Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt II

Yesterday we counted down from 50 to 30 in an utterly pointless list of underrated films from the 1990s, and today we continue that utterly pointless list by counting down from 29 to 11.  (Yes, I should have stopped at 31 yesterday, but rank amateur blogging is the proud calling card of this website and will continue to be so for some time.)

See also:
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt III (10-1)
Underrated: 50 Films of the 1990s Pt I (50-30)

Without further ado and for your consideration…

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29. Hard Eight (1996)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut has been revisited by many of his curious fans in the interim years, but it only made a paltry $200,000 when it was first released at the cinema, despite the presence of some very big names in the cast. Those who have bothered to check it out have discovered a compelling gambling crime drama, with terrific lead performances by Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly. Gwyneth Paltrow shows up as a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a prostitute, while there are also roles for Samuel L Jackson and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Worth seeing if you like the director’s subsequent work, even though he is finding his voice here.

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28. Darkman (1990)
Sam Raimi’s dark superhero story is miles apart from his later Spider-Man efforts, which sit more comfortably with the rest of the ever-growing sub-genre. Unable to secure the rights for Batman or The Shadow, but keen to create an homage to Universal’s horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, Raimi set about creating his own superhero: a mentally-unstable burns victim whose hospital treatment accidentally gives him enhanced strength and stops him from feeling physical pain. Liam Neeson dons the … er … mask, beating Gary Oldman and Bill Paxton to the role, while Frances McDormand provides the love interest.

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27. Clubbed To Death (1996)
This French film, also known as Lola, follows a young girl (Élodie Bouchez) as she ditches her upper class Parisian neighbourhood for the techno clubs in the down-at-heel banlieues on the edge of the city, entering into a love triangle with two small-time criminal brothers. The clubbing scenes are shot beautifully, moving from the thumping techno of the Chemical Brothers to the dreamy soundtrack by Rob Dougan and Philippe Cohen-Solal, while Béatrice Dalle vamps it up as a patriarchal club dancer. A little too dreamy at times, but it is juxtaposed interestingly with a tough, urban edge.

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26. Smoke (1995)

Yet another mid-90s Miramax indie with a stellar cast, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s Smoke was a box office success, spawning a sequel of sorts (the less impressive but decent Blue In The Face). Largely revolving around Harvey Keitel’s Auggie, the proprietor of a Brooklyn tobacco shop, the film follows a number of locals as they drop in and out of Auggie’s days, and it’s a well-written character piece that gradually weaves together their collected stories into a snapshot of a community. William Hurt, Giancarlo Esposito, Stockard Channing, Forest Whitaker and Ashley Judd drop by.

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25. The Opposite Of Sex (1998)

This well-written and sharp comedy drama contains an excellent performance by Christina Ricci, playing the smart-mouthed pregnant teenage runaway DeDee Truitt (Ricci’s narration is just as good as her on-screen work) as she wreaks havoc in the life of half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan). A character-driven piece with some stinging lines, The Opposite Of Sex also features a terrific supporting turn by Lisa Kudrow, successfully showing that her range extends further than ‘Phoebe from Friends’.

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24. Brassed Off (1997)

Mark Herman’s stirring comedy drama about a colliery brass band during the miner’s strike of the 1980s is based on the struggles of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band during the same period, and the real life band provide the foot-stomping soundtrack. There’s a light touch as Ewan McGregor sets about wooing Tara Fitzgerald, while the film’s darker side – ill health, poverty and attempted suicide feature just as heavily as the feelgood moments – is very well-judged indeed, and extremely moving. Stephen Tomkinson and the much-missed Pete Postlethwaite add depth to this vibrant riposte to the policies of the Thatcher government.

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23. Fearless (1993)
Rosie Perez was Oscar-nominated for her turn as a plane crash survivor in this drama by Peter Weir, but Jeff Bridges was perplexingly overlooked by the Academy for his brilliant performance, which counts as one of the best of his career. Bridges plays an architect named Max who believes he is invulnerable to death after he also survives the accident, leading doctors and family members to assume he is delusional, and the film’s delicate storytelling covers the traumatic aftermath of such an incident in a fascinating way. Benicio del Toro appears in an early role, Isabella Rossellini is excellent as Max’s wife Laura, and John Turturro pops up once again, reinforcing the fact that he is one of the most underrated actors of the decade.

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22. Waiting For Guffman (1997)
An excellent companion piece to Living In Oblivion, Waiting For Guffman kickstarted a great run of Christopher Guest mockumentaries that continued into the next century with Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Unfortunately it fared badly at the box office, but that’s no reflection on its finely-constructed humour and wry, observational style. Much of the cast that would continue working with Guest is present for this witty examination of small town amateur dramatics, including Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey. A gem that seems all but forgotten about today.

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21. Pushing Tin (1999)
Mike Newell had moved from Hugh Grant-starring romcoms to Donnie Brasco in the space of around three years before he made Pushing Tin, a box office failure from the late 1990s about two rival air traffic controllers obsessed with out-doing one another in order to prove their masculinity. Difficult to market, Pushing Tin received mixed reviews from critics but is well and truly ripe for re-appraisal thanks in part to the performances of charismatic performances by John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, who are ably supported by on-screen wives Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie. Unfairly dismissed at the time.

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20. The Day Trippers (1996)
Greg Mottola’s indie debut is so good it’s perplexing as to why he wasn’t given another film to helm for over ten years (his next effort was Superbad). With a simple plot covering a family’s road trip as Eliza (Hope Davis) attempts to get philandering husband Louis (Stanley Tucci) to confess his infidelity, it focuses more on the characters and the dialogue is razor sharp. Parker Posey and Liev Schreiber shine, while the hugely underrated Campbell Scott also excels.

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19. Big Night (1996)

Around the same time as The Day Trippers, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott made Big Night, a warm comedy-drama about two Italian brothers in 1950s New Jersey who try to make a success of their failing restaurant by seeking out loans and the patronage of Louis Prima. The film’s exploration of the cultural differences faced by immigrants, as well as the importance of identity and belonging, is thorough and – at times – thought-provoking. Tucci is magnificent.

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18. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Leonardo DiCaprio announced himself to the world with this Oscar-nominated performance (the first of many) as Arnie, the mentally-handicapped kid brother of Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp). A bittersweet and beautifully-shot drama set in small town Iowa but primarily filmed in Texas, it ruminates on absent father figures and depression but avoids falling into the trap of being too dreary and downbeat. Critical acclaim, yet again, did not translate into huge box office takings. Fun fact: director Lasse Hallström made nearly all of Abba’s promo videos.

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17. Beautiful Girls (1996)

Scott Rosenberg wrote this cracking tale of a high school reunion in small town New England while waiting to find out whether Disney intended to use his script for Con Air, and it’s also notable for being one of the few films made by Ted Demme before his death at the age of 38. Tim Hutton is Willie Conway, a fairly unsuccessful New York-based pianist, who returns home and befriends 13-year-old Marty (Natalie Portman, very good indeed). The men dither and moan about their lot in local bars while several female characters tell them to stop their dithering. and their moaning. Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman and Rosie O’ Donnell are among the stars.

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16. The Last Days Of Disco (1998)
This sardonic, witty Whit Stillman film examines Manhattan’s disco scene in the early 1980s, with Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale playing two Ivy League graduates who spend most of their spare time in New York’s more exclusive clubs. Stillman’s film is based on his own experiences of the scene and is notable for its excellent screenplay, which contains a believable group of self-important and serious characters. Released in the same year as the hacked-to-pieces 54, this is in a lower key but knocks spots off the competition. Guess which film made the most money?

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15. Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
Heading up an excellent cast of oddballs in this luminous gangster film is Andy Garcia as Jimmy The Saint, a smooth-talking ex-con forced to take on the age-old ‘one last job’ by vindictive mob boss The Man With The Plan (a superb Christopher Walken). Unfairly lumped in with the post-Pulp Fiction rush of average and quirky crime films, Denver is much more fun than most of its contemporary crime thrillers and writer-director team Scott Rosenberg and Gary Fleder manage to create a well-realised, vaguely cartoonish world that sporadically explodes with violence. Incredibly it only took half a million at the box office despite great turns by Treat Williams, Bill Forsythe, Steve Buscemi and Christopher Lloyd, but it now has the status of being a cult classic, much loved by those that have seen it.

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14. Secrets & Lies (1996)
In a career filled with high points, this kitchen sink drama may be one the highest of them all for Mike Leigh. It seems silly to be including a film here that won three awards at Cannes, especially given that it was also nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), but today mention of ‘Secrets & Lies’ will cause a lot of people to think initially about the admittedly very good Australian TV series. A magnificent, heart-wrenching melodrama about adoption and family relationships, it features standout performances by Timothy Spall and Brenda Blethyn.

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13. Palookaville (1995)
Hands down one of the best films of 1995, but finding people who have actually seen it is like finding a needle in a haystack; if you get a chance to track down this comic crime caper it is well worth any time and effort invested. At the heart of it is a trio of inept crooks and their dysfunctional families, but it’s also a heist film, and an original one to boot. Includes a breakthrough role for Vincent Gallo and two fine performances by Frances McDormand and William Forsythe.

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12. The Ice Storm (1997)
More dysfunction! A box office flop for Ang Lee but a critically-acclaimed film, The Ice Storm is a fascinating look at two families in the 1970s who collectively struggle with social and political change and use sex, booze and key parties as a means of coping. Based on Rick Moody’s excellent book, this is one of the great ensemble performances of the 1990s, with Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Elijah Wood, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci all excelling. Slow and meticulous, it sucks you in and holds your attention throughout.

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11. Croupier (1998)
The film that launched Clive Owen’s acting career internationally, Croupier is a fine neo-noir by Mike Hodges, the man who directed Get Carter (and, er, Flash Gordon). Atmospheric, moody and gripping, casinos have rarely been this thrilling outside of a Martin Scorsese film, but unfortunately the movie could not be considered for the Academy Awards in 1999 as it had been shown on Dutch TV. A shame, as it may have been in with a shout for a couple. Owen has rarely been better.

Interested to see what makes the top 10? Tune in tomorrow for the final few.

Comments 2

  1. Writer Loves Movies November 13, 2014

    Another great part to the list Stu! I come from Nottinghamshire (famous for it’s coal, as I’m sure you know) and watched Brassed Off so many times in the 90s! Really love that film. I should revisit it for the blog some time.

    • Stu November 13, 2014

      Thanks Natalie, much appreciated. It’s a cracking film, it really gets the balance between light and dark right I think…lots of political commentary while never really forgetting that it’s also an entertaining romantic comedy. The Full Monty stole its thunder I guess, but I much prefer Brassed Off.

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