From Comedies To Thrillers, from Sci-Fi To Westerns, Here Are Our Picks of 50 Truly Underrated 90s Movies…
In hindsight, the 90s was the last golden period of originality in Hollywood. Franchises and sequels were not yet totally dominant and old-school New Hollywood filmmakers were still very much active. Quality, well-written films that didn’t rely on a continual onslaught of CGI to wow audiences were still the order of the day.
With so much going on in that decade, and so many quality films vying for attention, it’s only natural that some have fallen by the wayside, or just didn’t get the widespread recognition they deserved. Or perhaps a few were dismissed upon release as expensive failures, but deserve to be reassessed several years down the line? Either way, here’s Den Of Geek’s choice of the top 50 underrated films of the 90s. The only requirements for inclusion is that they had to be English language, and released theatrically between 1990-1999. Oh, and judging by their wealth of entries below, starring Bill Paxton. Steve Martin or, weirdly, Seth Green…
50. Batman & Robin (1997)
Yes, really. Despite being howlingly awful in most people’s eyes, 15 years later, Batman & Robin deserves some of your love. Not too much, mind you. Taking the campy sensibilities inherent in Batman right from the beginning and running with it, Joel Schumacher unleashed his perfect vision of how the Caped Crusader should look on-screen.
While it is true that it was critically and commercially derided, there’s an argument to be made that Batman & Robin is actually a much purer Batman film than the lamentable Batman Forever, or even the previous Tim Burton efforts. Comics are inherently day-glo, pulpy and ridiculous (or at least they were in the early days) and Batman & Robin highlights this pure essence just as much as Nolan’s lauded efforts focus on the grim and gritty nature of Batman.
As long as you adjust your expectations and can appreciate a world where not only does a grown man dress up like a bat to fight crime, but equips his Bat-suit with ice skates, then Batman & Robin is, shhhhhhh, FUN.
49. Chaplin (1992)
While now a staple of the Hollywood blockbuster, with three franchises to his name, for a really long time it looked as though Robert Downey Jr. would be remembered as the washed up, could-have-been, notable for how his excesses overshadowed his talent. But there was a reason Jon Favreau cast Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, taking a seemingly enormous chance on him. And that reason is his extraordinary acting ability, showcased beautifully in Richard Attenborough’s sumptuous biography of the remarkable Charlie Chaplin.
Perfectly capturing one of film’s most iconic stars, it’s easy to forget that Downey Jr. was only in his mid-20s when he took on this role. He brings an emotional maturity to perfectly complement his physical performance, elevating this film beyond the usual biographies.
48. Very Bad Things (1998)
Speaking of Jon Favreau, he plays the lead in Peter Berg’s blacker than night comedy about a stag-do gone wrong in Vegas. If you thought The Hangover showed the worst of the worst, then this story about a murdered prostitute and all the subsequent killings required to cover it up will truly terrify you. There are some great performances in there, including Christian Slater as a homicidal maniac, Jeremy Piven as the party guy who starts it all, and Cameron Diaz as the fiancée from hell.
Cruelly and unnervingly building from one disaster to another, Very Bad Things is the ultimate worst case scenario comedy, and has the conviction to follow its dark path all the way to the end.
47. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Full disclosure – I didn’t like this film when I first saw it. In fact, I’ve never even been much of a Kubrick fan. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, but I’m gradually working my way through the back catalogue and really appreciating his work. Case in point: his last film, notorious for featuring a sexed up Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. I was left bored and unimpressed on my first few viewings, but catching it again recently I can definitely see what Kubrick was trying to achieve, and how close he came to making it work.
The dichotomy of his cold, precise filmmaking and the often dreamlike visuals contrast and combine in Eyes Wide Shut to a degree not found elsewhere in Kubrick’s work. While initially mis-marketed and dismissed as an erotic thriller, it’s clear that the movie is really nothing of the sort. Instead taking an intense look at modern day sexuality and the often cryptic and complicated nature of relationships.
46. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Okay, let’s start with a little confession. I saw this film before I ever saw the TV show. And I like it a lot. Featuring a cast of such luminaries as Kiefer Sutherland, David Bowie and Chris Isaak, the film was panned for being boring, incomprehensible and of limited appeal. All valid complaints, but in a way, missing the point.
Acting as both prequel and epilogue to the seminal TV series, the plot loosely traces the last few days of Laura Palmer’s life, and neatly ties up exactly what happened to Agent Cooper. Far more of a David Lynch film than a Twin Peaks movie, a reassessment of the piece shows it holds up well against Lynch’s other cinematic works, and I defy anyone to find a more chilling horror flick than Fire Walk With Me.
45. The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Steve Martin was certainly doing some of his best work in the 90s. In this Hitchcockian thriller from ace suspense master David Mamet, Martin plays a conman who seeks to remove Campbell Scott, corporate engineer of a potentially lucrative industrial process he’s just invented. Using the real Spanish Prisoner con as a plot device (perhaps more familiar these days as the Nigerian money transfer fraud), Mamet builds layer upon layer of twists, character reveals, bluffs and double bluffs, all while keeping the plot unpredictable and the outcome uncertain. Martin is exquisite in this dramatic role, neatly paralleling his classic comic turn as a hapless conman in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
44. Idle Hands (1999)
A teen sleepover classic, Idle Hands is a comedy horror featuring the young talents of Devon Sawa, Seth Green and Jessica Alba. The plot is utterly ridiculous, yet compelling, as a spate of murders in an American town are discovered to be the work of Sawa’s possessed hand, which is searching for a soul to drag to hell.
Featuring decapitation, dismemberment, zombie/ghost/angel stoners, a massive bong being involved in the climax and the lead singer of The Offspring being killed, Idle Hands is very much a product of its time and all the better for it. We’re not sure whether it’s just nostalgia that makes people love it so much, but we guarantee that watching this flick will put a smile on your face.
43. Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
Is this one of the most influential films of the 90s? I think there may be a good case for it, as it both lives on in pop culture and features a who’s who of Hollywood talent, many of whom have gone on to further success. Taking the staples and cliché of high-school movies and turning them into assets, the film takes place over the course of one night at a graduation party – a natural extension of directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont’s belief that the party scenes are the best ones in high school films.
Can’t Hardly Wait traces the (mis)adventures of the nerd, the outcast, the prom queen, the jock and the misfits, as they say goodbye to childhood and hello to a whole, new adult world. Sweetly charming, chaotic and memorable, Can’t Hardly Wait’s characters are referenced in 30 Rock and other pop culture staples, and its cast features Jennifer Love-Hewitt, Seth Green (again), Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli, Jason Segel, Selma Blair, Clea Duval, Jenna Elfman, Jerry O’Connell, Melissa Joan-Hart, Amber Benson and Breckin Meyer.
42. Feeling Minnesota (1996)
After her breakthrough role in The Mask, Cameron Diaz showed she wasn’t just another pretty face by choosing good roles in smaller films like this one, displaying smart career decision-making that has ensured her decades long success. Feeling Minnesota is a smart, fun and occasionally deadly romantic comedy, featuring Diaz as former stripper Freddie forced to marry Vincent D’Onofrio’s Sam to pay off a debt. However, she is actually in love with Keanu Reeves’ Jacks and the two flee, setting off a chain of events that end in shoot-outs, murders and double-crosses, complete with another scene-stealing cameo from Dan Ackroyd, who sort of perfected this in the 90s.
41. Toy Soldiers (1991)
For those who are, as yet, unaware of the greatness of Toy Soldiers, let me explain it thusly. Imagine Home Alone but with terrorists instead of inept burglars and rebellious prep school boys instead of a precocious blonde child. Got your attention? Good, now throw out the slapstick comedy and you’ve got yourself a high-concept 90s action film.
Toy Soldiers’ strength isn’t in the outlandish plot, featuring Colombian terrorists, but in the young ensemble cast, featuring Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton, whose on-screen chemistry allows the film to crackle with wit, tension, and excitement in all the right places. Our full lookback at the movie is here.
40. Waterworld (1995)
Yeah, I’m going there. Panned before release, panned after release and now only occasionally accepted, in a grudging way, as being worthy of another look. Massively hyped as the most expensive film ever made at the time, Waterworld was nearly bullied into failure before anyone even gave it a chance. Far more than just a vanity project, though, this labor of love saw Kevim Costner on set for 157 days,and almost dying on his Trimaran. Almost the last hurrah for massively budgeted, practical effects epics, Waterworld should be celebrated for its ambition, its scale, and its refusal to play by the rules. We will never see its like again.
For more on Waterworld, incidentally, check out our interview with director Kevin Reynolds, where he goes into more detail about how many were panning the film even before it was finished.
39. Seven Years In Tibet (1997)
This film hit around the time everyone thought Brad Pitt was just a pretty face, rather than the truth that he’s one of the more talented actors working today. However, it sadly meant that this incredibly good film was dismissed by the majority of movie goers, who wrongly believed it to be nothing more than female audience baiting fare. How wrong they were.
Based on the 1952 book of the same name by Austrian writer Heinrich Harrer, it tells the incredible true story of Harrer and his Peter Aufschnaiter who, while mountaineering in India at the outbreak of the Second World War, are imprisoned by the British. After escaping, Harrer made his way to Tibet, becoming tutor and friend to the young Dalai Lama, as well as being caught up in the Chinese invasion of Tibet. It’s gorgeous, compelling and masterful, in an old-school epic way.
38. One Eight Seven (1997)
Mr. Samuel L Jackson’s first leading role, One Eight Seven, is a crime thriller that also features a great soundtrack, with the likes of Method Man, Massive Attack and DJ Shadow. Jackson plays Trevor Garfield, a New York teacher who relocates to LA after being nearly fatally stabbed to death by one of his students.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress and no longer a believer in the system, Garfield begins a dangerous, vigilante crusade against the criminal gangs operating at his new school. Definitely not a flick for those who believe in the humanizing and inspirational power of the education system, this is a story of one man driven to the edge by a bad, bad world and reacting by instilling in himself and others a twisted code of honor. Occasionally silly and over-dramatic, One Eight Seven is a gripping and effective thriller.
37. Night Falls On Manhattan (1996)
At the risk of sounding old and judgmental, they just don’t make this kind of movie anymore – an original, heavyweight crime thriller with far-reaching consequences and class at every level of the cast. The 90s were full of these kinds of films (this was the decade that brought us Heat, after all) and so films like Night Falls On Manhattan have sadly been forgotten and were even dismissed at release.
In this case, Andy Garcia is a young assistant DA given the task of prosecuting infamous drug dealer Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey). The case is complicated by the involvement of potentially corrupt policemen, including his father (played by Ian Holm) and his partner (an outstanding James Gandolfini).
The movie charts the classic rise and fall of a young optimist and it is both dramatic and absorbing, as all the best morality tales are.
36. Gattaca (1997)
The first time I saw this movie, I was bored. Rewatching it ten years later, I was seriously impressed. A sci-fi tale set in a future where gene-coding is commonplace and parents can buy their children’s future success before birth, Ethan Hawke plays Vincent, a non-modified human attempting to get into the space program. A film/tech-noir, the plot details Vincent’s attempts to avoid being found out, while using genetic samples from a paralyzed “valid” (a career best Jude Law) to do so, while also eluding the interest of an ongoing murder investigation at the Gattaca space program.
Although not a commercial success by any means, Gattaca is credited with both blowing open the debate on genetic modification and showcasing the potential for its misuse, much to the praise and/or frustration of its opponents and proponents.
35. Jingle All The Way (1996)
Oh Arnie, you do love trying out comedy. Again and again and again… Sometimes, though, the Austrian Oak managed to star in light-hearted fare that was actually worth watching – Jingle All The Way being a case in point. Dismissed as crass, formulaic and uninspired, it is only on later viewings and perhaps more distance from Arnie’s 90s film career that you can really embrace Jingle All The Way’s ambition – to deconstruct and hold up the commercialization of Christmas.
How many movies are based around the traditional values of Christmas and how they still hold true (when we all know that they certainly do not – if they ever did)? It’s only Jingle All The Way (with a script by Chris Columbus) that dares to tackle the usual Christmas tripe pedaled by Hollywood and does it by wrapping everything up as a family-adventure film starring Arnie. Inspired I say.
34. That Thing You Do! (1996)
Not the obvious choice for Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do! follows the rise and fall of a one hit wonder band in the 60s. Featuring a host of young talent, including Liv Tyler and Steve Zahn, as well as cameos from such stalwarts as Bryan Cranston, the movie is punchy, fun, infectious and sweeps you right up. This is teen wish fulfillment writ large and shows that, sometimes, you should be careful what you wish for.
The energy of That Thing You Do is truly remarkable, as is the likeability of its leads and the catchiness of its title song, written by Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger. Can you say “earworm?”
33. Ravenous (1999)
A cannibal wild west adventure set in the 1840s, Ravenous wasn’t exactly the easiest sell to audiences. On-set production troubles didn’t help either, with a change of director and apparent studio interference, but the result was an engaging, horrifying and bleakly comic gem of a movie.
Guy Pearce plays a Captain in the US Army exiled to a remote fort after his supposed heroism is revealed to have actually been cowardice. While there, a stranger (Robert Carlyle) dramatically appears, telling terrible tales of a soldier in the mountains gone rogue and eating people. Pearce and his fellow soldiers feel obliged to investigate leading, inevitably, to bad things.
Shot in Mexico and Slovakia, the film looks great and you can tell that Pearce and Carlyle are clearly relishing their roles. The sense of isolation heightens the tension and the incredible score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn only adds to the ominous mood.
32. Red Rock West (1993)
Originally bound for straight-to-video hell, Red Rock West was rescued by a cinema owner who loved it so much he wanted it the movie to get a theatrical release. So, you know, a big thank you to that guy, otherwise it may have been even more obscure than it is. As for why you should make it a priority to watch Red Rock West, two actors grace the film: Nic Cage and Dennis Hopper. People, imagine what it was like to be on that set…
An intricate plot sees Cage mistaken for a hit man by the fantastic and lamented JT Walsh and asked to kill his wife, Lara Flynn Boyle. However, when the real killer (Hopper) shows up, a dangerous cat and mouse game ensues amongst all parties, resulting in a tension-filled and well-executed graveyard finale.
Making full use of its American wilderness location, this film has style, panache and just the right amount of crazy you’d expect from the talent involved.
31. One False Move (1992)
Another tense crime thriller stunningly overlooked at cinematic release, it was only the word-of-mouth success of One False Move on video that led to it gaining a theatrical run (can you even imagine that happening today?), propelling it into the hearts of many, including legendary film critic Gene Siskel.
Co-written by star Billy Bob Thornton, One False Move tells the twisty tale of three criminals, Ray, Pluto and Lila (Thornton, Michael Beach, and Cynda Williams) who, following a string of murders, flee LA in order to make a drug deal in Star City. Going up against them is local sheriff Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton) who on the surface seems a loveable goof, but has secrets of his own. The characters are expertly drawn, while the plot builds inexorably towards an explosive and rewarding ending. It’s the type of movie that leaves you feeling satisfied with how well it’s been executed.
30. Beautiful Girls (1996)
We have Con Air to thank for this film. Yep, while screenwriter Scott Rosenberg was waiting to hear back about his script for the soon-to-be action classic, it occurred to him that he was more interested in the story of his friends’ lives and their communal angst as they turned 30.
Using that as inspiration, he wrote this excellent ensemble piece about fractured lives, dealing with commitment, and working out what to do with your future. Based around Willie Conway (Timothy Hutton) returning to his childhood home for a school reunion, Beautiful Girls features the combined talents of Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Natalie Portman (in an early role), Mira Sorvino and David Arquette. Need we say more?
Directed by the late and greatly lamented, Ted Demme, this movie truly captures the emotions of an age where you actually have to grow up and the affection for friends you grew up with and are settling into new friendships with – not growing apart, evolving.
29. Six Degrees Of Separation (1993)
Looking back at Hollywood mega-star Will Smith’s career, it was probably this film that laid the bedrock for his future success. Put simply, without his stand-out performance in Six Degrees Of Separation, Smith would have been regarded as nothing more than a popular TV star/rapper trying his hand in a few films. That he aced this dramatic role so well made the film industry sit up and take notice, and led to The Fresh Prince transforming into Will Smith, one of the most bankable stars of the last few decades.
Playing the role of Paul, Smith is a charming and sophisticated conman who turns up, one night, bleeding and injured at the house of the Kittredges (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) claiming to be the son of Sir Sidney Poitier and a friend of their children. Urbane and knowledgeable, he cons the Kittredges out of their money, then disappears, leaving them to find that Paul has also touched the lives of many of their acquaintances. Smith is the reason this film works; his performance is pitch-perfect, believable and most crucially, extremely likeable.
28. Q&A (1990)
Yet another excellent crime thriller from Sidney Lumet, Q&A tells the story of a young assistant DA who is sent to investigate the shooting of a small time crook by homicide detective Mike Brennan. What follows is pretty standard, with the shooting leading to a bigger crook, tangled and complicated relationships between characters and murky morality.
What makes this film so incredible, though, is the hulking, dominating performance of Nick Nolte’s as Mike Brennan. Pot-bellied and mustachioed, Nolte owns the screen with a powerful intensity, making an unlikeable character both mesmerizing and unforgettable. You’ll find yourself thinking about Nolte’s titanic performance long after the credits roll, that’s how good it is.
27. Joe Vs The Volcano (1990)
Umm, okay, who put a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy on this list? Well, it’s not just any Hanks/Ryan comedy. It’s their first and their best – a flat out bonkers film about a man finding out he has six months to live and then being offered untold luxury provided he throws himself into a volcano, yes, an actual volcano (something to do with mining rights on a tropical island and appeasing the islanders).
Meg Ryan inexplicably has three roles in the film, Hanks is at his slapstick comic goofy best as the movie’s insane plot picks you up and carries you along in its melodrama. There is so much fun to be had here that you end up loving the lunatic premise, the inherent whimsy and the occasionally corny sentiment. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and utterly unlike any big budget rom-com made before or since.
26. Swimming With Sharks (1994)
A very black and very effective comedy about the film industry, Swimming With Sharks gave us one of the all-time great performances from Kevin Spacey as Buddy Ackerman, Hollywood mogul and boss from hell. Swimming With Sharks tells the story of Guy (Frank Whaley) who takes the job as Buddy’s assistant despite being warned off by his predecessor Rex (Benicio del Toro).
However, Rex’s warnings are soon proven accurate as Buddy undertakes a campaign of terror against Guy, culminating in an affair with Guy’s girlfriend. The affair becomes Guy’s snapping point. He takes Buddy hostage and learns just what it takes to succeed. Spacey’s Buddy is a monster in every sense of the word, especially when forced to reveal his “human” side. Repugnant and compelling, Buddy Ackerman is one of cinema’s finest villains, as well as being a terrifyingly believable representation of the film world.
Swimming With Sharks became an excellent play in 2007, featuring Dr. Who’s Matt Smith as Guy and Arthur Darvill as Rex.
25. A Very Brady Sequel (1996)
One of the best things the 90s gave us was a very smart, very clever and unexpected reboot of the Brady Bunch, the popular 70s sitcom. Sharing the first film’s sense of pastiche and fish-out-of-water humor, in A Very Brady Sequel a conman shows up at the Brady’s pretending to be Carol Brady’s first husband.
Indulging in the knowing sensibility that marked the Brady Bunch films as something a bit special, this film has often been unfavorably compared with its predecessor. This is actually unfair, as there is honestly little to distinguish between the two and in fact A Very Brady Sequel has a bit more confidence to push its agenda, including developing the love that dare not speak its name between Greg and Marcia. Full of wit and energy, this movie is a delight from beginning to end.
24. Election (1999)
A contender for the best performance of Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick’s respective careers (one hundred per cent Chris Klein’s, but he’s not really “acting”), Election is the story of overachiever Tracy Flick’s (Witherspoon) attempt to be elected class president by any means necessary and jaded teacher Jim McAllister’s equally determined efforts to stop her, by means of putting forward hisown candidate, loveable dimwit Paul Metzler (Klein).
Bleakly comic, Witherspoon is a vicious and manipulative lead, set against Broderick’s hopeless and unfulfilled loser. Some have suggested that Broderick is, in fact, fact playing a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller here and I support to that view – the once popular kid with the world at his feet finds life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and is then faced with the teenage representation of all he despises. Directed by the brilliant Alexander Payne, Election is a movie that withstands the test of time and remains as relevant today as it was 13 years ago.
23. Albino Alligator (1996)
Kevin Spacey’s debut film as a director is a classically underrated movie worthy of your recognition. Pretty much ignored and dismissed upon release (even earning Faye Dunaway a Razzie nomination), Albino Alligator is actually a well-acted and tightly put together crime film, let down only by its script. Matt Dillon, Gary Sinise, and William Fichtner are robbers who flee to a bar after a hold-up goes wrong and are then seemingly cornered by the police.
However, the situation is definitely not what they initially think it is, and every character has a role to play in the proceedings. With a leading trio of the caliber here, it’s easy to see where the film gets its power from. The intensity of the performances here really is something to behold, even if they occasionally veer towards the melodramatic. Spacey keeps things at a tight pace thoughout (the film clocks in at 97 mins), and the combined energy and claustrophobia of the piece really is exemplary.
22. Dark City (1998)
Poor Dark City. Just one year after its release, The Matrix would come out – using some of the same sets, similar cinematography and design, and a shared sense of plot and thematics and become one of the biggest sci-fi movies ever. Dark City, on the other hand, pretty much sank without trace and further suffered the ignominy of a spoiler-rific voice-over being placed over the intro presumably so really stupid people could understand it.
For those yet to see Dark City, Rufus Sewell plays a seemingly ordinary man who discovers that his world is not quite what it seems, while at the same time discovering some extraordinary powers within himself. Visually dense and imaginative, Dark City is also intellectually stimulating, inviting the audience to ponder many questions about themselves and the nature of our environment. Dark City has been given a director’s cut, restoring it to its originally intended glory, which makes it even more worthy of your interest.
21. Small Soldiers (1998)
This was probably one of the most memorable films of my teenage years. Having just outgrown toys but still pretty into them, the idea of a dark and twisted version of Toy Story, where the toys were vicious killing machines, definitely appealed to me.
Fourteen years on, and the film more than holds up, long outlasting initial criticism that it was marketed to an audience far too young for its violent themes. As well as a young Kirsten Dunst, the film’s notable acting talent is in the voice roles of the toys. Tommy Lee Jones voices Chip Hazard, leader of the gung-ho and ultimately villainous Commando Elite, while Frank Langella voices Archer, leader of the peaceful and noble Gorgonites. With stunning special effects, mini-mayhem, and exciting set-pieces, Small Soldiers is a treat.
20. Go (1999)
Remember when Katie Holmes was cool? Well she was once and it was in this film. Told in non-linear fashion and across several different viewpoints, this Doug Liman-directed comedy thriller was dismissed by some as ‘junior Pulp Fiction’, but it’s actually much better than that description might imply.
Telling four interlinked stories that occur over the course of one night, the disparate cast features Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf as gay soap actors unwittingly forced by weirdo cop William Fichtner to take part in a police sting operation by weird cop. Sarah Polley plays a slacker trying to make rent money selling drugs, Katie Holmes as her friend who gets caught up in the deal and forced to spend the night with drug dealer Timothy Olyphant and Desmond Askew (of Grange Hill fame) as the unpredictable friend linking them all. Scatter-shot but focused when it matters, Go is utterly watchable, fun and actually makes you wish you lived in LA.
19. Ten Things I Hate About You (1999)
For many, this is where mainstream success started for Heath Ledger. On the surface just another 90s high-school comedy, Ten Things I Hate About You is a whip-smart adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew and Ledger is an intensely charismatic bad-boy with a heart of gold. Not forgetting the formidable talents of a certain Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the cast is rounded out with the stellar Julia Stiles (also in her breakout role) and David Krumholtz.
Not until Easy A would a high-school movie again be as accessible to a wider (more adult) audience and while a lot of that is down to Ledger and the others, the script is also incredibly funny, full of genuine and well-earned set-piece pay off, and, most importantly, it’s winningly charming.
18. Darkman (1990)
Leave it to Sam Raimi to create an original superhero for his Hollywood debut. Perfectly fusing his own comic book sensibilities with an expanded budget, Darkman is a gloriously campy and enjoyable action film, showcasing Liam Neeson’s skills as an action star. Skills that would later lead to a career renaissance for the dramatic actor.
Telling the tale of Peyton Westlake, a brilliant scientist disfigured, but given enhanced physical strength after his lab is destroyed, the film draws inspiration from The Shadow and Batman for its gothic tone, and The Elephant Man and The Phantom Of The Opera for its emotional pull. Darkman is forced to live in the shadows both literally and metaphorically because of his appearance and has to become different people with his revolutionary synthetic skin.
17. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
Before his critical and award winning success with Far From Heaven, director Todd Haynes made Velvet Goldmine, the fictionalized account of a former glam-rock star. Heavily based on David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, the movies tells the story of a young music journalist (Christian Bale) investigating the disappearance of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
Told via a series of non-linear flashbacks, the film traces the career of Slade and his collaborator/lover Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). A surreal Citizen Kane-inspired visual feast, the film is dazzling, metaphoric and hallucinatory. Working as a better biopic of the talents of the 70s then a straightforward film ever could, Velvet Goldmine is the best representation of glam-rock we are ever likely to see onscreen.
16. Alien 3 (1992)
Massively panned upon theatrical release and subject to well-documented production troubles just like every other film in the Alien franchise, Alien 3 just looks better and better by comparison to those that have followed. But is it just the fact that the following movies were either so BAD (Resurrection, Alien Vs Predator) or incomprehensible (Prometheus) that make Alien 3 seem like a worthy Alien film? Not quite, as David Fincher’s debut genuinely stands up as a great (if flawed) sci-fi horror film with both engaging and thought-provoking themes. And, this was a worthy follow-up to Alien and Aliens. Alien 3 couldn’t match those two movies, but it tries to do its own thing and succeeds with aplomb.
Our full lookback at Alien 3 is here.
15. Two Hands (1999)
It seems 1999 really was the year Heath Ledger broke through and this was the movie that put him on the map in Australia and led to 10 Things I Hate About You. Two Hands is also a brilliant, if unknown, film in its own right, a tightly told crime thriller with a surreal edge, featuring Ledger as Jimmy, a small-time crook who ends up deep in debt to serious gangsters.
Ledger is a magnetic presence who carries the film, although he is ably supported by romantic interest Rose Byrne. The film undercuts its gritty, serious edge by having Jimmy’s dead older brother act as a zombie guardian angel throughout, firmly placing the film in tongue-in-cheek territory, while also playing up the realism of the grimier side of Sydney. A searing soundtrack led by the mighty Powderfinger doesn’t hurt, either.
14. Strange Days (1995)
A gritty and frenetic cyber-punk story from Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days is certainly flawed, but has enough ambition, thrills and bold ideas to overcome its failings and become something of a minor triumph.
Set in a dystopian LA on the brink of the millennium, Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, an ex-LAPD officer now turned dealer in SQUID – recordings/memories taken directly from a person’s cerebral cortex and replayed via what is basically a MiniDisc (remember those?).
After receiving a warning from a SQUID client, and later a recording of her violent death, Lenny and his compatriots (Angela Basset and Tom Sizemore) are dragged into a conspiracy that threatens to tear the entire city apart. Visually daring and with striking performances, Strange Days paints a possible future world with frightening believability,and dazzles the viewer with high-concepts and physical filmmaking.
13. The Cable Guy (1996)
Following the massive successes of Ace Ventura and Dumb & Dumber, this dark comedy seemed for many to mark the first misstep in Jim Carrey’s career. In hindsight however, it’s clear that far from being an end of a period, The Cable Guy actually heralded the next phase of comedy – the Judd Apatow years.
Produced and written by Apatow, and directed by Ben Stiller, The Cable Guy tells the story of nice guy Steven Kovaks (Matthew Broderick) whose life spirals out of control after he reluctantly befriends psychotic cable engineer Chip (Jim Carrey).
What follows is extreme act after extreme act, featuring such highlights such as a fight at a medieval banquet, Carrey serenading a party with Somebody To Love, and an awkward family game of porno password. Also providing some of the funniest scenes is Ben Stiller in dual roles as a child star on trial.
Despite audiences’ initial discomfort with the dark tone, the fact that the biggest comedies today are far more extreme (think The Hangover) proves that The Cable Guy was simply ahead of its time.
12. The Game (1997)
The Game is one of those films that people often mention but seldom watch. Ask the average person to name David Fincher’s films, and it’s doubtful this would make their list. The Game however, is exemplary and well worth your attention.
A complex film within a film, the simple set-up of a rich man bored with his life becoming entangled in a game which may or may not be real creates a launchpad for Fincher to have a lot of fun. The Game rewards repeat views in a way few films do, as each viewing offers new clues and perspectives on what is or is not reality for Michael Douglas’s lead character.
Douglas himself offers one of his finest performances, getting the audience to genuinely invest in a billionaire with the perfect life. Fincher’s control of dramatic suspense, wit and pulp conventions is second to none. We revisited the film in more detail, here.
11. Tremors (1990)
Tremors is not just a horror-comedy to rival the likes of Evil Dead, I would say that this movie kick-started one of the best horror franchises ever, yet one which rarely gets the true recognition it deserves. However, mention Tremors to anyone who’s seen it and you will be engulfed with a wave of affection. Kevin Bacon leads the cast as a maintenance worker in the tiny town of Perfection, Nevada, whose population of 14 come under attack from Graboids, a form of giant, deadly sand worms.
After building up the initial mystery, the film quickly becomes an inventive battle of survival between the townsfolk and Graboids, with some ingenious kills and methods of disposing of the monsters. Tremors’ main strength is the world it builds; despite its fantastical concept and wicked sense of humor, it never stretches credibility too far and remains true to both its characters and concepts.
10. Stir Of Echoes (1999)
Oh look, it’s Kevin Bacon again. His work ethic is immense, as is his choice of film and his talent. Take this supernatural thriller, for instance. Initially dismissed as nothing more than a Sixth Sense rip off, due to a child’s ability to commune with the dead, Stir of Echoes is actually a fantastically creepy and effective murder mystery, which also lifts the lid on just what the most normal of people hide beneath the surface and what they can do when pushed.
Bacon is, of course, superb as the family man who discovers that everything he thought he knew about the world is wrong and his portrayal of obsession is on par with Michael Shannon’s amazing performance in Take Shelter.
9. Office Space (1999)
Based on Mike Judge’s Milton cartoon series, Judge opted to go live-action instead when bringing Office Space to the screen, and the result is the on-the-nose comedy about the banality of everyday life in an office.
It takes the form of a loose series of sketches set in office cubicles, before a botched bout of hypnotherapy leads Ron Livingston’s Peter Gibbon to stop caring. The plot is thin, but that’s not really the point. No, the point is far more the razor sharp script that expertly spears target after target, whether it’s the “pieces of flair” Jennifer Aniston’s waitress is forced to wear in order to promote her happy “individuality,” or the HR mistakes that lead to office worker Milton’s eventual breakdown.
You can easily imagine these things actually happening – indeed, most of what you see will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has worked in the corporate world, but the humor rescues the movie from being a horrible social-realist piece. Office Space is an enduring cult classic, referenced in everything from Family Guy to World of Warcraft.
Here’s our full lookback.
8. LA Story (1991)
This gets my vote for the best romantic comedy of the 90s, and possibly Steve Martin’s most underrated film. It’s not full of the comic excesses and highs of some of his work, but in LA Story he finely marries together the pathos, the surrealism and the warm humor that made him the star he is.
Martin plays Harris K Telemacher, a TV weatherman in a dead-end relationship who starts receiving cryptic romantic advice from a freeway sign. Pursuing relationships with both a sophisticated British journalist, as well as an aspiring promotional model (a young and apparently adequately nourished Sarah Jessica Parker), it also charts the absurdity of living in LA, that most modern of cities, dedicated to the cult of celebrity and a place where it is very easy to be lonely.
Only the fact that LA Story contains three Enya songs counts against it.
7. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Personally, I think this film should be on everyone’s list of favorite movies. But time and time again I’m amazed by the number of people, including Coen Brothers fans, who haven’t seen this masterpiece. Based loosely on the works of pulp writer Dashiell Hammett, this film noir set in Prohibition-era America details a power struggle between two rival gangs, a power struggle that Gabriel Byrne finds himself in the middle of.
Beautiful and elegiac, with a multi-layered plot, Miller’s Crossing is handled with the assured confidence of filmmakers at the top of their game. The dialogue, much culled directly from Hammett himself, is whip-sharp and delivered with relish by the incredible cast. The stand-outs here are Albert Finney and Jon Turturro who, as bookie Bernie Bernbaum, is probably at his very finest. Turtorro’s scene where he pleads for his life (“Look into your heart”) isan iconic stand-out. Perhaps the Coens’ finest work.
6. Pump Up The Volume (1990)
For all those many, many fans of Empire Records, I implore you to check this earlier effort from director Allan Moyles out as well. Mainly because – shhhh – it’s better. Christian Slater is outstanding as Mark Hunter, a loner in highschool who has a secret – he’s the host of a popular late night pirate radio show.
Using a harmonizer to disguise his voice and going by the pseudonym of Happy Harry Hard-On, Hunter is the mouthpiece of disaffected youth. However, this influence proves so disruptive within the community that he faces a fight to stay on the air. With a generation-defining soundtrack (featuring Pixies and Soundgarden) propelling the film, it’s funny, sharp and has a genuinely important message for its audience. Pump Up The Volume also captures the possibility of the 90s perfectly, freed from the ostentatious shackles of the 80s; this was Gen X’s time to shine and to prove they both had a voice and the will to use it.
Our more detailed lookback at the film is here.
5. Zero Effect (1998)
The directorial debut of Jake Kasdan, Zero Effect is a detective story with a difference. Bill Pullman plays Darryl Zero, the world’s greatest detective, but also a social misfit who cannot leave his house to meet clients. Instead, he employs an assistant, Steve Arlo, played by Ben Stiller, to carry out his work.
Based on the 1930s series Nero Wolfe, as well as the Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal In Bohemia, the plot details Zero investigating a mysterious blackmail case, where in fact the blackmailer may be the one who needs the help. Engaging, funny, and totally absorbing, Pullman and Stiller make a great crime fighting partnership, but one that is definitely modern, with all the pressures that entails.
Zero’s unique problem creates a real dramatic and intriguing puzzle for the writers to work round, but in fact it becomes the film’s strength.
4. Jackie Brown (1997)
I’m going to come out and say it: Jackie Brown may well be Quentin Tarantino’s best film. It’s certainly his most confident – the one and only time where he let the film tell its own story, free from any tricks or genre play. It was a shame that Jackie Brown was so poorly received, because that pushed Tarantino further down his pastiche/homage path, which is starting to veer dangerously close to self-parody these days.
Based on the Elmore Leonard book Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a twisting tale of a gangster’s money and the double-crosses that happen in order for people to get their hands on it. Reviving the careers of both Pam Grier and Robert Forster, it cemented Samuel L Jackson’s reputation as the coolest mutha on the planet (his Kangol hat look is iconic, as is his love for the AK-47).
It was a brave choice of project to follow up his masterpiece Pulp Fiction, and sadly was savagely and unfairly, compared to it. Give Jackie Brown another chance. You will not be disappointed.
3. A Simple Plan (1998)
This film proves that, with the right material, Sam Raimi is a masterful director, irregardless of genre. The thriller concerns two brothers (Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton) and their friend, who discover a crashed plane and $4.4 million in cash in rural America. Let the cover-ups, arguments and murders begin. Plus of course a deepening of the mystery surrounding where the money came from.
Complex and painfully tense, A Simple Plan gives nothing away, and wastes not a single scene. Everything propels the taut narrative forward to its shocking, inevitable and satisfying ending, while at the same time fleshing out the characters so you genuinely care about their fates, even as they dig themselves deeper into a hole of their own making.
With this and The Gift, Sam Raimi showed the world he was a director of real substance zand not just a comic influenced horror kid.
2. Devil In A Blue Dress (1995)
An electric, powerful, neo-noir thriller from director Carl Franklin, Devil In A Blue Dress was a breath of fresh air in the detective genre upon release. While its plot about Denzel Washington’s rookie private eye was nothing new, the investigation of racial tension in post-war Los Angeles, the exploration of the importance of usually unheralded community ties and the elegant direction of it all was something that made this film stand head and shoulders above the competition.
The visuals are incredible, proving once again why film is the transcendent visual medium and how a picture can explore so much more than words alone. Rounding out the movie and truly cementing it as worthy of watching, is a tremendous performance from Don Cheadle as the homicidal Mouse, a friend of Washington’s who acts as a spark to the powder keg situation. Cheadle steals the film with his performance.
1. Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)
Jim Jarmusch is a genius. That’s all there is to it. Whether its directing the post-modern black and white western Dead Man, or the metaphorical comedy-drama Broken Flowers, Jarmusch brings care, detail and above all talent to everything he does. Case in point is this incredible crime action thriller, which fuses together gangster and samurai movies, while also mixing themes of family, loyalty, duty and revenge amongst an incredibly high body count that just builds and builds and builds.
Forest Whitaker is awesome as Ghost Dog, saved by mobster Louie, and therefore bound to him by the code of bushido. Caring only for his pigeons, he is betrayed by the mob and realizes it’s them or him. Whilst setting up an epic confrontation, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai finds time for Ghost Dog to pass on his ethos to a new pupil, come to terms with his own choices and have a life affirming friendship with a Haitian ice-cream salesman who doesn’t speak any English. Finally, it also features an all-conquering soundtrack from RZA, worthy of an article of its own and one of the finest soundtracks of recent years.
Hopefully, there are some films here you haven’t seen, that you are tempted to see. If there are movies you think we’ve missed put them in the comments below…