When the 90s rolled around, it was a time when movie fans could enjoy Tarantino-approved indie films, and Disney Animation went into overdrive with its rebound from its recent decline. But there are so many underrated movies from that era that live on in many fans' hearts today.
This list has some truly incredible moments that define this golden decade in film history – so read on for 25 forgotten gems from the 1990s worth remembering today.
Underrated '90s Movies
The following are just some of the many underrated films that you can enjoy. We have included Hollywood hits, indie fare, and foreign releases as well.
Scenes from these movies take you through many different countries like France, Vienna, the United States, and many more. The pictures on this list all deserve recognition for their contribution to culture in one form or another.
1. Before Sunrise (1995, Directed by Richard Linklater)
Taking place primarily in the historic city of Vienna with a tiny budget of only $ 2.5 million, Richard Linklater captures arguably one of the most underrated romance films of all time – not just of the '90s.
After meeting on a train traveling through Central Europe, two strangers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), connect on an intense level that only Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet can say they've had the pleasure of. Jesse convinces Celine to get off at Vienna's stop, and the film follows them as they traverse the romantic Austrian capital experiencing the best of what life has to offer – all before sunrise.
2. Days of Being Wild (1990, Directed by Wong Kar-Wai)
Wong Kar-Wai is considered by many to be one of the most significant international filmmakers of modern times. So it's no coincidence that his 1990 drama Days of Being Wild features in our list. Focusing on the life of a socialite in 1960s Hong Kong, we follow him and his almost sadistic relationships as he attempts to find out the identity of his mother.
Indeed, in one of the darker films we'll mention, Wong Kar-Wai does an exceptional job of telling the story, almost to the point where you feel like you're right there with the characters, living the violence and the grittiness of the seedy Hong Kong underworld.
3. Meet Joe Black (1998, Directed by Martin Brest)
In this romantic fantasy remake of a Paramount classic, death takes the form of a human (Brad Pitt) and is on a quest to find out what life's really like on Earth. In the process of media giant Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) guiding him on his quest, ‘Death' ends up falling head over heels in love with Parrish's daughter (Claire Forlani). If you can take the three-hour run-time, you'll be in for a treat with superb acting and a touching, thought-provoking tale.
4. Three Colours: Blue (1993, Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Blue is the first in the critically acclaimed Three Colours trilogy, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. The three films are themed on the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Blue sees the wife of a famous French composer, Julie (Juliette Binoche), surviving a car accident that kills her composer husband together with her five-year-old daughter. Becoming understandably traumatized from the event, we watch her become a recluse from society, followed by her recovery.
5. Fearless (1993, Directed by Peter Weir)
Not many people can survive an airline crash and live to tell the tale. Peter Weir's Fearless is the story of how Max Klein's (Jeff Bridges) life changes dramatically after the traumatic incident. Klein finds comfort in befriending Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), a mother who lost her child on the doomed flight.
He clashes with his wife (Isabella Rossellini) as she tries to grasp his post-traumatic behavior as an outsider looking in, ending up barely recognizing the man she fell in love with. Bridges delivers a stellar performance dealing with the difficult and taboo subject of grief, and the film is an intense, thought-provoking drama.
6. Four Rooms (1995)
In a wonderfully creative film set in a fictional hotel in Los Angeles on New Year's Eve, viewers are treated to four outstanding directors in charge of their own ‘hotel room' and what's happening within.
To experience the four rooms, we follow the hotel's night porter Ted (Tim Roth). Don't let the bad reviews put you off; this film is underrated for a reason. With plenty of belly-deep laughs, a classic slapstick Tim Roth act, and a story loosely based on the legend that is Roald Dahl, Four Rooms is definitely worth your time.
7. Audition (1999, Directed by Takashi Miike)
Takashi Miike's Audition is probably one of the best foreign horror films. With a wholly different narrative than your usual blood-curdling horrors, Audition manages to capture the artistic nature of Far East Asian cinema perfectly. Bundling it up with a harrowing and, quite frankly. shocking ending will leave you questioning if you ever want to watch a horror again. Audition is widely regarded as Miike's breakthrough film, and it's easy to see why. Not for the faint-hearted!
8. The Hurricane (1999, Directed by Norman Jewison)
Norman Jewison's biographical drama shines a light on the captivating true story of Rubin” The Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington). This former middleweight boxer was wrongly accused and convicted of a triple murder. Throughout the film, viewers see the heart-rending uphill battle Carter has in prison as he faces a life sentence and his battle for freedom, and the influence a young teenager has on his trial. In what is one of Denzel Washington's best performances, this film is massively underrated and well worthy of your time and full attention.
9. The Red Violin (1998, Directed by Francois Girard)
We're mixing it up a little with this recommendation. Instead of diving deep into the life and soul of a person or memoir that we've heard countless times before, this movie follows the story of a mysterious red violin and its owners across five countries, spanning over four centuries. With Hollywood legend Samuel L. Jackson making an appearance, The Red Violin was also nominated for various awards, such as Best Original Score at the Academy Awards and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.
10. Sliding Doors (1998, Directed by Peter Howitt)
Sliding Doors is a romantic comedy with a very unique and original story. It really makes you think about what would happen if we make different choices or if, like in Helen Quilley's (Gwyneth Paltrow) case, she misses her Underground train and catches the next one. We follow two different plots because of this seemingly minor, everyday occurrence. Fantastic performances by the cast and an intriguing concept make Sliding Doors a heavily slept-on film that bears watching.
11. La Haine (1995, Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz)
A French cult hit that fully deserves everyone to watch at least once in their life, La Haine is a powerful and commanding piece of cinema. The film tackles the challenging themes of poverty, racism, and police brutality – all of which are still mightily relevant today.
La Haine, which is French for ‘hatred,' tells the story of three friends Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Said (Said Taghmaoui), and Hubert (Hubert Kounde), as they attempt to save their friend from torture and death at the hands of the police following barbaric riots in the suburbs of Paris. Critic's described the film as “hard-hitting and breathtakingly effective,” with one going as far as saying La Haine is” one of the most blisteringly effective pieces of urban cinema ever made.”
12. Mulan (1998, Directed by Barry Cook & Tony Bancroft)
Only in recent years has Mulan received the credit it so rightly deserves, partly due to the mediocre live-action adaptation released in 2020. Often cited as ahead of its time, the Disney classic pushes the boundaries of animation content, not least for having a strong female lead. Unlike her other Disney counterparts, Mulan isn't a princess, which gives a refreshing truth to the film. Perfect for adults and children alike, Mulan is an underrated gem hidden behind the big names and bright lights of The Lion King, Aladdin, and Cinderella.
13. Rushmore (1998, Directed by Wes Anderson)
Rushmore is a coming-of-age film that follows the early school life of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman). Max isn't exactly your average high-schooler. Instead, he's eccentric and completely adores his school – the Rushmore Academy. Striking up an unlikely friendship with a rich businessman (Bill Murray), they both manage to fall in love with a teacher, Ms. Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). On the whole, Rushmore is a hilarious, quirky comedy in the typical Wes Anderson style, though not overbearing as some might think of his more recent films.
14. Baraka (1992, Directed by Ron Fricke)
Taking you away from the contemporary ‘movie,' we land at what is like no other film you will ever see and is often regarded as one of the most visually stunning pieces of filmmaking. With no voice-over or even so much as an actual storyline, Ron Fricke's documentary Barakatakes viewers on a journey watching what can only be described as life itself in its purest form. Shot in an incredible 24 countries over a 14-month time period, it's safe to say this will leave you stunned.
15. Being John Malkovich (1999, Directed by Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze goes beyond the bounds in terms of storytelling in what is certainly one of the most intriguing and imaginative screenplays on the list. Being John Malkovich is the ingenious story of a puppeteer who mysteriously finds a portal directly into the head and mind of the well-known actor John Malkovich. Sitting at a healthy 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and with the illustrious Roger Ebert giving it four out of four stars claiming it as “the best film of 1999,” Being John Malkovich simply has to be at the top of your to-watch list.
16. Magnolia (1999, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson's epic psychological film Magnolia follows the lives of nine civilians whose stories all intertwine with each other without ever joining up. For those unfamiliar with Paul Thomas Anderson's work, to put it bluntly – the man is a filmmaking genius, and it's evident, having been nominated for eleven Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, and eight BAFTAS. It shouldn't come as a surprise then to know that this ensemble cast thriller is an instant classic and is nothing short of a masterpiece.
17. Liar Liar (1997, Directed by Tom Shadyac)
Arguably one of the more popular ones on this list is Tom Shadyac's smash-hit family comedy film Liar Liar. Jim Carrey stars as a divorced lawyer who has built himself a successful career almost entirely based on lies. Because of this habit, his son (Justin Cooper) makes a wish on his birthday that his father cannot lie for one day. This effectively turns Fletcher's (Carrey) life upside down. Carrey's performance was particularly highlighted as one of his best.
18. Primal Fear (1996, Directed by Gregory Hoblit)
If you're in the mood for a gritty crime thriller, you've found the perfect movie. In his acting debut, Edward Norton stars as a young altar boy accused of callously murdering a Chicago priest. A highly-regarded veteran lawyer Martin Vail (Richard Gere), takes up Aaron Stampler's (Norton) case seeing an opportunity to make the front pages. However, little does Vail know that there's a lot more to his defendant than meets the eye. With a tremendously well-written plot and a performance from Norton that earned him an Oscar nomination on his debut, this is one movie you cannot miss.
19. The Fifth Element (1997, Directed by Luc Besson)
The Fifth Element was praised for its fun, elaborate and dazzling style, with Rotten Tomatoes calling it, “visually inventive and gleefully over the top.” It was evident straight from the release that Luc Besson's sci-fi action blockbuster divided everybody who watched it. David Edelstein of Slate said, “It may or may not be the worst movie ever made.” That's for you to decide, but all we can tell you is that with a riveting story and a range of intriguing characters, The Fifth Element certainly fits the bill of being underrated.
20. What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, Directed by Lasse Hallstrom)
Life can sometimes be the hardest job in the world, with responsibilities that form people's ideas of a nightmare. What's Eating Gilbert Grape is the remarkable story of a young man (Johnny Depp) tasked with caring for his morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates) and his intellectually disabled brother (Leonardo DiCaprio) while working a grocery store job in the sleepy town of Endora, Iowa. The performances of Depp, and DiCaprio, in particular, make this film special and seriously underrated.
21. New Jack City (1991, Directed by Mario Van Peebles)
If you're after a dark crime thriller you might not have heard of before, then Van Peebles' New Jack City is near the top of the list. Set during the ‘Crack Epidemic' of the mid-eighties, we watch Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) play New York's version of ‘Tony Montana' as he rises to the top of the drug underworld. A highly intelligent man, Nino is the subject of an intense investigation from NYPD detectives. New Jack City is a superb example of the drug crime sub-genre with an excellent soundtrack and a stellar cast.
22. Dazed and Confused (1993, Directed by Richard Linklater)
Featuring what is now an incredible pool of talent, Dazed and Confused is a coming-of-age flick that leaves no stone unturned when it comes to giving viewers an in-depth look into high-school life. With almost documentary-like accuracy, Richard Linklater manages to capture the essence of being a teenager in the mid-seventies. Underrated and barely managing to gross $900,000 on its opening weekend, the film became a cult favorite. Director Quentin Tarantino himself included it on his list of the ten greatest films of all time.
Casandra Karpiak is a travel writer and the co-owner of Savoteur. A Toronto native with Danish roots currently residing in British Columbia, her travel writing has been seen on The Associated Press wire, MSN, CBS, NBC, Entrepreneur, 24/7 Wall St, Times Daily, and many more.