From the Coen Brothers to Jim Jarmusch: The 10 most underrated films of the 1990s
“I do not want my new works to be generated in a market or audience of any kind.” – Vincent Gallo
In an industry where there is an over-saturation of artistic efforts, it is inevitable that a lot of good films fly by under the radar and are regrettably banished to the realm of obscurity. It is getting increasingly difficult to keep track of such works because many of our watchlists are curated by algorithms.
In a recent interview, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese complained about this contemporary phenomenon, “In the press and the popular culture, what’s happening… it’s becoming sadly common to see cinema marginalized and devalued, and in this situation categorised sort of as a form of comfort food.”
He added, “To celebrate its very existence is all the more important and necessary… this remarkable art form has always been and always will be much more than a diversion. Cinema, film, movies, at its best, is a source of wonder and inspiration.”
In order to understand the fact that commercial successes and artistic achievements are more often than not incompatible, we have decided to list ten underrated films from the ’90s which were written off by critics and did not necessarily do well at the Box Office either but contributed in their own unique ways to the global discourse of cinema.
10 underrated films from the 1990s:
Gummo (Harmony Korine – 1997)
This was the directorial debut of indie king Harmony Korine. Set in the tornado-ravaged town of Xenia, Ohio, Korine takes us on a beautifully grotesque tour of a lost generation, full of ugly teenagers who sniff glue and kill cats. It is one of the most striking films ever made because it absolutely destroys the voyeuristic binaries between what is pleasurable to look at and what isn’t.
“I started to think of films in different ways,” Korine said. “When I really thought about it, what I remembered about great films, what moved me most, were specific scenes and characters. I never really cared about plot or narrative drive.
“So, with Gummo, I wanted to make a film that consisted entirely of scenes and characters, so that you could stick your hand into it blindfolded and pull out any scene and get something from it.”
Buffalo ’66 (Vincent Gallo – 1998)
Say what you want about the controversial filmmaker Vincent Gallo, Buffalo ’66 is definitely his magnum opus. The delightfully irreverent film explores the effects of a traumatic childhood through interesting cinematic ideas. The disruption of continuity through mise-en-scène and the grungy aesthetics make Gallo’s film a notable work of art that deserves to be revisited.
Gallo reflected, “Most of the character himself, his feelings are true to things I’ve felt, and most of the situation with his family is very similar to how my mother and father are, and the concept that l would want to make someone love me, even if by force, is not that far-fetched. But it’s not purely autobiographical: there’s also a very clever screenplay there.”
Pump Up The Volume (Allan Moyle – 1990)
Moyle’s cult classic Empire Records is always slated as his best work but Pump Up The Volume is just as powerful, if not more. Christian Slater stars as Mark Hunter, a socially awkward but intelligent high school student who finds it easier to talk to people through his radio program. It is a stunning tribute to teenage angst while also addressing important subjects like homosexuality, suicide and educational rights.
“Pump Up the Volume was more understood in France than it was in America,” Moyle complained. “It played for months in France – they sent me over three times. The French title of the movie was… ‘Is there life after high school?’, which is so much smarter than ‘Pump up the volume, pump up the volume!’.”
Devil in a Blue Dress (Carl Franklin – 1995)
Highly subversive in nature, Devil in a Blue Dress is critical of Hollywood conventions while also establishing its own artistic vision as a brilliant neo-noir from the ’90s. Based on Walter Mosley’s eponymous novel, the film critiques the rampant racism in film noir.
Franklin revealed, “Devil in a Blue Dress was something where my wife, Jesse Beaton, responded to the cover of the book in a bookstore and sparked to the story because at the time, she was having to sell her house and that paralleled Easy’s issue. Then I read it and I loved the world, especially the look at black Los Angeles at that time—it was noir that represented something I had never seen.”
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch – 1999)
Jarmusch injects his poetic sensibilities into this amazing film about a Black assassin who lives by the samurai code but finds himself on the mafia’s hit list. The 1999 work explores the psychological contradictions of a man who can only make sense of the perilous present by seeking refuge in a forgotten past.
Jarmusch explained, “I didn’t start with the Samurai thing. I started with the character and then he became a Samurai. But I’ve been interested in Samurai culture after first seeing Kurosawa’s interpretation of it in films, and then I found this book, Hagakure, when I was half way through the script.”
He added, “Ghost Dog is obviously heavily informed by Melville’s Le Samourai, but it also seems equally influenced by the Wu-Tang hip-hop cult, using the founding member RZA, for the score and so on.”
Clockers (Spike Lee – 1995)
The raw power of Lee’s 1995 crime drama is undeniable. He blends the use of pop-art techniques and exaggerated editing to amplify the problems of the Black community in New York City, ranging from drug use to lack of educational resources.
“I saw the most gruesome autopsy photos you could imagine,” Lee recalled. “Of course, it would have been in bad taste to use the actual photos in the film, so we duplicated them. We did this for effect; we wanted the viewers to know, before they even settled into their seats, that our film was about serious business.
“This movie is the exact opposite of the big-budget action films you see, which are full of cartoony killings. We weren’t going to treat life cheaply in Clockers, because when you take a life, it’s forever. There are too many kids being killed on the streets of this country, and it’s no joke to me.”
Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow – 1995)
Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi film will come across as startlingly prescient to anyone who watches it today. Strange Days explores the abundance of virtual stimulations and the devastating effects it has on society, contributing to an omnipresent social malady. 25 years after its release, the film is more relevant now than ever.
“I was fascinated by the dramatic and thematic potentials of the millennium, and the idea of doomsday as a backdrop for the redemption of one individual,” said James Cameron (the writer).
“Like the brilliant Peeping Tom,” Bigelow said upon the film’s release, “Strange Days utilizes the medium to comment on the medium…It should be uncomfortable to watch.”
Miller’s Crossing (Coen Brothers – 1990)
The phrase “criminally underrated” gets thrown around a lot but it should be reserved for a film like this. One of the lesser known films by the directors of masterpieces like No Country For Old Men, this 1990 crime drama might just be their most personal work. Some of the sublime techniques on display here would go on to become their defining characteristics as filmmakers.
“When I read that script, I was just like anybody I think who read it, just really impressed by how visual and literate and how complex those relationships in the story actually were,” Gabriel Byrne recalled.
“When you unravel what that movie is about, it’s even more audacious that someone could base a storyline on that single conversation between Steve Buscemi’s character and mine at the bottom of the staircase…I think when the film came out it was really underrated.”
Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz – 1995)
Made with a relatively low budget of $800,000, this 1995 suburban tragicomedy featured the troubling life of a seventh-grader who gets bullied in junior high. The experience affects her social skills and the film never really reaches any sort of resolution, in an honest and uncomfortable manner. The film did not do well at the Box Office but it still remains an authentic exploration of a problematic childhood.
“I started writing Welcome to the Dollhouse around the time of that first film [Fear, Anxiety and Depression],” Solondz said. “I couldn’t think of any American films that dealt in any serious way with childhood. Children in American films were either cute like a little doll or evil demons. The early drafts of Dollhouse were all darker and more depressing; it took time to find the right level of bleakness.”
River of Grass (Kelly Reichardt – 1994)
River of Grass was writer-director’s Kelly Reichardt feature film debut and it still remains one of the finest independent films in recent memory. It investigates the ennui-filled life of a dissatisfied housewife who suddenly finds herself in a world of (mis)adventure.
“It’s a genre film, it’s a road movie, and so it was sort of the idea that the road movie had played itself out—how could the genre be deconstructed?” Reichardt said.
“It was like trying to deal with the hero movie, bad-people-on-the-run movie, when this sort of concept had already been so co-opted and in the mainstream. How can you still be an outsider and an outlaw? That’s sort of a standard image in selling every kind of product or idea or lifestyle. It was a deflated version of a road movie.”