11 Best Movies & Shows Released in 1991

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 1991. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

Though the drag scene is alive and well today, Paris is Burning is an important reminder that it didn’t always used to be that way. Over the course of seven years, Director Jennie Livingston leads us underneath the crime-ridden streets of 80s New York, where a glittery drag subculture is flourishing, despite all odds. Leading the community are the so-called mothers, the best performers and most fashionable of them all, tasked with inspiring and caring for newcomers. Nevermind that they’re shunned by society and suffocated (sometimes literally) by hateful homophobes and racists; when there is a ball, all that matters is that they strut, dance, and put on the best damn show of their lives. What they do is art, and Livingston makes sure to exalt the craft and pride that goes into it. At the same time, intimate interviews with iconic queens like Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja reveal the heartbreaking nature of the community. Most, if not all, have endured some form of abuse, and many risk their lives to earn a decent living. But again, Livingston refuses to reduce them to pure tragedy; she gets them to share their wonderfully big dreams, then gets us to hope along with them that they might just come true.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Dorian Corey, Octavia St. Laurent, Pepper LaBeija, Sol Williams Pendavis, Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja

Director: Jennie Livingston

Rating: R

At nearly four hours long, A Brighter Summer Day is a sprawling, beautifully composed film that follows young Xiao Si’r and his eventual entanglements in nearly everything, from love to youth gangs to politics. While parts of the story, particularly its bone-chilling climax, are based on true events, the film is largely reconstructed from Edward Yang’s memories of the era he grew up in. As a result, the visuals feel crisp and true, tinged with just the right amount of nostalgia to balance the grittiness of its realism. 

As coming-of-age films go, A Brighter Summer Day is certainly more on the tragic side. It’s also seminal in its specificity and depth—an absolute must-watch for any and all filmgoers. 

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alex Yang, Chang Chen, Chang Han, Chang Kuo-chu, Chen Chang, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Chen Yiwen, Chiang Hsiu-Chiung, Chin Tsai, Chuan Wang, Danny Deng, Dao Nan Wang, Elaine Jin, Emily Y. Chang, Feng Guoqiang, Han Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen, Hsu Ming, Joyce Ni Shu-Chun, King Shih-Chieh, Kuo-Chu Chang, Lang Tsu-Yun, Lawrence Ko, Liang-Tso Liu, Lisa Yang, Ni Shu-Chun, Ru-Yun Tang, Stephanie Lai, Tan Chih-Kang, Tang Ru-Yun, Tsu-Yun Lang, Wang Bosen, Wang Chi-tsan, Weiming Wang, Yi-Wen Chen

Director: Edward Yang

Rating: Not Rated

Kathryn Bigelow has a knack for action-packed scenes without compromising on the affective qualities of film style. It is precisely this combination that makes her a rare gem in American cinema, where the values of entertainment soar high. Point Break is one such example of controlled chaos, impeccable framing, and a convincing use of fast-paced editing to really get you as close to the action as possible. But what gives the film its flavour is how developed and synced the characters are and the Reeves-Swayze duo here belongs in the pantheon of equally hot frenemies, providing an apt, but subtle comment on the dangers of toxic masculinity. 

Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller

Actor: Anthony Kiedis, Anthony Mangano, Betsy Lynn George, Bojesse Christopher, Chris Pedersen, Christopher Pettiet, Daniel Beer, Dave Olson, Debra Lamb, Galyn Görg, Gary Busey, Gary Roberts, Gloria Mann, Jack Kehler, James Le Gros, Jared Chandler, Jeff Imada, John Apicella, John C. McGinley, John Philbin, Julian Reyes, Julie Michaels, Keanu Reeves, Lee Tergesen, Lori Petty, Michael Kopelow, Mike Genovese, Patrick Swayze, Peter Phelps, Ping Wu, Randy Walker, Raymond Forchion, Richard Grove, Sydney Walsh, Tom Sizemore, Vincent Klyn

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Rating: R

While the film adapts some of Shakespeare’s histories, you don’t need to know Shakespeare to appreciate My Own Private Idaho. In fact, instead of focusing on the Prince Hal character, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), the film centers on his narcoleptic friend Mike Waters (River Phoenix). Both of them are young street hustlers in Portland. However, unlike Favor, Waters has no reliable family, inheritance, or support system waiting for him to give up his job. Waters only has his body. Writer-director Gus Van Sant doesn’t really focus on the sex or the narcolepsy - these flash by us only as a state-of-mind experience, with time-lapses and freeze-frames to impart to us Waters’ detachment. Instead, Van Sant cares more about Waters’ seeking connection. It’s why the surreal shots speed by us so fast, and why the natural, lived-in scenes remain in our heads. It’s why Waters’ campfire confession, crackling under Phoenix’s earnest voice, feels so powerful. And it’s also why his later rejection feels so painful.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Chiara Caselli, Flea, Grace Zabriskie, Gus Van Sant, James Russo, Jim Caviezel, Keanu Reeves, Mickey Cottrell, Pao Pei Andreoli, Pat Patterson, River Phoenix, Robert Egon, Rodney Harvey, Scott Patrick Green, Tom Troupe, Udo Kier, Vana O'Brien, William Richert

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rating: R

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s drama stars Irène Jacob as two identical women living separate lives, and the intricate and indelible ways in which they are bound together. While Weronika, a Polish singer, balances her familial duties and intimate romantic relationship, a French music teacher named Véronique senses that she is not alone.

The Double Life of Véronique’s hypnotic and entrancing qualities will wash over you like a tide crashing over a bed of sand. It is a tough film to capture in words, when so much of it is just beyond words—Kieślowski’s film is one to be seen, sensed, and experienced. 

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance

Actor: Alain Frérot, Aleksander Bardini, Bogusława Schubert, Chantal Neuwirth, Claude Duneton, Gilles Gaston-Dreyfus, Guillaume de Tonquédec, Halina Gryglaszewska, Irène Jacob, Janusz Sterninski, Jerzy Gudejko, Kalina Jędrusik, Lorraine Evanoff, Louis Ducreux, Philippe Volter, Sandrine Dumas, Thierry de Carbonnières, Władysław Kowalski, Youssef Hamid

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Rating: R

This beautiful, realistic, and nostalgic anime movie about childhood is one that almost anyone can relate to. Set in the year of 1982, twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima is traveling to the countryside by train. Along her journey, she gets flashbacks of her childhood: mostly in elementary school, stealing glances at a boy, and navigating puberty. The movie goes back and forth between past and present, easily making one long for sun-filled summers of yesteryear and silly jokes between playfriends. As well as telling a story about Taeko's past, Only Yesterday also tells a story about her present, and the combined realism of the plotline with the beautiful animation grips you and doesn’t let go. Only Yesterday truly feels like home.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Romance

Actor: Chie Kitagawa, Ichirō Nagai, Issey Takahashi, Masahiro Ito, Masahiro Itou, Mayumi Iizuka, Mayumi Izuka, Michie Terada, Miki Imai, Toshiro Yanagiba, Yoko Honna, Yorie Yamashita, Yoshimasa Kondô, Yuki Minowa, Yuuki Masuda

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG

From the brilliant minds of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Jano comes a utopian vision for the ages. After having worked together before on the short sci-fi film The Bunker of the Last Gunshots, the duo-turned-longtime-collaborators pick it up a notch in one of the best dark comedies to come out in the 90s. 

In Delicatessen, Jeunet and Jano disguise the wretchedness of modern society in a post-apocalyptic world where food is the global currency, given how scarce it’s become. We follow Louison (Dominique Pinon), an everyday man who falls in love despite all the hubbub and squalor surrounding him. But nothing comes in the way of love, and instead of discovering a salve, he encounters a snag, one that pulls him deeper into society’s most complex ethical dilemmas. 

Many films have already been made about inequality and hierarchies, but none have been quite as darkly funny and unapologetic as Delicatessen.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Actor: Anne-Marie Pisani, Chick Ortega, Dominique Pinon, Dominique Zardi, Eric Averlant, Howard Vernon, Jacques Mathou, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Jean-François Perrier, Jean-Luc Caron, Karin Viard, Marc Caro, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Maurice Lamy, Nikky Smedley, Patrick Paroux, Rufus, Silvie Laguna, Ticky Holgado

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro

Rating: R

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, Charles Gunning, D. Montgomery, Kim Krizan, Mark James, Richard Linklater, Robert Jacks

Director: Richard Linklater

An absolute delight of a gem starring a young Winona Ryder as well as an amazing cast. Arguably Jim Jarmusch's best film, it tells the story of 5 different places at night from the perspective of cab drivers and their passengers: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. It's really hard to pick a favorite among the stories, from a messy tomboy having to deal with a busy businesswoman, to a blind woman in Paris making a frustrated driver from Ivory Coast go insane. But look out for Helmut and Yo-Yo, from the New York story. I've rarely seen anything in film as fun as their story.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Armin Mueller-Stahl, Béatrice Dalle, Eija Vilpas, Emile Abossolo M'bo, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Gianni Schettini, Isaach De Bankolé, Jaakko Talaskivi, Kari Väänänen, Klaus Heydemann, Lisanne Falk, Matti Pellonpää, Paolo Bonacelli, Pascal N'Zonzi, Richard Boes, Roberto Benigni, Romolo Di Biasi, Rosie Perez, Sakari Kuosmanen, Stéphane Boucher, Tomi Salmela, Winona Ryder

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: R

Written and directed by the film’s star, Albert Brooks, Defending Your Life imagines an afterlife in which purgatory is a courtroom, and whether you’ll be saved or damned is judged based on the life you led on Earth.

Did you live courageously, or did you live fearfully? Were you ashamed, meek, afraid of being vulnerable? Or did you risk some tender part of yourself in order to connect with others, to meaningfully impact another life?

Daniel Miller (Brooks) discovers he may not have lived as boldly as he assumed. In the afterlife and awaiting his day in afterlife court, he meets Julia (Meryl Streep, in what is possibly one of her most captivating roles), who is kind and thoughtful and a capital-G Good person. Of course, it’s only after dying that Daniel tunes in to the great possibility of a life not lived on autopilot. But is he too late to atone for his unexamined life—or is there time yet for a second chance?

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Albert Brooks, Alex Sheafe, Arell Blanton, Art Frankel, Bob Braun, Buck Henry, Cathleen Chin, Clarke Coleman, Clayton Norcross, Clifford Einstein, David Purdham, Ernie Brown, Ethan Embry, Gary Ballard, Gary Beach, George D. Wallace, George Wallace, Glen Chin, Greg Finley, Hal Landon Jr., Ida Lee, James Eckhouse, James Paradise, Jennifer Barlow, Jennifer Barlow Grodsky, Jerry Prell, Jim McKrell, Joey Miyashima, Julie Cobb, Ken Thorley, Kristopher Kent Hill, Lee Grant, Leonard O. Turner, Lillian Lehman, Marilyn Rockafellow, Mary Pat Gleason, Maxine Elliott Hicks, Meryl Streep, Michael Durrell, Newell Alexander, Noley Thornton, Nurit Koppel, Peter Schuck, Rachel Bard, Raffi Di Blasio, Rip Torn, Roger Behr, Ronald L. Colby, S. Scott Bullock, Sage Allen, Shirley MacLaine, Sidney Chankin, Susan Walters, Time Winters, Wil Albert

Director: Albert Brooks

As southern movies go, Fried Green Tomatoes is inoffensively sweet and realistic—it’s not afraid to touch on the genuine issues that plagued America in the 1930s while also cushioning some blows, as feel-good movies are wont to do. But the film seems less interested in presenting a clear picture of the past than it is in telling a specific tale: that of outsiders forming bonds and making it together in an unforgiving society. 

The main narrator is Ninny, an 83-year-old woman seemingly forgotten by everyone except Evelyn, an unhappy housewife who is “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Ninny recalls the stories of Sipsey and Big George, Black laborers who dared to succeed in their deeply racist community; of Smokey, the town outcast, who still helped people even if he was denied it himself; of Ruth, the domestic abuse victim; and of Idgie, the tomboy who spat on the face of all decorum. Then, of course, there’s the unspoken relationship between Ruth and Idgie, which hint at something quite radical for its time. 

These are all the people conventionally denied happy endings, and in period films, you’d expect to be abandoned in tragedy. But here they sing; they win and lose in equal measure, and even though it might seem like light and familiar fare to some, it still goes down heartily and unforgettably—funnily enough, like a plate of fried green tomatoes.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Afton Smith, Bob Hannah, Carol Mitchell-Leon, Chris O'Donnell, Chris O'Donnell, Cicely Tyson, Constance Shulman, Danny Nelson, David Dwyer, Evan Lockwood, Fannie Flagg, Gailard Sartain, Gary Basaraba, Grace Zabriskie, Grayson Fricke, Haynes Brooke, Jessica Tandy, Jo Harvey Allen, Kathy Bates, Kathy Larson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Lois Smith, Macon McCalman, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, Nancy Moore Atchison, Nick Searcy, Raynor Scheine, Reid Binion, Richard Riehle, Stan Shaw, Suzi Bass, Ted Manson, Tim Scott, Timothy Scott, Tom Even, Wallace Merck

Director: Jon Avnet

Rating: PG-13