Dick Tracy - Still one of the darkest and saddest comic book films ever made - Pacino and especially Madonna both do some of their best work and everyone else is in top form. Behind the colors and gee-whiz violence, this is a sad, mournful character study of several people (Tracy, Breathless, Big Boy, 88 Keys) stuck in places they don't want to be, excelling in roles they have little interest in playing, with no plausible way to get out.
Awakenings - I haven't seen it in close to fifteen-years, but I loved it back when it was new. A sorrowful examination of people waking from decades of a walking nightmare. One of Robin Williams' very best performances (along with his guest spot on the 'Bop Gun' episode of Homicide: Life On The Street back in 1994).
Dances With Wolves - It was a giant smash and a multi-Oscar winner, yet now it is genuinely underrated. Forgive Costner for some of the crap that came after and forgive him for defeating Scorsese and Goodfellas. All that aside, this is a beautiful western epic that was a true groundbreaker in its treatment of native americans. And another great Costner-directed western, 2003's Open Range, easily makes up for The Postman.
Goodfellas - Duh.
The Silence Of The Lambs - still holds up as the definitive adult dark fairy tale for our age. Hopkins' work is cliche by now, but it still works because his screen time is limited (only twenty-seven minutes). The heart of this film still belongs to Jodie Foster, and her relationship with Scott Glenn, and the blunt realism of Ted Levine are what makes this fable sing. Still an incredibly rich, character-driven thriller that is a true classic.
JFK - A dazzling, hyper kinetic examination of the fragile nature of truth itself, it passes the non-fiction test that so many conventional biopics fails. It is so completely involving and entertaining that it would be a near-masterpiece even if it were complete fiction (which it may be).
Malcolm X - Spike Lee's best film, Denzel Washington's finest moment, and the best biopic of all time. Period.
Batman Returns - Despite heavy competition, still the best Batman film of all time. I love Batman and Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but this is Batman re imagined as a grim fairy tale, while staying true to the core concepts of the Batman universe. The Nolan Batman films may be more faithful to the character and plot beats, and Tim Burton's original Batman may be more faithful to the tone and spirit, but Batman Returns is the only Batman film that qualifies as haunting.
Dead Alive/Brain Dead - the goriest film ever made and the finest horror comedy I've ever seen.
Schindler's List - Take away all of the staggering Holocaust footage and you still have a peerless character study of two opposing figures (Neeson and Feinnes) who eventually represent two sides of a moral spectrum. It was somewhat groundbreaking in its portrayal of a three-dimensional Nazi, both monster and as a man, and it still works as a haunting character study.
In The Line Of Fire - It has aged much better than The Fugitive (Kimble finds his wife's killer in literally two easy steps that any private eye or lawyer should have accomplished). This is one of the best Hitchcock-type thrillers of our time (watch how an audience gasps when Malkovich drops his bullet under the table) and one of my favorite white-knuckle thrillers. Eastwood and Malkovich are in peak form and everything just clicks into place. A near perfect example of its genre.
Pulp Fiction - Still holds up, because it's more concerned with being good and being compelling than it is with being cool. While the rip-offs and cash ins that followed were more concerned about being hip and funny, they all forgot that at heart Pulp Fiction is a drama, a story about three-dimensional characters and the bonds they form or break as they make life-altering decisions.
Speed - One of the best action films of the decade. It still holds up because of the acting and the writing. The chemistry between all four leads (Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, and Jeff Daniels) crackles and the dialogue is a joy to listen to. Oh yes, and the sustained action is exciting and compelling every step of the way.
Hoop Dreams - The film that changed documentary film making, arguably for the better. Easily the best documentary of the 1990s, and one of the finest of all time. Whenever people blather on about how critics don't matter, I point to this one. Would any of you have even heard of this movie if not for Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert?
Ed Wood - This is still Tim Burton's best film and one of the best movies ever made about movies. This was one of his last gasps of truly original filmmaking, before the career-killing Mars Attacks and the career-saving Sleepy Hollow turned him into a revamp/remake machine.
Forrest Gump - no matter your political stripe, I've always taken this as a dark comedy disguised as a heart warmer. It deals both with the concept of America being a place where you can fall into success while the more ambitious and worthy fail, and the idea that the good luck of Forrest Gump rubs off inversely towards everyone he meets, bringing death, destruction and misery to everyone in his path. It's ok to still love this film AND love Pulp Fiction, Tarantino does too.
Babe - Still my all-time favorite live-action family film. I can't wait to show this one to my daughter. If she doesn't like it, that may be grounds for adoption.
Toy Story - Just because part II is one of the best sequels ever doesn't mean the original wasn't a masterpiece. Still one of the best Pixar films, behind only Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles.
Dead Man Walking - Ironically, despite losing four or five times, Susan Sarandon won the Oscar for her very best performance. Arguably the best film ever made about the death penalty. It absolute stands against it, but never shies away from the valid reasons so many approve of it.
Goldeneye - Still my favorite James Bond film. Why, oh why, didn't they bring Martin Campbell back for Quantum Of Solace? It has all of the Bond elements in place, but also with a sympathetic villain, a smattering of real-world history, a ridiculously over-the-top villainous, and a heroine who gives gravity to the proceedings by being genuinely repulsed by the violence she encounters.
Twelve Monkeys - The only time travel movie that actually makes a token amount of sense, and it's emotionally gripping to boot. This may be Terry Gilliam's best film, as it is the only one that mixes his eccentricities in a cocktail that is accessible to audiences and dramatically compelling, without sacrificing any of what makes Gilliam so unique. The finale is a knockout and Bruce Willis is in rare form.
Se7en/Copy Cat - They are both peerless thrillers in their own unique way. One rewrote the book on the genre, launching the careers of David Fincher and Gynneth Paltrow, affirming the stardom of Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey, giving us Morgan Freeman's finest moment. The other was a last gasp of the old way, with Holly Hunter's best performance and delightfully human dialogue for every character.
Fargo - No Country For Old Men was fine and all, but there is only one Fargo. Compared to the somewhat mythical grandeur of No Country, Fargo's folksy ordinariness makes it all the more chilling. And Francis McDormand creates a modern icon in Marge Gunderson, arguably one of the goofiest, friendliest, and warmest police officers in cinema history.
LA Confidential - Come what may, this is probably my favorite film of the decade. It's one of the best film noirs ever made, surely the best in the last thirty-years or so. Every performance crackles, the plot actually makes sense, and the bursts of brutal violence have a sting to them.
Face/Off - Woo's best film period, one of Cage's best performances, and one of the best action films ever written. It's so rich that it works as an emotional drama even without the shootouts.
Titanic - It needs no defense at this point. Either you love it or you don't. The key is that Cameron makes sure that the death of every single person on that ship every bit as tragic as what happens to our leads.
Wag The Dog - Contrary to popular belief, it actually came out a month before the Lewinsky mess broke. If ever a film were to predict the future... One of the last times that Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman actually tried.
The Mask Of Zorro - Martin Campbell strikes again, with my favorite action adventure film of the 1990s, and perhaps my favorite superhero film of all time. Antonio Banderas is terrific, and Anthony Hopkins does better, more alive work here than anything since The Silence Of The Lambs. The stunt work and sword play are grandly staged, exquisitely shot, and coherently edited. The music is sweeping, and the villains are both devious, sympathetic, and surprisingly intelligent (the master plan is genuinely brilliant). I used to show this one to new girlfriends as a litmus test. Knowing this, my wife refused to watch it until after we were married (yes, she liked it, but she still is afraid to watch Almost Famous, which is the only other 'must like' movie). This is one of those movies that I probably enjoy more than anyone else on the planet.
A Simple Plan - Sam Raimi's best film, Billy Bob Thornton's best work, and one of the more nerve-wracking thrillers of the decade.
Dark City - I loved it when I saw it in theaters and time has only improved its sad, mournful power. The director's cut is better, but that's no strike against the original version. Was, is, and always shall be better than The Matrix.
The Sixth Sense - It still holds up as an incredibly moving character study about a troubled son, an overburdened single mother, and the wounded therapist who tries to help them heal. It still works as a slow-build thriller too. Take away the twist, and the climactic conversation between mother and son is still a stunningly effective, emotionally bruising, but ultimately uplifting climax to a terrific film.
Galaxy Quest - The only good live-action Tim Allen film, and the finest satire of the 1990s. Created with absolute love for the science fiction genre, this Star Trek meets Three Amigos farce is far funnier and far smarter than it has any right to be. Alan Rickman cements his return to Hollywood and Sam Rockwell becomes a star as the 'red shirt' who expects death around every corner. Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Enrico Colantoni, and a very young Justin Long are all game. The dining hall sequence has a great pay off, and the deleted scenes on the DVD include one of the best bathroom gags in ages (why it's not in the finished film, I cannot say). Amazingly enough, this comedic spoof of Star Trek is probably the best Star Trek movie ever made. By Grabthar's hammer... by the Sons of Warvan... this one is aging like a fine wine.
Toy Story 2 - One of the finest sequels of all time, and probably the best cartoon ever made. This has the purest distillation of the quintessential Pixar theme - learning that life is only precious because it eventually ends. This one is so stunningly moving and powerful, I almost wish they wouldn't go ahead with their plans for Toy Story 3D. This one leaves our pals in a perfect place - completely willing to accept that they can't control their fate, but completely willing to enjoy the ride... for infinity and beyond!
Other worthies of the decade - Total Recall (Arnold's best film), LA Story (Steve Martin's best film), City Slickers, Dead Again, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Candyman, The Fugitive, Searching For Bobby Fischer, Jurassic Park, Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, Clear and Present Danger, Wes Craven's New Nightare, The Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show, Braveheart, The Usual Suspects, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hill, Independence Day (especially the director's cut), Big Night, Contact, Donnie Brasco (Pacino's best performance of the 1990s), The Truman Show, The Siege (another 'predict the future' movie), The Matrix, Election, The Iron Giant, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, Sleepy Hollow, and yes, sorry, Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace (judged evenly, it's as good as A New Hope but it's not nearly as good as The Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith).