It’s that film that shook up the genre or trail-blazed a new one. Or maybe its uniqueness defies definition. These movies didn’t always do great at the box office, and some confused critics. And then there are those that broke through the cinematic stratosphere. We’ve chosen the 35 Most Excellent Films of the Last 35 Years that have burned their way into our cultural landscape and onto our — if we do say so ourselves—most kick-ass list.
35. 24-Hour Party People (2002)
If you’ve ever wondered what it may have been like to live through one of the most essential moments of alternative-music history, here’s your chance. The film starts out in Manchester in 1976 and is seen through the eyes of real-life Factory Music Founder Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) in a fantastical view of what it was like to discover the Happy Mondays, Joy Division/New Order and the Durutti Column, who Wilson also managed. So many bands of the era are also in the background—The Clash, The Specials—you’ll feel almost (maybe, not quite, but anyway…) like you were there.
34. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Michelle Yeoh flies through the air with the greatest of ease. And the fact that this $17-million-budget, Chinese-produced, martial-arts-fairy-tale film grossed $213.5 million worldwide shows that we love to watch her fly. And Chow Yun-fat, too.
33. New Jack City (1991)
Wesley Snipes and Ice-T lead a killer cast (quite literally) in this tale of a drug tycoon (Snipes) and the cops who want to take him down in 1986 Harlem. It went on to become the highest-grossing independent film of 1991.
32. Heathers (1988)
“What’s your damage, Heather?” Well, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know there’s a heck of a lot of damage, as a young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater go on a—at first, sort of unintentional—killing spree to clean up the vapid cliques in their Mid-America high school. Which they eventually detonate (oops—spoiler). What’s emerged over the decades is a stylized comedy of brilliance that’s just so “very”.
31. Donnie Darko (2001)
A young Jake Gyllenhaal plays an unconventional superhero when he finds a scary giant rabbit in this unlikely-but-deserving cult classic.
30. Fight Club (1999)
If the first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club, we’ll make it short: We know what we see on screen is complete fantasy, and we love it so much because — go ahead and admit it — we all relate in our own sick way.
29. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)
In Stephen Soderbergh’s breakout indie, he explores the true meaning of intimacy amidst intense dysfunction, the result is a sexy, all-too-real surrealistic view on love and connection.
28. Mean Girls (2004)
Love it or hate it, fewer films of the last few decades have seeped their way into the pop culture lexicon quite the way this film did, attacking so many important issues and making us laugh in spite of ourselves, namely the shitty way women treat each other. Mean Girls reminds us that women not supporting women starts early. And never underestimate the power of introducing choice phrases like “I’ve got a heavy flow and a wide-set vagina,” because Tiny Fey is truly no dummy —she knows the more we hear it the more we’ll say it. On “Wednesdays we wear pink”/”You can’t sit with us”/”That was only one time” — how many Mean Girl-isms can you come up with?
27. Requiem for a Dream (2001)
Darren Aronofsky’s second film is an agonizing genius of psychological drama as you watch perfectly-beautiful human potential disintegrate by tragic choices. It’s designed to gut you, and by the end you’ll find yourself praising Aronofsky for his exquisitely artistic means of doing so.
26. Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2 (2003/2004)
In the end, it’s a love story. Why, what did you think it was about…?
25. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Hedwig and his botched sex change (otherwise known as “angry inch”) gloriously redefines the rock musical. This is a true trailblazer of a play-turned-film, and John Cameron Mitchell is the superstar that does it justice. Don’t think — just watch it.
24. John Wick (2014)
Because it’s fun to watch Keanu do just about anything, in and out of a franchise, especially when it involves vengeance and killing tons of slimy people.
23. Goodfellas (1990)
A certain word is used 300 times throughout the film. Wanna guess which one?
22. Boogie Nights (1997)
Both Mark Wahlberg and director Paul Thomas Anderson were so young when they made this movie together, and it simply oozes with raw magic. Aside from opening up a genre where fictionalizing porn is mainstream kick-ass movie-making, every single performance — from Wahlberg to John C. Riley to Philip Seymour Hoffman to Julianne Moore — are just so damn good, with Burt Reynolds coming out on top as the cool cat we forget we loved so much.
21. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Even grownups need stylized, slightly-twisted, off-beat fairy tales, and Wes Anderson always delivers. This is one of our favorites.
20. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Controversial when it came out, Spike Lee’s now-classic explores exploding racial tensions in a predominantly black neighborhood and is now inarguably one of the most important films of its time.
19. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Bueller? Bueller? Need we say more?
18. Black Panther (2018)
With its glorious fantasy nation of Wakanda, technologically and culturally and frankly morally superior to the rest of earth, and its message of black stories, cultures, beauty and power, Black Panther is a stunning, groundbreaking film. #kingtchallaforever
17. Joker (2019)
Smile! Joker is currently the most profitable comic book movie of all time. Joaquin Phoenix’s backstory portrayal of the ultimate Batman villain is so textured, layered, spellbinding and imaginative that we care for him while being reviled and terrified.
16. 8 Mile (2002)
Inspired by Eminem’s own life and struggle to stardom, 8 Mile grossed over $240 million, far surpassing its $41 million budget. In real and celluloid life Eminem proved he had the chops to stand with anyone.
15. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
River Phoenix was never more brilliant than here, as a narcoleptic gay hustler with a tender heart who falls for his best friend, played by Keanu Reeves.
14. Jackie Brown (1997)
Only Pam Grier, inarguably one of the most bad-ass actors of modern movies, could make us love a double-crossing drug smuggler so damn much. This film about a woman who essentially says “Y’all gonna threaten me? Good luck with that!” is quite possibly Quentin Tarantino at his very best.
13. Frida (2002)
Julie Taymor created a surrealistic wonderland to illuminate the story of the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and the result is something so far beyond magnificent: it’s art itself. The soundtrack is one of cinema’s all-time best, featuring some of the most exquisite artists in music bringing you along on Frida’s gut-wrenching journey. Not to mention Selma Hayek gives one of the best performances of her career. (So far.)
12. This Is England (2006)
If there’s a chance you haven’t seen this powerful depiction of a young boy being indoctrinated by skinheads in the UK in the early ‘80s, stop what you’re doing and watch it now. Never mind that the cast is led by young teen Thomas Turgoose in one of the grittiest and most remarkable performances of the decade, but the film is said to have been inspired by Writer/Director Shane Meadows’s own boyhood, and will always provide an all-important peek into history.
11. True Romance (1993)
Once upon a time, Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) fell in love. And when an obsessive Elvis fan and a prostitute and a litany of some of the best actors in Hollywood playing some pretty interesting characters (Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, Dennis Hopper) get together, hi-jinx truly do ensue. You’ll love every minute of it.
10. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
MOST EXCELLENT! [Insert spastic air guitar riff here]. Bill and Ted had us all wondering how we’d hitch a ride back in time to avoid failing history class. In or out of high school, we’ll go anywhere Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter want to take us, no questions asked, which is why it kicks off our Top 10. (PS: Can we please go back and time and bring George Carlin into 2020? Kinda need him now. Thanks.)
9. Labyrinth (1986)
‘80s special effects, Jim Henson’s puppets and David Bowie as the Goblin King come together to create a fantasy we all wished we were trapped in at some stage of our lives.
8. Trainspotting (1996)
Our favorite 1-hour, 35-minute truth bomb. Young Ewan McGregor (before Star Wars stole him), Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan Bremner — when Scottish actors uniquely and briefly ruled the world. Public toilets — and so much more — will forever haunt our dreams. Oh, and definitely choose life.
7. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Must love disco. And drag queens. And camp. And costumes. And incredible acting, storytelling and fun. Lots and lots of fun.
6. Blue Velvet (1986)
Without David Lynch paving the way with his unique brand of neo-noir, WTF-is-happening? style, it’s doubtful young filmmakers would dream as freely as we need them to. We believe Blue Velvet is Lynch at his twisted very best.
5. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
At 24, John Singleton became the youngest Oscar contender to score nominations for writing and directing for his debut feature Boyz n the Hood. Singleton, who died too young in 2019, was committed to telling black stories and creating great films. This is what groundbreaking looks like, kids.
4. The Matrix (1999)
We weren’t kidding when we said we’d follow Keanu anywhere—even into the Matrix. The first one was the best.
3. The Room (2003)
This has been pretty universally called the worst movie of all time. (And, you know, maybe it is!) A nonsensical portrayal of who knows what, it would definitely top any list of the most unintentionally surreal movies ever made. It’s spawned constant analysis and even a movie made about making it—and still we have no idea what the story actually is. But it’s brilliant, and more fun, and funnier, than almost any other movie made in the last 50 years. It took $6 million dollars (only $2 million less than our Number Two pick!) to create the best-worst movie of all time, so bad it’s Wonderland-esque-WTF poetry. Though we definitely have questions about its (relatively) insanely high budget, it’s impossible to deny the amount of heart that went into this madness. We refuse to apologize for loving it so much.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
According to cinematic lore, the role of Vincent Vega was written for Michael Madsen, who was already committed to another film, and so it went to John Travolta, catapulting him back into the maga-stardom he deserves. Made for just over $8 million, and grossing over $240 million at the box office, Pulp Fiction earned Travolta his second Best Actor Academy Award nom since Saturday Night Fever.
1. Poetic Justice (1993)
The moment John Singleton cast Tupac and Janet Jackson as his leads in his follow-up to Boyz n the Hood, he created an instant classic. (As well as an incredible supporting cast and cameo by Q-Tip.) Poetic Justice tackles the battle of the sexes, yes, but also represents a strong black woman who refuses to compromise her own integrity (or her friends’) despite a less tolerant world, making the film not only ahead of its time, but also oh-so timely.