We’ve all heard the many laudatory utterances for gasbag movies of the 90s like The English Patient, Schindler’s List, Titanic, Jurassic Park, The Piano, etc. But what about the lesser paid attention to films–the ones that deserve far more credit than they’re getting when one refers to this Clintonian decade? Below, in no particular order of significance, are all the films that should be given ample respect when discussing cinema of the 1990s.
Living Out Loud (1998): Because Holly Hunter is already an underrated actress as it is, Living Out Loud proved she could outdo herself even after her glorious role as Claudia Larson in 1995’s Home for the Holidays. Plus, the combination of Danny DeVito and Queen Latifah in supporting roles is too unexpectedly divine.
Untamed Heart (1993): One of the lesser regarded tragic romances of the 90s, no one played the dreamboat romantic quite like Christian Slater as a loner busboy named Adam. Lusting after his fellow waitress, Caroline (Marisa Tomei), Adam finally finds his in with her by rescuing her from a gang bang. And it really doesn’t get more 90s than that–except that Rosie Perez also has a supporting role.
Truth or Dare (1991): Sure, it gets mentioned as one of the great “rockumentaries,” but rarely is Truth or Dare seen as the brilliant piece of cinema that it is. Alternating between color and black and white footage, Madonna shows us an unabashed side of the music industry and, of course, of herself. Oh yeah, and Warren Beatty, Sandra Bernhard and Antonio Banderas.
Fearless (1993): Again, Rosie Perez makes an appearance on this list, showing that she’s one of the great underdogs of the decade. Although she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award for her role as Carla Rodrigo, Fearless, directed by pre-The Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson, is infrequently mentioned as a great film of the 90s. Maybe it’s because, as usual Isabella Rossellini is too real for anyone’s deal.
Lost in Yonkers (1993): Perhaps it was the specificness of this title that was lost on so many audiences outside of New York, or maybe the general unpleasant sound of the word “Yonkers.” Either way, this movie based on a Neil Simon play showcased director Martha Coolidge, who previously directed Valley Girl and Real Genius, at one of her zeniths.
Addams Family Values (1993): While it is typically considered unseemly to classify a sequel as better than its original, Addams Family Values far surpasses The Addams Family by virtue of Wednesday (Christina Ricci) appearing in a bathing suit and playing the part of Pocahontas in the summer camp play.
Grumpier Old Men (1995): Again, a sequel. But Sophia goddamn Loren is in it, so of course it was going to be better than the first one.
My Father the Hero (1994): Before Katherine Heigl was causing upheaval by leaving every TV show she ever appeared on (see: Roswell, Grey’s Anatomy), she was exploring the boundaries of starring in a movie that put none too fine a point on the Electra complex. And with Gerard Depardieu playing her father, this film proved to be one of the most comedic of the mid-90s, an era rife with racially charged premises.
Serial Mom (1994): John Waters may be most known for his trashily iconic Pink Flamingos, but it was the uncanny creep factor of Kathleen Turner as a homicidal suburbanite that iterated Waters’ gift for satire. And, of course, the camp factor is at a high level with Patty Hearst playing one of the jurors ruling on Beverly’s (Turner) case.
Quiz Show (1994): As usual, Robert Redford one-ups himself by directing and producing. In Ralph Fiennes, he found a younger version of himself to express the politics and immorality of American television in the 1950s. Forrest Gump has nothing on this period piece.
The Basketball Diaries (1995): Leonardo DiCaprio had only just begun, with a previous standout role in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? With The Basketball Diaries, DiCaprio brings to life the memoirs of author Jim Carroll, a heroin-addicted basketball enthusiast with a penchant for selling his body to any gender in order to get drugs.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994): Before Woody Allen was an accused child molester, he was making some pretty good–albeit fledgling–films in the 90s. Bullets Over Broadway tells the tale of a playwright (John Cusack) willing to his sell his soul to the mob for fame, and then steal from the mobster (Chazz Palminteri, back when he was in every movie) to sustain said fame.
Miami Rhapsody (1995): Yet another in a series of precursors to Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker plays the part of Gwyn Marcus, a woman who has waited her whole life to have a marriage like her parents, only to realize that’s not what she wants at all. The film also features a post-Woody Allen Mia Farrow.
Léon: The Professional (1994): When the beautiful elixir of talents like Luc Besson, Jean Reno, Gary Oldman and Natalie Portman combine, you best pay attention. And also there’s a scene with Bjork’s “Venus as a Boy” playing in the background, giving this movie the ultimate in 90s street cred.
Mixed Nuts (1994): Though it didn’t seem possible for a more perfect Christmas movie to come out in the 90s than Home Alone, Mixed Nuts doesn’t get enough credit for its delightfully camp plot (centered around a suicide prevention center at Christmas) and cast (including Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn and Parker Posey).
Brokedown Palace (1999): One of the main cautionary tales of the 90s was: Don’t go to Thailand, especially as a white woman. The themes of sacrifice and devoted friendship are played to bittersweet perfection by Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale, both at a weird transitional point in their careers.
Mermaids (1990): Maybe it was because 1990 was an awkward, blendable year with 1989 that so many people forget to recognize Mermaids as a 90s film. This is compounded by the fact that the plot takes place in 1963, a popular plot device of the 80s (see: Dirty Dancing, Shag).
L.A. Story (1991): “This other Eden, demi-paradise,/This fortress built by Nature for herself /Against infection and the hand of war,/This happy breed of men, this little world,/This precious stone set in the silver sea,/Which serves it in the office of a wall/Or as a moat defensive to a house,/Against the envy of less happier lands,/This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Los Angeles.” Leave it to Steve Martin to turn a Shakespeare quote about England and make it about L.A. The surreal plot of this 1991 gem is a beautiful love letter to the city everyone tends to hate.
Dying Young (1991): With such a macabre title, why would anyone want to revisit this Joel Schumacher movie? In her third film after the unparalleled rom-com success of Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts seemed to be choosing a number of strange roles designed specifically to get away from Vivian.
Tank Girl (1995): Reiterating the riot grrrl movement of Kathleen Hanna’s day, Tank Girl is that rare breed of film that’s so kitschily indie that you wonder how it ever could have been made. Based on a comic by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett (later known for his Gorillaz fame), the movie finds us in an eerily accurate dystopia of the future in which the water source is controlled by a single entity.
A Little Princess (1995): Alfonso Cuarón showed early signs of genius with this magically whimsical story of a wealthy girl whose riches are stripped away from her, but she still doesn’t give a fuck. A truly 90s message about the unimportance of materialism.
French Kiss (1995): There are a lot of great pre-plastic surgery Meg Ryan movies, and this is by far one of the best. Oddly enough, she shares a pretty strong chemistry with Kevin Kline.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998): Because this was released at the tail end of the 90s and so many people associate Guy Ritchie with the early 00s, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is oft tossed by the wayside in favor of 2000’s Snatch.
Go (1999): As a cross between teen movie and rave movie, people often get too blacked out by this film to truly appreciate it.
Honeymoon in Vegas (1992): Yet another in the pile of Sarah Jessica Parker works that went ignored in the 90s, this one is in the top tier of romantic comedies with a camp twist.
Sleepers (1996): Since 1996 was largely dominated by The English Patient and Evita, it seemed there was no room to appreciate Barry Levinson’s dramatic ensemble piece.
Soapdish (1991): Over the top and cartoonish, Robert Downey Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Kline, Sally Field, Teri Hatcher and Elisabeth Shue show us that behind the scenes of a soap opera is where the real drama lies.
Curly Sue (1991): The last movie from John Hughes that was watchable.
Delicatessen (1991): Before Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet created the equally brilliant Delicatessen–his own French take on Sweeney Todd.
Practical Magic (1998): Part of the trend in witch-obsessed pop culture like Charmed, Practical Magic was, in many ways, a zeitgeist film.
200 Cigarettes (1998): Courtney Love as a hot mess. Cut.
That Thing You Do! (1996): As part of the Liv Tyler heyday, That Thing You Do! is worth watching as a double feature with Empire Records.
B*A*P*S (1997): Halle Berry as a blonde. Enough said.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999): Easily one of the best cult classics ever made, Drop Dead Gorgeous upstages almost every mockumentary, maybe even This is Spinal Tap.
Dick (1999): It seemed as though the film industry was trying to squeeze in as much kitsch as possible as the decade came to a close. This parody of two girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who were the true cause of Richard Nixon’s downfall is just such an example.
Excess Baggage (1997): Apart from The Crush and Clueless, this was Alicia Silverstone’s other shining moment of the 90s.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997): On the heels of Scream, which came out in 1996, I Know What You Did Last Summer is often seen as the B-rate version. But come on, the cast boasted the cream of the 90s crop, including Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Il Postino (1994): The best foreign film apart from Delicatessen in the 90s (yes, even better than Life Is Beautiful), Il Postino is a romantic view of Pablo Neruda’s life (what other view could there be on such a poet, after all?).
Desert Blue (1998): When Kate Hudson and Christina Ricci join forces in a movie (as they did in 200 Cigarettes), the result is always golden.
Ever After (1998): As Drew Barrymore’s brief renaissance came to a close, it seemed fitting for her to star in a movie that took place during the Renaissance. And also Anjelica Huston is the evil stepmother, so what more can you really want?
Spice World (1997): Yes, it’s given occasional credit as a “music” movie, but no one seems to fully fathom the genius of a film that would cast Meat Loaf as the driver of the Spice Girls’ tour bus.