This is the start of my countdown of the best 50 films of the 1990's. I'll also be writing about my favourite performances of the 90's in the coming days, and I'll be revealing the results of my poll to find the Phil on Film readers' favourites of the decade. When I've listed all 50 films, you'll undoubtedly notice one or two high-profile omissions, but hopefully this whole series will give a pretty decent overview of a very memorable decade.
50 - Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen, 1994)
It's hard to believe now, but it wasn't so long ago that a new Woody Allen film was an eagerly anticipated event. During the 1990's, Allen made an eclectic variety of pictures, from the acerbic Husbands and Wives to his musical Everyone Says I Love You and the Greek tragedy-inspired comedy Mighty Aphrodite; and more often than not, he scored a hit. Amongst tough competition, I've selected Bullets Over Broadway as Woody's gem from this decade, as it strikes me as his most fully realised recent comedy. The film stars John Cusack as an idealistic, bespectacled and neurotic (of course) playwright in the 1920's who finds unexpected artistic inspiration in brooding mobster Chazz Palminteri. Allen's tight screenplay is peppered with great lines and it is directed with a lightness of touch that has completely evaporated from his work these days. Palminteri steals the film – he picked up a deserved Oscar nomination for his performance – but the whole cast is on fire, with Jennifer Tilly (an airheaded gangster's moll) and Dianne Wiest (a self-obsessed diva) giving tremendous comic turns. Although Mighty Aphrodite is often very funny and the underrated Sweet and Lowdown has some amusing touches, this is Allen's last truly great comedy. Will we ever see him hit these heights again?
49 - Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990)
Another director who has recently fallen from grace is Tim Burton, whose work has grown repetitive and inert, but there was a time when the director's oddball quirks appeared genuinely fresh and magical. Edward Scissorhands was the first film to unite Burton with his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, who brings a sensitivity and pathos to his performance as a man left with shears at the end of his arms after the scientist that created him (Vincent Price) died before completing his work. He ends up in Burton's vision of suburbia, a pastel-coloured nightmare of conformity, where he puts his unique abilities to good use on both the neighbourhood's hedges and the hairstyles of besotted housewives. As Edward falls for Kim (Winona Ryder), a woman he loves but cannot hold in his arms, Edward Scissorhands develops into a beguiling romantic fairytale, with Burton spinning moments of extraordinary beauty from his character's ice sculpting. The film also benefits from Danny Elfman's finest score, an instantly memorable theme that the composer has tried to replicate but failed to match on many subsequent occasions.
48 - Show Me Love/Fucking Åmål (Lukas Moodysson, 1998)
In his debut film, Lukas Moodysson gets so much right about the angst of teenage life and the pangs of first love. His two central characters are Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg), the friendless outsider, and Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) the prettiest and most popular girl in the school, with whom Agnes is hopelessly in love. As the pair take hesitant steps towards an unlikely relationship, Moodysson's attentive camera captures all of their awkwardness and confusion. This is a beautifully observed film, with the director showing utter assurance as he deals with themes of homosexuality, bullying and teenage suicide in the most delicate manner, and all of the relationships between the characters and their families feel natural. In particular, the attempts by Agnes' well-meaning father to comfort his disillusioned daughter are very touching. Show Me Love is a modest film, but one driven by a pure intelligence and sincerity that marks it out from so many tales of teenage love.
47 - Festen/The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)
The first film produced under the rules of the Dogme95 manifesto, Thomas Vinterberg's Festen remains the jewel in the crown of that particular cinematic movement. It's a searing drama that opens with a startling confession at a birthday party – when Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), in the middle of a toast for his father's 60th birthday, announces to the guests that his father raped him as a child – and then Vinterberg piles on fresh revelations until it becomes almost unbearable to watch. Adhering to the Dogme rules, Vinterberg films with handheld cameras and shoots in natural light, and the approach gives us an uncomfortable intimacy with a family that is gradually tearing itself apart. His unflinching direction is more than matched by the efforts of his cast, who play their roles with utter conviction. There's hardly a moment in the film that doesn't feel true.
46 - Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)
The movie that re-energised British cinema in the mid-90's, Danny Boyle's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel pulses with electricity from its opening scene. The director's bold decision to portray both the highs and the lows of drug addiction pays off with some brilliantly imaginative sequences as well as uncompromising moments of horror as his characters come down from their highs to face the grim reality of their situations. This balanced approach makes Trainspotting feel so much more honest than the majority of drug-based movies, and Boyle displays a remarkable knack for switching between moments of drama, fantasy and gross-out comedy without losing his grip on the narrative (he is aided by a superb screenplay by John Hodge). At the core of Trainspotting are a group of characters brought to vivid life by a perfect cast, none more so than the indelible Robert Carlyle as resident psycho Begbie; and while it might be fun to speculate on their fates after the credits roll, I doubt the long-mooted sequel would match the infectious exuberance of this thrilling picture.
45 - Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
The premise of Quentin Tarantino's first film is simplicity itself: a group of criminals, known only by their colourful aliases, reconvene after a botched heist and turn on each other as they try to sniff out a rat. However, the writer-director stamps his own personality on the film immediately, opening with an analysis of Madonna lyrics and a debate over the ethics of tipping, and he subsequently upends all audience expectations with his deviously clever screenplay. There are sequences here that became instantly iconic (who can now hear Stuck in the Middle or Little Green Bag without thinking of this film?) and while Tarantino does display some novice's flaws, allowing the drama to sag in the middle and foolishly casting himself as a crook, he compensates with his razor-sharp dialogue and the dynamite tension he sustains. The film is superbly cast, with Harvey Keitel giving one of the many ferociously compelling performances he gave in this decade, Michael Madsen hitting peaks he would never hit again, and Tim Roth making more of an impression than you'd expect from a man who spends most of the film bleeding to death. Reservoir Dogs is unquestionably one of the most accomplished debut films in recent cinema.
44 - Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)
Or Death of a Fucking Salesman, to give it the title its cast reportedly came up with. David Mamet's gleefully profane study of real estate agents fighting for their lives is the best screen version of his work yet, which I think has something to do with the fact that it wasn't directed by him. Under the guidance of James Foley, the cast has room to breathe and to snap at each other – and boy, what a cast this movie possesses. Al Pacino excels as the hotshot salesman and Jack Lemmon brings a clammy desperation to his performance as a veteran agent on his way out (CC Baxter, thirty years later?), but the film is stolen by Alec Baldwin, whose ten-minute cameo, unveiling the "sales contest" that sets the plot in motion, is the best work he has yet done. The actors relish the specific cadence of Mamet's dialogue, delivering lines laced with spite, and the film paints an ugly portrait of men clambering over each other, stabbing each other in the back, to avoid coming last. Foley wisely lets the actors lead the picture, with his handling of the film ensuring it remains focused and intense throughout. The movie is all talk, but it's also a film about knowing when to talk and when to shut up, as shown in my favourite scene, when Al Pacino's Ricky Roma verbally decimates Kevin Spacey's hapless Williamson.
43 - Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)
A ludicrous premise carried off in an unbeatable fashion. Speed is a film about a bus rigged with a bomb that will blow if it drops below 50 miles per hour, and the movie is a bit like that too. If it slowed down for a moment, the whole picture would fall apart, but Jan de Bont – making his directorial debut here and showing instincts he would never display again – keeps it on the road with wonderful efficiency. Keanu Reeves is the hero of the hour, Sandra Bullock is the spunky passenger behind the wheel and Dennis Hopper is the cackling villain. The characters, like everything else in the film, are painted in simple strokes, but it works. Graham Yost's screenplay keeps throwing obstacles in the movie's path but de Bont keeps negotiating them without letting the tension slacken, and he even manages to invest the film with an unexpected jolt of emotion – with one expertly timed close-up on Jeff Daniels' face. Speed is a relentlessly entertaining popcorn thriller, and one that displays the virtues of just keeping things simple. It was a one-of-a-kind success, and anyone who thought the magic could be replicated on board a cruise liner needed to have their head examined (Keanu Reeves, smart cookie that he is, wisely jumped ship).
42 - Seul contre tous/I Stand Alone (Gaspar Noé, 1998)
Gaspar Noé had already made his mark as an enfant terrible with his 1991 short film Carne, which introduced us to a brutal butcher played by Philippe Nahon, but when he reunited with Nahon for his debut feature, he was really determined to shake viewers up. Seul contre tous follows The Butcher as he rages against the world, spends time in jail, savagely beats a pregnant woman and contemplates his incestuous feelings for his retarded daughter. It's a repellent tale, but it remains transfixing thanks to Nahon's astonishing performance and Noé's distinctive style. Even when he is not depicting violent acts, the director imbues the film with a constant, unsettling sense of simmering violence. His static compositions are often ruptured by quick camera moves accompanied by the sound of a gunshot, and his use of visual tricks, editing and voiceover is impressive throughout. Of course, Noé's desire to shock can seem immature, but it is undeniably effective; towards the end of the film, he gives us a warning that we have 30 seconds to leave the cinema, and then follows up with a scene that justifies that warning. This was the work of a raw talent who hasn't lost his desire to push cinematic boundaries in the 12 years that have elapsed since.
41 - Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
Clint Eastwood received the screenplay for Unforgiven in the mid-80's, but he didn't pick it up again until the time was right. This is a morality play about ageing men being forced to return to a violent life they had left behind, and Eastwood waited until he felt ready to play William Munney, the retired gunfighter with so much blood on his hands. In stark contrast to many of the films the director had featured in before, Unforgiven's killings are messy and ugly, and the men pulling the trigger are tainted by their actions. The narrative might fit the structure of a classical western – a group of men are called in to a help the inhabitants of town ruled over by a cruel man – but the tone is sombre, and the film is determined to undercut the myths of the old West. Eastwood paces the film perfectly and surrounds himself with great actors: Morgan Freeman as his friend Ned Logan, Richard Harris as an English gunfighter, and Gene Hackman as Little Bill, the sheriff holding the town in his iron fist. It's a brilliant film, stark and gripping, and Eastwood gives one of his finest screen performances as a man whose soul has been darkened by the life he has led. "I'll see you in Hell, William Munny," Little Bill says at the climax, to which Munny only replies, "Yeah."
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