The top 50 underrated films of the 90s
From comedies to thrillers and sci-fi to westerns, here’s our pick of 50 truly underrated 90s movies…
With hindsight, the 90s was the last golden period of originality in Hollywood. Franchises and sequels had yet to truly dominate, old-school New Hollywood filmmakers were still very much active, and quality, well-written films which didn’t rely on an onslaught of CGI to wow audiences were the order of the day.
With so much going on in that decade, and so many quality films vying for attention, it’s only natural that some have fallen by the wayside, or didn’t get the widespread recognition they deserved. Or perhaps a few were dismissed upon release as expensive failures, but deserve to be reassessed several years down the line? Either way, here’s Den Of Geek’s choice of the top 50 underrated films of the 90s. The only caveat for inclusion is that they had to be English language, and released theatrically between 1990-1999. Oh, and judging by their wealth of entries below, starring Bill Paxton. Steve Martin or, weirdly, Seth Green…
50. Batman & Robin (1997)
Yes, really. Despite being howlingly awful in most people’s eyes, 15 years on, Batman & Robin deserves some of your love. Not too much, mind. Taking the campy sensibilities inherent in Batman right from the beginning and running with it, Joel Schumacher unleashed his perfect vision of how the Caped Crusader should look on-screen.
While critically and commercially derided, there’s an argument that Batman & Robin is actually a much purer Batman film than the lamentable Batman Forever, or even the previous Tim Burton efforts. Comics are inherently day-glo, pulpy and ridiculous (or at least they were in the early days) and Batman & Robin highlights this just as much as Nolan’s lauded efforts focus on the grim and gritty nature of Batman.
As long as you alter your expectations, and can appreciate a world where not only does a grown man dress up like a bat to fight crime, but also equips his Bat-suit with ice skates, then Batman & Robin is, whisper it, fun.
49. Chaplin (1992)
While now a staple of the Hollywood blockbuster, with three franchises to his name, for a very long time it looked as though Robert Downey Jr. would be remembered as the washed up nearly-man of film, notable for his excesses rather than his talent. But there was a reason Jon Favreau cast him as Tony Stark, taking a seemingly massive chance on him. That reason is his extraordinary acting ability, showcased to perfection in Richard Attenborough’s sumptuous biography of the remarkable Charlie Chaplin.
Perfectly capturing one of film’s most iconic stars, it’s easy to forget that Downey Jr. was only in his mid-20s while portraying the man. He brings an emotional maturity to perfectly complement the physical performance, elevating this film above the usual biographies.
48. Very Bad Things (1998)
Speaking of Jon Favreau, he plays the lead in Peter Berg’s blacker than night comedy about a stag-do gone wrong in Vegas. If you thought The Hangover showed the worst of the worst, then this story about a murdered prostitute and the web of subsequent killings to cover it up will truly terrify you. It’s got some great performances in there, including Christian Slater as a homicidal maniac, Jeremy Piven as the party guy who starts it all, and Cameron Diaz as the fiancée from hell.
Cruelly and unnervingly building from one disaster to another, Very Bad Things is the extreme of worst case scenario comedies, and has the conviction to follow its dark path all the way to the end.
47. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Full disclosure – I didn’t like this film when I first saw it. In fact, I’ve never even been much of a Kubrick fan. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, but I’m gradually going through the back catalogue and really appreciating his work. Case in point: his last film, notorious for featuring a sexed up Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. I was left bored and unimpressed on my first few viewings, but catching it again recently I can definitely see what Kubrick was trying to achieve, and how close he came to making it work.
The dichotomy of his cold, precise filmmaking and his often dreamlike visuals contrast and combine in Eyes Wide Shut to a degree not found elsewhere in Kubrick’s work. While initially mis-marketed and dismissed as an erotic thriller, it’s clear that it’s really nothing of the sort, instead taking an intense look at modern day sexuality and the often cryptic and complicated nature of relationships.
46. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
A small confession. I saw this film before I ever saw the TV show. And I like it a lot. Featuring a cast of such luminaries as Kiefer Sutherland, David Bowie and Chris Isaak, the film was panned for being boring, incomprehensible and of limited appeal. All valid complaints, but in a way, they’re missing the point.
Acting as both prequel and epilogue to the seminal TV series, the plot loosely traces the last few days of Laura Palmer’s life, and wraps up exactly what happened to Agent Cooper. Far more of a David Lynch film than a Twin Peaks movie, a reassessment of the piece shows it hold up well against Lynch’s other cinematic works, and I defy anyone to find a more chilling horror than Fire Walk With Me.
45. The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Steve Martin was certainly doing some of his best work in the 90s. In this Hitchcockian thriller from ace suspense master David Mamet, Martin plays a conman who seeks to remove Campbell Scott’s corporate engineer of a potentially lucrative industrial process he’s just invented. Using the real Spanish Prisoner con as a plot device (more familiar to many as the Nigerian money transfer fraud), Mamet builds layers upon layers of twists, character reveals, bluffs and double bluffs, all while keeping the plot unpredictable and the outcome uncertain. Martin is exquisite in this serious role, neatly paralleling his classic comic turn as a hapless conman in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
44. Idle Hands (1999)
A teenage sleepover classic, Idle Hands is a comedy horror featuring the young talents of Devon Sawa, Seth Green and Jessica Alba. The plot is utterly ridiculous, but compelling, as a spate of murders in an American town are discovered to be the work of Sawa’s possessed hand, which is searching for a soul to drag to hell.
Featuring decapitation, dismemberment, zombie/ghost/angel stoners, a massive bong being involved in the climax, and the lead singer of The Offspring being killed, Idle Hands is very much a product of its time and all the better for it. We’re not sure whether it’s just nostalgia that makes people love it so much, but you’ll be guaranteed to raise a smile if you put it on.
43. Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
Is this one of the most influential films of the 90s? I think there may be a good case for it, as it lives on in pop culture and features a who’s who of Hollywood talent, many of whom went on to further success. Taking the staples and cliché of high-school movies and turning them into assets, the film takes place over one night of a graduation party – a natural extension of directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont’s belief that the party scenes were the best ones in high school films.
Can’t Hardly Wait traces the (mis)adventures of the nerd, the outcast, the prom queen, the jock, and the misfits, as they say goodbye to youth and hello to a new adult world. Sweetly charming, chaotic, and memorable, its characters are referenced in 30 Rock, among other pop culture staples, and its cast features Jennifer Love-Hewitt, Seth Green (again), Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli, Jason Segel, Selma Blair, Clea Duval, Jenna Elfman, Jerry O’Connell, Melissa Joan-Hart, Amber Benson and Breckin Meyer.
42. Feeling Minnesota (1996)
After her breakthrough role in The Mask, Cameron Diaz showed she wasn’t just a pretty face by choosing smart roles in smaller films like this, displaying her smart career decision-making that has ensured her decades long success. Feeling Minnesota is a smart, fun and occasionally deadly romantic comedy, featuring Diaz as former stripper Freddie who is forced into marrying Vincent D’Onofrio’s Sam to pay off a debt. However, she is actually in love with Keanu Reeves’ Jacks, and the two abscond, setting off a chain of events which ends in shoot-outs, murders, and double-crosses, complete with another scene-stealing cameo from Dan Ackroyd, who made something of a habit of this in the 90s.
41. Toy Soldiers (1991)
For those unaware of the greatness of Toy Soldiers, let me explain it thusly. Imagine Home Alone but with terrorists instead of inept burglars, and rebellious prep school boys instead of a precocious blonde child. Interested? Good, then throw out the slapstick comedy and you’ve got yourself a high-concept 90s action film.
Toy Soldiers’ strength isn’t in the outlandish plot, featuring Colombian terrorists, but in the young ensemble cast, featuring Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher made a film!), whose on-screen chemistry allows the film to crackle with wit, tension, and excitement in all the right places. Our full lookback at the movie is here.
40. Waterworld (1995)
Yeah, I’ve gone there. Panned before release, panned after release, and now only occasionally accepted, in a grudging way, of being worthy of another look. Massively hyped as the most expensive film ever made at the time, Waterworld was almost pilloried into failing before anyone gave it a chance. Far more than just a vanity project, though, this labour of love saw Costner on set for 157 days, and almost dying on his Trimaran. Almost the last hurrah for massively budgeted, practical effects epics, Waterworld should be celebrated for its ambition, its scale, and its refusal to play by the rules. We will never see its like again.
For more on Waterworld, incidentally, check out our interview with director Kevin Reynolds, where he goes into more detail about how many were slating the film even before it was finished.
39. Seven Years In Tibet (1997)
This film hit around the time everyone thought Brad Pitt was just a pretty face, rather than the actual truth that he’s one of our more talented actors working today. However, it sadly meant that this incredibly good film was dismissed by the majority of cinema goers, who wrongly believed it to be more female audience baiting fare. How wrong they were.
Based on the 1952 book of the same name by Austrian writer Heinrich Harrer, it tells the incredible true story of Harrer and his Peter Aufschnaiter who, while mountaineering in India at the outbreak of the Second World War, are imprisoned by the British. Subsequently escaping, Harrer makes his way to Tibet, becoming tutor and friend to the young Dalai Lama, as well as being caught up in the Chinese invasion of Tibet. It’s gorgeous, compelling and masterful, in an old-school epic way.
38. One Eight Seven (1997)
Mr Samuel L Jackson’s first leading role, One Eight Seven, is a crime thriller which also features a great soundtrack, with the likes of Method Man, Massive Attack and DJ Shadow all contributing. Jackson plays Trevor Garfield, a New York teacher who relocates to LA after being nearly fatally stabbed to death by one of his students.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress and no longer a believer in the system, Garfield begins a dangerous vigilante crusade against the criminal gangs operating at his new school. Definitely not one for those who believe in the humanising and inspirational power of the education system, this is a story of one man driven to the edge by a bad, bad world, and reacting by instilling in himself and others a twisted honour code. Occasionally silly and over-dramatic, it is overall a gripping and effective thriller.
37. Night Falls On Manhattan (1996)
At the risk of sounding old and judgmental, they really don’t make this type of film anymore – an original, heavyweight crime thriller with far-reaching consequences, and class throughout every level of the cast. The 90s were full of such films (this was the decade that brought us Heat, after all) and so films such as Night Falls On Manhattan have sadly been forgotten about, and were even dismissed upon release.
In this case, Andy Garcia is a young assistant DA given the task of prosecuting infamous drug dealer Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey). The case is complicated by the involvement of potentially corrupt policemen, including his father (played by Ian Holm) and his partner (an outstanding James Gandolfini).
It charts the classic rise and fall of a young optimist, and it’s dramatic and absorbing, as all the best morality tales are.
36. Gattaca (1997)
The first time I saw this film, I was bored. Rewatching it ten years later, I was seriously impressed. A sci-fi tale set in a future where gene-coding is rife, and parents can buy their children’s future success before birth, Ethan Hawke plays Vincent, a non-modified human attempting to get on the space program. A film/tech-noir, the plot details Vincent’s attempts to evade being found out, while using genetic samples from a paralysed ‘valid’ (a career best Jude Law) to do so, while also evading the attentions of an ongoing murder investigation at the Gattaca space program.
Although not a commercial success by any means, Gattaca is credited with blowing open the debate on genetic modification, and showcasing the potential for its misuse, much to the praise or frustration of its opponents and proponents.
35. Jingle All The Way (1996)
Oh Arnie, you do love trying out comedy. Again and again and again… Sometimes, though, the Austrian Oak managed to star in light-hearted fare that was actually worth watching – Jingle All The Way being a case in point. Dismissed as crass, formulaic and uninspired, it is only on later viewings and perhaps more distance from Arnie’s 90s film career that you can really admire Jingle All The Way’s ambition – to deconstruct and hold up the commercialisation of Christmas.
How many films are based around the traditional values of Christmas, and how they seemingly still hold true (when we know they certainly don’t)? It’s only Jingle All The Way (with a script from Chris Columbus) that dares to tackle the usual falsity pedalled by Hollywood, and does so by wrapping it up as a family-adventure film starring Arnie. Inspired.
34. That Thing You Do! (1996)
Not the obvious choice for Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do! charts the rise and fall of a one hit wonder band in the 60s. Featuring a host of young talent, including Liv Tyler and Steve Zahn, as well as cameos from such stalwarts as Bryan Cranston, the film is punchy, fun, infectious and sweeps you up in its heightened drama. It’s teen wish fulfilment writ large, and also shows that, sometimes, you should be careful what you wish for.
Its energy is truly remarkable, as is the likeability of its leads and the catchiness of its title song, written by Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger. It will be in your head for days, believe me.
33. Ravenous (1999)
A cannibal wild west adventure set in the 1840s, Ravenous wasn’t the easiest sell to audiences. On-set production troubles didn’t help either, with a change of director and apparent studio interference, but what emerged was an engaging, horrifying, and bleakly comic gem.
Guy Pearce plays a Captain in the US Army exiled to a remote fort after his supposed heroism is actually revealed as cowardice. While there, a stranger (Robert Carlyle) dramatically appears, telling terrible tales of a soldier in the mountains gone rogue and eating people. Pearce and his fellow soldiers feel obliged to investigate, leading to inevitable bad things.
Shot in Mexico and Slovakia, the film looks great, and you can tell that Pearce and Carlyle are clearly relishing their roles. The sense of isolation heightens the tension, and the incredible score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn only adds to this ominous mood.
32. Red Rock West (1993)
Originally bound for straight-to-video hell, Red Rock West was rescued by a cinema owner who loved it so much he wanted it to get a theatrical release. So a big thank you to him, otherwise it may be even more obscure than it is. As for why you should make it a priority to watch, two actors grace the film: Nic Cage and Dennis Hopper. Imagine what it was like to be on that set…
An intricate plot sees Cage mistaken for a hit man by the majestic JT Walsh and asked to kill his wife, Lara Flynn Boyle. However, when the real killer (Hopper) shows up, a dangerous cat and mouse game ensues between all parties, leading to a tension-filled and well-executed graveyard finale.
Making full use of its American wilderness location, this film has style, panache and the right amount of crazy you’d expect from the talent involved.
31. One False Move (1992)
Another tense crime thriller stunningly overlooked on release, it was only the word of mouth success of One False Move on video that led to it gaining a theatrical run (can you imagine that happening today?), propelling it into the hearts of many, including legendary film critic Gene Siskel.
Co-written by star Billy Bob Thornton, it tells the twisty tale of three criminals, Ray, Pluto and Lila (Thornton, Michael Beach, and Cynda Williams) who, after a string of murders, flee LA in order to make a drugs deal in Star City. Up against them is local sheriff Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton) who, while on the surface seems a loveable goof, actually has secrets of his own. The characters are expertly drawn, while the plot builds towards an explosive and rewarding ending. It’s the type of film that leaves you feeling satisfied with how well it’s been executed.
30. Beautiful Girls (1996)
We've Con Air to thank for this film. Yep, while screenwriter Scott Rosenberg was waiting to hear back about his script for the soon-to-be action classic, he realised he was more interested in the story of his friends’ lives, and their angst as they turned 30.
Using this as inspiration, he wrote this excellent ensemble piece about fractured lives, dealing with commitment, and working out what to do with your future. Based around Willie Conway (Timothy Hutton) returning to his childhood home for a school reunion, it features the combined talents of Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Natalie Portman (in an early role), Mira Sorvino, and David Arquette.
Directed by the late, sadly-missed, Ted Demme, it truly captures the emotions of an age where you actually have to grow up, and the affection for your friends you grew up with, and are settling into new friendships with – not growing apart, but just readjusting.
29. Six Degrees Of Separation (1993)
Looking back at Hollywood mega-star Will Smith’s career, it is probably this film which laid the bedrock for his future success. Very simply, without his stand-out performance in Six Degrees Of Separation, Smith would have been regarded as nothing more than a popular TV star/rapper trying his luck in a few films. That he aced this dramatic role so well made the film industry sit up and take note, and led to his becoming one of the most bankable stars of the last few decades.
Playing the role of Paul, Smith is a charming and sophisticated conman who turns up bleeding and injured at the house of the Kittredges (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) one night, claiming to be the son of Sir Sidney Poitier and a friend of their children. Urbane and knowledgeable, he soon cons the Kittredges out of their money before disappearing, only for them to find that he has touched the lives of many of their acquaintances as well. Smith is the reason this film works; his performance is pitch-perfect, believable, and most crucially, very likeable.
28. Q&A (1990)
Another excellent crime thriller from Sidney Lumet, Q&A tells the story of a young assistant DA who is sent to investigate the shooting of a small time crook by homicide detective Mike Brennan. What follows is pretty standard, with the shooting leading to a bigger crook, tangled and complicated relationships between characters, and a murky morality.
What makes this film so incredible, though, is Nick Nolte’s hulking, dominating performance as Mike Brennan. Pot-bellied and moustached, Nolte owns the screen with a powerful intensity, making an unlikeable character mesmerising and unforgettable. You’ll find yourself thinking about his titanic performance long after the credits roll, it’s that good.
27. Joe Vs The Volcano (1990)
Umm, somebody put a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy on this list. Not just any Hanks/Ryan comedy, though. This is their first and best – an utterly bonkers film about a man finding out he has six months to live, and then being offered untold luxury provided he throws himself into a volcano (something to do with mining rights on a tropical island, and appeasing the islanders).
Meg Ryan inexplicably has three roles in the film, Hanks is at his slapstick comic goofy best, while the film’s insane plot sweeps you along in its melodrama. There is so much fun to be have that you end up loving the daft premise, the inherent whimsy, and the occasionally corny sentiment. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and utterly unlike any big budget rom-com made before or since.
26. Swimming With Sharks (1994)
A very black and very effective comedy about the film industry, Swimming With Sharks gave us one of the all-time great performances from Kevin Spacey as Buddy Ackerman, Hollywood mogul and boss from hell. Swimming With Sharks tells the story of Guy (Frank Whaley) who takes the job as Buddy’s assistant despite being warned off by his predecessor Rex (Benicio del Toro).
However, his fears are soon proven true as Buddy begins a campaign of terror against Guy, culminating in an affair with his girlfriend. This then becomes the snapping point for him, as he takes Buddy hostage and learns just what it takes to succeed. Spacey’s Buddy is a monster in every sense of the word, especially when forced to reveal his ‘human’ side. Repugnant and compelling, he is one of cinema’s finest villains, as well as being a horribly believable representation of the film world.
Swimming With Sharks also became an excellent play in 2007, featuring Dr Who’s Matt Smith as Guy, and companion Arthur Darvill as Rex.
25. A Very Brady Sequel (1996)
One of the best things the 90s gave us was a very smart, very clever and unexpected reboot of the Brady Bunch, the popular sitcom from the 70s. Sharing the first film’s sense of pastiche and fish out of water humour, A Very Brady Sequel has a conman show up at the Brady’s pretending to be Carol Brady’s first husband.
Indulging in the knowing sensibility that marked the Brady Bunch films as something a bit special, this film has often been unfavourably compared with its predecessor. This is actually quite unfair, as there’s little to distinguish between the two, and in fact A Very Brady Sequel has a bit more confidence to push its agenda, including developing the love that dare not speak its name between Greg and Marcia Brady. Full of wit and energy, it’s a delight from beginning to end.
24. Election (1999)
A contender for the best performance of Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick’s respective careers (one hundred per cent Chris Klein’s, but he’s not really acting, though), Election is the story of overachiever Tracy Flick’s (Witherspoon) attempt to become elected class president by any means possible, and jaded teacher Jim McAllister’s equally determined efforts to stop her, by means of putting forward his candidate, loveable dimwit Paul Metzler (Klein).
Bleakly comic, Witherspoon is a vicious and manipulative lead, set against Broderick’s hopeless and unfulfilled loser. Some have suggested that he is fact playing a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller here, and I’d subscribe to that view – the once popular kid with the world at his feet finds life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and is faced with a representation of all he despises. Directed by the brilliant Alexander Payne, this is one film that withstands the test of time, and remains as relevant today as it was 13 years ago.
23. Albino Alligator (1996)
Kevin Spacey’s debut film as a director is a classic underrated movie worthy of your recognition. Pretty much ignored and dismissed upon release (even earning Faye Dunaway a Razzie nomination), it’s actually a well-acted and tightly put together crime film, only let down by its script. Matt Dillon, Gary Sinise, and William Fichtner are robbers who flee to a bar after a hold-up goes wrong and then seemingly cornered by the police.
However, the situation is definitely not what they initially think it is, and every character has a role to play in the proceedings. With a leading trio of that calibre, it’s easy to see where the film gets its power from, as the intensity of the performances really is something to behold, if occasionally veering into a melodrama. Spacey keeps things at a tight pace though (the film clocks in at 97 mins), and the energy and claustrophobia of the piece really is exemplary.
22. Dark City (1998)
Poor Dark City. Just one year after its release, The Matrix would come out – using some of the same sets, similar cinematography and design, and a shared sense of plot and thematics, it would become one of the biggest sci-fi movies ever. Dark City, on the other hand, pretty much sank without trace, and had the ignominy of a spoiler-rific voice-over being placed over the intro just so really stupid people could understand it.
For those yet to see it, Rufus Sewell plays a seemingly ordinary man who discovers his world is not quite what it seems, as well as finding some extraordinary powers within himself. Visually dense and imaginative, it’s also philosophically provocative, inviting the audience to ponder many questions about ourselves and the nature of our environment. Dark City has since been given a director’s cut, restoring it to its originally intended glory and making it even more worthy of seeking out.
21. Small Soldiers (1998)
This was probably one of the most memorable films of my teenage years. Having just outgrown toys but still pretty into them, the idea of a dark and twisted version of Toy Story, where the toys were vicious killing machines, definitely appealed to me.
Fourteen years on, and the film more than holds up, long outlasting initial criticism that it was marketed at an audience far too young for its violent themes. As well as a young Kirsten Dunst, the film’s notable acting talent is in the voice roles of the toys. Tommy Lee Jones is Chip Hazard, leader of the gung-ho and ultimately villainous Commando Elite, while Frank Langella plays Archer, leader of the peaceful and noble Gorgonites. With stunning special effects, mini-mayhem, and exciting set-pieces, Small Soldiers is a treat.
20. Go (1999)
Remember when Katie Holmes was cool? Well she was once, and it was in this film. Told in non-linear fashion and across several different viewpoints, this Doug Liman-directed comedy thriller was dismissed by some as ‘junior Pulp Fiction’, but it’s actually much better than that description might imply.
Telling four interlinked stories over the course of one night, the disparate cast features Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf as gay soap actors unwittingly forced to take part in a police sting operation by weird cop William Fichtner, Sarah Polley as a slacker trying to make rent money through selling drugs, Katie Holmes as her friend who gets caught up in the deal and forced to spend the night with drug dealer Timothy Olyphant, and Desmond Askew (of Grange Hill fame) as the unpredictable friend linking them all. Scatter-shot but focused when it matters, Go is utterly watchable, fun, and makes you wish you lived in LA.
19. Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)
For many, this is where mainstream success started for Heath Ledger. On the surface just another 90s high-school comedy, Ten Things I Hate About You is a whip-smart adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, and in Ledger has an intensely charismatic bad-boy with a heart of gold. Not forgetting the formidable talents of a certain Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the cast is rounded out with the stellar Julia Stiles (also in her breakout role) and David Krumholtz.
Not until Easy A would a high-school movie be as accessible to a wider (more adult) audience, and while a lot of that is down to Ledger and the others, the script is also incredibly funny, full of genuine and well-earned set-piece pay offs, and most importantly, it’s winningly charming.
18. Darkman (1990)
Leave it to Sam Raimi to create an original super-hero for his Hollywood debut. Perfectly fusing together his own comic book sensibilities with an expanded budget, Darkman is a gloriously campy and enjoyable action film, showcasing Liam Neeson’s skills as an action star which would later lead to a career renaissance for the dramatic actor.
Telling the tale of Peyton Westlake, a brilliant scientist disfigured and given enhanced strength after his lab is destroyed, the film draws inspiration from The Shadow and Batman for its gothic tone, and The Elephant Man and The Phantom Of The Opera for its emotional pull – Darkman is forced to live in the shadows both literally and metaphorically due to his appearance, having to become different people with his revolutionary synthetic skin.
17. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Before his critical and award winning success with Far From Heaven, director Todd Haynes made Velvet Goldmine, the fictionalised account of a former glam-rock star. Heavily based on David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, the story tells of a young music journalist (Christian Bale) investigating the disappearance of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
Told via a series of non-linear flashbacks, the film traces the career of Slade and his collaborator/lover Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). A surreal Citizen Kane-inspired visual feast, the film is dazzling, metaphorical, and hallucinatory. Working as a better biopic of the talents of the 70s then a straightforward film ever could, Velvet Goldmine is the best representation of glam-rock we’ll ever likely to see on-screen.
16. Alien 3 (1992)
While massively panned upon initial release, and subject to well-documented production troubles, it seems that after every new film released in the Alien franchise, Alien 3 keeps on looking like a better and better movie by comparison. But is it just the fact that the following movies were either so poor (Resurrection, Alien Vs Predator) or baffling (Prometheus) that makes Alien 3 seem like a worthy Alien film? Not quite, as David Fincher’s debut genuinely stands up as a great (if flawed) sci-fi horror film with engaging and thought-provoking themes, as well as being a worthy follow-up to Alien and Aliens. It couldn’t match those films, but it tries to do its own thing, and succeeds with aplomb.
Our full lookback at Alien 3 is here.
15. Two Hands (1999)
It seems 1999 really was the year Heath Ledger broke through – this was the film that put him on the map in Australia and led to 10 Things I Hate About You. Two Hands is also a brilliant, if unknown, film in its own right, a tightly told crime thriller with a surreal edge, featuring Ledger as Jimmy, a small-time crook who ends up deep in debt to serious gangsters.
Ledger is a magnetic presence and carries the film, although he is ably supported by romantic interest Rose Byrne. The film undercuts its gritty, serious edge by having Jimmy’s dead older brother act as a zombie guardian angel throughout, firmly putting the film into tongue in cheek territory, but also playing up the realism of the grimier side of Sydney well. A searing soundtrack led by the mighty Powderfinger doesn’t hurt, either.
14. Strange Days (1995)
A gritty and frenetic cyber-punk story from Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days is certainly flawed, but has enough ambition, thrills, and ideas to overcome its failings and become something of a minor triumph.
Set in a dystopian LA on the brink of the millennium, Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, an ex-LAPD officer now turned dealer in SQUID – recordings/memories taken directly from a person’s cerebral cortex and replayed via what is basically a MiniDisc (remember those?).
After receiving a warning from a SQUID client, and later a recording of her violent death, Lenny and his compatriots (Angela Basset and Tom Sizemore) are dragged into a conspiracy which threatens to tear the entire city apart. Visually bold and with striking performances, Strange Days paints a possible future world with frightening believability, and dazzles the viewer with high-concepts and physical filmmaking.
13. The Cable Guy (1996)
Following the massive successes of Ace Ventura and Dumb & Dumber, this dark comedy seemed for many to mark the first misstep in Jim Carrey’s career. With hindsight, however, it’s clear that far from being an end of a period, it actually heralds the next phase of comedy – the Judd Apatow years.
Produced and written by Apatow, and directed by Ben Stiller, The Cable Guy tells the story of nice guy Steven Kovaks (Matthew Broderick) whose life spirals out of control after he reluctantly befriends psychotic cable engineer Chip (Jim Carrey).
What follows is extreme act after extreme act, featuring highlights such as a fight at a medieval banquet, Carrey serenading a party with Somebody To Love, and an awkward family game of porno password. Also providing some of the funniest scenes is Ben Stiller in dual roles as a child star on trial.
Despite audiences’ initial discomfort with the dark tone, the fact that the biggest comedies today are far more extreme (think The Hangover) proves that The Cable Guy was simply ahead of its time.
12. The Game (1997)
The Game is one of those films that people often mention but seldom watch. Ask the average person to name David Fincher’s films, and it’s doubtful this would make their list. It is, however, exemplary and worthy of your attention.
A complex film within a film, the simple set-up of a rich man bored with his life becoming entangled in a game which may or may not be real acts as a launch-pad for Fincher to have a lot of fun. The Game rewards repeat watches in a way few films do, as each viewing offers new clues and perspectives on what is or is not reality for Michael Douglas’s lead character.
Douglas himself offers one of his finest performances, getting the audience to genuinely invest in a billionaire with the perfect life, and Fincher’s control of dramatic suspense, wit and pulp conventions is second to none. We revisited the film in more detail, here.
11. Tremors (1990)
Tremors is not just a horror-comedy to rival the likes of Evil Dead, I would also say that it kick-started one of the best horror franchises ever, yet one which rarely gets the true recognition it deserves. However, mention Tremors to anyone who’s seen it, and you’ll be engulfed with a wave of affection. Kevin Bacon leads the cast as a maintenance worker in the tiny town of Perfection, Nevada, whose tiny population of 14 come under attack from Graboids, a form of giant, deadly sand worms.
After building up the initial mystery, the film quickly becomes an inventive battle of survival between the townsfolk and Graboids, with some ingenious kills and ways of disposing of the monsters. Tremors’ main strength is the world it builds; despite its fantastical concept and wicked sense of humour, it never stretches credibility too far, and remains true to both its characters and concepts.
10. Stir Of Echoes (1999)
Oh look, it’s Kevin Bacon again. His work ethic is immense, as is his choice of film. Take this supernatural thriller, for instance. Initially dismissed as nothing more than a Sixth Sense rip off, due to a child’s ability to commune with the dead, it’s actually a creepy and effective murder mystery, which also lifts the lid on just what the most normal of people hide underneath the surface, and what they can do when pushed.
Bacon is, of course, superb as the family man who discovers that everything he thought he knew about the world is wrong, and his portrayal of obsession is on a level with Michael Shannon’s amazing performance in Take Shelter.
9. Office Space (1999)
Based on Mike Judge’s Milton cartoon series, Judge opted to go live-action instead when bringing Office Space to the screen, and the result is the on-the-nose comedy about the banality of everyday life in an office.
It takes the form of a loose series of sketches set in office cubicles, before a botched bout of hypnotherapy leads Ron Livingston’s Peter Gibbon to stop caring. The plot is slight, but that’s not really the point. Instead, the razor sharp script expertly spears target after target, whether it’s the ‘pieces of flair’ Jennifer Aniston’s waitress is forced to wear in order to promote her happy ‘individuality’, or the HR mistakes which lead to office worker Milton’s eventual breakdown.
You can easily imagine these things genuinely happening – indeed, most of what you see will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has worked in the corporate world, but the humour rescues it from being a horrible social-realist piece. Office Space is an enduring cult classic, referenced in everything from Family Guy to World of Warcraft.
Here's our full lookback.
8. LA Story (1991)
This gets my vote for the best romantic comedy of the 90s, and possibly Steve Martin’s most underrated film. It’s not full of the comic excesses and highs of some of his work, but in LA Story he finely marries together the pathos, the surrealism, and the warm humour which made him the star he is.
Martin plays Harris K Telemacher, a TV weatherman in a dead-end relationship who begins to receive cryptic romantic advice from a freeway sign. Pursuing relationships with both a sophisticated British journalist, as well as an aspiring promotional model (a young Sarah Jessica Parker), it also charts the absurdity of living in LA, that most modern of cities, dedicated to the cult of celebrity we’ve built around ourselves, and a place where it’s very easy to be lonely.
Only the fact that LA Story contains three Enya songs counts against it.
7. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Personally, I think this film should be on everyone’s list of favourite films, but time and time again I’m amazed by the amount of people, including Coen Brothers fans, who haven’t seen this masterpiece. Based loosely on the works of pulp writer Dashiell Hammett, this film noir set in Prohibition-era America details a power struggle between two rival gangs, in which Gabriel Byrne finds himself in the middle of.
Beautiful and elegiac, with a multi-layered plot, it’s handled with the assured confidence of filmmakers at the top of their game. The dialogue, much culled directly from Hammett himself, is whip-sharp and delivered with relish by the incredible cast, of whom stand-outs are Albert Finney, and Jon Turturro, who as bookie Bernie Bernbaum is probably at his very finest, with his scene at Miller’s Crossing, where he pleads for his life (“Look into your heart”), being an iconic stand-out. Perhaps the Coens’ finest work.
6. Pump Up The Volume (1990)
For all those many, many fans of Empire Records, I implore you to check this earlier effort from director Allan Moyles out as well. Mainly because – whisper it – it’s better. Christian Slater is outstanding as Mark Hunter, a loner at high-school who has a secret – he’s the host of a popular night-time pirate radio show.
Using a harmonizer to disguise his voice and going under the pseudonym of Happy Harry Hard-On, he is the mouthpiece of a disaffected youth. However, this influence soon proves so disruptive within the community that he faces a fight to stay on the air. With a generation-defining soundtrack (featuring Pixies and Soundgarden) propelling the film, it’s funny, sharp and has a genuine message of importance for its audience. It also captures the possibility of the 90s perfectly, freed from the ostentatious shackles of the 80s; this was Gen X’s time to shine, and to prove they had a voice and the will to use it.
Our more detailed lookback at the film is here.
5. Zero Effect (1998)
The directorial debut of Jake Kasdan, Zero Effect is a detective story with a difference. Bill Pullman plays Darryl Zero, the world’s greatest detective, but also a social misfit who cannot leave his house to meet clients. Instead, he employs an assistant, Steve Arlo, played by Ben Stiller, to carry out his work.
Based on the 1930s series Nero Wolfe, as well as the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal In Bohemia, the plot details Zero investigating a mysterious blackmail case, where in fact the blackmailer may be the one who needs the help. Engaging, funny, and totally absorbing, Pullman and Stiller make a great crime fighting partnership, but one that is definitely modern, with all the pressures that entails.
Zero’s unique problem creates a real dramatic and intriguing puzzle for the writers to work round, but in fact it becomes the film’s strength.
4. Jackie Brown (1997)
I’m going to come out and say it: Jackie Brown may well be Quentin Tarantino’s best film. It’s certainly his most confident – the one and only time where he let the film tell its own story, free from any tricks or genre play. It was a shame that Jackie Brown was so poorly received, as it pushed Tarantino further down his pastiche/homage path, which is starting to veer into self-parody.
Based on the Elmore Leonard book Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a twisting tale of a gangster’s money and the double-crosses that happen in order for people to get their hands on it. Reviving the careers of both Pam Grier and Robert Forster, it cemented Samuel L Jackson’s reputation as the coolest mutha on the planet (his Kangol hat look is iconic, as is his love for the AK-47).
It was a brave choice of project to follow up his masterpiece Pulp Fiction, and sadly was savagely compared to it – unfairly so. Give Jackie Brown another chance, and you won’t be disappointed.
3. A Simple Plan (1998)
This film proves that, with the right material, Sam Raimi is a masterful director, whatever the genre. The thriller concerns two brothers (Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton) and their friend, who discover a crashed plane and $4.4 million in cash in rural America. Cue a series of cover-ups, arguments, murders and a deepening of the mystery of just where the money came from.
Complex and painfully tense, A Simple Plan gives nothing away, and wastes no scenes at all. Everything propels the taut narrative forward to its shocking, inevitable and satisfying ending, while at the same time fleshing out the characters so you genuinely care about their fates, even as they dig themselves deeper into a hole of their own making.
With this and The Gift, Sam Raimi showed the world he was a director of real substance, and not just a comic influenced horror kid.
2. Devil In A Blue Dress (1995)
An electric, powerful, neo-noir thriller from director Carl Franklin, Devil In A Blue Dress was a breath of fresh air in the detective genre upon release. While its plot about Denzel Washington’s rookie private eye was nothing new, the investigation of racial tension in post-war Los Angeles, the exploration of the importance of usually unheralded community ties, and the elegant direction of it all was something to make this film stand head and shoulders above the competition.
The visuals are incredible, proving once again why film is the transcendent visual medium, and how a picture can explore so much more than words. Rounding off the film, and truly cementing it as worthy of watching, is a tremendous performance from Don Cheadle as the homicidal Mouse, a friend of Washington’s who acts as a spark to the powder keg situation. He steals the film with his performance.
1. Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)
Jim Jarmusch truly is a genius. Whether its directing post-modern black and white western Dead Man, or the metaphorical comedy-drama Broken Flowers, he brings care, detail, and above all talent to everything he does. Case in point is this incredible crime action thriller, which fuses together gangster and samurai movies, while also mixing themes of family, loyalty, duty and revenge amongst an incredibly high body count which just builds and builds.
Forest Whitaker is awesome as Ghost Dog, saved by mobster Louie, and therefore bound to him by the code of bushido. Caring only for his pigeons, he is betrayed by the mob and realises it is either them or him. As well as setting up an epic confrontation, the film also finds time for Ghost Dog to pass on his ethos to a new pupil, come to terms with his own choices, and have a life affirming friendship with a Haitian ice-cream salesman who doesn’t speak any English. Finally, it also features an all-conquering soundtrack from RZA, worthy of an article of its own, and one of the finest soundtracks of recent years.
Hopefully, there's some films in there that you haven't seen, that you're tempted to give a try to. Leave your own suggestions in the comments below...
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