The 30 Most Overlooked American Movies of The 1990s

10. Miami Blues (1990)

Miami Blues

Alec Baldwin is a superb actor and is also one of the most charismatic movie stars living today. He is funny, he’s dry, he’s slightly dangerous, but he can also still show vulnerability at just the right moments. We forget this because most of Baldwin’s filmography (Heaven’s Prisoner’s and The Shadow are just two examples) consists of inherently flawed films (not necessarily bad ones) that never found a large audience.

Before he found the audience he deserved with his success on the television series 30 Rock, the only real evidence of the range of Baldwin’s talents was Miami Blues, which was released in 1990.

Directed by Grosse Pointe Blank helmer George Armitage, Miami Blues is a quirky tale about a criminal (Baldwin) who starts impersonating a police officer (the always welcome Fred Ward) with darkly hilarious and dangerous results. Probably ahead of its time, neither critics nor audiences have ever quite known what to make of this extraordinarily fine film.


9. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Glengarry Glen Ross

Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, and Alan Arkin star as down and dirty real estate businessmen climbing, cursing, and shouting over each other to get ahead.

Written by David Mamet (and based on his own play), Glengarry Glen Ross is a spectacle of verbal dynamics, high emotions, and, of course, great acting. Director James Foley keeps the pace and the stakes high throughout, and the movie passes you by like a speeding freight train.


8. One False Move (1992)


A pre-Sling Blade Billy Bob Thorton cowrote and costarred in this character-based thriller directed by Carl Franklin. Bill Paxton (in his best performance to date) stars as a bored small town sheriff who is more than thrilled to be involved in a manhunt involving three violent outlaws.

Paxton’s past soon comes back to haunt him, however, when he realizes his history with and strong connection to the female member of the criminal trio. Small town secrets, lies, and deceptions soon come to light, and the film becomes every bit as poignant as it is thrilling to watch. One False Move is far too special and brilliant to be such an underrated and little known film.


7. A Perfect World (1993)

A Perfect World (1993)

Director and costar Clint Eastwood’s film is about a criminal on the run (Kevin Costner) who takes a small boy hostage and subsequently bonds with him as they drive across the country together. A Perfect World came at a turning point in both his and star Kevin Costner’s careers in 1993.

Eastwood was coming off the Oscar-winning success and newfound “great filmmaker” status he found with Unforgiven. Costner was one of the biggest actors in the world, coming off multiple successes like Robin Hood and his own Oscar-winning directorial achievement, Dances With Wolves. Unfortunately for both of them, A Perfect World marked the beginning of the end of Costner’s reign at the top.

The film is both very dark and very moving, as the relationship between Costner’s character and the small boy turns into a loving but ultimately doomed surrogate father and son relationship. Like the film itself, Costner’s performance is layered, complicated, threatening, moving, charming, sad, and sympathetic.

It is by far the best work the always likable but often stoic actor has yet to do on film. Audiences hadn’t seen or didn’t want to see Costner as anything but a hero at that point, and consequentially wound up missing his most human and grounded performance.


6. Falling Down (1993)

falling down

Joel Schumacher will always be infamous in the nineties for one thing and one thing only: ruining the “original” and beloved Batman franchise started by Tim Burton in the eighties when he directed the sequels Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Falling Down, however, proves that it is quite easy to overlook the fact that Schumacher is perfectly capable of making a great movie.

The film is a dark comedy that becomes a dark thriller, which makes it somewhat indefinable, as does the fact that it’s primarily seen through the mentally unstable protagonist’s eyes. Played by Michael Douglas, our “hero’s” story begins when he has a mental breakdown in the middle of a Los Angeles traffic jam and abandons his car.

Something of a road movie commences as he heads home on foot and clashes with violence, racism, homophobia, commerce, general ignorance, and the law along the way. Both in Douglas’ highly overlooked performance and in the film itself, Falling Down gives us a very provocative ride through a very ugly and harsh nineties Los Angeles landscape.


5. Flirting With Disaster (1996)

Flirting With Disaster

Before he was an Oscar candidate almost every single year, writer-director David O. Russell was best known for making small, quirky, and independent-minded features much like his debut, Spanking The Monkey (also worthy of this list) and his follow up, Flirting With Disaster.

The film stars Ben Stiller as a man who grew up with an adoptive family, then decides to pursue his real parents as an adult on a cross country road trip with his wife (Patricia Arquette), an adoption agency worker (Tea Leoni), and his newborn son.

Silly, strange, and very human humor results as the film plows through multiple screwball characters and situations that escalate into a climax that defines absurdity. Flirting With Disaster is truly one of the great unknown and under appreciated comedies of its time.


4. Strange Days (1995)


Could have been and (with better timing) probably should have been the Blade Runner of the nineties. Strange Days is the brainchild of James Cameron, who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks. Cameron was quite prophetic with the theme and prediction of modern technology developing to a point that it would start taking away people’s realities.

Released in 1995, the film is a (then futuristic) tale set right on the eve of the new millennium in 1999. It centers around a fast-talking hustler (played with ease by Ralph Fiennes in an atypical role) who deals an illegal form of virtual reality to a sex and violence-adoring clientele. He quickly gets caught up in a murder mystery that turns into a high-ranking conspiracy.

Aided only by his faithful friend, limo driver, and someone who (unlike him) can hold her own in a fight (Angela Basset), Fiennes quickly has to fend for his life and solve the crime. Kathryn Bigelow (pre-Oscar winner for The Hurt Locker) directed this film with her expected eye for detail, character development, performances, and stunning visuals.

Basset’s scene-stealing performance as a strong, believable female action hero should be every bit as iconic as some of Cameron’s other female protagonists (Ripley in Aliens, Sarah in T2), but, sadly, was just as lost as the film itself on audience members this time around.


3. L.A. Story (1991)


Written by and starring Steve Martin, L.A. Story is the comedic writer and performer’s true masterpiece. It’s the movie that sums up his worldview as an artist, showcases his comedic style, and gives us a glance at who he truly is more than any other he has starred in or written.

Not to take away from Mick Jackson’s brilliant directorial flourishes, but Martin is the true creative voice behind L.A. Story, and you can feel it in every frame. L.A. Story gives us a Los Angeles that is entirely seen through an optimist’s eyes. Darker aspects of life in the city (muggings, highway shootings, eating disorders, etc.) aren’t ignored, but rather shrugged off and presented in the same fabric of L.A.’s absurd reality as the constant sunshine.

As surreal and silly as the film gets (Richard E. Grant’s testicles that ring like cowbells are a fine example), L.A. Story never loses you because it also contains moments of sincere beauty and astuteness that only a mind like Martin’s can communicate. There are many hilarious and brilliant films that Steve Martin has performed in and/or written, but none that quite achieve the levels of greatness that L.A. Story accomplishes with grace.


2. Ed Wood (1994)


To date, the last great film Tim Burton has directed and his second (and least heard of) collaboration with Johnny Depp after the magical success of Edward Scissorhands. Centering on the life story of filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Depp) and his friendship with a late in life and ailing Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), Ed Wood offers us an endearing and stylish look at life as a misfit in the 1950’s Hollywood scene.

Wood, the transvestite filmmaker who has literally been elected “The Worst Director of All Time” on many occasions, is a great character study and no one but Burton could ever be quite as capable to get into his head and showcase it onscreen the way it’s done here. When Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, he laughed and stated in his speech: “I think everyone who saw the movie is in this room…” Sadly, it wasn’t a joke.


1. The Grifters (1990)

The Grifters

There are many movies on this list (and many more that didn’t quite make it) that deserve to be on it, but there isn’t one as underrated, under seen, forgotten, daring, original, disturbing, or hyper stylized as director Stephen Frears’ noir drama, The Grifters.

John Cusack, Angelica Huston, and Annette Benning all deliver screenwriter Donald E. Westlake’s 1950’s-style dialogue (adapted from a Jim Thompson novel, of course) with pitch-perfect precision and dedication. It’s a career highlight for all three performers, which is no small feat for any of them.

The story centers on a small time con (Cusack), his high con mother (Huston), and his dangerously manipulative long con girlfriend (Benning). Tensions and jealousies soon arise between Benning and Huston over who is able to control Cusack the most, and the audience soon starts to uncomfortably question which of the two women he might hold the strongest feelings for and why.

The Grifters was beloved by critics when it was released and also received multiple Oscar Nominations (for every major player named above except for the robbed Cusack) for the year 1990. Today, however, it remains underappreciated and has far too small of a fan base.

There were a lot of great overlooked cinematic wonders that were released in the nineties, but none that can get under your skin in quite the same or skilled way as The Grifters. (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) They just don’t make movies that end with a mother hitting on her son, accidentally killing him with a water glass, then stealing all his money anymore… They just don’t.

Author Bio: Matt Hendricks is an independent filmmaker with several projects currently in development.