19 Best Movies & Shows Released in 1990

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 1990. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

It’s hard to overstate just how lovely — and quietly radical — this largely improvised Canadian docudrama is. The scenario (seven elderly women and their tour bus driver are stranded in the Canadian wilderness for a few days) is contrived, but the rich, lively conversations that feature are all drawn from the women’s real lives. As they hunker down and get on with the business of surviving with meager food — something they manage to do largely thanks to the bushcraft skills of Mohawk elder Alice — the strangers reflect on their long lives and open up to each other about their lingering fears and still-burning hopes.

They’re a diverse bunch — featuring Cockney transplants, lesbian pioneers, and nuns — and the film’s brief cuts to real photos from the women’s earlier years both underscore the rawness of what they’re saying and serve as testaments to the rich fullness of their lives. The Company of Strangers grants these women the kind of serious consideration and space that they’re denied in so many public spaces, but it never feels like a strained exercise in redressing that imbalance. Instead, this is simply a gentle, gorgeous, and profoundly moving portrait of women who aren’t done living yet.

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Actor: Alice Diabo, Beth Webber, Catherine Roche, Cissy Meddings, Constance Garneau, Michelle Sweeney, Winifred Holden

Director: Cynthia Scott

The apex of Abbas Kiarostami’s monumental filmography, Close-Up is a testament to the late directors’ ingenuity and humanism. Kiarostami documents the real-life trial of a man who impersonated fellow Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and ingratiated himself to a family believing him to be the real deal. The courtroom drama and interviews are fascinating enough, but Kiarostami takes it one step further by having everyone involved reenact the events as they happened.

The result is an unparalleled piece of filmmaking that blurs the boundaries between documentary and narrative while posing vital questions about the exclusivity of cinema and the storytelling process. Despite its sophisticated constructions, Kiarostami’s direction is lucid and direct as it builds to a passionate and unforgettable conclusion.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Drama

Actor: Abbas Kiarostami, Hossain Farazmand, Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Monoochehr Ahankhah

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

With its 69-minute runtime, ultra-minimalist approach to camera movement, and dialogue so sparse it could fit onto a single page, the first word that comes to mind when describing The Match Factory Girl is “lean.” The second word is “bleak”: for most of the film’s slight duration, we watch as the lonely titular character (Iris, played by Kati Outinen) passively endures a relentless barrage of cruelties, whether from her coldly detached parents, callous love interest, or simply fate itself. 

And yet, these words — apt descriptors of the film as they are — only capture part of what makes The Match Factory Girl such a magnetic and unforgettable watch. When a late twist sees the film swerve into even darker territory, director Aki Kaurismäki’s twin approaches fuse into one that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Rendered in his characteristic deadpan style, the shocking event becomes sardonically funny — a gutsy move that only a real master of tone, as Kaurismäki is, could pull off.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Elina Salo, Esko Nikkari, Kati Outinen, Klaus Heydemann, Outi Mäenpää, Reijo Taipale, Richard Reitinger, Silu Seppälä, Vesa Vierikko

Director: Aki Kaurismäki

One of the most notable avant-garde filmmakers, Su Friedrich is both a tour-de-force of documentary filmmaking and queer cinema. In Sink or Swim, Friedrich explores the complicated dynamic between a distant, work-oriented father and young daughter longing for his attention, approval, and love.

At just barely 45 minutes, Sink or Swim is cinematic poetry. The movie slowly unfolds across six vulnerable vignettes, through which Friedrich invites the viewer to meditate on the past alongside her. Through photographs, archival footage, and loose narrative storytelling, Freidrich shows that storytelling is a way of both healing the past and learning to live with its ghostly figures.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Jessica Meyerson

Director: Su Friedrich

Don’t be fooled by its obvious parallels to Ghost (not a bad film, but a very different one): Truly, Madly, Deeply isn’t much concerned with the supernatural logistics of its back-from-the-dead-boyfriend premise, and it doesn’t feature any psychics or murders, either. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that everything that takes place here happens in its protagonist's imagination — that’s how much it ignores the ‘how’ of it all.

Instead, this deeply warm rom-com from the great Anthony Minghella grapples head-on with the emotional challenges of grief and moving on. Juliet Stevenson’s performance as the bereft Nina is up there as one of the most moving portrayals of loss the screen has seen, and not just because of how believable her intense cry-acting is. When she realizes her deceased boyfriend Jamie (Alan Rickman, as seductive and sardonic as always) has returned to the land of the living, her euphoria brings to aching life the dream that everyone who’s ever lost a loved one must surely have dreamt: how joyous it would be to see them again. Blending such raw observations with wry humor — and anchored by two leads with genuine chemistry — this is a profoundly moving and rewarding movie.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance, TV Movie

Actor: Alan Rickman, Arturo Venegas, Bill Paterson, Christopher Rozycki, David Ryall, Deborah Findlay, Eddie Vincent, Frank Baker, Heather Williams, Jenny Howe, Juliet Stevenson, Keith Bartlett, Mark Long, Michael Maloney, Nitin Ganatra, Richard Syms, Stella Maris, Teddy Kempner, Terry Molloy, Tony Bluto, Vania Vilers

Director: Anthony Minghella

Forlorn longing envelops Days of Being Wild, where the act of dreaming is as valuable as its actual fulfillment. “You’ll see me tonight in your dreams,” Yuddy tells Su Li-zhen on their first meeting, and indeed, this line of dialogue sets the film’s main contradiction: would you rather trap yourself in the trance-like beauty of dreams or face the unpleasant possibilities of reality? Wong Kar-wai’s characters each have their own answers, with varying subplots intersecting through the consequences of their decisions. In the end, happiness comes in unexpected ways, granted only to those brave enough to wake up and dream again.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alicia Alonzo, Andy Lau, Anita Mui, Carina Lau, Hung Ling-Ling, Jacky Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Maritoni Fernandez, Rebecca Pan, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai

Director: Kar-Wai Wong, Wong Kar-wai

Rating: Not Rated

An old friend shows up on the doorstep of a happy family home and brings a whirlwind of trouble with him. Charles Burnett’s startling parable is tinged with magic and creeping danger. It digs into the tensions between African American folklore of the rural South and the assimilated middle-class lifestyle out West. 

This rift takes the form of Harry, whose disquieting presence throws his old friend Gideon’s Los Angeles home into disarray. Danny Glover is captivating as the devilish visitor, delivering each line with playful ease and simmering menace. Burnett’s sly narrative doesn’t boil down to good and evil but instead offers a layered and enigmatic exploration of identity.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Carl Lumbly, Cory Curtis, Danny Glover, Davis Roberts, DeForest Covan, DeVaughn Nixon, Ethel Ayler, Jimmy Witherspoon, Julius Harris, Mary Alice, Paul Butler, Paula Bellamy, Reina King, Richard Brooks, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Sy Richardson, Vonetta McGee, Wonderful Smith

Director: Charles Burnett

The walk-and-talk roots of the Before Trilogy are traceable to this low-budget cult movie from writer-director Richard Linklater, which came five years before our first introduction to Celine and Jesse. Rather than follow a single, winding conversation, though, Slacker hops from character to character every few minutes, and we never meet them again. In fact, we rarely even learn their names, which makes the credits a particular pleasure to watch as it identifies cast members with wry monikers like “Dostoyevsky wannabe,” “Ultimate loser,” and “Scooby Doo philosopher.”

Shot in Linklater’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, the movie captures the city’s uniquely alternative vibe — or, as one character succinctly puts it, “This town has always had its share of crazies.” Conversations range from the spaced-out to the flat-out paranoid, a fair amount of the movie’s ragtag band being partial to conspiracy theories, from the well-worn (JFK's death) or the more bizarre (the real meaning behind The Smurfs). With its freewheeling approach to narrative, Slacker shares the lovable weirdness of its characters, as attested to by its enduring status as a cult classic.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Athina Rachel Tsangari, Bob Boyd, Charles Gunning, Clark Walker, D. Montgomery, Deborah Pastor, Kim Krizan, Mark James, Richard Linklater, Robert Jacks, Tommy Pallotta

Director: Richard Linklater

In Ken Loach’s conspiracy thriller, an American human rights activist (Frances McDormand) and a no-nonsense UK police officer (Brian Cox) work tirelessly to uncover the truth behind a suspicious death — but this is no rousing triumph of good over evil, only a bitter pill about corruption and complicity. Human rights lawyer Paul (Brad Dourif) and girlfriend Ingrid (McDormand) are in Troubles-era Belfast wrapping up their report into the UK government’s shoot-to-kill policy when Paul is shot dead by mysterious assailants while on his way to speak to an informant. Police investigator Kerrigan (Cox) is flown in from England to look into the death; Cox plays him as a stickler for the rules and fierce agent of justice, inspired by a real-life official who was abruptly suspended from the police before he could deliver his findings into the UK government’s alleged death squad in Northern Ireland.

But the network of high-level corruption that Kerrigan and Ingrid uncover poses a direct challenge to those values, ultimately forcing him to choose between revealing the conspiracy — and risk destroying his life — or concealing the truth and betraying his ethics. A fascinating look at the slippery slope to complicity, this is a gripping, unabashedly ideological conspiracy thriller blending Hollywood polish with gritty reality.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bernard Archard, Bernard Bloch, Brad Dourif, Brian Cox, Brian McCann, Des McAleer, Frances McDormand, George Staines, Ian McElhinney, Jim Norton, John Benfield, John Keegan, Llew Gardner, Mai Zetterling, Maurice Roëves, Michelle Fairley, Oliver Maguire, Patrick Kavanagh, Paul Moriarty

Director: Ken Loach

Rating: R

Although it opens on Janet Frame’s first steps as a baby, this Jane Campion-directed biopic of the celebrated New Zealand writer doesn’t take an exhaustive approach to its subject’s life. We frequently only learn of milestones — the many awards she won, the death of her mother — later on and in passing. In a beautiful gesture that feels like a tiny righting of the many wrongs done to Janet, it’s her perspective that guides the film. 

That embedded approach also makes the emotions that come with her heartbreaking yet uplifting story more profound. And there is much heartbreak here: alongside the several tragic losses Janet experienced as a child, she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic as a young woman and spent eight harrowing years in psychiatric hospitals. Throughout all of this, she wrote fiction and poetry, work that saved her life in more ways than one: as well as being a rare constant source of joy, it won her a literary prize just days before she was scheduled for a lobotomy, prompting her doctors to reconsider. Neither Campion nor Janet allowed this experience to define her, however, and the film empathetically grants her real moments of joy and choice throughout — making for a deeply sensitive and uplifting watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alexia Keogh, Alison Bruce, Alistair Douglas, Andrew Robertt, Brenda Kendall, Brian Flegg, Celia Nicholson, Collette Cooper, David Letch, David Stott, Edith Campion, Elizabeth McRae, Faye Flegg, Fiona Kay, Francesca Collins, Gerald Bryan, Iris Churn, Jessie Mune, Jim Rawdon, Julia Calvo, Karen Fergusson, Katherine Murray-Cowper, Kerry Fox, Kevin J. Wilson, Lilian Enting, Mark Clare, Mark Morrison, Martyn Sanderson, Melina Bernecker, Natasha Gray, Paul Norell, Peter Needham, Robert Jayne, Ruth Dudding, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, Sheryl Stewart, Tiffany de Castro, Timothy Bartlett, Willa O'Neill

Director: Jane Campion

Rating: R

That one of 1990’s scariest movies is a kids’ movie makes sense when you know it’s an adaptation of a Roald Dahl story (and directed by horror legend Nicolas Roeg, no less). The Witches dispenses with most of the trappings of kids’ films, swapping bright bubbliness and cute animal CGI for macabre thrills and uncanny valley puppetry courtesy of Jim Henson. It’s astonishingly scary, given its PG certification — not just for its intended audience but for adults, too. Death, grief, and evildoers who prey on children all make an early appearance and never leave the film’s frame, stalking young Luke (Jasen Fisher) and his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) across countries as they try to make a new start in England following a family tragedy in Norway. In typical Dahl style though, The Witches — with its creepy premise and high camp touches — finds a clever balance between being nightmare-inducing and deliciously fun, a tonal blend that harks back to the twisted appeal of traditional fairy tales.

Genre: Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Horror

Actor: Angelique Rockas, Anjelica Huston, Annabel Brooks, Anne Lambton, Anne Tirard, Arvid Ones, Bill Paterson, Brenda Blethyn, Brian Hawksley, Charlie Potter, Darcy Flynn, Debra Gillett, Emma Relph, Grete Nordrå, Jane Horrocks, Jasen Fisher, Jenny Runacre, Jim Carter, Leila Hoffman, Mai Zetterling, Michael Palin, Nicolas Roeg, Nora Connolly, Ola Otnes, Roberta Taylor, Rosamund Greenwood, Rose English, Rowan Atkinson, Serena Harragin, Sukie Smith, Sverre Røssummoen, Vincent Marzello

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Rating: PG

An eye-opening 1989 American documentary that boldly explores the experiences of Black gay men in America. Directed by Marlon Riggs, this film challenges societal norms and sheds light on the intersections of race, sexuality, and identity. Through a mix of personal testimonies, poetry, and distinctive visuals, Tongues Untied captures the struggles and resilience of its subjects, offering a raw and honest portrayal of their lives. Riggs' poetic approach and unflinching storytelling create an immersive experience that will leave a lasting impact. The film confronts issues of homophobia, racism, and social exclusion but also celebrates the strength and beauty of self-expression.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Eddie Murphy, Marlon Riggs, Michael Bell, Willi Ninja

Director: Marlon Riggs

Equal parts touching and comical, this portrait of a working-class family in a suburb just north of London features twin daughters who couldn’t be more different—the brainy and good-natured Natalie, and her sneering, layabout sister Nicola. Written and directed by Mike Leigh (Another Year, Happy-Go-Lucky) expect the slow, dreamy representation of British society from one of the country's best and most renowned directors.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alison Steadman, Claire Skinner, David Neilson, David Thewlis, Harriet Thorpe, Jane Horrocks, Jim Broadbent, Moya Brady, Paul Trussell, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

This gripping legal drama is based on a case we still don’t know the truth of — which might make it seem like a pointless exercise, were it not for the fact that it’s infectiously fascinated by greater questions than whether wealthy socialite Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons) really did attempt to kill wife Sunny (Glenn Close), who was left comatose by the mysterious event. After being convicted, Claus recruited for his appeal then-hotshot lawyer Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), now better known for personal allegations and his defense of men even more nefarious than Claus. Reversal follows the tricky legal argument-crafting process, embedding us with Dershowitz’s elite team as they meticulously comb through the prosecution’s theory to find the hairline crack they need to break the case open.

But why go to all this effort to exonerate an unlikeable and frustratingly enigmatic man like Claus, whom Dershowitz apparently doesn’t even believe himself? While we’re morbidly fascinated by unknowable cases like this, it’s the passion of the defense that’s really puzzling — something Reversal shrewdly gets as it wrestles with the ethical arguments for and against Dershowitz’s involvement, making for a pre-courtroom drama whose power extends beyond that of the particular case it documents.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alan Pottinger, Annabella Sciorra, Bill Camp, Brian Delate, Bruno Eyron, Christine Baranski, Christine Dunford, Constance Shulman, Ericka Klein, Felicity Huffman, Fisher Stevens, Frederick Neumann, Glenn Close, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Jack Gilpin, Jad Mager, JD Cullum, Jeremy Irons, Jessika Cardinahl, Johann Carlo, Julie Hagerty, Keith Reddin, Larry Sherman, Leo Leyden, LisaGay Hamilton, Malachy McCourt, Mitchell Whitfield, Redman Maxfield, Ron Silver, Stephen Mailer, Tom Wright, Uta Hagen

Director: Barbet Schroeder

As a first feature, The Unbelievable Truth had a startlingly new style at the time, with deadpan humor, intentional stilted dialogue delivery, interrupting intertitles, and randomly posed existential questions, but these stylistic touches was what made Hal Hartley a key figure in the early aughts of American indie filmmaking. It’s a surprising twist to the romantic comedy, the first where Hartley pays homage to his hometown of Long Island. The two leads form an unconventional relationship, that at first, seems objectionable with Josh having a criminal background, and Audry just barely coming of age, but as they recognize the genuine emotion inside of each other– the existential despair, the want of a normal life, and the soul seeking they try to find through art, science, and literature– the romance just works. This, the leap of faith in another person despite appearances, forms the current that makes the portrait of small town America feel real and hopeful, even with its nihilistic humor.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrienne Shelly, Bill Sage, Christopher Cooke, David Healy, Edie Falco, Gary Sauer, Jeff Howard, Julia McNeal, Katherine Mayfield, Kelly Reichardt, Mark Chandler Bailey, Matt Malloy, Mike Brady, Paul Schulze, Robert John Burke, Tom Thon

Director: Hal Hartley

Rating: R