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The Best Year in Movies Was 1990

Ray Liotta playing a cokehead alone makes 1990 the best year for cinema.
1990 movies Goodfellas
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on April 4th, 2018

Welcome to Debate Week, the first of what we hope to be many weeks in which we open up a topic of a discussion to our entire team. This week: What was the best year in movies, ever? Throughout the week, our team will each make the case for their chosen year. This time it’s 1990. Follow us on Twitter to place your votes on Saturday, April 7.

As film fans, we do our utmost to consume as many movies as possible of all types and flavors. And while we can appreciate the broad and diverse spectrum of cinema past and present, certain periods resonate with us more simply because they cater to our personal preferences. For me, the 1990s is the best decade in the history of planet Earth as it served as my introduction to pop culture and formed my sensibilities. To this day I just love the style, swagger, and anarchistic nature of movies from that decade. When I think of the ’90s in my head, I associate it with the glory days of action movies, a hip era of self-impressed crime capers, comedies that were actually funny, and the emergence of indie darling filmmakers whose movies changed the game.

For the purpose of this exercise, however, let’s remember the magical year that started it all. 1990 marked the Unification of Germany and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror ended after 15 years, and Jon Bon Jovi ended up going down in a blaze of glory. Movies were pretty great, too — maybe even the best.

First and foremost, let’s state the obvious here: Goodfellas happened. This makes 1990 the best year by default because Goodfellas is the best movie ever made. No one makes mob flicks as slick, entertaining, and enduring as Martin Scorsese, and this retelling of the rise and fall of real-life wiseguy Henry Hill has been a permanent fixture in my life since I was old enough to process Ray Liotta’s laugh. Even if you don’t think it’s the best, I’m sure many of you will agree that it’s one of the most compulsively rewatchable films out there. Be honest: If it’s on television you don’t turn the channel and whenever you’re looking through your collection for something to watch it calls out with the seductive tones of a siren. But what makes Goodfellas such an everlasting source of joy? For a start, the cast — Liotta, Pesci, De Niro — make being bad look so damn good, even when the shit hits the fan. But that’s the magic of Scorsese: he doesn’t hide the ugly, but he depicts it so damn masterfully that it becomes grotesquely beautiful. On top of that, it’s just an impeccably crafted masterwork that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go for two and half hours (which fly by too fast, if you ask me). Revisiting Goodfellas is like catching up with old friends — the type of friends who’d whack a guy for looking at them the wrong way, but fun nonetheless.

But it wasn’t the only great gangster movie released that year. Miller’s Crossing, State of Grace, and King of New York are all classics that have endured in their own right. And while none of them quite reach the untouchable heights achieved by Goodfellas, in any other year they’d be the don of gangster epics. Damn, it felt good to be a gangster movie 28 years ago.

Moving away from crime perfection, 1990 was also a great year for my other passion in this world — B-grade action and horror schlock. You could even say that the year was schlockingly good, but I wouldn’t say that because it’s a terrible pun. All goofiness aside, though, 1990 was a great year for the kind of bargain bin basement entertainment and junkfood cinema that hits the spot unlike anything else. For the respectable budget fare, Dolph Lundgren played a renegade cop-out to bust alien drug pushers in I Come In Peace, while Jean-Claude Van Damme roundhouse-kicked his way onto the screen and into our hearts twice with Death Warrant and Lionheart. Sam Raimi was also pretty fun and different back then, as he unleashed the best superhero movie out there that isn’t based on a comic book — Darkman.

On the lower end of the budget spectrum, but equally as high in terms of entertainment, we were treated to Shakma, Bride of Re-Animator, Frankenhooker, Maniac Cop 2, Magic Cop (aka Mr. Vampire 5), The Ambulance, Sundown: A Vampire in Retreat, Hardware, I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle and Grim Prairie Tales. All of these movies represent a better time in cinema that was wackier and more interesting, and this level of sublime straight-to-video output was commonplace back when home media was thriving and video stores were packed with so many tasty treats that entering them risked catching toothache and diabetes.

That said, let’s not forget the more upscale genre fare either. Horror fans are often quick to point out how the 90’s was a bad decade for the genre. Those fans are wrong because the ’90s was a wonderful decade for most genres and its fright fare deserves more respect. In addition to the aforementioned beautiful delights, we also got Predator 2 (which is as good as the first movie), Tremors, Flatliners, Misery, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, The Reflecting Skin, and Jacob’s Ladder. I’m also an ardent defender of Gremlins 2: The New Batch; even though it’s nowhere near as good as the first movie, it’s still more entertaining than most other horror comedies, which is a subgenre that hasn’t been good since the mid-2000s. “But that’s not upscale, Kieran” is what you’re saying right now. Well, I beg to differ, as it takes place in a fancy skyscraper. Still, regardless of scales, all of these movies would be high points of any year, and while you could argue that 1990 was the hangover of the golden age of horror that was the 80’s, it also marked the beginning of an era that’s littered with underappreciated gems begging to be rediscovered.

Not every film I’m mentioning here involves people being killed, though. Take the family comedy Home Alone, for example, which features two burglars who are trying to hurt a kid so they can rob his house. While I’d love to have seen a version of the movie where they disposed of a young boy and escaped with the loot, it did turn out perfectly the way it is and paved the way for a sequel that’s equally as good. Home Alone is a holiday staple that continues to entertain kids and adults alike to this day, because who doesn’t love seeing people get smashed with paint cans?

Last, but certainly not least, Total Recall is as entertaining as action movies come, but there are some brains beneath the bullet storms and chaos on Mars. Described as a “thinking person’s action movie” by some commentators, Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece remains a hard-hitting commentary about trying to retain one’s identity in a technologically-dependent, capitalist world. It’s also one of the best outings of the indelible Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and packed with the visceral thrills and carnage that he excelled at giving us back in his heyday.

I’ve left out a lot of other great movies that are worth reappraisal (Back to the Future III, Another 48 Hrs., Robocop 2, Wild At HeartDick Tracy, et al), as well as some obvious contenders that other people enjoy but I don’t (sorry Dances With Wolves, Pretty Woman, and Edward Scissorhands). But in a year that gave us so many great movies, it would take too long to give every single one their due. But that’s just the price we have to pay when we’re spoiled for choice.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.