The Top 25 Underrated Movies of 1997

Our journey through the half-remembered, underrated movies of the 1990s continues. Here, we look back to 1997...

Dominated by the box office behemoth that was James Cameron’s Titanic, 1997 was a year of high drama and outlandish special effects. The Lost World: Jurassic Park brought with it a new batch of genetically revived dinosaurs, George Lucas dug his original Star Wars trilogy out of the closet and added new (controversial) computer-generated sequences, while Nicolas Cage and John Travolta did impressions of one another and fired guns in John Woo’s delirious action movie, Face/Off. Plus the true best movie of the year, L.A. Confidential, was robbed at the Oscars for Best Picture.

It was a varied year for movies, for sure, particularly by 21st century standards; it’s difficult to imagine a British feel-good comedy about amateur male strippers (The Full Monty) getting into the year’s 10 highest grossing films these days. But among all those winners, there had to be some underappreciated losers at the same time, so here’s our selection of those 1997 films that deserve more affection.

25. The Postman

Here’s a movie we’ve explored before at Den of Geek. It’s widely regarded as a major flop, a big disappointment, a disaster…  but it’s certainly not all of those things. Kevin Costner’s second directorial effort after Dances With Wolves is no less ambitious, adapting David Brin’s novel for the screen. It’s the story of a post-apocalyptic America where Costner’s drifter picks up a bag of postman’s mail and starts to deliver it, kickstarting a chain of hope for the survivors.

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There are problems throughout The Postman, mainly its overlong running time. But it’s still a far better movie than it’s given credit for. It meanders, certainly, but Costner threads a good movie together here, boasting a large cast, terrific visuals, and a lot for your money. We’d take an expensive movie like this over half of the blockbusters that are being trundled out at the moment, even in spite of its problems.

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24. Conspiracy Theory

If you think Mel Gibson and director Richard Donner, then chances are it’s the Lethal Weapon films or the terrific Maverick that spring to mind. But both went off the beaten track with Conspiracy Theory, ostensibly a star vehicle for Gibson and Julia Roberts but under the surface, quite a bit more than that.

Gibson’s role is an interesting one as a paranoid, eccentric taxi driver who sees conspiracies all around him. It’s one of the edgiest roles of his later career, and Roberts takes the straighter role alongside him. Throw into the mix Patrick Stewart and Donner mixing up his directorial style, and you get an uneven, interesting blockbuster, which made its money but didn’t quite perform as expected on initial release. An oddity, certainly, but a welcome one.

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23. Orgazmo

If Baseketball is one underappreciated ’90s comedy featuring the South Park duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, then Orgazmo is the other that urgently needs seeking out. Particularly given that we’re in such superhero-infested cinematic waters, Orgazmo–the hero of the movie within the movie here–is a welcome and relevant detour.

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Orgazmo is the hero in a porn movie, and Parker and Stone have no intention whatsoever of going for a PG-13 rating with the movie. It’s very, very funny at its best, even if nobody went to see it first time around…

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22. Event Horizon

It’s hard to imagine an R-rated horror movie getting this kind of high-budget treatment in 2013, but that’s one of the reasons why Event Horizons such a fun anomaly. A crew of rescuers is despatched to answer a distress signal aboard the title ship, only to find the gigantic vessel devoid of life. Then it emerges that someone on board was tinkering with a piece of hardware which opened up a gateway to hell, and all kinds of gory hijinks ensue.

Laurence Fishburne leads a solid and eclectic ’90s cast, but the movie really belongs to Sam Neill as Dr William Weir–a character who grows more entertaining the madder he gets. Very much a B-movie in spite of its efforts to recall the best moments of Alien and The Shining, Event Horizon is nevertheless an entertaining sci-fi horror.

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21. Open Your Eyes

Understandably less glossy than the more expensive remake starring Tom Cruise (Vanilla Sky), the more understated style of photography in Alejandro Amenabar’s Open Your Eyes merely adds to its hallucinatory power. Eduardo Noriega plays Cesar, a young man horribly disfigured after a particularly nasty car accident. With his life descending into dreamlike unreality after the crash, he tries to gradually pick apart the truth from fantasy. Atmospherically lit and acted, this meditative mix of drama and thriller is engrossing from beginning to end. Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky has much to recommend it, but Open Your Eyes just about edges it in terms of drama.

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20. Mimic

Director Guillermo del Toro had a really rough time during the production of Mimic, his second feature and his first English language movie. Yet despite the studio interference, the second unit photography and other distractions, the director’s fantastical imagination still shines through. Essentially a throwback to the classic creature features of the 1950s and ’60s, Mimic sees Manhattan’s subways and sewer systems overrun by a mutant breed of giant killer cockroaches. The effects and designs on these slippery critters still looks good even now, and their ability to ‘mimic’ humans with cloak-like wings is a distinctly del Toro-esque touch.

The movie didn’t do hugely well in theaters, but did spawn two direct-to-video sequels. Reviews were mixed at the time, but Mimics much better than its more critical assessments would have you believe. A recent Director’s Cut pushes the movie closer towards del Toro’s original intentions, and it’s well worth seeing.

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19. The Edge

Here’s an action movie that’s got far more going on in it than many would initially give it credit for. In fact, as a double bill with The Grey and The Edge may be just about perfect.

It’s from director Lee Tamahori (best movie: Once Were Warriors, most infamous: Die Another Day), and it’s based on a screenplay by David Mamet, which should instantly be a clue that there’s quite a lot to this. The center of the movie is a plane crash that leaves three people stranded in the wilderness. But there’s a three way relationship of sorts, and not a comfortable one, that’s already been established by the time the plane goes down. And so whilst on one hand, there’s a big bloody bear, and the perils it brings with it, on the other there’s the simmering dislike between the key characters.

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Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin star here, and whilst the drama is better than the action, The Edge is an occasionally brilliant movie, and most certainly worth digging out.

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18. Insomnia

Christopher Nolan directed the 2002 American remake of Insomnia, and it was a sensitively handled and brilliantly acted version of the Norwegian original. If you can track it down, the 1997 Insomnia is equally worth watching–a low-key thriller that deals with complex themes of guilt and betrayal. Stellan Skarsgard is excellent as Engstrom, a detective on the trail of a killer while at the same time attempting to cover up his own accidental killing of his partner. Skarsgard’s performance is magnificent–as good as Al Pacino’s in the remake, certainly–as a cop haunted and exhausted by both his job and his own crimes.

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17. Wag The Dog

Director Barry Levinson had two of his films releases in reasonably close proximity to each other, with the not very good adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Sphere following Wag The Dog by a couple of months. But Wag The Dog is really good, and incredibly scary.

It pairs Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, with the former playing a political spin doctor, and the latter a Hollywood producer. Between the two of them, they fabricate a fictional war to distract from a brewing scandal about the President of the United States and an underage girl. It all felt relevant and prescient at the time. Scarily, if anything, it feels a lot more normal watching it now. And whilst the ending is a little tame considering what came before it, Wag The Dog is an excellent political drama.

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16. The Apostle

The Apostle is one of three feature films Robert Duvall wrote and directed over his long career, the others being Angelo My Love (1983) and Assassination Tango (2002). A labor of love for Duvall, The Apostle sees him in the lead role as Sonny, a preacher who moves town and changes his identity after putting his wife’s lover in a coma. Starting up a new church in Louisiana, Sonny begins to start a new life for himself before his past eventually catches up with him.

That brief synopsis probably makes The Apostle sound a bit worthy and over-earnest, but its writing is laced with dry humor and is utterly lacking in sentimentality. The cast is great as well; behind Duvall, there’s Farrah Fawcett as his wife, and Billy Bob Thronton, Miranda Richardson, and Walton Goggins among the colorful townsfolk. Subtle and moving, The Apostle‘s well worth tracking down.

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15. The Boxer

Daniel Day-Lewis is known for both his immaculately rounded performances and his choosiness when it comes to his movie roles. The Boxer was Day-Lewis’ last movie role of the 1990s, and it’s arguably one of his most powerful. As a former boxer emerging from a lengthy spell in prison, Danny (Day-Lewis) wants to live quietly in Belfast with his lover Maggie (Emily Watson, who’s excellent, as always), but can’t tune out the troubles occurring all around him. Anyone reading the title and expecting a Quiet Man-like study of a boxer will be disappointed with Jim Sheridan’s low-key IRA drama, but it’s a well-observed story, with a typically believable performance from Day-Lewis.

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14. Cop Land

A great many people like Cop Land, but it’s surprising how many have never given it a chance. It gained prominence at the time for Sylvester Stallone’s decision to appear in such a low-key, non-action role. The broader ensemble then attracted Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta, amongst others. That Stallone held his own is just one of the interesting facets of the movie.

The other is just how well writer/director James Mangold–most recently known for Logan–knits it all together. Even without the star names, this would be a strong piece of work. Fortunately, the roster of talent just enhances it further, rather than becoming a distraction.

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13. One Eight Seven

Kevin Reynolds came to this one after the well-charted joys of making Waterworld, opting for a low-budget, raw movie. He cast Samuel L/ Jackson in the lead role as a teacher fighting an almost-unwinnable battle in his classroom, and whilst it’s a bit choppy, it’s a compelling movie.

We interviewed Kevin Reynolds a few years back, and he revealed that to get the gritty style, he recruited cinematographer Ericson Core, who at that time had never shot a feature before, and the pair took lots of chances in how they put the movie together, even using toy video cameras at one stage (the full interview is here). The movie barely made a scratch at the box office in large part down to its unwillingness to shirk the ending. If you’re after the antidote to Dead Poets Society though, this is pretty much it.

12. The Ice Storm

Had this one had a better campaign behind it, then it would surely have fared a little better come Oscar time. Appreciating that 1997 was hardly short of terrific movies, and that Titanic would go on to own pretty much every award ceremony on the planet, Ang Lee’s dark drama nonetheless deserved far more recognition than it got. Set in 1973 American suburbia, it’s a complex drama as a bunch of families find themselves entwined with sex, drugs, and increasingly complicated relationships. There’s a terrific cast at work here, with the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, and the always brilliant Joan Allen. And Ang Lee’s telling of the story doesn’t flinch. An excellent movie and one of the best rarely appreciated dramas of the decade.

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11. Grosse Pointe Blank

Lots to like here. 1997 saw two high school reunion films, with the fun but forgettable Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion being the other. But Grosse Pointe Blank is a smarter, funnier, and more enduring beast. It follows John Cusack’s Martin Blank, a bored hitman who attends his 10-year high school reunion. With a strong soundtrack popping up in the background, the movie has plenty to like about it, not least one of Dan Aykroyd’s best screen performances as rival hitman Grocer. It’s a pity that director George Armitage hasn’t done too much filmmaking since, as there’s enough packed into Grosse Pointe Blank to suggest he had even better movies in him. As it stands, this one continues to impress.

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10. Cube

Low-budget yet high-concept, Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi horror is a great little exercise in suspense. A  group of strangers wake up inside an unfamiliar room with little more than a hatch in the corner. Unable to remember how they got there, they work together to try to find a means of escape, but discover that they’re stuck in a network of trapped chambers. A movie that gradually found an audience on its home release, Cube could be seen as a precursor to the Saw franchise, with its assorted deadly traps and eclectic cast of neurotic characters–among them David Hewlett, who was startlingly good in the cult movie Pin, and engagingly cynical here.

Deserving of its cult status, Cube was the first in Natali’s run of genre films, including the equally underrated Cypher (2002), Splice (2009) and this year’s Haunter, starring Abigail Breslin.

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9. Crash

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name contained little of the body horror that defined his earlier work, but it still managed to upset one or two British newspapers and local councils when it appeared in that country’s cinemas. With more than 15 years now lapsed, it’s difficult to work out exactly what the furor was all about; Crash gets under your skin and flirts with sexual taboos, as all Cronenberg movies do to some extent, but it’s a mature, necessarily cold handling of Ballard’s text.

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James Spader plays Ballard, whose automobile accident draws him into a group of people who are aroused by the near-death experience of being in a car wreck. Cronenberg’s style of direction is too scientific and erudite to be crudely titillating, which might be why some critics were horrified by it: Crash refuses to either glamorize or coyly airbrush its protagonists’ kinky leanings, and the result is a gripping, disturbing drama.

8. Nil By Mouth

Here is a devastating, unforgettable directorial debut from Gary Oldman, a movie for which he also wrote the script. There’s something of an autobiographical basis for the movie, although to quite what degree is best known by Oldman. It’s the story of a drug-infested neighborhood in South London, and one family living in the midst of it.

To say Nil By Mouth pulls no punches would be accurate, and Oldman doesn’t flinch when bringing some quite horrible moments to the screen. Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke put in superb performances too, Burke in particular. And whilst Nil By Mouth isn’t a movie you’d particularly want to watch twice, it desperately deserves to be seen once. Oldman, to date, hasn’t directed another movie.

7. Gattaca

It’s hard to believe just how badly this dystopia from Andrew Niccol–the writer of The Truman Show–did at the box office, making it one of the most sorely overlooked movies of 1997. Riffing on ideas Aldous Huxley was thinking about in his seminal Brave New World, Gattaca is set in a future where citizens are genetically engineered to perfection. A (relatively) lavish budget was spent on this sleek, shiny vision of a city where disease, aging, and even mild ugliness have been banished from civilization, and where Ethan Hawke’s genetically imperfect Vincent dreams of a becoming a space traveller.

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With a spectacular supporting cast, including Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Alan Arkin, and even writer Gore Vidal, Gattaca is a superbly acted movie with some unforgettably thought-provoking themes. Its depiction of a genetically divided class structure is chillingly convincing. This, along with a cracking thriller plot, makes Gattaca one of the essential sci-fi films of 1997.

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6. Waiting for Guffman

We’ve already talked about Christopher Guest’s gut-bustingly funny Waiting for Guffman, but it deserves further exposure. For this is a gem of a comedy, bringing together an ensemble who would work with Guest on the likes of Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

It’s the story of a small town, whose people are putting on a show to celebrate its anniversary. That in itself gives Guest a whole host of material for his company to work with–not least his own character of Corky St. Clair. But the wrench in the works is when legendary Broadway critic Mort Guffman is revealed to be attending the performance.

The movie boasts an ensemble of scene-stealers, including the wonderful Eugene Levy, and the movie is one of the funniest of the 1990s, full stop.

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5. Breakdown

Jonathan Mostow would go on to tackle divisive films such as U-571 and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in the years that followed. But his 1997 thriller Breakdown is one of the best, tensest entries in the genre that Hollywood produced in the whole decade.

The premise is a simple one, with a side hint of The Vanishing to it. Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan play a couple whose car breaks down in the middle of the desert. Quinlan’s character gets a lift with a seemingly friendly passerby to go and get fuel and help. But then she never returns. The movie, through Russell’s eyes, and it’s a strong lead performance, then follows the story of just what happened next.

With a terrific supporting performance from the late, great J.T. Walsh, Breakdown is incredibly tense, tightly edited and extremely lean at just 93 minutes. But it’s all the better for it. An excellent piece of work.

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4. Lost Highway

David Lynch once revealed that he detests the smell of cooking so much he has an entire separate house in which he prepares his meals. This fact doesn’t have anything much to do with Lost Highway, but it provides a hint of the singular eccentricity Lynch has brought to his movies for the past four decades. Lost Highway is among Lynch’s more disturbing creations, a two-hour-plus conundrum in which saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) goes berserk, goes to prison, and then transforms into someone else entirely–a young man named Pete (Balthazar Getty).

Lots of other mysterious things happen, most of them inexplicable, all of them mesmerizing. Robert Loggia, Gary Busey, Richard Pryor, and Marilyn Manson all show up in unnerving roles, while a scene where Pullman’s character is approached by a faintly satanic figure (Robert Blake) at a party is truly the stuff of nightmares.

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3. The Spanish Prisoner

At first, The Spanish Prisoner got attention for the fact that Steve Martin took a straight role in it. But then it was wrinkled by the realization that David Mamet had constructed yet another brilliant, twisty thriller that earned it plaudits. It certainly deserves to stand alongside House of Games in that respect.

The less you know the better here, with the outline plot simply described as someone trying to sell a very lucrative secret process. This being a Mamet screenplay–and he directed the movie as well–you get far more going on though with duplicitous characters, shadowy twists and turns, and a tightly wound final cut.

We won’t say more, as you really don’t want the movie spoiled for you. Just know that it’s excellent and a real ’90s gem.

2. Hana-Bi

One of Japan’s finest filmmaking exports, Takeshi Kitano has turned up more than once in these lists of ’90s films. Hana-Bi, a tough, pared-back thriller, may well be one of the actor, writer, and director’s very best; a tale of revenge served ice cold. A sizeable hit in Japan, Hana-Bi and several of Kitano’s other films were also popular in the art house theaters of the west at the time. More recently, though, their influence seems to have dimmed somewhat, so this is the perfect opportunity to shine a light on one of the very best Japanese thrillers. Its title literally means ‘fireworks’ in English, which provides some clue as to the searing violence the movie contains.

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1. Starship Troopers

Paul Verhoeven brought his aggressive direction and sly humor to this adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s novel, which sneakily subverts its militaristic themes. Not all critics got the joke though and took its fascist imagery at face value. Audiences seemed bemused by this frenzied mix of action and dark comedy too. So while it wasn’t a flop, it wasn’t exactly the hit its studio had hoped for either.

Casper Van Dien leads a blandly pretty squad of space cadets on an extermination mission to the planet Klendathu, where a breed of battle-ready giant bugs await. With deliberately trashy dialogue, Starship Troopers is an extremely smart movie disguised as a fusion of Beverly Hills 90210 and Zulu. Michael Ironside is great value as the flag-waving, one-armed teacher who gamely launches himself into battle and loses more limbs in the process.

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When compared to its then high budget of $105 million, Starship Troopers wasn’t as big a hit as RoboCop or Total Recall, despite its marketing as a broad, crowd-pleasing movie (there were even Starship Troopers toys at one point). As the last chapter in Verhoeven’s trilogy of sci-fi films (Hollow Man being a studio-compromised disappointment) though, Starship Troopers is a true classic.

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