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The Best 10 Movies of 1990s

Ebert's 10 best:

1. "Hoop Dreams" 2. "Pulp Fiction" 3. "GoodFellas" 4. "Fargo" 5. "Three Colors Trilogy": "Blue," "White," and "Red" 6. "Schindler's List" 7. "Breaking the Waves" 8. "Leaving Las Vegas" 9. "Malcolm X" 10. "JFK"

Scorsese's 10 best:

1. "Horse Thief" 2. "The Thin Red Line" 3. "A Borrowed Life" 4. "Eyes Wide Shut" 5. "Bad Lieutenant" 6. "Breaking the Waves" 7. "Bottle Rocket" 8. "Crash" 9. "Fargo" 10. "Malcolm X" and "Heat" (1995) (tie).

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When I asked the director Martin Scorsese to join me on TV selecting the ten best films of the 1990s, I wasn't surprised when only two titles turned up on both our lists. There is no science involved. It is all opinion--subjective, stubborn, sometimes defiant, as we defend the movies that spoke most urgently to us.

Nothing illustrates that more than the top title on Scorsese's list, a Chinese film actually made in 1986. He defends his choice on the grounds that it wasn't widely seen here until 1990--and more to the point, he loved it and passionately wanted to talk about it. My own first choice is a documentary, even though fictional films are probably expected on such lists. But no other film in the 1990s reached me like "Hoop Dreams" did.

Scorsese lists his titles on the show playing this weekend. Here are mine.

1. Hoop Dreams

Sheer chance plays a role in the success of any film, and rarely has it produced more moving results than in this documentary about two Chicago grade-school kids who dream of pro basketball stardom. The film follows Arthur Agee and William Gates through high school; both are recruited by a suburban powerhouse, one ends up back at his neighborhood school, one makes it to the state tournament, the other watches from the stands. A perceptive social document, yes, but because the camera is there at the right time and events turn out as they do, a film where the real-life drama outreaches any fiction film of the decade. Made by Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert.

2. "Pulp Fiction"

Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film was certainly the most influential of the 1990s, inspiring dozens of Sundance wannabes to experiment with circular plot lines and pop-topical dialog references. But what made the film great was its vivid characters and a story that cycled through humor, irony, stylistic invention and sudden violence. QT used generic conventions, but broke free of their payoffs; we thought we knew where we stood, but we didn't. And just before moments of violence he cut away to perfectly-timed reaction shots, redeeming laughter from what in lesser hands would have been gore. Inventive, fresh, endlessly entertaining.

3. "GoodFellas"

Martin Scorsese's 1990 movie starred Ray Liotta in the based-on-fact story of Henry Hill, a mid-level mobster who talked to the feds and disappeared into witness protection. The film follows Hill's progress through the mob, from starstruck kid to flashy spender to coke-addled paranoid. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino have key roles in a film where the logic of the mob code produces both humor and moments of heart-stopping violence (Pesci's instantaneous recognition of his own inevitable death is a supreme film event). As the fed's net tightens around Henry Hill in the closing scenes, Scorsese subtly increases the tempo, until we seem to be running right along with him.

4. "Fargo"

The decade's supreme human comedy, starring Frances McDormand as the police chief of Brainard, N.D., who trudges through deep snows, comforts her hubby and plunders hotel buffets while unraveling the foolish schemes of a car salesman (William H. Macy). He only wants to get some money out of his father-in-law, but sets in motion a kidnapping and a bloodbath. Ethan and Joel Coen's dialog gently kids Minnesota speech patterns while lovingly showing ordinary folks in extraordinary situations. Macy's desperate attempts at damage control are doomed and hilarious; McDormand creates one of the screen's unforgettable characters. The snowbound landscape sets an atmosphere both beautiful and forbidding. (This film, "Breaking the Waves" and "Malcolm X" made Scorsese's list as well as mine.)

5. "Three Colors Trilogy": "Blue," "White" and "Red"

The late Polish director Krystof Kieslowski flowered during the decade. After ending the 1980s with "The Decalogue," 10 hour-long films whose modern stories mirrored the Ten Commandments, he entered the 1990s with "The Double Life of Veronique" and then made "Blue" (1993), "White" and "Red" (both 1994). Inspired by the French goals of liberty, equality and fraternity, they dealt boldly with coincidence, synchronicity, and unexpected connections between people seemingly not destined to meet. Like Tarantino, Kieslowski allowed his plots to circle and loop; his leading performances by Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob were masterful portraits of intelligent women trying to puzzle their way through the contradictions of fate.

6. "Schindler's List"

Steven Spielberg's Holocaust epic affirmed the worth of ethical conduct even in seemingly hopeless circumstances. Liam Neeson starred as Oskar Schindler, a German gentile who opened a munitions factory in Nazi-occupied Poland and employed Jews at starvation wages. His ostensible goal was to become rich. By the end of the war he had saved the lives of hundreds of Jews and defrauded the Nazis with a factory that never produced a single usable shell. Those he saved were a small number compared to the millions who died, but his act affirmed humanity in the midst of evil. Spielberg's film shows the Holocaust in vivid and terrible detail, extracts a small story of hope from it, and ends with the overwhelming emotional impact of those who survived because of Schindler, and their descendants, visiting his grave.

7. "Breaking the Waves"

Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" (1996) hammers at conventional morality with the belief that God not only sees all, but understands and forgives a great deal more than we give Him credit for. Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard, newcomers at the time, star in the story of a romance between a rough oil-rig worker and a simple village girl who is transfixed, and transformed, by love. When an accident brings the man near death, her own faith comes into conflict with the stern teachings of her church elders, and then, in a moment of great symbolic force, her fierce convictions are affirmed by heaven itself.

8. "Leaving Las Vegas"

I admire films that go for broke, that push the emotional boundaries, that are not timid in their exploration of human extremes. Mike Figgis's "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995) centers on a Nicolas Cage performance that shows a man drowning in an alcoholic crack-up. An early scene, in which he tries to appear jocular while his brain seems about to fly apart, creates tension that the film never releases. He goes to Vegas to drink himself to death, encounters a call girl (Elisabeth Shue) who is touched by his suffering, and finds a kind of redemption even as his life spirals away. Shooting quickly in 16mm, Figgis was able to capture fragile human emotions on the run.

9. "Malcolm X "

Spike Lee's 1992 biography of the Black Muslim leader was a continuation, in a way, of the choice presented at the end of his "Do the Right Thing" (1989) between the nonviolence of Martin Luther King and Malcolm's starker vision. Denzel Washington's performance was strong but also supple, showing the way life and experience changed and shaped Malcolm on his journey from a street kid to a leader whose philosophy was broadening even at the moment of his assassination. Like so many of Lee's films, an exercise in empathy, in which we are not simply confronted by Malcolm, but allowed to identify with him.

10. "JFK"

Not a factual film about the Kennedy assassination, but truthful and accurate in the way it depicts how millions of Americans feel about his death. We are sure the whole truth has not been told, that dark conspiracies played out, that the guilty remained unidentified. And Oliver Stone's 1991 film plays on that paranoia with its brilliant mixture of styles and tones, starring Kevin Costner as a district attorney who is convinced he knows the answer to the mystery. Breathtakingly paced, filmed with dead-on period accuracy, capturing the whole hidden world of the Rubys and Shaws and others exposed to the glare of JFK conspiracy-hunters.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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