7. One False Move (1992)
Three criminals set off on a murderous cross country car trip after being the perpetrators in a vicious drug heist in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, two L.A. cops anticipate that the trio are headed to Star City, Arkansas (one of the criminals’ home town) and gather with the overzealous sheriff to prepare for their arrival.
Why It’s So Great
Scripted by Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton (who also stars as Ray, one of the criminals), One False Move weaves two separate narrative threads – one from the law’s point-of-view and the other from the criminal point-of-view – which finally knot delivering a tragic but altogether compelling climax. It is a familiar premise but the film is noteworthy because of the terrific acting (Thornton, Bill Paxton and Michael Beach in particular), the unexpected twists and revelations in the narrative and some assured directing from Carl Franklin, on his debut feature.
Oddly, the film was released straight-to-video but garnered enough praise to be given a theatrical release enabling it to become one of the best reviewed films of 1992. Since then, it has not been spoken about often enough and definitely deserves a little more attention. This is also not the last film to feature the likes of both Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton on this list…
6. Bound (1996)
When Corky – a tough-acting lesbian – is released from prison after a five year sentence for theft, she is enticed by her seductive neighbour Violet and the two begin a steamy love affair behind the back of Violet’s shaky mob enforcer boyfriend, Caesar. When Caesar comes into the possession of a suitcase filled with $2 million in bloody money, Corky and Violet hatch an ingenious plan to steal it.
Why It’s So Great
Bound was the feature debut from the Wachowski’s who would later hit astronomical success with the ‘Matrix’ trilogy and its game-changing digital effects. During Bound’s release however, it had critics comparing the directors to the Coens Brothers and their film Blood Simple specifically.
The biggest familiarities between Blood Simple and Bound is the acute dialogue and the complicated neo-noir plots that twist and turn at any given time; you are literally kept on a knife-edge all the way through and you feel the film’s grip tighten on you ever so much during the final half of both movies. What is apparent with Bound however and what makes it such an attractive film is the highly stylized visual aesthetic and what appears to be hints at their elaborate cinematography that would return in their ‘Matrix films.
The film also features some terrifically shot sex scenes between Violent and Corky that – in less capable hands – may have turned out gratuitous. It is within such praise that Bound excels from simply carrying a ‘gay’/’lesbian’ tag to being recognized as an outstanding heist movie that just so happens to feature lesbians; something of a breath of fresh air when it was released as the relationship does not share centre stage with the heist itself.
5. A Simple Plan (1998)
A group of three small-town Americans discover a crashed plane loaded with $4 million which they decide to keep. The money soon proves to be more trouble than its worth as it leads to betrayal, jealousy, the unveiling of family secrets, and eventually murder.
Why It’s So Great
Directed by Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan is easily one of his most overlooked films – and from a retrospective point of view – it is also one of his least characteristic. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of his best efforts and it is a brilliant exploration of the capability of committing unspeakably evil acts of that even good people possess.
A Simple Plan maintains a level of suspense that often reaches unendurable levels as the authorities begin to close in on the protagonists. The tension is surely bolstered by the film’s strong sense of reality thanks to the highly credible and sympathetic brotherly relationship portrayed by Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as Hank and his simpleton brother respectively; it is sure to keep anybody empathetically hooked right up until the film’s emotionally shattering denouement.
Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristically spare score adds to the film’s cold visuals and injects an element of creepiness to the proceedings. Raimi should most definitely return to this sort of filmmaking in the future as he has displayed a proficient skill in making tense and serious thrillers with this film.
4. The Last Seduction (1994)
Bridget Gregory – a sexy but manipulative telemarketing manager from New York City – steals $700,000 from her husband who has just acquired it from a drug deal. On the run, she makes a stop in the small town of Beston where she decides to make a stay; she changes her name, a gets a job at a local insurance firm and hooks up with a local guy. When her husband discovers her location and hires private investigators to seek her out, she begins to hatch a wickedly ingenious double-cross.
Why It’s So Great
The Last Seduction is one of the very best neo-noir thrillers ever made. Writer Steve Barancik and director John Dahl were clearly not attempting to tread the tropes of past thrillers and achieved greatness with this smartly diabolical film. It turns the premise of the classic ‘Double Indemnity’ on its head by centralizing on the character of Bridget (the 90s answer to Phyllis Dietrichson) allowing the audience to indulge in the unique vicarious kicks of seeing such a shamelessly bad person succeed.
Linda Fiorentino turned everyone’s heads, including the critics’ in the role of a lifetme as the Brunette femme fatale man-eater. She gets to deliver some razor-sharp lines of dialogue which contribute to the cruel wit which runs through the heart of the film. Her staggering central performance is a force to be reckoned with in a genre often dominated by macho bravura and Fiorentino was notoriously denied an Oscar nomination for her efforts as The Last Seduction had been aired on TV before its theatrical release.
3. State Of Grace (1990)
Terry Noonan returns to the Irish mobsters he grew up with after a ten-year absence as an undercover cop intent on bringing them down. His childhood friends are now ranking high in the Hell’s Kitchen’s crime organization and are currently in talks of a treaty with the Italian mafia. With Terry’s loyalty to his friends and his life a cop in the balance, the suspicions of the Irish mob boss, Frankie Flannery, are beginning to rise.
Why It’s So Great
Perhaps the only negative thing about Martin Scorsese’s magnificent ‘Goodfellas’ is that its release eclipsed this little known gem. State Of Grace may not have the virtuoso direction of ‘Goodfellas’, but it sure is an exceptional crime thriller that also packs a huge emotional punch. The slow-burning plot involving the camaraderie between Terry and Jackie, the rekindled flame of Terry’s first love and the growing doubt of Frankie are all finely balanced and culminate with an expertly shot shoot-out in a bar during the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
The acting is first class; Sean Penn exhibits the inner turmoil of Terry with superb authenticity and his chemistry with co-star Robin Wright as his love interest is genuine as they would later marry from their meeting on this film. Ed Harris and Gary Oldman also give towering performances as the Flannery brothers, each representing both sides of madness; Harris as the domineering, ruthless and megalomaniacal Frankie whereas Oldman is the violent psychotic – essentially what he used to be typical of doing so well. Ultimately, State Of Grace one of the most criminally overlooked and underrated gangster movies of the 90s.
2. Strange Days (1995)
Set in the then-future of 1999 on the brink of a new millennium, Strange Days shows us the last two days of the 20th Century through the nocturnal eyes of a cop-turned-street hustler, Lenny Nero, as he deals in clips (memories recorded via “S.Q.U.I.D.” devices that have gone black market) and uncovers the death of an influential black hip-hop artist in L.A.
Why It’s So Great
Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days never ceases to be a fascinating film – it boldly captures the impending anxiety of approaching the then-new millennium whilst weaving an imaginative and intelligent mystery narrative. The film presents Los Angeles as a city spiralling out of control, suffused with violence, crime and social disharmony. Imagine an alternate timeline where the L.A. riots never actually stopped and racial-tensions are at boiling point and you should get a pretty clear picture.
The “S.Q.U.I.D.” technology made way for some revolutionary breakneck cinematography (that Bigelow accomplished by actually building a new form of Steadicam whilst shooting the chase scene in her previous film, ‘Point Break’) that makes the film all the more impressive as it pushed the envelope with its kinetic visuals. With the script having been written by James Cameron, he poses plenty of empirical questions regarding technological and sci-fi issues such as virtual reality, voyeurism and the psychological harm of actually reliving your memories; subjects that could have you mistaken the source material for a lost Phillip K. Dick short.
The sum up the film quickly, it is probably the closest result one would get if they combined the action of ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ with the neon drenched streets and the though-provoking premise of ‘Blade Runner’. It unfortunately tanked at the box-office in 1995, perhaps due to an absence of big 90s names, its sometimes graphic (but never gratuitous) violence and a 145 minute runtime. Since then it has acquired a small cult following, but has always deserved much more than that.
1. Red Rock West (1993)
A penniless ex-Marine drifter (Michael) finds himself in a small town in the middle of nowhere after being denied a job which he had been promised. He is then mistaken for an out-of-state hitman by a vindictive local who wants his wife dead. After been given half of the money in advance, Michael visits the wanted wife and accepts a counteroffer for him not to kill her; he then attempts to flee the town with all the cash but a bizarre series of events and coincidences unfold keeping him way over his head.
Why It’s So Great
Red Rock West is yet another film that was initially released straight-to-video, but like ‘One False Move’, it gained such notoriety from word of mouth that a theatrical release was promptly arranged and it, again, became one of the best received films of its year. The film was scripted by John and Rick Dahl; John – who also took directing duties here – also directed the aforementioned ‘The Last Seduction’, but Red Rock West steals the top spot due to it perhaps being even lesser known.
On paper, it appears to be a very complicated plot but it is surprisingly very easy to follow when viewing. Its own elevated sense of built-in logic allows seemingly any manner of occurrence to happen within the plot, so that when the crap hits the proverbial time after time for Mike, the audience does not question it; it works and never feels contrived or superfluous.
For its day, Red Rock West is perfectly cast; Lara Flynn Boyle somehow seems an obvious choice as the maybe disloyal femme fatale, the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh exceeds as another villain and there is even room for Dennis Hopper in psycho mode who features as a very key character. At the centre of the film however is a pre-stardom Nicolas Cage as the hapless drifter who holds everything together whilst adding just a sprinkle of “Cage-osity” to his performance so that it does not overshadow the rest of the film.
Overall, Red Rock West is a superb film and is surely one of the best and most overlooked thrillers of the 90s.
Author Bio: Liam Hathaway has a lifelong passion of watching and reading about any/every sort of film which has lead him to be a Film Studies student at Sheffield Hallam University. His favourite directors at the moment are John Carpenter, Ben Wheatley, Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese.