The Best Picture Oscar winners from the 1990s were a strong rebound from the hit-and-miss 80s. And much like the 1970s winners, several of these films have stood the test of time, and many are pure classics. There are some heavy hitters here, especially in the early years.
That being said, the 1990s may be most well known for the nominated films that didn’t win Best Picture. If you look up and down the decade, there are so many years where the better picture (subjectively, of course) was nominated but ultimately lost out on Oscar night. It happens, but don’t worry, you can still love those movies implicitly.
Here we go…
Shakespeare in Love
This is not simply because Harvey Weinstein and the powers that be stole Best Picture from Steven Spielberg’s Superior in Every Way Saving Private Ryan. It’s mostly because Shakespeare in Love is nothing more than a well-dressed romantic comedy. The art direction is incredible, the dialogue sharp, and Gwyneth Paltrow does an admirable job in her Oscar winning role. But still, when is the last time you watched Shakespeare in Love? Better yet, when was the last time before right now it even crossed your mind, except when you bring up how it robbed Spielberg’s WWII masterpiece?
The English Patient
Elaine Benes was right when she didn’t get all the love for The English Patient. Anthony Minghella’s epic romance is a tedious bore wrapped up in fancy packaging. Much like Shakespeare in Love, the film has virtually disappeared from our collective unconscious over the years, despite the fact it is absolutely loaded with tremendous talent and a handful of terrific performances. It doesn’t help that the film won Best Picture over Fargo. Some may still lift their pinky and praise the film, but for me, I’ll go watch Sack Lunch again (is my Seinfeld reference aging me?).
Now that we’ve gotten rid of the two mediocre outliers in the decade we can move on to some memorable work. Time hasn’t been too kind to Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis’ Magical History Tour. There’s also the little issue of the film, which has a number of sociological problems here in 2017, beating out a tremendous collection of movies for Best Picture: most notably Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, and Quiz Show. That being said, Forrest Gump is still a sweet, entertaining film, and Hanks pulls real emotion out of several scenes. If you don’t shed at least one tear – especially while Forrest talks to the grave of his dearly-departed Jenny – don’t blame the movie, that shit’s on you.
There are a couple of things working against Sam Mendes’ groundbreaking 1999 film. These days, the plight of a white suburban man suffering through an epic midlife crisis is a little less important. Also, the film spawned an entire collection of poor imitators. That isn’t American Beauty‘s fault. In a vacuum, the story of Lester Burnham and his regression to his teenage years is dark, funny, clever, and undeniably entertaining. And no matter how broad the characters may be drawn, the performances from Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and everyone else orbiting Lester keep this film moving with sharp wit and big, memorable moments.
It’s been twenty years since James Cameron’s historical epic took the entire world by storm and shot Leonardo DiCaprio into the stratosphere. Titanic was number one at the box office for seventeen weeks (!!!) and was the first film to pass the $1 billion mark. The reach of Cameron’s film was undeniable, less a movie and more of a definitive moment in the history of pop culture. And despite the tendency for people to grow dismissive towards what’s popular – it’s definitely not cool to like Titanic – the film is an incredible technical achievement. Cameron’s obsessive attention to detail pays off, the performances hold up well, and there is still deep, heavy emotional moment in the final act.
Dances With Wolves
Okay, I’m not here to tear apart Kevin Costner’s American West opus because it won Best Picture instead of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which is arguably the master’s crowning achievement. Goodfellas should have won, sure, but unlike the first two films on this list, Dances With Wolves stands on its own. This is a wonderful film, something I will still watch from time to time, painted with breathtaking cinematography and engaging, human performances. That final scene still gets to me. The buffalo scene remains one of the most exhilarating action set pieces in American cinema, and even Costner’s wooden acting fits in here.
To some, the historical inaccuracy of Mel Gibson’s ferocious hero worshipping epic has knocked it down a few pegs. I don’t typically go to the movies to get an accurate history lesson, unless it’s a documentary. Call me crazy, but I go to see an engaging work of art, truths be damned. Braveheart is a growling, snarling, bloody masterwork from Gibson, whose bone-crunching aesthetic has undone his dramatic storytelling in more recent films. Here, it all fits, and you feel every spike in the head or sword through the gut. It should also be recognized for kickstarting that whole Two Armies Charging At One Another setup that’s been run into the ground the last twenty-plus years.
This one is a personal favorite of mine. Clint Eastwood’s aging love letter to the Western is a compelling masterpiece from a man who made his name as the younger versions of the reformed killer William Munny. It’s also Eastwood’s finest performance as Munny, a man trying desperately to convince himself and those around him that he is not the cold blooded monster he once was, even as he is traveling to kill again. It’s also one of the best performances from the great Gene Hackman who won a much-deserved Oscar for Supporting Actor. His Sheriff Little Bill is a complicated villain, something unusual to the world of the Western. Then again, nothing is “usual” here.
Back in 1993, surprisingly, many didn’t believe the great popcorn blockbuster mastermind Steven Spielberg had this sort of emotionally-charged epic in him. It sounds absurd now. Spielberg’s story of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved 1100 Jews from concentration camps during WWII, is big and bold, but it never loses focus. Liam Neeson is terrific, but it is the blood curdling turn from a then unknown Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth – he’s nothing more than a serial killer working under the guise of being an SS soldier – that charges the picture with such a cold viciousness. His blind madness makes the finale all the more satisfying.
The Silence of The Lambs
It’s hard to fathom, in these days of overcrowded Novembers and Decembers where studios cram all their awards hopefuls into a few weeks, that The Silence of The Lambs opened in February. FEBRUARY! Jonathan Demme’s haunting thriller is a near perfect film, with a trio of incredible performances from Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and Ted Levine as the disturbed skin-suit designer Buffalo Bill. Lambs is filmed with an immediacy, with directness and sometimes an unsettling lack of the fourth wall barrier (actors look right into our eyes) making it all the more intrusive for the audience. It was the last film to win The Big Five – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay – and it has only gotten better with every passing year.