'Carlito's Way' (1993)
Looking back at the 1990s, it’s easy to remember the big commercial hits (“Jurassic Park,” “The Matrix”) and the critical darlings (“Pulp Fiction") that helped shape the movies made -- and the way we’ve looked at them -- since then. And then, of course, there are the movies that we just sadly do not think about enough, if we think about them at all. Not just obscurities or lesser works that somehow got overshadowed, but those star-studded studio movies that sometimes seem forgotten -- and certainly go under-appreciated -- as time moves on.
'Carlito’s Way' (1993)
Brian De Palma’s reunion with Al Pacino bettered their “Scarface” collaboration with this story of a Puerto Rican gangster whose lawyer (a seldom-better Sean Penn) asks to be repaid for getting him out of prison by participating in a scheme that could land him in the morgue. Incredible performances and David Koepp’s vibrant script are brought together by De Palma for what is probably his most emotionally engaging film.
Future “Hunger Games” and “Ocean’s 8” helmer Gary Ross wrote this delightful nugget of realism for director Ivan Reitman about a Presidential impersonator forced to take over when the real Commander-in-Chief falls ill. Kevin Kline is effortlessly folksy as the common sense-wielding stand-in, while Sigourney Weaver once again commands the screen as the First Lady he helps rediscovering her passions -- both political and personal.
'Deep Cover' (1992)
“Predator” star Bill Duke directed this gritty, stylized thrilled about an undercover cop (Laurence Fishburne) and the drug dealer (a deliciously unhinged Jeff Goldblum) whose organization he’s trying to infiltrate. Featuring a soundtrack assembled in part by Dr. Dre (including Snoop Doggy Dogg’s first recorded verse), the film remains a sadly hidden jewel among those made during the “New Jack” renaissance of the early ‘90s.
'Defending Your Life' (1991)
Few films have ever captured the inescapable and hilarious struggle with our own neuroses better than Albert Brooks’ story of a man who dies and is forced to revisit a lifetime of questionable choices (and inevitable humiliations) in a cosmic “weight station” between Earth and the next spiritual plane. An irresistibly effervescent performance by Meryl Streep provides a perfect counterpoint to Brooks’ neuroses, while Rip Torn plays his “attorney” and sometime guide to a world I really hope exists where you can eat and sleep all you want and never feel bad or gain a single ounce.
'The Addiction' (1995)
This little-seen, but deep cut/cult-fave, is a bloody black-and-white vampire movie about a NYU philosophy student who is turned into a vamp. Her decent into vampirism comes with thematically-rich allegories about evil, addiction, and AIDS. Christopher Walken also shows up as kind of her vampire guide (think the ghost on the train who teaches Sam in "Ghost" how to move objects.) You've never seen a vampire movie like this before.
'The Game' (1997)
My personal favorite David Fincher film came out two years after “Seven,” a mystery that begins when the troubled younger brother (Sean Penn) gives an unusual birthday gift to his icy, fastidious older brother (Michael Douglas). A simultaneous riposte to Douglas’ embodiment of ‘80s corporate greed and a wickedly intelligent thriller that keeps you guessing until the very last moments, Fincher’s full gifts as visualist and storyteller are as vivid her as they are unrelenting.
Fresh off of “Swingers,” Doug Liman turned what could have been candy-coated “Pulp Fiction” knockoff into a vibrant portrait of Gen Xers, utilizing an incredible ensemble cast that includes Sarah Polley, Timothy Olyphant, Taye Diggs, Katie Holmes, and many more.
'House Party' (1990)
Rappers Kid ‘n Play added an essential entry to the teen movie genre on the tail end of their heyday with this fun, energetic, surprisingly sweet story of two best friends trying to get into some trouble -- but not too much -- over the course of one night. Featuring an all-time great dance off, an up-and-coming Martin Lawrence as the party’s feckless DJ, and the immortal Tisha Campbell as Every 15-Year-Old Boy’s Crush In 1990.
'King Of New York' (1990)
Abel Ferrara never let go of pre-Giuliani New York City, and he pays tribute to its dingy, crime-ridden streets with this story of a gangster reclaiming his empire after a stint in prison. The film’s insane supportive cast includes Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, and Giancarlo Esposito.
In between the blockbuster successes of “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” Peter and Bobby Farrelly crafted this misanthropic masterpiece about disgraced bowling champion Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson), the Amish prodigy (Randy Quaid) he discovers, and a femme fatale (Vanessa Angel) they pick up en route to redemption. Bill Murray gives a career-best comedic performance as Munson’s unscrupulous, sleazy nemesis Ernie McCracken.
'The Last Seduction' (1994)
Director John Dahl shepherded a resurgence in noir narratives in the early ‘90s with “Red Rock West” and this irresistible dose of poison, about a calculating telemarketer who absconds with her husband’s money, sets out on the lam, and proceeds to leave a trail of broken hearts -- and lives -- in her wake. Bill Pullman and future “Mile 22” director Peter Berg are just two of the men drawn into her seductive spell.
'Little Man Tate' (1991)
In the same year she won Best Actress for “Silence of the Lambs,” Jodie Foster directed this intimate drama about a math prodigy struggling to fit into a world that can’t keep up with him. Dianne Wiest plays the teacher who wants to shape him into one of the next generation’s great intellects, but young Fred (Adam Hann-Byrd) prefers the company of college-age classmates like Eddie (Harry Connick Jr.), who have their minds on anything but academics.
'Love Affair' (1994)
Warren Beatty directed and co-stars with Annette Bening in this remake of the 1939 film of the same name, about a romance that unexpectedly blooms when two betrothed strangers are stranded together on a cruise ship. At a time of high-concept romantic comedies, Beatty’s film offered a wonderfully old-fashioned love story, with just enough updated elements to make it feel relatable to modern audiences.
'Love Jones' (1997)
Writer-director Theodore Witcher delivered an unexpectedly mature take on modern romance with this relationship drama set against the backdrop of the ‘90s nu-soul movement. Two of the decade’s most underrated stars, Larenz Tate and Nia Long, play the lovers fumbling towards intimacy, while Witcher populates their world with a who’s who of up-and-coming African-American actors including Isaiah Washington, Lisa Nicole Carson, and Bill Bellamy.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s perhaps least well-known (but least deservedly so) film revolves around a mysterious newcomer (Loren Dean) who becomes a sounding board for the ailments and insecurities of the people of the Oregon town that bears his name. Hope Davis, Jason Lee, Mary McDonnell, and Zooey Deschanel deliver memorable turns in a story that feels as therapeutic as one of the main character’s sessions.
'Mystery Men' (1999)
While the modern era of superhero movies was still in its infancy, director Kinka Usher directed this genre deconstruction about a group of would-be heroes eager to save the day, but who lack the more conventionally helpful powers of their marquee colleagues. Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Hank Azaria all do their best to lead the heroes’ charge, but it’s Tom Waits who steals the show as an inventor of idiosyncratic, but unexpectedly effective gadgets.
As the “Fast and Furious” era of CGI-enhanced car chases began to glimmer on the horizon, director John Frankenheimer mounted one of the great spy thrillers in recent memory, while coaching Robert De Niro through one of his last truly great performances. A spectacular cast including Natasha McElhone, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce bolsters the film’s international bona fides, while the script by J.D. Zeik and an uncredited David Mamet pares the drama down to its most thrilling essentials.
'Searching For Bobby Fischer' (1993)
Screenwriter Steven Zaillian followed up his Oscar win for “Schindler’s List” with this intimate drama about a family coming to terms with their 8-year-old son’s burgeoning gifts as a chess player. Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen play father and mother to real-life prodigy Max Pomeranc, trying to protect his childlike innocence, while Ben Kingsley portrays the instructor tasked with shaping him into the next -- you guessed it, Bobby Fischer.
Almost a decade before Steve Soderbergh remade “Ocean’s Eleven” as a star vehicle for Clooney and company, Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”) crafted this thriller about a charmingly low-key ensemble of crooks, weirdos and reprobates who get drawn into a web of crimes and conspiracies. Robert Redford leads a cast that includes Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Dan Aykroyd, and the irreplaceable David Strathairn, while Steven Toblowsky delivers one of his two signature performances (along with Ned Ryerson in “Groundhog Day”) as a would-be computer dater the team targets as a mark.
'The Spanish Prisoner' (1998)
Few writers have a better working knowledge of grifting than David Mamet, and his skills are on full display in this film about corporate engineer Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), who becomes part of an elaborate heist after meeting a wealthy businessman (Steve Martin) on a work retreat. Much like the director’s earlier work “House of Games,” we get to see the confidence game in action, as Joe succumbs to its machinery and must deal with the fallout as he’s implied in crimes in which he was a helpless victim.
'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country' (1991)
Though it hardly feels possible for a franchise film to lack recognition, Nicholas Meyer’s second Trek outing as director is perhaps understandably overshadowed by his first, “Wrath of Khan.” However, its take on the end of the Cold War -- reimagined as a brokerage of diplomacy between Starfleet and the ailing Klingon Empire -- maintains the franchise’s sociopolitical relevancy long after it had begun to descend into nostalgic fan service, while still managing to deliver some spectacular twists and turns for “Star Trek” fans old and new.
'Wag the Dog' (1997)
Few films seem better engineered to explore present-day political maneuvering than this loose adaptation of Larry Beinhart’s American Hero, about a war fabricated by a Hollywood producer to distract the public from a presidential sex scandal. Exaggerated as its premise may have seemed at the time -- thanks to an over-the-top performance by Dustin Hoffman, impersonating Robert Evans -- Barry Levinson’s satire feels more relevant than ever today in a news cycle where too much information is competing for the same dwindling attention span, to the destructive impact of, well, everybody.