17. Perfect Blue (dir. Satoshi Kon)
“Perfect Blue” is a 1997 anime feature about a Japanese pop-star named Mimi, whose attempt at becoming an actor puts her life and career in major jeopardy, especially after a stalker is involved. One of the biggest criticisms against this film is that it could’ve worked as in live-action.
While that is a valid claim, doing so would eliminate the filmmakers vivid, dreamlike approach to Mimi’s incredibly frightening scenario. The way Satoshi Kon animates her attempts to escape her pop-star persona—both physically and psychologically—is so interesting.
It could be Mimi chasing an apparition of her pop-star persona or her character yelling at her pets—Satoshi Kon visualizes them with equal affection and with purpose. His worlds are realized just right-enough that the smallest changes feel odd and alien.
Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky loved “Perfect Blue” so much that it not only inspired “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream,” but Aronofsky purposefully lifted the bathtub moment for the latter film. This isn’t an all-out visual feast like Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika,” but “Perfect Blue” succeeds in what it’s trying to do and is one of the more unique psychological thrillers from the late-90s. It’s my personal favorite by the late director.
16. The Ice Storm (dir. Ang Lee)
Originally bombing on release, “The Ice Storm” managed to gain an audience overtime, eventually being recognized as a well-made period drama. Based of the popular novel, “The Ice Storm” follows the relationship between two neighboring families during Thanksgiving weekend in the suburbs of Connecticut, 1973. Those that have seen Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” will find a familiar approach to the family dynamic here, only a slightly bit more focused.
The cast is magnificent, led by an amazing Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and Joan Allen. The praise also applies to the younger actors in the film as well, especially Christina Ricci. The cinematography is stellar, and the film is shot in a way that’s graceful yet effective.
It’s a great script, and themes of hypocrisy, sexual awakening, and authority are twisted to match the cultural and political shifts in 1973, especially during the “Watergate scandal.” Today, adult dramas like these aren’t made unless they’re heavily geared to win Oscars. The Criterion Collection currently has a great version of “The Ice Storm.”
15. The Full Monty (dir. Peter Cattaneo)
There’s a bit more going on in this British comedy outside the male-stripper shenanigans. When “The Full Monty” (slang for going full-frontal nude) isn’t showing these men doing something truly outside their element, it’s a pretty interesting look at how unemployment affects these characters and their ideas of masculinity. It’s a film that’ll be slapstick comedy in one minute, but deathly serious in the next.
However, without the drama, their journey wouldn’t have the necessary stakes, making misery and comedy go hand-in-hand in this film. But who am I kidding—“The Full Monty” is a pretty funny film. Adding to the humor is that the cast—Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Addy—are people who excel at playing no-nonsense tough guys in British crime thrillers.
The fact that they’re in a somewhat heartfelt film about men whose main concern is showing off their dongs at the end, only adds the great absurdity that is “The Full Monty.”
14. Gummo (dir. Harmony Korine)
Thanks to the Korine’s aesthetic, “Gummo” feels like a film that’s out of time, let alone 1997. While the film focuses mostly on the glue-huffing, cat-killing adventures of Solomon and Tummler, “Gummo” is more fascinated with the severely odd antics of a Tornado-stricken town in Ohio.
Interspersed throughout the film, Korine provides these small bits that focus on a strange, slightly offensive behavior of the town’s citizens. Almost every single interaction feels unique, and many have read into each bit as a different theme or message. In fact, there are a lot of interpretations to be taken from this film.
Truly avant-garde, “Gummo” revels in discomfort. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of “Gummo” and repeat viewings haven’t helped turn my appreciation to fondness. However, as a survivor of several devastating typhoons, I will say that Harmony Korine nails the mise-en-scene and set design convincingly. Don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but expect to have ask a similar question when watching “Gummo,” assuming you finish.
13. Life is Beautiful (dir. Roberto Benigni)
“Life is Beautiful” is a pitch that seems destined to fail: a whimsical tale of life and love in Italy during WWII, ending with our heroes inside a concentration camp. While the actual film consists of two parts, many people remember the second, much darker half for it’s novel approach. The first-half prior to the Nazi’s feels like a standard romantic comedy and drama for this type of film.
It’s when “Life is Beautiful” takes the protagonist’s romantic comedy quirks and implants them effectively for an imaginative approach in telling the Holocaust narrative, specifically involving children. It not only leads to some interestingly upbeat scenes, but it all becomes incredibly heart-wrenching when all is considered.
While “Titanic” was sweeping house at the Oscars that year, “Life is Beautiful” was able to snatch three Oscars (Best Actor, Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Foreign Language Film) from Cameron’s blockbuster. “Life is Beautiful” may have received some backlash overtime, but it’s truly an interesting film. His follow-up “Pinnochio, however, is not. That film is downright terrible.
12. Cube (dir. Vincenzo Natali)
The debut from director Vincenzo Natali boasts an interesting, sci-fi concept that made a lot of young filmmakers jealous. This puzzle film is a interesting take on movie set in one location, in which seven seemingly complete strangers awake and find themselves in a mysterious cube-shaped room with a door on each face.
In an attempt to leave, they pass through a door, only to find the next room might boast a different color than the previous one. The design remains unchanged…other than the occasional death trap.
“Cube” is a clever little film. The central mystery is something that’s slowly uncovered with the characters, adding a sense of play and discovery that’s engaging with the audience. The actual “cubes” themselves are designed creatively, adding a much needed sense of dread. Without spoiling the specifics, just know there are multiple rooms/cubes that do different things.
Natali built only one actual cube, and messed with the lighting to convey a different space, saving a tone of money. While the acting and overall reveal might be a letdown, the premise and direction of “Cube” are so good that Natali’s been able to have a small career in sci-fi films. The sequels, however, I don’t recommend.
11. Donnie Brasco (dir. Mike Newell)
Mike Newell’s film is based on the true story of undercover agent Joe Pistone (Depp) as he infiltrates the Bonanno crime family. Adopting the persona of jewel thief Donnie Brasco, he makes his way in through retired hitman Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Pacino).
For a gangster film, “Donnie Brasco” isn’t filled with too much carnage and bloodshed. Instead, it centers around the relationship between Donnie and Lefty, using their friendship as the crux for the drama and the tension. As they get closer, their relationship is tested not only by Donnie’s true intentions, but also the gang’s captain Sonny Black, played by Michael Madsen.
While the film does have the “will he make it out alive?” concern rippling throughout, by the end, it convincingly shifts the concerns to the fate of their relationship. This gangster flick is also a great reminder of when Johnny Depp and Al Pacino were still truly committed to their roles. It’s just a great example of two actors who complement and improve the other’s performance within the scenes. They’re simply great onscreen together. “Donnie Brasco” is a truly underrated gangster film.
10. The Fifth Element (dir. Luc Besson)
In the 90s, Luc Besson’s action films were exciting and satisfying for the fact that they were slightly different from the macho, male action-star climate that was sort of dying down by then. An obvious signifier among his 90s output is the inclusion of a female character being a part of the action, sometimes casted as the lead.
Inspired by the same art and stories that inspired George Lucas, Besson released “The Fifth Element” in 1997. Although his space action-adventure film has Bruce Willis as top billing, the true star of the film is Milla Jovovich. It’s a weird little film with a mythology so lose enough that it all works.
Now, “The Fifth Element” isn’t a great film, but it’s an example of when Besson, Willis, and Jovovich were trying interesting things with their films. Today, all three have settled somewhat lazily into the action genre in their own ways. Besson kind of returned to his 90s roots with the recent “Lucy” but that film is a bit too bonkers. “The Fifth Element” is the right kind of crazy.
9. Starship Troopers (dir. Paul Verhoeven)
Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” is a film that still holds up even until today. Much of it has to do with the incredible special effects in the film, in which the bugs still look as frightening and disgusting as they did back in 1997. In addition, the construction of the fascist world, the allegorical soldier’s narrative, and the pacing makes this sci-fi film a bit timeless, but also darkly satirical regarding the militaristic world the characters inhabit.
There’s some great action/battle sequences to keep the film from being dull. Fans of Verhoeven know that the man doesn’t skimp on the violence and gore, making the violence and death in “Starship Troopers” over-the-top and sometimes hilarious. The only thing that dates this film are some of the more recognizable actors onscreen.