The top 25 underappreciated films of 1995

Odd List Ryan Lambie Simon Brew 24 Oct 2013 - 06:46

Another 25 unsung greats come under the spotlight, as we provide our pick of the underappreciated films of 1995...

The year covered in this week's underrated movie rundown was significant for a number of reasons. It was the year that saw the release of Toy Story - the groundbreaking movie that would cement Pixar's reputation as an animation studio, and set the tempo for CG family movies for the next 18 years and counting. It was the year that saw James Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan for the first time) emerge for GoldenEye after a six-year break. It was also the year of Michael Mann's Heat, Dogme 95, and the moment where Terry Gilliam scored a much-deserved hit with 12 Monkeys.

As ever, we're focusing on a few of the lesser-known films from this particular year, and we've had to think carefully about what's made the cut and what hasn't. To this end, we've tried to draw from a varied selection of genres, from dramas to horror and animation to sci-fi. See what you make of the following, and do chime in with your suggestions in the comments...

25. Tank Girl

Fate -not to mention critics - failed to take kindly to this adaptation of Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett's comic book. Reviews were negative, the turnout low, and the comic book's creators described their brush with Hollywood as a "horrible experience". But with the film allowed to sit and percolate for a few years, it's now easier to appreciate Tank Girl for what it is - an sci-fi adventure comedy that tries its damndest to recreate the colourful anarchy of the source comic, even if it's not entirely faithful to some of its details.

There's a great 90s alt-rock soundtrack, with contributions from Bush, Portishead and L7, and an eclectic cast, including Lori Petty as Tank Girl, Naomi Watts, Malcolm McDowell, Ice-T and Iggy Pop. We won't even pretend that everything in Tank Girl works, but as a fun Friday night B-movie and 90s culture time capsule, it has lots to recommend it.

24. Congo

Oh lord, where do you start? Based on the Michael Crichton book of the same name, nobody vaguely sane could stand before a room of film students and profess that Frank Marshall's movie of Congo is, by conventional measures, a strong one. And yet it still works. And it's massively, massively enjoyable.

Amy the gorilla remains a steadfast highlight, and that the film was made at a point where computers were still doing bits around the edges, rather than the stuff in the middle, was an advantage. But amongst the many competitors to grab your attention, step forward the impeccable Tim Curry. He plays a rich Romanian man called Herkermer Homolka, and this gives Curry free reign to deploy the kind of accent that the man excels at. And when he declares that he's hunting for "the lost city of Zinj", you can do nothing but submit to the bizarre wonderfulness of what's going on.

Boasting an early role for the brilliant Laura Linney too, Congo remains a 90s piece of work that rests long in the memory. Expect a more extensive lookback on the site soon.

23. The Prophecy

Viggo Mortensen as the Devil? Christopher Walken as an insubordinate archangel Gabriel? These are but two reasons to see The Prophecy, the apocalyptic fantasy thriller from Highlander screenwriter Gregory Widen, making his debut as director here. Walken (with curious, jet-black hair) clearly has great fun as a deliciously evil angel who's come to Earth in search of a 'dark soul' - something he plans to use to finally win a war raging between angels in heaven - and his unique line-delivery and unblinking, physical performance adds a real touch of class to the trashy story.

Elias Koteas is really good, too, as a lapsed priest turned cop who crosses Gabriel's path - although the film's full of gore, action and special effects, one of the best scenes sees Koteas and Walken sitting in a church, trading threats. It's charismatic moments like this that make The Prophecy well worth tracking down.

"You know how you got that dent in your top lip? Way back, before you were born, I told you a secret. Then I put my finger there, and said, 'Shh...'"

22. Carrington

One of those films that gets lots of awards buzz, doesn't win that many awards, then disappears from public consciousness, Christopher Hampton's Carrington deserves a better fate. It tells the not always easy to watch story of painter Dora Carrington, here played by Emma Thompson. Her outstanding performance is matched by that of Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey, and a score from Michael Nyman adds to the sheen of quality.

Dig deeper, and it's a mixed film. It's better as an examination of the characters themselves, but it doesn't have too much of huge interest for them to do. There's something quite academic about the film, but there's so much strong work in here, it does feel wrong that it's been forgotten about.

21. Forget Paris

Billy Crystal stars in and directed this charming romantic comedy, which got pretty grumpy reviews at the time of its release. Set against a backdrop of the world of basketball, Forget Paris has structural similarities to When Harry Met Sally, although here, it's Crystal and Debra Winger who are the couple who fate seems to keep pushing apart.

The assorted NBA cameos may be lost on many non-followers of US basketball, but Forget Paris has a warmth and quantity of chuckles that keeps it bubbling nicely. Plus, it feels still like a romantic comedy made for grown-ups, and in this instance, it's all the better for it. No classic, but a well cast, well made and fun to watch movie.

20. Haunted

Skepticism and science versus faith are common themes in supernatural movies and TV shows, as seen in things like The Awakening (2011) and Red Lights (2012). Haunted treads similar ground - and has certain elements in common with Nick Murphy's The Awakening - but does so in a brilliantly-crafted and memorable fashion. Adapted from a James Herbert novel and directed by Lewis Gilbert (best known, perhaps, for his Bond movies), Haunted stars Aidan Quinn as a skeptical paranormal investigator invited to look into the haunting of a rambling old country house. Naturally, Quinn's investigator soon encounters all kinds of ghostly things he can't explain away.

Quinn's excellent in the lead, but he's ably supported by Kate Beckinsale, John Gielgud and Anthony Andrews. A low-key shocker hailing from a time when such films weren't hugely fashionable, Haunted has aged extremely well, and compares favourably even the most successful of this century's  financially successful haunted house horrors.

19. Rob Roy

The big reason to watch Rob Roy? That'd be Tim Roth, in his Oscar-nominated performance as Archibald Cunningham, one of the best screen villains of the 1990s. But Michael Caton-Jones' film has lots of other qualities. It may be a tad too long, but his take on Rob Roy McGregor, the 18th century Scottish clan leader, is really properly done.

Take the cast, which on top of Roth brings together Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, John Hurt and Brian Cox, amongst others. Then there's the excellent photography, and the fact that when it hits form, it's a terrific adventure. Neeson is an excellent central presence to hang the film around, and while its momentum stutters from time to time, Rob Roy is ripe for rediscovery.

18. Empire Records

Director Allan Moyle has two cult hit movies to his name that arrived in the 1990s. We've already talked about Pump Up The Volume, starring Christian Slater, before. But it's perhaps Empire Records that people have more taken to their hearts.

It's an ensemble piece set in an indie music shop, with a quality soundtrack to match. And it's one of those films that finds it feet more on a second viewing than a first. Look for some grand early performances from the likes of Renee Zellweger and Liv Tyler amongst the generous cast, too.

17. Don Juan DeMarco

Don Juan DeMarco didn't mark Marlon Brando's last screen role, but it's perhaps the best of his career's final ten years. He's cast here against Johnny Depp, in really charming form as John Arnold DeMarco. Only Depp's character doesn't believe he's John Arnold: he believes he's the legendary Don Juan, the greatest lover on the planet.

Brando gets to play the shrink here, and he and Depp spark well on screen. The sun-drenched backdrop is of real benefit too, and director Jeremy Leven keeps the tone warm. The late, great Michael Kamen contributes a great score as well. The film has a lovely ending too, which we won't spoil here. Well worth checking out, though.

16. The Brady Bunch Movie

It's not the first time we've mentioned one of the first two Brady Bunch movies on this site, and we daresay it won't be the last. The genius of Betty Thomas' film is to take the 1970s family from American television and put them into the rough, mean 1990s without changing them one jot. You thus get a fish out of water feel, aided by superb performances from the peerless Gary Cole, and the excellent Shelley Long.

The plot, for what it is, sees the Bradys having to raise the money to save their house, although the film never threatens to get bogged down in plot. Instead, it tries to give each of the Brady children something to do (Jennifer Elise Cox, as Jan, steals the show), throws in a fun role for the late David Graf, and is never more than minutes away from a good giggle. The sequel's better, but The Brady Bunch Movie is a great place to start.

15. Tokyo Fist

Japan's Shinya Tsukamoto is best known in the west for his extraordinary string of Tetsuo body horror pictures, but there's much to appreciate in all of his work, right up to 2011's intensely disturbing drama, Kotoko. Tokyo Fist is ostensibly a drama about an ordinary insurance salesman who decides to become a boxer, but Tsukamoto can't resist adding a brutal horror edge to the scenes behind the ring - anyone who winced at the blood spattered boxing on display in Martin Scorsese's classic Raging Bull are advised to look away here.

Tsukamoto's a true one-off in Japanese filmmaking, and while Tokyo Fist's uncompromising tone means it's not for everyone, there's no denying it's a fiercely individual piece of filmmaking. Fun fact: Tsukamoto provided the voice of Vamp in the original Japanese version of Metal Gear Solid 4.

14. Gonin

The relentlessly hardworking, multitalented Takeshi Kitano's made and acted in some magnificent films over his career, including Violent Cop, Boiling Point and Sonatine in the 80s and 90s, the classic Battle Royale in 2000, and the gangster drama Brother, released that same year. Directed by Takashi Ishii, Gonin (or The Five) is one of Kitano's less commonly-discussed movies - a pitch-black, surreally nasty heist movie that almost feels like Japan's answer to Reservoir Dogs.

Five cash-strapped, desperate men club together to stage a robbery, which goes hopelessly wrong and arouses the interest of the Yakuza, whose response is predictably unpleasant. Takeshi was still recovering from a motorcycle injury when he took on the role of a Yakuza hitman in Gonin, but his eyepatch is perfectly in keeping with the movie's raw, bizarre edge.

Gonin came out as Japan was suffering from the effects of recession, and its depiction of characters making ill-advised decisions due to the economic situation around them makes it a relevant film even 18 years later.

13. The Addiction

Vampires are sure to be a staple of fiction for as long as writers can think of new ways of making them interesting, and it has to be said that wayward director Abel Ferrara and his screenwriter partner-in-crime Nicholas St John find their own, brilliant twist on an age-old theme here. In their hands, vampirism becomes like a drug, with Christopher Walken appearing as a former bloodsucker who's learned to control his addiction. Shot in grainy black-and-white with stark, effective lighting, The Addiction is a brooding, low-key drama, but dotted with occasional queasy moments of gore.

Walken is typically brilliant (and possibly sporting the same haircut he had in The Prophecy), and makes light, charismatic work of some quite lengthy philosophical monologues - we particularly like the way he pronounces 'Nietzsche'. Lili Taylor is the star and the audience's entry point into Ferrara's bleak and gloomy world, and Annabella Sciora appears as one of several vampires.

The Addiction was often packaged with another Ferrara movie, The Funeral, which was shot back to back with this one. Both are well worth checking out. As Walken asks at one point, "Wanna go someplace dark?"

12. Screamers

It's a testament to the variety in Phillip K Dick's stories that, despite the similarity of their themes, they can be interpreted and adapted in so many different ways by filmmakers. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep became a widescreen, moody arthouse detective movie. We Can Remember It For You Wholesale was spun out into a wild, violent adventure starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. A Scanner Darkly became a thoughtful animated drama.

Screamers, on the other hand, takes Dick's Second Variety and turns it into a sci-fi action film that still manages to weave in the author's pet themes of technology in revolt and characters who may or may not be human. The great Peter Weller stars as a colonel on a remote planet, where robotic military devices - the Screamers of the title - have turned against their human masters. Worse still, they're gradually becoming better at impersonating the humans they're hunting.

Less glossy than Total Recall, and less artistic than Blade Runner, Screamers is nevertheless just as fun as both. There's some really effective robot designs - the Screamers are nasty critters, in all their guises - and the mid-section provides lots of tension and surprises. Admittedly, Screamers lightens up the grim ending found in Dick's original story, but it's still a fun, entertaining thrill ride.

11. Copycat

Whilst Copycat doesn't have the outright darkness that later 90s thrillers such as Seven would harness, this is still a savagely underappreciated, taut piece of work. Casting Holly Hunter and Signourney Weaver as the two leads works wonders here. They have to join forces to try and track down a killer who is recreating the work of murderers from the past.

The narrative as such flies a little too conventionally at times to make Copycat particularly distinct, but director Jon Amiel frames it in a darkness that lifts the material, and his cast is outright excellent. It's a film that firmly earns its 18 certificate as well. 

10. Devil In A Blue Dress

Carl Franklin's best film of the 1990s was the outstanding One False Move, but the Denzel Washington-headlined thriller Devil In A Blue Dress isn't too far behind.

Co-starring Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals and Don Cheadle, the movie is set in the late 1940s, and Washington stars as Easy Rawlins, who's given the job of tracking down a missing white woman, with the thinking being that she's hiding out in Los Angele's black community. It's actually quite a conventional detective piece that's then threaded into the midst of this, but the performances, the backdrop and Franklin's focused direction keeps thing interesting. Plus, Denzel Washington is magnetic here, in a more complex role than may first appear.

9. Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead

Like most people, we suspect, we first encountered director Gary Fleder's Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead on home video, and we've been quoting it occasionally ever since. Andy Garcia's never been better than his portrayal of smartly-dressed ex-criminal Jimmy The Saint, who assembles a team of similarly crooked friends to carry out a job for a quadriplegic mob boss played by Christopher Walken. The job goes wrong, and the men find themselves being systematically hunted down by a hitman called Mr Shhh (Steve Buscemi).

The thriller plot isn't massively original (and thinking about it now, it's coincidentally akin to that of Gonin), but it's the acting, script and quality of the cast that makes Things To Do a real 90s gem. William Forsyth, Bill Nunn, Christopher Lloyd and Treat Williams are great as Garcia's crewmembers (the latter's line "I am Godzilla, you are Japan!" is but one quotable line), and Walken, of course, is reliably creepy as the mob boss - he really was a busy man in the 1990s.

Largely dismissed as a Tarantino-wannabe picture at the time of its release,  but gradually building a bit of a cult following since, Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead really didn't deserve the short-shrift it got on release. Boat drinks, indeed.

8. Memories

The international success of Akira was such that, even now, creator, artist and director Katsuhiro Otomo is synonymous with its name. But in both comics and movies, there's so much more to Otomo than that manga series and its 1988 film adaptation; he wrote the moving 1991 anime feature Roujin Z, directed the 2004 steampunk anime Steamboy, and even tried his hand at live-action filmmaking with 2006's Mushishi.

Then there's 1995's Memories, an anime anthology Otomo co-directed with Koji Morimoto and Tensai Okamura. Otomo's is the third and final segment, called Cannon Fodder, and its style is markedly different from Akira, with its illustrative style akin to a steampunk Sylvain Chomet. It's a beautiful-looking piece of work, though, set in a walled city beset by a constant war.

With imagery apparently inspired by Heavy Metal Magazine and artists like Moebius, Cannon Fodder is told from the perspective of a little boy who witnesses the churning gears of a mechanized war. The camera ebbs and flows through scene after scene without an edit, adding to the dreamlike air.

The other two segments are excellent, too - the first, written by the late genius Satoshi Kon, is a compelling piece of deep-space SF, while the second, Stink Bomb, is a disturbing body horror directed by Tensai Okamura.

For more Otomo short film goodness, also check out 1987's Neo Tokyo. The remarkably detailed segment Construction Cancellation Order is his.

7. The Crossing Guard

The best on screen union of Sean Penn the director and Jack Nicholson the star is arguably The Pledge, but The Crossing Guard is a strong drama too, with Nicholson putting in a very, very good performance. He plays a man who lost his daughter in a hit and run, whilst David Morse is the driver who's served his sentence for the crime, and is about to be set free.

What follows is an intense drama, with two complex characters in two very different places in their lives. Penn, who also wrote the script, sets them on a collision course, and inevitably, the ramifications are quite pronounced. It's superbly acted throughout this, and The Pledge is even better. Recommended.

6. Nixon

Off the back of the sizeable success of JFK, Oliver Stone soon decided he'd tackle the story of Richard Nixon, hiring Anthony Hopkins to mimic rather than mirror the infamous US president. But as moviegoers would deserve, this is a very different beast from JFK, a character study of a flawed and paranoid president.

It's a bumpy, complex, long screenplay that Nixon is based on, but Stone, as the film progresses, gets a firmer and firmer hand on the material, pulling some superb performances from the rich cast. As well as Hopkins, look out too for the wonderful James Woods, David Paymer (surely one of the decade's most underappreciated actors), the late, great J T Walsh, Bob Hoskins, Joan Allen... the list feels endless.

Stone, to his credit, finds enough for all of them to do on the whole, pushing them quite hard as he does so. In the extended version in particular, there's real texture and human drama fused right throughout. It's not an easy film, and it's far less accessible than JFK. But it's a very rewarding one if you give it your full attention. 

5. Living In Oblivion

Steve Buscemi. Right now, he's riding high thanks to Boardwalk Empire, but in the 90s, he regularly backed and excelled in smaller projects. Living In Oblivion, Tom DiCillio's story of a a man trying to make a low budget indie movie, is one of the very best. It's inspired by the director's attempt to get his project Johnny Suede off the ground (and his subsequent movie, Box Of Midnight), and it's a funny, raw piece of work, with Buscemi simply excellent. Catherine Keener and Dermot Mulroney are amongst his co-stars. You'll find Peter Dinklage in the cast, too.

DiCillo also published a book of the film's screenplay, accompanied by a diary that he kept during his efforts to get it made. It's a fascinating read, taking the film right through to its Sundance Film Festival debut, and the fuss that then ensued. A cracking film, and an excellent book.

4. Citizen X

Serial killers are the monsters of modern thriller cinema, yet few movies deal with the mundane reality of these depraved and usually quite pathetic murderers. Citizen X, on the other hand - based on the real investigation of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, tackles the subject without sensationalising its unpleasant subject matter.

Although it's a made-for-TV movie, don't let that put you off what is a first-rate piece of acting and filmmaking. Stephen Rea plays Burakov, a forensic expert charged with finding the clues on the victims left in Chikatilo's maniacal wake. Intelligently adapted and directed by Chris Gerolmo, who most famously wrote Mississippi Burning, Citizen X details the horrible psychological cost of the manhunt, and the part the Soviet government's incompetence played in allowing Chikatilo to murder a shocking 53 people over the course of more than a decade.

Donald Sutherland, Joss Ackland and Imelda Staunton brilliantly round out the cast, but Rea's performance shines most brightly as the psychological victim of Chikatilo's crimes. And then there's Max Von Sydow, the psychiatrist whose profiling finally brings the killer to justice. The final scenes, with Von Sydow and Chikatilo (Jeffrey DeMunn), are utterly electrifying.

3. Richard III

"Why, I can smile... And murder while I smile!" Plenty of directors have attempted to experiment with different epochs and settings for Shakespeare's plays, but few have married story and era as perfectly as Richard Loncraine's sublime adaptation of Richard III. The story of the ruthless and cold-blooded king is moved to a fictionalised fascist Britain of the 1930s, and Ian McKellen plays the scheming lead with hypnotic fury.

Low-budget yet lavishly shot and perfectly cast - look out for Robert Downey Jr, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorn and a young Dominic West among the starry roster of actors - Richard III was fully deserving of the praise heaped on it at the time, and should really have done better in cinemas than it did. Injecting action, passion and show-stopping imagery while preserving the purity of the Bard's original text, Richard III may be the finest Shakespeare adaptations of the 90s.

2. The Last Supper

A low budget drama, based around an interesting premise: what would you do if you met someone like Hitler when they were a student? Even though they would be innocent at that point in their lives, would the world be a better place if you killed them there and then? That's the kind of conundrum that five liberal studens wrestle with in the compelling movie The Last Supper, as they invite a series of people with extreme views over for dinner. During the dinner, they decide whether or not they'd be doing the world a favour by making sure their guest never left.

With an early ensemble role for Cameron Diaz, and memorable small roles for Bill Paxton and Ron Perlman, The Last Supper is a thought-provoking, unfairly overlooked independent movie, that bumps a little as it gets towards its ending, but has plenty to say on the way there. A genuine undiscovered gem.

1. Strange Days

This fast-moving sci-fi thriller seemed to have everything going for it - a great director at the helm (Kathryn Bigelow), a superb cast, a script co-written by James Cameron, and a budget large enough to do justice to its dark future vision. Yet somehow, this fantastic pedigree didn't translate into success, and the movie failed to make much of a dent at the box office.

Strange Days divided critical opinion, too, though we're rather inclined to go with the late Roger Ebert on this one, who gave it four-out-of-four and praised the power of its visuals and ideas. Set in a near future Los Angeles where a people can vicariously enjoy the memories of others via a virtual reality machine called a Squid, the film's about Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) a black market vendor of these experiences. When Lenny comes into possession of a snuff Squid memory, he's drawn into a conspiracy that involves corrupt cops and murder.

The VR theme may date Strange Days somewhat, but it's without doubt the most complex and interesting 90s film to deal with this technology - like Christopher Nolan's Inception, Bigelow's film depicts the Squid device as an addictive drug, and her collision of violence and voyeurism give Strange Days an uneasy added dimension. The most underrated mainstream film of 1995? For us, it really is.

See also:

The top 20 underappreciated films of 1990

The top 25 underappreciated films of 1991

The top 25 underappreciated films of 1992

The top 25 underappreciated films of 1993

The top 25 underappreciated films of 1994

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