Here is my collection of movie reviews for 14 underrated sleeper films from the 1990’s that have accomplished the daunting task of surviving, of remaining relevant, entertaining and compelling. The criterion for the designation is simple – these are not the famous Blockbuster flicks or Oscar winners, so perhaps you may have missed watching these good movies. These Sleeper films are great for repeat viewing, as they tend to eschew serious themes and instead are heavy on entertainment. These movies are like old friends that provide a much needed escape from the daily grind.
Sleeper movies on the list fared mediocre at the box office, with the best (The Last of the Mohicans) ranking #17 in 1992. Most were not in the top 100 for Box Office revenue, and none on the list scored well at the Academy awards Hootenanny. In a year when Titanic ran the table, L.A. Confidential was able to score a best-supporting-actress Oscar – the only major award for the entire list. These underrated movies may have been overlooked at the big award ceremonies, yet enjoy respectable pedigrees with outstanding Directors and acting talent, including a few career-best performances. Although never discussed with a tone of reverence, they are full of good surprises, and I suspect that’s why the smaller films from big directors tend to impress me more. These are the type of films you just happen to stumble across rather than actively seeking it out, pop into the DVD player with low expectations, and are pleasantly surprised to find a solid little film worthy of space on your DVD shelf.
For those of you on a campaign to boycott mainstream Hollywood movies now playing at the local multiplexes, I offer this assortment of unheralded 90’s films. Movies are listed by order of ascending release dates.
1. After Dark, My Sweet 1990 drama crime film-noir
A trio of amateur criminals snatches the young son of a rich family, and their hapless kidnap plan goes completely wrong. This film has a slow, deliberate pace and takes plenty of time to unspool the simple plot. The style of the film is nothing special, but it is the highly pessimistic storyline that lands you squarely into Noirsville. Maybe the best reason to watch the film is the sterling performance by Jason Patric (career best) as Collie, a punchy ex-boxer. Collie meets Fay (Rachel Ward); they fall in love, but the dream soon ends. Collie has to make a tough call. It is the essence of film noir: He is doomed, and knows it. If you want a happy ending; look elsewhere.
2. Miller’s Crossing 1990 crime action thriller
This film captures the atmosphere of the Roaring '20's when the Irish mob ran the show in New York City. The movie is really a character study of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) the smartest gangster in town. He sees all the angles and knows all the right plays. Tom is unlucky at the racetrack, but lucky in love which causes a few more big problems. Serious problems get settled at Miller’s Crossing, but it is not a fun place to be. No spoilers. This is career best work by Byrne who is, by the way, a native of Dublin, Ireland. Nothing fake about his Irish accent.
3. K2 1991 drama sports adventure
This is a high visceral impact film that is catnip for people who love the mountains. The scenes I like best are when the climbers break out the full ice climbing gear and traverse their way up and up, all to the tune of cool rock music with beautiful mountain scenery in all directions. They make it look fun, but don’t fool yourself -behind every Himalaya mountaineering adventure is the constant risk of serious injury or death. That reality is shaped into this film as the jagged rocks are climbed higher and higher. Be patient with this film; it starts off slow. The beginning scenes about the personal lives of the mountaineers are just noise and soap opera, but the climbing scenes are breathtaking. This is also a story about friendship with real character development. The media critics panned this movie. The world is mad; Mad, I tell you!
4. Billy Bathgate 1991 drama crime
The story of NYC gangster "Dutch" Schultz (Dustin Hoffman) is told through the eyes of his protégé; a clever, young lad named Billy Bathgate (Loren Dean). This is a first rate 1930’s era movie with sleek, black Packard limos, fedoras, pushcarts and shabby tenement buildings. Times were rough and tough during the Great Depression, and many young men born into poverty, like Billy, were drawn to the criminal world with the vague promise of easy money, flashy cars and pretty girls. Billy takes a fancy to Drew (Nicole Kidman), Dutch’s wealthy girlfriend, so a rich-girl meets poor-boy romance develops and becomes the center of the story. For a gangster flick, the violence is modest (thanks) and it looks impressive on a modern plasma TV. This movie is also of interest to film historians for the erotic shots of Nicole Kidman, sans clothes. Overall a well-crafted Depression Era gangster pic that packs a real punch. Steve Buscemi and Bruce Willis have brief but notable support roles.
5. The Last of the Mohicans 1992 drama war romance
Set in North America, circa 1757, during the peak of the French and Indian War, this film is an adaptation of one of the best known historical fiction books in early American literature, by the same name. Cooper’s novel was based on the Battle of Fort William Henry, an infamous defeat of the British and American colonial forces by the French and their Indian allies (an assortment of Hurons, Abenakis and Catholic Iroquois). When you watch the massacre of the survivors you realize that there was a real danger of the fledgling English colonies to be annihilated by the native Indians and their French allies. The movie, same as the book, has a love affair to help drive the story. The romance scenes with roughhewn Hawkeye (DD Lewis) and high-born Cora (Madeline Stowe) strike a true chord and are better than most. But the film is almost stolen by Magua, the Huron Indian war chief (Wes Studi). He is as dangerous as ten rattlesnakes, and blood chilling to watch as he complains to the French commander, “Our tomahawks are not red.” Production qualities and large-scale battle scenes are exemplary with detailed period wardrobes and scenery. Add to that polished cinematography of magnificent scenery featuring old-growth forests and scenic mountains. The superb soundtrack is a bonus. This gritty film would not be made in today’s PC Hollywood.
6. The Player 1992 mystery suspense crime
I have re-watched this movie many times, and still find it one of the best movies ever made about the movie business. This film has it all: suspense, drama, comedy, and romance. Tim Robbins plays movie producer Griffin Mill, and delivers his career best dramatic performance as he swims with the sharks. One bad move, a tiny scratch, some blood in the water and he is doomed. Does he make it? See for yourself.
7. Tombstone 1993 western
Every decade list needs a Western. The legend of the gunfight at the OK Corral is one of the paragons of the American Wild West. And like most old legends, the OK Corral is a blend of fact and fiction. What we know for certain is that on October 26, 1881 Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday shot it out with a band of alleged outlaws, killing three. Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp gives a strong portrayal of an ex-lawman struggling with the moral dilemma of killing. He didn't want to get involved until he had no choice but to strap on the wheel gun. There is plenty of bloodthirsty mayhem to follow. However, this movie really belongs to Val Kilmer playing gambler, gunfighter Doc Holliday. He gave his character a sense of tragic fatalism, wishing to die in a blaze of gunfire rather than fading away from tuberculosis. Kilmer’s Doc, had style, and charisma. His quotes, especially the Latin exchange with Johnny Ringo in the Faro parlor remain a truly unique touch on the Western genre.
8. Red Rock West 1993 drama crime thriller
A mostly unknown film, it is a classic story of conscience, greed, betrayal, mistaken identity, and murder most foul. The cast is solid: Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, J.T. Walsh and Lara Flynn Boyle. The four leads are cast in the types of roles that perfectly suit their individual talents, and they turn in memorable performances. The plot twists are clever, the script is tight and smart, and even the minor characters have good roles. This is an excellent movie for fans of intelligent crime-thrillers.
9. Strange days 1995 suspense thriller Sci-Fi
This is a mostly forgotten film with plenty of twist and turns and an outstanding performance by the troupe of actors. Ralph Fiennes has never been as cool as when he played ex-cop turned bootlegger, Lenny Nero, and Juliette Lewis is at her most alluring and cruel. A powerful film about murder, conspiracy, double crosses, futuristic devices, and a good old-fashioned street riot. I recently watched it again, and like a fine wine this film only got better with age. What a shame it never got the recognition it deserves.
10. 2 Days in the Valley 1996 mystery suspense crime
This film is an only-in-California crime flick with multiple storylines that unravel, rewind, then twist and turn to a wild finish. A great ensemble cast keeps your attention. For Blacklist fans, see James Spader back when he had a full head of hair, and catch a glimpse of his inner Raymond Reddington. Charlize Theron and Teri Hatcher steam up the screen, and the unheralded support cast adds humor and depth. There is more talent in this one movie than in five or six typical Hollywood flicks. This film seemed to hit the 90’s zeitgeist better than most.
11. L.A. Confidential 1997 mystery suspense crime
This movie flashes back to post-WW2 Los Angeles, and peels back the shiny facade to study the dark side of the California dream. The all-star cast blends together perfectly and does not distract. Russel Crowe was never better as tough cop Bud White, and the role boosted his Hollywood star to the A-list. Kevin Spacey, Guy Pierce and James Cromwell round out the good-cop, bad-cop cast, while Danny DeVito delivers some welcome comic relief. Add to this, a gripping plot and world-class production values. They don’t make detective movies like this one anymore. Mostly overlooked by the Academy, only Kim Basinger picked up Oscar Gold for Best Supporting Actress. This film has a small legion of rabid fans, for good reason.
12. Zero Effect 1998 mystery detective thriller
I will not mince words; I am an unabashed super fan of this fun movie. Who's the eccentric private eye who drinks Tab and avoids people if at all possible? Why, Daryl Zero, of course (brilliantly played by Bill Pullman). With Ben Stiller co-starring as his serious minded assistant, and an excellent supporting cast, Zero Effect was a little too quirky for mainstream success and quite a few critics didn't know what to make of it -- but I loved the offbeat style. Did I mention the two obs? This film is a rare bird that I enjoy watching every other year. I envy people seeing it for the first time. A must own DVD.
13. The Ninth Gate 1999 mystery suspense horror
Let’s not leave Roman Polanski off the list. His gloomy mind conjures up all the essential ingredients for a good supernatural horror tale: dark obsessions, occult puzzles, a sexy femme fatale, multiple murders, and Johnny Depp in the lead role as a crafty (think unscrupulous) rare-book dealer, Dean Corso. Panned by critics upon release, this film rewards patient viewing. Like other top notch mystery films, the viewing pleasure is found in the slow-paced quest itself and not overblown action scenes. The film's first-rate technical qualities and casting make this one of the best horror films made in the 90s.
14. Arlington Road 1999 mystery thriller
Here we have a shining example of an entertaining, yet forgotten thriller of the 1990s. Terrorism and troubling questions are explored in the heartland of suburban America (pre-9/11), and proves once again that you don't have to be a conspiracy fanatic to get in touch with your inner paranoia. The surprise ending is powerful, and although I understand it, I hesitate to say more for fear of spoiling an excellent film. The acting is first class, mainly because the principle actors - Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, and Hope Davis never hit a wrong note. This movie is a bolt from the blue, and builds tension steadily and expertly. Say no more: Arlington Road is a true sleeper-keeper.
Honorable mentions 1990’s: Lost Highway, Bad Lieutenant, Poison Ivy, Candyman, Stargate, Freeway, Joe Versus the Volcano.