By Kit Bowen

As I look at the Best Picture winners of the 1990s, I notice something: Many of them are popular, big-budget commercial films, unlike the indie films dominating the Oscars in the last 10 years. Independent movies started to get more notice in the ’90s, which films such as Shine, Secrets & Lies, and other getting Best Pic nods, but the big crowd pleasers still won out. It’s fascinating to see how the filmmaking tides have changed.

Here’s the ranking scores from the AwardPicks experts:

10. The English Patient (1996) 7.87

9. Shakespeare in Love (1998) 7.67

8. Titanic (1997) 6.80

7. Dances with Wolves (1990) 6.73

6. Unforgiven (1992) 5.87

5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 4.67

4. American Beauty (1999) 4.60

3. Forrest Gump (1994) 4.27

2. Braveheart (1995) 3.93

1. Schindler’s List (1993) 2.60

[NOTE: Staff writers who voted included Paul Popiel, Steve Neumann, Bryce Van Kooten, Ayinde Waring, Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg. Savanna New, Michaela Zanello, Colin Campbell, Steve Gustafson, Christa Youngpeter, Adam Spunberg, Phil Wallace, Jeremy Martin and Jax Russo]

This time around, my picks did not necessarily jive with the rest (actually, Michaela Zanello and I were pretty much on the same wave length). Nonetheless, I will defend my reasons for ranking a film higher – or lower – than the rest of the voters. Starting with …

10. The English Patient

I’m not at all in line with the mass pop on this one. I ranked the film No. 4 because I truly believe it to be a wonderfully rich and romantic drama –– filled with stunning cinematography, a beautiful epic story and stellar performances by Kristin Scott Thomas, Ralph Fiennes and the Best Supporting Actress winner Juliette Binoche. Of course, I’ll nod when someone comes up to me and says, “How can you like that movie? It’s so friggin’ boring!” (much like the lament of Seinfeld‘s Elaine). I can see their point of view. I just don’t happen to agree because, for me, English Patient makes me sigh in that romantic, wish I were in a bath tub with Ralph Fiennes kind of way AND it’s terrifically well made. The fact English Patient beat Fargo that year was a little troubling, but I would have been happy if either film won — and for very many different reasons. Here’s an extended English Patient trailer, I guess basically for me and Michaela, who also gave it fourth place.

9. Shakespeare in Love

I’m pretty much in agreement with this ranking (eighth place on my list), and there’s a reason we feel this way: How in god’s name could a romantic period piece best the incredibly powerful war drama Saving Private Ryan? It was such an Academy Awards shocker and so inconceivable that you almost had to show some respect to Shakespeare distributor Harvey Weinstein for pulling off the marketing campaign of the millennium. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Shakespeare in Love immensely and will watch it every time it comes on cable. It’s lighthearted, it’s literary, it’s got another cutie Fiennes in it. But it cannot hold a candle to the craftsmanship, the heart and soul of Ryan, which SHOULD be what a Best Picture is all about. I know Steve Spielberg won the accolades just a few years before with Schindler’s List, but still. I think rather than watching a Shakespeare in Love trailer, it’s more befitting to watch the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan – just so you can remember what I’m talking about.

8. Titanic

As No. 7 on my list, Titanic falls into that middle-of-the-road category – not necessarily great but certainly a masterful piece of filmmaking. The first half of is where it falters a bit. The love story between Rose and Jack does what it sets out to do, drawing the audience in, getting them to care about the characters who will either live or die when the ship sinks. But the dialogue is a little too corny, the situations a little too generalized (kind of like Avatar). When the ship hits the iceberg, however, all bets are off. The way Cameron puts us there, showing every conceivable, horrifying detail, is nothing less than spectacular. So, in combination, it still stands as the best disaster movie of all-time and worthy of the Best Picture award. Here’s the trailer:

7. Dances with Wolves

OK, I will fully admit that I am not a big Western fan — save for a few (Unforgiven for example; more on that below) — so my ranking of Wolves in 10th place comes with a little bias. There certainly are plenty of endearing moments in Wolves, but honestly, Kevin Costner’s glorified view on the frontier smacks of one cliché after another. And that last act, oy! Don’t get me started – the minute the bad white men shoot Dunbar’s horse AND the wolf, it completely turns me off. But I think what bothers me the most is how Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas for Best Picture. Again, another clear-cut case of a better film losing out, this time to a sap-fest like Wolves. Here’s a montage from the film – thankfully without dialogue:

6. Unforgiven

Now Unforgiven is a Western I can stand by, also ranking it sixth on my list. It has some of the same markings of the genre – the good but tortured gunslinger, the bad but conflicted gunslinger and some definite ugly in between – but it distinguishes itself with its gritty, realistic take on the Old West. It also has some stellar performances from Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and of course the master Westerner himself, Clint Eastwood, an Academy darling. This film shows the underbelly in a way I’d never seen in a Western, and so I appreciate it more. Here’s a clip that explains it all:

5. The Silence of the Lambs

This is my No. 5 as well. When Silence won, I remember I how impressed I was that the Academy had stepped out of their comfort zone a little and picked the psychological serial killer flick for the first time. But then again, it was the best film of that year, hands down, due in a large part to the incredible performances by Best Actor and Actress winners Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. It’s just one of those films you can watch over and over again – eating liver, fava beans with a nice bottle of Chianti. Here’s the clip:

4. American Beauty

I placed American Beauty a few notches higher at No. 2 for the well, beauty, of it. From Alan Ball’s skewed musings on suburban life to Sam Mendes expert direction to the achingly good performances from Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening and Chris Cooper, the movie is a complete package. It may just be about the little things, but it’s done in such an artistic way, they seem larger than life. And in 1999, American Beauty also sets up what’s to come with independent movies. Here’s a great clip, in which Lester “quits” his job. Classic Spacey:

3. Forrest Gump

Another big disparity in the rankings, since I put Forrest Gump in ninth place on my list. Really, third? It’s an entertaining, feel-good, crowd pleaser, I’ll give you that, but like Dances with Wolves, it just seems like commercial fluff without much substance behind it. And also like Wolves, Gump‘s ending sort of pissed me off. I mean, I get it that Forrest’s inadvertent actions affect historical moments, blah, blah, blah, but to have Jenny die of AIDS? Please. It just goes one step further than it has to. In any event, I’m sure many will disagree with me, since I know some pretty serious Forrest Gump fans, but I would have picked Pulp Fiction or even The Shawshank Redemption over Gump as Best Pic of 1994. Here’s the Forrest Gump trailer:

2. Braveheart

This was third on my list, for obvious reasons. The film is one of those historical period pieces that not only paints graphic, epic battle sequences but tugs at the heart with a central love-revenge story. It has a badass Medieval Scottish hero named William Wallace, fighting for his rights against a British tyranny and the villainous King Edward Longshanks trying to stop him. And lastly, it showed how movie star Mel Gibson actually had some mad directing skills. Who knew? Braveheart is another complete package. Here’s the trailer:

1. Schindler’s List

At least there is one ranking most of us agreed on: Schindler’s List is by far the best film of the 1990s, nee perhaps of the last few decades. Steven Spielberg’s incredibly personal view on the Holocaust is told from the perspective of one real-life German businessman, played brilliantly by Liam Neeson, who used his influences and own money during WWII to save some 300 Jewish people from being killed. And Ralph Fiennes, who I’ll sigh over later in English Patient, plays a pot-bellied, horribly sadistic Nazi. It took me a while to get over that image of him – but I eventually did. Schindler’s List isn’t a movie I can watch very many times, takes too much out of me, but it does stand as a classic to be remembered and revered for years to come. This scene just slays me:

Oscar Decades Series

Completed:

2000s Best Picture
2000s Best Actor
2000s Best Actress
1990s Best Picture

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1990s Best Actor