10 Remarkable and Underappreciated 1990's Films
1. La Haine
“La Haine” (1995) is an urgent black & white French drama that follows three young friends from immigrant families residing in an impoverished section of suburban Paris. The story begins the morning after rioting and violent clashes have erupted throughout the surrounding community in reaction to a case of police brutality against a young Arab man, Abdel. As Abdel clings to life, Vinz (Vincent Cassel) declares his outrage toward the police and his desire to kill a policeman in response to their butality. Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is a boxer mourning the loss of his gym that has been destroyed in the riots, while Sayid (Saïd Taghmaoui) yearns to escape their confines to a more peaceful place devoid of so much violence and hatred. Vinz soon finds a policeman’s gun lost amidst the previous night’s chaos, and setting his mind on fulfilling his dark revenge fantasy, set off with his two friends on a dangerous excursion into the heart of Paris. “La Haine” is a blistering and profound urban thriller capturing the fury and violence that had engulfed French society at the time, delivering one of the most seminal cinematic achievements of the entire decade.
“Welcome to Sarajevo” (1997) is a British war drama that follows a group of journalists stationed in Sarajevo in 1992, at the height of the Bosnian War. The film stars Stephen Dillane as Michael Henderson, an ITN reporter covering the Serb-Bosnian conflict alongside Flynn, a brash American photojournalist played by Woody Harrelson. Their daily forays into the embattled streets of the city alternate with nights of hard drinking and friendly digressions, before Flynn is ultimately pulled into the plight of a young girl named Emira (Emira Nušević) who he encounters within a besieged orphanage and promises to save from peril. Intercut with authentic news footage of urban warfare on the streets of Sarajevo, “Welcome to Sarajevo” is a raw and absorbing depiction of life and death on the front line. A remarkable account of historical conflict astutely interweaving the horrors of war, moments of offhand levity and ever-so fleeting glimmers of hopefulness.
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Ghost Dog” (1999) is the story of a hitman (Forrest Whitaker) who lives according to the principles of the Samurai in modern-day (1990’s) New York City, while remaining beholden to a mafia boss, Louie (John Tormey), who saved his life many years earlier. Drawing an assignment to kill a member of a rival mafia clan, Ghost Dog is soon under siege from Louie’s own henchman once it becomes clear he must be eliminated in order to avoid a full-on mafia war. Brandishing Jarmush’s unique blend of self-seriousness intertwined with moments of whimsy and wry humor, “Ghost Dog” is a surprisingly engaging and enjoyable parable about one modern warrior’s path toward redemption and transcendence. Pasting together components of Samurai mythology, mafia drama and hip-hop culture, Jarmusch has created something altogether new and exciting with this one. A one-of-a-kind cinematic collage of inspirations and influences not to be overlooked.
Written and directed by the venerable Coen Brothers, “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) is a spirited Prohibition-era gangster film starring Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, hard-nosed enforcer for mob boss Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney). The storyline follows Reagan’s attempts to protect a cagy bookie named Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), the brother of Reagan’s lover (and Leo’s girlfriend) Vera (Marcia Gay Harden), who has been targeted by rival Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Tom is soon entangled in a war between Leo and Johnny, working both sides in a complicated series of confrontations and double-crosses. A dense and pulpy throwback to mob films of yore, “Miller’s Crossing” is a refreshingly engaging and wryly humorous take on the genre. Brandishing the Coen’s trademark elements of dark comedy and jolting violence, the film imagines a seedy world of yesteryear replete with pomp and gamesmanship—and delivers a twistedly enjoyable nod to the early years of cinema.
“King of New York” (1990) is a volatile, kinetic crime thriller starring Christopher Walken as Frank White, a New York-based crime lord who is released from prison as the story begins. Intent on building a full-on drug empire, Frank re-establishes his authority by taking down his rival Columbian and Italian factions and stealing theirs caches of cocaine and money, while building an army of street hooligans willing to operate at his behest. Frank is soon targeted by the NYPD as a cadre of rogue officers (including David Caruso and Wesley Snipes) lay siege on his operations, infiltrating his base and waging war on his entire enterprise. Shifting perspective intermittently between the equally relentless police and criminal units, “King of the New York” delivers an edgy and aggressive crime thriller marked by vengeance and tragedy. One of the finer efforts from director Abel Ferrara and writer Nicholas St. John, “King of New York” is quintessential early-90’s New York cinema in all of it’s dark, nihilistic glory.
6. The Celebration (Festen)
The first film from the celebrated “Dogme 95” movement of the 1990’s (favoring naturalism over artificiality), “The Celebration” (1998) is an absorbing Danish drama from Thomas Vinterberg, purveyor of the Dogme 95 manifesto alongside Lars Von Trier. The film focuses on a family gathering in a family-run hotel in rural Denmark to celebrate the 60th birthday of the family patriarch, Helge (Henning Moritzen). Helge’s eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) is steeped in mourning over the recent suicide of his twin sister, Linda, as he harbors furious resentment toward his father for childhood abuses. With the family gathered to toast and celebrate Helge, Christian openly accuses Helge of sexually abusing both himself and Linda as children—unleashing a maelstrom of denial, accusation and animosity amidst the extended group of family members. A wickedly dark and transgressively twisted affair, “The Celebration” is as emotionally captivating as it is undeniably compelling. Winner of the esteemed Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.
Written and directed by Aleander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska), “Election” (1999) is a highly entertaining dark comedy about a high school presidential race in suburban Omaha, Nebraska. Starring Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister, a well-liked high school teacher who oversees the election process, “Election” follows the tightly-contested race between Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) and star football player Paul Metzler (Chris Klein). Harboring burning disdain for the overachieving Flick, McAllister secretly plots to sabotage her candidacy, drawing him into a web of trickery and deceit as he attempts to ensure Metzler’s win. The storyline follows McAllister's desperate attempts to influence the race’s outcome, even as his home life disintegrates and allegiances shift, leading him down an amusingly sordid path of desperation and blunder. Featuring dynamite performances by both Broderick and Witherspoon, in particular, “Election” is a wonderfully twisted satire of high school drama and American politics guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
The feature-length debut of famed auteur Darren Aronofksy (Black Swan, Mother!), “Pi” (1999) is a dense psychological thriller starring Sean Gullette as Max Cohen, a socially outcast mathematician living alone in a squalid apartment in Lower Manhattan. Working tirelessly at his computer in search of accurate predictions of stock market activity, Max is befuddled when the system churns out an inexplicable 216-digit number and a single stock pick before crashing altogether. Only a day later does he discover that the predictions were correct, but that the printout has been lost—setting off a mad scramble as mysterious figures besiege him for information about his enigmatic calculation. “Pi” is a fascinating and thrilling cinematic construction, theorizing on how mathematics may apply to not only financial markets but to the Torrah (in the form of Gematria)—and ultimately to the foundation of all nature and existence. Wonderfully compelling and masterful work from a brilliant filmmaker at the beginning of a remarkable career.
“Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995) is a blistering black comedy from writer/director Todd Solondz that follows the trials and tribulations of Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), a shy and unattractive 11-year old girl living in Suburban New Jersey. Unpopular and derided by her 7th grade classmates while overlooked by her family, Dawn finds solace in her one true friend, Ralphy, an effeminate neighbor boy with whom she shares a clubhouse. After being threatened violently by an abusive bully named Brandon McCarthy (Brendan Sexton III), Dawn falls into a twisted relationship with the reckless brute while simultaneously pining in vain for her brother’s handsome bandmate, Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius). “Welcome to the Dollhouse” serves as a darkly comedic tale of a sad young girl painfully unable to find any degree of success in her life, and yet the story is told in such a jarringly twisted manner that the entire experience becomes a laugh-out-loud depiction of undue degradation and comic misadventure. A dark gem of a film.
10. Monument Ave.
“Monument Ave.” (1998) AKA “Snitch” is a Boston-based crime drama starring Denis Leary as Bobby O'Grady, a stalwart member of a Charlestown syndicate who introduces his young cousin from Ireland, Seamus (Jason Barry), to the criminal underworld that Bobby inhabits. Beholden to crime boss Jackie O'Hara (Colm Meaney), Bobby finds himself conflicted when another cousin, Teddy (Billy Crudup), is gunned down by Jackie’s henchmen upon his release from jail, under the assumption that he snitched on his crew. Further compounding matters, Police Detective Hanlon (Martin Sheen) is hot on Bobby’s tail for information on Teddy’s murder, as Hanlon is wise to the crew’s activities and the code of silence they live by. “Monument Ave.” is a terse, well-crafted affair that balances crime genre tropes with fresh characterizations and winning performances, most notably from Crudup in a small but important role. Nice work from director Ted Demme, who would go on to great success with Blow (2001) before his tragic and untimely death in 2002.