10 Great Underrated 1990s American Movie Classics You Probably Haven’t Seen

As a teenager in the 1990s, one was aware that American cinema was experiencing something of a golden renaissance, a period in which indie cinema and mainstream blockbusters could exist together and get along. There was room for both, and in fact the average cinema buff could healthily sample the mainstream and the independent, and remain totally satisfied by their viewing experiences.

For every tent pole monster flick or big scale crowd pleaser, there were at least ten more smaller, more character-driven pictures. Sadly, many of them have dimmed as the years have gone by. Below are ten more American movies of the nineties which I feel deserve a lot more attention than they currently get.


1. The Blackout (1997)

Back in 2017 I spoke to Ken Kelsch, the man who has seen to the cinematography for numerous Abel Ferrara classics, all about Abel’s movies and technique. We talked about many films, from Bad Lieutenant to Dangerous Game, but the one he singled out as a lost gem was The Blackout, which he called “another underrated Abel film.” He had a point.

In Abel Ferrara’s forgotten The Blackout, Matthew Modine plays a very famous film star who moves to Miami, and when destroyed by his girlfriend’s abortion, goes out on a wild night with hot shot, ultra hip video filmmaker Dennis Hopper (as Mickey). A year on, things have changed and he is settled down, though there is a section of that night out which remains a mystery. So he returns to Miami to get to the bottom of it, re-immersing himself in booze and drugs to attempt to capture the elusive moment.

Though in my view all Ferrara’s movies are underrated, Blackout is rather unjustly so. Modine gives one of his finest performances, and Hopper, though more in control of his emotions as the revolutionary movie maker, and refreshingly so, is brilliant too. His command of the seedy film set, lined with strippers and cameramen, is especially electrifying. In many ways though, as with most of his films, it still feels like Abel’s show. The master of darkness, unafraid to go where others dare not to, makes his presence behind the camera known. This is dark, unsettling, alluring, sickening, disturbing and mysterious in equal measure.

Unfortunately, as is the case with most of Abel’s movies, the critics didn’t really appreciate it, and few seem to single this one out as noteworthy. Which is a shame. But then again, it’s their loss.


2. Saint of Fort Washington (1993)

In the early to mid 1980s, Matt Dillon was one of the brightest young actors around, and for a while it looked like he might become the great movie star of his era. While his contemporaries went down more commercial routes, Dillon stayed true to himself and chose only the parts that appealed to him. In other words, he made artistic choices rather than commercial ones.

Into the 1990s, Dillon continued to play flawed but intriguing men. Perhaps his most sensitive and moving piece of work in that decade was as Matthew in the underrated gem, The Saint of Fort Washington, the tale of two homeless men (Dillon and a top-form Danny Glover) dreaming of a better life off the streets.Dillon, lovably wide eyed yet also unpredictable as the schizophrenic vagabond, is truly extraordinary in the movie, which made its underwhelming box office even more regretful.

In my view it was perhaps Dillon’s finest performance of the whole decade, and certainly one of the finest of his rich career. Glover is fabulous too, and the duo have a warm, special bond and chemistry which more than rivals the teaming of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in the similarly bleak but weirdly uplifting Midnight Cowboy.

Directed by Tim Hunter and written by Lyle Kessler, it never goes towards sentimentality and contains no schmaltz whatsoever. It’s a tale of hope in the most dark and unpromising of locations, but somehow it never becomes too much, or even remotely depressing. There’s a fine supporting cast too, but it’s Glover and Dillon who impress the most, particularly the latter.

Totally obscure today, The Saint of Fort Washington doesn’t look like it’s going to be dusted off and rediscovered any time soon, which is a shame indeed.


3. Permanent Midnight (1998)

Today we all think of Ben Stiller as one of modern cinema’s great comedic talents, a mega star who’s made his way into household name territory with the likes of the Zoolander movies, Meet the Parents and its many sequels, and of course the Night at the Museum franchise. Before he became a huge star though, Stiller in some much less commercial fare. Though the darkness is there in many of his better known parts (it bubbles away quietly and often explodes in a sweaty outburst of burst tension), none of them are anywhere near as bleak and desperately fiendish as his lead role in David Veloz’s Permanent Midnight.

Adapted from Jerry Stahl’s memoir of the same name, it stars Stiller as Jerry himself, who is working at a drive-through fast food joint when we first meet him. During a one night stand with a customer, Stiller goes back on his time as a Hollywood writer, during which he was fighting a crippling addiction to various drugs. Jerry was effectively living a double life, the sweaty pill-reliant creep and the full-of-ideas man of letters. As his story goes on though, Jerry finds it increasingly challenging to juggle these two identities.

Shot with a sense of desperation, it’s acted wonderfully by Stiller, who pulls off what might be his most troubled but strangely convincing turn. We don’t like his Jerry, nor do we understand or relate to anything he does, but for some reason we still care what happens to him. He has no redeeming qualities (I urge you to find even one) but Stiller makes him multi-faceted and far from a drug crazed caricature. The whole cast, which also includes Owen Wilson and Elizabeth Hurley, are also very good, but Stiller is especially strong.

Permanent Midnight is rarely aired these days, and never gets singled out when discussing Stiller’s rich and enjoyable filmography, but in my view it deserves a lot more attention.


4. Living in Oblivion (1995)

Living In Oblivion (1995)

Director Tom Dicillo first made his mark in 1991 with the cult film Johnny Suede, but seeing as it was no commercial success, Tom found it hard to find funding for a follow up. Frustrated by the Hollywood system, Tom was so burned by the business that even the mention of a movie would send him into overdrive. But he was desperate to get his frustrations out into something real and physical. He came up with the idea of a film set, where the makers try and try to get the best results, but everything keeps going wrong. He wanted to capture the nightmare of low budget film. When he told his Johnny Suede star Catherine Keener all about the idea, she was mightily enthused, and agreed to play the female lead. Her husband, Dermot Mulroney, put up a little money so Tom could develop his ideas into a short, and Steve Buscemi signed up for the part of the director.

Firstly, the cast and crew filmed a half hour short, completed in a mere four days. But the gang had so much fun on the set that they urged Tom to expand it. When he finally got the money to do so (the budget ended up at half a million dollars), he fleshed out the idea and got everyone back again. The result? Possibly the finest film ever made about filmmaking.

The film is split into three sections. The first is in black and white, as Nick and his crew start filming a scene involving Catherine Keener and an older lady who is playing her mother. The scene won’t go right, and every time they think they are getting somewhere, it all collapses. The second part follows Keener and her romantic lead Chad (James LeGros), who are about to make their way to the set after spending the night together. The shoot is spent battling with Chad’s ego, a love scene that is tired, clichéd and never quite works. The final segment, featuring the brilliant Peter Dinkelage, is where it supposedly all comes together.

Living in Oblivion was released slap bang in the middle of the 1990s, and it represents that golden indie era better than most other films one can think of. Steve Buscemi is fantastic as the tormented filmmaker, and seems to be relishing every second of his part. An intense but also very funny performance, it’s one of Steve’s greatest achievements.

Living in Oblivion actually made a profit a the box office, and for Tom and the gang, was one of the most enjoyable shooting experiences they ever had; which is ironic, given the hell of the making of the film within the film. Tom rips away the myth of the cool “rock star” indie filmmaker, highlighting what he sees as the constant battle to keep sane on the highly hazardous low budget film set. And it has to be said, Living in Oblivion really does define the dichotomy of filmmaking quite sublimely. Essential viewing indeed.


5. Heaven and Earth (1993)

Heaven and Earth is the unjustly overlooked third entry in Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, a triptych which began with Platoon in 1986, and included the adaptation of Ron Kovic’s marvellous book, Born on the Fourth of July, in 1989. Heaven and Earth, released in 1993 to low box office returns and little fan fare, saw the horrors of the Vietnam war from a different perspective, one that few other, if any at all, Americans would think of portraying – from the view of a young Vietnamese girl.

The girl in question is Le Ly (played by Hiep Thi Le), a villager in mid-20th century Vietnam. She firstly has to endure the presence of the French authorities during the Indochina era, who are in turn fought by communist insurgents. Her struggles continue when the Americans arrive to fight the Viet Cong. She is captured by the South Vietnamese, who think she’s a spy for the Northerners, and is beaten and tortured. Later she endures a horrific rape by the Viet Cong. She then moves to Saigon with her family, where she meets Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), a United States Marine Corps Sergeant who falls in love with Le Ly. His apparent kindness changes her situation, and the pair leave Vietnam for a life in America. However, Steve begins to show his true colours, the effects of the war having taken their toll on his mental state. Despite leaving the war in Vietnam behind her, Le Ly’s struggles are far from over.

Heaven and Earth is a story of personal strength, of one woman’s struggles through nightmarish times. It is personal as well as historical, but it homes in one on the individual, a human being often treated like anything but a human being, and a microcosm for mass suffering. Heaven and Earth deserves to be seen by more people. It’s moving, powerful, unpleasant at times, but ultimately a rewarding viewing experience. Le Ly’s journey is told with passion, and Stone stays true to her tale. This is one to seek out and dust off, a vital entry in Stone’s filmography.