Top Fifty Films of the 1990s: # 1



Bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-ba-dum-dum… that insistent, swinging drumbeat of Iggy Pop’s 1977 song “Lust for Life” accompanies the first few seconds of Danny Boyle’s 1996 film as Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) run through the streets of London. More specifically, they’re running away from an anonymous cop and another man in a business suit. They’re desperate to not get caught—wild fear flashes across Renton’s face, but also the excitement of getting away with whatever crime he has committed, so much that when a car suddenly careens into him, knocking him down, he just jumps back up and laughs maniacally at the driver before Spud pulls him away, for they have to keep moving. Over the action, Renton, in his thick Scottish brogue narrates, “Choose Life. Choose a job, choose a career, choose a family…” and on continues a litany of societal expectations, recited with even more venom than the upstanding-member-of-civilization prospectus laid out for the titular character in XTC’s song “Making Plans For Nigel” back in 1979.

In less than a minute, Boyle, Iggy and Renton establish what Trainspotting is all about, without even mentioning heroin addiction, the impetus that drives and curses Renton’s very existence. It’s as thrilling a film opening as one could ever wish for, its briskly-paced aesthetic going all the way back to A Hard Day’s Night yet defiantly, enthusiastically of its time: a brief stretch in the mid-90s when Britpop and “Cool Britannia” were in vogue, which the film both celebrates and occasionally mocks. Significantly, Trainspotting also came out at exactly the right time for me to fall in love with it: I was 21, heading into my senior year of college and on the precipice of deciding to forsake a career in Journalism (my major) for an oh-so-lucrative graduate degree in Film Studies (well, not much less lucrative than Journalism).

The rest of Trainspotting unfolds as a series of vignettes chronicling Renton’s addiction and slyly (but accurately) portraying him as the classic addict, getting on and off the wagon as if it were a carnival ride: he switches from heroin to methadone to heroin to cold-turkey withdrawal to heroin before, finally, a renewed determination to Choose Life and stay clean. Keeping in line with his unreliable character history, his last words to us have more than a twinge of ironic deceit to them.


While far from the first film about addiction among working-class youth, Trainspotting seethes with a sense of the new and now, forever trying to sustain that madcap euphoria of the opening scene and often succeeding in doing just that. The magical, subterranean visit to The Worst Toilet in Scotland, the club sequence overstuffed with visual and aural homages to A Clockwork Orange, Spud’s repulsively scatological morning-after disaster, the literally-sinking-through-the-floor overdose, the claustrophobic, dead-baby-crawling-across-the-ceiling withdrawal nightmare—all of them showy or heavily stylized, yet all pushing the narrative and character development forward so much that the film would crumble without them. The (relatively) quieter moments (the pilgrimage that gives the film its title, any of the later scenes involving the doomed Tommy (Kevin McKidd)) flesh out what could have been merely a series of music video homages; without them, Trainspotting would seem as empty as (sadly) much of Boyle’s subsequent work (with the exception of 28 Days Later and maybe 127 Hours).

Almost unrecognizably emaciated here, McGregor nonetheless turns in a star-making performance. He also has the support of a ridiculously talented cast, many of whom would become UK film mainstays over the next decade, from Robert Carlyle (as the deliriously psychotic drunk Begbie) to Kelly Macdonald (as smart-beyond-her-years Diane). Also a character of sorts is the soundtrack, as essential a document of Britpop as Saturday Night Fever was of mainstream disco. It includes heavyweights (Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream—only Oasis is conspicuously absent), second stringers (Sleeper, Elastica) and a compendium of heritage artists to complement obsessions (both Renton and Tommy talk about seeing Iggy Pop in concert), compulsions (who better to score an overdose than Lou Reed?), and, possibly due to it being one of the greatest, most ecstatic songs ever recorded, New Order’s “Temptation”. Underworld’s techno “Born Slippy” underscores Renton’s closing narration and sounds as iconic and resonant as “Lust For Life” did over the opening.

I’ve watched Trainspotting enough times (possibly more than a dozen) to very well know it is not a perfect film. Even at 94 minutes, it could be a little tighter, a tad more polished, and, especially in some of the later scenes, possess more of a sense of humor about itself. Most 21-year-olds seeing it for the first time today will probably think of it as a cult film, a curiosity, a novelty but not as something that could change a life. Yet, beyond its many surface pleasures, Trainspotting carries enough weight for automatic inclusion into the cannon of all-time great films about how terrifying and exhilarating it is to become an adult (if not always the moral, emotional equivalent of one). More so than any of the other worthy titles in my top ten, for me, it defines a (personally) tumultuous decade.

The Rest of My Top Fifty:


Run Lola Run

Run Lola Run

Seven Worthy Films I Just Couldn’t Squeeze Into the Top Fifty:

Boys Don’t Cry
Eat Drink Man Woman
Jesus’ Son
Run Lola Run
Secrets and Lies
To Die For
What About Bob?

Last Night

Last Night

Fifty More Great 1990s Films:

12 Monkeys
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
American Movie
Before Sunrise
Bullets Over Broadway
The Celebration
Chungking Express
Cookie’s Fortune
Dazed and Confused
Dottie Gets Spanked
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Gods and Monsters
Grosse Pointe Blank
The Hanging Garden
Happy Together
Hoop Dreams
The Ice Storm
Jackie Brown
Ju Dou
Last Night
The Limey
Live Flesh
The Lovers on the Bridge
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Mars Attacks!
Much Ado About Nothing
Next Stop Wonderland
Noises Off!
Office Space
The Opposite of Sex
Passion Fish
The Player
Raise the Red Lantern
The River
The Story of Qiu Ju
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Three Kings
What Happened Was…
The Witches

2 Responses to Top Fifty Films of the 1990s: # 1

  1. thedavidryan says:

    Hey great article here, I watched Trainspotting for the first time this weekend and reviewed it here see what you think.

  2. Call Me Appetite says:

    this movie kinda saved my life.

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