Qualified perhaps by their lack of revenue at the box office, failure to achieve critical acclaim, or just general obscurity, the phrase “underrated movie” is a rather ambiguous one.
Films like Devil in a Blue Dress barely missed out, and it’s a shame, but the 90s were so stacked with gems that it’s impossible to concoct a top ten that will appease masses. Anyway, my goal is for this post to act a potential “Watch List” for 90s fans. Let’s get to it.
10. Bottle Rocket
Although his 1998 effort Rushmore is regarded as one of his best works, Wes Anderson didn’t exactly make waves with his directorial debut – Bottle Rocket, released in 1996. It made just over half a million dollars on a $5 million budget, and didn’t receive any real acclaim until Scorsese included it among his top ten films of the decade.
And that’s a shame, because the film really does shine as much the rest of Anderson’s filmography. At least, for the most part. It’s a bit of an eyesore compared to his later movies, without the animated color palettes and whatnot.
Aside from that, though: the characters are flamboyant, the dialogue is charming and unique, and the film is generally shot in symmetric fashion. What’s not to love?
9. The Negotiator
Starring Samuel L. Jackson with Kevin Spacey in a supporting role, the former gained traction throughout the 90s for his collaborations with both Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, while the latter was adept at portraying perverts and serial killers. Not sorry about that one.
Here in The Negotiator — directed by F. Gary Gray in 1998 — both guys bring their A game, particularly Sam Jackson: funny, charming, poignant, and endlessly focused on his role as Danny Roman.
It’s a super creative premise too, and when you throw in thought-out dialogue and a flashy climax, you’ve got an underappreciated gem just waiting to be watched.
8. The Game
With such an intriguing premise in tandem with solid execution, it’s a shame that The Game didn’t receive more attention and praise among release in 1997. In fact, I’d bet that most young adults today are only familiar with the film because, well, it recently started streaming on Netflix. That’s it, really.
Michael Douglass usually kills it as a leading man, and that fact remains the same here. Like I said, the movie is basically built by intrigue, and Douglass’s verbal reactions and facial expressions act as a wonderful conduit to the movie’s insane plot. His emotions bounce off the screen and resonate with the audience as we experience the same.
Plus, it’s directed by David Fincher, which might explain why it flew under the radar—gaining traction while sandwiched between Se7en in ’95 and Fight Club in ’99 was not an easy task. Those are two of the most popular movies of the decade, and The Game should be in their boat.
Spike Lee really does seem to be hit or miss with regard to both commercial and critical success, but for me, he’s never made a bad movie. Spike’s 1990 effort Mo Betta Blues could’ve easily taken this spot instead, but I deemed Clockers more worthy.
Albeit the plot is more disjointed than your typical Spike Lee movie, the dialogue sure does hit home, the cast kills it, and the soundtrack absolutely slaps. Plus, I’m not sure if anyone in the game is more efficient at tackling political correctness in their films, as the morals behind each Lee joint shines just as bright as his animated-yet down-to-earth characters.
Clockers is a prime example of that, resulting in a can’t-miss experience.
6. Miller’s Crossing
Few filmmaking duos stand out with eminence like the Coen Brothers, and the 90s were arguably their peak. Fargo in ‘96 and The Big Lebowski in ‘98 are some of the more popular comedies of the decade… El Duderino, Frances McDormand’s “yah”, “Do you see what happens, Larry?” This is all household stuff.
However, three Coen films throughout this decade – Miller’s Crossing in 1990, Barton Fink in 1991 and The Hudsucker Proxy in 1995 – were all commercial failures at the box office, and for my money, the first was the most snubbed of the three.
A dense plot filled with intrigue and suspense, it also features some of the best performances you’ll find in a Coen Brothers flick. If you can get past the accents within the first few minutes, you’re set for a great ride. Strap in and enjoy.
5. Out of Sight
Often overshadowed by subsequent Soderbergh films, Out of Sight follows a resourceful and charismatic bank robber named Jack Foley—perfectly portrayed by George Clooney—as he traverses a world replete with crime, romance, and comedy, only to end up in the same place he started.
Or does he? I love an ambiguous ending just as much as the next guy, and while this one wasn’t necessarily open to all that much interpretation, that last scene of dialogue saw our hero complete a perfect circle in lieu of traversing a straight line.
4. Chungking Express
The only foreign language film on the list, Chungking Express put powerhouse director Wong Kar-Wai on the map. I would’ve included more films in different languages, but that to me goes against the point of this list, as foreign films are generally less watched in American than, well, American-made films.
Anyway. Chungking Express. Filled with romance, humor, drama, relative set pieces, it’s actually difficult to categorize by genre, and that’s one of its top appeals.
As far as openings go, the chase scene herein is one of the more attention-grabbing I’ve seen in recent memory, and it’s not because of the plot, but the cinematography. After the first scene, I wasn’t going anywhere, and no, I will not elaborate further — just go check it out.
3. Primal Fear
Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in his feature film debut, Edward Norton knocked it not just out of the park, but through the treetops of the parking lot and into a drainage pipe on the other side of the street with his role as Aaron Stampler. I won’t go so far as to say he was snubbed by Cuba Gooding Jr., but man, I really want to.
Known now primarily as one half of the Fight Club duo, on top of being the guy that freaked out on the set of The Incredible Hulk, let’s not forget what else this dude has done. American History X was a messed-up movie, but his portrayal was staggering. Birdman; or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance shocked audiences in 2014 with Iñárritu’s single-shot technique, but Norton was perhaps the film’s shining star.
Even with those under his belt, his very first performance will likely go down as his best. Honestly, Primal Fear features a rather mundane plot for my liking – it is a legal thriller, after all – but man, is Ed Norton’s character (and, SPOILERS, the twist he brings to the table) absolutely worth the effort.
2. Twelve Monkeys
Speaking of Oscar snubs… while the performance is inherently insane, as, well, he plays an actual patient of a legit insane asylum, Brad Pitt’s job as Jeffrey Goines is something to be truly heralded.
A weird, mind-bending journey through time, Twelve Monkeys also features the likes of Bruce Willis in the starring role (unfortunately overshadowed by Brad despite a solid performance) and Christopher Plummer, and the plot is crazy enough to hold your attention on its own.
But throw in some cool color schemes, a few disorienting camera angles and endlessly zany lines of dialogue, Twelve Monkeys stands apart from its science-fiction counterparts for taking that extra step and upholding the intrigue of the plot above the mechanics of the fictional world, resulting in a character-driven adventure that goes truly under-appreciated in this 2021.
1. Hard Eight
This is purely anecdotal, but I wouldn’t call Paul Thomas Anderson a household name. His movies like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, however, are some of the biggest of their respective decades (90s and 2000s) with multiple Oscar nominations and decent box office numbers to boot.
But now, let’s look back to his roots, at the project that started it all back in 1996:
Replete with a bevy of interesting characters and engaging scenes of dialogue, Hard Eight’s plot is like a fine cocktail: one part thoughtful and one part suspenseful for a result of pure cinema magic.
The cast, too, is just fantastic. John C. Reilly put on the performance of his life in his first starring role, and Gwyneth Paltrow killed it with a character that’s quiet yet charming, emotionless yet intriguing. She provided an air of innocence to a story filled with rage, vengeance, and greed, and along with Se7en by David Fincher, this movie jumpstarted her career.
Add names like Phillip Baker Hall, Samuel Jackson, and the invariably brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and now the cast is getting somewhere. If you’re not into the prospect of gambling, that’s okay — Hard Eight will appeal to you if you’re down for laughs and thrills from start to finish.
Thanks for reading!
While penning this post – after settling down with the list I chose and preparing to start the actual writing process – I sat there, staring at the wall, wishing I could make this a top fifteen, twenty, or even a top twenty-five. Within such an illustrious decade, it was a tough task to narrow down a top ten, but let me know what you think in the comments, and thanks again!