5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Although the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer that debuted in 1997 would go on to become one of the best and most influential fantasy shows of all-time, the 1992 feature film that inspired it was quite a different beast entirely. The television show was influential thanks to the genuine emotional undercurrents and creative concepts, but the film went for a high camp vibe and squandered the chance of exploring the deeper mythology. The two are so distinct that it is worth watching the film just to see how radical the show was in its reinvention.
Kristy Swanson’s lead performance is equal parts scream queen and self-absorbed teen idol, and she nonetheless commits to the exaggerated nature of the character. Veteran character actors like Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, Rutger Hauer, and Stephen Root are each able to do their schtick and steal scenes, but it is Luke Perry who gives a genuinely strong performance and instills some much needed charisma. Fascinating for its incompetence and the misguided attempts at self-aware schlock, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is notable for genre fans to check out.
4. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
Noah Baumbach has gone on to have an illustrious career in the world of independent cinema, and his directorial debut Kicking and Screaming set the tone as to what kind of filmmaker he would become. The film’s characters are all charming in their various ways, but Baumbach calls attention to how their nihilism and haughtiness reflect the limitations of education in preparing people for the real world. It is a film that holds impressive wisdom considering Baumbach was only 25 at the time, close in age to the characters.
The idiosyncrasies of the characters (all of whom are recent college graduates) allow each performer to stand out, and although much of the film is purposefully meandering in its construction, it allows each of the characters to find wisdom by the end. Although it is often used as a tool to examine the recurring themes and motifs within Baumbach’s larger filmography, Kicking and Screaming should be regarded as being among his best work and one of the best 90s comedies, period.
3. That Thing You Do! (1996)
There is irony in the fact that That Thing You Do!, a film that focuses on a one-hit-wonder pop band, would be an initial disappointment and grow into an underground success. Written and directed by Tom Hanks, it is a film of novel sincerity that honors 60s crowd pleasers with its engaging ensemble and era accurate production design. Particularly, the film finds comfort in exploring the brotherhood between bandmates, and how fame alters these relationships as time goes on.
The title track is simply infectious in the joy it creates, and Tom Everett Scott’s wonderful lead performance gives a lot of heart to the story of overnight fame. The concert scenes never grow repetitious, and the poignant epilogue gives a realistic closure to each character. It’s a timeless crowd pleaser that should be brought up much more often.
2. Wild at Heart (1990)
Shortly after beginning work on Twin Peaks, David Lynch created another genius work of surrealist crime fiction with Wild at Heart. While it won the Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, the film’s graphic violence and relentless depravity drew criticisms. Like much of Lynch’s work, cooler heads have prevailed overtime, and Wild at Heart can be appreciated for what it is- an exploration of romantic fables and the effects of trauma on love.
Although the plot can be compared to Bonnie and Clyde, Lynch includes references to all sorts of culture, specifically Elvis Presley music (including Nicolas Cage’s iconic rendition of “Love Me”). Cage is able to tune into his eccentricities while also acting with a darker rage than he normally has, and Laura Dern, a frequent Lynch collaborator, turns in one of her most complex performances. Lynch films like Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, and Eraserhead are commonly referred to as all-time masterpieces, but Wild at Heart is often left off of the list when talking about the director’s great works.
1. Miami Blues (1990)
An outrageous deconstruction of crime movie clichés and movie sociopaths, Miami Blues is the type of dark comedy that seems preordained to be a cult favorite. Alec Baldwin turns in one of the best performances of his career as Frederick J. Frenger Jr., a recently released criminal who falls in love with a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he evades authorities. As the two imagine an idealized life together, Frenger is able to create more chaos when he steals a police badge and handles justice on his own.
The film plays much of Frenger’s behavior for laughs, and for the time it was odd to see a mainstream release that depicted such a dark, disturbed character in a comedic fashion. Baldwin is able to lean into the character’s idiosyncrasies and weaponize his own charisma, and the chemistry he has with Jason Leigh is extraordinary. Although mixed reviews and financial disappointment plagued the film’s release, it should be celebrated now for the unique achievement that it is.