The Underrated Movies of 1994

Here are 25 more great, unsung films from the year of 1994.

Yes, 1994. The year movie theaters were dominated by such whimsical wonders as The Lion King, Forrest Gump, The Mask, and, erm, True Lies. It was also the year Gump dominated the Academy Awards, Four Weddings and a Funeral loomed large at the BAFTAS, and Pulp Fiction was altogether robbed.

As ever, there was so much more to the year’s cinematic landscape than Tom Hanks’ park bench ramblings, Hugh Grant mithering from beneath his gorgously crafted hair, or even Samuel L. Jackson demanding us to “be cool.” To prove it, here’s a list of 25 films that, in our estimation, are among its most underrated. There’s much horror, drama, tears and laughter, plus a couple of classic documentaries too.

25. Phantasm III: Lord Of The Dead 

The Phantasm series was quite unusual in that writer and director Don Coscarelli made all four of them. This means that while the sequels can’t quite match the impact of the original, they all have the same surreal atmosphere and murky sense of mischief. The first Phantasm (1979) established the Tall Man, a gaunt mortician (as played by Angus Scrimm) who transforms fresh corpses into an army of homunculus slaves. There was also a portal to another planet, and flying metal spheres that punched into foreheads and drilled into skulls.

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Like 1988’s Phantasm II, the second sequel Lord of the Dead continued the series’ dreamlike tradition. Yet while Phantasm III had lots to offer–not least the chance to see the first movie’s stars reunite for the first time in 15 years–it was barely distributed theatrically by Universal. As a result, it had to settle for a cult following on DVD. Phantasm III, like the rest of the series (even the very low-budget fourth entry) is well worth seeking out though. Its mix of gore and weird ideas make it really stand apart from the horror pack.

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24. Killing Zoe

There’s a great story behind the making of this bank heist thriller. Producer Lawrence Bender, while searching around for cheap filming locations for Reservoir Dogs, found a Los Angeles bank and wondered if he could use it as a setting for a movie. Bender then asked screenwriter Roger Avary–who, among other things, co-wrote Pulp Fiction–whether he had a script lying around that happened to be set in a bank. Avary told a little white lie and said yes, before rushing off and completing a script in less than two weeks.

The resulting movie weaves in Avary’s original plan to write about his travelling experiences in Europe with a heist thriller plot, resulting in the story of a safe cracker (Eric Stoltz) who travels to Paris to help an old friend rob a bank on Bastille Day. Unfortunately, that old friend happens to have grown into a complete sociopath.

Violent and aggressively directed by Avary (this was his debut), Killing Zoe is far from perfect. Yet it captures some of that same young, down-and-dirty attitude that distinguished Tarantino’s early films, and there are some great performances from Stoltz, July Delpy (as the Zoe of the title) and Jean-Hughes Anglade.

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23. The Shadow

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A character with decades of heritage, the big movie debut of The Shadow somehow ended up in the hands of Highlander director Russell Mulcahy and starred Alec Baldwin, a little bit of whom must rue the day that the superhero boom of modern cinema didn’t turn up two decades earlier.

Still, there’s a lot of style and a brilliant dagger that looks like it’s escaped from a Gremlins movie in The Shadow. It earns its bonus Tim Curry points, which always helps, but even though The Shadow never really catches fire. it’s easy to get caught up–not unlike Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy–in the sheer look and feel of thing. The movie also boasts a lovely, lovely score from Jerry Goldsmith and remains watchable as a testament to where the genre was in 1994, and also as a superhero movie with, for an assortment of reasons, just a slightly different feel to it.

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22. Terminal Velocity

Charlie Sheen was a reliable churner of action movies in the ’90s, and in 1994 he was also partly responsible for the decent enough The Chase. But for hardcore hilarity (and not all of it intentional) Terminal Velocity is the horse to back.

This went up against Wesley Snipes vehicle Drop Zone in theaters at the time, but the best fun is to be had here. There are some great skydiving sequences for a start, and for some reason that we can’t remember, Nastassja Kinski turns out to be a former KGB agent who needs Sheen’s skydiving skills.

Terminal Velocity is then both a hoot and a mess. It’s the only action movie of the ’90s with a lead character called Ditch, and it’s the only one that features a three-legged dog called Tripod. From the moment the title slams onto the screen in a late ’80s/early ’90s fashion, you know you’re in good hands. And while Terminal Velocity may be crap, it’s quite brilliant, enthralling crap.

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21. No Escape

This sci-fi thriller didn’t do terribly well on its initial release, making a fair bit less than its $20 million budget, but there’s still much to appreciate in director Martin Campbell’s movie about a futuristic prison colony. For one thing, just look at the cast: Ray Liotta’s joined by the great Lance Henriksen, Kevin Dillon, and Ernie Hudson. Liotta stars as a marine who’s serving life for killing a superior officer, and ends up on a penal colony called Absolom, a place where feral prisoners run riot. Admittedly, No Escapes plot is a little thin, and it lacks the knowing sense of fun Stuart Gordon brought to his own prison-themed cult movie, Fortress. But Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale) brings weight to the often brutal action, and Liotta provides a solid lead.

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20. Airheads

Before Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa came up with the idea of taking a radio station hostage, Michael Lehmann’s Airheads got there first. This was Lehmann’s first movie postHudson Hawk, and he’s clearly a lot more comfortable here. Shepherding a cast that includes early roles for Brendan Fraser, Adam Sandler, and the reliably scene-robbing Steve Buscemi, Lehmann tells the story of a band who basically take a DJ hostage when he refuses to play their record.

A substantive premise? Not massively so, and that’s responsible for Airheads‘ less interesting moments. But Lehmann lets his ensemble loose and mines a lot of really, really good laughs. The movie was known in Japan by the far better title of Hardrock Hijack too.

Even if you’re usually Sandler-averse, this is one of those films in his back catalogue that you shouldn’t overlook.

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19. Threesome

True story: we saw this when it came out at the movies in the UK, at a fine picture house in Preston. The movie’s ‘less clothed’ moments were punctuated by a couple thinking this was a game of copycat. Much guffawing took place.

But that does Andrew Fleming’s interesting, if slightly flawed movie, few favors. The movie explores the relationship between three friends, two male and one female, and the inevitable sexual tension that builds up between them. Fleming, who also wrote the script, compiles a watchable, occasionally funny drama, with Lara Flynn Boyle in particular on good form (support arrives from the likes of Josh Charles and Stephen Baldwin).

It’s quite a thoughtful piece of work, sidestepping titillation in favor of telling its admittedly quite slight story properly. It’s a surprise that Flynn Boyle didn’t go on to too many higher profile projects.

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18. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Given that New Nightmare was the seventh entry in the by-then aging Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Wes Craven’s late instalment brought a much needed imaginative twist. The movie sees Freddy Krueger escape from the realm of movies, and begin terrorizing the actors who once appeared in them–not least of whom includes Heather Langenkamp, the final girl of the 1984 original.

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New Nightmare gave Wes Craven a chance to take the series back to the first movie’s scarier roots, stripping away the increasingly goofy comedy of the sequels and establish an almost apocalyptic tone of menace, with the violence set against a string of Los Angeles earthquakes.

The movie didn’t catch fire at the box office as expected, and surprisingly, was less successful than the previous Elm Street films. Nevertheless, we’d argue that New Nightmare‘s a truly superior entry in the series and succeeds in bringing back the scare factor to Krueger. Although seen as a proving ground for the far more successful Scream and its sequels, New Nightmare is arguably a great horror movie in its own right.

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17. Serial Mom

We talked about Serial Mom when we looked back at the underappreciated comedies of the past 30 years, and with good reason: there are hearty, hefty laughs right through John Waters’ movie. But that’s not all. In Kathleen Turner’s central performance, you have an anti-hero to root for, as she looks to correct the wrongs and lack of courtesies of everyday people in her own style. Er, that style in one case includes beating someone to death with a leg of lamb while they watch Annie.

Waters makes his satirical switch consistently well too, building up to an excellent court case denouement that’s gleefully good fun. The supporting cast, including Sam Waterston, Matthew Lillard, and regular collaborator Ricki Lake, are also strong.

Serial Mom is about as mainstream as John Waters movies get, and as a starting point for the man’s exquisite back catalogue, it comes doubly recommended.

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16. Wolf

Before this movie came out, we half assumed that Jack Nicholson would be literally chewing the scenery as a New York book editor who becomes a werewolf. Actually, Nicholson is remarkably restrained as Will Randall, and his performance in Wolf may be one of his most interesting of the 1990s. Directed by Mike Nichols, this one-of-a-kind horror movie refuses to tread obvious lines; its use of Rick Baker transformation effects is sparing, and the story’s at its strongest when it’s about office politics and (literal) back-biting.

At the start of the story, Randall’s aging, weary, and about to be replaced by the younger, smarmily assertive Stewart (James Spader, who’s brilliant, as ever). The bite of a werewolf, however, changes everything, making Randall more virile and aggressive, before the inner lycanthrope really begins to take hold. Funny and smart,Wolfs reliance on its script and acting (Michelle Pfieffer and Christopher Plummer are great here too) rather than gore and special effects means it’s held up extremely well, and well worth rediscovering. Oh, and listen out for some stunning music from the great Ennio Morricone.

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15. The Ref

Whatever you want to call it, The Ref is proof positive that sometimes, just sticking quality actors in a room with a good script has very welcome consequences. And it’s great performances and a great script here, as Dennis Leary plays the burglar who takes the wrong couple hostage. It’s the home of Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis that he breaks into, and he soon wishes he hasn’t. It would be fair to say that they aren’t a husband and wife who get along.

The movie’s expertly directed by the late Ted Demme (and it’s arguably his best movie), with lots and lots of good, meaty laughs, and the credits rolling before you’re ready for the movie to finish. Keep ’em wanting more? That’s what The Ref does, and it’s an absolute gem of a movie.

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14. Backbeat

The story of The Beatles’ success is an oft-told one, but director Ian Softley’s movie delves further back, covering the band’s early gigs in a Hamburg nightclub. More specifically, it’s about the so-called ‘Fifth Beatle,’ Stuart Sutcliffe (here played by Steven Dorff) and his relationship with the band. Sheryl Lee stars as Stuart’s lover, Astrid, while Ian Hart is brilliant as John Lennon. Written and directed with real energy, Backbeat‘s an intimate, engaging drama, punctuated by some really interesting covers of the songs The Beatles performed in the early ’60s.

13. The River Wild

One of the best nearly forgotten action films of the 1990s, The River Wild has lots of reasons to like it. Firstly, it’s as close to an action leading role as you’ll ever get off Meryl Streep, and she instantly lends her character a lot more gravitas than alternative casting may have afforded. But then the rest of the cast stick firmly to the no stars, just talent ethos. The wonderful David Strathairn as Streep’s husband is in excellent form, and you get a top-notch, scene-eating villain performance from Kevin Bacon as well.

Behind the camera is Curtis Hanson, with this movie sandwiched between the excellent Bad Influence, the fun The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and the unmissable L.A. Confidential. With a strong focus on character, and no slouching when it comes to the action, he’s crafted a quality popcorn flick here that bothers to deepen the people it sticks in the boat.

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12. Swimming With Sharks

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While Sunset Boulevard remains unchallenged as the ultimate movie about Hollywood, there’s much to enjoy in writer and director George Huang’s low-budget drama about pathologically aggressive movie producer Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey). Frank Whaley plays Guy, a young screenwriter determined to get ahead in the industry and ends up being a lackey at Ackerman’s production company.

As played by Spacey, Ackerman’s a mesmerising creation: abusive, spiteful and seemingly heartless, it’s only after he’s pushed Guy to the edge of sanity that we come to see the vulnerability beneath Ackerman’s brittle surface. Swimming With Sharks really stretches credulity in its third act, and it’s in the office where the movie’s at its best. Whaley, Benicio Del Toro and Michelle Forbes are all excellent, providing a welcome counterpoint to Spacey’s ferocious, dominating performance.

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11. Blink

A good thriller this, with an interesting idea at the heart of it. Madeleine Stowe plays Emma, a woman who was been blind for the best part of two decades. However, she undergoes an operation that restores, to a point, her sight. Yet all doesn’t go to plan, as she starts seeing things that she doesn’t fully recall until sometime afterwards. This gives director Michael Apted the chance to deploy some interesting visual flourishes in his unsettling movie, and also allows Madeleine Stowe to demonstrate her strength in a lead role.

Bubbling underneath the intriguing central character is something of a more conventional thriller, but the style and the assorted other ingredients compensate for that. There’s a core of intelligence at work here, and Blink is, in its own way, a distinctive and effective mainstream thriller.

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10. Immortal Beloved

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The structure of this underrated movie about the life of Beethoven has an air of Citizen Kane to it. We begin with a mystery–the identity of the ‘immortal beloved’ mentioned in the deceased Beethoven’s letters–before going back in time to the composer’s younger years, and the gradual unfolding of the truth (or writer and director Bernard Rose’s version of it). What makes Immortal Beloved more than just an interesting drama is Gary Oldman. His version of Beethoven is fiercely intense and utterly captivating as a composer who pushes himself to the limits of sanity for his art.

Only modestly successful, Immortal Beloved garnered some good reviews, but several oddly hostile ones too. We’d certainly agree with the former consensus rather than the latter, and indeed, we’d argue that Oldman’s performance deserved at least a nomination at that year’s Oscars.

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9. Cobb

The main problem with Ron Shelton’s little-seen baseball biopic Cobb is that the central character isn’t a very likable one. That clearly had no bearing on the decision to cast Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Ty Cobb, a man who considered himself the best baseball player of all time.

The movie is structured around the decision by Cobb to pen his autobiography, hiring Al Stump (as played by Robert Wuhl) to help write it. Stump discovers, however, that Ty Cobb doesn’t just have a reputation of being difficult, unpleasant, and generally offensive: there’s substance to it as well.

The movie pad deeper than that though and remains eminently watchable courtesy of a lead acting performance from a man who’s not trying to be liked in the role, but just trying to be good. As such, while Ty Cobb is a difficult character to spend time in the company of, this dark and slightly unconventional biopic has lots of explore. Tommy Lee Jones was overlooked for an Oscar nomination for his work here, and the movie itself seems strangely forgotten.

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8. Heavenly Creatures

Peter Jackson’s best movie? Quite possibly. Heavenly Creatures was certainly the one that most brilliantly bridges his earlier, horror-centric work to bigger studio fare. And there are lots of reasons to check the movie out if you haven’t already. The visuals for a start stick in the mind a long, long time after the movie is done. But then so does the pairing of Kate Winslet (who, rarely, was robbed of an Oscar nomination here) and Melanie Lynskey (likewise), as a pair of young friends whose fantasy life becomes just a little too alarming for their parents. So begins a sequence of events, based on a true story, that make Heavenly Creatures a hard movie to watch at times.

But crikey, it’s excellent. Really, really excellent. Both times we’ve watched it, we’ve been utterly rooted to the spot, aided by a tight, cut to the lean 99-minute running time (a discipline Jackson could arguably do with revisiting). Nothing’s wasted here, and as the line blurs between fantasy and reality, you can’t help but sit there and think that few directors could have balanced it all so well.

7. Hoop Dreams

The loudest scandal of the Oscars in the 1990s was that Steve James’ stunning 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams didn’t make the Best Documentary Feature nomination list (a point made by host David Letterman on Oscar night). Running to nearly three hours, James’ gripping, moving piece of work follows a pair of young boys in Chicago as they aim to break into college basketball, with the goal of making a living from the sport. It covers five years of their lives, and inevitably given that James didn’t know what lay ahead for the pair, the movie takes paths you might not necessarily expect.

There’s no glamorization of the subject matter here either, rather a straight concentration on telling a story compellingly well. Hoop Dreams is a flat-out five star masterpiece, and, now that the Oscar furore has long since died down, it deserves not to be forgotten.

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6. Il Postino

Although nominated for several Oscars (and won Best Music), Il Postino is one of those films that seems to have gradually faded from general discussion since, hence its inclusion here. A gentle, moving drama set on a small Italian island in the 1950s, the story’s about a humble postman who delivers mail to the exiled poet Pablo Neruda, and falls in love with poetry in the process. A story about romance and creative awakening, director Michael Radford brings a lightness of touch, and Massimo Troisi is charming as the postman, Mario.

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5. In The Mouth Of Madness

It seems almost criminal that so few people went to see In The Mouth of Madness in theaters. Although coming a while after his ’70s and ’80s hits, we’d argue that it’s almost as good as John Carpenter’s more celebrated films like The Thing, Escape From New York, and so on. Sam Neill stars as John Trent, an insurance investigator who’s charged with uncovering the disappearance of a best-selling horror novelist named Sutter Kane.

To this end, Trent heads off to find a town called Hobb’s End, and in the process of reading Kane’s books, learns that they hold a disturbing, nightmarish power. Full of references to the work of HP Lovecraft and Stephen King, In The Mouth of Madness is full of unforgettably disturbing moments, and Sam Neill’s performance, as an even-tempered man whose experiences gradually drive him insane, is excellent.

Like so many of Carpenter’s films, In The Mouth of Madness was largely unappreciated at the time, but has garnered a deserving cult following since. Intended as the final piece in Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy, which includes The Thing and Prince of Darkness, it’s a slice of horror that has aged remarkably well, and is well worth seeking out.

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4. The Last Seduction

Was there a more consistent and better director of quality thrillers in the 1990s and early 2000s than John Dahl? We’ve already talked about the excellent Red Rock West when we covered 1993 movies, and both Unforgettable and Rounders are worth a look too. Furthermore, we’re going to have a fair amount to say about 2001’s Joy Ride.

The Last Seduction though is arguably his best movie, boasting Linda Fiorentino’s breakthrough performance in a thriller that’s smothered in darkness. Fiorentino won a BAFTA for her turn, although scandalously was overlooked by the Oscars. But then her complicated role didn’t really sit well with the Academy: her character is a strong woman, who uses a mix of sex and sheer brainpower to both ‘acquire’ her husband’s drug money, and cross a further target.

Right to the last frame, The Last Seduction is utterly uncompromising with quality support from the likes of Bill Pullman and Peter Berg. An excellent, chilling thriller.

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3. Crumb

Terry Zwigoff’s feature-length documentary is a compelling, intimate portrait of eccentric artist Robert Crumb–the director spent around nine years making it, battling through intense back pain and Crumb’s own reluctance to be filmed. Crumbs an account of some unusual and eccentric people, for sure, but this is no gallery of grotesques–the artist and his family are shown real tenderness, even as it leaves audiences to make up their own minds about Crumb’s uniquely obsessive work.

Infamously shunned by the Academy at the time of release, as Hoop Dreams was (legend has it that the committee didn’t even bother to watch all of Crumb before blithely deciding not to nominate it), Crumb was nevertheless met with overwhelming praise from critics. One even described it as the best documentary ever made. They may well have a point.

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2. Dellamorte Dellamore

Also known as Cemetery Man (a name saddled by a distributor that hated the movie for some reason), this true one-off may be one of the finest horror comedies ever made. Rupert Everett plays Francesco Dellamorte, who looks after a cemetery in a small Italian town with the help of his simple assistant Naghi (François Hadji-Lazaro). The madness begins when the corpses in Francesco’s graveyard refuse to stay dead. Then Naghi develops an infatuation with a decapitated head. Then Francesco begins to go completely insane.

Blessed with an extremely funny script (“Someone’s been stealing my crimes!”), some fantastic direction from Soavi–his experience as a second unit director for Dario Argento really showing here–and a great central performance from Everett, Dellamorte Dellamore really is unlike anything else in Italian horror.

Like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Soavi succeeds in creating his own coherent little world; the events may become increasingly bizarre as Francesco’s grip on reality begins to slip, but the movie always has its own internal logic. It’s a zombie movie, a dark fantasy, a romance, a black comedy… a bewildering soup of genres, all in perfect balance.

1. Quiz Show

The problem with putting Quiz Show at the top of this list is that it earned four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. That was the year that it, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption lost out to Forrest Gump, but we’ll try and put that out of our minds for a minute.

Still, who talks about Quiz Show now? Where was it in the numerous end of decade lists that filled assorted magazines at the end of the last decade? And yet, for our money, Quiz Show is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant piece of cinematic drama, with four exquisite acting performances at the heart of it.

Directed by Robert Redford–and it deserves comparison with his very best films–Quiz Show tells the story of the 1950s American quiz show scandal where it was revealed that some of the programs were being fixed. Chief beneficiary? Charles von Doren, as played by Ralph Fiennes, effectively one of the earliest reality television stars. He’s a character who doesn’t need television, thanks to his wealthy background, but finds himself seduced by it. The late Paul Scofield plays his father, and ultimately trumps every other actor in the movie.

But only just, because John Turturro gives arguably his best screen role as Herbert Stempel, the champion usurped to make way for Van Doren, sidelined when the more publicly palatable contender comes along. Completing the acting masterclass is Rob Morrow, playing investigator Dick Goodwin, who decides to dig into the quiz shows, to see if there’s really foul play at work. Martin Scorsese cameos too, incidentally.

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Paul Attansio’s screenplay homes in pretty much perfectly on the key beats of the story, whilst Redford’s direction is detailed yet unfussy, respecting actors and allow them to create characters all of whom are coated in shades and gray.

It’s a template in how to bring a true story to the screen. Eschewing worthiness and instead focusing on the human drama, Quiz Show is a ’90s masterpiece of movie theater, that’s been buried underneath bigger, louder, brasher, and more popular fare. But get a disc and give it a spin: few ’90s movies have as much to give as this one. Just wonderful.