5. Angels & Insects (1995) – Philip Haas
A period piece with an edge, Angels & Insects pushes the boundaries of the traditional costume drama. Mark Rylance is William, an explorer who returns home to Victorian England after losing everything in a shipwreck. He falls in love with his employer’s daughter, the two start a family of their own, and all seems well. But distance and tension soon arise between them, and William begins to suspect that his in-laws might be the cause of the problem.
Angels & Insects is an exquisitely beautiful film, with bright colors and vivid visuals in every frame. It’s acted with precision and restraint by the talented cast, who add to the mysterious, unsettling tone of the story. If you enjoy period pieces, but tire of their traditional plots, then give this one a look.
4. The Adjuster (1991) – Atom Egoyan
The Adjuster is one of the early efforts of the quirky Canadian director Atom Egoyan, and it’s also one of his most successful ones. With its brilliant mix of the mundane and the bizarre, Egoyan takes the audience down an almost David Lynch-like hole into the dark underbelly of ordinary life. The disarming simplicity of Egoyan’s direction contrasts wonderfully with the weirdness of his characters, making The Adjuster a true hidden gem.
The Adjuster is about just that – an insurance claims adjuster with a mundane but unpredictable job. We see him going about his daily activities with customers, settling their claims and having affairs with them if he feels like it. But the bigger story is about the inner vacancy of the adjuster, shown through interactions with his wife and neighbors. This movie is as much about the experience of watching it as it is about the plot, so check it out if you’re tired of formulaic, traditional filmmaking.
3. The Apostle (1997) – Robert Duvall
By the 1990s, legendary actor Robert Duvall had been amazing us with his exceptional acting work for decades; but in 1997, he cloned his talents for a film featuring himself on both sides of the camera. Directing and starring in The Apostle, dual Duvalls showed us the full range of his talents in this intimate, emotionally authentic work of genius.
Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher on the run from his past, trying to settle in a new town with a new name. But if this sounds to you like a setup for another Elmer Gantry-like exposé of charlatan preachers, you’re in for a surprise. This man of God, Sonny, is no deliberate fraud; though he is clearly misguided and flawed, Sonny genuinely wants to help those around him. By not taking the easy way out and demonizing his protagonist, Duvall paints a compelling portrait of a complex individual, and he plays his character to absolute perfection.
2. Sleepers (1996) – Barry Levinson
Sleepers is admittedly an emotionally draining film to watch, and perhaps that’s the only reason it’s not more well known today. But it is a genuine sleeper classic, with an unforgettable ensemble cast of stars and a talented director who understood how minimalistic direction could best serve a story as powerful as this one. Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Minnie Driver are just a few of the stars in the uniformly excellent cast of this unforgettable film.
The story centers around four boys growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, in the 1960s. One day, after their prank causes an injury to a random bystander, the kids are sent away to a “home for boys” as punishment. After suffering years of secret abuse at the home, they are finally released – scarred for life. The second half of Sleepers focuses on their lives as adults: when two of the group turn to crime, the others are determined to get their friends off the hook – even if it means manipulating the justice system that they believe set them up for failure in the first place.
1. Affliction (1997) – Paul Schrader
The great Paul Schrader’s career thus far has been filled with highlights, and bookended by two especially great works – 1976’s Taxi Driver (as screenwriter) and 2017’s First Reformed (as director and screenwriter). But right in the middle is Affliction, a largely neglected masterpiece which Schrader wrote and directed, and which has been outshone by too many other movies which are by far its inferiors. Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe, and Sissy Spacek bring Schrader’s vision to life in unforgettable fashion.
Nolte and Dafoe play two brothers who grew up under the tyrannical rule of their father – a brilliantly terrifying James Coburn. When the death of their mother brings the siblings together after several years, they must deal with their common past trauma. As strange events unfold around them in the local town, each brother is further strained by the close contact with their brutish father, and neither of their lives will be the same after this unwanted reunion.