Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1989, the world could relax as the 40 year tensions between the East and West finally lapsed. It created a globalised optimistic outlook for the first time in almost half a century, paving the way for a cultural, social and economic boom, facilitated by the ever evolving technology including affordable home VHS machines, DVD and the internet.
The end result was a decade of unparalleled diversity. While I personally have my heart firmly rooted in all things 80’s pop-culture, there is no denying the sheer scale and scope that the 90’s gave the world. As a world came together post-Cold War, cinema, music, art, literature, fashion, technology and society all stepped into the brave new world. When you weigh everything up, the 1990’s will always be remembered as the defining decade, a real origin point for tomorrow’s world.
It gave us Britpop, the shell suit, Tarantino, clubbing culture, affordable games consoles, compact disks and so much more.
And since it’s Nineties November here at That’s Not Current, I have been thinking of how best to celebrate such a wonderful period in our pop-culture history. As an early 80’s child, the 90’s is the first decade I entirely lived through and can vividly recall. It was during this period where I discovered myself and my passions began to take shape, including my obsession with film – something I would go on to study at university.
The 90’s gave us so many iconic and wonderful films, and with affordable and accessible home video, the ability to consume films dramatically increased. As a regular to my local Global Video rental store, I managed to power my way through hundreds and hundreds of movies. While everyone will remember the timeless classics from that period – Trainspotting, Reservoir Dogs, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, etc – there are countless films that I feel are too easily forgotten or were never given the recognition they deserve in the first place.
So I decided to list 25 films from the 90’s that are worth revisiting. However, as with any list I attempt, I always set the benchmark too low. So in no particular order other than my own personal preference at time of writing, here is 25 films that I feel the world needs reminded of…
25 – Buffalo ’66 (Vincent Gallo / 1998)
Kicking off the list is a indie film that received positive review upon release. As well as writing and directing, Vincent Gallo plays Billy Brown who has just been released from prison after a stretch for a crime he did not commit. He kidnaps Layla (played superbly by Christina Ricci) and forces her to pretend to be his fiancée as he visits his parents. The film is a beautifully crafted look at Billy’s tormented soul and his journey to redemption through an unexpected love. Despite winning many awards on the independent scene, this film never received the mainstream acclaim it deserved. Even 16 years on this is still a relevant, enriching and rewarding tale.
24 – A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi / 1998)
Sam Raimi has become something of a Hollywood parody over the past decade with cliche-ridden blockbuster movies, but his undeniable talent as a filmmaker is never more evident than in this neo-noir crime thriller. With stellar performances from Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Brent Briscoe as friends who discover a crashed plane in rural Minnesota containing $4.4 million dollars. What ensues is a engrossing character study in paranoia, betrayal and the lengths people will go to in order to protect a secret and themselves. Despite a few Oscar nominations and critical acclaim from critiques, this was a relatively low key release that even to this day isn’t appreciated for what it is.
23 – Bound (The Wachowskis / 1996)
The debut film from the duo behind 1999’s The Matrix, Bound is arguably their finest piece of film-making, certainly in terms of a characters. Made from a minimal budget, it tells the story of the affair between Jennifer Tilly’s Violet and her neighbour, and ex-con, Corky – played by Gina Gershon. They come up with a scheme to rob Violet’s estranged mafia boyfriend Cesar, played by Joe Pantoliano, of $2 million and cement Violet’s escape from the abusive relationship. The film garnered media attention for its lesbian sex scenes, yet was critically lauded for its style, humour and direction. To this day, it remains a classic example of modern neo-noir cinema.
22 – eXistenZ (David Cronenberg/ 1999)
David Cronenberg is the go to guy for real out-there psychological body-horror movies, with Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly and Crash all case-and-point. Starring Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh, eXistenZ is set in the near future where organic virtual reality games consoles have replaced electronic ones, allowing for a fully immersive gaming experience where all senses are connected. A rivalry between two game design companies in the wake of a new game launch is the setting for a plot that distorts the very concept of reality, with worlds inside worlds and constant doubt over what is real. Despite being a huge box office bomb, the film was relatively well received. With the advancements in virtual reality in today’s world, the films presents a heavily paranoid look at the dangers of the technology, ultimately making the film more relevant than ever.
21 – Rushmore (Wes Anderson / 1998)
Without question this is an often overlooked gem of the 90’s. Wes Anderson has a wonderful style that he brings to the screen, as seen with The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel that followed Rushmore. For me, it is his best film and then some. Following eccentric, misfit, work-shy teenager Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and his friendship with millionaire loner Richard Blume (played by Bill Murray in arguably one of his finest performances) as they compete for the affection of teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). This film launched Anderson and Schwartzman’s careers, and is even credited with reviving Murray’s, and was a huge success critically and commercially for an independent film. However, I’m often gobsmacked at the amount of people who haven’t seen it.
20 – The Boondock Saints (Troy Duffy / 1999)
Absolutely panned upon release, The Boondock Saints has become a cult phenomenon. Despite being released in the week following the tragic Columbine High School Massacre, this ultra-violent film still performed well financially. Starting Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus as the McManus twins who become vigilantes hell bent on ridding the streets of Boston from crime while evading the pursing FBI, headed by Willem Dafoe. Inspired by Tarantino, this film stands up on its own as a worthy entry to the 90’s crime movies and spawned a sequel and spin off comic book.
19 – Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow / 1995)
The film that basically torpedoed Kathryn Bigelow’s career until The Hurt Locker provided her redemption in 2009, Strange Days is s sci-fi noir mash-up that is by all accounts groundbreaking. Despite the involvement of her ex-husband James Cameron as producer and writer, the film absolutely tanked, returning only $8 million from a $45 million budget. Set in the final few days of 1999, LA is ravaged by war. Ex LAPD cop Lenny Niro (Ralph Fiennes) is now a dealer of illegal devices that record everything from their wearers viewpoint. He is dragged into a murder investigation that leads into a deep routed conspiracy. Without question, Strange Days was ahead of its time using revolutionary filming techniques, including POV. Its a marvellous piece of cinema that has largely been forgotten and is definitely worth your attention.
18 – The Frighteners (Peter Jackson / 1996)
One many readers will be well aware of, yet I’m convinced Peter Jackson’s fantasy horror still does not get the credit it deserves. Staring Michael J. Fox as architect Frank Bannister who develops the ability to talk to ghosts following his wife’s death. Originally using his talent as a way to befriend ghost and scam the living, this changes when a mysterious Grim Reaper-like ghost appears and starts killing both people and ghosts. Despite mostly positive reviews, the film failed to reap the rewards at the box office. Following the success of Jackon’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it has become a cult classic. It is definitely worthy of more mainstream recognition for me.
17 – Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson / 1996)
Before the wonderful Boogie Nights in 1997 and the sublime Magnolia in 1999, acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson started his career with this independent film staring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. And it is spectacular. While his later 90’s movies brought him deserved acclaim, this one slipped very much under the radar despite solid reviews. As with all PTA films, the characters in Hard Eight are so rich and layered that you are sucked into the world. The plot follows hardened gambler Sydney (Baker Hall) taking the down-on-his-luck John (Reilly) under his wing as his protégé. John falls for former prostitute Clementine (Paltrow) and they inadvertently get caught up in an hostage situation that Sydney has to untangle to save the couple. Beautifully shot with a wonderful script, this is a fantastic film and most definitely worth a revisit.
16 – Glengarry Glenn Ross (James Foley / 1992)
This film is worth watching just for Alec Baldwin’s pep talk in the first 15 minutes alone! An absolutely masterclass in acting from true heavyweights (Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin & Jonathan Pryce) Glengarry Glenn Ross follows two days in the life of four real estate salesmen who are competing for two positions that will be awarded to whoever gets the most sales from a list of leads. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, it is a tense, engrossing film that sheds a light on the cutthroat world of sales and the lengths they will go to. Its absolutely stellar drama that is as magnificent now as when it was first released. For me, this has parallels with Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men.
14 – The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam / 1991)
Following the tragic passing of the great Robin Williams, when people shared their thoughts on his favourite films, I was amazed that The Fisher King was hardly mentioned. It is a heart-warming redemption tale, littered with the wondrous quirkiness typical of Terry Gilliam. Jeff Bridges is Jack Lucas, a shock-jock radio DJ who inadvertently causes a mass-suicide with his on-air comments. Racked with guilt, he tries to commit suicide but is rescued by Perry (Williams), a deluded homeless man on a quest to find the Holy Grail. In a desperate bid for redemption, Jack decides to help Perry, uncovering his tragic story along the way. It looks fantastic, with Bridges and Williams on immaculate form, with the later getting a Best Actor Oscar nomination. If you have never seen this, watch it. And if you have already seen it, I hope this prompts you to watch it again!
15 – Dracula: Dead and Loving It (Mel Brooks / 1995)
I don’t think anyone would argue Mel Brooks is a masterful comedic director, with a solid pedigree of iconic films over the 70’s and 80’s. Such was the negative reaction to this satirical comedy from the mid 90’s that it inadvertently became his last directorial gig. With a spoof-laden take on the Dracula story, it was current of the time – with Hots Shots, Loaded Weapon, Don’t Be a Menance & Brooks’ own Robin Hood Men in Tights all being massively popular in the home video market. Looking back, its treatment was very harsh. The late, great Leslie Nieslen excels as the legendary count with solid support from Brooks and Peter MacNicol. The end result is a homage to 60’s comedy presented in a hammer horror-esque style. Like all of Brooks films, the witty script is on point and it is definitely a film you should give another go.
13 – Things to Do in Denver When Your Dead (Gary Fleder / 1995)
Being a “Pulp Fiction clone” was a regular tag throne out to belittle a film during the 90’s, and this neo-noir crime thriller was one that really suffered from that unjustified criticism, absolutely tanking at the box office. Staring Andy Garcia, Christopher Lloyd, Steve Buscemi and Chritopher Walken, Things to Do in Denver When Your Dead is about a mobster who has gone straight yet is dragged back in by his former boss who calls in a favour. With the help of his old crew, his plan goes wrong and his former boss puts a contract on all involved. For me, it has very little resemblance at all to Pulp Fiction and is one of the most under-appreciated films of all time. With solid performances from the assemble cast, its a engaging tale about morals that Fleder presents beautifully.
12 – Dark City (Alex Proyas / 1998)
Another film that many readers will recall, the great tragedy of this neo-noir sci-fi is it was completely overshadowed a year later by The Matrix, which had a similar styling and narrative – even using many of the same sets. However, that doesn’t detract from just how special Dark City is. Staring Rufus Sewell as John Murdoch, a man with amnesia that is accused of murder, he must try and discover who he is as well as clear his name, all the while trying to evade the police and the mysterious “Strangers” – led by Crystal Maze’s Richard O’Brien in a stellar performance. All is not as it seems, with questions over the world in which Murdoch lives and him manifesting supernatural powers. With support from William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland and Jennifer Connelly, Dark City received a mix review upon release and failed to perform at the box office. Despite being made for a fraction of the cost of The Matrix, it still looks incredible and can easily stand on its own as a paranoia infused trip into the unknown – a fantastic film that deserves the attention of anyone who enjoyed The Matrix.
11 – Millers Crossing (Coen Brothers / 1990)
The Coen’s were one of the true revelations of the 90’s, with the iconic Fargo and The Big Lebowski held in such prestige by film lovers throughout the world. However, I’m often amazed that when you ask anyone to name Coen Brothers’ films, this absolute gem from 1990 is very rarely mentioned. Millers Crossing is a gangster film littered with the trademark Coen dark humour. Staring Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, an Irish gangster during prohibition America, it is a noir-inspired tale of betrayal. With outstanding performances from Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturo and John Polito, this film is an absolute classic. Despite a poor box office showing, the film was critically acclaimed and regularly appears on top 100 films of all times lists. The Coen’s are known for their genre-mashing and topsy-turvey narratives, and for me, Millers Crossing really is their finest work ever. Yet, so many people simple haven’t seen it.
10 – Ghost Dog: The Way of a Samurai (Jim Jarmusch / 1999)
Jim Jarmusch makes really cool, slick films, and none more so than Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. As a small budget, independent film, it did perform well and was well received. Yet I definitely believe it deserves more attention as a iconic classic from the late 90’s. Forrest Whitaker puts in subtle, yet beautiful performance as the titular hero, a hitman on retainer to a low level mobster that he perceived saved his life when he was young. Living by the Samurai Bushido code, Ghost Dog is set-up on a contract and in turn must take on the mafia. It is a spectacular simple yet enthralling tale of honour, illuminated with majestically simple cinematography. And if that wasn’t enough, the soundtrack was scored and developed by RZA of the Wu-tang clan. A modern masterpiece of film.
9 – The Last Supper (Stacy Title / 1996)
A dark comedy from the mid 90’s, The Last Supper carries a theme that is very prevalent in today’s politically polarised society. It revolves around five liberal grad students living together in a rustic home in Iowa. When a army vet helps one of the group following their car breaking down, they invite him to dinner. There his aggressive, racial tendencies are unearthed, leading to the friend murdering him in an act of self-defence and they decide to cover up the murder. This sparks an idea to invite other right-wing extremists for dinner to judge if they are worthy of life or not. Quickly the bodies pile up, burying each victim under their rose garden out back. Despite featuring Cameron Diaz, Courtney B. Vance, Bill Paxman & Ron Perlman, it was a very low budget film with its release going largely unnoticed despite garnering decent write-ups.
8 – Ronin (John Frankenheimer / 1998)
For me, the 1990’s was the golden age of action movies (something I will be looking at in the coming weeks). This boom inspired the creation of many action-thrillers, and Ronin is up there with the very best. Frankenheimer is known for his rich, suspenseful action films and his stamp is all over this. One of the last great Hollywood auteurs, he commanded total control of his productions allowing him to craft the film he wanted to. Featuring one of the greatest car chases ever immortalised on film, he managed to bring the best out of a ridiculously talented cast including Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce who play a group of former government operatives tasked with stealing a mysterious briefcase. As each characters motivations and agenda come into play we are taking on a edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Shot and set entirely in France (mainly Paris & Nice) the cinematography is a joy to behold. While it performed well enough all round, it has never reached the upper echelons of praise it deserves.
7 – Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle / 1994)
There is no denying that Trainspotting is one of the defining 90’s movies and launched the career of its stars and director Danny Boyle. However, two years prior to the cultural icon, Boyle made his directorial debut with a film often overlooked. Shallow Grave is a story of three flatmates – played by then unknowns of Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox – who decide to interview for a fourth roommate in their Edinburgh abode. Eventually the mysterious Hugo (played by Keith Allen) is given the room. However, he is mysteriously found dead a few days later with a suitcase full of cash. The trio decide to conceal his death and keep the money, eventually causing a plunge into the depth of paranoia and mistrust as they all plot against each other and the people who are after Hugo’s cash. Made for less than £2 million, the film was a great success in the UK – both critically and commercially. However, it failed to translate overseas and over time this tense character study has been largely forgotten in the shadow of Boyle’s later works. Its a fantastic film that ticks all the boxes more than 20 years later.
6 – Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson / 1997)
Similar to Shallow Grave, this fantastic satirical comedy performed well in America but failed to translate overseas. It sees government fixer Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) approach Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) about creating a fictitious war to draw attention away from a presidential scandal involving an underage woman, all two weeks before the election. The concept is outrageously fun and as the lie evolves more and more, Motss must come up with even more elaborate ideas to drive their narrative, such as introducing a hero provide through a great turn from Woody Harrelson as convicted ex-soldier. The political undertones play brilliantly into the conspiracy theorist, however, the real strengths of this films lies in the two heavyweights bouncing off each other. If you have never seen it, you simple must put it top of your list!
5 – Red Rock West (John Dahl / 1993)
Despite being around since the 60’s, the neo-noir genre reached it pinnacle in 90’s, becoming almost the staple genre of the time, often merged with other genres. And it is impossible to discuss neo-noir without looking at John Dahl’s outstanding Red Rock West, which applied the neo-noir approach to a modern Western. Made for a modest budget, it received critical acclaim despite not receiving a general cinematic release. However, it still became a sleeper hit on the home video market. It follows Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) as a down-on-his-luck former marine struggling to make ends meet. He stumbles into the small town of Red Rock where Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) believes him to be the hitman Lyle (Dennis Hopper) he has hired to kill his wife and offers him half the money up front as agreed. Michael takes the money and goes and warns Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), who in turns offer more money to kill her husband. Eventually the real Lyle arrives and the motivation for the contract begins to unravel. Outstanding performances – especially from Dennis Hopper – a terrifically tense narrative and perfect soundtrack make this is a true hidden gem from the 90’s. Dahl would later go onto direct The Last Seduction and Rounders, two other under-appreciated 90’s films.
4 – Cube (Vicenzo Natali / 1997)
Cube is prime example of the power of home video during the 90’s, with this low budget, high concept sci-fi horror garnering a cult following despite an almost non-existent theatre release. Horrific B-movie acting and weak script aside, this is a fantastic concept, executed and presented with a finesse you wouldn’t expect from a film with a budget of only $500,000. It follows seven people awaking in interconnected cube rooms, with no memory how they got there. Many of the rooms contain deadly traps, and the prisoners must use their combined experience to try and understand their surreal surroundings, and why they are there, all while attempting to work together to escape their fate. While this is certainly far from a masterpiece, it is a film everyone should see. Playing on the fear and conspiracy theory paranoia of the fledging internet world, it is a testament to what low budget independent films were capable of during the 90’s.
3 – Human Traffic (Justin Kerrigan / 1999)
Released in the final summer of the 90’s, I firmly believe Justin Kerrigan’s introspection into British rave culture should be heralded in a similar manner to Trainspotting. A perfect snapshot of the buoyant youth culture, it follows five friends (including John Simm and Danny Dyer in their breakout roles) planning, enjoying and recovering from a drug-fuelled weekend escape from their dead-end weekly lives in Cardiff. While the plot is practically non-existent, its enriched with cultural and political undertones prevalent of the time, enraptured in a mesmerisingly witty script. Human Traffic is all about the journey and the experience. Stylistically spectacular – regularly breaking the 4th wall – the cinematography is unique and engaging, with a definitive soundtrack provided by legendary DJ Pete Tong. It captures the era perfectly. Even with positive reviews and a decent UK box office, the film found its home in the home video market cementing it’s cult status. Despite this, the film almost bankrupt Justin Kerrigan, with his producer, former mentor and film school tutor Allan Niblo securing all copyright for a £1 (that Kerrigan claims he was never paid!) While Niblo released a remastered version in 2002 with a new “directors cut” and updated soundtrack that belittled Kerrigan’s original work, the incredible talented Kerrigan has to almost wait a decade to release a follow up film, 2008’s I Know You Know. Yet his legacy is set in stone with a film that still looks incredibly fresh in 2016.
2 – The Game (David Fincher / 1997)
David Fincher is another directorial behemoth that found his way in the 90’s with Se7en and Fight Club, with the filler sandwiched between these two incredible films often forgotten and overlooked. Michael Douglas plays wealthy banker Nicholas Van Orton, who is haunted by the suicide of his father. His brother (played by Sean Penn) gives him a voucher for a game offered by Consumer Recreation Services for his birthday, promising him it will change his life. Reluctantly, Nicholas goes to the CRS office and faces numerous physical and psychological tests that he fails and is ultimately rejected for the game. However, his life starts spiralling out of control and it appears as if he has been scammed by the enigmatic CRS who he tries to track down. The Game drags the viewer on a wild ride through the depths of despair and paranoia as Michael Douglas puts in a top performance as the cagey Nicholas, supported by a atmospheric and tense script. Add to that the oppressive visual style typical of a Fincher movie and you have a marvellous title worthy of being in the discussion about the decades best films. Yet, wit the mediocre box office and reviews, it unjustly failed to achieve the credit is thoroughly deserves . If you have never seen this, you really should. And if you have, I think it is more re-watchable than you may think.
1 – Go (Doug Liman / 1999)
In a list of the most influential 90’s films of all time you will will struggle not to have a place for Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting and American Pie as they all became benchmarks and inspirations for countless films that followed. However, what happens when you take elements of all three and fold them into one film? You get a film like Go. While many critics slammed it for being a “junior Pulp Fiction“, I have always viewed it more as an American version of Trainspotting in that is glorifies recreational drug use, is focussed on a new wave of youth and is presented in a fresh, engaging style with a fantastic soundtrack. The narrative is constructed as a web, reliving the same night from multiple perspectives – similar to Pulp Fiction – and as they all play out we get the full picture. The anchoring plot resolves around a club rave and a desperate drug deal gone wrong. Each strand of the interconnecting plot is strong in their own right and seeing them all meld together is fascinating. Its a masterclass in story telling from Liman, presented with a great sense of identity, confidence and swagger. The cast (including Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant, Jay Mohr, Breckin Meyer & Taye Diggs) all deliver with believable and engaging performances. Following the praise Liman’s garnered for his work on Bourne franchise and, more recently, the success of The Edge of Tomorrow, it has retrospectively brought more critical appreciation for Go, both culturally and as a film. Not only is it one of my favourite 90’s films of all times, its one of my favourite films, period. It is as timeless as the 90’s heavyweights – including both Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. It ticks all the boxes and whenever under-appreciated movies are discussed, this is always my “go” to. Fantastic film.
And there we have it…25 films from the 90’s that either deserve more credit, aren’t given enough credit or are simply worth a revisit. Many of these have largely been forgotten by time, and I could easily list another 25 that are worthy of this list.
What are some of your forgotten classics from the 90’s boom of home video?