Underrated: 50 Films Of The 1990s Pt III

Continuing the completely pointless countdown of 50 underrated movies of the 1990s – the decade that pretty much defined the space between the 1980s and the 2000s – here are the final 10 entries. If you want to see the previous posts click here for 50-30 and here for 29-11.

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10. Bound (1996)

The 1996 debut film by Andy and Larry (later Lana) Wachowski is a magnificent crime thriller that tanked at the box office. One of the best modern day noirs around, Bound follows the blossoming lesbian relationship of plumber Corky (Gina Gershon) and her client Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who just happens to be married to mob boss Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). The two lovers hatch a plot to rip off Ceasar but, naturally, things don’t quite go to plan. Interestingly, the Wachowski’s used Frank Miller’s Sin City comics as inspiration and employed a sex educator and feminist writer, Susie Bright, to assist with the sex scenes.

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9. Election (1999)

Alexander Payne’s amusing allegory of the US political system features excellent performances by Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon: she is the monstrous political wannabe running for school president while he is the teacher determined to stop her. A cutting satire that – in the opinions of many – reflected events in the following year’s real life presidential election the, Election makes fine use of freezeframes, flashbacks and voiceovers to tell the story, with Payne delighting in piling the misery on Broderick’s hapless vote-rigger.

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8. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

No list of underrated movies is complete without reference to Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers’ slow, masterful take on the gangster film genre set during the prohibition era (the setting is never revealed in the movie, but most of the filming took place in New Orleans). John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand make their 95th, 84th and 71st appearances in this list respectively, which is mightily impressive. I was going to pick Barton Fink for a change – which is also underrated and should really have been included on this list somewhere – until I realised it also stars John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand and began to weep. Still unappreciated despite everyone spending the past 20 years repeatedly saying that it’s unappreciated.

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7. Nil By Mouth (1997)

If it’s laughs you want, then you probably ought to give Nil By Mouth a miss. Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, which he also wrote, is a gritty, uncompromising look at a tough subject, focusing on abuse in a working class London family. Ray Winstone’s Ray piles the misery on his wife, Kathy Burke’s Val, in this relentlessly downbeat, depressing but incredibly powerful film. Nil By Mouth was critically acclaimed but made only $270,000 against a budget of $9 million and Oldman hasn’t made a film since, although he has recently announced his intention to direct the 2016 film Flying Horse, a biopic of pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

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6. The Last Seduction (1994)

Linda Fiorentino should have won an Oscar for her performance in John Dahl’s noir The Last Seduction, but she was disqualified after it was shown on HBO before the ceremony. Booo! It’s a shame her work hasn’t been recognized, as this is a terrific turn as the manipulative and calculating Bridget, who first rips off her drug-dealing doctor husband Clay (Bill Pullman) before wrapping Buffalo boy Mike (Peter Berg) around her little finger as she hatches a scheme to get even richer. One of those films where you can’t help but root for the villain, brilliantly directed by Dahl.

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5. The Straight Story (1999)

David Lynch veered into unfamiliar territory with this biographical film about Alvin Straight’s journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. A slow, meditative treat the reflects the vehicles 5mph top speed, Richard Farnsworth earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Alvin while there is excellent support from Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton, two magnificent talents that seemed to be marginalised throughout the decade. Straightforward, sentimental and moving, The Straight Story is one of Lynch’s finest films, though oddly unlike anything else he has made.

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4. Lone Star (1996)

Though a box office success of sorts, as well as a critical smash, Lone Star seems all but forgotten today. It’s a real shame, because this is John Sayles’s masterpiece: a long, meticulously-paced examination of abused power and murder in Texas that includes magnificent cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. Chris Cooper is the sheriff investigating the death of his brutal and corrupt predecessor, portrayed in flashbacks by Kris Kristofferson, while there is solid support from Clifton James, Matthew McConaughey and Elizabeth Peña. Deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as No Country For Old Men.

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3. Red Rock West (1993)

Another John Dahl film in the top ten; this was written by Dahl and his brother Rick, but unfortunately suffered at the box office as it appeared several times on TV after an initial run through the festival circuit. Another excellent modern film noir, Nicolas Cage stars as a drifter looking for work in the small Arizona town of Red Rock, where he is mistakenly identified as a hitman by a feuding couple played by Lara Flynn Boyle and JT Walsh. This straightforward tale of double crossing sparks into life when the real hitman – played with psychotic verve by Dennis Hopper – shows up in town. A great thriller.

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2. A Simple Plan (1998)

Sorry horror fans, but this is Sam Raimi’s best film to date, bar none. Raimi asked his friends Joel and Ethan Coen for tips on shooting in the snow when making this Minnesota-based tale of greed and betrayal, and the result is a fine work that does not suffer when compared to that duo’s more celebrated Fargo. Billy Bob Thornton is on terrific form as an idiot savant, while Bill Paxton excels as his increasingly pressured brother. Along with their friend Lou the pair find a crashed plane and $4.4 million of unmarked bills in the woods, but it doesn’t take long for the owners and the police to come looking for the money. A lost classic.

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1. Naked (1993)

Mike Leigh won Best Director at Cannes for Naked, a fascinating tragi-comic study of Mancunian anti-hero Johnny as he rants his way around London, essentially hiding in plain sight after raping a woman in Manchester. It’s a tough ask to sympathise with such a character, but David Thewlis’s remarkable performance of this scattergun manic depressive is outstanding, investing the character with occasional flickers of warmth and kindness amidst all the spat out vitriol and self-loathing. A kind of post-punk, post-Thatcher, permanently-damaged version of Alfie, Johnny is a well-educated fatalist and arguably the most interesting of all Leigh’s characters to date. You can’t take your eyes off him in this brilliant, hugely underrated masterpiece.

It’s been pretty tough to leave some films out of this list, so I’m going to list a bunch of worthy mentions that just missed the cut: Ulee’s Gold, To Die For, Career Girls, Chasing Amy, Affliction, Pi, American History X, Topsy Turvy, Ghost Dog (The Way Of The Samurai), Barton Fink, Once Were Warriors, Pecker, Human Traffic, Spanking The Monkey, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Slacker, Cry Baby, Crumb, Jungle Fever, Pump Up The Volume, Go and Jacob’s Ladder were all considered as good underrated films of the 1990s but quite a few of these films were critically acclaimed at the time and did OK at the box office. My rules for choosing weren’t really set in stone, though!

A little bit of research has also led me to four films that are repeatedly mentioned online as underrated that I have never seen: One False Move, Following, Exotica and Citizen Ruth. I’ll be checking them out in the future.

So – there’s bound to be something I’ve left off – what’s your favourite underrated movie of the 1990s?

50 Underrated Films Of The 1990s Pt I
50 Underrated Films Of The 1990s Pt II

Comments 4

  1. Ewan M November 13, 2014

    Hello, just found yr sister site, and hurrah for an excellent series of posts, which reminds me I mean to keep going with my own underrated films series (I only did 1997 so far, I think). I guess everyone has a different idea of what counts as underrated, because I feel like a lot of these are really well-known critically, even if they were commercially unsuccessful.

    But if I were to take a punt myself, I’d put on Gattaca (Andrew Niccol), A Room for Romeo Brass (Shane Meadows), King of New York (Abel Ferrara), The Tango Lesson (Sally Potter), I Hired a Contract Killer (Aki Kaurismaki), The Neon Bible (Terence Davies), Calendar (Atom Egoyan), Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom), Fast Cheap & Out of Control (Errol Morris) and Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven). I’m not even including foreign-language films since they are always going to be niche interest (and I could fill a list of 50 just with those).

    • Stu November 14, 2014

      Hey Ewan, thanks for stopping by. I think I bit off a little more than I can chew by trying to do an entire decade’s worth of underrated films or by limiting it to 50 instead of 100 entries (and I also largely avoided foreign films except for a few that I really like). Those are some really good suggestions – if I started over I would definitely include a few of the ones you mention that I’ve seen (Gattaca, Romeo Brass, King Of New York and Wonderland). I ought to check out the others too. It also makes me realise I should have included Twenty Four-Seven as well. Ah well…this was bound to happen!

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