The year 1994 was undeniably a remarkable year for cinema. It was also the year I started to get into film. Even at age 12, my parents were kind enough to get me my own movie rental card and let me rent R-Rated movies without their permission. This might seem unorthodox, but my two step-parents (shoutout to Julia Butler and Ron Helge) understood I was watching films for the artistic merits as they both talked my biological parents (Jean White and late Rob Butler Sr.) into letting me rent these films. After all, what 12-year-old kid was watching Siskel and Ebert every Sunday morning, reading Leonard Maltin books, and waking up early Friday mornings to read what Roger Ebert thought of the recent new release in the local newspaper marquee section? I am blessed to live through such an era, especially in a year of so many iconic films that are still cherished and remembered to this day, and 1994 is easily one of the most accomplished years for cinema in the decade, with 1999 being the true triumph of the decade. There are many great titles that were released in different parts of the world that year that weren’t released in the United States until 1995 or 1996, including Chungking Express, Exotica, Once Were Warriors, Priest, and Il Postino, to name just a few. Like I do now, I go by the North America theatrical release date over festival dates. Reflecting back to 1994, it’s inconceivable just how much of a landmark year it was for cinema. Here are the finest films from 1994:

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Courtesy Miramax Films

1. Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

The defining movie of 1994–and perhaps the entire 90’s decade—is Pulp Fiction, the sophomore film by Quentin Tarantino. This remains his greatest achievement to date, which is quite impressive considering his exceptional filmography so far. Thirty years later, audiences and movie lovers still quote the razor-sharp dialogue and vividly recall his iconic characters and lurid subject matter. The non-linear film follows Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), who play hitmen who discuss cheeseburgers, foot massages, and philosophy. Their story is interwoven with other characters and stories involving their crime boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames); his failed actress wife, Mia (Uma Thurman); an opportunist prizefighter, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis); a problem fixer, Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel); and a spontaneous couple that plan to rob the diner they eat at, “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer). The script was rejected by every studio for being “too confusing,” which spurred producer Lawrence Bender and executive producer Danny DeVito to finance the film independently.  Pulp Fiction won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, generated huge critical acclaim, became a box-office smash, and won Tarantino a Best Original Screenplay Oscar (alongside Roger Avary).

Pulp Fiction has a timeless quality, and not only because of Tarantino’s brilliant dialogue and memorable exchanges. The setting of the film doesn’t feel restricted to any certain era because it holds the aesthetics and tones of 50s noir, 70s exploitation, and 80s crime movies while feeling modern at the same time. Tarantino also plants cinematic nuggets throughout the film, reminding audiences that they are watching cinema as a whole, playing brilliant homages to the films he loves. There are also fascinating ambiguities in the film that still piques curiosity all these years. Examples include Vince shooting Marvin (Phil Lamar); is Butch’s girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) pregnant with her talk about potbellies and big pancake breakfasts? And, of course, the big MacGuffin of what’s exactly in the glowing suitcase. While the movie’s enormous popularity has frustrated many modern film buffs with a sense of its oversaturation in pop culture and over celebration in film bro culture, one cannot deny how impactful the film is. Tarantino’s directing is also technically impressive, his writing is arguably his sharpest in his oeuvre, both amusing and exhilarating, and the cast is first-rate. Reflecting back, there is no denying just how revelatory it was, and Pulp Fiction still remains a substantial piece of cinema today.

Hoop Dreams Courtesy Janus Pictures

2. Hoop Dreams (d. Steve James)

Hoop Dreams is an emotionally charged documentary centering around two teenage boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who travel 90 minutes from inner-city Chicago to the suburban private school St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, to play basketball where their NBA hero Isiah Thomas once played. Gates and Agree dream of making it to the NBA, and through the course of three hours, documentary filmmaker Steve James takes us on an engrossing journey through four years of their entire high school basketball career.

We follow them through the challenges and obstacles that stem from finances, injuries, and other setbacks they endure with their families. We also see the triumphs, both small and large, that bring a great level of dignity and hope throughout the film. It’s a stunning documentary in both its humanism and humility. Sadly, Steve James’ documentary received no recognition from the Academy Awards. This egregious oversight angered legendary film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, as they took the Academy to task for overlooking such an extraordinary feat of documentary filmmaking. Thirty years later, few documentaries leave as lasting an impression as Hoop Dreams. 

Three Colors: Red (1994) Courtesy Janus Films

3. Three Colors: Red (d. Krzysztof Kieślowski)

The third and final film in the Three Colors trilogy and the final film by Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski (who died just a few years after the film’s release) the Three Colors trilogy still lives up to its acclaim today. Each film has different protagonists but exists in the same universe where the characters eventually cross paths. Three Colors: Red was released a year after Three Colors: Blue, and mere months after Three Colors: White, in which a model Valentine (Irène Jacob) encounters a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) after she accidentally runs into his dog with her vehicle. The judge insists that she keeps the dog as a gift, so she ends up healing it and getting attached to it until the dog runs back to the judge’s home. She then discovers him wiretapping his neighbors’ telephone conversations. Irene feels disturbed by his voyeurism, but they end up forming an unlikely bond where they heal their own imperfections and emotional wounds.

Jacob and Trintignant are so organic in their interactions together that the arcs feel earned. Both austere and moving, the film is an engrossing meditation on how each of us can play a pivotal role in the people we encounter. It’s also a very ravishing film with so many intoxicating images in its red color palette. With a conclusion that will leave you speechless with its rich themes and layers.

Forrest Gump (1994) | MUBI Courtesy Paramount Pictures

4. Forrest Gump (d. Robert Zemeckis)

Unlike many other modern film buffs and critics, I have never grown exhausted of Robert Zemeckis’s endearing Forrest Gump. To me, this is his greatest accomplishment, quite something considering  he made Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Cast Away. I went into a recent rewatch with some doubts after hearing many film buffs now dismissing it. But the recent revisit was every bit as wonderful as my first experience. Combining a successful number of tonal shifts and a very strong central figure, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), a slow-witted man who lives a life with many accomplishments thanks to his loving mother (Sally Field).

We follow his journey as a top punt returner for the University of Alabama to serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where he earned a Medal of Honor, then lived out the wishes of fellow soldier and friend Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) by captaining a shrimp boat that paved the way for Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Forrest might remain oblivious to the challenges of time’s presented ranging from the Civil Rights movement to Vietnam War protests, but his optimism, buoyancy, and lack of cynicism inspire people, including his Army superior Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) and childhood love Jenny (Robin Wright), who is sweet but often runs from her troubles. The film’s design is earnest, resorting to Forrest’s own perspective that hovers over America’s cultural history. This was the big winner at the 1994 Oscars, stoking bitterness among cinephiles for beating out Pulp Fiction that year. Yeah, it might be a studio film, but Zemeckis’s direction is so technically impressive while the writing was so poignant. Plus, you can’t help being moved by Hanks’ heartfelt performance that brought out such an iconic and celebrated character that continues to live on in our hearts and minds.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) | MUBI Courtesy Sony Entertainment

5. The Shawshank Redemption (d. Frank Darabont)

Horror master Stephen King’s film adaptations are often hit-or-miss, but The Shawshank Redemption has always been considered one of the more satisfying adaptations by writer-director Frank Darabont, who also helmed two other King adaptations–The Green Mile and The Mist–with effective results. His adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption is considered a highlight of 1990s cinema, with a glorious vision and contemplative themes of innocence, remorse, and the plight for humane incarceration and rehabilitation.

Through Freeman’s poetic narration as the character Red, we learn about his experiences and friendship with a fellow inmate named Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins), a tax attorney who is sentenced to life in prison for the murders of his adulterous wife and her lover. Andy maintains his innocence with Red and other fellow inmates, but ends up experiencing harsh brutalities. He soon adapts and uses his skills to help the warden and guards with their taxes. Like Brian De Palma’s Carrie adaptation and Darabont’s own The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption holds the most soul in the human condition in this visually impressive, moving, and powerful experience.  There isn’t one wasted moment in this compelling film, especially the rewarding and triumphant third act.

Natural Born Killers (1994) Courtesy Warner Bros.

6. Natural Born Killers (d. Oliver Stone)

Polarizing filmmaker Oliver Stone continued with his provocations, turning in Quentin Tarantino’s earlier grindhouse road movie drafts where Stone added more of his trademark social and political subtext. Natural Born Killers lives right up there with JFK as one of his most visually innovative and formally daring film. Cinematographer Robert Richardson creates a stylistically bold and intoxicating vision by effectively experimenting with various film aesthetics and tones, helping the film observe and question society’s frayed fabric and immunity to desensitized violence in media and culture.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are memorable as Mickey and Mallory Know, two young mass murderers who were victims of childhood abuse (by Rodney Dangerfield!) yet become instant sensations in the media, led by tabloid reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) As Mickey and Mallory maneuver through a brutal killing-spree desert road trip, both the corrupt Wayne and sadistic FBI agent Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) are hot on their trail. Stone’s most controversial film is also his most groundbreaking as he brilliantly illustrates the brutal and tragic ways how humanity, society, and the media can be. Three decades on, NBK is less a time capsule  than a prescient horrorscope of the future, as the violence and media sensationalism that Stone satirizes and condemns in the film has tragically only gotten worse.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994) | MUBI Courtesy Shout! Studios

7. Bullets Over Broadway (d. Woody Allen)

The 1990s were a highly productive and creative era for Woody Allen, one of my favorite living filmmakers. With Bullets Over Broadway, he delivered perhaps his sharpest film of the decade, but oddly, it stands apart from so many of his other films. Sure, it’s witty and contemplative like his previous films, but perhaps it’s the casting that stands out, as Allen casts the fresh faces of a first-rate ensemble cast that he never used before, such as John Cusack, Diane Weist, Jennifer Tilly, Jim Broadbent, Rob Reiner, and Chazz Palminteri. He pens a love letter to the roaring 20s, Broadway, the creative process, and, of course, to love as a whole. Allen proved he was still in top form, making a hilarious romp about a struggling playwright named David Shayne (Cusack), who ends up compromising his upcoming play to mob boss Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), who only agrees to fund the production if he agrees to cast his half-wit girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), an unskilled actress, to play one of the leads.

However, David’s play still holds promise once he also gets to direct it, and he ends up casting Broadway veteran Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), with whom he falls in love, while being engaged to Lily (Mary-Louise Parker). Meanwhile, as the cast feuds, something is a little off with the play’s story and dialogue, in which Olive’s mobster bodyguard Cheech (Palminteri) ends up making unsolicited opinions on how to tweak up David’s script. Woody Allen always keeps the comedic momentum going, dealing with the uncertainty of creativity and even life—the possibility of trying to be something you aren’t. With so many impressive, superb dialogue exchanges and vibrant characters across the board, watching Bullets Over Broadway 30 years later still has holding power and one that feels personal in how artistry will always be comprised of egos, collaborations, compromises, and uncertainty. However, it’s the journey that will never go out of style.

Ed Wood (1994)

Buena Vista Home Entertainment

8. Ed Wood (d. Tim Burton)

Tim Burton has always been a filmmaker who enjoys buoyant and outcasted characters enduring adversities that end up rendering human lives in full. Ed Wood is right up there with Raging Bull, I’m Not There, and now Priscilla as being one of the most unconventional biopics to be released that is about the “worst director” of all-time, Ed Wood. Burton concreates only on the era of Ed Wood, from his feature film debut of Glen or Glenda (1953) to Bride of the Monster (1955) and tops of it with the backstage drama of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957). The narrative he creates blends facts with some fiction, ultimately making a darkly amusing and equally poignant tale of no matter how “bad” a film or filmmaker is, it’s the collaborations that actually matter.

Burton uses Johnny Depp (in top form) as the titular role of Ed Wood and the late Martin Landau in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Hollywood horror legend Bela Lugosi to bring a melancholic emotional empathy to the screenplay. The film, which is about Wood trying to make it in show business despite being rejected by condescending Hollywood producers. He builds a friendship and collaboration with Lugosi, where Wood hires a dedicated cast and crew of show-business outcasts that believe in his DIY vision. We follow their journey through a series of low-budget odd films that never reach critical or commercial success, but they create a familial bond that renders some of the sincerest moments Burton has ever created. The quick moment of Ed Wood filming Bela Lugosi leaving his house and observing the small flowers in his last days of life is undeniably poignant. Ed Wood is fulfilling and moving, as well as one of the most impressive films about filmmaking ever made.

Sátántangó (1994)

Arbelos Films

9. Sátántangó  (d. Béla Tarr) 

Bela Tarr’s seven-hour film Sátántangó is quite the artful cinematic experience that took about 14 years to be theatrically released in North America. It was never released in art-house theaters in the 90s and eventually found its audience in the late 2000s after its theatrical and DVD release, which has only grown over the years in part to Torrents, the Blu-Ray release, and streaming. Thirty years later, the desolate aura of the film feels prophetic, as many of Hungary’s regions live below the poverty line. Even though the setting of the film takes place during the fall of Communism, a small village and its inhabitants struggle to sustain themselves after a factory closes down. Many of the characters slip into alcoholism, depression, and other forms of misery. The doctor (Putyi Horvath) has become drunk and sick; a villager, Irimias (Mihay Vig), returns to the village after much thought to be set; and a few couples wait patiently for their remaining severance pay. There are other interludes as well involving a young girl torturing her pet cat that reflect the cruelty and demoralization in the village, and the village residents ends up relocating to another village, only to find more desolation.

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel of the same time, the film imbricates itself with an apocalyptic tale on the cruelties of time and how they eventually lead to people and communities’ own demise and desolation. The ravishing imagery of Tarr’s decay and visual poetry taps into the human experience that is affected by these harsh truths—a somberness that is also blunt, bleak, but undeniably fascinating. Tarr’s impeccable craftmanship, along with cinematographer Gábor Medvigy’s immaculate aesthetics and imagery, brilliantly examine the morally contaminated village eroding in time. This is a cinematic thread that weaves together the ruins Communism has left in Hungary and Europe, but the film reminds us just how that the successor system will lead to indifference and nihilism.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) Courtesy Miramax Films

10. Heavenly Creatures (d. Peter Jackson)

Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures is superbly crafted film that is a hybrid of period pieces, psychological drama, fantasy, and thriller genres. Jackson channels the excitement of a bonding friendship and the alienation that comes from repression. Focusing on the friendship of a precocious teenager, Juliet (Kate Winslet), who just moved from England to New Zealand, ends up forming a strong friendship with Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), an introverted teenager who discovers she shares a lot of the same interests, including their love for Mario Lanzo, and they become inseparable, writing stories, inventing their own fantasies, and even their own fantastical world. The effects of The Fourth Wall hold up very well too, as they are still impressive, and they remain insightful departures from the mundane conformity of the outside world.

The girl’s friendship comes to a halt after their parents both agree that the friendship is getting unhealthy, and they force the girls apart, which leads to more angst. Jackson has an uncanny ability to link the characters longings with the genre bending that heightens their anxieties and longings, up until the unsettling climax that is based on real events. At once playful, the film’s masterful achievement comes in how Jackson taps into the teenage psyche, offering the viewer a lens of what could carry out such a brooding tragedy.

Runners-Up (In Alphabetical World)

The Crow (1994) | MUBI Courtesy Miramax Films

The Crow (d. Alex Proyas)

The late Brandon Lee, who tragically died while working on The Crow, delivered a mesmerizing performance, bringing life to an unforgettable and iconic character. Lee plays Eric Craven, a supernatural avenger who rises from the dead to track down the murderous thugs that took the lives of him and his fiancée Shelly Webster’s on Devil’s Night the year prior. Ernie Hudson plays Darryl Albrecht, the officer who investigated the murder case, and Rochelle Davis plays Shelley’s niece Sarah, who joins Eric as allies in tracking down Top-Dollar (Michael Wincott), the ringleader of a ruthless mastermind behind the brutal murders.

Director Alexa Proya and writers David J. Schow and John Shirley transcend a basic revenge story with a human side about grieving, healing, and trauma. The Crow also has extraordinary set pieces and impressive visuals that give it its staying power. The film has been so influential ever since that even pro-wrestling legend Sting utilized the Crow gimmick up until his retirement from the ring. Most importantly, Brandon Lee’s legacy carries on.

Interview with the Vampire (1994) | MUBI Courtesy Warner Bros.

Interview with the Vampire (d. Neil Jordan)

Along with Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare and John Capenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, 1994 was quite a strong year for horror films, and Interview with the Vampire was the most outstanding horror film of that year. Director Neil Jordan, coming off the success of the stylish The Crying Game, once again crafts this contemplative, stylish, and maddening masterwork. An elegant period piece that bounces between modern day and the 18th century is about a two-hundred-year-old vampire named Louis (Brad Pitt), who tells his story to his biographer (Christian Slater).

Louis recounts how his depression led to his transition into a vampire after encountering Lestat (Tom Cruise), a vampire who coerces him to become his long-life vampiric companion. As Louis doesn’t approve of Lestat’s violent methods, he ends up getting manipulated into staying with Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), a young girl who is also turned into a vampire by Louis, with whom he forms a bond. But tensions arise and things grow more dangerous; ultimately, like The Crying Game, Jordan raises conundrums on conflict, loyalty, love, and the nature of a person’s true identity. Jordan utilizes Anne Rice’s novel and the adapted screenplay that she also wrote with brilliant effect.

The Lion King (1994) | MUBI Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

The Lion King (d. Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers)

One of Disney’s finest accomplishments, The Lion King raised the bar for family film storytelling and astounding voice acting, as well as great character arcs and an incredible screenplay. This is certainly a highlight of not only of 90s cinema but of the whole animation genre as well. Directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers brought great artistry and heart into their stories about adversity, tragedy, and courage. The saga follows young lion cub Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), who is heir to his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones).

Sadly, Simba’s envious uncle, Scar (Jeremy Irons), teams up a clan of laughing hyaena’s and forms a plot to dethrone Mufasa and kill Simba during a stampede of wildebeests. Simba escapes and lives in exile in a secluded jungle where he is raised by a meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane) and his warthog friend Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Most Disney entertainments always pay great attention to their artistry and storytelling. This one superbly pushes the realms of what Disney can do as it adds tragedy and sadness and eventually triumphs. There are many reassuring scenes throughout that show how nature and life go in full circles; the very final scene is towering and moves me every time.

Quiz Show (1994) | MUBI Courtesy Walt Disney

Quiz Show (d. Robert Redford)

This kind of film, based on true events, has all the hallmarks of being so-called Oscar bait. However, Robert Redford keeps the material gripping with its moral conundrums and superb writing by former film critic Paul Attanasio. Based on actual events about Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a Queens bon genius and game show contestant who remained undefeated for a substantial period of time on America’s top-rated game show, Twenty-One, Once ratings begin to plunge, the network producers decide to bring in the more savvy and handsome Columbia English professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) to end Herbie’s streak. The reptilian producers feed Van Doren the questions in advance while pressuring Herbie to take a dive on the embarrassingly easy question (at that time): “What motion picture won the Academy Award for 1955?”

Chagrined and humiliated, Herbie turns whistleblower, while Charles, who is part of an academically accomplished family, feels uneasy about the unethical practices he participated in with the networks. It’s a film about the ethics of show business and just how scandalous it can be.

Speed (1994)

21st Century Fox

Speed (d. Jan De Bont)

The year 1994 was quite memorable for action films as well. Not only with The Crow and James Cameron’s True Lies, which just missed the list, but it was the era that knew how to deliver the action sensation. Veteran Dutch cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Jan de Bont turned in what stands as one of the greatest action films from the 90s with Speed. His extensive experience behind the camera shows in his extravagantly staged action scenes. His experience as cinematographer for other big movies like Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, and Basic Instinct, gives his direction a veteran quality in his directorial debut. After watching the film for 30 years, the action is still jaw-dropping and quite suspenseful.

A Los Angeles police officer named Jack (Keanu Reeves) builds a rivalry with retired bomb squad agent Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper), who plants a bomb on a bus of hostages that will blow up if the speed drops below 50 miles per hour. In return, Howard wants a few million dollars dropped off at a certain location. Jack gets on the bus, where he enlists the help of feisty passenger Annie (Sandra Bullock), while he and his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) attempt to save as many passengers as possible, while outsmarting the deranged Payne, who monitors their every move. After watching a whole generation of action films come and go since its release, Speed has undeniably made a lasting and influential imprint on the genre.

To Live (1994) | MUBI

To Live (d. Zhang Yimou)

Zhang Yimou was on quite the artistic streak in the 90s, with many stellar period pieces of that time with such titles as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju. His 1994 historical drama To Live continued on this artistic momentum. Based on Yu Hau’s 1993 novel of the same name, the story follows a family’s life through adversity and hardships over many decades, starting from the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s to Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. The film feels very much like a memory piece, where we follow the father (You), who has a gambling addiction and loses their savings and family home. This causes his wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li), to leave him, which leads him to join a traveling theater troupe, and he ends up enlisting in the Chinese Army. Jiazhen ends up returning to him with their baby daughter. Many other challenges arise, but Fugi and Jiazhen stay strong amidst their afflictions. To Live is so personal and so affecting that it remains a highlight in Yimou’s impressive filmography, using his historical perspective to find great empathy as life flows through the essence of memory, time, and history.

Honorable Mentions

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (d. Stephan Elliott)
Clerks (d. Kevin Smith)
Crooklyn (d. Spike Lee)
Dumb and Dumber (d. Peter Farrelly)
Eat Drink Man Woman (d. Ang Lee)
Leon: The Professional (d. Luc Besson)
The Last Seduction (d. John Dahl)
Murial’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan)
Serial Mom (d. John Waters)
Strawberry and Chocolate (d. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Juan Carlos Tabío)
Through the Olive Trees (d. Abbas Kiarostami)
True Lies (d. James Cameron)
Vanya on 42nd Street (d. Louis Malle)
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (d. Wes Craven)
Wild Reeds (d. André Téchiné)

**Don’t worry!! Crumb, Exotica, Once We Were Warriors, and Priest will be covered in my 1995 Retrospective. Chungking Express made my 1996 list.