6. Funny Bones (1995)
Beginning with a smuggling operation on the high seas gone horribly wrong and ending with a death-defying circus act, Funny Bones is a wildly eclectic movie–a comedy, drama, story of life in show business, and one man’s search for elusive happiness. Following failed comedian Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt) who falters under the shadow of his famous father George (Jerry Lewis), Tommy returns to Blackpool, England, where he spent his summers as a child.
He begins to search out acts to buy from the local talent, eventually discovering that his father had stolen his own act from a comedy duo of that area, the Parkers, who now work at a local circus. He gets involved with this family, including Jack, a troubled but brilliant comedian, and finds out that his connection with them is deeper than expected.
The film is an eccentric delight, keeping the viewer guessing as to where the next twist may lead while also balancing a fine line between realism and fantasy–much like the vaudevillian craft that many of its characters practice. It’s no wonder that the film celebrates this specific local form of entertainment given that the director Peter Chelsom grew up in Blackpool.
An entertaining film about the magic and downsides of show business and its power to heal old wounds and help its practitioners find strength, Funny Bones is singularly charming.
7. Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996)
The Kids In The Hall were one of the most beloved comedy troupes in the 1990s: their Lorne Michaels-produced eponymous sketch show was a hit among the Gen Xer and younger crowd, and their offbeat humor and memorable characters would be imitated and quoted exhaustively long after their show went off the air. In a natural move, the collective “Kids” made the jump to the big screen with their first feature film Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy.
But instead of finding big screen success, the film was a bomb upon release, receiving mixed reviews and performing terribly at the box office. So bad was the reception to the film that the troupe went on hiatus for four years after its release and have never recovered their momentum since.
Which is unfortunate, since it’s exactly the movie Kids in the Hall fans could expect: a zany, cartoonish satire of big pharma wherein a nerdy group of scientists create the perfect antidepressant, become wildly successful, and then are horrified when they realize the long-term effect of the drug.
Featuring a grab bag of characters, both new and from their TV show, and with standout performances by Kevin McDonald as the lead and Mark McKinney as the Lorne Michaels-like evil head of the pharmaceutical company, Brain Candy is one of the funniest and most underrated (and underseen) comedies of the 1990s.
Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult film to find a copy of: with only one VHS printing and no DVD ever released for Region 2 players, US fans will have to shell out nearly $50 and have a regionless player (or over $20 for a VHS) to have a physical copy of their own. But the internet being what it is, bootleg versions are known to surface on streaming sites from time to time.
8. Nil by Mouth (1997)
In the working class neighborhoods of South East London, a poor family living on a council estate struggles to survive–mostly each other, and especially the raging, abusive alcoholic Ray.
Starting with a hopefully bright moment for this family–widowed mother Janet, daughter Val, her brother Billy, and Ray, the daughter’s husband–having an evening out at the pub, Nil by Mouth’s whiplash mood turns dark once back at the family’s apartment a violent argument breaks out between Ray and Billy over some missing drugs; Ray badly beats Billy and kicks him out of the apartment. From here on out, the film becomes a bracing, sometimes unbearable, look at abuse and dysfunction.
There are scenes in Nil by Mouth that you will never want to watch again: pregnant Val miscarrying after Ray, drunk and accusing her of being unfaithful to him, kicks her in the stomach; Billy shooting up in the back of his mother’s van as she looks on helpless; and a visibly battered Val stumbling towards her mother while lying about being involved in a hit-and-run accident. But her mother knows where those bruises came from, and so do we.
Furious, unrelenting, and often unpleasant, Nil by Mouth was Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, and it seems to come from a place of great personal pain (tellingly, the film is dedicated to his father). For fans with nerves of steel and can handle its grittiness, Nil by Mouth is both a masterpiece and a horror film showing how dysfunction can ruin generations–past, present, and future.
9. Festen (1998)
For all of Nil by Mouth’s abhorrent familial behavior, somehow Festen finds a way to top it. When a family comes together to celebrate their successful patriarch’s 60th birthday, the festivities take a dark turn when his son Michael announces to the gathered celebrants that his father had molested both him and his sister, who had recently committed suicide.
The evening then descends into a parade of accusations, threats, and acts of violence as this seemingly well-adjusted family’s secrets and many dysfunctions are revealed to the assembled partygoers.
While not nearly as viscerally disturbing as Nil by Mouth, the topics and emotions the film approaches are far more upsetting as buried secrets and concealed information are used as weapons and threats among family members.
The first film made in the Dogma 95 movement, Festen has a documentary-like feel to it, and the slow simmering tensions between both family members and guests who are literally party to the dark revelations add to the film’s challenging tone. Mixing heavy drama with farce, Festen plays for laughs but then drops such serious subject matter in that the viewer is left unsure where the next scene may lead.
10. In the Company of Men (1997)
Misogyny is a much talked-about trait that especially tends to rear its ugly head when women aren’t around to hear what men say about them. In the Company of Men is a searing look at this particular attitude and behavior, as exhibited by Chad and Howard, two junior executives on a six-week business trip together who are both so angry from recent breakups that they scheme together to take out their frustration against women by both dating, and then cruelly breaking up with, a deaf co-worker.
The film develops into not only a bitter (but darkly humorous) look at how terrible men can behave when egged on by each other but also the corrosive nature of misanthropy and cynicism. Taking the lead on this is Chad (a breakthrough role for Aaron Eckhart), who by film’s end seems gleeful of his soulless machinations.
By contrast, Howard (Matt Malloy) ends up yet another victim in this duplicitous game that he entered without knowing the rules, hurting and losing a woman he truly cared for in the process. A biting look at male insecurity and the inherent awfulness of misogyny, In the Company of Men is like eavesdropping on an awful conversation between two strangers–or maybe one that you’ve held yourself.
Author’s Bio: Mike Gray is a writer and academic from the Jersey Shore. His work has been featured on Cracked and Funny or Die, and he maintains a film and TV blog at mikegraymikegray.wordpress.com.