The Underrated Movies of 1990

From dramas to action and everything in between, here's our pick of 20 underrated movies from 1990...

Think back to the big films of 1990, and you’ll probably immediately come up with things like Ghost, the year’s top-grossing movie, or maybe Home Alone, which made a star out of the young Macaulay Culkin.

If you’re into sci-fi or action, you might pluck Total Recall, Back To The Future Part III, or even Die Hard 2 out of your memory banks. But what about all those movies that didn’t make it into the year’s top 10 ranking films? As ever, there’s a huge number of duds and forgettable flops, but there were plenty of films that were wrongly overlooked, too.

That’s where this list comes in, which aims to shed a bit of light on 20 films that were either unfairly overlooked by audiences at the time, or have faded rapidly from general discussions about movie theater. We’ve gone for a range of movies, from thrillers to dramas, and from comedies to action.

We even kick things off with an animated Disney TV spin-off – a smart little adventure that’s well worth seeking out…

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20. DuckTales The Movie: The Treasure Of The Lost Lamp

A witty, underrated slice of Disney animated, spinning out of the DuckTales television show, The Treasure Of The Lost Lamp is the first cinematically released Disney animated feature to not be considered part of the official animated movie line-up. It was comparably very cheap to make, spun out of a television show, and only 75 minutes long.

Yet don’t overlook it on the basis on those factors, as this is a generous cut above the Disney animated sequel machine that would follow years down the line. Instead, you get a witty, pacey and really good fun adventure here, with Scrooge McDuck and his three nephews effectively – as better people than us have noted – doing a dry run for the Aladdin movie that would follow a couple of years later.

A technical marvel DuckTales is not. But a witty piece of work it remains.

19. Revenge

From forgotten Disney, to, er, something a little different. Whereas DuckTales was about a bunch of ducks hunting for a lamp, Revenge is a movie that sees one of its characters drugged, abused, and all but abandoned. Another character is left to die in the desert. Another? Well, let’s just say that motives for revenge are not in short supply, in what turns out to be an at-times unpleasant and nasty thriller.

But then, tonally, this feels very much in keeping with the harder edged mainstream movies of the time. Kevin Costner is the retiring navy officer, who starts an affair with a woman he really shouldn’t start an affair with. Not least because this gets him firmly on the wrong side of a man called Tibby. That’d be Tibby, a jealous and controlling crime boss, played by Anthony Quinn. And again, unlike DuckTales, Tibby gets really quite angry when he’s crossed.

What stops Revenge descending fully into a pit of unpleasantness is the late Tony Scott keeping his eye on the proverbial ball, and a collection of performances that – whilst not career highs – each invest sufficiently in the material to make it work. Do note that Scott’s preferred cut of the movie was one some 20 minutes shorter than the theatrical release.

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18. Arachnophobia

Frank Marshall has retreated to mainly producing films now (such as the Bourne movies), but for a while, he was mixing in a bit of directing as well. Given his long association with Steven Spielberg, it was somewhat inevitably an Amblin production where he earned his movie directing wings, with the funny, effective Arachnophobia.

Given how well the movie was received, it was a puzzle at the time that Arachnophobia didn’t take more than $53 million in the US. But then, the argument ran that the people who were most likely to be the best target audience for the movie – those terrified of spiders – were conversely the people least likely to actually want to sit through it.

Marshall handles the spider sequences extremely well too, and attempts to soften the horror edges of the movie with a surprising dose of welcome comedy. John Goodman in particular is on excellent form, stealing whatever material he’s let near. Less successful is Julian Sands. His performance here – especially in quite a nasty prologue – isn’t quite as wooden as his infamous turn in Boxing Helena, but there’s still no need to put the creosote away.

Arachnophobias grounding humor and simple build up, with good execution, serves it well, and means it still works today.

17. Class Of 1999

Director Mark L. Lester’s 1982 thriller, Class Of 1984, was a successful movie about a teacher struggling to fit in at an inner-city high school populated by some extremely nasty pupils. If that movie looked like a cross between Walter Hill’s The Warriors and, er, Grange Hill, then Lester’s 1990 follow-up is essentially The Terminator in a classroom.

With schools a battle ground by the year 1999, principal Langford (Malcolm McDowell) does what anyone would do in this situation: bring in a squad of cyborg teachers (or “tactical education units”) to restore order to the unruly pupils.

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A wonderfully daft, trashy movie full of great villains – including Stacy Keach and Pam Grier – Class Of 1999 is a must for connoisseurs of B-movie schlock.

16. Nightbreed

Poor Clive Barker really didn’t have much luck with this lavish horror fantasy, with the studio demanding brutal edits that took the original 150 minute run time down to just 102 minutes, and then embarking on a curious marketing campaign that tried to sell the movie as a slasher flick. Some of the excised footage has been found and restored for a forthcoming extended edition, but even in its edited state, there’s much to recommend this carnival of fleshy monsters and madness.

Craig Sheffer plays Aaron Boone, a troubled young man whose past has a hidden connection to a place called Midian – an subway city of strange and shunned creatures. David Cronenberg is unforgettably eerie as Boone’s shrink, whose hobbies include donning a cloth hood (with buttons for eyes), running amok with a kitchen knife, and then framing his patient with the murders.

Unfairly ignored at the box office – mainly due to bad marketing, if anything – Nightbreed is now rightly regarded as a cult classic. With some of its dark imagery akin to Guillermo del Toro’s work on the Hellboy films or Pan’s Labyrinth, Nightbreed is a baroque, lavish movie that’s well worth seeking out.

15. Quigley Down Under

Alan Rickman’s blockbuster movie career, in its early stages, was defined by two outstanding, very different villain performances, as Hans Gruber in Die Hard and The Sheriff Of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. The often overlooked villain role he also took though is playing Elliott Marston in the 1990 western Quigley Down Under, starring Tom Selleck.

In truth, it’s far from a classic western, but in a genre where fewer and fewer films are made, it is a good, solid, entertaining one. Originally a project that considered Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen at different stages, it went through several versions before Free Willy director Simon Wincer took it back to basics. His movie isn’t a brilliant one, but its performances and occasional moments elevator an otherwise fairly routine narrative. It’s certainly worth digging out. Tom Selleck, incidentally, also had the era’s finest, and most confident moustache.

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14. Pacific Heights

The late ’80s and early ’90s were full of competing psycho-in-our-midst thrillers, such as Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and it’s a shame that Pacific Heights didn’t get more attention, because it has much to recommend it. Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine play a young couple who help to pay the mortgage on their expensive San Francisco house by letting out some of the rooms, only to end up with DIY-enthusiast and swindling fantasist Michael Keaton living under their roof.

A memorable golf club scene aside, Pacific Heights plays up the psychological tension and black humor angle rather than body count or gore, and Keaton puts in a great, brooding, mail-valet performance as Carter Hayes. John Schlesinger (Marathon Man, The Day Of The Locust) directs with efficiency, and the movie builds to a properly satisfying conclusion. Some reviewers were a little hard on Pacific Heights, but we’d argue that it’s taut and well acted, and a rare example of a thriller that based around the 80s and 90s property bubble. Oh, and look out for a great, low-key score from Hans Zimmer.

13. Internal Affairs

Richard Gere does roles tinged with murkyness to them better than he’s generally given credit for. But just as Pretty Woman was sending his star back into the stratosphere, he also tackled something far more interesting: Mike Figgis’ flawed but bold Internal Affairs.

In this one, Gere plays the crooked cop who comes to the attention of Andy Garcia’s internal affairs investigator. The two leads are excellent here, although Internal Affairs does veer between being a dark drama and a glossier Hollywood thriller, not always walking that line particularly well. But there’s a lot of worthwhile ingredients here, and Figgis is an alarmingly underrated filmmaker. Internal Affairs offers a good amount of evidence as to why.

12. House Party

Here’s a great time capsule from 1990. A vehicle for rap duo Kid ‘n Play, its story’s as simple as the title suggests: Play (Christopher Martin) puts on a house party, and Kid (Christopher Reid) has to avoid his strict father and the law to get there.

Full of great music, cracking dialogue (“Why on earth would you call his mother a gardening tool?”), House Partys still a great, fun movie, and full of likeable characters. It’s particularly worth watching for a fantastic final performance from comedian and actor Robin Harris – as Play’s imposing father – who sadly died shortly after filming completed. Every line he utters – such as his brusque way of talking to the police – is little  short of hilarious. “Where am I going? I’m goin’ to mind my fuckin’ business, that’s where I’m goin’.”

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11. Darkman

A great pre-Taken action role for Liam Neeson, Darkman marked director Sam Raimi’s first foray into comic book territory before he really struck box office gold with Spider-Man. Unlike his web-slinging trilogy, Darkman was fated to be a cult rather than mainstream hit, but it was successful enough to prompt two sequels, and it’s absolutely full of Raimi’s blackly comic trademarks.

Neeson plays Dr. Peyton Westlake, a scientist who’s horribly disfigured by a group of gangsters led by mob boss Durant (Larry Drake). Determined to exact revenge, he uses a synthetic skin he’s been working on, which allows him to create new faces – the only drawback being that the material begins to disintegrate within a few hours. Peyton uses this newfound skin to infiltrate the criminal gang that ruined his life, and the scene’s set for a gleefully messy confrontation.

Neeson’s a solid dramatic rock at the movie’s center, while Larry Drake provides a great villain. Unfortunately, comic book movies didn’t quite have the box office traction they do now, and while Darkman made money, it still deserved to do much better. We’re nervously expecting a PG-13 reboot to appear any year now.

10. Blind Fury

Technically, this action samurai movie is classed as a 1989 movie, since it came out in Germany that year. But we’re going by its US release, which was 1990 – hence Blind Furys inclusion here.

Years before Quentin Tarantino made his own Zatoichi-type sword epic, director Philip Noyce made one of his own, with Rutger Hauer playing blinded Vietnam vet and expert swordsman Nick Parker. The movie made less than $3 million in theatres, which is quite criminal given the sheer amount of fun on display here.

Hauer’s very convincing, both as a blind man and as a sword-wielding hero: there are dozens of fun, expertly staged fight scenes here, including a great bit where Hauer slashes the supports of a shed with his trusty blade, sending a bad guy crashing through the corrugated roof.

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9. Pump Up The Volume

In the era of the podcast, YouTube, and the blog, Pump Up The Volume looks far more aged than it arguably should. Yet Allan Moyle’s movie about Christian Slater’s high school pirate radio DJ has themes that remain potent. Heathers is generally regarded as Slater’s go-to cult movie, but we’ve always had a lot of time for Pump Up The Volume, which sees him as the quiet by day longer who can only express himself – and capture the mood of his peers – through his anonymous radio persona, Happy Harry Hard-On.

With a killer soundtrack and believable characters in oh-so-relatable situations, it remains a compelling, it little-seen, piece of ’90s culture.

8. Mountains Of The Moon

A drama about Captain Burton and Lieutenant Speke’s exploration of central Africa – and their subsequent discovery of the source of the Nile – may sound like a dry history lesson, but Mountains Of The Moon is beautifully directed by Bob Rafelson, and there’s a real spark between the central pairing, played by Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen. There are great supporting performances, too, from Richard E Grant, Fiona Shaw and a young Delroy Lindo (in his first screen role, fact fans).

The score, from composer Michael Small, is similarly first-rate, and the movie as a whole has a measured, expansive feel to it – Rolling Stones critic Peter Travers even favourably compared Mountains Of The Moon to Lawrence Of Arabia, which is praise indeed.

Sadly, the movie didn’t catch the box-office attention it deserved, where it made a fairly dismal $5 million. The movie sorely deserves rediscovering, and, we’d argue, a release on Blu-ray – those glorious vistas would look even more stunning in high-definition.

7. Green Card

Maligners of Andie MacDowell’s acting range are rarely entirely silenced by Green Card, but between this and Groundhog Day, it’s as good as they’re going to get. Whilst MacDowell may not be an acting powerhouse, her eye for a great script didn’t let her down when she signed onto Peter Weir’s terrific, heart-tugging romance, about a marriage of convenience that becomes just a little bit more.

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It’s Gerard Depardieu’s movie, though, with his central performance (his first major English speaking role, and his best one), and Weir’s deft direction, the key reasons to seek out a fairly conventional yet strong movie. And MacDowell really isn’t bad in it, either…

6. Tremors

By now, Tremors has such a loyal cult following that it probably doesn’t quite qualify as an overlooked movie anymore, but its modest performance in cinemas back in 1990 prompted us to include it in any case. At the very least, we’re hoping its inclusion here will prompt anyone who’s somehow missed it to try and seek Tremors out.

Kevin Bacon stars as a handyman in the sleepy desert town of Perfection, Nevada, which suddenly becomes overrun by a breed of gigantic, aggressive breed of subterranean monsters. Attracted to vibrations from feet and vehicles above, these beasts – nicknamed Graboids – suddenly burst from the desert sand to devour the unwary, like the Sandworms out of David Lynch’s Dune adaptation.

Played for laughs rather than chills, this batty B-movie throwback is full of great one-liners, colourful characters (a gun-crazy husband and wife duo played by Michael Gross and Reba McEntire are a standout) and witty set-pieces. Once you’ve seen a massive Graboid race into a concrete wall so fast it crushes itself from the impact, you’ll find the image difficult to shake.

5. Truly Madly Deeply

Despite 1990s box office being partly dominated by a pair of big romances – Ghost and Pretty Woman – the best of the year was a smaller, British production, directed by the late Anthony Minghella. Originally entitled Cello, Truly Madly Deeply is a heartbreaking story of romance and loss, scoring highly for its casting of Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson as the central couple.

Commissioned as Screen Two television drama by the BBC, but earning a movie theater release, Truly Madly Deeply sees Stevenson’s Nina trying to come to terms with the sudden death of her boyfriend, Jamie (Rickman). Keeping a degree of ambiguity to it, Nina starts seeing the ghost of Jamie, and Minghella’s movie becomes a moving, funny tale of loss, that avoids the over-sentimentality that splattered all over the screen by the time Ghosts credits rolled.

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A genuine treasure, this one, powered by two excellent actors on remarkable form.

4. The Two Jakes

The Two Jakes is an easy movie to dismiss as a misfire and a mess. It’s a sequel to the 1974 classic Chinatown, and one that had been mooted for some time. In fact, the original plan from screenwriter Robert Towne was for a trilogy of movies. The commercial and critical disappointment of The Two Jakes put paid to that.

Jack Nicholson opted to direct the movie himself in the end (following a very lengthy gestation), reprising the role of JJ Gittes as he did so. He chose to make it, as he said in interviews at the time, just to get it done. So fed up was he with people talking about a Chinatown sequel that he pressed ahead and did it.

And it’s a fascinating, engaging movie, that somewhat inevitably doesn’t match the majesty of Chinatown, but remains a strong piece of movie theater in its own right. It eschews, to a degree, some of the genre ingredients that its predecessor worked so well with, showing a willingness to follow a course of its own (and to genuinely evolve the character of Gittes). That can’t have aided the initial reception to the movie. But Nicholson proves an interesting director, and it remains a shame that he hasn’t stepped behind the camera more often throughout his career.

A dark, quite downbeat movie with an exquisite cast, The Two Jakes is one of the lost films of the ’90s, with some excellent moments.

3. King Of New York

Christopher Walken gives one of his most impassioned and searing performances as Frank White, a New York crime boss with his own warped sense of civic duty. As he uses his newfound freedom from prison to murder his way through rival gangs, and hoping to spend the resulting cash on charitable causes, a group of disenfranchised cops resolve to bring his organisation down.

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Walken is joined by a brilliant supporting cast, including Laurence Fishburne, giving a truly unhinged turn as White’s second-in-command, as well as Wesley Snipes, Victor Argo and David Caruso. But ultimately, it’s Walken’s movie, as he prowls through every scene like an ageing yet still deadly predator. The movie stops twice for two monologues (“I  never killed anyone who didn’t deserve it…”) – both of them are utterly mesmerizing.

2. Bad Influence

Curtis Hanson’s career isn’t short of films waiting to be discovered, with the likes of The River Wild, Wonder Boys, and In Her Shoes all very much worth seeking out.

But while he’s most known for the wonderful L.A. Confidential, surely not far behind it is 1990’s Bad Influence, a compelling mix of drama and thriller that sees James Spader playing an of-his-time Yuppie, against Rob Lowe’s mysterious, loosely based on someone in real life stranger. Penned by David Koepp, said stranger keeps pushing Spader’s character more and more (interestingly, it’d be just as likely the casting could be reversed, and it adds to the impact that roles aren’t quite as you might expect), until trouble builds up. Without spoiling anything, it becomes a twisty, compelling piece of work, that’s been buried under the weight of history and a fairly crappy DVD release.

Lowe in particular is creepy and unnerving, and Hanson knows how to wring tension out of his characters and set-up. It’s not always comfortable viewing, but Bad Influence is one of the best ’80s dramas most people have never seen, albeit one released in 1990.

1. Jacob’s Ladder

From start to finish, this dark thriller is nothing short of a nightmare. Tim Robbins stars as Jacob, a Vietnam war veteran who suffers increasingly hellish hallucinations which appear to have something to do with a secret government experiment on troops in the 1970s. Director Adrian Lyne’s use of editing, lighting and unexpected images gives the movie a truly nerve-shredding edge, and Robbins’ performance is little short of captivating throughout. Danny Aiello turns up as a cherubic chiropractor, and look out for a brief, uncredited appearance from a pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin.

Admittedly, the conclusion won’t sit well with everyone, but every moment leading up to then is fraught with tension. For sheer chills, Jacob’s Ladder was one of the most sorely overlooked horror films of 1990, and it’s full of  intelligent references to literature and art. One of the most memorable lines, for example, is taken from the work of 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart – and it arguably sums up Jacob’s Ladders tone and themes:

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“So, if you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth…”