Underrated Films of the ’90s

Underrated Films of the '90s: Men Don't LeaveIt’s amazing how some films manage to sail under the radar. You see a movie that you like and admire, and it doesn’t catch on. You assume somewhere along the line, the film will get the attention that it deserves, maybe even get a cult following. Often, the movie may turn up on DVD or be shown at three in the morning on cable, which may make you want to call your future ex-friends to tell them to check it out.

There are so many great neglected movies around that I decided to examine them decade by decade. So, here’s the first entry in the series, where we’ll consider the ‘90s. We’d love to hear what films of the era you dug that need some extra attention.

La Cucaracha (1999): There’s more than a bit of Sam Peckinpah and John Fante in this sweaty, filthy revenge saga, with Eric Roberts going gung-ho as a disaffected New York office worker who heads to Mexico to live his romantic dream as a gringo writing novels. He’s enlisted by an emissary of a local power broker (Joaquim de Almeida) to kill someone for $100,000. An already-desperate Roberts soon becomes even more so when he learns he’s been duped. Darkly funny, filled with ironic twists and turns and boasting what could be Roberts’ best performance, La Cucaracha is a film that impressive in all departments, but has somehow managed to be non-existent to audiences.

The Critic Says: “La Cucaracha is a minor gem that has languished on the shelf for some time; it’s one of those films no one seems able to get a handle on marketing-wise, too brazenly downbeat for its own good, but with a cool, giddily humorous edge to it”…Mark Savlov, Austin Chronicle

Mumford (1999): Lawrence Kasdan has had a curious career, from his highly regarded beginnings as the writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the helmer of Body Heat and The Big Chill, to such recent directing washouts as Dreamcatcher and Darling Companion. Somewhere in between, he wrote and directed this quirky little gem starring Loren Dean as a psychiatrist—new to a small town—whose unorthodox methods win him lots of patients and the ire of competing shrinks in the area. Zooey Deschanel, Ted Danson, Jason Lee, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, Martin Short and Hope Davis comprise the superior supporting cast in this low-key, surprise-filled delight.

The Critic Says: “On a direct line with the whimsical small-town comedies of the ’40s and ’50s”…Michael Wilmington, The Chicago Tribune

Liberty Heights (1999): Not many people realize that Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore Trilogy” is actually a tetralogy. There’s Diner, Tin Men, Avalon and this little-seen entry that’s as fresh, sharply observed, sweet, and well-acted as the others in the series. Adrien Brody and Ben Foster are brothers growing up in the Jewish section of the city in the mid-1950s. Sons of a burlesque theater-owning father (Joe Mantegna) and a strong-willed mother (Bebe Neuwirth), the brothers experience racism, coming-of-age experiences and first romances—Brody with a blonde WASP, Foster with a black girl—in their formative years.

The Critic Says: “Barry Levinson goes deep with ‘Liberty Heights,’ and the result is a grand slam. Summoning up boyhood memories of the ’50s for his fourth ‘Baltimore picture’ and infusing them with mature and pointed observations about race, class and religion in the U.S., this exceptionally successful director seems to be rediscovering his voice as a writer, and in the process has made his best film”…Todd McCarthy, Variety

Men Don’t Leave (1990): Jessica Lange offers a tour de force performance as a mother of two sons who moves the family to Baltimore in the wake of her husband’s sudden death and tries to make a new life for herself. For Lange, It’s not easy raising kids, finding a new job, dealing with debt, starting a new relationship, and battling a depression that stops her in her tracks. A superior drama with dollops of humor from writer-director Paul Brickman (Risky Business), based on the 1981 French film La Vie Continue.

The Critic Says: “It’s a singular movie, really, and a richly satisfying one, with a landscape so familiar that you’re almost surprised you don’t recognize the houses from some television docudrama. Yet the manner in which Brickman has combined his deadpan eccentricity with the film’s muted, packed-in-cotton tone is invigoratingly original”…Hal Hinson, Washington Post

after_dark_my_sweet_dvdAfter Dark, My Sweet (1990): The classic film noir gets a lean, mean wakeup call with this edgy excursion from director James Foley (Glengarry Glenn Ross) and based on a mid- ‘50s tory penned by Jim Thompson. Jason Patric plays a down-and-out, punch-drunk boxer who hooks up with pretty widow Rachel Ward. She introduces Patrick to Bruce Dern, an ex-cop out for a quick score by kidnapping the child of a prominent family. Of course, not everything goes as planned. The outdoor California locations may be sunny, but the characters and situations are anything but, in this gritty, intimate crime tale in which no one is to be trusted.

The Critic Says: “James Foley’s ‘After Dark, My Sweet’ is a brisk, entertaining contemporary melodrama about the kind of sleazy characters who populated California crime literature 35 years ago”…Vincent Canby, The New York Times

The Rapture (1991): Despite its powerful handling of provocative subject matter, this film never got the credit it deserved. Mimi Rogers is a dissatisfied telephone sales operator who gets through her lonely life by partaking in group sex adventures at night. She, along with co-worker David Duchovny, joins a religious group that believes Judgment Day is upon us. Rogers and Duchovny get married, have a child and tailor their “new” lives around the group’s teachings and the idea that the apocalypse is right around the corner. Eventually, Rogers’ beliefs are put to the test in the most extreme and uncomfortable ways. Writer-director Michael Tolkin, scripter of The Player, also wrote and directed The New Age, another stimulating and distressing effort.

The Critic Says: “Here is one of the most radical, infuriating, engrossing, challenging movies I’ve ever seen”…Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

My New Gun (1993): In this spoof of suburban life, Diane Lane plays a bored New Jersey housewife married to radiologist Stephen Collins, who finds her life disrupted once he gives her a handgun to ensure her own safety. James Le Gros plays the shady neighbor smitten with Lane, and Tess Harper is Le Gros’s depressed, country-singing mother. Debuting director Stacy Cochran’s first work is a sharp, spiky effort that will remind some of Jonathan Demme, circa Something Wild and Married to the Mob.

The Critic Says: “…’My New Gun,’ a delectably wry slice of suburban life from a new director, Stacy Cochran, whose sympathy for her subject greatly humanizes an otherwise deadpan style”…Janet Maslin, New York Times.

This World, Then The Fireworks (1997): The 1990s were a good time for fans of film noir, even if they didn’t go over so well in theaters. Consider this down-and-dirty adaptation of a Jim Thompson novella with Billy Zane (remember him—the bad guy in Titanic) as a newspaper reporter/con man who returns to his California home after a three-year hiatus and gets reacquainted with his mother (Rue McClanahan) and,  in an unsavory way, with his prostitute twin sister (pouty-lipped Gina Gershon). Zane also gets involved with a kinky policewoman (Sheryl Lee), but when that relationship—as well as a couple of thugs after Gershon—get in the way of the brother-sister coupling, violence erupts. A stylish, surprisingly perverse affair, the film is based on Thompson’s tale which took decades to get published. Perhaps its unsavory subject manner is holding up its release on DVD.

The Critic Says: “Centering on a perversely bizarre romantic triangle — and overtly dealing with incest — this pulpish yarn should satisfy fans of the cult writer as well as aficionados of film noir”…Todd McCarthy, Variety

zero_effect_dvdZero Effect (1998): A truly offbeat detective saga, the film from Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence Kasdan ) is an engaging comic thriller, with Bill Pullman as a reclusive private investigator and Ben Stiller as his ex-lawyer partner out to solve a case involving a timber tycoon (Ryan O’Neal), a safe deposit box, a beautiful paramedic (Kim Dickens) and blackmail. A few years later, the film inspired an NBC TV series pilot that was never picked up.

The Critic Says: “This is one of those movies that creeps up on you, insidiously gathering power. By the end, I was surprised how much I was involved”…Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990): The film that launched the career of the late Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, The English Patient) is a wonderful romantic dramedy filled with humor and heartache. Juliet Stevenson is an interpreter trying to get over the recent death of her boyfriend, cellist Alan Rickman. When she begins seeing him appear as a ghostly figure, they attempt to rekindle their romance, but problems—including Stevenson’s interest in a psychologist (Michael Maloney)—get in the way.

The Critic Says:  “This is a wonderful, disarming film, sort of like ‘Ghost,’ but with all the Hollywood drained from it, leaving nothing on screen but the truth of the matter”….Mark Savlov, Austin Chronicle

Chaplin (1992): Even though Robert Downey, Jr. got an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, Sir Richard Attenborough’s film was ignored during its theatrical run. It’s a shame, because it is an incredibly thoughtful, warts-and-all portrait of the Little Tramp’s life, framed around his 1972 trip to America after twenty years in exile to receive a special Oscar. Downey is marvelous, getting the physical gestures showcased in Chaplin’s movies perfect, and offering with an affecting study of the troubled genius. He’s aided by the likes of Kevin Kline, Dan Aykroyd, Diane Lane, Marisa Tomei and Moira Kelly in key supporting parts.  While the film may have been better suited for a mini-series, in order to cover some of the thornier parts of Chaplin’s life, what’s here is cotton candy for a movie fan.