10 Most Emotional Movies of the 1990s, Ranked


The 1990s were a transformative decade for the film industry. It was the rare era where movie fans had great film options, regardless of where they were looking. Blockbusters like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park proved that big-budget films could have a heart and thematic resonance. However, small films from emerging filmmakers, such as Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs and Kevin Smith‘s Clerks, showed that great films could come out of nowhere. In the era before prestige television took off, film fans could only go to the cinema to satisfy their craving for great stories.

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It’s hard not to look back on the 1990s with a melancholy feeling. This was a decade where nearly every movie had heart and was unafraid to embrace sentimentality. Granted, sometimes this resulted in overdone melodramas, but when done right, 90s movies were the apex of heartfelt filmmaking. These ten movies are among the most emotional of the 1990s, proving that emotional content can make its way into the most unlikely genres.

10 ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Image via Paramount Pictures

Forrest Gump is not necessarily nuanced, but it’s certainly emotional. The film explores the trials and tribulations of America during the 20th century through the perspective of a man who cannot fully comprehend what he is witnessing. Forrest gets into a few silly situations, but the film never treats his experiences as a joke. It’s one of the most successful movies of Tom Hanks’ career and earned him his second Academy Award for Best Actor, only a year after he had won the top trophy for Philadelphia.

Director Robert Zemeckis struck a perfect tone with Forrest Gump that would be almost impossible to replicate now. Although at one point Zemeckis and screenwriter Eric Roth considered a Forrest Gump sequel, it never moved forward due to the real-life tragedy of 9/11, making it hard to stick to Forrest’s relentlessly optimistic output on life. Nonetheless, the deep humanism of Forrest Gump makes it an emotionally overwhelming experience that remains a heartwarming comfort film for many.

Forrest Gump
Release Date
July 6, 1994

Rating
PG-13

Runtime
142

Watch on Paramount+

9 ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1998)

Director: Roberto Benigni

Guido, Dora, and Giosué riding a bike down a street in 'Life is Beautiful'
Image via Miramax Films

Roberto Benigni‘s beautiful historical drama Life is Beautiful explores some of the most horrific events in history from the perspective of a child; somehow, this makes the film all the more hopeful and dispiriting. Benigni stars as the Jewish-Italian man Guido Orefice, who is captured by the Nazis during the early days of the Holocaust. Orefice does not know how to describe the slaughter of his people to his son, so he convinces him that their entire ordeal is part of an extended game.

Life is Beautiful walks a challenging line; had it been an overly comedic war movie, it could have come off as very disrespectful. However, Bengini finds the right tone to make the actual context of Orefice’s experiences very powerful. While wrestling with the ramifications of genocide is incredibly challenging and taxing, Benigni’s Life is Beautiful stands as a groundbreaking emotional achievement because of its celebration of human nature and familial ties.

Life Is Beautiful
Release Date
December 20, 1997
Cast
Roberto Benigni , Nicoletta Braschi , Giorgio Cantarini , Giustino Durano , Sergio Bini Bustric , Marisa Paredes

Rating
PG-13

Runtime
116

Rent on Apple TV

8 ‘Boyz n the Hood’ (1991)

Director: John Singleton

Doughboy spreading his arms and looking proud in Boyz n the Hood
Image via Columbia Pictures

Boyz n the Hood is one of the most incredible directorial debuts of all time. Writer/director John Singleton became the youngest Best Director nominee in the history of the Academy Awards for his work on this groundbreaking film. The plot follows three young men growing up amid the gang culture of the Crenshaw neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles.

Boyz n the Hood had a tremendous impact, as Singleton didn’t sanitize the harsh realities and used the story to explore how violence can permeate impoverished communities. The film featured a breakthrough performance from the rapper Ice Cube, who would go on to star in more comedic films in the next few decades. With its authentic exploration of gang violence and poverty, Boyz n the Hood stands as just as powerful of an emotional statement today.

Boyz n the Hood
Release Date
July 12, 1991
Cast
Hudhail Al-Amir , Lloyd Avery II , Angela Bassett , Mia Bell , Lexie Bigham , Kenneth A. Brown

Rating
R

Runtime
102

Watch on Netflix

7 ‘Magnolia’ (1999)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Frank T.J. Mackey smiling at someone off-camera in Magnolia
Image via New Line Cinema

The 1990s saw the emergence of several great filmmakers, including Paul Thomas Anderson. A master of ensemble dramas about emotionally isolated characters, Anderson developed consistent working relationships with actors like Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and William H. Macy. While Anderson’s breakthrough film was Boogie Nights, his subsequent project, Magnolia, felt like a more confident feature from a more seasoned director.

Magnolia is often devastating and rarely dull, which is surprising considering it’s three hours long. Among its fascinating performances is a rare dramatic turn from Tom Cruise, who’s joined by an equally impressive cast. Anderson generates empathy for every member of the film’s large ensemble, making Magnolia an emotional and challenging film. Like all great art, Magnolia openly confronts the viewers, demanding more than attention from them.

Magnolia
Release Date
December 10, 1999

Rating
R

Runtime
188

Rent on Apple TV

6 ‘Titanic’ (1997)

Director: James Cameron

Jack and Rose embracing and about to kiss while standing on the ship's bow in 'Titanic'
Image via Paramount Pictures

Is Titanic cheesy? Yes, but that’s the point! James Cameron proved that melodrama wasn’t a bad thing with his brilliant 1997 historical romance. While the film’s disaster sequence and incredible computer-generated imagery are impressive, the film’s power lies in the dynamic between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Their impeccable chemistry gives Titanic a sense of energy that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

Titanic was the peak of Cameron’s career; it earned an incredible eleven Academy Award wins, which ties the all time record with Ben-Hurand The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Its visual effects still hold up today, but it’s the timeless love story at its center that makes Titanic so special. The inevitable tragedy at the story’s heartis seeing characters as perfectly suited for each other as Jack and Rose meet with the realities of history.

Titanic Movie Poster

Titanic
Release Date
November 19, 1997

Rating
PG-13

Runtime
194 minutes

Watch on Paramount+

5 ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Sean and Will at the park sitting down and looking to the distance in Good Will Hunting
Image via Miramax

Good Will Hunting is the film that launched Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as one of their generation’s most promising talents. The two lifelong friends wrote the screenplay together based on their experiences growing up in Boston and exploring the nature of potential. Damon stars in the titular role of Will Hunting, a janitor with a genius-level intellect who has never gotten the chance to prove himself.

Relying on the inherent chemistry between Damon and Affleck, Good Will Hunting was a near-instant hit, acclaimed for its heartfelt and honest approach. However, the most emotional performance in the film came from the late great Robin Williams, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Will’s mentor, Sean Maguire. Maguire’s speech to Will, in which he forces him to reckon with his guilt, remains one of Williams’ greatest achievements as an actor.

good-will-hunting-poster

Good Will Hunting
Release Date
December 5, 1997

Rating
R

Runtime
126

Watch on Max

4 ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

Director: Spike Lee

Denzel Washington in 'Malcolm X', looking deeply at the camera with two men behind him
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Lee changed the film industry forever with his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, which explored modern race relations in an insightful and infuriating way. However, Lee examined the history of America’s deeply rooted racist philosophies with his 1992 masterpiece Malcolm X. The mighty Denzel Washington gives the best performance of his career as the Civil Rights leader whose teachings are more relevant than ever.

Washington’s performance in Malcolm X was so impactful that it was hard for any other interpretations to hold up. The film cemented him as an acting titan and one of his generation’s most influential performers, a status he retains to this day. Malcolm X is a towering achievement that takes an iconic figure of history and shows his emotional vulnerabilities. The film is far from sentimental, but Lee grounds it in a place of genuine emotion, resulting in a unique drama as humane as it’s powerful.

Rent on Amazon

3 ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

Director: Steven Spielberg

A group of soldiers standing in a wrecked city turning around and looking up in Saving Private Ryan
Image via Dreamworks/Paramount Pictures

Saving Private Ryan was a very different World War II film for director Steven Spielberg. While Spielberg had used the Indiana Jones films to look back at the 1940s through the context of an adventure story, Saving Private Ryan presented a very realistic version of combat. Although Saving Private Ryan is definitely patriotic, it does not present a sanitized version of war, nor does it lionize the nature of combat itself. Saving Private Ryan evokes emotion by showing the genuine dedication that men in service had to their brothers-in-arms.

The filmhas been hailed for the sensitivity and realism it brought to the war film genre. Although Saving Private Ryan is not based on a true story, it drew inspiration from several real veterans, including Spielberg’s father, Arnold. Acclaimed and widely regarded as a modern masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan is a crushing achievement in war cinema that evokes intense emotions with its powerful ending.

Watch on Netflix

2 ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)

Director: Steven Spielberg

A little girl in a red coat walking alone in Schindler's List
Image via Universal Pictures

Schindler’s List is such a devastating experience, yet one of the most important and thought-provoking pictures from the 90s. There’s no element of Hollywood melodrama as Spielberg adapts the real story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). Schindler was a German businessman with ties to the Nazi party that used his factories to help bring countless Jewish citizens to safety during the Holocaust. Even after seeing all the lives that he has saved, Schindler still feels he hasn’t done enough to prevent the tragedy.

Making Schindler’s List was a challenge for everyone involved. The material grew so distressing that Spielberg enlisted Robin Williams’ help to keep his spirits raised. While by no means an easy film to watch, Schindler’s List feels like a required viewing. It’s a devastating story about the importance of recognizing evil and fighting oppression, even if acting is the hardest thing to do.

Rent on Amazon

1 ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)

Director: Frank Darabont

A man under the rain spreading his arms and looking up in The Shawshank Redemption
Image via Columbia Pictures

No film has ever been made about the power of friendship more impactful than The Shawshank Redemption. Based on the acclaimed short story by Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption is a story about finding a connection in the most unlikely place. As they suffer under the constraints of a grueling experience in prison, the inmates Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy (Tim Robbins) find something more elusive: hope.

It’s often that the most emotional movies have the simplest of messages. There’s nothing complex about The Shawshank Redemption’s morals, but that may be why the film has earned such a passionate following over time. The Shawshank Redemption’s simple yet uplifting story speaks to the emotional power that friendship has to uplift people in the darkest of situations.

the-shawshank-redemption-movie-poster

The Shawshank Redemption
Release Date
September 23, 1994

Rating
R

Runtime
142

Rent on Apple TV

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