Following the decade of the 1980s, which can easily be qualified as the renaissance age in the history of Spanish cinema with several gem outcomes, came the decade of the 1990s with even more maturity and great cinema.
It was a curious decade for Spanish cinema: many of the now-established filmmakers were just starting out and experimenting with their early films, such as Alejandro Amenábar, Pedro Almodóvar, and Alex de la Iglesia. It was this generation’s work that created some buzz all over the world, winning awards, and helped put Spanish films on the international map attracting new audiences.
In some way, the Spanish films from the 1990s have paved the way for the cinema we see now, in which commercial and auteur films coexist with traditional comedy. The Spanish films from the 1990s were clearly influenced by the country’s political transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Another factor that influenced Spanish films in that decade was the development of digital technology. Filmmaking became more flexible and creative, using different techniques like nonlinear narratives and dream sequences.
What are the Best Spanish Films From the 1990s?
Coming up next, we remember the best Spanish films from the 1990s.
Jamón, Jamón by Bigas Luna (1992)
Initiating our list of the top Spanish films from the 1990s with the work of an old guard from the previous decade, Bigas Luna, where he launched the superstars Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem to stardom.
In Jamón, Jamón, Luna takes the audience to a small Spanish village where traditions and social standards are everything to the characters in the films. We follow José, the son of a wealthy family, whose mother disapproves of his relationship with his pregnant lover, Silvia. Therefore, she tries to ruin their relationship by hiring a bullfighter named Raúl to seduce Silvia. However, things don’t go as planned, complicating the lives of everybody involved!
The film was the first of what later became Luna’s Trilogía ibérica (Iberian Trilogy); the other two films also came in the 1990s; Huevos de Oro (1993) and La Teta Y La Luna (1994). Like in many of his films, in Jamón, Jamón, Luna played around with showing the contrast between the old Spain and the new one through the characters and how each generation has different priorities.
The film was well-received in Spain, and it did well internationally as well, earning Luna the Silver Lion at the 49th Venice International Film Festival, and it was also nominated for several other awards.
Vacas by Julio Medem (1992)
Great directors usually show their talents from the early days; some even show immense talent from their debut, like Julio Medem. Before becoming the helmer of Los amantes del círculo polar (1998), which has already become a cult film, Medem made his cinema debut with a very special first film, Vacas.
Located in the Basque region, Vacas tells the saga of three generations of two families (and three generations of cows) from 1875, during the Third Carlist War, until 1936, the beginning of the Civil War.
With a cast including Carmelo Gómez, Karra Elejalde and Emma Suárez, among others, it is a strange, original and suggestive film in which the lines between the real and the imaginary are not very clear, and where the rural, the Basque and the symbolic become very important.
Medem’s innovative debut made quite an impression on the audience and the critics who praised his style and techniques. Medem received the Goya for Best New Director for this film, among many other awards.
Belle Époque by Fernando Trueba (1992)
The film that brought together some of the most outstanding actresses of Spanish cinema: Maribel Verdú, Penélope Cruz and Chus Lampreabe, and also brought home an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994, Belle Époque is one of the greatest comedy-romantic Spanish films from the 1990s.
The film is set in Spain, in 1931, just before the start of World War I and during the time known as the Belle Époque in Europe. The young Fernando decides to leave the army only to end up at a country estate where he is taken in by Manolo, an eccentric painter with republican ideas, who invites Fernando to his big house in the countryside. However, things take a more interesting turn when Manolo’s four daughters come to the scene!
This film explores different themes, such as gender roles and expectations. The male lead, Fernando, is described as a passionate, sensitive young guy who isn’t hesitant to express his feelings. The four sisters he falls in love with, however, are all independent, strong-willed women who reject traditional gender stereotypes.
Belle Époque was a blockbuster becoming the highest-grossing film in Spain in 1992, and in addition to the Oscar, the film received numerous awards, including nine Goya awards, to name a few.
La ardilla roja de Julio Medem (1993)
La Flor de Mi Secreto by Pedro Almodóvar (1995)
It was about time to mention one of Pedro Almodóvar’s Spanish films from the 1990s. La Flor de Mi Secreto was Pedro’s eleventh film, where Marisa Paredes played one of her best characters which earned her the Best Actress award at the Premios ACE, among many other awards.
The film tells the story of a successful but unhappy writer named Leo Macías, who is going through a creative block as a result of a personal crisis with her husband, a soldier on a peace mission in Bosnia.
In this film, like many titles in his career, Pedro presented an intimate story that delves once again into the female universe, as Leo’s character conveys the themes of feminine identity, the difficulties of surviving in a world dominated by men, and creativity.
La Flor De Mi Secreto is probably one of Pedro Almodóvar’s least striking films at first glance, but it is also one of the hidden gems of his filmography. In this film, we explore the loneliness and frustration of a middle-aged woman. Pedro also sheds light on women’s liberation, which is something constant in his films.
El Día de la Bestia by Álex de la Iglesia (1995)
El Día De La Bestia was director Álex de la Iglesia’s third film, and it is considered to be one of his best works ever. The film brought a combination of horror and humour, as well as its harsh commentary on Spanish culture and religion, making the film stand out.
The story follows a Basque priest who is convinced that on Christmas Day, 1995, the Antichrist will be born. To put an end to him, he joins forces with a young death metal fan, José Mari, trying, by all means, to discover where in Madrid the apocalyptic event will take place with the help of Professor Cavan, who presents a TV show about the esoteric world.
Winner of six Goya awards, the film’s central theme is Satanism, which is introduced into the plot through the apparent birth of the Antichrist. Alex de la Iglesia created a comedy with a religious backdrop, in which he criticised racism, superstition and certain television models.
Hola, ¿estás sola? By Icíar Bollaín (1995)
In 1995, a relatively unknown actress who some film buffs remembered as the girl from the film El Sur made her directorial debut with this film based on a script co-written by Bollaín herself and Julio Medem.
Bollaín’s first film brought the story of two 20-something women (Candela Peña and Silke) who leave home and embark on a journey. A story of friendship and sorority before that word was used!
The “Spanish Thelma and Louise“, as called by some, was the beginning of a great career as a director for Bollaín. Hola, ¿estás sola? was not a great box-office success, but it did become a cult film and a model for a new type of cinema that opted for new stories and new actors.
Tesis by Alejandro Amenábar (1996)
Rarely does the debut film of a first-time director succeed and surprise in the way that Tesis did! Alejandro Amenábar kickstarted his career with this gem that earned him a Goya for Best New Director. Tesis is a classic of Spanish cinema and one of the best films from the 1990s.
Tesis narrates the story of Ángela, a college student who is conducting research for her thesis on multimedia violence. In her research, she meets Chema (Fele Martínez), an expert in gore and snuff movies, and the mysterious and disturbing Bosco, a friend of a young woman who was supposedly murdered in one of those films!
The film was a shocking reflection on morbidity, violence and audiovisual culture that catapulted the career of Amenábar, who has since become one of the most internationally successful Spanish directors; he even won an Oscar for his film The Sea Inside (2004). Tesis went on to become an international success sweeping many awards, including Best Picture at the Goya Awards and Best Actress at the Premios ACE for Ana Torrent.
Cosas Que Nunca Te Dije by Isabel Coixet (1996)
At a time when it was still something exceptional for a woman to get behind the camera, the appearance of a young director, unknown except for advertising work, who had just shot in the United States and with the great muse of 1990s indie cinema, Lili Taylor, in the leading role, was more than a rarity, it was an accumulation of rarities in Spanish cinema.
That’s why filmmaker Isabel Coixet was a pioneer in many respects; she opened up the path of making a living abroad that has been followed by many other filmmakers like Jaume Collet Serra, Rodrigo Cortés, Eduardo Chapero Jackson and others. On the other hand, it showed an authorial universe far removed from comedy and centred on romantic existentialism in a way that could be considered markedly feminine twenty years before the latter could be considered an element in its favour.
Shot in the United States, Coixet’s second feature film tells the story of Ann, a woman who, after being abandoned by her partner, begins to unburden herself over the phone to a volunteer from the Telephone of Hope.
Mixing drama and humour with sensitivity, iconic dialogues and careful images, Coixet presented a story of love and loneliness that deserves to be watched over and over.
Abre Los Ojos by Alejandro Amenábar (1997)
Alejandro Amenábar’s second feature film, Abre los Ojos, was an even bigger hit than his debut. It could be said that Amenábar was one of the first directors of Spanish cinema, in which there was neither a shadow of the civil war nor of the dictatorship, nor of Catholic education, nor of an interest in comedy in his films, but rather in a genre film with a clearly Anglo-Saxon influence in which, he never failed to introduce a moral and ideological point of view.
In the film, César, a rich young man, becomes disfigured in a car accident that his ex-lover Nuria intentionally caused to kill them both because she was jealous of César falling in love with Sofía. As César’s mental health gets worse, he engages in a love triangle with two women, Sofía and Nuria, and starts to believe that a secret organisation named “Life Extension” is in charge of his life.
The performances of the three characters received a lot of attention, but Eduardo Noriega’s, in particular, stands out for his delicate portrayal of a man who is questioning his own sanity. At the Goya Awards, Noriega was up for Best Lead Actor.
Although this film is less celebrated than the director’s debut Thesis, Abre los Ojos is clearly much more complex in terms of dramatic structure and script, better paced and edited, and more visually imaginative in terms of direction. It has also been one of the few successful and worthy attempts to make science fiction in Spain; it managed to win the Goya for best film, proving that Amenábar was the country’s star director.
Barrio by Fernando León de Aranoa (1998)
After winning the Goya for Best New Director for his first feature film, for his second film, Fernando León de Aranoa presented, in a bittersweet but uncompromising way, the lives of those marginalised lives, the social misery that surrounds us and we don’t want to see.
Portraying social problems, “Barrio,” tells the story of three young friends who live in a working-class neighbourhood of Madrid: Rai, Javi, and Manu, who are attempting to find their way in the world. While they deal with the difficulties of adolescence, they must also face the harsh realities of neighbourhood life, such as poverty, violence, and prejudice.
The film is renowned for its realistic and brutal depiction of urban life. Barrio is one of the most representative examples of social portrait films with a certain air of the cinema quinqui of previous decades. The dialogue, the language, and the way of reflecting on the every day without falling into imposture is almost poetry. This way of combining rawness with idealism was highly acclaimed by critics and won several Goya awards.
Todo Sobre Mi Madre by Pedro Almodóvar (1999)
There are many people who would argue that the 1990s were not exactly the best decade in Almodóvar’s career. By the end of the decade and when it seemed that Amenábar, Fernando León, Medem or Álex de la Iglesia were going to take the lead in the future of Spanish cinema, came Todo Sobre Mi Madre, probably the most awarded Spanish film in history, to consecrate Pedro Almodóvar from then until now as the unbeatable number one of national cinematography and as one of the most famous and respected filmmakers in the world!
The film follows Manuela and her son Esteban share a great love of cinema and theatre. One night, Esteban is run over and killed, and this causes a crisis in Manuela, who moves to Barcelona in search of her son’s father. There she meets women who are very different from each other, full of strength and with lives of all kinds.
The film’s script has a similar structure to Almodovar’s other masterpiece, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). It is centred on a very strong female heroine who, despite going through a very difficult personal moment, finds the strength to help other women whose increasingly bizarre vicissitudes lead her into a surreal spiral that ends up being therapeutic for her. The success was to tell practically the same story but in a tone of dramatic comedy that exacerbated the most grotesque elements of the plot, turning the film into a hymn to inclusion and respect for different ways of life that amused and moved all kinds of audiences in equal measure.
Todo Sobre Mi Madre was an absolute success both at the box office and with the critics who loved the film. Not to mention the shower of international awards the films received, an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language and Best Direction for Pedro. This is in addition to six Goya Awards, one for Almodóvar and one for Cecilia Roth.
Unlike the previous decades in the history of Spanish cinema, there was no solo genre prevailing. Filmmakers were liberated to explore unconquered new themes and genres, gifting the world with some of the best Spanish films in history! The films of this decade were notable for their local and global popularity as well as the rise of new, brilliant filmmakers. Additionally, it was around this time that Spanish films gained international recognition.