17. Wild at Heart (1990)
“Rockin’ good news!”
Winner of the Golden Palm at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart also represents the surreal director’s first collaboration with writer Barry Gifford. Lynch’s devilish, delirious, and wholly hilarious screenplay adapts Gifford’s 1989 novel of the same name, and the two would collaborate later in the decade on Lost Highway (1997).
Starring a never better Nicolas Cage as the outspoken and dancing impaired tough guy Sailor Ripley, he’s just gotten out of a lengthy prison sentence for the self-defense but brutal killing of Bobby Ray Lemon (Gregg Dandridge).
Reunited with his girlfriend Lula (Laura Dern), the pair are soon on the run as Lula’s mean-spirited mama Marietta (Diane Ladd, in an Oscar nominated performance), who was responsible for sicking Lemon on Sailor in the first place, is desperate to keep the lovers apart, and at a high cost.
Wild at Heart features a wonderfully deranged cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Crispin Glover, John Lurie, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton, and more, and riffs on the old story amour fou/lovers on the run tale with a combination of fresh ideas, surreal sidesteps, steamy sex, explosive violence, strange pastiches (both Elvis and the Wizard of Oz get a lot of loving lip service), musical numbers, genre mashups, and more. Wild at Heart is a wild, and unpredictable ride with the breakline cut and the engine on fire.
16. True Romance (1993)
In the early 90s American cinema was seemingly owned by Quentin Tarantino, and his darkly hilarious, savvy and sarcastic screenplay for Tony Scott is no exception.
Excessively violent and dreamily romantic, True Romance features a huge cast of players (including Patricia Arquette, James Gandolfini, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christian Slater, and Christopher Walken), an endless stream of expletives, bullets, double crosses, pot smoke, comic books, kung fu, and cocaine, and all with a moody score that Scott deliberately intended as an homage to Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973)––also a movie about lovers on the run amidst a crime spree.
An Elvis-obsessed comic book collector named Clarence Worley (Slater) falls for callgirl Alabama Whitman (Arquette) and, intending to reason with her takes-no-shit pimp Drexl Spivey (Oldman), ends up killing the guy and taking a suitcase full of cocaine from him while he’s at it.
Soon Clarence is confiding in Elvis Presley (Kilmer) himself while on the run with Alabama––whom he marries––and hatches a sloppy plan to sell the cocaine. Too bad the mob, Hollywood sleaze merchants, and Federal Agents are all getting caught up in this mess, too.
Alternately gleeful and grisly, a tad convoluted, but nonetheless a lot of mischievous fun, True Romance is a fever dream of lovers, villains, heroes, harlots, jerks, ghosts, bad boys, and stoners is pretty hard to resist. So why bother? Part of the joy of True Romance is the bumpy ride that culminates into an intense third act showdown. “Okey dokey doggie daddy.”
15. Dark City (1998)
Alex Proyas’ noir-inflected sci-fi thriller is a fever dream for sci-fi fans. Diverse and multifaceted like Blade Runner (1982), playing with pop philosophy like the Matrix (1999) or Solaris (1972) before it, Dark City takes existential angst and fractured imagination to the next level with alacrity and dark delight.
Set in an unnamed urban sprawl that frames an artful retro-future vibe, a vicious killer is on the loose. It could be John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), our likeable but sadly unreliable narrator, but his imaginings and memory isn’t making much sense. As he tries to clear his name his trail is dogged by strange apocryphal figures, like Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), or mystery babe Anna (Jennifer Connelly), who used to be his wife, maybe, but now John’s not so sure.
Unfairly ignored during its wide release, Dark City has accrued a cult following ever since, and a director’s cut released on home video offers up more first-rate intrigue. An early champion of the film, Roger Ebert called the film “a great visionary achievement, so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
14. 12 Monkeys (1995)
“Fuck the bozos!”
True, many of 12 Monkeys’ temporal twists and surreal segues stem from Chris Marker’s magnificent La Jetée (1962), but the dystopian satire on agitated and artful display is all Terry Gilliam. Making a heady mix of genre staples, and manufacturing much cinematic spectacle from creative chaos, this intelligent sci-fi actioner makes the most out of tragicomic tableaus and arresting visuals.
Bruce Willis, so good when given the right director, is James Cole, a low-level illegal from 2035, a future that’s been destroyed by a strange disease, given a chance to time travel back to our present, to trace the origins of the plague, and perhaps prevent it. Premium points go out to Brad Pitt’s Oscar-nominated turn as Jeffrey Goines, an unhinged environmental terrorist, and Madeleine Stowe shines too, as Dr. Kathryn Railly, who genuinely wants to help James, but at a cost she may not be able to afford.
Gilliam’s future may be a bleak one, but the visceral thrills, strange excitement and heartstopping finish make 12 Monkeys an odd adventure you can count on.
13. Starship Troopers (1997)
Completing his deeply satisfying satirical sci-fi triple-header––which also includes RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990)––dissident Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s gleefully over-the-top Starship Troopers lands with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In the far off future where everyone is pretty, military propaganda prevails, and the world wages war against an alien race of giant insect “Arachnids”.
Johnny Rico, played by a deliberately vacant Casper Van Dien, is a young soldier newly recruited to the Mobile Infantry where he soon discovers that he “kills bugs good” before a fusillade against American imperialism, consumer culture, war mongering, and Hollywood half-knowledge rains down like so much confetti.
Amongst the many guilty pleasures to be had in Starship Troopers are inane one-liners, gratuitous nudity, uninterrupted ultraviolence, and a gauche turn from Neil Patrick Harris, dressed in complete Gestapo regalia sending wave after wave of teen soldiers to their doom.
Never boring, always raunchy, and seriously self-aware, Starship Troopers is better than it ought to be and as a result is pure, unadulterated guilty pleasure material. Don’t miss it.
12. Office Space (1999)
Writer-director Mike Judge (of Beavis and Butt-head fame, of course) made his live-action directorial debut with this workplace satire Office Space that, while originally just a minor success, is today thought of as an influential cult classic as well as a fond social artifact of the late-90s experience.
Ron Livingston (Swingers) is corporate drone Peter Gibbons, bitter about his soul-sucking job at Initech, a thankless software company. One day while undergoing hypnotherapy from his therapist Dr. Swanson (Mike McShane), Peter gets into a Zen-like state of euphoria which is extended when, in the middle of his session, Dr. Swanson suffers a fatal heart attack. With his new and improved outlook on life Peter is better able to function and put his foot down at much of Initech’s unreasonable demands––which wouldn’t you know it, puts him in line for a promotion.
Rounding out the personable and playful cast are Jennifer Aniston, Diedrich Bader, Gary Cole, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, and Stephen Root, and the plot, more character driven than it is situational, goes off on some particularly silly scenarios, one of which referencing Superman III––the one with Richard Pryor––of all things.
If you’ve ever worked in IT or enjoy Judge’s wry and here, surprisingly restrained observances, Office Space is time well spent.
11. The Crow (1994)
Adapting James O’Barr’s 1989 comic book, Alex Proyas’ cinematic treatment of The Crow was already famous before its release but for all the wrong reasons. Towards the end of filming an action sequence mishap went terribly wrong and claimed the life of its rising young star, Brandon Lee (as most everyone knows, the son of kung fu action star legend Bruce Lee).
Determined to finish the film and make it something of a tribute to the late Lee (the film is dedicated to him and his fiancée, Eliza), Proyas and company soldiered on and completed the film with stunt doubles and early pioneering digital special effects. The results are a richly rewarding, uniquely visual, emotionally rich and decidedly dark neo-noir superhero actioner like no other.
The very night before he is to marry, musician Eric Draven (Lee) and his bride-to-be are brutally murdered by a nasty inner-city gang of nasties. A year later, on the anniversary of this horrific tragedy, Eric rises from the grave as the Crow, an avenging angel of sorts, bestowed with supernatural abilities and charged with the task of bloody retribution.
Another nostalgic gratuity for the film, particularly to me as I was a teenager when the film came out, is the moody soundtrack that offers some of the best music from the era. Highlights include choice tracks, deep cuts, and original songs from the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, the Violent Femmes, and more.
The Crow is a moody, influential throwback, a fist pumping revenge fantasy, and a touching tribute to both a real and an imagined life cut too short. “It can’t rain all the time.”
10. Dead Alive (1992)
Before staking his claim with the definitive Middle Earth franchise, New Zealand’s favorite son embraced exploitation splatter films with aplomb and his greatest gross-out from his early era has got to be the zombiefest commonly known as Dead Alive (but also known as Braindead outside of North America).
Set in 1950s suburbia, this very, very funny film features Elizabeth Moody as overprotective mum Vera Cosgrove and her sexually frustrated grown son, Lionel (Timothy Balme). When Elizabeth is bit by a Sumatran rat-monkey at the zoo she’s soon a savage zombie who, despite all of Lionel’s efforts to keep her locked in the basement, she keeps escaping to nibble on the neighbors and turn them into the walking dead, too.
Highlights of this excessive and startling comedy include Elizabeth’s ear falling off and into her pudding during the most awkward dinner ever, and Father Jon McGruder (Stuart Devenie), a kung fu fighting priest who “kicks ass for the Lord!”
This low budget pastiche of both George Romero zombie films, King Kong (1933), and a pinch of Psycho (1960) pays off huge, if you’ve got the stomach for it. Great, goofy, and gory stuff.
9. Swingers (1996)
A quotable, side-splitting, and often bittersweet indie hit, Swingers is easy to relate to for anyone who’s been single, heartbroken, or trying to strike out on their own. This effortlessly cool comedy is also notable for introducing stars Jon Favreau (who also wrote the film) and Vince Vaughn, as well as director Doug Liman to the world at large.
Mike Peters (Favreau) is a fledgling comedian as well as a New York expat now acclimatizing to Los Angeles while trying to heal a broken heart. His best friend is Trent Walker (Vaughn), a self-proclaimed Don Juan who tries to shake Mike from his slump first via a disastrous detour to Las Vegas (“Vegas, baby.”), and then through a series of high and low misadventures all while trying to boost his delicate ego (“”You’re so money, and you don’t even know it.”).
Swingers smartly crested the wave of the the short-lived but lively swing music revival of the mid-to-late 90s and the soundtrack was also very popular and features classic cuts from the likes of Count Basie and Dean Martin along with a few original numbers from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (who also appear in the film), amongst others.
For myself during my film school days I must have watched, and rewatched Swingers a couple dozen times while emulated Trent at every drunken party for the rest of the decade. This film is a wistful favorite, loved by a generation and no doubt sent people in droves to the Dresden in Los Feliz.