Some films are the gathering storms and some are live-wire from start to end. There is also a third kind – films that operate on a non-linear plane. LeisureMartini, the lifestyle and movie blog for all tastes, brings to you the list of best Hollywood films since 1990 that fall in at least one of the categories.
Over the last 30 years (right after the 1980s, remembered as the decade in which the fledgling Martin Scorsese of the 1970s grew on to become a fully-finessed filmmaker) a steady stream of talented directors have come onto the scene and have since become legends in their own right.
Before we start reading past their names and the joyful cinematic endeavors they have tossed our way, lets make one thing clear – this list about the best movies from the 90s up to the present day does miss out on some bona fide classics, some even better than the ones that make the cut. If you are triggered by that sort of a thing, read the title again and just live with it.
Rest assured, watching each movie from the list feels like it was made in the magic hour. So, just spend the next few minutes leisurely going through the names. Once you’re done, don’t forget to let Netflix (or any of the million services) take you off to a wondrous journey, movie-by-movie.
Ron Howard smartly keeps the politico in check and yet delivers a political drama with flair and finesse. Frost/Nixon keeps you on board from start to finish. It takes a political theme – around a TV interview – and loads it with dynamics of a boxing match.
Paying close attention to detail, the movie loads up on glimpses of politics, edge-of-the-seat moments, and full-bodied punches in the face of conceited guilt. The end result is a knock-out. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella do not pull any punches either, giving arguably their career-best performances.
The Man From Earth (2007)
This hypnotic one-room-one-night thriller triumphs on its own occult terms. This Richard Schenkman direction is a cliffhanger and willfully opaque to begin with. However, unlike a lesser film, The Man From Earth doesn’t hold its cards to reveal all in the pre-climax.
All cards are on the table just midway into the movie, and that’s when the game beings to unravel. With only half a dozen characters, the movie is – at its heart – a humane process of eager seekers. Of all the moments that gave me goosebumps, “I don’t smell rain” and “I knew it, he’s saying he is C…st stand out.
A low budget flick, Fruitvale Station is the first collaboration between Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan. They have since went on to work together for Black Panther.
Fruitvale Station has incredibly sure rhythmic charges tossed around its running time. The movie tells a tragic tale without resorting to maudlin impulses of melodrama and sentimentality. The scene between the father and his daughter right before he is leaving for that fateful party spells everything out.
Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker bar none is a statement movie geeks have been making rather frequently, particularly since this work of devastating and unforgettable genius. Incendies is Villeneuve’s finest hour as a film director. A staggering and sweeping political drama ends in a climax that has the shock and scale of Greek Tragedy.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Just another movie about Tarantino rewriting history as we know it. You know what to expect when Quentin Tarantino, the artist unchained, makes a film based on a true story. Yet, it doesn’t make a difference. He keeps you so caught up with the crazy on-Tarantino-terms artistry, you don’t see the pre-climax twist coming.
There is more to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood than that, of course. The first ever on-screen collaboration between Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt does not disappoint – even if your expectations were already through the roof. OUATIH has the Quentin Tarantino signature all over, and yet it’s his most uncharacteristic movie ever.
When I came home after witnessing probably my favorite Tarantino film, I was struggling with words to express how joyous I felt after being audience to those steady yet sure rhythms of what was also my favorite film of 2019 along with Joker. And then, I found my voice in Peter Bradshaw’s words, “Quite simply, I just defy anyone with red blood in their veins not to respond to the crazy bravura of Tarantino’s film-making, not to be bounced around the auditorium at the moment-by-moment enjoyment that this movie delivers.”
Probably the best film by Gavin O’Connor, Warriors is a rousing boxing drama with live-wire performances from its leads – Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. The story sometimes feels like a mess, lurching from once scene to the next with moments that are thrilling and bleak in equal measure.
I’d be doing myself a great disservice if I don’t include this Western Scott Copper in the list. Hostiles ranks among the best Hollywood films of 21st century, riding strongly on Christian Bale’s slow-burn performance that personifies tragedy and deep trauma and burns through your heart.
Set in 1892, the movie follows the journey of a war-torn Army Captain who reluctantly agrees to follow the order to escort a man, who he hates with all his guts, and his family to safety through the ravenous landscape of a Western motion picture. This is the second collaboration between Scott Cooper and Bale after their 2013 critic acclaimed Out Of The Furnace. Tell you what, they should work together more often.
No one cries better than Christian Bale. Period.
Short Term 12 (2013)
Reposting my own thoughts from this piece about the best and rare mainstream movies you may not have watched, Short Term 12 stabbed right through my heart, but like a breeze. An elegiac work of art, this indie drama features the ever-dependable and brilliant Brie Larson in one of her earlier outings.
Short Term 12 was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (of ‘Just Mercy’ fame) and brings to the screen a view that’s unspeakably distressing and impossible to shrug off. The film is filled with haunting moments, only to impress none from the Academy though.
Right up there with The Dark Knight as the best that DC Films (or comic book movie staple in general) has offered, Joker represents a form of bizarre new hybrid cinema and has Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips at the top of their game.
If you are yet to watch the the Gotham’s clown and Batman nemesis in his solo, do yourself a favor and don’t listen to the haters. Joker has much more going for it than just Phoenix’s performance, though it does take the movie through its fanatical inner landscape.
A comic-book film on paper, Joker is rather one of the most visceral and effective character studies in recent times. Arthur and his journey to becoming a man who just wants to see Gotham burning is brought to the screen in a manner that is dark, unrelenting, exhilarating and sends chills down the spine – especially the last 20 mins.
The background score to Joker by Hildur Guðnadóttir is cathartic and makes the movie even more haunting and intense. It rightfully grabbed the top honors at all the major awards including Oscars.
Corn Island (2014) – Not Hollywood
The most visually and auditorily arresting movie of all time, Corn Island is a soundscape with not more 3 dialogues in the entire 100-minute film. There isn’t any background score either. But trust me, it holds you at rapt. It’s not even a thriller.
Just a very linear and procedural screenplay that doesn’t go beyond an old man and his grand-daughter building a hut, plant seeds, clearing pebbles, farming the crop, and staring into nothingness. Apart from its stunning cinematography, the fact that you’re just glued to the screen watching 2 characters simply existing is bewitching.
Hugh Jackman was in his elements at the time. After a rousing performance in Les Miserables, he came back with another masterly act in Prisoners, finding an ideal dancing partner in Jake Gyllenhaal. An atmospheric thriller that takes hold of you, not letting go till you hear those whistles coming from a pit in the climax, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners was one of his more accessible works.
Ed Wood (1994)
I can’t think of a single collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp that disappointed, at least up until the more recent ones. The 1994 film Ed Wood is the biographical take on unofficially the worst movie director of all time, Ed Wood, and there couldn’t have been a better homage to him than this Noir comedy by Burton.
Ed Wood ranks among the finest and goofiest performances of Johnny Depp – and that’s saying something!
The Contender (2000)
One of the better political thrillers of the 21st century, The Contender is also a criminally underrated film. Rod Lurie is a fine filmmaker and knows how to get the most out of the script and the actors.
Joan Allen’s finest hour, The Contender is authentic, suspenseful and can be effective in shaping one’s thoughts on issues. It is one of those socially very relevant and important films that does not resort to preaching and gets its message across in a thrilling fashion.
The support cast comprising of the names like Gary Oldman and Jeff Bridges matches Joan Allen in every beat. Great performances all around.
The Truman Show (1998)
Image Courtesy: Paramount Pictures
Teeming with vital juices of perhaps a spurious existence, The Truman show runs on a bolstered fuel of undiluted innovation. This collaboration between Peter Wier and Jim Carrey is an unforgettable classic.
The Straight Story (1999)
The subtle emotional pull of The Straight Story and Richard Farnsworth’s performance have a massive effect. David Lynch has never made a film quite like this – before or since – and probably never will.
No maudlin impulses here and yet, it’ll make your heart sing and seep.
The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)
Reporting myself from an earlier article, The Place Beyond the Pines was not even a starter in the award circle, but that takes nothing away from the classic that it is.
Spanning two generations, it was a poignant tale that didn’t take shelter behind the contrived emotions – something which Academy doesn’t have the highest regards for. Agreed the movie fizzles out just a bit in last 20 mins, but that doesn’t take anything away from atmosphere it creates after its running time of 140 minutes.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
It is a tour de force of a film that has achieved the status of a cult with the passage of time. It has been over a quarter of a century years since The Shawshank Redemption hit the screens, but we remain institutionalized.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
There Will Be Blood has the monument of Hollywood, Daniel Day Lewis, in top form, and that alone is worth the price of admission . It is a movie blissfully unaware that it is a movie. And if that doesn’t seem like making a whole lot of sense, pop in a Blu-Ray and be prepared to be thwarted in your chair.
Loving Vincent (2017)
An entire movie made out of oil paintings. Let that sink in.
Provocative, hallucinatory, and downright beautiful. There are movies that are a piece of art. Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent is art. Background, foreground, even every hair strand is oil painted into a movie and incredibly brought to life.
Playing like a murder mystery, the movie presents the final days of the life of Vincent Van Gogh, through the eyes of a young man who visits Van Gogh’s last hometown to deliver his last letter. Next thing you know, he is investigating what might be a foul play in how Van Gogh died. In the process, Van Gogh’s paintings come alive through an animated motion picture.
Fun fact: 66,000+ oil painted frames were created for the movie. Which is to say, 12 painting for each second of the runtime.
Mad Max: The Fury Road
Greatest action movie of all time. Before the first word is spoken.
George Miller casts the supremely talented Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy this buddy action thriller, and we have no option but to keep on repeat-viewing the film every once a while. If you have a 3D TV at home, sigh!
Zesty and endlessly surprising, In Bruges is a steady state thriller that keeps the punches flowing in. Ralph Fiennes, Colin Farrell, and Brendan Gleeson leave you gasping with their loopy performances. It was syncretism in Bruges. Teeming with vital juices of unforced humor, In Bruges runs on a fun-filled fuel of undiluted originality.
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
I am an unabashed fan of Tarantino. To be honest, I was not quite taken by Pulp Fiction as much as everyone was, but Inglorious Basterds made me sit up and take notice. Here is a director unchained who lives to cross the line. You either hate him or you love him – and love him to bits. “He is fine” said nobody.
It Follows (2014)
If you have to choose one 21st century film that redefines the genre of horror movies, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows should be the top contender. Straying very far away from the machinations of a standard horror film, this low-budget gem starring Maika Monroe creeps the daylights out of you with virtually no gore and CGI sharks.
I mean, really, what do you do when you can’t tell a 15-year-old average-looking teen from a ghost? How do you react when a face from the crowd, in broad daylight, on a beach, is walking towards you with a dead stare? Well, you run for your life! As one critic rightly pointed out, it’s a nameless dread. Is It Follows one of the best horror movies of all time? Damn straight, yes!
Have Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro ever taken a misstep whenever they have worked together? Damn straight, no. Then, you add Joe Pesci to the mix and you have the greatest trio in the history of cinema. Sharon Stone is as fabulous as always and does more than just bring in oomph; impresses thoroughly with her acting chops.
One of the most personal road trip movies that lingers in your mind like a gentle dream long after the credits finish rolling, Nebraska keeps things in black and white and rooted in melancholy. Bruce Dern and Will Forte play the bickering father-son whose relationship remains consistent throughout (so if you’re expecting to watch father-son bond that undergoes a transformation, that movie this is not) but they do keep discovering each other as the movie progresses.
Nebraska, one of the finest works of Alexander Payne, is the story of Woody (Bruce Dern) who wins a million-dollar prize in Mega Sweepstakes. Just to be sure he remains alive on his way to Lincoln, his son accompanies him. On their way, they drop by Nebraska, the place where Woody grew up about 70 years ago.
Quoting myself from my Nebraska movie review, I left the theater overcome with an urge to take a chair out in the front yard of my house, at 2 AM, just to watch the road.
Sports movie don’t come any better than this. Right from when we are kids, the theory about sports fed into our heads is that you may make plans in the meeting rooms all you want, it’s what happens on the ground, in the field is what matters.
Moneyball turns this theory on its head, to the point that you will start questioning whether you have really understood sports yourself. Brad Pitt in Moneyball turns up a performance that almost won him the Best Actor Oscar.
Tell me this isn’t the greatest motion picture poster you have ever seen in your life as a movie geek. Of course, the David Cronenberg lives up as one of the greatest mob mafia films to have ever made in cinema. Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen produce stellar performances in a film that presents ferocious brutality with a commentary on child pays for the sins of father’s. Just that, the child isn’t all so innocent either.
Schindler’s List (1991)
Has there been a better Holocaust movie? I don’t know. Starring Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley in the lead (some of the career-best work done by both), Schindler’s List is a spotlessly paved horror account. Period.
That’s how you make a time-travel motion picture. How many time-travel films have been made with nearly zero CGI, no larger-than life movie sets and gadgets, and lengthy mathematical explanations of “how I got here”.
Looper spares you of the inevitable malarkey that is characteristic of the best and worst time-travel movies. Instead, Rian Johnson focusses on the barn-burner of a story at hand. His partners in crime are the ever-great Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
This is not a ‘ghost’ movie in the truest sense of the word. Yet, the protagonist, Sweeney Todd, is a demon, demonized by the horrors of his past. The concept of revenge has been done to death over decades, but hand it to Tim Burton, and he will reinstate your appetite for revenge by making a film with a bracing vibrancy. This is what he did with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of the Fleet Street. As for Johnny Depp, err…NO; No Depp..He is Todd now – Sweeney Todd. And he will have his revenge!
The Dark Knight (2008)
Image Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures
Wake up superhero aficionados. This is how you make them. The Dark Knight is a spectacular nightmare. Before the first is spoken.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight isn’t billed as the greatest superhero movie ever owing to some jaw-dropping CGI (that goes to Marvel). The movie is a first of its kind cult classic because it loads up on machinations of a superhero flick, edge-of-the-seat drama and characterization and full-bodied punches in the face of chaos that haunted you for days after watching it on the big screen. As I said in one of my previous write-ups, Dark Knight makes everything thing else roaming a similar territory look like ‘made for toddlers.’
Gosford Park (2001)
Image Courtesy: USA Films
Gosford Park takes some time getting used to. But once you start warming up to it, it plugs you right into that grand country estate in England of 1932 and introduces you to the green-eyed monsters of the elite class, all drenched in snob. One of Altman’s finest works, Gosford Park focuses on muted colours and equinox background, with the whodunit keeping you even more engaged.
Set in 1932, the movie tells the entangled life of typically civilized non-entity servants and the sophisticated but prude elite class. Someone gets murdered and things take a turn – only if slightly. I was watching Rian Johnson’s Knives Out the other day and it kept reminding me of Gosford Park.
The Departed (2006)
Image Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures
The Departed may or may not be Martin Scorsese’s best, that’s a debate for another day, but it’s a bloody good gangster flick that restores you faith in the notion that there is an art to making movies on mafia. With three supremely talented actors in the center of all the action – though Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg steal everyone’s thunder – The Departed is a full-bodied oxygen blast.
I was exhausted just 50 minutes into the movie, that’s how deep Damien Chazelle pulls you in. One of the most exhilarating musicals ever made, Whiplash plays out like a psychological thriller. The drums, the beats, the rushing, the dragging – all of it – gets you unsettled, riveted and compels you to glug till giddy.
J.K. Simmons feels like he’s just showing up in front of the camera and blowing everyone’s minds away just by the way. Miles Teller makes you get into his shoes.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Coen Brothers films are not everyone’s cup of tea, and so is true for this Oscar Isaac starrer that injects a life of its own into some of the masterpieces by Bob Dylan. At heart, Inside Llewyn Davis is a peek into the commercialization of the folk music of the 1960s and every bit as effective.
Saving Private Ryan (1997)
Perhaps the most popular war movie since Paths of Glory, Saving Private Ryan also had critics and the general audience divided. Look, the fact remains that this Steven Spielberg film does meander every now and then into the melodrama territory, but it never felt out of place or forced to me. Tom Hanks’ brilliance, meanwhile, did not stir up any debate.
Borg vs McEnroe (2017)
If you are a Shia LaBeouf fan – or for that matter, a hater – missing this high-octane biographical sports film should be a sin. No way that implies that Sverrir Gudnason is overshadowed, though.
Directed by Janus Metz, Borg vs McEnroe got decent love from critics and fans alike. I still reckon it’s among the finest sports movies and ticks all the boxes, and more.
Forrest Gump (1994)
It might have had its share of criticism after it edged past Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption in the Oscar Race, but movies like Forrest Gump don’t come on the odd occasions, but when they do, they sweep you off your feet. The love story of this 1994 flick has a purity that our ill-livered filmmakers would most likely find a way around.
Django Unchained (2012)
And then there is that! Django Unchained opens a big can of worms – Tarantino style. The fans of the *popular cinema* may not be terribly excited for a movie made on slavery, and serious cinephiles have also grown to be wary of the topic that seems to be solely targeted at Oscar glory, but in Tarantino’s anti-high tech masterpiece, everybody is having spring times.
The criminally awesome performances by the trio – Christopher Waltz, Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio – leave you gasping (Hollywood should thank Tarantino for digging up Waltz). Django Unchained leaves you solemnly transfixed at the brutality.
Animal Kingdom (2010)
David Michod’s foray into a full-fledged motion picture is a breath of fresh air in the every-possible-angle-explored genre of mobsters and their families. That’s all you should know about it, for now. One more thing – You will think of Jacki Weaver the same way, as you have been, again.
Well, where exactly to begin? Just for those who haven’t heard of it (I can’t imagine why), this is how Heat, a great heist movie that came out in 1995, should be described in 3 lines or less:
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino teaming up again after a gap of 20 years, in a Michael Mann film, about a crew of robbers led by De Niro and a crew of cops led by Pacino. You need more convincing?
Which ones are your favorites?
Each movie in the list is a work of art that stretched their writers, directors, and actors to the peak of their skill muscles. To get a good, hard look at their brilliance, you don’t have to squint. Not even a bit.
Why are you still here?
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