The 90s were a very important period for cinema in general, as it benefited (or suffered) from the technological advances that entered inside the industry. We got to know CGI and special effects, which could not be made back then.
Aside from all this, the 90s served to discover new talented filmmakers and to witness an evolution in cinema that was attracted to a larger audience. We had Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Clint Eastwood, David Lynch, David Fincher and Abel Ferrara. Obviously there are many more, but these filmmakers are a strong representation of this 90’s phase.
The thing is, these are the “known” filmmakers of that decade, the commercial and critical success of all those years. The reality is that there are a lot of hidden gems between the enormous crowd that many people have not seen or have directly ignored, and that is something that cannot be allowed. This hidden art must be discovered to a larger audience.
Having said this, here is a list of 10 films from the 90s that you may have missed, so here they are:
10. Kids Return (1996)
This was made by the great and popular Takeshi Kitano during his recovery after suffering an outrageous motorcycle accident where he almost lost his life and brought him paralysis in half of his face.
Shinji and Masaru are best friends. They represent the perfect models of a generation that renounces their past. They have abandoned school, spending much of their time provoking problems, abusing minors, going to the movies and getting drunk. Even though they are friends and share that apathy, both of them are very different. After leaving school, both of them run different luck: one as a boxer and the other as a gunman for the Yakuza.
“Kids Return” is hopeful and full of detail. Inspired by Kitano’s own experiences, it speaks of beginnings, of reinvention, of influences, of maturity and fear; so many things in such a short space of time.
Kitano delights us with one of his most intimate, personal and emotive works till date, and it is clearly his most underrated film of his filmography. “Kids Return” talks about the transition from adolescence to maturity; about how to start working in an economically damaged society; how to overcome the unfair barriers that sometimes life puts ahead of us and how to survive and get up, with enthusiasm and even with humor.
9. River of Grass (1994)
“River of Grass” has all the elements of a conventional road movie: a car, a gun, criminal intentions ,and two young lovers escaping a father who is also a suspended police officer. However, Kelly Reichardt takes these common elements and creates an “anti-road movie,” an impassive film that has more existentialist comedy than criminal drama.
These are two lovers: Cozy, a policeman’s daughter; and Lee Ray, a dark character who comes from a dangerous neighborhood of the city. Lee Ray finds a gun and soon they become involved in manslaughter. Fearing capture, they make plans to leave the city, committing several thefts along the way. However, they cannot get very far; in fact, the central premise of the film is how the romantic myth of lovers in flight is disappointed by reality.
“River of Grass” is independent cinema at his best. A good example of taking advantage of your surroundings, of how you can tell a good story based on a very simple premise with a very low budget. This film feels as if “Badlands” had tantric sex with “Bonnie and Clyde,” taking all the good things from both movies. Lisa Bowman narrates some of his lines with a voiceover such as Sissy Spacek did in “Badlands,” listening to his voice while we contemplate imaginary shots and the beautiful landscape.
A rare film that is really hidden and really hard to find. Lucky you if you get the opportunity to watch this beautiful hidden gem.
8. I Hired a Contract Killer (1990)
Director Aki Kaurismaki may be known to many moviegoers, as he is a great representative of Finnish cinema and one of the most simple, stylized and curious storytellers out there. Films like “The Man Without a Past,” “Ariel,” “Crime and Punishment,” “The Match Factory Girl,” the recent “The Other Side of Hope,” and this one right here are a strong proof of that.
An introverted guy who has no further desire to live hires an assassin to end his life, because he lacks the courage to do so. But, unexpectedly, he meets a woman who changes his mind: he then wants to continue living. The problem is that he must find the killer he hired before he executes his macabre charge.
A fun, simple and original premise. The story is built through an elaborate and coherent succession of images, while the actors speak only when needed to. Jean-Pierre Léaud creates an astonishing performance, which shows us his portentous ability to interpret any character that stands in his way. Kaurismäki shows in this film that silence is the best of the dialogues, and you do not have to make an excessive use of them, because they are not so often needed. Simply the gestures make something great and sonorous about these silences.
If you don’t know Aki Kaurismäki, this film is a very good way to start with the discovery. it is quite a pleasure to discover directors like this with films like “I Hired a Contract Killer.”
7. Ju Dou (1990)
Acclaimed Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, alongside Yang Fengliang as co-director, is the one in charge of directing this tragic drama. “Ju Dou” is a wonderful story about forbidden love in the dominant feudal society of rural China in the 1920s. It garnered excellent reviews, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and opened a gate for Western audiences to excellent cinema from the Far East, which until then barely reached minority circles of major capitals and some film festivals.
An elderly man, the owner of a dry cleaner, buys Ju Dou, a young peasant girl, in the hope of giving him a male descendant. He refuses to accept that he is impotent and takes his frustrations out on her, beating her constantly. A nephew of the man, who lives on the same farm as the couple, is a mute witness to the situation until he tries to comfort Ju Dou, and between them arises a forbidden and passionate love that ends with the birth of a child. Forced by the old man to keep the condition of the bastard in secret, the woman must face her plight and the rumors of the community.
Cinematography, as always, is very present in Yimou’s films, and this is no exception. It is essential in the story, and in this case it is cold and rough, such as the story that he is telling us; the only luxury that is allowed in “Ju Dou” are the clothing shots full of bright colors.
“Ju Dou” is a hidden jewel in Yimou’s filmography and Asian cinema in general, without a doubt the most cryptic and at the same time one of his most fascinating works. Yimou achieves a complex and enormously symbolic film that works in its fullest sense as a social metaphor.
6. Running Out of Time (1999)
Johnnie To has made a name of his own and created his own style in these recent years. There are some names for Asian cinema aficionados, especially action centered ones, that are obligatory to follow. Some of those are: John Woo, Wong Kar-wai, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Yuen Woo-ping among others. But then, there is the one named at the beginning, and the director of the listed film: Johnnie To.
Wah (Andy Lau), a criminal mastermind with only 14 days to live, decides to take a last hit trying to seize some diamonds, and thus attract the attention of the police, especially the officer San (Lau Ching-Wan), an expert in negotiation and particular methods. San believes that Wah is challenging him to a game of wisdom and courage, and he becomes anxious to arrest him.
You know that you are dealing with something special when Hong Kong legends like Andy Lau and Lau Ching Wan are at the lead, with also some familiar faces like Lam Suet and Waise Lee in supporting roles.
This action drama is a captivating joy ride you must not miss. There isn’t much action sequences or thrill rides such as in other To’s films like “Breaking News,” “Exiled” or the recent “Drug War,” but what it has is a really enchanting and charismatic cast that fills the screen with magic and engagement. “Running Out of Time” is Hong Kong cinema at his best.