994)
1. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Quentin Tarantino’s low-budget heist film (also his first) is one that
violently securely establishes his career of postmodern masterpieces, making it a must-see for fans of Tarantino’s later, more popular work (1994’s Pulp Fiction [also included on this list], or 2012’s Django Unchained [also available to stream on Netflix]). In other words, Tarantino’s use of stylized violence, his uncanny ear for naturally witty dialogue, his blatant disregard of political correctness, and his penchant for non-linear storytelling are all large parts of this film.
Reportedly made for little over $1,000,000, Reservoir Dogs is, quite frankly, a cinematic miracle (I’m aware that $1,000,000 is quite a large amount of money, but for a film it is hardly a dime). Tarantino demonstrates a masterful ability, here, to balance budgetary restrictions and depth of character and story as he follows his characters and their crime-gone-awry fate.
2. Forrest Gump (1994)
Surely there is not a piece of movie-scripted advice more often quoted than Forrest’s mother’s “Life [is] like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.” Moments of similar down-to-earth colloquial honesty are those that end up infiltrating and characterizing Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 film. Like the chocolates quote, Forrest Gump has such strong weight in popular culture that it is almost impossible to separate it from the chain of seafood restaurants it inspired.
But it is the honesty of performance (Tom Hanks, as Forrest, is at his best) and the honesty of script (Eric Roth adapts it from a novel of the same name by Winston Groom) that turns what could easily have been a flat modern-day fable into the surreal (Forrest runs literally cross-country) expression of compassionate human interaction that the film is known to be. By film’s end, we are all cheering “Run, Forrest, run!”
3. The Truman Show (1998)
Have you ever felt like your life is actually a reality TV show being broadcast worldwide and that all of your friends and family are really paid actors guiding you along through a series of scripted events designed for optimum dramatic tension? Turns out you are not alone. Really.
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is a man who, while also the namesake of the actual Truman Show Delusion, can sympathize with your plights. This film is one of the few which showcase, above his abilities to perform comedically, Jim Carrey’s ability to act in dramatic roles. Certainly, Peter Weir’s The Truman Show is a film that relies on Carrey’s comic quirks, but the tension between the comedy and the drama that is fundamental to this movie is one that pulls viewers into the place of awkward pressure that dark comedies often embody. That is not to say, though, that this film is weak because of its manipulation of the audience. In fact, I would argue that that manipulation, that the positioning of the audience between stability and instability, is what makes this film such an essential watch.
4. The Sandlot (1993)
The Sandlot is the rare film that almost defies the necessity of a critical standard. Despite its measly 59% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is a movie that defines the childhood of many-a-90s kids (myself included) with its nostalgia-informed representation of a time that exists outside of practical dangers and consists entirely of baseball and camaraderie. This is a film that, like many other youth-driven movies (e.g., The Little Rascals [Spheeris 1994]), presents to its audience a close-up of the intense summer friendships that often serve as cathartic responses to a hectic school year.
5. Clerks (1994)
It should be said firstly that this film and especially its irreverent humor are especially divisive and will be a film that a viewer either immediately loves or hates. Kevin Smith’s debut feature is one filled with characters who are dissatisfied with their jobs and their relationships, with their intimate partners and their work schedules. Filmed on a micro-budget, Clerks is an account of a single work day of two neighboring stores, a convenience store and a video rental store, and their respective cashiers, Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson). Naturally and hilariously, everything–seriously everything–that could go wrong in retail, goes wrong, from accusations of illegally selling cigarettes to minors to a death in the bathroom.
This is a movie for anyone who has ever worked a menial job and hated it.
6. Unforgiven (1992)
Director and star, Clint Eastwood, a man who has an abundance of experience working inside of the Western genre, creates here a film that subversively acts as an examination and deconstruction of the genre’s conventions. It did this so successfully that it won four Academy Awards for “Best Picture,” “Best Director,” “Best Supporting Actor” (Gene Hackman), and “Best Film Editing.”
Rarely does age play a significant role in the lives of the heroes of Westerns, but here the age of the narrative’s protagonist, Bill Munny (Eastwood), serves as one of the central conflicts of the story. Munny is constantly, because of the job he has been hired for, forced to painfully reconcile with his past. Rarely are characters of any genre so well-developed as Munny is in this film, and rarely is a genre mostly associated with campiness so broodingly reflective.
7. Groundhog Day (1993)
Let me clear: Bill Murray is always charming, but in Groundhog Day he is especially so. Arguably, his role here as weatherman, Phil, is his best starring role of any film, outside of maybe his role as disenchanted actor, Bob Harris, in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). In my opinion, Bill Murray is reason enough alone to merit a position on this list. Add to that, though, (for those of you who may not be as devout of a Murray fan as I am) an equally incredible performance from Andie MacDowell as Phil’s (perpetual) love interest, Rita, and you have a film that is equal parts dry wit and romance, a critically-acclaimed crowd-pleaser worthy of repeated viewings worthy of repeated viewings worthy of repeated viewings.
8. Following (1998)
Following is director Christopher Nolan’s first film, made before he was directing physically-sound sci-fi epics or Christian Bale in a Batman costume. Shot by Nolan and his friends on the weekends, the movie is a testament to Nolan’s love of films and of making films. Following owes a significant debt to the film noir genre of the first half of the twentieth century, as it reveals an early Nolan’s fascination with deceit as a theme (a staple in film noir), something that he also plays with in his second film, Memento (2000), and his 2006 film, The Prestige. Watching any director’s early work can be a surreal experience, especially with a director like Nolan whose career has imbedded itself so firmly into Hollywood, but the early work can also function as a sort of marker of significant talent, showing promise despite restrictions on money or on equipment. Following, while an outlier in Nolan’s oeuvre, certainly functions as one of those markers of promise.
9. Braveheart (1995)
There are few action movies that are capable of eliciting genuine emotional reactions from their audiences. Think of The Expendables franchise and how little emotional investment is required of viewers: there are only so many explosions that one can watch before they become only a fiery blot of light on a screen. It is quite an achievement, then, when a movie successfully marries emotion and violence. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is one of those rare films that justifies its violence with emotional reason.
William Wallace of Scotland (Mel Gibson) is a man of principle willing to sacrifice himself (and use lots of face paint) to oppose tyranny. Braveheart was one of the first action movies that I was able to enjoy beyond it being merely a showcase for acts of violence. If you are a person who equally appreciates character development and men in combat, then this film might just be perfect for you.
10. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is arguably Quentin Tarantino’s best film. Like Reservoir Dogs (1992), it relies heavily on a non-linear narrative to tell its story, and its characters also have conversations that are entirely irrelevant to the progression of the plot. It is important to note, though, that there are significantly more Hollywood stars attached to Pulp Fiction than there were to Reservoir Dogs, a signifier of a higher budget: John Travolta stars as Vincent Vega, Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield, Bruce Willis as Butch Coolidge, and Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace.
Inspired by the pulp magazines of the early twentieth century, Pulp Fiction is a film that revels in Tarantino’s trademark, hyper-stylized representations of violence, and undoubtedly, this film’s 154 minutes are among Tarantino’s most clever.
May this list ever guide your days of streaming movies from the closing winks of the twentieth century. Enjoy.
Further suggestions? Feel free to comment below.