The Underrated Movies of 1999

The underrated movies of 1999 get the focus in our last list of '90s overlooked greats...

The year 1999 was a significant year for movie in many ways. Apart from being the year that George Lucas began his Star Wars prequels with The Phantom Menace, it also saw the release of The Blair Witch Project, a horror movie which became one of the first to use the internet as a marketing tool, resulting in a massive hit. The Matrix ushered in a new age of special effects filmmaking, arguably paving the way for the superhero blockbusters crowding into multiplexes today.

Mainly, though, 1999 was simply a brilliant year for movie. Justly lauded movies like Fight Club, The Green Mile and Eyes Wide Shut aside, plus Oscar winner for Best Picture American Beauty, there were a huge number of films that didn’t get the critical or financial success they deserved–so many, in fact, that we opted to choose 29 instead of our now customary 25.

29. The Thirteenth Floor

We can’t sit before you and declare that The Thirteenth Floor is a lost classic. But what we can vouch for is that it’s a movie bustling with ideas. It covers areas that 1999’s breakout hit, The Matrix, would also explore (although the two are hardly interchangeable), but it certainly didn’t deserve to get lost as a consequence of that. It’s an interesting movie this, based on a 1964 novel from Daniel F. Galouye called Simalcron-3.

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Widely slated on its original release, the movie is an ambitious one, and it’s certainly worth digging into the abundance of articles online that dissect it far better than we have here. But then the joy of a movie like this is discovering it as fresh as possible. It’s got a solid old-school science fiction feel to it, and is ripe for discovery.

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28. Drop Dead Gorgeous

We decided in the end to leave Election off this list, as it’s rightly regarded as one of the best teen movies of its era, and its legacy endures. But Drop Dead Gorgeous is another example of a movie with far more bite than its box cover may originally suggest.

Kirsten Dunst (who was having a great run of movies at this point), Denise Richards (who was on the cusp of her infamous James Bond role), Allison Janney (peerless), Ellen Barkin, and Kirstie Alley lead the cast here. The movie revolves around a beauty pageant where some competitors will, er, go further than others in order to prevail.

It’s a surprisingly dark and gleefully enjoyable comedy, played excellently by the cast. Taking happy swipes at the culture of beauty pageants, you still wouldn’t call Drop Dead Gorgeous a vintage teen movie, but it is a strong entry in a field that was brimming with quality come the end of the 1990s. And, trivia fans, there’s a young Amy Adams in the cast for this one too.

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27. Deep Blue Sea

A group of scientists holed up in a top-secret medical facility find a way to make sharks smarter but appear to sacrifice a fair amount of their own intelligence in the process. Renny Harlin’s quirky killer shark movie is all the more entertaining because the cast and crew appear to be in on the joke; the script is full of cheesy lines (“Did someone order the fish?”), and the cast–including Samuel L. Jackson, L.L. Cool J, Saffron Burrows, and Stellan Skarsgard–appear to be having a whale of a time. Oh, and look out for one of the finest surprise deaths ever. It’s perfectly timed and sure to raise a nervous giggle.

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26. Stir of Echoes

This brilliantly tense adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel did only modest business on release, and we can’t help wondering what might have happened if it hadn’t come out within weeks of The Sixth Sense. About a blue-collar worker (Kevin Bacon) who begins to experience paranormal visions after he’s hypnotized by a friend, Stir of Echoes gradually dials up the suspense with some great performances and a mystery that will keep you guessing until the end.

Stir of Echoes may not have made as much money as M. Night Shyamalan’s hit, but it has the advantage of relative anonymity–thankfully, this is one movie you probably won’t have spoiled for you down at the bar. With effective writing and direction from David Koepp, some atmospheric music courtesy of James Newton Howard, and one of Kevin Bacon’s best performances at its center, Stir of Echoes is well worth scaring up.

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25. Ravenous

The production behind this blackly comic period horror was more than a little troubled–one director was fired and another rejected by the cast before Antonia Bird was finally brought in–but Ravenous remains a nastily effective little movie. Guy Pearce plays a U.S. captain during the 1840s war between America and Mexico, who’s packed off to a remote mountain fort by his superiors. There the captain discovers that the fort’s inhabitants have a worrying taste for human flesh.

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Robert Carlyle is in magnificent form as a colonel with a mighty appetite, while the supporting cast is rounded out by David Arquette, John Spencer, Neal McDonough, and Jeffrey Jones. Perhaps a bit too grim and quirky for mainstream audiences, Ravenous is the very definition of a hidden gem–and certainly one of the better cannibal black comedies yet made.

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24. EdTV

Had The Truman Show not happened earlier, then Ron Howard’s EdTV would have felt a lot, lot fresher than it ultimately did. As it happened, it took similar themes to Peter Weir’s classic and did slightly different, less ambitious things with them. But it still made its switch, and it’s still a good, overlooked movie.

It stars Matthew McConaughey, just before he would begin his descent into less ambitious rom-com-infested waters (thankfully, he’s re-emerged, but we’ll still stick up for How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days). Here, he plays Ed, a video store worker (remember them?) who agrees to have his life filmed for a television program. It’s a very different movie from Truman, similar perhaps in its examination of fame, but EdTV is a broader comedy, not without some switch to make. If watching this makes you wonder what other Ron Howard movie was overlooked by many, seek out a copy of The Missing. That’s an absolute corker…

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23. Payback

Whether you opt for the original cut or the better version that was eventually released on DVD, Brian Helgeland’s Payback (based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake) is a quality piece of work. It’s tainted now by having Mel Gibson as its star, although there’s little denying that his central performance is one of the factors that makes Payback work so well.

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It’s witty, brutal and undeniably improved by the director’s cut of the movie. After production had wrapped, Helgeland was replaced with production designer John Myhre reportedly reshooting nearly a third of it. At that stage, Kris Kristofferson was drafted in too. In truth, either version of Payback has merits, and it’s surprising that the original release turned out so well. But if you’re discovering the movie for the first time, that’s also the one to avoid.

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22. Mystery Men

Years before films like Kick-Ass and Super played around with the staples of the superhero genre, the lavish Mystery Men attempted the same thing–and despite a sterling cast (Ben Stiller, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear) and some laugh-out-loud moments, it somehow failed to charm critics or audiences.

Mystery Men‘s main problem, perhaps, was that it came out too early. Had it appeared a couple of years later after X-Men and Spider-Man revitalized the comic book genre, this amiable comedy may have found a more receptive audience. With the superhero blockbuster currently riding high, it’s arguably time that Mystery Men gets the reappraisal it deserves.

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21. Boys Don’t Cry

A movie that won Hilary Swank her first Best Actress Oscar, Boys Don’t Cry is a gut-wrenching, brilliant piece of cinema from director Kimberly Peirce (who, most recently, directed the new take on Carrie). Swank’s performance dominates the movie as Brandon Teena, bringing to the screen a tragic true story of a genetic women who lives life as a man.

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Transexuality is rarely tackled on screen, and Peirce doesn’t paint the story of Teena with any gloss whatsoever. It would be fair to say that Boys Don’t Cry is not an easy movie to watch. But it is an excellent one that’s fallen off the radar a little since Swank’s Oscar success. An important story, told exceptionally well on screen.

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20. The Muse

Albert Brooks has directed a series of quality comedies, and his body of work as a whole in that regard seems to get scant attention now. If you’re looking for a starting place, then you might be better off with something like Lost In America or Defending Your Life. But The Muse is a quiet, impressive comedy that gained what little attention it once had by the names it attracted to its cast. You’ll find cameos from James Cameron, Cybill Shepherd, Rob Reiner, and Martin Scorsese in here.

The main thrust of the feature is the story of a screenwriter (Brooks) who’s struggling with his neuroses and writing. He finds a muse to help give him a creative spark. The muse in question is played by Sharon Stone, and it’d be fair to say this wasn’t one of her better performances. Still, Brooks’ script is frequently witty, and the broad collection of characters mean that he’s got plenty of places to go as he tells his story. It’s not the easiest movie to track down, and some fans of Brooks’ work tend to be more dismissive of this one than his earlier features. But we’ve always had a soft spot for The Muse, hence its inclusion here…

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19. The Straight Story

David Lynch took a very different turn with The Straight Story, whose title doesn’t lie. Considering we’re used to films from Lynch dripping in subtexts, ideas and jigsaws (metaphorical, not literal), The Straight Story is about as accessible as his work gets to a broader audience. As a consequence, there’s an argument that it’s his least interesting movie, but that doesn’t make it a bad one.

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Richard Farnsworth takes the lead here as Alvin, a man who undertakes a lengthy journey to reconciliation with his sick brother. That journey is not shortened in any sense by his decision to travel by tractor, and much of the reason the movie works as it does is down to the pathos of Farnsworth’s performance. The actor, who died the year after The Straight Story‘s release, remains the oldest person to ever be nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars. He was 79 at the time.

Lost amidst more interesting projects in any David Lynch boxset, The Straight Story is nonetheless a welcome class in telling a story slowly, at the pace the narrative requires. There’s a tinge of sadness underpinning the movie, and Lynch isn’t shy of that. A smaller movie, perhaps, but a very human one.

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18. October Sky

It might just be us, but modern cinema doesn’t do badly when it comes to films about relationships between fathers and their sons. October Sky, directed by Joe Johnston, doesn’t hide the fact that it’s pushing a couple of emotive buttons as it goes about its business, but it’s nonetheless a delightful movie.

Chris Cooper and Jake Gyllenhaal–there’s a good start–play the father and son here, with the latter ignoring the former’s wishes. His rebellion? That he’s making rockets rather than following his father into coal mining. Johnston’s camera explores the dark, chilly mines too, as much as it does exploring the dream of the son. And whilst stories of hardened men and their sons taking different paths are regularly told, this is a good one. Get swept along with it, and it’s genuinely heartwarming stuff, wonderfully played.

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17. Go

Interweaving three plotlines all wound around a central drug deal, Go is an unremittingly urgent thriller with a great script from John August, who would later write Big Fish, Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie. Written off by some critics as just another indie movie aping Quentin Tarantino’s hip style of filmmaking, the humor and pace of Go give it an atmosphere all of its own. Sarah Polley, Timothy Olyphant and Katie Homes are among the young ensemble cast, but the movie is arguably stolen by William Fichtner, who plays a predatory detective to an unforgettable tee.

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16. Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai

Few ’90s gangster thrillers are as quirky and original as Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, in which Forest Whitaker stars as a hitman who becomes the target of his own mob bosses. Whitaker is fantastic as the title character, a modern-day samurai who lives by his own code of ethics and kills with lethal efficiency.

On a low budget, Jarmusch writes and directs with real creativity and humor, and Ghost Dog somehow manages to be comic, poetic, exciting and melancholy all at the same time. Like an elegant Japanese dinner, it takes all these elements and arranges them in perfect balance.

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15. Idle Hands

We come back to this movie every now and then, but it’s one of the most fun horror movies of its era. Devon Sawa, Seth Green, and Jessica Alba come together for the flick, which has the brilliantly batty premise of a possessed hand wreaking havoc.

It plays it for laughs as much as it does for horror and it amps up the violence as well. It’s director by the brilliantly-named Rodman Flender, who also helmed the first Leprechaun sequel, and it screams as being perfect fodder for a ’90s horror movie marathon. Mainly because it is. It also avoided the curse of being bastardized by lots and lots of sequels…

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14. Bringing Out The Dead

Martin Scorsese’s 1999 drama appeared to have everything going for it, yet it was ignored almost entirely at the box office; even today, Bringing Out The Dead is seldom mentioned when the topic of Scorsese’s finer work comes up. Nicolas Cage plays Frank, a paramedic left depressed and emotionally exhausted by his job. Convinced that he’s being haunted by the patients he’s failed to save, his nightly patrols around the streets of New York become yet more stressful when a new form of heroin causes a spate of cardiac arrests among its users.

Boasting a fantastic script from Paul Schrader, adapting Joe Connelly’s novel of the same name (the author was himself a paramedic), and one of the last scores from the great Elmer Bernstein before his sad death in 2002, Bringing Out The Dead is a pitch-black yet witty drama with a great cast, including Ving Rhames as a particularly dangerous ambulance driver.

There are parallels between this movie and a more successful Scorsese-Schrader pairing, Taxi Driver, but Bringing Out The Dead is a companion piece rather than a retread. Featuring one of Nic Cage’s best performances and some beautiful photography from Robert Richardson, the movie’s overlooked status is little short of criminal. Surely, this is one of the great, undiscovered Scorsese films.

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13. Limbo

It’s time for another John Sayles chat. There are few better investments if you’re looking to dig out some forgotten ’90s gems than a John Sayles boxset, and Limbo is a further example as to why. The wonderful David Strathairn stars in this one, and Sayles is once again in a small town, one that’s bustling with secrets. His ensemble cast here also features Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Kris Kristofferson and Vanessa Martinez. Sayles–again to his credit–is willing to give his movie the time and space it needs to breathe.

Is it entry level Sayles? Probably not, in truth. Lone Star is a great place to start with the great man’s work. But this is a provocative, quietly ambitious drama, from one of the best, unheralded filmmakers working in America.

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12. Office Space

We figure quite a lot of you know about Mike Judge’s exquisite Office Space already, but on the off-chance you don’t, let us take this opportunity to extol its merits another time. Comfortably one of the most quotable comedies of the 1990s, this is a biting satire focusing on a group of workers who simply can’t stand their jobs. Thus they plan to rebel and show their boss what’s for.

Enter Gary Cole, in yet another outstanding comedy performance. His passive aggressive Bill Lumbergh has a right to be called one of cinema’s best 100 comedy characters of all time, and he dominates any scene he’s near. A shout-out to the brilliant Stephen Root too. The very epitome of a movie ignored on its theatrical release and finding its life on video, then DVD, Office Space is exquisitely petty, and very, very funny.

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11. Audition

Relatively restrained by director Takashi Miike’s horror standards, Audition is still a difficult movie to watch with a plot that tiptoes to a harrowing climax. It’s about a widower whose producer friend stages a fake movie audition to help him find a new wife, and who later learns that the woman he meets as a result isn’t quite as demure as she appears. What’s interesting about Audition, especially after a repeat viewing, is that it isn’t quite as horrendously graphic as some critics suggested.

Instead Miike skilfully builds up a growing sense of dread, playing with audience expectations, even as the central character finds that his own assumptions about the seemingly harmless Asami (Eihi Shiina, who’s terrifying) are utterly wrong. Seek it out if you dare.

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10. Topsy-Turvy

A comedy drama about the writing of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado was never going to get audiences queuing up at their local multiplex, but Mike Leigh’s movie is far less niche than it sounds, with some fabulously pompous performances from Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner, and a very funny script.

At around 160 minutes, the movie could be described as a touch too long, but its sense of period detail is perfectly captured, and this is what makes the movie so much more than a simple story about the writing of a light opera–really, it’s a well-observed portrait of 19th century middle-class life in all its arrogance and gilded luxury.

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9. eXistenZ

eXistenZ was the last of David Cronenberg’s gloriously icky body horror films before he embarked on such dramas and thrillers as Spider, A History Of Violence, and Eastern Promises. Depicting a future where people interface with biological consoles to play ultra-real virtual reality games, eXistenZ deals with familiar Cronenberg themes–the incursion of technology into our bodies, and fiction versus reality–and does so with real wit and pace.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Gellar, a game designer who becomes the target of anti-videogame extremists, while Jude Law plays a slightly ineffectual security guard who emerges as her protector. With disquieting violence and a great ending, eXistenZ is one of Cronenberg’s most satisfying films, with some his best visual ideas, such as a gun assembled from fish bones which uses human teeth as bullets.

Largely ignored by the movie-going public in the year when The Matrix dominated the box office, eXistenZ has aged remarkably well, and its switch about video games, and what it will mean when the worlds they create are almost indistinguishable from our own, make it as relevant today as it was in 1999.

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9. Arlington Road

Let’s start with our regular plug for Red Rock West. Job done, and we can shoehorn that in because Arlington Road is yet another example of the brilliant forgotten thrillers of the 1990s. It also comes very, very firmly marked with a label of “don’t let someone spoil this movie for you.”

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It’s that kind of flick for a couple of reasons. The founding principle of the movie is that Jeff Bridges, a college professor, believes his neighbor, played by Tim Robbins, may be a terrorist. Plot-wise, that’s all you’re getting here. We can safely say that Mark Pellington’s thriller, which also stars John Cusack, incidentally, is a real bolt from the blue. Granted, we can think of one ’70s movie that follows a not dissimilar path (again, we’re not naming said movie for fear of spoiling this one), but the bubbling cauldron of paranoia and tension is expertly managed.

So no more words. Arlington Road is great. And don’t let anyone spoiler it for you.

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7. Bowfinger

It’s been a while since an Eddie Murphy performance has flirted with greatness, and his dual turn in Bowfinger may be his career best. Then again, everyone’s on form in Frank Oz’s incisive and howlingly funny movie about filmmaking, with Steve Martin utterly perfect as schlock movie producer Bowfinger.

With just $2,000 to make his next movie, Bowfinger isn’t deterred by the reality that Hollywood’s most famous action star, Kitt Ramsey (Murphy), doesn’t want to be in his movie. Instead he films Ramsey in secret and fills in the gaps with footage of a desperately awkward man called Jiff (also Murphy) who looks uncannily like the erstwhile star.

Jiff is an adorable creation, while Murphy gamely sends up his own ’80s megastar status as Ramsey, whose paranoid tendencies are brought out by the secret filming going on all around him. The moments where he’s accosted by wildly overacting wannabe star Carol (Christine Baranski) are simply sublime, and the movie as a whole works so well because it’s such an accurate, perceptive satire of Hollywood moviemaking.

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6. Man on the Moon

Milos Forman’s second biopic of the ’90s after The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon is another underappreciated piece of filmmaking from the director of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Jim Carrey gives the performance of a lifetime as the comedian Andy Kaufman, creating his own interpretation of Kaufman’s delivery and personas, including ornery singer Tony Clifton, rather than a slavishly accurate impression.

Supported by Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, and Paul Giamatti, the movie follows Kaufman from his early days as a struggling entertainer in comedy clubs, to his TV success with late night sketch comedy and then the series Taxi, to his battle with cancer in the 1980s.

Some critics accused Man on the Moon of being too superficial, and they may have a point, but it’s hard to argue with the skill and commitment in Jim Carrey’s performance. Mystifyingly ignored in cinemas, Man on the Moon is another funny, poignant Forman movie worth rediscovering.

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5. Three Kings

Writer and director David O. Russell made Warner Bros. extremely nervous with his improv-heavy handling of this expensive war movie, and his on-set clashes with star George Clooney are infamous. But all that chaos and conflict somehow contributed to the greatness of this distinctive and very angry Gulf War satire about three soldiers who decide to steal a cache of gold during the 1991 Iraq uprising.

Exciting and clever, Three Kings provides a cross-section of American society through its characters, among them Spike Jonze’s unemployed southerner, Mark Wahlberg’s former office boy, and Ice Cube’s religious ex-luggage handler, and explores how they interact in the turbulence of war. Moreover, the movie explores how people dehumanize one another in conflict, all the while pursuing their own self-interest, making it akin to Joseph Heller’s equally satirical Catch-22.

Just about making a profit for Warner Bros., Three Kings wasn’t exactly a hit, and it’s a shame that its writing and direction didn’t receive much awards attention either. At any rate, Three Kings remains one of the best war films of the last 20 years and arguably the finest movie about the conflicts in Iraq yet made.

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4. The Insider

After the heist classic Heat, Michael Mann made a slightly surprising decision to turn a true-life drama about corruption in the tobacco industry, thus confounding the hopes that Mann would continue making tough thrillers. To his absolute credit, Mann brings all his filmmaking prowess to bear on The Insider, making a potentially dry topic into a truly gripping, detailed story.

Russell Crowe is excellent as Jeffrey Wigand, the corporate whistleblower who agrees to go on the TV program 60 Minutes to help expose the added chemicals put into cigarettes to make them more addictive, while Al Pacino plays the show’s producer, Lowell Bergman. Mann expertly conveys all the menace and stress Wigand underwent, as tobacco company bosses put pressure on him to keep quiet. Indeed, the amount of tension and style Mann wrings from the subject is little short of extraordinary.

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3. Magnolia

Were this a list of outright best films of 1999, then Magnolia in all probability would have a higher placing. But there are a couple of other movies we’ve ranked above it, as we’re keen to shine a light on them. For this writer, I went to see Magnolia at the movie theater with my brother. I walked out thinking it was one of the best films I’d ever seen. He fell asleep halfway through, complaining it was about as boring a movie as he’d ever endured. That’s a fair summation of how polarizing the movie is.

It’s an incredibly ambitious ensemble piece, even more so than writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous project, the wonderful Boogie Nights. When it does get attention these days, it tends to be for Tom Cruise’s show-stopping ‘respect the cock’ monologue. But there are so many wonderful performances here. Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore are heartbreaking, Phillip Baker Hall complex and challenging. And then there’s Melora Walters and John C. Reilly, a pair of struggling characters, both looking for some light in their lives.

Anderson juggles this so expertly that it’s surprise he’s not done a full-on ensemble movie like this since. How can he top it? Aimee Mann’s music is woven expertly, the three-hour running time breezes by, and the DVD release has one of the best making-of documentaries we’ve seen. Appreciating that not everyone sees eye to eye on us with this, Magnolia is a modern classic.

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2. Summer of Sam

1999 was not short of outstanding films. Magnolia, American Beauty, some of the other features we’ve discussed and are about to discuss on this list. But it’s criminal that there’s not enough love in the world for one of Spike Lee’s best ever joints, Summer of Sam.

Set during the summer of 1977 in New York City, as the Son of Sam serial killer is on the loose, this is a complicated, dense piece of movie theater. It homes in on a bunch of residents living in fear of the killer on the loose, with simmering tensions, a lack of trust, and a community very much on edge. Lee assembles a big cast for this one too, including Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo, and Anthony LaPaglia.

There’s grit and realism very much at the heart of Lee’s movie, and it requires a level of concentration at times that you can’t help but fear not everyone’s willing to give it. But if you do, this is intelligent filmmaking, juggling a succession of themes and relationships under the umbrella of a very real and pronounced threat. It’s an excellent movie, this, and deserves to rank up there with Lee’s very best.

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1. The Iron Giant

It is a firm, immovable, carved in stone piece of Den of Geek policy that The Iron Giant is saluted, bigged up and championed at every possibility. We’ve done an in-depth look at the movie here, but it remains a miscarriage of DVD selling that it’s still not been seen by so many people.

Director Brad Bird has gone on to make superb films such as Ratatouille and The Incredibles since. But thoughtfully, he made his masterpiece first. Not a masterpiece that Warner Bros. knew what to do with either, which accounts for its piss-poor marketing campaign, and its subsequent box office underperformance.

But let’s work with what we’ve got. Ostensibly an adaptation of Ted HughesThe Iron Man, Bird’s movie takes just a few crucial ingredients from the original text and fleshes them out. The relationship between young boy Hogarth and the big metal man from outer space is lightly dealt with in the book, for instance, but it’s core here. As is Bird’s decision to set the movie against the backdrop of the Cold War, which adds legitimacy to the feeling of paranoia that underpins the movie and explains the military’s aggressive behaviour.

Basically, this: you can have as many words as you want on The Iron Giant, but in under 80 minutes, it does more than 99.9 percent of animated features wish they could do. If you want to know just how good it is, find one person who’s watched it, tell them the name of the movie, utter the word ‘Superman,’ and then console them for the next 10 minutes.

Brad Bird, we salute you. Just writing about this movie has the goosebumps up on our arms, and it seems a fitting movie to close our lookback at the underappreciated movies of the 1990s with. If there’s enough interest, we’ll continue into the 2000s. For now, that Iron Giant DVD is only a couple of dollars.

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