30 Years Later: Best Movies of 1990

Perhaps it is because this was the first year I consciously remember going to the movies, and perhaps it is because I miss going to the movies so much this year but I felt incredibly wistful and nostalgic about the year 1990 in movies. Right now I am back in grad school, which as the reader might notice has had an adverse effect on this blog. But the completionist in me demanded that I at least maintain this retrospective series, and I am glad I stuck to the task as 1990 proved to be an underrated year.

YEAR AT A GLANCE

U.S. Domestic Box Office Top 10 (in millions)

1. Home Alone ($285.8)
2. Ghost ($217.6)
3. Dances with Wolves ($184.2)
4. Pretty Woman ($178.4)
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ($135.3)
6. The Hunt For Red October ($122.0)
7. Total Recall ($119.4)
8. Die Hard 2 ($117.5)
9. Dick Tracy ($103.7)
10. Kindergarten Cop ($91.5)

Of course, given that I was still in elementary school in 1990, the movie that sticks out to me on this list is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a movie that in two different ways serves as a harbinger of things to come. First, and perhaps most obviously, TMNT anticipates the barrage of comic-book movies that have become the cornerstone for the modern film industry’s economy. But it is also true that for almost a decade TMNT would hold the distinction of being the highest grossing indie movie, and its success anticipated the eventual emergence of indie film as a major force in Hollywood, breaking apart the hegemony of the “Big 6” Hollywood studios.

Other than that what sticks out with this box office is that only one movie (Die Hard 2) is a sequel. Meanwhile it would be hard to come up with a more diverse movie list by chance. Romance movies (Ghost, Pretty Woman) side-by-side with silly family comedies (Home Alone). Political dramas (The Hunt for Red October) next to dumb action flicks (Die Hard). Oscar bait (Dances With Wolves) and failed Oscar bait (Dick Tracy). Even the two Arnold Schwarzenegger features (Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop) couldn’t be more different than one another. I know nostalgia is a dangerous drug, but it is hard to look at this list and not think that the movie landscape truly was better back then.

Oscar Best Picture Nominees: Awakenings; Dances With Wolves (WINNER); Ghost; The Godfather Part III; Goodfellas.

Let’s just get out of the way that the white-savior epic Dances With Wolves is easily one of the most cringeworthy Best Picture winners. Apart from that however this is a fairly solid slate of middle-brow studio movies; a slate that is shocking to our modern eyes mainly because they were all box-office smashes (Goodfellas, in 26th place at the yearly box-office, is the lowest ranked of the nominees compared to this year’s winner Parasite which ended up in 54th place).

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I usually don’t make honorable mentions for these lists but in digging into 1990 it turned out to be a unique year. There were probably only a half-dozen stone-cold classics but the next tier down, filled with really-good-if-not-great studio movies, was absolutely stacked so it seemed just a little bit dumb to limit this year to a top-25. Now I didn’t necessarily want to write about more than 25 movies, but that seemed a poor excuse to not acknowledge some great gems.

Arachnophobia dir. Frank Marshall

Every young and budding horror fan needs a gateway drug into the world of horror and I can think of no better movie than Arachnophobia, an altogether silly movie about a horde of poisonous spiders taking over a small town in which the scariest thing (for those who do not suffer from the movie title’s phobia) is probably an entertainingly unhinged John Goodman as the overeager town exterminator.

Blue Steel dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow has shown, between Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, and here in Blue Steel that she is an expert at taking schlocky premises and elevating it to its highest form. In this case she takes a hard-boiled serial killer cop-movie and, with the help of original final girl Jamie Lee Curtis, turns it into a terrifying slasher of sorts.

Days of Thunder dir. Tony Scott
Top Gun
but with NASCAR. Not nearly as stylish as Top Gun but also not quite as vacuous which surprisingly ends up hurting it a bit. Also since as first instance of Tom Cruise insisting on doing death-defying stunts himself for our entertainment it deserves our heartfelt gratitude.

The Exorcist III dir. William Peter Blatty
To borrow a phrase from Griffin Newman (of the Blank Check Podcast, originally in reference to the Cars franchise), The Exorcist II makes The Exorcist III look like The Exorcist. This sequel naturally cannot hold a candle to the original, but it never even attempts to, instead giving us a suitably pulpy thriller with George C. Scott and Brad Dourif at the center.

Flatliners dir. Joel Schumacher
This movie about five medical students who intentionally flatlines to study life beyond death is exactly as bonkers as you would expect a Joel Schumacher movie to be, but the real reason to see this is the unexpectedly stacked cast featuring Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Billy Baldwin, and Oliver Platt.

Home Alone dir. Christopher Columbus
The final act of this movie pulls the magic trick of being stupendously hilarious as it is happening only to be horrific in hindsight as Macaulay Culkin puts the Sticky Bandits Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern through carnage that Wille E. Coyote would find excessive. Still, it is undeniably entertaining and earns its place as a modern Christmas classic.

Pretty Woman dir. Garry Marshall
It is basically Pygmalion with all the inherent misogyny of the tale (and probably worse since the Eliza stand-in here is a call girl). But it is also the birthplace of Julia Roberts as an A-list movie star, kicking off a decade in which she was for the most part an unstoppable force of nature who defined Hollywood.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dir. Steve Barron
When it first came out TMNT was dismissed as mere children’s fluff especially given that it was a mere “comic book movie”. Now that the genre has a somewhat more respectable position, its high time we reevaluate this movie as a most excellent origin story for the heroes in a half shell. Cowabunga, dudes.

Tremors dir. Ron Underwood
The movie borrows from and pays homage to the rich tradition of 1950s sci-fi creature features but with an extra large slab of Bacon. In short, the perfect movie to catch on cable.


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25. KING OF NEW YORK dir. Abel Ferrara 

Like other twisty noirs of years past like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, King of New York is a convoluted story that is impossible to summarize but is punctuated by an absolute show-stealing performance. Christopher Walken is magnetic as a drug kingpin who somehow wants to build up his drug empire to finance a struggling hospital, and his enigmatic charm marries perfectly with Abel Ferrara’s stylish and hypnotic aesthetic.

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24. JACOB’S LADDER dir. Adrian Lyne

The biggest criticism I can level at Jacob’s Ladder is that it ultimately ties all its loose ends too neatly and, at least in my viewing, has an ending that I saw coming. Of course this is a criticism that is odd to lay at a movie so bizarre, so surreal, and so unsettlingly terrifying that its imagery still haunts me to this day. The plight of Jason Singer (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam vet who finds his current reality blurring with his past is nerve wracking and horrifying in its unpredictability, making it all the more surprising that it takes a conventional turn by the end.

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23. METROPOLITAN dir. Whit Stillman 

On its surface, a movie rich white young socialites complaining about the malaise of their Upper East Side over Christmas seems the very definition of an obnoxious “first world problem” movie. What makes Metropolitan still eminently watchable is that director Whit Stillman is clearly in on the joke. Like Jane Austen with her class satires, Stillman knows that his subjects are obnoxious rich white socialites but uses deft skill in pulling our profound universal and existential truths in these socialites’ late-night discussions while simultaneously mocking their lack of awareness of their highly privileged position in life.

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22. REVERSAL OF FORTUNE dir. Barbet Schroeder

Yes, Reversal of Fortune does fall somewhat into the same category of “but what if the man is right?” movies that populated the period like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure. And admittedly it is much harder to enjoy the movie when it tries to make a hero out of real-life lawyer Alan Dershovitz (I’ll let you investigate why that feels icky yourself). But such is the phenomenal performances by the trio of Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Ron Silver, that they can make you forget all of that (also the legal dramas of the 90s is my “comfort-watch” genre).

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21. LIFE IS SWEET dir. Mike Leigh

Perhaps Mike Leigh’s greatest strength as a director is in taking people and characters who would be so easily mockable in broader comedies and imbues them with so much humanity that your hearts inevitably not only root for them but ache and break for them. Life is Sweet is a slice of life comedy about a working-class British family that firmly understands that there is no moving up in life, but who try to find moments of levity and hope within their limitations. Thanks to Leigh’s direction and a cavalcade of brilliant British actors including Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, and Claire Skinner, the movie is a fully lived-in viewing experience.

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20. MO’ BETTER BLUES dir. Spike Lee

Mo’ Better Blues fails in the most obvious of ways in that it has at its heart very little interest in the blues and its title song, which is supposed to be a work of musical genius, is a fairly pedestrian piece of music. This movie also somewhat lacks a punch because for whatever reason Spike Lee chooses not to tap into his innate righteous anger; the end result is a watchable if toothless movie. However thanks to the leading-man debut of a certain Denzel Washington that hardly matters because Washington’s magnetic performance is a joy to watch.

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19. THE GRIFTERS dir. Stephen Frears

The beauty of The Grifters is that like its title suggests, it cons you into thinking this might be a light-hearted breezy jaunt of a movie with its stars John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Annette Benning charming you with its antics (I mean, just look at the poster). But then the moment it has its claws in you it quickly reveals itself to be something different altogether; an unsentimental and grim film noir that is unafraid of kicking you in the gut and destroying the veneer of its pulpy premise. Of course, this shift happens so skillfully that it is only in hindsight you realize you have been suckered by The Grifters ultimate con.

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18. EUROPA EUROPA dir. Agnieszka Holland

The holocaust-drama is one that can so easily turn into grief porn or worse, a sentimental triumph of the human spirit kind of story (here’s looking at you Life is Beautiful). What sets Europa Europa apart is the willingness to make its real-life protagonist Solomon Perel, a Jewish boy who escapes the Holocaust by pretending to be a Nazi, an incredibly flawed and human individual. The movie explores the horrifying Stockholm-syndrome levels of self-deception that a person could go through as Solek builds his whole life (and hides his tell-tale anatomy) in order to simply survive.

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17. WILD AT HEART dir. David Lynch

Wild at Heart is not the best movie by David Lynch, nor is it the best appearance by Nicolas Cage or Laura Dern by any stretch of the imagination but there is something intangibly magical about this surreal sunbaked Californian Wizard of Oz allegory. Toss in a truly monstrous Willem Dafoe who is sent in to tear apart the recently-freed jailbird Sailor (Cage) from his girlfriend (Lula) by her overbearing mother and you have all the makings for a twisted Lynchian romance that, in typical fashion, only ever deals with the absolute extremes of human emotion and experience.

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16. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER dir. John McTiernan

The Hunt for Red October is precisely the kind of mid-budget blockbuster that doesn’t exist anymore: a smart, largely bloodless, and well-crafted Cold War submarine thriller that derives its thrills not from expensive action set-pieces but rather from the human drama driven by its A-list stars in Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. It is a blockbuster aimed squarely at the grown-ups (well, at least the dads) in the audience, is unashamed of taking its time to develop its story, and dares to delicately dance between the cerebral and the visceral. It is somewhat cliche to say they don’t make ’em like they used to, but it is hard not to view this movie today and not have that thought cross your mind.

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15. THE GODFATHER PART III dir. Francis Ford Coppola

The third installment of the Michael Corleone epic occupies that unique spot of neither being the “franchise ruiner” that it is often claimed to be nor a “diamond-in-the-rough” gem that deserves some new critical reappraisement. What we have here is an extremely flawed and largely superfluous terminus to the saga that features some beautiful cinematography, a lush and epic score, some truly heinous and horrific violence, and Al Pacino effortlessly sliding into his most famous role again. In other words, it is almost everything you could ever want in a Godfather sequel.

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14. CRY-BABY dir. John Waters

Staying true to his adage that no movie needs to be more than 90 minutes long, John Waters packs so much gleeful goodness and infectious energy into this transgressive 1950s camp musical that you are left exhausted by the moments the credits roll. While the John Waters of the 80s and 90s may have smoothed over some of his odder and sharper edges, he still has no problem poking fun and poking holes at WASP-y American norms of sexuality and behavior, finding the 1950s and its insidious hold on culture a particularly easy target to lampoon and lambast. Of course, you would be forgiven for failing to notice his precise cutting commentary because like Hairspray before it, Cry-Baby is also just a phenomenal musical and a good time.

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13. THE WITCHES dir. Nicolas Roeg

1990 inadvertently became a banner year for the altogether rare movie occurrence, the children’s horror movie. Along with the campy (and quite fun) Arachnophobia came this much higher brow, and much more unsettling, adaptation of Ronald Dahl’s The Witches that legitimately scares me as an adult to say nothing of how it probably scarred me as a child. This is due in no small part to the fact that this movie was inadvertently handed to Nicolas Roeg, the man responsible for Don’t Look Now, one of the most unnerving horror tales ever put to screen.

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12. MISERY dir. Rob Reiner

The fact that the mere mention of this movie is enough to make most of us wince is proof of the movie’s staying power. Like Stephen King’s other famous winter-set story, this stalker horror is stiflingly claustrophobic as writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) finds himself trapped in the house of a bereaved fan after a car accident cut off from the rest of the world and increasingly in danger. In one sense it is a shame that Kathy Bates will mostly be known for this role, but that simply speaks to the ferocity and eerie power she brings. Misery falls into that category of “smart, modestly budgeted adult” drama that simply would not get made today, another reminder of the problems of our uber-mega blockbuster-or-bust strategy of modern Hollywood.

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11. AWAKENINGS dir. Penny Marshall

It is impossible for me to fully extricate this movie from the first circumstance in which I saw it. I was a child well-versed with Robin Williams the jolly comedian, and so was easily lured to check out his performance in this true-story retelling of Oliver Sacks’ failed quest to find a drug to treat Parkinson’s disease in the 1960s. The shift of the movie from tragedy to buoyant and life-giving comedy to tragedy again truly hit me like a gut-punch, not the least because of Robert De Niro’s captivating performance and for the unmistakable sadness William brings to this role. A recent rewatch of Penny Marshall’s minor masterpiece reminded me that the movie is covered with that Oscar-bait sheen, but that hardly diminishes Awakenings‘ strange power.

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10. TOTAL RECALL dir. Paul Verhoeven

Like most Philip K. Dick adaptations, this mind-bending sci-fi is one that has only gotten eerily more prescient with time, especially since its central promise of the implanted memories of a vacation seem especially enticing the longer we end up cooped up in our abodes. Total Recall is also exhibit A in reminding us that beneath Arnold Schwarzenegger’s very muscly exterior is an actor in supreme command of his craft. The combination of Schwarzenegger’s sincere voice and director Paul Verhoeven’s penchant for subversive and incisive satire prove to be a potent and unrepeatable mix in creating a minor masterpiece filled to the brim with visual imagination, excellent practical effects, and gory action. In other words just about every frame of this movie simply serves as a reminder of how ill-advised that pointless 2012 remake was.

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9. TO SLEEP WITH ANGER dir. Charles Burnett

In a more just world Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) would be considered one of the all-time great directors and would have an extensive filmography to back up that claim. Instead with To Sleep With Anger we have the very definition of an underrated and criminally underseen gem. The movie skirts the line between gritty realism and magical surrealism as it weaves a strange folktale about a mysterious man named Harry (a phenomenal Danny Glover) who shows up to stay with some old friends in South Central L.A. and slowly causes the family to fall under his dark spell.

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8. DREAMS dir. Akira Kurosawa

This late-edition Kurosawa is the very definition of a “blank check” movie, as the master filmmaker of such epics like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Ran, and Kagemusha traded in a career’s worth of clout in order to get a movie made of his recurring dreams at an epic-level production standard. The end results of this anthology movie are mixed and in the grand scheme of things produce what turn out to be a mid-level Kurasawa picture, but such is his quality that even at his most experimental he can produce a movie as enthralling, haunting, and hypnotic as this.

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7. MILLER’S CROSSING dir. Joel Coen

The presence of a Martin Scorsese gangster picture and the much-vaunted and audacious arrival of a third Godfather movie understandably took most of the oxygen from this indie Coen crime flick which is a shame because Miller’s Crossing manages to stand toe-to-toe with those movies and not be found wanting. Astonishingly this is still an underrated movie from a directing duo who have somehow crafted a career out of movies that are underrated when they are first released. And as with almost all of the Coen Brother’s filmography, this is partly because it is a movie that eschews any notion of good guys and bad guys and  instead asks if there is any benefit to a moral code at all.

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6. CLOSE-UP dir. Abbas Kiarastomi

Part-documentary and part-fiction, Close-Up tells the story of a real life event – the sensational arrest of a man who was accused of impersonating a famous Iranian filmmaker – while doubling as an investigation into the nature of filmmaking itself. Abbas Kiarastomi is credited as the person to put Iranian cinema on the map, and this minor masterpiece that blurs reality and fiction so seamlessly is proof that he has more than earned his acclaimed reputation.

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5. PARIS IS BURNING dir. Jennie Livingston

Documentaries at their best either shine a light into a heretofore unknown part of the world or they perfectly capture, as in amber, a moment and time. Paris Is Burning magically does both as it chronicles the New York City drag scene of the 1980s in the precipitous days decades before shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race brought drag subculture somewhat into the mainstream. What is most remarkable about Livingston’s documentary is that it still remains so vitally prophetic, skewering the heteronormative patriarchy in ways that still pack a punch today. But far from being a dirge, it is also an unabashed celebration of humanity as Livingston chronicles the ins and outs and dramas big and small leading up to the annual Paris is Burning ball.

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4. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS dir. Tim Burton

While the titular character may be the living embodiment of Tim Burton’s gothic aesthetic come to life, what makes Edward Scissorhands powerful is the way Tim Burton seems to draw out the weirdness found in the pursuit of a mono-cultural normality. Unfolding like a fairy-tale, Edward Scissorhands is the supreme fable of the fear of the other as Edward at once enchants and entrances the local suburban community he lands in while also becoming the supreme threat to their way of life; his strangeness reminding them that their normality is only maintained by suppressing and oppressing their own desires. Unlike his later career, here we find the supreme example of Burton’s aesthetic serving the story, rather than the other way around.

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3. DAYS OF BEING WILD dir. Wong Kar-Wai

In his second film Wong Kar-Wai displays effortlessly all the reasons why he should be considered one of the best directors of the modern era. Set in Hong Kong during the 1960s, the movie follows the playboy Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) as he loves and loses several women over the course of several years (women, who themselves find themselves entangled with desire for others). The details of the plot are fuzzy, but intentionally so, as Wong begins to refine his hypnotic and meditative aesthetic of desire; it is near impossible not to fall under his spell. As his true masterpiece (and spiritual sequel to Days of Being WildIn the Mood for Love shows, no director is better at making thwarted and unrequited love so erotically charged.

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2. AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE dir. Jane Campion

Jane Campion directs this biopic about Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s great authors, with such effervescent and peaceful care through the movie’s nearly three hour runtime that it inadvertently has become a great comfort watch during this time of the pandemic. This does not mean that the movie shies away from the darker moments of Frame’s life, especially an involuntary stint in an asylum that also finds prescient echoes today, but rather that Campion never lets us lose touch of Frame’s humanity, sense of wonder, and seemingly undying well of creativity which proves to be an absolute boon in our day and age. Also, special mention needs to be made of Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, and Karen Ferguson, the three actresses who portray Janet Frame through various periods of her life; they play her so seamlessly that I was honestly taken aback when I realized they were in fact different actresses.

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1. GOODFELLAS dir. Martin Scorsese

Yes, I will admit that as a heterosexual cinephile this is an entirely basic choice for the top spot. In revisiting the movies of 1990 I so desperately wanted another movie to rise to the top but in the end I couldn’t honestly claim any other movie worthy for this list’s apex. But like most basic dude movies, the virtues of Goodfellas has been written ad nauseam, so I will just give the bullet points of its greatness: Scorsese’s direction for which he was robbed a Best Director win; the breathtaking and propulsive editing by Thelma Schoonmaker who was similarly snubbed for her Oscar; the phenomenal performances by De Niro, Pesci, and especially Lorraine Bracco, who manages to breathe so much life into what is often the thankless role of the protagonist’s wife; and of course, the seductive slicing of garlic that is probably at the root of all my issues with food. It is, in my admittedly biased opinion, the rare “canon” classic that more than lives up to its vaunted reputation.

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