The 15 Most Underrated Male Performances of the 1990s

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

The last ten years of the previous millennium contained some seriously great acting from the most significant new form of art and entertainment of the 20th century.

At a time when the blockbuster was well and truly developing, and the commercial promises of film seemed to be getting even more attention, whilst new technology in the second half of the decade allowed even more low-budget films to get made, the ‘90s were swamped with all sorts of great films that may’ve been obscured by blockbuster behemoths or awards-friendly critical darlings.

And in these great films contained some of the finest acting of the decade, some of which could be called the best acting the cinema has ever been graced with, so here are the films and the film actors who put something incredibly special on screen that deserves to be seen by more people.


15. Ewen Bremner in Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)

Strongly tempted to put Werner Herzog’s rare acting performance as the awful and sadly hilarious patriarch here instead, but Ewen Bremner’s transformative, authentic, and sympathetic (without a pinch of sugar-coating) portrayal of the titular character with schizophrenia is one of the most genuine filmic portrayals of this debilitating mental condition.

This is a very scattered non-narrative, exemplified by the peculiar part-doco filming style (courtesy of the Dogma 95 movement), which goes to show the chaotically interpreted life of Julien, who’s given an equally scattered performance by Bremner.

Director Harmony Korine’s own schizophrenic uncle was the inspiration for this film and central character. Bremner met the uncle and listened to tape recordings of him in preparation for the role, even going so far to spend six weeks working in a Manhattan psychiatric hospital.

The film is made up of mostly improvised acts of spontaneity, as is Bremner’s acting style, who shows Julien in such a human light, making him out to be sometimes fun, jovial, and excitable to be around, and at other times dangerously off-kilter.

Bremner’s performance feels more freshly spontaneous than most other performances of the decade and some of this can be attributed to the doco-drama style of filmmaking, but it’s mostly due to Bremner’s touching, instinctive, and considerate realisation of a person who is one of many mentally troubled people who still bravely face their lives.


14. Elias Koteas in Crash (1996)

Elias Koteas, Crash (1996)

There’s a lulling sensation that Crash gives off, mainly accentuated by the hazy dream-like acting, and Elias Koteas is one of those leading forces. His role is arguably the most difficult in the film, playing the most eager of the sadomasochistic car-crash junkies, who often throws himself in planned car accidents just so he can get off.

The sort of world the characters inhabit in Crash is a seemingly dangerous and even frightening one, so this calming acting is a great way to lure the unsuspecting, but willing audience into this seedy underworld – lead actors James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger first take us there, but Koteas is the one who forces us into all the nooks and crannies of this disturbing alternative way of living and experiencing pleasure.


13. Harvey Keitel in Ulysses’ Gaze (1995)

Harvey Keitel, Ulysses’ Gaze (1995)

If Harvey Keitel wasn’t one of the best American actors of the ‘90s, he was certainly one of the most underappreciated. He bared himself for the camera for several decades and continued to do so after his casting as the emotional and personal centre of this serious and powerful ode to cinema, Ulysses’ Gaze.

His filmmaker role shows a man who is tender, yet not sweet, commanding, yet not demanding. He takes his role calmly and assuredly to begin with in the film’s leisurely first hour or so, though his acting abilities come to the fore with the grief-stricken and anguished emotions he displays in the film’s third act, where political tensions are at their highest. The powerhouse actor that is Keitel was a monster during the ‘90s – he is the only actor to appear twice on this list.


12. Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight (1996)

Philip Baker Hall, Hard Eight (1996)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film features a stellar cast, though remains underseen perhaps due to its small scale, as opposed to his other more labyrinthine films.

Each of the main performances are terrific, featuring John C. Reilly, Gwenyth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, and a nifty little early cameo from Philip Seymour Hoffman. But the best of the cast was the heart of it all, Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney. He uses his reassuring and calm grandfatherly persona to make himself command every situation with authoritative suaveness and ease, though whilst not appearing effortless.

Syd quickly makes himself a mentor to young John (Reilly), transforming his life over a two year course, and the ambivalent reason for this grand gesture is something of a twist that holds the third act of the story.

Hall has spent a great time of his career in bit parts and guest roles (notably as the library cop from Seinfeld), sometimes being part of ensemble casts (like in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fantastic Magnolia), and sometimes entirely on his own (as Nixon in Secret Honor), but the strength of Hard Eight comes down to the strength of the Sydney character, a man who has a realistic amount of assertiveness, a man who decides to make a right in someone else’s life to amend a wrong in his own.


11. Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown

The Jules character from Pulp Fiction is undeniably one of the most memorable and most quoted movie characters of the ‘90s. Jackson’s Oscar-nominated performance and the rest of the film surely isn’t underrated, though it does make the underrated quality of Tarantino’s follow-up film, Jackie Brown, seem a little curious.

The film is slowly and surely reeling in the Tarantino fans as they witness this remarkable film with much remarkable acting, namely from Jackson. He navigates his way through the hefty rush and spirit of Tarantino’s wordy dialogue, showing utmost profession in his complex and on-point delivery that helps this grounded Tarantino film seem more alive.

Jackson’s Ordell is a fun character to watch in any situation, to say the least, and the sort of situations he finds himself in with the ludicrous gun-dealing business that’s falling apart at the seams under his overly-cocky nose put to test Jackson’s ability to entertain, and he passes with flying colours.

All four of the Jackson/Tarantino collaborations (not including his brief appearances in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds) have been a treat to watch, though this one stands tallest.


10. Matthew Modine in The Blackout (1997)

Matthew Modine, The Blackout (1997)

Films about filmmakers are usually fun to watch, especially when they’re about successful actors just as their career makes an acute nosedive. In The Blackout, Matthew Modine is remarkable as Matty, someone who strips away his shields of coolness and masculinity to lay bare a vulnerable and aching nostalgia for better times.

It’s a powerfully honest portrayal of a broken heart exacerbated by substance abuse. His performance works in contrasts to Dennis Hopper’s, who’s not confused about his own hedonism, who knows what he wants and he takes it. But Modine cannot grasp the moments from the past he desires, nor can he change or amend the mistakes he’s made – all that these memories can do is cruelly taunt him in videotaped form.

It’s only early on in the film that Matty learns his girlfriend got an abortion, which he is furious about, but she is quick to produce an answering-machine message that has him drunkenly telling her to get rid of the baby. Amidst this guilty confusion, Matty spends the rest of the film in a tight situation trying to control his alcohol abuse whilst managing the stagnating success of his career.

The Blackout is an underrated gem of American independent cinema from this decade, a masterfully made film whose blurry structure and comments on fractured memories recalls the work of David Lynch at this time, namely Lost Highway (released in the same year). This is the superior film for (amongst many aspects) its performance from Modine, perhaps the most bare and open performance of his career.


9. Leonardo Di Caprio in Don’s Plum (1995/2001)

Don's Plum

A torrent of tiresome jokes were put to rest when DiCaprio picked up his Oscar for his masochistically physical performance in The Revenant. As some punters recollect on the other roles he really should’ve won (or even been nominated) for, one film that should certainly be unearthed now more than ever is Don’s Plum.

Released in 2001 (but produced in the mid-90s), this laid-back film simply takes place in the titular coffee joint where DiCaprio’s character, Derek, hangs out with his buddies. This simple set-up is milked for all its worth, one of those rare films that rejoices in the uncinematic and life-like act of hanging out, whilst still instilling it with a great degree of flowing drama and characterisation.

No one character really seems to be the focal point, though Derek is the loudest and most boisterous of the lot. DiCaprio takes the sort of horrendous and vile dialogue he’s given and runs with it, taking more glee in his destructive behaviour than his Jordan Belfort character in The Wolf of Wall Street.

A sort of dramatic revelation near the end seems to show Derek may be using this boisterous persona as a way to cover up his troubling past, giving a sombre perspective to this rowdy immature little individual, as well as continuing to show the mature acting chops that DiCaprio has been showing since a young age.

For reasons not too clear, DiCaprio and co-star Tobey Maguire stopped this film from getting a national release, with its further distribution somewhat marred.

Unfortunately, this has lead to the film getting not much exposure, which is a weird shame as it features some of the best acting to come from both actors. Hopefully these two now very successful performers can allow this film to be fairly distributed, as this is a great film for any 20 year old to watch.