Essential movies of the '90s, from 'Goodfellas' to 'The Truman Show'

Director Cameron Crowe explains how Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. came together to make movie magic in 1996's "Jerry Maguire." Learn more about the stories behind your favorite films on CNN's "The Movies," Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Posted: Jul 24, 2019 4:30 AM
Updated: Jul 24, 2019 4:30 AM

After tackling the essential movies of the 1980s -- and laying out the criteria for those selections -- pivoting to the 1990s seemed like a relative breeze.

As it turned out, though, the varied nature of movies from that decade, and the number of films that could serve roughly the same purpose, made narrowing the list down to 10-ish especially difficult.

Cheating a bit, the final choices combined a few movies that seemed to illustrate the same point: "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg's twin, gut-wrenching trips back to World War II, focusing on the Holocaust and D-Day; and "Beauty and the Beast" and "Toy Story," which inaugurated the golden age of modern animation from Disney and Pixar, respectively, before the latter became part of Mickey Mouse's empire.

After that, you won't receive much argument here from those who ask about "The Usual Suspects," "Pulp Fiction," "The Sixth Sense," "The Matrix," "Last of the Mohicans," "Groundhog Day," "Defending Your Life," "Dazed and Confused" or "The Big Lebowski," although at least in that last case, the dude will hopefully abide.

For the reasons outlined below, though, here are "the essentials" from the '90s, again presented in (mostly) chronological order:

"Goodfellas" (1990)

Director Martin Scorsese was at the height of his talents in this bloody mob tale based on the true story of Henry Hill, with iconic performances from Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

"The Silence of the Lambs" (1991)

Anthony Hopkins turned Hannibal Lecter into the stuff of nightmares, but it was his cat-and-mouse game with the young FBI agent played by Jodie Foster that elevated director Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Thomas Harris' book into an Oscar winner that spawned several considerably less tasty sequels and prequels.

"Boyz n the Hood' (1991)

John Singleton's breakthrough film presented a sobering view of gangs, drugs and friendship, which its then-23-year-old director described as a cinematic version of alarms sounded by rap groups about the conditions faced in South Central Los Angeles and similar communities.

"Beauty and the Beast" (1991) and "Toy Story" (1995)

It might have been a tale as old as time, but "Beauty and the Beast" marked the apex of Disney's animated musicals and earned the first best-picture nomination for that genre. "Toy Story," meanwhile, kicked off a quarter-century of Pixar movies defined by a level of consistency and quality that has brought families together in a manner that's increasingly rare.

"Schindler's List" (1993) and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)

Spielberg's World War II movies can be viewed in concert, as the director channeled his blockbuster-honed filmmaking skills into unflinching looks at a harrowing chapter in history. Each could merit its own slot, although if push came to shove "Schindler" is the one to keep, while "Private Ryan" -- visceral as it is -- stumbles a bit with its ending.

"The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)

"Get busy living or get busy dying" is just one of the quotable lines from Frank Darabont's adaptation of this Stephen King prison story, anchored by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Notably, this was a movie that only gradually received the appreciation it deserved, seeming to play in a perpetual loop on cable, which, among other things, actually inspired people to turn "shawshank" into an adjective and verb.

"Fargo" (1996)

Nothing better captures the Coen brothers' unique niche than this violent, disarmingly funny take on a staged kidnapping gone very, very wrong, with a stellar cast headed by Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi.

"L.A. Confidential" (1997)

Beautifully adapting James Ellroy's novel, director Curtis Hanson captured police corruption in the 1950s, earning an Oscar for Kim Basinger and launching the careers of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. What in almost any other year should have been a best picture winner, alas, ran into "Titanic."

"Titanic" (1997)

The enormous commercial success shouldn't obscure director James Cameron's epic achievement, mixing the down-with-the-ship romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with staggering spectacle, set to music from James Horner and Celine Dion that went on, and on.

'The Truman Show' (1998)

Maybe not the best movie of the '90s, but perhaps the most prescient in anticipating the excesses of reality TV and media, with Jim Carrey's wonderfully understated performance as the poor guy who doesn't know his entire life is a made-for-TV spectacle.

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