In the past twenty-five years there have been hundreds of exemplary films released. Some have won prestigious awards or broken box office records while others have earned a significant cult following. Since 1991, there have been a staggering amount of directors who have transformed the medium of film, creating heart wrenching stories told by unforgettable characters. Whether these stories have made us laugh, cry, deceive, or horrify, the films that have made it into the top twenty-five have proven themselves to be absolute masterpieces.
Throughout the past twenty-five years, these brilliant works have been released sporadically so it would not do to simply choose a film from every year. Rather, this article explores the best films regardless of their year of release. And if there are any listed here that you haven’t seen, don’t panic. Instead, consider yourself one of the lucky ones who has some of the greatest moments in cinematic history to look forward to.
25. Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, 2003 + 2004
Originally meant to be released as a 4-hour film, Kill Bill was ultimately re-cut into two films. Volumes 1 and 2 of Quentin Tarantino’s epic martial arts film follows killer Beatrix “Black Mamba” Kiddo (Uma Thurman) on her quest for revenge against the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.” With a hit-list and a samurai sword in hand there is nearly no one deadly enough to stop her. Riddled with cinematic techniques and masterfully choreographed fight scenes, Tarantino creates a violent yet visually pleasing film you’ll watch again and again.
24. Trainspotting, 1996
Directed by Danny Boyle and based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, this dark comedy set in Edinburgh, Scotland, explores the subculture of a group of heroin addicts. Even though it was deemed inappropriate subject matter for the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, it was widely praised by critics. With its stellar cast, quick cuts, and innovative camera work, this slice of life film takes you deep inside the mind of an addict. In 2004, it was voted Best Scottish Film of All Time. Fans can look forward to the sequel set to shoot this May.
23. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000
Known for its surreal fight scenes, this film employs the use of wire fu to create its iconic martial arts sequences. Choreographed by the renowned Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix, Iron Monkey) and directed by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) this martial arts film has become the highest grossing foreign language film in American history. Upon its release in 2000, it received a plethora of awards including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.
22. Children of Men, 2006
This riveting science fiction suspense thriller questions how far humans will go to survive in a world already falling apart. Set in England in 2027, it follows the former activist Theon Faron (Clive Owen) as he struggles to reconcile his past while realizing the key to humanity’s future. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men is truly an apocalyptic work of art that features ambitiously long-takes and a mastery of the Steadicam shot. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing and won the 2008 Nebula award for Best Script.
21. Milk, 2008
Starring Sean Penn, Josh Grolin, and James Franco, this film is about the rise and fall of the legendary activist and politician Harvey Milk. Set in Castro during the 1970’s, the film not only shows Milk’s dangerous journey as an openly gay man in American politics but also demonstrates the nationwide struggle for true equality. This magnificent story of one mans fight for human rights is made all the more poignant through Sean Penn’s performance.
20. Se7en, 1995
This movie is one of the darkest detective thrillers of our time and that’s why you need to watch it. Starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, two detectives attempt to solve the gruesome murders of a wickedly “religious” man. Creatively killing his victims based on the seven deadly sins, the murderer forces the detectives to look inward at their own transgressions and ask the infamous question “What’s in the box?” If you don’t already know the answer to that question then this psychological thriller is for you.
19. The Lion King, 1994
Walt Disney’s animated film The Lion King was more than just another children’s movie, it was a story about betrayal, loss, and revenge. Even though 1994 was an unparalleled year for film, this story about Simba and his return to Pride Rock won two Academy Awards and ranked second at the box office behind Forrest Gump. To date, the film has made almost a billion dollars worldwide proving it can run with the big cats.
18. Birdman, 2014
Released in 2014, Birdman was something that we all needed. In a time where film after film had been released without much thought, substance, or artistry, came director Alejandro González Iñárritu to remind everyone what the medium can accomplish. Intelligent, fast-paced and unique, Birdman follows the rebirth of actor Riggan Thomson from a washed-up Hollywood star into a prestigious Broadway performer. Absolutely magical from start to finish, this film will not go gentle into that good night. Film students, take notes.
17. Fight Club, 1999
Based on the novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher’s Fight Club has become one of the most successful cult films of all time. Starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt this psychological thriller explores the dark sides of mental health and acts a distorted social commentary on consumerism in America. When the Narrator (Edward Norton) begins to lose his grip on reality, he meets an anarchist named Tyler Durden and together they form a fight club. What’s the first rule of fight club? If you don’t know, well, you better go find out.
16. Life is Beautiful, 1997
This Italian comedy-drama film about the Holocaust will make you laugh as hard as you’ll cry. Directed by and starring the imaginative Roberto Benigni, this film shows how the loving relationship between a father and his son is strong enough to mask the horrors of war. In 1999, it was nominated for several Academy Awards, winning four, including Best Actor where Benigni gave his famous acceptance speech. It has since been classified as the highest grossing film in Italy.
15. The Matrix, 1999
In 1999 a cyberpunk science fiction film brought to us by the Wachowski Brothers changed action-movie history. With its popularized visual effects of bullet-time and wire fu, this dystopian film has been widely imitated yet never duplicated. When Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Keanu Reeves) discovers a computer code called “the matrix”, reality as he knows it begins to slip away. Confronted by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Neo is offered a blue pill to forget or a red pill to show him the truth. Swallowing the red pill, Neo is pulled into a crumbling world searching for its savior “the one”. Upon its release The Matrix grossed over $460 million worldwide and was made into a trilogy.
14. Boyz in the Hood, 1991
This 1991 American hood drama directed by John Singleton is a coming-of-age story that follows the young Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) through the dangerous South Central neighborhoods of Inglewood and Crenshaw. Co-starring Laurence Fishburne and Ice Cube, Boyz in the Hood delivers powerhouse performances throughout. In 1992, John Singleton received two nominations (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) making him the youngest person and first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award.
13. The Revenant, 2016
Although The Revenant was just released in 2016, it has already proven to be a film so ambitious, visceral and captivating that it has rightfully earned a place on this list. A definite front runner for this years Academy Awards with 12 nominations, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has once again pushed the boundaries in film. This gripping adventure story follows the experienced trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) through the vast wilderness as he seeks revenge. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, this film rarely offers a moment of reprieve.
12. The Dark Knight, 2008
More than just a superhero film, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a story that takes itself seriously. Set in a near-apocalyptic Gotham city, Batman struggles to dismantle the evil organizations that plague the streets. Most notably are the film’s villains, with Heath Ledger delivering an all-star performance as the Joker and Aaron Eckhart’s riveting transformation from Harvey Dent to Two Face. A major box office success, it made over a billion dollars worldwide.
11. Titanic, 1997
In 1997 something happened to the world, and that something was James Cameron’s box office monster, Titanic. Breaking all kinds of records, it was the first film to make over a billion dollars, bringing it’s lifetime gross to $2,186,772,302. Creatively combining a heart-breaking love story with a full-blown action film, this epic has become not just a money making success, but a film that’s touched millions of people around the world. It was re-released in 2012 as Titanic 3D and earned a cool $57 million. Clearly this is a film we can never let go of.
10. The Usual Suspects, 1995
Known as one of the greatest plot-twists in movie history, this violent suspense thriller is a must see. If you’ve somehow gotten through your life without finding out who the evil Keyser Söze is then congratulations, you’ve accomplished the near impossible. Even though it had a modest theater release, this film that recalls the night of a deadly shootout received critical acclaim including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Starring Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin and Benicio del Toro this infamous mystery will enthrall you.
9. Forrest Gump, 1994
Based on the novel by Winston Groom, Forrest Gump follows the life a boy with a crooked spine and an IQ of 75 through the 1960’s and 70’s. As a boy, Forrest breaks free of his leg braces and goes on to lead an exceptional life that includes fighting in Vietnam, operating a fishing boat and meeting the President of the United States. A charming story of perseverance and dumb luck, this film stars Tom Hanks who won Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Although the film failed to turn a profit in 1994 it has gone on to earn $600 million dollars worldwide.
8. Once Were Warriors, 1994
Based on the novel by Alan Duff and directed by Lee Tamahori, this fast-paced drama takes its audience deep into the Auckland ghetto. Plagued by violence, drug abuse, and poverty, an urban Maori family struggles to reconcile their past as warriors in the crumbling New Zealand landscape. Starring Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison, this film features some of the most staggering on-screen performances of its time, maybe of all time. Upon its release in 1994 it became the top grossing film in New Zealand’s history. Raw and unrelenting, Once Were Warriors is a dark and powerful film that you won’t want to watch alone.
7. Saving Private Ryan, 1998
After all of Private James Ryan’s (Matt Damon) brothers have been killed in action, a group of soldiers are ordered into dangerous territory to find him. Directed by Steven Spielberg, this epic WWII drama is one of the most realistic war movies ever made. With long action scenes, including the graphic twenty-four minute battle at Omaha Beach, the viewer is given a front row seat to the horror whether they like it or not. With unforgettable performances from Tom Hanks and legendary cinematography, Saving Private Ryan earned eleven Academy Award nominations.
6. The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993
Possibly the most creative and original film on this list, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stop-motion masterpiece that takes us into the imaginative world of Halloween Town. Taking more than three years to complete, the production included the sculpting of more that 227 puppets with hundreds of individualized faces. With such attention to detail, it’s no wonder that this film was so widely praised for its success in the visual effects department. Upon its release it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film.
5. The Shawshank Redemption, 1994
The Shawshank Redemption is a film about injustice, survival and friendship. It will break your heart, deceive you, disturb you, yet in the end, you’ll fall in love with this prison drama starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. Even though it received several Oscar nominations, The Shawshank Redemption was only the 51st highest grossing film of 1994. It has since become one of the most popular films of all time, making hundreds of top-ten movie lists worldwide.
4. The Departed, 2006
Finally earning his Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards, this Martin Scorsese crime thriller was as shocking as it was entertaining. A re-make of Infernal Affairs, a film released in Hong Kong in 2002, The Departed follows a young Boston police officer undercover as he infiltrates the Irish Mob. A glorious tragedy that spares no one, The Departed stars Leonardo Dicaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg. At the box office it earned Scorsese $289.8 million, making it his most commercial success if not his most artistic.
3. No Country For Old Men, 2007
Brought to you be the wondrous duo Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men has been hailed as the best Coen brothers movie to date. This deadly story begins when a hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) accidentally stumbles across the aftermath of a horrific crime. Among the dead, Moss finds two million dollars, and instead of reporting what he finds, he takes it. No Country For Old Men is a compelling film rich with violence, symbolism, and dark humor. Based on the novel by renowned author Cormac McCarthy, this Coen brothers film is a tribute to the process of adaptation.
2. Spirited Away, 2001
This enchanting animated film about a ten-year old girl who crosses into the spirit world tackles major themes about greed, power and the murky lines between good and evil. More than a children’s story, this film is a work of philosophical art. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki (who made this film without a script), Spirited Away has become the highest grossing film in Japan’s history earning over 30 billion dollars. That’s right, thirty billion dollars.
1. Pulp Fiction, 1994
This dark comedy starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, and Uma Thurman (to name a few) is the non-linear crime drama of four different plots brilliantly interwoven into one of the best films ever made. Although it’s extremely violent, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary’s screenplay is clever enough to keep you laughing all the way through and with such creative dialogue, it’s no surprise that it won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. As shocking as it has been influential to our time, Pulp Fiction is a film that will always intoxicate you so keep that adrenaline shot handy.