18 of the best movies of the 1990s to test your home cinema

18 of the best movies of the 1990s to test your home cinema
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The 1990s may be overlooked when it comes to fashion and pop music, but you cannot say the same for its place in cinema history. It managed to follow the decade of Back To The Future and The Breakfast Club with some tip-top treasures of its own.

It helps that the '90s marked a prolific period for many of the world's best directors – Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, Tim Burton and Gus Van Sant, to name just a few. Without the '90s, the world would be without Forrest Gump, Jack and Rose, the red pill and blue pill meme, and Michael Jordan ballin' with Looney Tunes cartoons.

So what better way to pay homage than to watch (or rewatch) some of the best films of the era?

Here is a definitive list of must-see '90s movies, which includes classics as well as quirkier gems you may not be familiar with, complete with information as to where you can watch them...

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Do war films get more epic than Saving Private Ryan? Set during the invasion of Normandy in World War II the movie follows US Army Rangers Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad. And, from the moment they attempt to land on Omaha Beach, you’re engulfed in an emotional rollercoaster with breathtaking cinematography, an unbelievable sense of realism and a stunning score. It’s graphic, visceral, emotional and one movie that deserves to be seen and heard on a proper home cinema system.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

1990 saw the Back to the Future trilogy come to a close, but not before we were treated to some rootin’ tootin’ time travel. This time Marty (Michael J. Fox) heads back to 1885 and the Old West to save Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) from a sticky end. A fun film for all the family aided by a stunning dusty backdrop, some impressive chase sequences and a lively soundtrack which will extract the most from any home cinema system.

The Matrix (1999)

Want a movie that will blow your mind as well as test your AV set-up? You need to watch The Matrix. Keanu Reeves kicks off the franchise as Neo, as he attempts to free humanity from some over-eager Artificial Intelligence aided by his merry band of helpers; Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). The greenish tint to the movie will test many a TV or projector’s colour balance, while the choreographed fight scenes will leave your jaw on the floor – who can forget the brilliance of ‘bullet time’?

American Beauty (1999)

Pipping Penn to the Oscar that year was Kevin Spacey for his deftly-played role as a frustrated middle-aged man whose infatuation with his daughter's best friend invigorates a life-changing attitude. Sam Mendes' debut feature succeeds as a stylish and satirical examination of the middle-class American dream in tatters. It's fun and genuine and both Spacey and on-screen wife Annette Bening are fantastic. And the score is superb too.

True Romance (1993)

One of the few movies penned but not directed by Quentin Tarantino (and easily the best of that bunch), True Romance draws you in with its pulpy romance and keeps you there with electrically entertaining on-the-run action. Christian Slater stars as a lonely movie fanatic who marries a call-girl (Patricia Arquette) and is forced to flee from her pimp after stealing his cocaine, this deserves every bit of its cult classic status.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

And now for a movie written and directed by Tarantino... and no, it's not Pulp Fiction. A film about six robbers who, having narrowly escaped a police bust during a diamond heist, hole themselves up at their warehouse rendezvous to work out who is the snitch, Reservoir Dogs is peak Tarantino: consistently funny, satisfyingly violent and narratively sharp. The unrelenting mayhem is truly unmissable.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

In Gus Van Sant's touching tale of self-discovery, streetwise hustlers Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves) travel from Portland to Mike's hometown in Idaho and then Italy in a quest to track down his estranged mother. The relationship between the two best friends, and the pitch-perfect performances from Phoenix and Reeves, are the bedrock of this charming and offbeat masterpiece.

Audition (1999)

Takashi Miike's seminal shocker awakened a revival in brutalist horror – though you wouldn't know it until the film's final minutes. Audition (or Odishon) follows a lonely widower who meets the beautiful, young actress Asami Yamazaki during an audition for a fake movie orchestrated by his film producer friend. For the most part, it plays out as a gently meandering, amusing romantic drama. But it slowly becomes more sinister, building to a climactic pay-off that makes for some of the most unflinchingly uncomfortable, extreme cinema ever committed to celluloid.

Sweet And Lowdown (1999)

One of Woody Allen's better later works follows Sean Penn as an obnoxious and dejected jazz guitarist, Emmett Ray, who falls for a sweet mute girl (Samantha Morton). As charming and eccentric as you'd expect from Allen, this fake documentary-style comedy-drama is worthy viewing for the wonderful jazz alone and saw both Penn and Morton get deserved Oscar nods for their performances.

Scent Of A Woman (1992)

Despite being up against Denzel Washington's Malcolm X performance and Robert Downey Jr's Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, there was an inevitability in Al Pacino winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1993. His eclectic portrayal of blind army veteran Frank Slade (arguably one of Hollywood's most tragic characters) in Martin Brest's Scent Of A Woman is nothing short of visionary (ahem!). A landmark role, with a feel-good story and an on-the-money supporting performance by Chris O'Donnell.

In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)

Arguably John Carpenter's most underrated classic, In The Mouth Of Madness is probably the most Lovecraftian homage ever made, peppered with references to HP Lovecraft throughout. It stars Sam Neill as insurance investigator John Trent, who is hired by a publisher to track down his missing client, horror novelist Sutter Cane. He finds himself in the sleepy coastal town of Hobb's End, which marks the beginning of his peril. Be prepared to tread the fine line between reality and fantasy in this surreal Twilight Zone-esque horror.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

One of the world's best-loved anime films (along with Hayao Miyazaki's other most notable work, Spirited Away) is an allegory of nature versus humans that seems apt right now. When young warrior Ashitaka is stricken with a fatal curse while trying to save his village from a boar-god/demon, he journeys to the forests for a cure – only to find that humans are at war with the forest gods and their human protégé Princess Mononoke. This is a heartwarming film with a powerful message that, with its wonderful characters and fantastical art, really gets through.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

"Mickey and Mallory are the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson." "Yeah! But they're way cooler!", proclaim two young boys of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) Knox, unhinged lovers who become psychopathic serial killers, sensationalised and glorified by the media. Holding a mirror to society's fascination with violence, Natural Born Killers is a wild ride that, while gratuitously graphic, compels with its social commentary, psychedelic cinematography and magnetic lead performances.

Goodfellas (1990)

If you haven't seen Martin Scorsese's mob classic Goodfellas, what have you been doing all your life? This is where your journey to discover '90s movies should start. Based on a true story, the narration by Irish-Italian American Henry Hill (Robert DeNiro) of Mafia life in New York during the 1960s and 70s, complete with Scorsese's technically sound style and wholesomely realistic performances by DeNiro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, makes this the best gangster movie ever made.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

There's something utterly satisfying in the fact that an attempt to gain recompense for a rug that's been urinated upon lays the foundations for one of Hollywood's most amusing crime capers. Up there with the Coen Brothers' best (though Fargo also deserves a mention on this list), The Big Lebowski is consistently funny, endlessly quotable and infinitely watchable. The bizarre plot doesn't even matter; the genius is all in the characters (and performances) of Jeff 'The Dude' Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and his bowling buddies Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi) as they set out to avenge his ruined rug.

Trainspotting (1996)

An unrelentingly brutal and realistic portrayal of drug addiction and squalor in Edinburgh that manages to be charming, energetic and, at times, downright funny. Danny Boyle's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel dives into the immoral life of heroin addict Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) as he attempts to get clean despite the influence of his addict pals. Trainspotting's disturbingly stark realism may cut deep, but it is nonetheless a triumphant bit of filmmaking from one of Britain's finest.

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Prepare to feel thoroughly disorientated by this mind-bending psychological thriller in which dreams and reality blur and intersect. It's 1970s New York and Vietnam war veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) finds himself plagued by strange hallucinations and confusing flashbacks as he grapples with PTSD and grieves the loss of his young son. As he tries to decipher reality from nightmares, and remember what really happened in Vietnam, bad things start occurring and nothing is what it seems...

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Ending with one of the greatest movies of all time, Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption, based on a Stephen King novella, needs no introduction. The powerful prison drama chronicles the imprisonment of big-shot banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) inside Shawkshank State Penitentiary after he's convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Robbins is fantastic, Morgan Freeman (who plays Andy's friend 'Red' and narrates the movie) oozes perfection, and Darabont's direction is first-rate.

Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10+ years in the hi-fi industry, she has reviewed all manner of audio gear, from budget amplifiers to high-end speakers, and particularly specialises in headphones and head-fi devices. In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.