The Top 25 Underrated Movies of 1992
There are plenty of unsung greats as we provide our rundown of the 25 underrated movies of 1992.
It was the year Bill Clinton became president, the year HAL was born in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the year champion twerker Miley Cyrus was born. Of the films that ruled at the box office in 1992, Aladdin ruled the roost with takings of $500 million while the presence movies like The Bodyguard, Home Alone 2, Basic Instinct, and Lethal Weapon 3 in the top five give an insight into the average moviegoer’s preferred diet that year: action, romance, and a predatory Michael Douglas in a V-neck sweater.
As ever, we aim to highlight the 1992 movies that fell well outside that year’s top 10, so here’s our selection of thrillers, horror flicks, comedies and lots more besides. Some were unfairly maligned by critics, while others were applauded in reviews but ignored by punters. But in every instance, the 25 films listed below deserved far more appreciation than they got at the time.
One False Move
There’s something about thrillers in the early to mid ’90s that makes us think at some point it’s going to be revisited as a vintage time for the genre. This was a point where the ratings system wasn’t knocking so many contentious edges off things, giving us uneasy pieces of work such as Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan or John Dahl’s Red Rock West. An inevitable plug for the Kurt Russell-starring Breakdown, from Jonathan Mostow, is nigh-on compulsory too.
But what about the quite brilliant One False Move?
Directed by Carl Franklin, who would go on to make the strong Denzel Washington thriller Devil in a Blue Dress, it’s co-written by and starring Billy Bob Thornton. Bill Paxton adds to the cast too, and the movie follows big city criminals in a small town. Saying too much would potentially detract from what is a taut, brilliantly written thriller that sizzles with excellent performances. It’s a puzzle that Franklin hasn’t really received the recognition his body of work deserves to date, but there’s still time. At the very least, do check out arguably his best movie, one that deserves not to be eaten up by time.
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This isn’t the only Christopher Lambert movie on this list, but it’s arguably his best. Directed by Stuart Gordon, the maker of the classic Re-Animator, this brilliant sci-fi B-movie sees a husband and wife (Lambert and Loryn Locklin) thrown into prison for daring to break the future U.S. goverment’s rule of only having one child. Unfortunately for them, the particular prison they find themselves in is a high-tech facility run by the despicable Poe (Kurtwood Smith), where each inmate is fitted with a device called an Intestinator. As the name implies, these little gadgets can either cause their victims to writhe around in pain or abruptly explode, thus making escape seemingly impossible.
Can Lambert and his missus escape the clutches of the evil Kurtwood Smith? You can probably guess how it’ll all pan out, but that doesn’t mean that Fortress doesn’t have a few nasty surprises for you on the way. And since this is a Stuart Gordon movie, it’s full of gore and oil-black humor while Smith’s as deliciously evil as you’d expect.
Less than successful in America, Fortress gained far more traction internationally, where its success was enough to secure a sequel. Even so, the movie deserved to do much better; exciting and imaginative, it really is among the best sci-fi action films of the era.
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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Jeered by the notoriously capricious crowds at Cannes, derided by Quentin Tarantino and panned by critics, it’s fair to say that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me wasn’t exactly greeted warmly on its initial release.
A spin-off from Lynch’s own TV series, Fire Walk With Me was intended as both a prequel and a means of tying up loose ends from the show, which was by then cancelled. Combining elements of detective story, horror and thriller, Fire Walk With Me is a darkly surreal mystery as only Lynch could make it.
The eclectic cast includes Chris Isaak, David Bowie, Sheryl Lee, and Harry Dean Stanton, as well as Kyle MacLachlan, who returns as Agent Dale Cooper. Certainly, the movie didn’t deserve the near hysteria that greeted it on initial release, and Fire Walk With Me has since undergone something of a reassessment, with no lesser authority than Mark Kermode emerging as one of its champions.
We wrote about the movie in more depth here, and as our own James Peaty switch out, Fire Walk With Me, while not the best movie Lynch ever made, is full of remarkable images that really lodges in the brain.
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4. Tetsuo II: Body Hammer
The first Tetsuo movie, subtitled The Iron Man, was a monochrome dervish of sci-fi and fetishism, a disturbing fusion of David Lynch, Cronenberg, and director Shinya Tsukamoto’s own manic style of filmmaking. The 1992 sequel is effectively an expanded update of the first, exploring the same themes and imagery of its predecessor, except with an expanded budget, allowing for lots more gruesome special effects and splashes of vivid color.
Body Hammer‘s about an ordinary Japanese salaryman who’s drawn into a murky underworld of mutating cyborgs, learns some unpleasant facts about his once forgotten childhood, and gradually transforms into a gigantic killing machine. Dark, imaginative and downright scary in places, Tetsuo II isn’t necessarily a movie for everyone, but it’ll prove to be an unforgettable experience for those brave enough to watch it.
Look out, too, for Tsukamoto’s second sequel, 2010’s Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, as well as his other fiercely individual films, such as Tokyo Fist and Kotoko. Although they’re all very different from his Tetsuo films, they also play around with cinematic conventions in unusual ways.
The computer hardware may have aged in this breezy, lavishly cast caper movie, but its good-natured atmosphere and gripping story really haven’t. Robert Redford heads up a great ensemble, a team of security experts hired by the NSA to recover a mysterious black box that has connections to a former partner of Redford’s played by Ben Kingsley.
Sneakers‘ twist-filled plot will keep you guessing, but it’s the quality of the script and the easy charm of the cast that really elevates the movie, and what a cast it is: Sydney Poitier, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, James Earl Jones, and Mary McDonnell are among the leading talents. You’d think that a mix like this would make Sneakers darn near unmissable, but Sneakers was a success rather than a smash, with its earnings placing it well outside the year’s top 10.
As far as we’re concerned, Sneakers is arguably one of the best thrillers of that decade.
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The late, great John Ritter did most of his most remembered work on television (and in theater). But his few strays onto the big screen did result in an outright gem. Stay Tuned is a family movie that has real bite to it, as a husband and wife find themselves sucked into their TV set where they’re subjected to a succession of television shows, each of which is a bit darker than they might otherwise remember.
A satire and a very funny one, Stay Tuned works on two levels, and works very well. Interesting, it was directed by Peter Hyams, whose eclectic body of work goes from 2010, Capricorn One, and End of Days through to Timecop and Outland. Stay Tuned comfortably stands side by side with them.
A Midnight Clear
A haunting war movie, whose reputation has gradually grown to the point where it was afforded a 20th anniversary disc re-release, A Midnight Clear is from director Keith Gordon (who went on to helm the 2003 big screen take on The Singing Detective), and it tells the story of an American platoon of soldiers at the back end of World War II, who enter into a truce of sorts with the German soldiers they encounter. It’s a tense, dark drama that makes poignant switch about the futility of war. It also boasts a strong, then-young cast, including Ethan Hawke (another to add to his catalogue of underrated movies), Kevin Dillon, Peter Berg and Gary Sinise.
The ’90s wasn’t short on strong war movies, but A Midnight Clear remains one of the best, and one of the least known about.
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Louis Gossett Jr. and James Woods came together for this one, a comedy that went by different names depending on which side of the channel you lived. It’s a great role for Woods in particular, playing an ex-prisoner who comes up with a plan: to find a boxer who can knock out 10 men in a small town in under 24 hours.
Gossett Jr. is that boxer, and the movie is a sparky comedy with a terrific, scene-stealing turn from Bruce Dern in it. It’s a pity that the movie never found a wider audience than it did, but there’s a cheap enough DVD release that means it still has a fighting chance. It really is one of the ’90s’ most unfairly overlooked comedies.
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Director Brian De Palma made his name with a string of slick and intense thrillers, such as Obsession and Dressed to Kill. Raising Cain saw De Palma return to the genre after several years of very different films, including The Untouchables and Casualties of War, and there’s a sense that he’s enjoying every moment of this familiar territory.
John Lithgow stars as Dr. Carter Nix, a wholesome child psychologist obsessed with the well-being of his infant daughter, while his brother Cain (also played by Lithgow) is a far shadier individual. Elements of Raising Cain‘s meandering, often implausible plot bear certain similarities to the classic Peeping Tom, and while De Palma’s movie’s far too trashy and daft to come close to that kind of greatness, there’s still plenty to enjoy in it. Certainly, the movie’s nowhere near as bad as some of its most vehement detractors suggested, and Lithgow clearly has a lot of fun with the challenge the story’s numerous twists and characters represent.
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School Ties has become known for its cast of then-unknown actors, who went on to much bigger things. Amongst the ensemble are Matt Damon, Brendan Fraser, Chris O’Donnell and Ben Affleck, and they play key parts in a compelling drama set in a posh 1950s school. It’s Fraser’s David Greene who’s the lynchpin of the story, being the outsider who’s accepted in to help bolster the sports team. But his class background and religion put him at odds with the ethos and culture of the school, and eventually, the cracks begin to show.
It’s an intelligent movie, that makes its switch without over-egging them. And whilst the movie has curiosity value for researchers of Before They Were Famous–esque TV shows, there’s a drama here that has something to say, and then says it exceptionally well. Director Robert Mandel, incidentally, also helmed F/X. Thought you’d like to know that.
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Another quality, dark and deep detective drama from the genre that kept on giving them, Deep Cover is powered by an exceptional central performance from Laurence Fishburne. Co-starring Jeff Goldblum, it’s a movie about an uncover cop on the surface. But this undercover cop is targeting a major drugs operation in Los Angeles. He brings with him the luggage of his youth, and the need to go so deep he ends up selling drugs himself.
Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean’s screenplay examines the ramifications and impact of this, while director Bill Duke keeps things bleak and complex. It’s a bit heavy going in places, but Deep Cover is a grown up, uncompromising and very good piece of work, where you get the sense that at no point was a story beat determined by a committee or studio notes.
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With 1990’s Hardware, young director Richard Stanley established himself as a promising and unusual filmmaker. As a low budget yet ambitious sci-fi movie about a robot that rebuilds itself and goes on a bloody rampage, it led to Stanley making Dust Devil, an atmospheric movie that pushed his stylish filmmaking further. Shot entirely in Namibia on a budget of less than $5 million, it’s an atmospheric, trippy horror movie about a young woman (Chelsea Field) who has a run-in with a supernatural killer, played by Robert John Burke.
Originally two hours long, Dust Devil was brutally edited to just 87 minutes before release. Fortunately, a director’s cut was released years later, which restored much of the excised footage. More measured and artistic than some horror fans might expect, Dust Devil is a great cult artifact that is well worth seeking out.
One of those action thrillers that used to appear on late night television quite a lot, Trespass is a typically tough, violent movie from Walter Hill, an expert on making movies full of tough guys. About a pair of firemen who aim to find a cache of stolen gold marked on a map taken from a dead thief, Trespass soon descends into bitter rivalry, as the firemen run into a bunch of gangsters who are just as determined to take the gold for themselves.
Featuring a fantastic cast, including Bill Paxton and William Sadler as the two firemen, and Ice-T and Ice Cube among the gangsters, Trespass is well acted and solidly written, with a script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale–written years before their highly successful collaboration on Back to the Future.
Mystifyingly, Trespass didn’t do particularly well at the box office, even though critics were highly favourable towards it. This is a shame, because although it’s not quite in the same tier as things like The Warriors, Southern Comfort or 48 Hrs, it’s still a rip-roaring action flick with two likeable leads and some great music courtesy of Ry Cooder.
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Tim Robbins’ directorial debut is the story of a right wing politician running for the U.S. senate. A satire, Roberts has the financial backing to push his campaign hard, but he connects with the public by putting his ideas and policies across in song (so strong are the songs that there was never a soundtrack album for Bob Roberts, for fear that the music could be hijacked by those not in on the satire). You don’t have to look far for the nods to Bob Dylan in some of the presentation of the music too.
Breaking Bad fans get to enjoy an early appearance by Giancarlo Esposito (now best known as Gus Fring), here as an investigative reporter on the trailer of Roberts. Bob Roberts also earns bonus Alan Rickman points too. The movie is a short one, although it still feels just a little stretched. That notwithstanding, Robbins makes his switch and makes his switch well here, in one of the better satires of the ’90s. Robbins’ next movie behind the camera, Dead Man Walking, would earn him an Oscar nomination.
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Peter Jackson may now be an established member of Hollywood royalty thanks to his sterling work in the Tolkien-verse, but back in 1992, he was still very much a hungry, up-and-coming indie filmmaker ploughing a rich seam of anarchic gore and black comedy. Braindead (also known as Dead Alive) would serve as his magnum opus, a zom-com where the bite of a Sumatran Rat Monkey (hailing from King Kong‘s Skull Island, no less), sparks an outbreak of flesh-eating ghouls.
Put-upon young Lionel (Timothy Balme) is the luckless hero at the center of it all, desperately trying to care for his obnoxious, zombie-infected mother, and later defending himself from an undead horde with a lawnmower. Deliriously, ridiculously gory and violent, Braindead would probably be shocking if it wasn’t so hilarious–but like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, Jackson’s scenes of splatter are simply too absurd to be taken seriously.
Although now a cherished cult item, Braindead was far from a hit, and censors clearly had a hard time with it: one U.S. version trimmed the movie down to a bare-bones 85-minute duration to secure an R-rating. After Dead Alive, Jackson moved into more respectable waters with films like Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, before The Lord of the Rings and international acclaim beckoned in 2001.
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Leap Of Faith
This is one of the lost films of Steve Martin, albeit one that had a mild resurgence thanks to a recent short-lived Broadway musical based on it. Martin mixes comedy and drama–something he does as well as anyone–in the role of Jonas Nightengale, an apparent faith-healer, but an even more apparent con man. He arrives at a small town, where Liam Neeson happens to be the cynical sheriff, with the promise of miracles and one hell of a show.
And the preaching shows are exquisitely staged, with the movie finding time to explore one or two dramas around the town too. Furthermore, there’s the relationship between Martin’s character and that of Debra Winger, one of his team. With loose links to a real life television evangelist, Leap of Faith gets bogged down in trying to deliver a satisfying and rounded ending, but it’s worth seeing alone for Martin’s energetic performance. And for The Neeson, of course.
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Mr. Saturday Night
There are problems with Billy Crystal’s directorial debut, Mr. Saturday Night. Its central character is not an easy one to like, whilst the reliance on heavy make-up as said character gets older is unfortunately distracting. But still, way before Judd Apatow got there with Funny People, Mr. Saturday Night is a strong drama that relates the story of a stand-up comedian’s rise and fall, and the impact on those around him.
It’s not quite two hours of watching someone self-destruct, even if it may feel like that at times, and there are things worth sticking with the movie for. Crystal’s central performance for one, and David Paymer’s Oscar nominated support turn is another. Furthermore it’s an engrossing piece of work at its best, no matter how dispiriting the story may be at times. It’s certainly a movie ripe for re-evaluation, one that confirms Crystal’s skills in front of the camera, and potential behind it.
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Death Becomes Her
Robert Zemeckis hasn’t gone near an outright comedy since Death Becomes Her, a fun, over-the-top exhibition of excellent special effects and dark comedy. Notorious perhaps at the time for underperforming at the box office in spite of three movie star names above the title–Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn–Death Becomes Her actually has a bit more in the tank than it’s invariably given due credit for. Streep’s gleeful performance in particular is incredibly entertaining, and Zemeckis is willing to throw lots at the screen in an effort to entertain. A solid amount of what he throws, sticks.
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A smaller drama released in the aftermath of the success of Oliver Stone’s J.F.K., Ruby was billed as the story of the ‘man who shot the man who shot JFK.’ And it does indeed focus on Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald. Played by Danny Aiello, it’s the performances that remain the best reason to seek the movie out. Aiello in particular is excellent, but then Sherilyn Fenn does good work here too.
Ruby lacks a feeling of historical substance, and there is a sense that it’s cashing in a little on the success of a bigger movie. It is, in effect, a character drama where it turns out that the character is more interesting than the drama itself. But still, based on a play of the same name, it’s a solid movie that tells a subset of the JFK story that few touch on, and tells it reasonably well.
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Kenneth Branagh’s third movie as director proved to be a good solid box office hit in the UK, although it’s far from the upbeat comedy that the trailer initially promised. The Peter of the title is played by Stephen Fry (and he’s on great form here), and he invites his old Cambridge University comedy acting friends for a reunion of sorts on New Year’s Eve a decade later. And what friends he has: the cast includes Rita Rudner (who co-penned the script), Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, the peerless Imelda Staunton, Branagh himself, and Tony Slattery, at a time when Tony Slattery was everywhere.
With inevitable The Big Chill comparisons, Peter’s Friends turns out to be a mixture of warmth, sadness, music and funny lines, working primarily because of the strength of its characters and Branagh’s evolving direction. And they all look so young here too…
At some point, the world is going to stop director Roger Donaldson in the street, shake his hand and warmly apologize for overlooking so many of his movies. Appreciating not everything he’s touched has turned to gold, films such as Thirteen Days, The World’s Fastest Indian, The Bank Job, and No Way Out would look impressive on most people’s CV’s, and Donaldson deserves due credit for them. Don’t overlook this taut thriller either, though White Sands is a movie with a few problems, a beautiful-looking thriller that stars Willem Dafoe as a Deputy Sheriff who is called to a dead body in the White Sands desert, which is lying next to half a million in cash. And the moral conundrums start there.
The narrative doesn’t explore the possibilities of the premise anywhere near as well as it should, relying far too much on genre conventions. But the cast is good here–Mickey Rourke is well worth the money alone–and Donaldson’s direction is of real merit. A mixed bag then, but better than a good number of far more successful ’90s thrillers, and casting Willem Dafoe in the lead role makes it a far more interesting beast than if it had turned into a movie star vehicle.
Thrillers don’t get a lot more ’90s than the enormously fun and daft Knight Moves, a murder mystery set among the otherwise genteel world of competitive chess. Christopher Lambert plays the Grand Master who may or may not be a killer while Diane Lane and Tom Skerritt play the respective psychologist and cop tasked with working out who’s leaving messages written on victims’ walls in blood.
Playing out like a pulpy airport novel, Knight Moves is full of slick camera moves, moody lighting, and close-ups of Christopher Lambert staring with ambiguous intent. A more obscure movie among an era packed full of serial killer thrillers, Knight Moves is by no means the best, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and, whether it means to be or not, extremely funny.
After the semi-autobiographical Withnail And I, and anarchic farce How to Get Ahead in Advertising, writer and director Bruce Robinson took a trip to Hollywood for this starry ’90s thriller. Andy Garcia takes the lead as an archetypal burned-out cop attempting to solve the case of seven seemingly unrelated murders while Uma Thurman plays a blind music student whom he believes is the killer’s next intended victim.
The movie moves along at a decent clip, aside from a slightly overlong interrogation sequence featuring the otherwise brilliant John Malkovich, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty) frames everything with typical style.
Met with a muted critical response and tepid box office receipts (it even went straight-to-video in the UK), Jennifer 8 is far from a perfect thriller–your mileage will vary when the final twist is revealed–but there’s still lots to like about it, from the great cast (look out for Lance Henriksen as a pal cop) to Bruce Robinson’s ear for cutting dialogue.
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A Razzie-nominated flop on release, Toys is one of the weirdest family movies of the 1990s. It’s a surreal comedy drama about a military general (Michael Gambon) who plans to turn the toy factory he’s inherited into a weapons manufacturing plant, and his eccentric nephew’s attempts to stop him. Robin Williams plays the eccentric nephew, and he’s his usual ebullient self in a movie that’s almost as unhinged as he is: the toy factory is a parallel universe of crackpot inventions and gaudy colors, like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory redesigned by Rene Magritte.
The movie’s unevenly paced, admittedly, but the world director Barry Levinson creates is sometimes astonishing to look at. It’s said that he worked on Toys for more than a decade before he got it on the screen, and it shows–even now, some of the set designs and dreamlike scenes look unexpected and captivating.
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This ’90s sci-fi thriller owes a fairly heft debt to just about every other major genre movie of the era, but its setting really sets it apart. Taking place in a future London partly submerged due to climate change, Split Second sees two cops (one of them played by Rutger Hauer, on cool, terse form) hunting down a creature that absorbs its victims’ DNA.
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Low budget but atmospherically shot, the movie benefits greatly from Hauer’s charisma, a script that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a quite imposing monster lurking in the shadows. Look out too for a cameo from the late, great Ian Dury in an early scene.