Most Underrated 90s Hollywood Movies: The 90s was unlike any other era, whether it was films, music, politics, pop-culture, sports, or any other form of art. With a new generation of artists rising up, the rules be damned. It was the anything-goes Nineties. Hollywood came too close to being overtaken by indie films, and studios became uncomfortable. Hollywood films of the 90s were the agglomerate of the insulated, white middle-class American life, full of anxiety, ambition, and discontent.
I have dived into this treasure pool of the 90s, in the hope of discovering some of the hidden, most underrated gems for you. Few might have lost their shine, but their value never receded.
Here are the 10 Most Underrated Hollywood Movies of the 90s, out of hundreds. Your list might differ. Have a read.
1. Pump Up the Volume (1990)
In Arizona, an introverted and insightful teenager, Mark Hunter (Christian Slater), finds an outlet for his viewpoints through a shortwave radio. Broadcasting as “Hard Harry,” Hunter, uses his pirate radio show to rant against the injustices and hypocrisies taking place in the area, and in society in general. Hunter conceals his off-air identity, but a determined student (Samantha Mathis) discovers the truth, while the corrupt Principal Creswood (Annie Ross) seeks to shut down Hunter once and for all.
Pump Up the Volume, hardly made a dent at the box office at the time of its release, but has stood the test of time and gained a cult following since. Its suburban setting was a figure from director Allan Moyle’s own past. Moyle, grew up in a small town during the post-World War II era. In his high school, he had a classmate with an amateur printing press he kept in his basement. That classmate would print anonymous pamphlets to distribute around the school. Some featured his commentaries on life, others attacked the principal and the institution. Moyle, was awestruck with this guy’s valor and the sense of self at their age. But, one day, he shot himself in the nearby woods, and and his death intensely strained Moyle. Years later, he expressed his grief through Pump Up the Volume.
The film inspired many directors, including Sam Esmail, who not only revived Christian Slater’s career with Mr. Robot (2015) after 25 years, but slunk off many references of the film on the show as well.
Show some love to this criminally underrated Hollywood film of the 90s, you won’t regret it.
2. The Addiction (1995)
The Addiction is the poster child of 90s underrated films. It stars one of the most underrated actresses, Lili Taylor, directed by the underrated Abel Ferrara, and written by the underrated Nicholas St. John! Shot in just 20 days, The Addiction follows Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor), a regular, college-going student, while walking home one night she has dragged off the street and bitten by a strange woman. Soon Kathleen finds herself with a new perspective on the nature of evil and humanity after being turned into a vampire, after the bite.
Lili, carries the existential weight of the movie on her shoulders. Though her dialogues are often preachy, and right out of a Hallmark card, her unemotional delivery & possessed performance sublimely descends the film into a sense of complete dread and nothingness.
The film has been considered an allegory about drug addiction, as well as of the theological concept of sin. The drug allegory, specifically, makes the film more piercing because Abel struggled with it most of his life, from the age of 16, and has directed most of his films being an addict. He has been sober since 2012.
The Addiction is moody, heavy-handed, and philosophical. This black and white film could be arduous for many, but for those who can survive, it will reward them with an experience rarely seen on-screen now. Give it a try.
3. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Out of all Richard Linklater’s work, I feel Dazed and Confused, still remains one of his most under-seen films. Even though it has gained cult status, we don’t revere it enough. Audiences outrightly rejected the film upon its release; it was a box-office bomb, featuring some of the most promising talents of the time, who went on to win Oscars & have blockbuster movie series under their resume. Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, and Adam Goldberg among others.
Set in 1976, this coming-of-age film follows the mayhem of a group of rowdy teenagers in Austin, Texas, celebrating the last day of high school. The graduating class heads for a popular pool hall and joins an impromptu keg party, however, star football player Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) has promised to focus on the championship game and abstain from partying. Meanwhile, the incoming freshmen try to avoid being hazed by the seniors, most notably the sadistic bully Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck).
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The film has secured a very profound and internal bond with the people involved. Ben Affleck confessed that he only has two posters from the films that he’s done hanging in his house, this and Argo (2012), being the other one. Jason London sees the film as the last time in his life that was genuinely happy and full of promise, he lost his sister right after the film got over.
We make friends with these characters and that’s why Dazed and Confused, continues to live on.
Stream it on YouTube
4. Defending Your Life (1991)
Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks), isn’t having a good week. For starters, he died after he got hit by a bus, he then discovers that in the afterlife he must defend his actions on Earth in order to ascend to a higher plane of existence. While awaiting judgment, he falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep), whose near-perfect life on Earth seemingly makes her a shoo-in for ascension. However, Daniel’s actions in his life might not be enough for him to move on.
Defending Your Life is an enchanting, and affectionate afterlife story, which could easily be a dark, twisted psychological drama or could have taken a very intimate, philosophical route in a surrogate reality. But, Brooks’ decision to turn it into a comedy, was a masterstroke.
It’s a comedy about death. Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Woody Allen’s Love & Death (1975), have also flirted with a similar motif, but Defending… is the most effective of all because it’s more real than surreal.
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Honestly speaking, there is nothing extraordinary about the film. The production design, cinematography, and even the performances, but the film would still linger on in your mind for weeks to come. The film is warm, fuzzy, endearing, comic, and subtly philosophical. You will find yourself constantly beaming from ear to ear.
For me, Albert Brooks has always been an underrated actor and an even more underrated director. And he directs better than he acts! His clever screenplay overtaxed his characters to expanse their authenticity to goofy silliness. This is also amongst Meryl Streep’s most underrated works. Not that it was a complex or layered role with any true character development, but her ordinary simplicity makes an indelible impression.
Defending Your Life is not a life-altering cinematic masterpiece, but it surely is going to bring a smile to your face. Watch it now!
5. Fearless (1993)
Novelist Rafael Yglesias wanted to weave his real-life horrific car-crash experience into words. Though he escaped unhurt, the accident fractures his state of mind. He decided to write about crash survivors and what goes on in their minds. But, his fleeting idea took to form a year later when United Airlines flight 232 crashed into an Iowa cornfield. The two survivors of that crash became his two main characters, and he wrote his seventh novel, called Fearless.
After finishing the novel, he realized that it had the potential to take the big leap onto celluloid. The story follows Max Klein (Jeff Bridges, extremely nuanced performance), who survives a plane crash that kills many others; his last-minute epiphanies bring him a sense of invulnerability, leading to radical behavior. Instead of contacting his wife (Isabella Rossellini) after the crash, he sets off on a trip to see his old girlfriend, eats foods he was allergic to previously and is strangely unafraid to fly again. Can a psychologist (John Turturro) and a fellow guilt-ridden survivor (Rosie Perez) help bring him down to earth?
Stephen Frears’ Hero (1992) and Fearless, both are based around a very similar subject, released almost exactly a year apart. About half a dozen cast and crew worked on both films. Some of the debris that was used in the crash scene in Hero was reused for the crash site in Fearless.
It’s a movie remarkably neglected in most discussions of great modern-era films. Don’t miss this underrated gem from the 90s.
6. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Woody Allen’s filmography reads like it features two different directors. When in his element, his work is astonishing, globally renowned, otherwise, it’s simply breathtaking in its awfulness. Sweet and Lowdown, is amongst his better-received, yet criminally underrated work.
Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), isn’t an easy guy to be around, he’s inconsiderate, egomaniacal, and also happens to be a peerless jazz guitarist. Despite his many faults, he ends up winning the heart of Hattie (Samantha Morton), a kind young mute woman. Hattie’s seemingly endless patience with Emmet is tested, however, with his incessant irresponsibility and infidelity, leading their relationship to the breaking point.
Woody, took the mockumentary approach (like many of his other films, including Zelig (1983)) to maneuver Sweet and Lockdown. The film is abruptly interrupted by interviews with critics and biographers like Allen, Nat Hentoff, and Douglas McGrath, who comment on the film’s plot as if the characters were real-life people. Woody, mixes facts with fiction here.[tabs]
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Boasting the talents of Sean Penn, John Waters, Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia & Samantha Morton, Sweet and Lockdown, got two Oscar nominations, Best Actor for Penn & Best Supporting Actress for Morton. Her nomination was particularly wondrous as she has no spoken lines in the film!
The film is affectionate, melancholic yet undeniably pleasant, and Samantha Morton quietly explodes it.
7. Happiness (1998)
Before saying anything about Happiness, let me warn you that some of you might find its theme, and standpoints, extremely vexed. Throughout the movie, there are striking amalgamations of scenes of profound wretchedness and rotten humanity with the mundane, sluggish daily life. And the contrast results in scenes that are disturbingly funny, sad, sincere, weird, horrifying, and highly relatable.
This dark ensemble comedy is centered on the three Jordan sisters. Joy (Jane Adams), moves through lackluster jobs with no sense of purpose. Now employed teaching adults, she is dating a student, Russian taxi driver Vlad (Jared Harris). Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), is an esteemed poet who becomes amused by her perverted neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And eldest sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), is married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a psychiatrist with a very disturbing secret life.
Solondz, says that the thing that seems to unsettle people is that there are characters whose behavior may be abhorrent, repellent, repugnant, and yet we can’t dismiss these characters. They have hearts and minds and lives that are bleeding. With Happiness, Solondz, managed to deform the audience’s identification, not with any plot twist, but with his characters. You could not watch it and feel anything. There are such poignant and desperate dimensions to the film that will question your personal moral compass, much like The Salesman (2016) and Elle (2016) did. You might NOT end up hating the perverts and pedophiles.
Happiness is certainly one of the most controversial and underrated movies of 90s Hollywood.
Stream Happiness on VUDU
8. Little Man Tate (1991)
Though critically and commercially successful upon release, Little Man Tate remains one of the most underrated 90s films. This was Jodie Foster’s directorial feature debut. She brought in an autobiographical element to the film.
Fred Tate (Adam Hann-Byrd), is a 7-year-old with a genius IQ. Single mother Dede (Jodie Foster), worries Fred might have an easier time fitting in with other child prodigies. Despite reservations, she allows Fred to go to a smart summer camp run by child psychologist Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest), a former child prodigy. Fred’s studies advance, but, as he prepares for a national TV competition, he is torn between following through with his advanced education or building a normal life.
Little Man Tate, is easy to watch, clever and touching. But, it’s not without its frailty. The script looks half-baked at times, but the film’s right intentions and heart just keep you invested till the end. It’s a top-class act from Jodie Foster & Dianne Wiest, no surprises here, but Adam Hann-Byrd as the child prodigy Fred gives a committed, focused performance at the age of 9! And, the fact that he has never faced the camera before, is even more admirable.
Little Man Tate, is a pint-sized Rain Man (1988), sans its perfection. Watch it if you haven’t already.
9. Soapdish (1991)
Celeste Talbert (Sally Field), is the star of the long-running soap opera “The Sun Also Sets”. With the show’s ratings down, Celeste’s ruthlessly ambitious co-star, Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty), and the show’s arrogant producer, David Seton Barnes (Robert Downey Jr.), plot to aggravate her into leaving the show by bringing back her old flame, Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline), and hiring her beautiful young niece, Lori Craven (Elisabeth Shue).
Try reading out the entire star cast’s names without taking a breathing break! Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Robert Downey Jr, Cathay Moriarty, Elisabeth Shue, Whoopi Goldberg, Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall, Teri Hatcher, Kathy Najimy, to name a few! What makes this film so fun is the casting. A few respectable Oscar winners and nominees play the cheesy soap opera actors.
But, even with such names, nobody was quite sure as to what to expect from Soapdish, once it was ready, because it had a farcical door-slamming comic DNA. And, more often than not, it was proven in the past that farce generally fails on celluloid, because it can easily slip into bad acting. Then director Micheal Hoffman, saw two people falling off their chairs to the aisle of a preview theater, laughing. This fall raised a few hopes.
Sally, really grounds the movie. It’s a different kind of ironic rhythm she brings to her character. Hoffman, reworked Robert Downey Jr’s character to make him suit his age because, in the original draft, he was a 50-year old man. Extensive reshoots on this film forced Kevin Kline to withdraw from Hook (1991) and was replaced by Robin Williams.
The film failed to attain the kind of critical attention it was aiming for, at the time of its release but gained a cult status over the years. Though, it still remains underrated till today.
10. Rounders (1998)
As they say, if you don’t have the sun, the planets don’t stay in their orbit. You need some center for all this eccentricity. And, the sun for Rounders was the director John Dahl. He has sprinkled wryly uproarious scenes throughout the film. Even though sometimes it feels like the movie itself never quite knows what it is about, it still manages to be mischievously entertaining.
Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), loses his money in a poker game against Russian gangster Teddy “KGB” (John Malkovich). Under pressure from his girlfriend, Jo (Gretchen Mol), he promises to quit gambling. This lasts until his friend, Lester “Worm” Murphy (Edward Norton), gets out of prison and needs to pay off an old debt. The pair come close to earning the money back but are caught cheating. Then Mike finds out the debt is owed to Teddy and makes one last-ditch effort to beat the Russian.
John Malkovich is a blessing to cinema, but no one was ready for him in Rounders! Words might ruin the magic he created on-screen here, so I won’t say much about his performance. According to Matt Damon, getting John Malkovich was a big deal for the film. So much so that on the first take, John gave a very cartoonish and over-the-top performance. The whole crew applauded and praised him for how brilliant it was. John, leaned over a very confused Matt, telling him if you get to that point where no one gives you a straight answer, it’s dangerous. Probably this self-awareness is the key to his distinguished career.
Rounders opened to mixed reviews and was moderately successful at the box office. With the poker boom in the early 2000s, the film later became a cult hit. Watch this under-seen gem, it won’t disappoint you.