Independence Day managed to revive both the alien invasion movie and the disaster flick in 1996, and just about every other mainstream picture released that year lived in its saucer-shaped shadow. Yet beyond the aerial battles of Independence Day, the flying cows in Twister, and the high-wire antics of Tom Cruise in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, there sat an entire library of lesser-known and underappreciated movies.
As part of our attempt to highlight the unsung greats of the ’90s, here’s our selection of 25 such films from 1996–the year chess champion Garry Kasparov lost to the might of the computer Deep Blue, and the year comedy star Jim Carrey starred in an unexpectedly dark tale of obsession…
25. The Cable Guy
We can’t sit here and put across an argument that Ben Stiller’s expensive comedy is a flat out classic waiting to be discovered. But conversely, in spite of a few problems, there’s a far more interesting movie waiting here for those willing to delve in.
It was a notorious box office underperformer, partly due to Jim Carrey’s salary for the movie breaking the $20 million mark for the first time. Released in mid-blockbuster season, The Cable Guy would have been better suited to a lower budget, a lower profile, and the chance to build word of mouth. Instead, it was shot down in seconds, and it’s taken a loyal band of advocates to point out there’s a lot bubbling under the surface here. Carrey’s performance in particular is dark, creating a not very likeable character, but in turn contributing massively to an unpredictable movie that gets better on a second watch. It still has problems, but this is a bold, big budget movie that deserved a better fate.
The last Arnold Schwarzenegger-headlined movie, outside of the Terminator franchise, to cross $100 million at the U.S. box office, Eraser was ripped straight out of the 1980s, albeit turning up several years after. Arnie here is John Kruger, who may as well be another Terminator given that nails can be embedded in his hands and it doesn’t stop him for more than a second.
Eraser is ridiculous, fast-moving, funny, and contains the best one-liner with the word ‘luggage’ in it to be found in any decade. Take it in the slightest bit seriously, and the fun drips away in seconds. Settle back for a braindead night in though, and it’s a forgotten Arnie that’s mightily good fun.
The Farrelly Brothers’ next movie after 1994’s Dumb and Dumber mystifyingly failed to enjoy the same success as its predecessor, even though it’s arguably as funny. Set in the world of competitive 10-pin bowling, Woody Harrelson stars as Roy, a luckless player who spots a talented successor in the ungainly shape of Randy Quaid’s Ishmael, who also happens to be Amish.
Best of all, Bill Murray plays Ernie McCracken, Roy’s despicable nemesis whose prize possession is a clear bowling ball with a rose suspended in the middle. McCracken also sports one of the most elaborate comb-overs in the history of cinema, which gradually shakes out into a tangled straggle as the final tournament wears on.
Wearing its low-brow humor on its sleeve, this ’90s comedy succeeds in being extremely funny, even if not every joke hits the mark.
22. The Craft
A small hit back in 1996, and another underappreciated movie from director Andrew Fleming (who made Threesome and Dick, which sounds a bit dodgy when we write them one after the other), The Craft centers on a bunch of teenage girls who firmly aren’t with the cool crowd and who practice witchcraft. Get on the wrong side of them? Well, you feel their wrath, and the might of their spellcasting.
Lots of interesting faces in this one too, with Neve Campbell, Robin Tunney, Skeet Ulrich and Fairuza Bulk amongst the young cast who deliver well on the material. The Craft has moments that don’t quite make the most of the premise, you could argue, but this has more bite to it than the average teen movie and holds up a lot better than you might think too.
21. 2 Days in The Valley
A nice double bill with Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, 2 Days in the Valley covers a 48 hour period (as you might guess), as a bunch of people find themselves drawn together by a murder.
There’s a good cast here, with James Spader and Danny Aiello leading the line as a pair of hitmen. They’re backed by the likes of Jeff Daniels, Eric Stoltz, Charlize Theron, and Teri Hatcher, although in truth the performances are a bit variable. The movie itself is really quite good though, bumpy in places, but with plenty to enjoy. It doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from other crime dramas, but it still has enough sparks to warrant giving it a spin.
20. Big Night
Never will you watch a food and feel quite as hungry as you’re likely to feel while watching Stanley Tucci’s terrific Big Night. This is the kind of movie that 3D was surely invented for, as a procession of delicious looking meals are paraded on the screen.
Behind the food is a strong, occasionally funny drama that Tucci co-directed with Campbell Scott. Set in 1950s New Jersey, it follows two Italian brothers who run their own restaurant. There are no shortage of squabbles and problems either, and they decide to put on a big night to attract the singer Louis Prima to their restaurant, to give it the elevator they need. As such, all their savings go into the plan.
It’s a charming, quiet yet engaging piece of work, and it makes you wonder why Tucci hasn’t directed more films. He’s been back behind the camera a few times, but you can’t help but think he has more strong films in him.
19. White Squall
Back in the 1990s, Ridley Scott made White Squall, a movie loosely based on the true-life sinking of the sailing ship the Albatross, and the result wasn’t exactly a financial hit–costing a then quite expensive $38 million, the movie made just $10 million in the U.S.
That low turn-out doesn’t reflect the quality of Scott’s movie, a seafaring adventure about Jeff Bridges’ skipper who leads a school trip through an exceedingly violent storm. Some of the dramatic situations about boys becoming men in a tough situation come across as a bit trite, but Bridges is a solid hand at the helm, and Scott’s direction is predictably beautiful to look at. When it hits, the titular storm does so with style and a palpable sense of menace.
18. Joe’s Apartment
The very definition of a cult movie, Joe’s Apartment is a musical comedy that proved rather too weird for mass audiences but has gradually built a devoted following in the years since.
Jerry O’Connell plays Joe, who moves into a dilapidated New York tenement building and discovers that its resident cockroaches can talk. Even now, it’s difficult to work out how director John Payson managed to get together $13 million to make his movie, which contains a character called Walter Shit and numerous song-and-dance numbers from its cast of cockroaches. We’re glad he did though, even if critics at the time really didn’t take to Joe’s Apartment. All these years later, the cockroach special effects look very good, and while this exceedingly odd movie isn’t for everyone, it provides a solid evening’s entertainment for anyone who can tune into its bizarre sense of humor.
17. I Shot Andy Warhol
The first feature from director Mary Harron, who went on to make the excellent adaptation of American Psycho and 2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page, I Shot Andy Warhol is a true-life drama about Valerie Solanas, the feminist writer who infamously attempted to assassinate one of the most famous artists of the 20th century.
Starring Lili Taylor as Solanas, I Shot Andy Warhol pads into the writer’s troubled past, how she came to write her book, SCUM Manifesto (SCUM standing for the Society of Cutting Up Men), and how her growing paranoia led to her shooting of Warhol in 1968.
Jared Harris plays Warhol as an aloof enigma, and Harron depicts the ’60s era with a keen eye for period detail. Above all, Taylor is both sympathetic and unnerving in the central role, making for a difficult yet rewarding drama.
16. The Funeral
Abel Ferrara was making some great films in the ’90s, including King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, Body Snatchers, and The Addiction. The latter, which featured in our 1995 top 25 list, was shot back to back with this fantastic crime drama, which features one of the best casts Ferrara would ever assemble: Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra, Isabella Rossellini, Vincent Gallo, and Chris Penn all star.
Set in 1930s New York, the movie’s about a pair of gangsters who seek revenge following the murder of their brother. Walken is fantastic, as always, as ruthless criminal Ray Tempio, and the movie builds to a stunning climax which still packs a punch even now.
Barely distributed and sorely underappreciated, this period drama is well worth tracking down. The Funeral isn’t the best known of Ferrara’s movies, but it may be the best.
15. Fly Away Home
The ’90s features some glorious family movies that seem to have been all but forgotten about, and Fly Away Home is chief among them. Perhaps it’s that it arrived just as several studios were getting tuned into releasing an avalanche of animated movies, as opposed to live-action family entertainment, but Carroll Ballard’s charming movie Fly Away Home aches to be found again.
It’s headlined by Anna Paquin, alongside Jeff Daniels, as a 14-year old who wants to lead a family of geese back to where they should be. If this were made now, it’d be a planet of geese or something, but the small, containable goal allows the movie to focus on telling a story exceptionally well. Fly Away Home does just that, and it’s worth digging out for Caleb Deschanel’s photography alone.
14. Looking For Richard
Al Pacino took some time to make his directorial debut, but when he did, he chose wisely. Looking For Richard is a documentary that centers on his quest to find the modern relevance of William Shakespeare’s Richard III. He cuts in scenes from the play, along with actor interviews and discussions about the text, as he looks to get to the core of why it all matters.
Inevitably, this is something of a niche documentary, but then many of the best ones are. It’s also clearly something Pacino cares about enormously and that most certainly belts through loud and proud in his strong, engaging movie. Pair it with the Ian McKellen-headlined Richard III movie if you’re looking for a double bill.
13. Last Man Standingf
Between 12 Monkeys and The Fifth Element, Bruce Willis teamed up with writer and director Walter Hill for this loose remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Willis plays an anonymous killer who shows up in the near-deserted town of Jericho and immediately starts playing its two rival gangs off each other.
Establishing a gloomy, dour tone in this Prohibition-set piece, Hill was criticized for failing to inject much humanity or even levity in this tough action flick. Then again, the hardboiled atmosphere is precisely the point: like the films of Sam Peckinpah or John Woo, Willis’ taciturn hero shoots straight and seldom misses, and there’s a certain charm to the pared-back, basic premise; certainly, Last Man Standing has aged quite a bit better than some of Willis’ other films from the period, such as Striking Distance or the dismal Color of Night.
With Bruce Dern and the endlessly hardworking Christopher Walken adding value to the cast, Last Man Standing is worth tracking down if you’re in the mood for a grimly entertaining shoot-em-up.
12. The Frighteners
In many ways, this comedy horror marks the transition between Peter Jackson, the puckish director of gross-out gore pictures like Bad Taste and Braindead, and the more approachable filmmaker behind the hit Lord of the Rings movies.
Michael J. Fox stars as Frank, a former architect who uses his ability to communicate with ghosts to swindle the unwary out of their hard-earned cash–little do these people know that the spooks haunting their houses are actually Frank’s partners in crime.
Although lacking in explicit gore, The Frighteners still has some exceedingly dark flashes of humor, which grow in frequency as the movie progresses. Suffering at the box office due in part because of the huge success of Independence Day, The Frighteners is nevertheless a great showcase for Jackson’s slightly manic style of storytelling–it’s certainly a very different movie from his 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures, and while it’s less satisfying than that Oscar-nominated success, The Frighteners is still a highly entertaining macabre fantasy.
11. Mr. Holland’s Opus
Richard Dreyfuss picked up an Oscar nomination for his excellent role and performance as Glenn Holland, a musician who takes on a job as a music teacher to help pay the bills. It’s sentimental stuff, Mr. Holland’s Opus, as we follow Mr. Holland across several decades of his life, with his teaching and family commitments keeping him away from writing the musical symphony that was his life’s ambition.
Notwithstanding the fact that said opus only seems to last just over three minutes, Mr. Holland’s Opus gets over its moments of schmaltz thanks in large to Dreyfuss’ excellent performance, and strong support from the likes of William H. Macy and Glenn Headly. The late, great Michael Kamen contributes strong music too.
Fun fact: Mr. Holland’s Opus is from the director of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. They forgot to put that on the poster though.
10. The Crucible
For some, Arthur Miller’s dazzling play will be remembered as a set text in English class, but director Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation brings this tragic allegory brilliantly to life. Hytner was formerly an opera and theater director before he turned his hand to filmmaking with movies like The Madness of King George and The Object of My Affection, which is probably why he manages to get such great performances from his cast, with Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams.
Miller’s play, loosely based on the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th century, was intended to capture the paranoid atmosphere of 1950s America, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy led a damaging search for communist sympathisers in his own backyard, but as a broader critique of inhumanity and intolerance, the story is utterly timeless.
The Crucible was already adapted once for the screen in 1957 to greater fanfare, but this ’90s version is a great movie itself. Well shot and superbly acted, this is a strong retelling of a powerful tale.
9. Lone Star
John Sayles spent the 1990s quietly making a series of brilliant films, and in exchange, virtually nobody went to see them. Take your pick: Limbo, Passion Fish, City of Hope, Sunshine State... any of those would be a good start. But the best of the lot was the wonderful Lone Star, which proved long before his current career resurgence that Matthew McConaughey could deliver a hell of a performance.
Sayles wrote and directed the movie, which sees Chris Cooper as a sheriff who uncovers the literal skeleton of his predecessor, and subsequently many of the metaphorical skeletons of the small town he serves.
It’s a town rich with excellent, rounded characters, and Sayles’ screenplay in particular is disciplined, engrossing and careful in what it reveals and when. A superb piece of cinema, and an excellent starting point if you’re a John Sayles novice.
8. Brassed Off
A movie that finds more and more relevance as it gets older, and it was biting enough at the time. Brassed Off sees the town of Grimly concerned by two things: the imminent threat of closure of its coal mining pit, that’s been at the heart of the community for generations, and its colliery brass band, which stands on the cusp of a big finale at the Royal Albert Hall. Pete Postlethwaite’s Danny, to be fair, is far more concerned with the latter than the former, but Mark Herman’s excellent, moving movie takes time to explore the families, faces and characters in the area.
There are lots of reasons to love Brassed Off. The humor, for a start, and its ability to turn even the most ardent of brass band music haters into a real convert. But the two big stand outs are Postlethwaite’s wonderful central performance, and an even better one–not something we say lightly–from Stephen Tomkinson. Resonating with themes and politics that rattle around your head long after, Brassed Off is one of the best and most important British films of the decade.
7. Tin Cup
The best romantic comedy for grown-ups the 1990s had to offer? There’s a strong argument for Tin Cup, and it’s unsurprising that it’s Bull Durhamwriter-director Ron Shelton who delivers it. He switches sports here, using golf rather than baseball as his backdrop, but his aim is the same: the use of sport to explore the relationships between flawed human beings. In particular, Kevin Costner’s washed up golf pro, Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy, and Rene Russo’s psychologist Dr Griswold. Throw Don Johnson into the mix as a golf pro and Griswold’s boyfriend, and the ingredients are firmly set and in place.
Shelton expertly mixes them too, aided by one of Costner’s very best leading man performances. He, Russo, and Johnson are an excellent leading trio, and backed by a witty script and an excellent back third, Tin Cup is a real stand-out. Great mulligan line, too.
6. When We Were Kings
Had this magnificent documentary been released a decade or so later, it would probably made a lot more money at the box office than it did. Covering the story of boxer Mohammed Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Forman, it explores the famous match’s backstory in extraordinary detail, capturing the atmosphere not just of the competition itself, but also the climate of the world as a whole in 1974.
Although When We Were Kings was adoringly received at the time–it won the Academy Award for best documentary that year–it’s still one of those films that seems in danger of being forgotten about as the years roll on. At the time of writing, it’s not even available on Blu-ray, which is a sad state of affairs. If you’ve never seen it before, When We Were Kings is a true must-see: a classic sports documentary that is utterly compelling, whether you’re interested in boxing or not.
5. Hard Eight
The forgotten Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Hard Eight was made at a point when Anderson couldn’t even get the title he wanted for the movie, given that he’d originally named it “Sydney.” Sydney is the name of the title character, played by Philip Baker Hall, a gambler who meets John C. Reilly’s John, a man without a nickel to his name. Sydney takes John under his wing, and all is going well until Gwyneth Paltrow’s Clementine arrives on the scene.
Permission to use the ‘in lesser hands’ cliché? It’s unavoidable here, given that Anderson makes pretty much everything count in a movie that more than earns its place in a boxset of his work. The scale may be smaller than the likes of Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, but the ability to paint characters in shades of grey and make them utterly compelling is very, very clearly in evidence. Hard Eight is a terrific movie, caught in the crossfire of a silly renaming battle that left it with a title that means all but nothing. The movie underneath it all is excellent though.
4. James and the Giant Peach
Master animator Henry Selick spared no effort in bringing Roald Dahl’s charming book of the same name to life, using a mixture of live-action and beautiful stop-motion. Selick’s James and the Giant Peach was both critically acclaimed and stunning to look at, so why didn’t it become the financial hit it deserved to be?
Whatever the reason, James and the Giant Peach is full of character, charm and lovely visual touches. Like the titular colossal fruit, it’s a timeless fantasy that looks good enough to eat.
3. That Thing You Do!
Tom Hanks made his directorial debut with this affectionate tale of a 1960s music band who go through the standard motions that bands in the movies tend to do. Knitted together by the specially-written title track, That Thing You Do! is a breezy, entertaining and well made movie, with Hanks demonstrating a clear love for the music and the era.
He takes on a supporting role here, but it’s Tom Everett Scott who ultimately leads an impressive ensemble cast that also features Steve Zahn and Liv Tyler. There’s an early role of Charlize Theron here too. An extended cut was made available a few years back, which deepens the characters and the relationships between them, but the theatrical cut itself is a treat in its own right. It’s not the most radical music movie you’ll see, but it’s still an impressive one. It’s from a director who really cares about the material too. And you’re lying if you say you can watch this and not have “That Thing You Do!” stuck in your head for days afterward.
As far as most of the movie theater-going world was concerned, The Matrix was the first movie from the Wachowskis, but it was actually the well-received by little-seen Bound that really put them on the map in Hollywood terms.
One of the best entries in the ’90s cycle of neo-noir thrillers (see also John Dahl’s fantastic Red Rock West), Bound is about the relationship between Violet (Jennifer Tilly), her lover Corky (Gina Gershon), and their plan to rob $2 million in cash from the mafia.
A movie that gamely plays with genre conventions and gender stereotypes, Bound is masterfully directed by the Wachowskis, who smoothly move between humor, steamy romance, and searing violence without missing a beat. Although it’s in danger of being remembered as being the movie that laid the way for its young filmmakers to write and direct The Matrix, it’s a superb thriller in its own right.
1. The People vs. Larry Flynt
Milos Forman is one of the great directors of dramas and biopics–see One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus for proof–and The People vs. Larry Flynt is his masterfully told story of the infamous publisher and editor of adult magazine, Hustler. Woody Harrelson plays the adult Flynt, whose gradual rise to prominence in the publishing industry out him in the sights of minister Jerry Falwell, who promptly took Flynt to court when Falwell became the subject of a mocking ad in a 1983 issue of Hustler.
Forman grasps this difficult story of a controversial figure brilliantly, and the central romance between Flynt and stripper Althea (Courtney Love) is beautifully acted and packs a tragic punch.
Perhaps due to its adult subject matter, The People vs. Larry Flynt wasn’t given the eventual high profile release ofOne Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus (at least outside of the U.S.), so it didn’t stand much of a chance in making back its $35 million budget. But thanks to its handling of a quite strange story, which finds both the human warmth and drama in real events, The People vs. Larry Flynt emerges as, for us at least, the most complete and satisfying movie of 1996 you might’ve missed.