Ah, 1991. The year Robert Patrick ran after cars in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Kevin Costner grew a spectacular mullet for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But outside the top 10 blockbuster list, there lies an entire world of other, less celebrated films to discover.
Some of the movies on this list have been included because they were overlooked in theaters while others have been added because they were unfairly dismissed by critics. One or two others were modest successes, but (whisper it) we decided to include them anyway because we really, really like them.
So here, for your delectation, is our pick of 25 underrated movies from 1991.
When you think Goldie Hawn, you tend to think comedy, or her Oscar-nominated turn in Private Benjamin. But she’s actually got a decent little thriller to her name too, in the form of Deceived. It’s a movie about a marriage that seems perfect but soon isn’t (in the late ’90s, this would’ve been earmarked instantly for Ashley Judd), and it gives Hawn a role that allows her a bit of room to stretch. John Heard is good support too.
There’s nothing distinctive really about the story here, rather that for the first two acts, Deceived builds itself up to be an interesting, watchable and worthwhile thriller. But what certainly didn’t help its cause (although it’s a zillion times better than Sleeping with the Enemy, which arrived around the same time) is a really silly back end to the movie, that does its utmost to throw away the good work that’s been done to that point. Still, Deceived is a suspenseful little movie, and Hawn gives it her all.
24. Double Impact
Playing dual roles in one movie is one of acting’s great challenges, but the results can be remarkable–just look at Jeremy Irons’ twin turns in Dead Ringers, or John Malkovich’s skill at work in Being John Malkovich. It’s fair to say that Jean-Claude Van Damme’s performance, as twin martial arts experts Chad and Alex, isn’t quite in the same league as those movies, but Double Impact is a fun action movie best enjoyed after several beers.
The story sees one Van Damme appear as a martial arts instructor in LA, and the other Van Damme brought up as a tough orphan with ties to the Hong Kong criminal underworld. It’s all a pretext to see the action star play two types of hero: one clean-cut in a polo shirt, the other with oiled-back hair and a chip on his shoulder. Choice scenes include one where Van Damme poses in front of a group of adoring ladies in tight spandex (pictured above), one where bad guy Bolo Yeung throws huge drums of flammable liquid around a warehouse, and dozens of bits where Van Damme kicks people in the face in slow motion.
Arriving as it did near the height of Van Damme’s ’90s success, Double Impact isn’t a movie that’s commonly lumped in with the era’s best action films, which is fair enough, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a huge amount of fun.
23. White Fang
Time and again on Den Of Geek, we keep returning to, and saluting, the work of Ethan Hawke. Here’s a piece we previously penned about his commitment to a genre movie theater, for instance.
White Fang is aimed at a much younger audience than most of his films, but then he was a lot younger when he made it. It’s a Disney movie directed by Grease‘s Randal Kleiser about a young man and a half-dog, half-wolf (that’d be the White Fang of the title) who come together in the not particularly warm climate of Alaska. Gently paced and really quite heart-warming, it’s based on the book by Jack London and has an ability to exercise your tear ducts, and is a proper, rounded family movie…
22. Hudson Hawk
One of the most notorious blockbuster flops of the 1990s, a movie which helped bring to an end the first round of Bruce Willis’ movie career (he would resurrect it with some smart choices a few years’ later). Unlike the previous year’s The Bonfire of the Vanities though, Hudson Hawk is a fascinating failure that’s far more entertaining than the liberal turkey references to it would give it credit for.
Sure, it’s off its head with at least 76 percent of the movie’s characters making decisions at some point that make you wonder if they all had a lobotomy at the same clinic. But then it’s an awful lot of fun. Willis and Danny Aiello robbing places while singing ’50s hits, screwball comedy, a bizarre pair of villains in the form of Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard, and some stuff about Leonardo da Vinci, and an subway train system? That’s just the start of it in a movie we explored here.
Hudson Hawk isn’t a forgotten classic; its missteps are gigantic. But it’s distinct, risky, and entertaining blockbuster cinema. And it’s got a killer soundtrack.
21. Showdown in Little Tokyo
We’re not saying this odd-couple action flick is anything more than a weird evening’s entertainment, but it’s great fun for what it is. Dolph Lundgren and the late Brandon Lee play the odd couple in question, a pair of macho cops who beat up bad guys and make flirtatious jokes at one another. Lee’s on high-kicking form, but it’s Lundgren who gets the most demented action scenes. He has the ability to jump clean over a car driving straight at him and can smash his fist through a door, grab a bad guy by the throat and break his neck. Oh, and there’s a bit where a man dies on a giant spinning Catherine wheel.
Throughout there’s the cloying sense that director Mark L. Lester (Commando, Class of 1999) isn’t taking things entirely seriously. Lee’s line to Lundgren, “You have the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a man,” lends weight to this.
We looked at Soapdish when we counted down the top 50 underappreciated comedies of the past 30 years, and with good reason. It’s a very funny ensemble comedy that pulls together a cracking ensemble of acting talent – Whoopi Goldberg, a pre-life-turnaround Robert Downey Jr, Kevin Kline, Sally Field–and lets them loose as the team putting together a popular daytime soap opera. Happily ripping the piss out of anything it can lay its hands on, Soapdish works simply because it’s fast and consistently funny. It’s got a cast willing to get its hands dirty, and it’s over in just over an hour and a half.
The work of David Mamet is always worthy of attention, and Homicide is no different there. Mamet wrote and directed the movie, his third as helmer, and cast Joe Mantegna in the central role of Cop Gold. It was a wise move. Playing off William H. Macy and Ving Rhames, Mantengna gives an intense and compelling lead performance.
As with pretty much any Mamet script, there’s more than a straight cat and mouse chase going on, as Homicide is as much about character exploration as it is the case in hand. Mamet also brings religion into the mix, and his movie is a strong, complex one.
18. Close My Eyes
Our ongoing quest to alert you to the back catalogue of the wonderful Alan Rickman continues, although Close My Eyes is probably not best suited for a romantic night in. Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, Close My Eyes is a drama featuring a damaging incestual relationship at the heart of it, as a brother and sister become lovers, in spite of the fact that they’re both are married. It would be fair to say that Close My Eyes is a movie that doesn’t hold back, and it’s an intense drama with some excellent performances in it. Look too for good work from a young Clive Owen (he made this a year or two after his breakthrough with ITV’s Chancer) and Saskia Reeves.
Utterly eclipsed as it was by Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake at the box office that year, this entertaining action thriller from Russell Mulcahy went largely unnoticed. But look again, and you’ll find a thoroughly entertaining genre movie, with a great score from Alan Silvestri, and a sterling cast. A youthful Denzel Washington stars as an LA cop who ends up in the sights of former hitman Blake (John Lithgow) whom he’d helped apprehend years earlier.
Anyone who remembers Lithgow’s somewhat ineffectual villain in Cliffhanger will be impressed with his turn here, and he clearly enjoys every moment of his snarling character–even if the wig he’s saddled with early on is a bit distracting. It’s a fun, silly movie and filled with scenes you’d only find in a ’90s thriller. Where else would you see Denzel Washington strip down to a pair of white boxer shorts to engage in a knife fight with John Lithgow at a funfair?
16. The People Under The Stairs
Not one of Wes Craven’s most famous films, this is still full of lots to enjoy. The People Under The Stairs is unusual in that it’s partly about people trying to get into a house of horrors rather than escape it. Ving Rhames and Brandon Adams are among the residents of a run-down part of LA who plan to rob a house in order to pay their rent. Unfortunately, the house is owned by the Robesons, a family of in-bred morticians with a basement full of traps and nasty secrets.
The People Under The Stairs did good business when compared to its small budget, but its reviews were unfairly mixed. An entertaining amalgam of urban legends and Craven’s dark humor, it’s not a movie that comes up very much in discussions about Craven’s work, and as such, is well worth rediscovering.
15. Jungle Fever
Spike Lee’s output in the 1990s was bumpy yet frequently brilliant. Clockers and Summer of Sam were in particular as strong as Malcolm X is important. But Jungle Fever does not deserve to be overlooked. It’s a grown-up, intelligent dissection of race and relationships, as Wesley Snipes’ architect enters into an affair with his secretary, played by Annabella Sciorra.
Furthermore, this is the movie that effectively gave Samuel L. Jackson his big breakthrough (picking up Best Supporting Actor prizes in the process), as well as a debut for Halle Berry.
Lee’s films, particularly his earlier ones, had an energy, rawness, and uncompromising desire to tackle subjects head on. Jungle Fever sees his style maturing slightly, and his message arguably suffering just a little as it does so. But it’s still a very impactful drama. Furthermore, it’s easy to forget just what an eye he’s always had for excellent acting talent.
14. Body Parts
This horror thriller is so dementedly, gleefully ridiculous, from its opening car crash to its gory climax, that it’s difficult not to be won over by it all, even if its ideas aren’t especially original. Jeff Fahey stars as an ordinary guy who discovers that his rebellious, transplanted arm once belonged to a serial killer. And as he begins finding out who else ended up with the dead man’s dismembered limbs – whose recipients include a typically oddball Brad Dourif–Fahey’s character discovers that the mysteriously revived serial killer is planning to reclaim the missing bits of himself.
Director Eric Red, writer of The Hitcher and Near Dark, brings a real icky edge to the moments of horror, as well as a black sense of humor. Fahey chews the scenery, and Lindsay Duncan’s disconcertingly somnambulant as a limb-lopping doctor, but really, their performances are all part of the fun.
Failing to even make its $10 million budget back at the box office, Body Parts might be in danger of fading into obscurity. At the time of writing, it’s unavailable on DVD in the UK, and there doesn’t appear to be a Blu-ray release planned. But if you can find it, this violent horror oddity is well worth tracking down.
13. Toy Soldiers
The 1990s didn’t do too badly for good action movies, yet Toy Soldiers remains one that slipped under the radar of many. It stars Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton, heading up a cast of boarding school students with a reputation for trouble. This was early 1990s trouble though, to put it in context, so we’re talking a bit of graffiti and mouthwash booze rather than shooting up in the bogs and writing soon to be world-beating social networking services.
Said school gets overrun by terrorists, and the scene is set for misbehaving school kids against nasty men with guns, in a movie that benefits heavily from its rating. For there’s a necessarily level of threat established in a quite nasty prologue, that’d never survive the modern day PG-13 police, yet creates an unnerving tone. Backed with an excellent score, and graced by Louis Gossett Jr. and the hugely missed Denholm Elliott, Toy Soldiers is well worth seeking it (not that it’s too easy to find). We looked at it in more detail here.
12. L.A. Story
A self-penned love letter to the city of Los Angeles, L.A. Story sees Steve Martin as a television weatherman who ends up taking advice on romance from a massive sign by the side of the road. In lesser hands, already, it could all fall apart. But it’s got good people behind this one, and, whilst no outright classic, there’s lots to love about L.A. Story.
After all, it’s a light, sweet movie that ensues, one that’s a little bit daft and not short of wit. It feels a little different, too. And whilst Martin the actor is a joy to watch, it’s his screenplay that holds the gems. Because here’s a romantic comedy that never slips into saccharin, and avoids many of the irritants of the genre. Packed with uncredited cameos and off the screen before it runs out of steam, L.A. Story is not too far away from vintage Steve Martin.
11. Hear My Song
A small, interesting British movie from director Peter Chelsom, who would go on to make the excellent Funny Bones afterward, before hitting an iceberg of sorts with the expensive failure Town & Country (he’s since made Hannah Montana: The Movie).
Hear My Song is a movie roughly based around the life of Josef Locke, the Irish tenor, centring on the efforts of a Liverpool nightclub owner to give his ailing business a boost by promising to book him. Easier said than done of course, but the tale that follows is funny and hugely entertaining. Of particular merit is an early breakthrough performance from Tara Fitzgerald, along with excellent work from Adrian Dunbar and Ned Beatty.
Look too for an early turn from James Nesbitt. Good music, too, in a small movie that ended up punching notably above its weight.
10. Naked Lunch
David Cronenberg has long drawn on the writing of William S. Burroughs in his own work–Scanners shares some of its DNA with certain moments in Naked Lunch, for example–and this movie represented the director’s brave attempt at adapting one of his most controversial novels. Actually, it’s not a straight adaptation of Naked Lunch at all, but rather a mix of autobiographical moments from Burroughs’ life and dreamlike scenes of talking insects and hallucinatory death.
Peter Weller plays William Lee, an insect exterminator whose bug-killing powder turns out to be a highly addictive drug. Meandering and utterly unpredictable, Naked Lunch is as much a Cronenberg movie as an homage to Burroughs’ work, and the result is a heady, wonderfully strange brew. Less than successful at the box office–it made just $2.6 million against a $17 million budget–Naked Lunch is nevertheless a vintage Cronenberg joint, and this movie, along with 1999’s eXistenZ, contains some of the last of his body horror trappings before he embarked on more dramatically oriented projects like Crash, Spider, and Eastern Promises.
9. My Own Private Idaho
For a while, this bubbled along with the reputation of being a cult movie of sorts, and yet it’s one rarely talked about now. Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix, it’s a very loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part I through to Henry V. Reeves and Phoenix are male hustlers facing very different futures, but Van Sant’s movie keeps things fairly loose rather than imposing deep narrative strands, and he cooks up a mixed, interesting and ultimately successful movie, one that less stands the test of time, and moreover stands as a testament to the time it was made. Frustrating and excellent, and Phoenix is a talent very sadly missed.
8. The Rocketeer
A bracing, thrilling comic book adventure, this adaptation of Dave Stevens’ hero is, like the Indiana Jones movies before it, a warm homage to ’30s matinee serials. Featuring a great cast, including Timothy Dalton, Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly, and Terry O’Quinn, it’s about a brave stunt pilot (Billy Campbell) who takes to the skies with an experimental rocket pack and comes up against mobsters and Dalton’s movie star-turned Nazi spy as a result.
Joe Johnston directs with a real lightness of touch, and it’s a shame that, although The Rocketeer more than made its money back, it didn’t become the wider hit that it could have been. Had it been released a few years later, it’s possible we’d have seen at least one sequel follow in its wake. Johnston brought a similar sense of humor and charm to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which was a deserved hit.
7. Grand Canyon
It’s over 20 years since we first saw Lawrence Kasdan’s underrated ensemble drama in cinemas, and moments in it still resonates. In fact, it contains one of the coldest, most brutal, out-of-nowhere acts of violence we’ve seen on a movie theater screen. But rather than a cheap trick, the movie uses this and explores the impact of it (something it shares with another excellent 1991 movie, John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood).
Grand Canyon also boasts one of Steve Martin’s best performances, but it feels churlish to single one person out amongst a strong cast. Mary McDonnell, Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, and Alfre Woodard are also very good here.
The movie does veer a little, but it’s got more to it than a rerun of The Big Chill, as some thought it might be when it was first revealed that Kasdan was doing another ensemble drama. Also check out his later movie Mumford, which ended up going straight to video in the UK…
6. Let Him Have It
Peter Medak shot to prominence for directing The Krays, but arguably his best movie was the one he made afterwards. Starring a young Christopher Eccleston, and penned by Robert Wade and Neal Purvis (who would go on to write lots of Bond films), Let Him Have It is the story of Derek Bentley, the last man to be hanged for murder in Britain.
It’s a story brought forcefully to the screen, with a compelling cast led by Tom Courtney. Eccleston is excellent, and the raw feel of the movie very much plays to its impact. It’s certainly not an impartial piece of movie theater, but it is an impactful one.
5. Dead Again
Kenneth Branagh is deeply entrenched with American blockbuster movie cinema now. But his first jaunt into U.S. moviemaking came in the form of the underrated thriller Dead Again. It’s a twisty mystery with noirish elements, one of those that’s best going into as cold as possible.
We can say that it’s got a particularly notable cameo from Robin Williams in it, and it not only tests Branagh the director, but he gives himself some hard acting work to do too (likewise Emma Thompson). A box office hit on its initial release, this is a stylish, intriguing thriller, and one well worth paying close attention to.
4. The Fisher King
Terry Gilliam eschewed some of his more outlandish visual flourishes for this relatively low-key drama, but the restrained approach merely makes the flashes of the fantastical shine all the more brightly when they do appear. Jeff Bridges is brilliantly cast as Jack Lucas, a controversial DJ whose aggressive on-air chatter prompts a listener to go out and commit a horrific shooting in a New York bar. Years later, the destitute Lucas crosses paths with Parry (Robin Williams), an eccentric homeless man whose wife was killed in that shooting.
A romance, a comedy and poignant drama, The Fisher King is full of great acting from its two leads and supporting players Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer, a cracking script from Richard LaGravenese, and as ever, some imaginative touches from Gilliam, such as a waltz through Grand Central Station.
The Fisher King was a modest success on its release, and it rightly earned plenty of awards attention, too–Ruehl even won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. It has to be said though that The Fisher King deserved more affection than it got in theaters. Robin Williams’ other big 1991 movie, Hook, made over $300 million that same year, and for our money, The Fisher King is by far the better project.
3. The Hard Way
This is a movie of the ’90s that to all intents and purposes feels like it was left over from the 1980s, given the occasional harshness of its tone. That’s not a bad thing either, because The Hard Way is a terrific, funny and hugely entertaining piece of work, that throws two unlikely actors together, and reaps heavy dividends.
The two actors in question are Michael J. Fox, playing a shallow movie star looking to go deeper for his next role, and James Woods as the cynical, grumpy, intolerant cop he’s paired with. There are lots of things that make the movie really good, but one we’ll salute here: that the pair never, even when the necessary third act niceties come about, really like each other. There’s no real softening, and the movie is all the better for it. It’s a real ’90s gem.
2. State of Grace
Admittedly, State of Grace was released in 1990 in the U.S., but everywhere else, it made its debut in 1991, hence its inclusion here. A terrific crime drama with one of the best ensemble casts of the early ’90s, including Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, John Turturro, and John C Reilly, it’s about undercover cops and organized crime in Hell’s Kitchen, and it’s a compelling portrait of a city on the cusp of change.
From the moment Ennio Morricone’s discordant yet oddly beautiful score kicks in over the opening credits, you can tell you’re in for a classy affair, and director Phil Joanou barely puts a foot wrong throughout. Almost entirely ignored at the box office, State of Grace may be one of the most underrated dramas of the decade as a whole. At the very least, it contains one of Gary Oldman’s finest ever performances as a troubled, boozy Irish gangster.
1. What About Bob
In many of his ’80s and ’90s hits, Bill Murray was cast in sarcastic or slightly obnoxious roles, so it’s refreshing to see him play a part that’s sympathetic and vulnerable, as well as infuriatingly tenacious. As Bob Wiley, the sufferer of seemingly every phobia going, he’s the well-meaning nemesis who throws the life of successful, self-regarding psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) into utter chaos.
In the beginning, Dr. Marvin is hoping to spend a month quietly holidaying with his family in New Hampshire and bask in the attention of a fireside press interview for his bestselling new book. Then his patient Bob shows up, with a goldfish tied around his neck in a jam jar, and proceeds to drive the doctor up the wall–mostly by becoming good friends with the rest of his slightly neglected family, who don’t share Dr. Marvin’s seething antipathy.
On reflection, a movie that offers up a story about a doctor being stalked by his patient could have been a disaster, but director Frank Oz rarely goes for cheap laughs. What About Bob? may be cartoonish, but it doesn’t smirk at Bob’s afflictions, and Dreyfuss puts in a brilliantly angry performance as an arrogant over-achiever suddenly confronted with the worst month of his life.
Although it was a success at the time, What About Bob? isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Murray’s other hits, like Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters, which is a real shame. For us, it may well be one of the funniest films of the 1990s.