12 Best Movies of 1990

From the charismatic Cyrano de Bergerac attempting to woo his cousin Roxane in ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ to the impish Kevin McCallister completely vaporising Harry and Marv with his bobby traps IN ‘Home Alone’ to Henry Hill rising up the ranks of the crime syndicate in ‘Goodfellas’ – 1990 kicked off a new decade with directors venturing into a variety of themes, concepts and ideas. While some flicks broke into the box offices, others earned the critical hurrah.

For this list, I have taken into account films on the basis of the writing, direction, acting and artistic creativity.  Some brought in new life into established genres and some spawned innovative creativity. However, despite their visual, aesthetic and conceptual differences, every film on this list made 1990 a memorable year for cinema with their artistic and technical chef-d’oeuvre.  Honourable mentions – ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Ghost’ – these movies were brilliant in their own right, but the movies on this list are hallmarked as the defining movies of 1990.  So, without further ado, here’s a list of top movies of 1990.


12. The Hunt for Red October (1990)

An espionage thriller, ‘The Hunt for Red October’ stars Alec Baldwin as eccentric CIA analyst Ryan and Sean Connery as Soviet submarine commander Marko Ramius. Based on the Tom Clancy’s celebrated book of the same name, published in 1984, the film is set during the late Cold War era, where rogue Soviet naval captain Marko Ramius, who wishes to defect to the United States with his officers and the Soviet Navy’s newest and most advanced nuclear missile submarine.

The American CIA analyst Jack Rayn, who correctly deduces his motive and must prove his theory to the U.S. Navy before a violent confrontation between the Soviet and the American navies spirals out of control. Directed by John McTiernan, the film is a tight pact thriller with a coherent screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart. The sound design was immensely praised and earned several nominations at the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs. A commercial success, ‘The Hunt for Red October’ spawned off a moderately successful series and video games.

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11. Presumed Innocent (1990)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula, ‘Presumed Innocent’ follows the story of Rusty Sabich, essayed by Harrison Ford, a prosecutor who is charged with the murder of his colleague and mistress Carolyn Polhemus, essayed by Barbara Sabich. Adapted from Scott Turow’s novel in the same name, polished in 1987, much of legal drama’s success is credited to the skilful screenwriting American screenwriter and director Frank Pierson, and the intricate direction by Alan J. Pakula.

A critical and commercial success, ‘Presumed Innocent’, although neglected by the prestigious awards, received quite the admiration for the direction, writing and acting performances, and was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award for “Best Fim” and the USC Scripter Award.

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10. The Grifters (1990)

An unknown gem of 1990, ‘The Grifters’, despite its limited run, received high critical applause. A neo-noir crime drama, this Stephen Frears directed film follows a small-time conman who has torn loyalties between his estranged mother and new girlfriend, both of whom are high-stakes “grifters” with their own angles to play. The flick is adapted from Jim Thompson’s noir fiction novel of the same name, published in 1963, grasps the audience with a quintessential dark and gloomy atmosphere. With Frears’ reputation rock-solid with his 1988 critically acclaimed ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, veteran director Martin Scorsese chose to fund the film.

Holding an archetypal “Scorseseque” murky narrative structure, the screenplay, written by Donald E. Westlake brings a gripping thriller. Starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening, the film was nominated for a couple of awards, with Huston and Bening bagging nominations for Academy Awards, BAFTAs and Golden Globes, to name a few.

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9. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Written, directed and produced by Tim Burton, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ is a story about an artificial man with scissor blades instead of hands who is taken in by a suburban family after living years in isolation. Caroline Thompson and Tim Burton’s beautiful writing procreate a story which has an essence of emotional depth which connects to all on a transcendental level. The first collaboration between Johnny Depp and Burton, the film is a reflection of the fantasy of gothic exquisiteness.

The performance by Depp was met with immense praise which built a foundation of successful future associations between the actor and director.  Boasting of the classic gothic aura, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ was lauded for the exquisite makeup and production design. Often cited as Burton’s favourite creation, the film did overwhelmingly well and spawned off a pop-culture phenomenon.

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8. Awakenings (1990)

Directed by Penny Marshall, ‘Awakenings’ stars Robin Williams as Dr Malcolm Sayer, who, in 1969, discovers beneficial effects of the drug L-Dopa. With Dr Dayer’s assistance and supervision, the hospitals start administering it to catatonic patients who survived the 1917–28 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, and Leonard Lowe, essayed by Robert De Niro and the rest of the patients are “awakened” after decades and have to deal with a new life in a new time and age. Adapted from British neurologist Oliver Sacks’ novel of the same name, published in 1973, Steven Zaillian’s articulate screenplay brilliantly incorporates the drama and sentiments of the book.

However, stars Robin Williams, who donned another impressive dramatic role after his heart-warming performance in ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989), and Robert De Niro, who charmed Oliver Sack himself with a wonderful performance as a Parkinson’s disease, are the leading figures of success for the film. With a limited release on December 22, 1990, and a wide-release on January 11, 1991, ‘Awakenings’ received positive reviews from critics, with respected critics Roger Ebert and Owen Gleiberman lauding the direction and the performances. ‘Awakenings’ was nominated for 3 Academy Awards – the “Best Picture”, the “Best Actor” for De Niro, and the “Best Adapted Screenplay” for Steven Zaillian. Robert De Niro went on to win the “Best Actor” at the National Board of Review Awards, sharing it with Robin Williams and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

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7. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Directed by the Coen brothers, ‘Miller’s Crossing’ depicts a three-way war between the Irish, Italian and Jewish mobs. Drawing motivations from a variety of classics such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Doulos’(1963), Dashiell Hammett’s 1931 novel ‘The Glass Key’ and Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’, the 1990 film artily exposes gang wars. Belonging to the genre of “neo-noir gangster” films, ‘Miller’s Crossing’ also is an example of the Coen brothers’ classic application of black-comedy.

Knitting the plot on an up-and-coming crime boss with an ambitious vision, two men trapped for the same women and bookie with the knack of being troublesome, Miller’s Crossing was a new and fresh take on a genre which Hollywood had been clinging upon since years. Raving with critical praise by many, the film particularly impressed TIME critic Richard Corliss who called it a “noir with a touch so light, the film seems to float on the breeze like the frisbee of a fedora sailing through the forest.” Adding to its merits, ‘Miller’s Crossing’ earned a spot in American Film Institute’s 10 Top 10 as a Gangster Film.

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6. Dances with Wolves (1990)

Sparking off the revitalization of the western genre, ‘Dances with Wolves’ is the film adaptation of Michael Blake’s novel of the same name, published in 1988, which follows the story of a Union Army lieutenant who travels to the American frontier to find a military post, and of his dealings with a group of Lakota Indians. Directed by Kevin Costner, the actor dons on the role of the lead character – Lieutenant John Dunbar who, assigned to a remote western Civil War outpost, befriends wolves and Indians, making him an intolerable aberration in the military. An instant classic among the Native Americans and a darling among critics, the film was the first “Western” to win the “Academy Award for Best Picture” since Wesley Ruggles’s ‘Cimarron’ (1931).

The Academy Award-winning screenplay was written by the author himself, which provided a strong narrative essence to the movie. The aura of a “western” was captured perfectly by cinematographer Dean Semler, for which he won the “Academy Award for Best Cinematography”, and the music by John Barry captivated the audience, for which he won the “Academy Award for b Best Music, Original Score”. Adding to its prestige, ‘Dances with the Wolves’ was nominated for several BAFTAs, a César Award and in 2007, it was selected for preservation in the “United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress”.

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5. Home Alone (1990)

Arguably one of the most beloved movies of all time, ‘Home Alone’ won the hearts with Macaulay Culkin’s booby-trapping Kevin and the wayward duo Harry and Marv, essayed by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Directed by Chris Columbus, ‘Home Alone’ follows the exploits of an eight-year-old troublemaker, Kevin, who upon being accidentally left home alone by his family during Christmas vacation, must protect his house from a pair of burglars Harry and Marv who have been plotting their larceny with planning and dexterity.

The highest-grossing live action comedy film of all time, before displaced by Todd Philips’ ‘The Hangover Part II’ (2011), this 1990 flick was an instant hit among the audience. While the thin plot was criticised by many critics, with some terming young Kevin’s actions as “inexplicable”, most lauded the brilliant performances of the comedic trio. Cited as a “Christmas classic” by many, ‘Home Alone’ was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for “Best Original Score”, which was written by John Williams and the other for “Best Original Song” for ‘Somewhere in My Memory’ – two Golden Globes – “Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical” and “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical” for Macaulay Culkin. Adding to its success, the film positive critical reaction and humongous box office returns spawned four sequels.

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4. Reversal of Fortune (1990)

One of the highest rated films of 1990; ‘Reversal of Fortune’ is a drama is based on a true case, with Jeremy Irons starring as Claus von Bulow, an infamous New York socialite who is accused of attempting to kill his wife Sunny von Bülow essayed by Glenn Close with an overdose of insulin. Based on the book ‘Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case’ (1986), which is written by Claus’ defence attorney Alan Dershowitz, the film is portrayed with authenticity.

What makes this film such an interesting watch is that while the events were chronicled through the eyes of the defence attorney in the book, the film showcases Sunny von Bülow narration of the events. Although the film couldn’t achieve the popularity it deserved, given the huge success of ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Misery’ and ‘Dances with Wolves’ in the moths of September, October and November, ‘Reversal of Fortune’ managed to bag a few prestigious honours. Jeremy Irons’ chilling performance blew away critics and he won the “Best Actor’ awards at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, Boston Society of Film Critics Awards and the  New York Film Critics Circle Awards, to name a few.

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3. Misery (1990)

Stephen King is a pioneer of scary thrillers and ‘Misery’ is just one of the many examples of his masterful grasp in freezing the spine with psychological adroitness.  Directed by Rob Reiner, this 1990 film is about a famous author, who after being rescued from a car crash by a fan of his novels gradually comes to realize that the care he is receiving is only the beginning of a nightmare of captivity and abuse of an obsessive fan.  With a stunning performance by Kathy Bates as the psychotic Annie Wilkes, the film is a nightmare to watch.

The film completely bases itself on two aspects – the acting and the screenplay. Written by William Goldman, the American screenwriter dexterously moulds King’s novel and portrays it as a “chess game” between the artist and the fan, as intended by the director. Elevating the solid screenplay is the aforementioned performance by Bates who transforms her sweet demeanour into complete lunacy with affluence. One of King’s favourite adaptations, the film went on to revive accolades at every level and Bates’ brilliant performances won her the “Best Actress” awards at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.

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2. Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

Adapted from Edmond Rostand’s French play of the same name, published in 1897, follows the story of the titular character Cyrano de Bergerac, essayed by Gérard Depardieu, who is a romantic poet and is in love with his cousin Roxane without her knowing. His one curse in his life, as he feels, is his large nose. Fearing Roxane’s rejection, he resorts to writing letters to her on behalf of one of his cadets, Christian, who is also in love with Roxane but just doesn’t know how to tell her.

Cited as one of the most faithful adaptations of the comedy, the play is intrinsically adapted by writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Edmond Rostand. A critical darling, director Jean-Paul Rappeneau was immensely appreciated for his authentic and innovative directorial techniques. The artistic production and costume design were highly applauded and the cinematography was enormously praised. Adding to the merits, lead actor Gérard Depardieu was lauded for his performance, and his performance was awarded in various film festivals and award functions, namely a “Best Actor” nomination at the Academy Awards, and wins at the Cannes Film Festival and César Awards.  Cited as one of the best flicks of 1990, ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ has since been regarded as one of the classics of world cinema.

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1. Goodfellas (1990)


‘Goodfellas’ is probably the most influential and ground-breaking gangster flick since The Godfather trilogy.  Directed by the charismatic Martin Scorsese, ‘Goodfellas’ has been referred to as one of the grittiest mafia movies of all time. Playing on the central theme of the criminal underworld, the movie explores the importance of the unwavering-criminal loyalty and the grisly realities of the criminal underbelly. It articulately builds the foundation on its three lead characters – the experienced and calm Jimmy Conway played by the legendary Rober De Niro, the learner and somewhat callous Henry Hill enacted by Ray Liotta and the psychotic hooligan with a short temper Tommy DeVito portrayed by Joe Pesci.

‘Goodfellas’ does not shy away from Scorsese’s classic use of brutal violence and crass language. Adapting Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction novel, the screenplay, co-written by Scorsese and Pileggi manage to infuse both a stylised and realistic colour to the movie. The inventive character development earned Pesci the Academy Award for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role”. ‘Goodfellas’ adopts a quite fitting background score and Michael Ballhaus’ camera work helps it elevate its iconic status. Regarded as one of the best in the crime genre, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress and spawned a string of Goodfellas-inspired films and television shows.

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