Since we’re only five years into the “’teens,” a recap of contemporary underrated gems seems premature, so I thought I’d leap back an extra decade and revisit the overlooked masterpieces of the 90’s. Compiling the list was a bit of a chore since I had to think back on some of my favorites from 20 years ago that strike me as unappreciated by the masses. It’s an imperfect list, but a fair and just one all the same and I had a great time revisiting these nostalgic treasures. I’ve arranged them alphabetically so as not to show favoritism (not to mention ranking them in order of personal preference is a virtual impossibility). If you haven’t seen ’em, do yourself a favor and check out these modest underdogs from the decade that gave us grunge, the internet, and Quentin Tarantino.
Critical Care (1997): When Sidney Lumet died in 2011, eulogists had a bevy of incredible motion pictures spanning several decades to remember him by. From 12 Angry Men to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Mr. Lumet delivered some uncompromised masterpieces. I think this film is probably my second favorite from his superior repertoire (Dog Day Afternoon being the first). It’s too bad (but not surprising) that it didn’t catch on like so many of his other works. In classic form of Lumet-style satire, this film skewers the seemingly irreversible contamination of the medical profession by law firms and insurance companies in a way that is both hilarious and insightful. With an under-stated “non-all-star” cast, the quirky characters are brought to life in a way that lends disturbing credibility to an absurd scenario making it frighteningly realistic. The story’s relevance even today makes it all the more unsettling.
The Dark Backward (1991): Imagine if David Lynch and Preston Sturges collaborated on a film (and maybe used Terry Gilliam as a consultant) and you begin to get the idea of what this bizarre freakshow entails. This is truly a dark comedy in both visuals and content making it a bit of a trainwreck you can’t look away from. That’s not necessarily bad, but it is most definitely sick. Perhaps the sickest thing about it is how compelling it is. A description would sound like I was just making it up on the spot (and high on something), so I won’t even try. Adam Rifkin wrote and directed this early on in his career showcasing some genuine talent, yet he never made anything even remotely like it again. It seems like a waste to have this film remain such an anomaly by the guy who made it, but I suppose that’s a testament to its originality. I doubt if I could come up with something as odd as this a second time.
Gridlock’d (1997): I remember, at the time this came out, a critic described it as Tim Roth and Tupac Shukar as the Cheech & Chong of heroin. That sounds about right, but don’t let it fool you. It is indeed a very funny film, but, like Critical Care, its message is a powerful indictment of this country’s health system. A year earlier, Trainspotting brought the subject of heroin addiction to the big screen using comedy to illustrate the horrors of overdose and withdrawal. Gridlock’d looks at it from another point of view showing the futility of trying to get clean in a society that has essentially shunned addicts altogether regardless of their earnest attempts at rehabilitation. This message is underlined by a particularly ominous scene where Tupac’s character laments that he feels his “luck is running out.” The film was released about four months after Shakur’s death and is subsequently dedicated to him. I was never really into his music, but this film showed a genuine talent for acting that made me sad his full potential as a thespian would never be fully realized.
The Insider (1999): This film may not seem underrated since it was (rightfully) nominated for seven Academy Awards (including best picture, director, actor, and screenplay), but unlike The Shawshank Redemption, which bombed at the box office, but got nominated for several Oscars and eventually found a huge success through word of mouth after being released on video, The Insider never really found its staying power. I remember seeing the trailer in the theater and thinking it looked like a movie my dad would probably watch but would bore me to tears. A friend insisted I watch it, though, and lent me his copy to emphasize the point. After I watched it, I immediately went out and bought my own copy. This film is almost entirely comprised of talking, but it is endlessly riveting and wonderfully exciting, like an action movie with no violence. It’s hard to pick a favorite scene because every bit of it is so thoroughly satisfying. Furthermore, I think it contains the best performance of Russell Crowe’s career and Al Pacino’s greatest onscreen rant ever (which is really saying something).
Nothing to Lose (1997): Everybody I know who saw this movie said they were surprised by how funny it was. I’d say that’s probably because it stars Martin Lawrence, who (like Rob Schneider and Dane Cook) seems to have set a precedent that any movie he’s in must be embarrassingly horrible. The truth is there’s a very short list of films that have made me laugh until I was brought to tears and this is one of them. In fact, I’ve seen this movie many, many times and it still makes me laugh hysterically despite knowing exactly what’s coming. Most impressive, though, is how it seems to do so much with so little. It’s an unassuming film with a simple premise: Desperate Martin Lawrence carjacks a despondent Tim Robbins who in turn kidnaps Lawrence and the two of them pull a heist together. Dopey as that may sound, there are some clever subplots, lots of unexpected gags, and a surprising amount of character depth for a film of such modest aspirations, but it all works and it holds up well after multiple viewings. Best of all, the filmmakers showed enough tactful restraint to not make a series of sequels. I have a tremendous amount of respect for a film willing to allow itself to be a silly comedy, do it well, and be fine with leaving it at that.
RoboCop 2 (1990): Here’s where I might lose a number of you, but hear me out. As this is a list of underrated films, I thought it appropriate to include a movie I felt was unfairly chided by critics and audiences alike. I’ll admit, I didn’t think much of RoboCop 2 when I saw it in theaters. And, no – it’s not a great movie by any means. But, as far as sequels go, it’s not that bad. In fact, the more I watch it, the more I like it. First of all, I give the filmmakers props for not just basically re-making RoboCop.* That would have been really easy for them to do and they probably would have made even more money. However, instead of amping up the violence and gore, they instead amped up the political and economic commentary thus making it a more socially relevant film rather than settling for a mind-numbing action flick. That may be why audiences rejected it. Of course, action, violence, gore, and mayhem are all in there too and, while it may not be as shocking or clever as the original, the spirit is still intact. Apparently, this film was a production nightmare fraught with re-writes and re-shoots and re-edits (which is kind of funny since RoboCop himself goes through similar changes and upgrades throughout the film – art imitates life and vice versa) and, while the film seems a bit patchy at times, it’s pretty well put together, considering. That in itself is a small miracle. Too many cooks in the kitchen is never a good thing, but it’s nice to recognize when things don’t turn out nearly as bad as they could have.
*Incidentally, the RoboCop remake that came out last year was way worse than RoboCop 2.
Swimming with Sharks (1994): When Kevin Spacey received an Academy Award for The Usual Suspects, some say his performances in Se7en and this film (all released within the same year) likely helped influence his win. I agree. Although, out of those three films, I think Swimming with Sharks contains his best work. Spacey plays the relentlessly abusive Machiavellian producer Buddy Ackerman with such immoral glee, it’s clear the character not only knows he’s evil, but revels in it. Spacey’s talents really shine through in the scenes where the story makes some particularly dark twists. He shifts from comedy to drama seamlessly and without altering the integrity of the character. Supposedly based on real-life producer Joel Silver, this film comes across as a very personal and passionate open letter to Hollywood exposing the dark underbelly that everybody knows about but few people acknowledge openly. The overall mantra of the film is “What do you really want?” but more specifically, it’s asking “How much of your soul are you willing to sell?” With that, the film feels a bit like a warning, not just to people contemplating a career in Hollywood, but to the people already there.
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995): Apparently, this script was written long before Reservoir Dogs ever saw the light of day, but wasn’t greenlit until Pulp Fiction paved the way for a variety of wannabees. The film’s a bit heavy-handed with its “too cool for school” catch phrases and the characters are clichéd to the point of almost being cartoons, but this movie is wickedly entertaining and quite satisfying. It helps that the cast is populated by a who’s-who of character actors from independent film lending it instant credibility. A group of semi-retired criminals are brought together for a job they end up botching and then given a grace period of 48 hours before the kingpin who hired them (played by the always reliably creepy Christopher Walken) rubs them out. Things become a bit existential when each of them choose a different path. One tries to run, one tries to hide, one tries to fight back, one accepts his fate and does nothing, and so on. It’s an interesting mix of what-ifs and has some truly inspired moments. Inevitably lost in the morass of the fallout of Tarantino plagiarists, this film deserved better.
Twenty Bucks (1993): The story behind this film is as charming as the film itself. The script was originally written in 1935, but wasn’t discovered until after the screenwriter’s death in 1990. His son updated the script for the 90’s and the combined result was this movie – a movie told from the point of view of a twenty dollar bill illustrating the subtle yet significant impact petty cash has on our lives. The story is pretty thorough in contemplating its options and the bill in question sees about as much action as Wile E. Coyote. A great ensemble cast (most of whom were unknown at the time but are very recognizable now) of characters walk in and out of seemingly unrelated scenes playing major parts in some vignettes and minor ones in others. If you pay close attention to the relationships of the characters, this film will make you think (and wonder) about the peripheral people in your own life and how they affect you. It’s actually quite romantic in that sense.
Zero Effect (1998): This is a brilliant contemplation of how a Sherlock Holmes type would behave in the modern world. The criminally underused Bill Pullman plays Daryl Zero, a private investigator so ingenious, he can solve mysteries almost instantaneously. Unfortunately, he’s also a shut-in with severe obsessive compulsive disorder who is so socially inept, he must pretend he’s other people to function in public. Ben Stiller is the Watson to his Holmes, serving as a liaison to clients and general errand boy. The movie is pretty funny, but its real strength comes from the mystery itself (which I will not reveal here). Like Adam Rifkin (writer/director of The Dark Backward), for some reason, Jake Kasdan (writer/director of this film) went in a completely different direction with all of his subsequent films, sadly settling for low-brow, gross-out comedies instead of smart, thoughtful ones like this. I guess you gotta go where the money is, but Zero Effect is so inspired, it’s disappointing that it didn’t do well enough to justify more like it.
I fear that, immediately after posting this, I’ll be plagued with thoughts of “Oh, yeah! That was a good one, too,” but, as I said before, I think this is a nice representation of flicks that have become unfairly forgotten. I’d invite readers to enlighten me as to what some of your favorites from the 90’s were that may have slipped through the cracks as well. After all, if I’ve never heard of them, how would I know how good they are?