Pulp Fiction to Magnolia: The Best Films of the '90s as Chosen by Critics
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
For me, it’s still the most potent 1990s timecapsule; from a time before Cool Britannia. Quentin Tarantino’s noir shocker Pulp Fiction arrived in Britain having just defeated Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski’s Three Colours Red to win the Cannes Palme d’Or. The movie-brat had beaten the arthouse master; a key moment in 90s cinema. With its verbal riffs and inspired narrative switchbacks, Pulp Fiction was a revelation – this is what it must have felt like hearing Elvis Presley for the first time. This touchstone of cool seemed to extend its influence everywhere in the 90s: movies, fiction, journalism, media, fashion, restaurants. Everyone was trying to do irony and incorrectness, but without Tarantino’s brilliance it just looked smug. The Americans get Tarantino; we got Guy Ritchie. John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson were Vincent and Jules, a couple of bantering hitmen working for Marsellus (Ving Rhames), who is highly protective of his wife, Mia. This was Uma Thurman’s great moment, and her pose for the poster, cigarette in hand, is as iconic as any image from the film itself. Don DeLillo began the 90s by warning that the US is the only country in the world with funny violence. Maybe Pulp Fiction proved his point.
2. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Ellen E Jones
If you were a teenager in the 90s, you saw Titanic at the cinema at least three times. But if you were a teenager in the 90s with taste, you remained loyal in your heart to Leo DiCaprio’s earlier, superior film, Romeo + Juliet. It featured the heart-throb of the decade as Verona Beach bum Romeo, while your girl from My So-Called Life (AKA Claire Danes, pre-Homeland) was ideal as his star-crossed lover, Juliet. Together they provided the raw emotion to anchor Baz Luhrmann’s vision of tattooed gunslingers, Hawaiian shirts and hymnal Prince classics. The dweeby Shakespeare in Love bagged all the Oscars, but this was the one that made the Bard feel fresh, and a generation remains for ever grateful. It gave a literary spin to our own routine adolescent agonies while also serving as GCSE revision notes. Did my heart love till now?
3. Magnolia (1999)
Magnolia was the last film I saw in the 20th century, one desolate afternoon a few days before Christmas, at a screening attended by about three other people. Inside the cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson sent us spinning through the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, mixing us up with a rogues’ gallery of cheats and charlatans, strivers and lost souls – which is to say, people just like us. There was a dying patriarch, a TV huckster and a rain of frogs. At the time, this felt like the end of something, an ecstatic dying fall of a film, although I’m now tempted to view it as the ultimate 90s movie. Anderson took the era’s bright sparks (Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and folded them in with the studios’ biggest star (Tom Cruise). He cooked indie cinema’s barbed human dramas into wild opera. Magnolia was the century’s last-gasp American masterpiece, a culmination and collapse, the celebration and the hangover rolled into one.
4. Gummo (1997)
It is strange to write about Gummo now, knowing it has a small army of fans. At the time, saying I loved it felt like admitting I had nits. Its writer-director Harmony Korine was 24, his age the subject of sneers – but God, this made everything else look tired. For a wilfully sloppy anti-movie, it had two crackerjack movie stars – the otherworldly Jacob Reynolds and scowling Nick Sutton, neither ever seen again. Here they are riding bikes through the decrepit wilds of Xenia, Ohio, the smalltown boredom cranked so high it came out as transcendence. The film looks like an omen, the fidget through unscripted skits of mayhem a preface to YouTube. But Gummo wasn’t made for future analysis. It was a hot record of putting a camera on people that other films would not. At the end, you didn’t feel you had watched a film, as much as that something had just happened. Not knowing what is still the magic.
5. Being John Malkovich (1999)
Like most originals, Being John Malkovich is impossible to pin down. You don’t know whether it is breaking the rules, or simply doesn’t know them. Spike Jonze certainly knew how to point a camera, with his music-promo experience, and Charlie Kaufman knew how to write a screenplay, although this is such an insane idea for a movie – a portal that lets you enter the mind of John Malkovich – you can see why he had been rejected so many times. Is it a comedy? It’s often hilarious, but doesn’t always tell you where to laugh. Is it a celebrity satire? Partly, thanks to the game participation of Malkovich himself, but it is barely concerned with the real world. Technically, it’s science fiction, but that doesn’t really cover it either. It touches on big themes (identity, consciousness, love), but in patently ridiculous ways (puppetry, chimpanzees, half-height offices). Somehow, it found a new tonal register for movies: profoundly flip, joyously melancholic, mundanely surreal, sincerely ironic.
6. Life Is Sweet (1990)
Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet is the first film I ever saw that looked anything like the world I lived in. I was 15, watching on the telly, and can remember the shock of seeing a scruffy London suburb like mine – on a film! Jane Horrocks is Nicola, a fiercely unhappy 20-year-old living at home, moping about with greasy unwashed hair and a “Bollocks to the poll tax” T-shirt, and yelling “fascists” at her parents – beautifully played by Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent and Alison Steadman. Watch Life Is Sweet now and it’s like a time capsule of the south-east in the 90s; Leigh bottled time and place like a wizard. For my money, it’s a modern classic, and Timothy Spall is comedy gold as hopeless Aubrey, the owner of London’s worst gourmet French restaurant, the Regret Rien – which boasts “black pudding and camembert soup” and “pork cyst” on the menu. I interviewed Mike Leigh a decade later, in my early 20s, and was so nervous and tongue-tied that I corpsed. Clearly irritated with the quality of journalist on offer, he was spiky and gruff. But still, Life Is Sweet remains my favourite film of the 90s.