40 Best Underrated Movies of the ’90s

40 Best Underrated Movies of the ’90s

June 18, 2024

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While the ’90s gifted us with iconic blockbusters, there’s a treasure trove of cinematic brilliance that often goes unnoticed. These underrated gems from the ’90s are ready to reclaim their rightful place in film history. From gripping thrillers to heartwarming dramas and mind-bending sci-fi, these movies have stood the test of time, yet somehow slipped under the radar of mainstream acclaim. Prepare to be captivated by powerful performances, thought-provoking narratives, and directorial artistry that will leave you in awe. It’s time to rediscover the unsung heroes of the ’90s—a decade that housed cinematic brilliance beyond the usual suspects.

31. Ilo Ilo (2013)

7.8

Country

France, Japan, Singapore

Director

Anthony Chen

Actors

Angeli Bayani, Chen Tian Wen, Chen Tianwen, Jialer Koh

Moods

Character-driven, Slice-of-Life, True-story-based

At the height of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, a small Singaporean family scrambles to keep their middle-class status afloat. The parents shave their expenses and work extra-long hours, but their busyness causes them to neglect their misbehaved son. When his misdemeanors prove to be too much, the mother is forced to hire a stay-at-home nanny, and her presence (along with other external pressures) brings about a change in the house. Suddenly, everyone becomes a bit more aware of their limitations and potential, and from this, a shared empathy grows. In other hands, this story might come off as bare and forgettable, but under first-time-feature director Anthony Chen’s helm, Ilo Ilo comes to life in rich detail, thoughtful shots, and captivatingly natural performances. Despite its many heartbreaking scenes, the film rarely dwells in sentiment, and it’s this restraint that makes Ilo Ilo all the more gripping to watch. 

32. Audition (1999)

7.8

Country

Japan

Director

Takashi Miike

Actors

Eihi Shiina, Fumiyo Kohinata, Jun Kunimura, Kanji Tsuda

Audition is not for the faint of heart. It’s shockingly violent and deeply unsettling, filled with sights and sounds that will haunt you for days on end. But there is grace to its terror; it’s profound and artistic in ways that elevate it from generic horror fare.

On a deeper level, Audition is about the destructive power of abuse, trauma, and loneliness, about how a society that neglects to recognize this eventually suffers from it. The revenge plot isn’t merely individual, as well, but a representation of the female subconscious: tired of objectification, eager for redress. And everything about the way the film is made, from the shaky camera and titled frames to the dramatic shadows and eerie lighting, reflects that imbalance. 

Audition may be chilling and gruesome, but it’s also smart and important, a psychosexual thriller that captures female anger well before it became the rage. 

33. Chasing Amy (1997)

7.8

Country

United States of America

Director

Kevin Smith

Actors

Ben Affleck, Brian O'Halloran, Carmen Llywelyn, Casey Affleck

Moods

Heart-warming, Romantic, Sweet

For a film made in the mid-90s, by a straight white man in his early 20s, Chasing Amy is startingly smart and sensitive, filled with more relatable moments than anyone would care to admit. Sure, by today’s standards, its exploration of sexuality is questionable at best and cringe-worthy at worst, but it’s also an honest depiction of how an era (and some people still) confront this reality. And for all the important issues it tries to address, like homophobia, racism, and toxic masculinity, it’s also at its core a confectionary romcom. If When Harry Met Sally asks, “Can women and men be friends?”, then Chasing Amy complicates it with a question of its own: “Can a lesbian and a guy who falls in love too quickly be friends?” You may or may not arrive at an answer by the film’s end, but you’ll find much to like in its earnestness and thoughtfulness.

34. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

7.8

Country

Australia, United States of America

Director

Stephan Elliott

Actors

Bill Hunter, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, Kenneth Radley

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Emotional

Cheerfully outrageous yet heartwarmingly tender, the Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was ahead of its time, daring to dive into drag and transexuality, when the rest of the world was still coming around to accepting homosexuality. On the bus which the title is named after, two drag queens and a trans woman have a road trip, that does have some difficult moments, when they drive through intolerant towns, but overall, becomes quite lovely, as the three forge a bond through drag, witty, sarcastic quips and sharing vulnerable moments. While all three leads are portrayed by cis men, and the role of Bob’s Filipino wife feels slightly stereotypical, overall, The Adventures of Priscilla is a grand ol’ time, a joyful film about finding family in a world where tolerance wasn’t a guarantee.

35. Soul Food (1997)

7.7

Country

United States of America

Director

George Tillman Jr.

Actors

Brandon Hammond, Gina Ravera, Irma P. Hall, Jeffrey D. Sams

Moods

Feel-Good, Heart-warming, Slice-of-Life

Warm and nourishing as the film’s cuisine, Soul Food is a celebration of the modern African-American family, represented here by the Josephs. The Chicagoan family has a longstanding tradition of making dinner together every Sunday—a ritual, we’re told, that’s lasted for at least 40 years. However, when the matriarch Big Mama Joe gets hospitalized, the simmering tension between her daughters boils over and threatens to break them apart. Many of the struggles they go through are familiar but not cliché, as writer-director George Tillman Jr. draws from his own experiences in a close-knit, extended family. So even if some plot lines feel unresolved, the film is well-paced, soulfully scored, and evenly balanced between the three sisters. Like the food cooked on-screen, this movie will still leave you hungering for more.

36. The Age of Innocence (1993)

7.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Martin Scorsese

Actors

Alec McCowen, Alexis Smith, Brian Davies, Carolyn Farina

Moods

A-list actors, Dramatic, Emotional

Known for showcasing the grittier side of New York in his films, Martin Scorsese shifts to its upper echelons in The Age of Innocence. Based on the 1920 novel, the film follows society attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he courts and marries the respectable May Welland (Winona Ryder), despite his desire for childhood friend Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Undeniably gorgeous and impressively shot, what ultimately makes the film stand out among Scorsese’s work is how well the three leads embody the complex characters of the novel on multiple levels. Day-Lewis skillfully turns a corrupt, arrogant lawyer into someone who admirably refuses to be anything but himself, while Pfeiffer hides a stubbornness and frustration within Olenska. But it’s Ryder who best portrays her character’s complexity, Welland’s wide-eyed gaze concealing secret manipulations. All of them drive this story that not only mourns for lost love, but acts as a mourning for a lost Golden Age.

37. Starship Troopers (1997)

7.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Paul Verhoeven

Actors

Aaron Stielstra, Amy Smart, Anthony Ruivivar, Armand Darrius

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Funny, Gripping

When citizenship and rights can only be achieved through federal service, you have no choice but to militarize. Johnny Rico is young, impressionable, but noble; in other words, he is an archetypal hero even if he initially enlists just to be close to his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards). From then on, Starship Troopers unfolds as a high-strung high school drama, but in the middle of a space colonization. During one such mission, a highly evolved insectoid race, Arachnids, proves to be the most dangerous enemy to human supremacy and the fight is on. What’s interesting about Starship Troopers is that it shows how a well-oiled propaganda machine works and for that reason, it was accused of indoctrination and army endorsement. Even more, it was dubbed fascist, instead of the fascist satire it claimed to be. But today, it’s indisputably a cult film and a great introduction to the Paul Verhoeven’s work in Hollywood.

38. Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

7.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Gus Van Sant

Actors

Beah Richards, Eric Hull, George Catalano, Grace Zabriskie

Moods

Depressing

You can tell Drugstore Cowboy was written by someone who has been through drug abuse and incarceration himself. This is the kind of film that has to be lived, not researched. It’s realistic, sure, and it gets at the interiority of a drug user with ease. But there is no judgment to be found here, no preachy criticism or misguided glorification of a hardened lifestyle. Bob (Matt Dillon) and his wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch) have created a nomadic, transient life that allows them to live on drugstore lootings one district at a time, while looking out for each other and the other couple they live with, Rick (James LeGros) and Nadine (Heather Graham). They chose this outlaw life, and because of the agency the film affords them, there is joy to be found despite their difficulties. It’s an authentic story, elevated by imaginative editing, a jazzy, heart-thumping score, and believable performances by a quartet of capable actors.

39. Hilary and Jackie (1998)

7.6

Country

United Kingdom

Director

Anand Tucker

Actors

Anthony Smee, Bill Paterson, Carla Mendonça, Celia Imrie

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Depressing

Comparisons are easy between friends and within peer groups, but the comparison that is most immediate is that between you and your sibling, especially when they wound up more successful than you are. Hilary and Jackie captures that experience between two real-life musical sisters, but the comparison is so much more difficult as Jackie shot to cellist superstardom, even with under the same musical beginnings as her less known sister Hilary. It’s flawed, but it’s deeply personal, diving into their shared anxieties from two different lives, and it’s surprisingly well-rounded, perfectly halved between the sisters’ perspectives led excellently by Rachel Griffiths and Emily Watson. Hilary and Jackie is not comfortable to watch, especially during Jackie’s later years, but it’s a daring portrait of a difficult, but still loving, sibling relationship.

40. Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995)

7.6

Country

Germany, Japan, United Kingdom

Director

Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay

Actors

Alice Krige, César Saratxu, Daniel Smith, Gottfried John

Moods

Challenging, Dark, Original

Upon the first few minutes of Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, it’s obvious that the Brothers Quay’s first live-action film is highly unusual. First, it’s entirely black and white, with embellished, serif subtitles translating the initial German. Second, many of the film’s shots take the form of moody, gothic close-ups, reminiscent of 1920s silent films, like when Johannes examines his new pupil’s health, or when Lisa directs Jakob with an animal’s hoof next to his cheek. And third, the plot itself is strange, as the students are taught not to think anything of themselves, with only Jakob questioning their instruction. But there’s a certain beauty in the surreal approach the Brothers Quay takes in adapting the Swiss-German novel, a certain intuitive feel that allows the story to expand past its stilted movement, restrained frames, and the school’s oppressive tutelage. Institute Benjamenta is bizarre, but it’s undeniably a fascinating film, even at its most disturbing.

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