Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt I

The 1990s. You remember them, right? The Rubik’s Cube, flares, The Grateful Dead, prohibition, the gold rush … it’s the decade that you’ll never, ever forget. It’s also the decade that gave us Titanic, Forrest Gump, Armageddon and Batman & Robin – four movies that were almost certainly released at one point or other. But what about the underrated gems of the decade? Here are 50 of the very best that the 1990s has to offer, spread across three posts, of which this is the first. Some of these may well be critically acclaimed, some of them have even had Oscar nominations and wins, but they’re in this list for a variety of reasons: Miller’s Crossing, for example, remains one of the most well-regarded of Coen Brothers movies by their fans but it’s still little known and probably their second most underrated film (the first being 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, a brilliant two hours of slow-burning noir that people still ignore today).

See also: Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt II (29-11)
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt III (10-1)

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50. Rush (1991)
The prospect of watching a film about a tough undercover narcotics officer who is paired with a recent police academy graduate may have you reaching for the ‘off’ button, but Rush is a fine example of a gritty, uncompromising crime story. Jason Patric is the cop in question – he would go on to play a similar role a decade later in the underrated Joe Carnahan film Narc – while Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in a very impressive performance as the new partner who takes her undercover act a little too far. There’s also good support from the gravel-voiced Sam Elliott and, bizarrely, Gregg Allman as a drug lord.

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49. That Thing You Do! (1996)
That Thing You Do! was a moderate success at the box office, probably due to the fact that Tom Hanks was the biggest movie star in world when he directed it (he also wrote the film and appears in a supporting role). This tale of a one-hit-wonder band who enjoy fleeting success during the early 1960s pop explosion is rarely mentioned today, however, but it has a warm, feelgood spirit and the cast – which also includes Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Isaak, Steve Zahn and, fleetingly, Bryan Cranston – exudes charm.

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48. Mallrats (1995)
Kind of a prequel to Kevin Smith’s low budget indie breakthrough Clerks, Mallrats bombed upon release, recouping barely a third of its $6 million budget. Incorporating some characters from Clerks, Smith’s comic-referencing tale of slackers TS Quint (Jeremy London) and Brodie Bruce (a terrific, hyper-charged Jason Lee) and their attempts to woo back their girlfriends while avoiding brutal fathers and stoic mall security guards is actually great fun, with plenty of killer lines and a lot of amusing daftness. Smith apologized for it a year later, with tongue very possibly in cheek.

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47. Living In Oblivion (1995)
Tom DiCillo achieved some acclaim in the 1980s as a favoured cinematographer of Jim Jarmusch, but his career high point is arguably this superb satirical tale of low-budget filmmaking, made with a fine cast of 1990s indie regulars: Steve Buscemi excels as the intense but frustrated director trying to appease prima-donna cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), unconfident actress Nicole (Catherine Keener) and angry, embittered dwarf Tito (Peter Dinklage). James LeGros is fantastic as Chad Palomino, a major Hollywood star slumming it in order to gain a little indie kudos. When pressed on why he has accepted the role he wails ‘because I thought you were tight with Quentin Tarantino!’.

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46. Night On Earth (1991)
A collection of short stories revolving around taxi rides in which driver and passenger bond at night, Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth is a globe-trotting indie featuring an array of diverse but excellent performances. It’s also very amusing indeed, and incorporates a standout soundtrack by Tom Waits. Winona Ryder, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Isaach De Bankolé, Roberto Benigni and Matti Pellonpää are the drivers (LA, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki respectively) while there are fine turns by Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez and Béatrice Dalle as some of the passengers. Benigni steals the film.

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45. A Midnight Clear (1992)
Without doubt one of the most perceptive and well-acted war films of the 1990s, A Midnight Clear was sadly a failure at the box office, despite the fact it featured an ensemble cast of then up-and-coming names and an excellent script. Set near the end of World War II, the story follows a small squad of American soldiers who must occupy a deserted chateau close to the German border during the Battle Of The Bulge. They come into contact with a similar group of weary German soldiers who are keen for a truce, and this well-observed and soulful tale of the mental pressure caused by war largely eschews brawn for brain as the two groups attempt to make peace.

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44. Land And Freedom (1995)
Ken Loach’s tale of a young Liverpudlian (played by Ian Hart) who travels to Catalonia to fight fascism as part of the POUM militia is a gripping work, part war film and part political and social drama. The film explores themes of idealism, collectivism and belonging and has been likened by many to George Orwell’s novel Homage To Catalonia.

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43. Cop Land (1997)
Although another moderate box office success, arguably Cop Land should have been a big hit, especially when considering its cast included Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Peter Berg and Janeane Garofalo. Stallone piled on the pounds to play a local New Jersey sheriff taking on corrupt forces within the NYPD and turns in his best performance in years, but the film’s slow-ish pace and bleakness put a lot of people off at the time of release. A shame, as Cop Land stands up as a mature, brooding drama today.

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42. A Very Brady Sequel (1996)
I could have easily picked The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) instead; both that film and this sequel are surprisingly smart comedies that gently poke fun at the raft of 1990s movie remakes of classic TV shows of yore, and both Brady efforts are far funnier than you’d expect them to be. Placing the wholesome 1970s family in a 1990s setting and milking the resulting culture clash for all it’s worth, this second instalment has some great drugs and incest-related gags and well-judged tongue-in-cheek performances from Gary Cole and Shelley Long.

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41. Grace Of My Heart (1996)
Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging) became another successful independent director who struggled to achieve mainstream success when given a larger budget to work with. Grace Of My Heart – another movie about the 1960s pop music industry that starts off in New York’s Brill Building before moving across to LA’s singer-songwriter scene – sadly only made $600,000 at the cinema, but it’s a solidly-made romantic drama with some fine performances: Ileana Douglas stars as a Carole King-style songwriter, Matt Dillon plays a character apparently based on Brian Wilson and John Turturro is excellent as the wild, driven producer that is Phil Spector in all but name.

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40. Gonin (1995)
Considering that Quentin Tarantino ripped off Asian crime cinema with his debut Reservoir Dogs it’s perhaps fitting that Japan’s Takashi Ishii took his own revenge and made this hard-boiled tale of a heist gone wrong that captures a little of the Dogs flavour. An occasionally-brutal thriller that eschews the ballet and bullets of Hong Kong cinema for a bleaker, more realistic violence, it’s still a stylish and at times a surreal film. It was misleadingly marketed as a Beat Takeshi movie when it was released (though Kitano does have a small role) but even that hasn’t stopped it from slipping into obscurity.

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39. Dead Presidents (1995)
The Hughes Brothers made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society but this follow up did well, despite earning mixed reviews. Following New Yorker friends Larenz Tate, Chris Tucker and Freddy Rodriguez as they graduate from high school in the late 1960s and head to Vietnam, the first half of the movie examines the brutality of their time at war while the second half concentrates on their return to the USA, where they find gratitude and help from both the government and their loved ones in short supply. Part heist movie, part family drama, part war film, it’s a little mixed up at times but well worth a watch. Great soundtrack too.

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38. Mystery Men (1999)
The anti-superhero comedy Mystery Men is another of this list’s box office bombs, only making back half of its estimated $68 million budget, but it’s a decent spoof that deserved better. A wry take on comic book cliches, part of the problem is it tries to shoehorn in too many famous faces, with Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, William H Macy, Claire Forlani, Tom Waits, Paul Reubens and Janeane Garofalo among the names competing for space on the screen. That said, it hits the mark more than it misses, and there are plenty of laughs to be had at the array of pointless superpowers on display.

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37. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
One of two 1990s Coen Brothers movies on this list, The Hudsucker Proxy is certainly worth a watch if you have never seen it before. A warm homage to Frank Capra, screwball comedy and 1950s cinema generally, it features some great production design and some inventive, retro-looking special effects, plus some fine observations on the machinations of big business. Tim Robbins is the star, Paul Newman the overacting corporate bad guy, and Jennifer Jason Leigh excels once again as a fast-talking reporter.

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36. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Though admittedly not without faults, The Basketball Diaries is worth watching for the performances of a young Leonardo diCaprio, playing the real life poet and writer Jim Carroll, and Mark Wahlberg as his friend Mickey. Together the pair gradually lose focus on basketball – they begin the film as members of a seemingly-unbeatable high school squad – and descend into the world of drug addiction, which leads to a spell in Riker’s Island for Jim. Carroll’s real life story is turned into a straightforward tale of descent and redemption, but it has its hard-hitting and gritty moments.

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35. Pleasantville (1998)
Gary Ross is better known today as the director of The Hunger Games and Seabiscuit, but this late 1990s debut is an underrated gem, and one of the best movies of that year. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon play a bickering teenage brother and sister who are magically transported into the world of Pleasantville, an idyllic 1950s sitcom. Gradually their actions begin to influence this black-and-white town, and Pleasantville and its residents slowly burst into colour; Ross uses this to play around with the idea of a perfect, innocent America and highlights the country’s recent history of racism in a subversive, inventive way.

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34. Trees Lounge (1996)
Written by, starring and directed by Steve Buscemi, this low-key, blackly-humorous indie also features a fine cast that includes Anthony LaPaglia, Samuel L Jackson, Debi Mazar, Mimi Rogers and Chloe Sevigny. Buscemi’s character Tommy is an alcoholic and a permanent fixture at his local bar (the ‘Trees Lounge’ of the title), and the actor’s performance has been widely praised as one of his best; Roger Ebert suggested that it ‘is the most accurate portrait of the daily saloon drinker I have ever seen’.

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33. The Cable Guy (1996)
Ben Stiller’s odd black comedy suffered as a result of being marketed as a typical Jim Carrey vehicle, which it most certainly wasn’t, but it still cleared the $100 million mark at the box office (Carrey pocketed a then-record $20 million for his work on the film). Though it is well-known I’d argue that this smart and subversive movie is critically underrated, with many reviewers bamboozled at the time by the mix of slapstick goofiness and Lou Holtz Jr’s dark script, which went through four drafts before producer Judd Apatow added a few final flourishes. Stiller apparently shot a ‘light’ and ‘dark’ version of every scene, but the studio was happy with the bleak results and violent ending. Matthew Broderick turns in a good performance as the straight foil for Carrey’s buffoonery.

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32. Buffalo ’66 (1998)
If you listened to writer-director-star Vincent Gallo at the time of its release, you’d think this indie tale of an ex-con who kidnaps a young tap dancer (Christina Ricci) was an even greater achievement than Citizen Kane. Hyperbole aside, it is a solid and convincing drama, and there’s little evidence on screen of the rows that flared up when the cameras stopped rolling: Gallo reportedly fell out with co-stars Ricci and Anjelica Huston, who he later accused of sabotaging the film’s chances at Cannes, and claimed the praised cinematographer Lance Acord ‘had no ideas, no conceptual ideas, no aesthetic point of view’. Ouch.

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31. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Despite huge critical acclaim Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel failed to attract a big audience when it was released. Perhaps the subject matter – the story focuses on the aftermath of a tragic bus accident in a small town in British Columbia in which several children die – put a lot of people off, which is a shame as it is a profound, moving and beautifully-filmed tale containing excellent performances by its two leads, Ian Holm and Sarah Polley.

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30. Quiz Show (1994)
It seems bizarre to be ending this part of the list with a film that received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but Quiz Show seems to be all but forgotten twenty years later. Why? Robert Redford’s film is a masterful, sprawling take on a TV game show scandal that acts as a metaphor for an entire nation’s loss of innocence. It features sterling acting performances by John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield and Rob Morrow, but surprisingly it’s yet another box office bomb. What the hell is up with you people?!

So. That’s 50-30. Yes, it’s a pointless list, but I’ll post 29-11 tomorrow (hopefully) and then 10-1 will either be Thursday or Friday, depending on time. There are some killer films to come…

Comments 4

  1. Writer Loves Movies November 12, 2014

    Some great recommendations here Stu that I need to follow up on. Especially keen to see Trees Lounge, as I’m a big Buscemi fan. I added it to my Netflix queue a while back, but when I logged on to watch it I found it had been taken off the site. Still disappointed about that…

    • Stu November 12, 2014

      Trees Lounge is pretty cool – definitely has that mid 90s indie vibe and not a lot happens but Buscemi is very good and the rest of the cast is pretty good. Have you seen Living In Oblivion? That’s another good one, although a more typical Buscemi performance!

  2. Writer Loves Movies November 13, 2014

    Haven’t seen Living In Oblivion, but I’ll see if I can get hold of it. I can feel a Steve Buscemi themed Christmas list coming on… It’s a real shame that Boardwalk Empire has come to an end, I’m in awe of his performance as Nucky Thompson. I especially like him when he plays against type as well (although I have to admit he’s done this in some terrible films too: Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Youth In Revolt). I loved him in Ghost World though.

    • Stu November 13, 2014

      I’m just watching that at the moment (Boardwalk Empire). Only 1 season in though. He’s great, Buscemi. I really liked his part in The Sopranos too, although that was very much his usual neurotic / agitated / argumentative / jumpy type of character.
      A Buscemi Christmas sounds fun! There’s plenty of snow in Fargo.

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