32 of the most successful films of the 90s, from Thelma and Louise to Titanic

We look back at some of the most successful movies of the 90s, from groundbreaking animation to epic action films

A composite image of three of the most successful films of the 90s
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The 90s were huge decade for films: state-of-the art CGI and other effects that changed the course of cinema were pioneered, and some of the most well-known actors working today got their start in 90s films. 

From iconic pop culture moments like Pretty Woman, to one of the highest-grossing films of all time in Titanic, to the first computer-generated animated film (Toy Story) which would pave the way for animation, the 90s were filled with movies that are far from forgettable. We revisit some of the most critically and commercially successful films of the decade.

The most successful films of the 90s

Thelma and Louise

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

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Thelma and Louise is a classic 1991 road movie that propelled its stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis into superstardom. Beginning as an unsuspecting film about female friendship between Davis’s scatty, repressed Thelma and Sarandon’s world-weary and sarcastic Louise, the journey the two go on becomes more and more high-stakes. It was a box office success, with writer Callie Khouri taking home an Oscar, and became one of the most iconic feminist films ever made.

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The Lion King

Jeremy Irons at The Lion King premiere.

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1994’s The Lion King was the highest-grossing film of the year, is the highest-grossing traditionally-animated film of all time, and is largely considered to be one of the best animated films ever made. Its story, based loosely on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, sees a young lion cub called Simba forced to reckon with the unpredictability of life and learning to accept our identities. 

Forrest Gump

Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump.

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Arguably Tom Hanks’ most famous role, the titular Forrest in Forrest Gump became a much-loved character after the release of the 1994 Robert Zemeckis film. Starring Sally Field and Robin Wright, the film follows Forrest through his early life in the 1950s, through to his middle age in the 80s. Forrest unwittingly becomes involved in several historical events and moments in culture, such as the Watergate scandal and the conception of Apple Inc.

Jurassic Park

The cast of Jurassic Park.

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Though he’s directed some of the most popular films of all time, Jurassic Park is still Steven Spielberg’s highest-grossing movie. Spawning a commercially successful franchise that followed up with several more films, Jurassic Park was seen as a huge technical accomplishment at the time and is still regarded as one of the best blockbusters ever made.


Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio.

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Before breaking his own record with Avatar in 2009, James Cameron directed and wrote the highest-grossing film of all time with 1997’s Titanic. The film - and its two stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio - is so well-known and successful that it’s hard to believe critics initially predicted that it would be a box office flop; it later became the first film to reach the billion-dollar mark. Tying with 1959 film Ben-Hur, Titanic won 11 Academy Awards, the most won by a film.

The Matrix

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

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Along with Fight Club and Magnolia, The Matrix was another 1999 film that revolutionised new cinematic techniques such as CGI and montage editing. The film, directed by the Wachowski sisters, also introduced the ‘bullet time’ effect, where the action begins to move in slow motion whilst the camera slowly moves around the characters, as well as ‘Matrix vision’, in which protagonist Neo seems to see the world around him in computer code.

Toy Story

Tim Allen and Tom Hanks at the premiere of Toy Story.

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Pixar’s first feature film, 1995’s Toy Story, was also the first entirely computer-animated feature film ever made, and became the second highest-grossing film of its year. Its impact on the film industry meant a boom in animated films, which continued to appeal to adults just as much as it did to children: based on the idea of children’s toys coming alive when left alone, Toy Story and its sequels became hugely popular amongst all ages.


Ben Affleck in Armageddon.

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Starring Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler and a young Ben Affleck, Armageddon follows a group of astronauts tasked with saving the world when an asteroid is discovered hurtling towards Earth. The 90s saw a spate of action films such as Twister, Speed and Deep Impact, and Armageddon’s success saw director Michael Bay become an icon of action cinema. 

Fight Club

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston at the Fight Club premiere.

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While it wasn't the biggest box office success of the decade, 1999’s Fight Club was one of the most controversial and impactful films of the 90s. Starring Edward Norton, Tyler Durden and Helena Bonham-Carter, the film took aim at corporate capitalism and featured a shocking twist ending, as well as one of the most well-known film quotes of all time.

Men in Black

Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Men in Black.

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Men in Black, which was the ninth-highest-grossing film of the decade and the third of the year, was the first instalment in the hugely successful franchise that paired Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith for the science-fiction, action-comedy trilogy. Accompanied by the film was the popular soundtrack, including the lead theme song, also performed by Will Smith.

The Sixth Sense

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osmond from The Sixth Sense.

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After the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s 1996 film The Sixth Sense, the director’s filmmaking style became synonymous with his most common plot device: a shocking twist ending. The Sixth Sense is also probably Shyamalan’s most well-known ending, with one of the most iconic lines in film performed by a young Haley Joel Osmond to his horrified mother, played by Toni Collette. The film was the second highest-grossing of 1999.

Independence Day

Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Jaden Smith.

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As with plenty of other popular films from the 90s, Independence Day is an action-packed blockbuster which blended science fiction and disaster film elements. Along with films such as Armageddon and Deep Impact, Independence Day utilised pioneering CGI technology to depict large-scale destruction, which would later become commonplace in end-of-the-word blockbusters of the 2010s like The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and World War Z. For a time, it was the second highest-grossing film ever, and is still the highest-grossing of 1996.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Natalie Portman and Liam Neeson.

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A Star Wars film getting a mention on this list is unsurprising, considering how the George Lucas-helmed franchise has dominated the box office. After the original Star Wars trilogy ended in 1983, Lucas announced a prequel trilogy called the ‘Skywalker Saga’, set 32 years before the events of the original films. Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, the film was the highest-grossing movie of 1999.


Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost.

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Three years after his star turn in the much-loved Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze starred opposite Demi Moore in the supernatural romance film Ghost, which was the highest-grossing film of 1990. The film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, with co-star Whoopi Goldberg winning the award for Best Supporting Actress and thanking Swayze in her speech, claiming that he convinced the producers to hire her. A scene with Moore and Swayze throwing pottery together is known as one of the most iconic film scenes of the 90s.


Brad Pitt in Se7en.

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While it wasn’t expected to be a box office hit, David Fincher’s Seven (often stylised as Se7en) went on to become the seventh highest-grossing film of 1995. Following a serial killer whose crimes replicate the seven deadly sins, the film stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman and has a shocking twist near its end. Best-known for directing music videos in the 90s - such as Madonna’s Vogue video - Fincher got his breakthrough with the 1995 film, and later went on to direct critically acclaimed films such as Fight Club, The Social Network and Gone Girl.

American Beauty

Annette Bening in American Beauty.

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Similarly to 1994’s Pulp Fiction and 1999’s Magnolia, Sam Mendes’ 1999 film American Beauty features an ensemble cast and an array of interweaving stories. The central narrative focuses on Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, who becomes disillusioned with his mundane job and suburban lifestyle in middle age. The film received overwhelming critical praise, and was the ninth highest-grossing film of the year, winning five Academy Awards.

Notting Hill

Julia Roberts at the premiere of Notting Hill.

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Julia Roberts was a mainstay of 90s cinema, and the Richard Curtis-penned romcom Notting Hill is one of her most iconic roles. Roberts plays a world-famous actress who falls in love with a British bookseller in Hugh Grant, and the film became the highest-grossing British film ever at the time, and the seventh highest-grossing film of 1999.

A Bug's Life

David Hyde Pierce at the premiere of A Bug's Life.

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After the success of Toy Story, Pixar’s next feature film was about a colony of ants and other bugs, and unexpectedly became the fifth highest-grossing film of 1998. Co-director Andrew Staunton, for whom this was his feature film directorial debut, would go on to direct and write Finding Nemo and Wall-E.

Home Alone

Macaulay Culkin.

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This classic Christmas film is one of the most well-loved movies of the 90s. Macaulay Culkin became a child star after starring as a sweet and resourceful boy who is accidentally left alone when his large family go on holiday at Christmas. The film was the highest-grossing live-action comedy until The Hangover Part 2 was released in 2011, and it was the second highest-grossing film of 1990, after Ghost.

Mrs Doubtfire

Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire.

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Perhaps Robin Williams' most loved and recognised role was his turn as the lead of Mrs Doubtfire, a comedy in which his character decides to pretend to be a female nanny to feel closer to his children. It was the second highest-grossing film of 1993, after Jurassic Park, and became a hit family film.

The Mummy

Brendan Fraser in Rachel Weisz in The Mummy.

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Despite a modest budget and mixed reviews, The Mummy was a huge success at the box office in 1999. Starring Rachel Weisz in a girl-next-door-role and Brendan Fraser, the film blended live-action footage with CGI and became an iconic 90s movie.

Die Hard with a Vengeance

Bruce Willis in Die Hard With a Vengeance.

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Many of the popular action films of the 90s - such as Total Recall, Speed and Independence Day - were inspired by the mammoth success of 1989’s Die Hard, which starred Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. A sequel, Die Hard with a Vengeance, was released in 1995, and became the highest-grossing film of the year, even beating Toy Story.

Pretty Woman

Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

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Perhaps Julia Roberts' most iconic role was as a sex worker in the 1990 film Pretty Woman, which starred Richard Gere as a successful but lonely businessman. The film was the fifth highest-grossing film ever made at the time, and Roberts secured her first Academy Award nomination, later winning for Erin Brockovich.

The Silence of the Lambs

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins at the Academy Awards.

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Despite only having 16 minutes of screentime, Anthony Hopkins provided a chilling performance as Hannibal Lecter (that won him a Best Actor Oscar) in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 classic The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, it became only the third film to win Academy Awards in the ‘big five’ categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and (Adapted) Screenplay, and is still the only horror film to win Best Picture. The Jodie Foster-starring film is considered one of the best horrors of all time.

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino.

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While Pulp Fiction doesn’t appear in the top 10 highest-grossing films of 1994 - a year which saw releases such as The Lion King and Forrest Gump, two of the most successful films of the 90s and beyond, take the top spots - Quentin Tarantino’s second feature was a highly influential independent movie that catapulted previously unknown actors Samuel L Jackson and Uma Thurman into fame. The anthology film, which consists of different episodic narratives that weave together, inspired a generation of filmmakers, and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as being nominated for seven Academy Awards.

The Shawshank Redemption

Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption.

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Inspired by a short story by Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption didn’t initially do well at the box office, though critics were impressed. However, after being nominated for several Academy Awards it became the most rented film of 1995, and in 2008 it surpassed The Godfather on the IMDB Top 250 list, where it has stayed pretty much ever since, considered by many to be one of the best films of all time.


Matthew Lillard, Skeet Ulrich and Neve Campbell.

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The impact of Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy can still be seen in the horror film industry today, but at the time of the first film’s release in 1996, slasher films were not popular in the mainstream. However, the film went on to become one of the highest-grossing of that year and is thought to have revitalised the slasher and horror genres.

The Godfather

Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Paul Sorvino and Joe Pesci.

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Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas is arguably one of the most popular gangster films ever made, along with The Godfather, and is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time. Inspired by a real-life mafia leader, Goodfellas was a direct influence on the making of the hit HBO show The Sopranos in the late 90s, which shares 27 actors with the Scorsese film.

Dead Poets Society

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

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While they’re two of the most famous actors working now, in the early 90s Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were largely unknown when they began writing a script together. In 1998, they won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay - which propelled the young stars into fame - for their much-loved drama film Good Will Hunting, starring Robin Williams as a therapist who helps Damon’s character turn his life around.

Schindler's List

Steven Spielberg.

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Steven Spielberg’s 1993 historical drama film Schindler’s List was a box-office success, and won seven Academy Awards. The film is based on the real life of Oskar Schindler, who saved over 1,000 Jewish refugees from Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The decision to use black-and-white for the film, along with the use of colour in just two scenes, was praised by critics and the film is widely thought of as one of the best ever made.


Helen Hunt at the premiere of Twister.

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Released firmly within the ‘action boom’ of 90s cinema, Twister was an unexpected box office hit, becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1996, after fellow disaster film Independence Day. It follows a group of ‘tornado chasers’, and was supposedly responsible for an uptake in people studying meteorology.

Saving Private Ryan

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan.

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Five years after the success of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s World War I epic war film received equal amounts of critical praise, and became the second highest-grossing film of 1998, after Armageddon. Saving Private Ryan is considered to be one of the best war films ever made, and had a lasting impact on the genre, evident in later films like 1917, Dunkirk and Inglorious Basterds.

Hannah Holway
Shopping writer

Hannah is the UK Shopping Writer for woman&home. As a shopping writer, Hannah has written on everything from period pants to wine subscriptions, and is especially interested in sustainable alternatives to well-known products, as well as books and homeware accessories. 

Before she joined the team at woman&home Hannah headed up the social media accounts for Wonderland in 2019, where she was also a Contributing Editor for the magazine’s sister titles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannah also explored evolving shopping trends at New York Magazine’s The Strategist UK, researching everything from face masks to status candles and even pens.