Movies were upping their game in the 90s. Stories became richer and acting was taking a bigger step towards realism. Directors were digging deeper into what could be seen on screen. Even special effects entered a new realm with Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Jurassic Park. But the films on this list stuck with strong narratives and vigorous acting to make movies that stand the test of time.
1. Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)
Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, known for penning the scripts of Schindler’s List and another film on this list – Awakenings, makes his directorial debut with the true story of Josh Waitzkin, a young chess prodigy.
The boy is played by Max Pomeranc in one of the great child roles ever on-screen. When he acted in the film, he was also in the USA’s top 20 chess players of his age group. Following the film, he only did a few movies, but his naturalism had the potential for a great acting career. Pomerac is part of a perfect cast that includes Joe Mantegna as Josh’s father with a truthful performance that can’t be missed. Joan Allen plays Josh’s mom and has played many mothers in her career, but none with the heart and dedication to her child that she has here. Laurence Fishburne plays a chess player in the park that takes a liking to the young boy and eventually befriends him. Ben Kingsley is the strict hard-nosed chess teacher that gets him in line.
The movie received an Oscar nomination for its wonderful cinematography by Conrad Hall who previously won for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid a couple decades earlier. Zaillian would continue writing with the screenplays of Clear And Present Danger, Gangs Of New York and American Gangster. He would direct two more films – A Civil Action with John Travolta and All the King’s Men with Sean Penn. He wrote the screenplays for all three films he directed. In 2006, AFI released their annual list of 100 movies – The 100 Most Inspiring Films Of All Time. Searching For Bobby Fischer made the list with a higher rank than Chariots Of Fire and The Karate Kid.
2. Awakenings (1990)
Robin Williams will always be known for his continual energy and hysterical comedy. Here he abandons both to play a shy doctor who tries to find a way to revive comatose patients. One of those patients is played by Robert De Niro like you’ve never seen him before. As doctor and patient, they develop an important friendship that gives them both meaning in their lives. Even in dramas like Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, Williams brought loud and funny moments through serious scenes. Here the volume is turned all the way down, but his performance is just as strong as always.
The film is directed flawlessly by Penny Marshall, who like Williams, also leaves her comedic chops behind to tell this very dramatic story. A strong supporting cast enhances the film. The raspy-voiced Julie Kavner plays a diligent nurse. She is yet another comedic actor in this film who relinquishes comedy and thrives in the dramatic setting. John Heard plays the antagonist for the second time in a Penny Marshall film. In Big, he was the executive annoyed by Tom Hanks’ “I don’t get it.” Here he is the head doctor of the hospital who stays on top of Williams. As one of the staff doctors – Bradley Whitford appears in one of his earliest film roles.
One performance that must be mentioned is the one by actress Ruth Nelson who delivers a heart wrenching performance as the mother of De Niro’s character. The film earned three Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. For any cinephile, this is a must.
3. Defending Your Life (1991)
Every person has wondered what happens after they leave Earth. For a hilarious take, Albert Brooks shows us an afterlife that only he could conceive. A place where you can eat as much as you desire without any negative effects. The point of this purgatory is to defend your life so you can move on to the next stage. But defending your life reveals all the fears that people deal with in a lifetime. Brooks somehow finds the humor in all of it and creates a highly entertaining and funny film.
Brooks stars in the film with the great Meryl Streep who shows a great deal of charm in her comedic side. Rip Torn also stars as Brooks’ defense lawyer who aids him in defending his life. Brooks is perhaps the most unique comedic voice in movies with his films Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost In America. There is no afterlife in movies that’s as fun and amusing as this one.
4. Sleepers (1996)
There’s no doubt that people do dumb things when they’re kids because they don’t know any better. But when four friends steal a hot dog cart, a major accident occurs and someone gets injured. They’re sent to a juvenile detention center for their crime. There they expect to pay for what they’ve done but are also secretly abused by the guards. When they grow up, they seek revenge. Director Barry Levinson delivers with a superb cast that includes Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Billy Crudup making his film debut.
With a cast like that, some Oscar nominations would be expected, but the only nomination for this film was for the legendary composer John Williams’ score. Levinson would go to make Wag the Dog where he recruited two actors from Sleepers – Hoffman and De Niro. There Hoffman received a nomination for Best Actor. Sleepers is a dark and disturbing story like others made in the 1990s. Not all of them hold up, but this one is as good now as it was when it was released in theaters.
5. The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Prior to Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, it had been 25 years since a Hollywood studio released a film with a Chinese cast in the lead roles. That film was The Joy Luck Club based on the book of the same name by Amy Tan. It also had a Chinese director at the helm – Wayne Wang who had experience making films about Chinese culture.
This marks the first major film for Ming-Na Wen who would go on to voice the title character in Disney’s Mulan as well as Mulan 2. She became very active in TV and film doing both voice work and on-screen roles which include the Marvel and Star Wars universes. The Joy Luck Club is included in the National Film Registry for being culturally and historically significant. Five years after the film was released, a stage adaptation was produced in California. The movie is ultimately about mothers and daughters and presented in a way where everybody can relate.