The ‘90s were, let’s just say, a busy decade in American history. The culture shifted dramatically, the music scene was completely up-ended, and the dawn of a new age in technology emerged. But intertwined with all these headline-grabbers was arguably one of the best decades in film history. An endless list of classics came out, such as “Goodfellas,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Shawshank Redemption.” Because of this excess of brilliance, we’re left with many under the radar movies from the ‘90s that don’t nearly get the love they deserve. In the following, I’ll shine some light on 11 films that warrant your attention, regardless of genre. Let’s take a look.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
We start with a film that’ll give you a bit of everything. “Léon” is part violence and action, part heartwarming, part funny, and whatever other parts fall in between. The film was the debut for Natalie Portman, who, despite being just 12 years of age, shines on the screen. The basic premise alone is enticing enough: a lonely professional hitman (Jean Reno) finds himself the unwilling caretaker of a 12-year-old girl (Natalie Portman) who subsequently becomes his protege. Gary Oldman also stars in the film, and his character is quite unlike what you’re used to from him. The film debuted in France, which is perhaps why it doesn’t hold the highest acclaim in America in 2021. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile watch that covers all the bases for the feelings and reactions it elicits in viewers.
“You’re so money, baby, and you don’t even know it!”
If you’re looking for a good-time film, “Swingers” is your best bet on this list. It was an independent, low-budget production written by and starring Jon Favreau, alongside Vince Vaughn, Heather Graham, and Ron Livingston. “Swingers” propelled the careers of all of these famous actors, who at the time weren’t even close to being household names. Their subsequent careers, in part, is probably why the film tends to be an under the radar movie from the ‘90s. “Swingers” is a film about young, single, unemployed actors living in Los Angeles trying to help a shy friend (Jon Favreau) who is struggling to move on from a bad break-up. The film and its plotline are basic, yet the story is highly relatable and fun to experience.
Disclaimer: you may find yourself saying the words “money” and “baby” more than you ever have before. Don’t worry; it’s a common side-effect. Blame Vince Vaughn, not me.
A Bronx Tale (1993)
For you mob movie buffs, “A Bronx Tale” is undoubtedly not under the radar. But for everyone else, this film likely has gotten overshadowed in arguably the best decade for the genre. Mob movie classics “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” “Donnie Brasco,” and “Godfather 3” came out in the ‘90s. So, it’s not hard to see why this film often gets overlooked. But don’t get it twisted, “A Bronx Tale” belongs on the same pedestal as each of those films, barring “Goodfellas,” perhaps.
The film is a wonderful coming-of-age story about a young kid named Calogero (Lillo Brancato) growing up in the Bronx in the ‘60s. Calogero is torn between the influence of his honest-living father (Robert De Niro) and his neighborhood role model and local mafioso (Chazz Palminteri). “A Bronx Tale” was adapted from Palminteri’s Broadway play of the same name, and you can feel that influence in the film. It’s not as brash, violent, or grandiose as the other mob movies listed here, which is part of what makes it such a refreshing, yet emotionally-driven watch.
“Tombstone” is an all-time Western classic. The film was a relatively big hit when it came out in ‘93, but it’s maybe not as well known for some of the younger folks. Whether you like the Western genre or not, “Tombstone” is an adventurous story that transports you into the glory days of the American frontier. The film tells the story of lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and his gang and is loosely based on actual events. It’s a classic good guy versus bad guy story, but with a Western twist, where the line between the two begins to blur a bit. “Tombstone” is heavy in action and drama alike and has become a cult classic ever since its release. It’s worth the watch just to experience one of Val Kilmer’s best performances in his character as the notorious and lovable Doc Holiday.
Jackie Brown (1997)
In my opinion, the Jackie Brown soundtrack is one of the best in film history. That alone makes this film worth your time. “Jackie Brown” was written and directed by none other than Quentin Tarantino. But, this film is the most unlike his usual style, that’s heavy with aggression, violence, and boldness, though there’s still plenty of each in “Jackie Brown.” It’s easily his most underrated film as it always seems to get outmatched by the classic “Pulp Fiction,” which came out in ‘94.
“Jackie Brown” involves a lot of moving parts and essential characters. The story is headlined by Jackie Brown herself (Pam Grier), a struggling flight attendant who gets caught in a rut with law enforcement as she tries to smuggle money on a flight for a “friend” (Samuel L. Jackson). Additional supporting cast members include Michael Keaton, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, and Robert De Niro. If you’re familiar with the Ocean’s movie franchise, this film has a similar style at times yet is rougher around the edges with an extra dose of a swagger added.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Now, I realize this is a bit of a stretch to be included as an under the radar movie from the ‘90s. But, this is one of those films that still should be more well-known than it already is. “The Big Lebowski” is perfect for those with a darker sense of humor. The film is centered around Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), the ultimate slacker and avid bowler who finds himself caught in the middle of a kidnap and ransom situation. He seeks the counsel of his eccentric bowling friends, and from there, all kinds of you know what starts hitting the fan.
The film is funny, enjoyable to watch, largely unpredictable, and is a true cult classic. “The Big Lebowski” also has a loaded supporting cast, including John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, it’s worth it.
“Friday” is another one I assumed was a household movie. Still, I’ve been astounded by the number of people in the younger demographic who haven’t seen it—especially considering the endlessly quotable moments from the movie that are still relevant in pop culture today. Nevertheless, “Friday” is hilarious, particularly given that the basic premise of the entire movie is two friends sitting on a porch all day trying to figure out how to get the money they owe to a local drug dealer. The film stars Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, who put on the acting performances of their career. The simplicity of the plot and setting in “Friday” is easily made up for by the brilliant writing, comedic sequences, and acting displays. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be surprised by how many memes and references you’ll understand after seeing it.
The transition from “Friday” to “Fargo” couldn’t be more stark and contrasting. Yet, this film is equally worth your time, if not more. We have another Coen Brothers film here (“The Big Lebowski” was also from them), so you can expect dark humor, parody, and a whole lot of cinematic risks, but also a damn good movie.
“Fargo” is worth it for the accents alone, which keep you laughing throughout the film despite the intensity and violence. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is a pregnant Minnesota police chief investigating a couple of murders. The murders stemmed from a botched yet somewhat fake kidnapping, ransom, and extortion scheme involving a desperate car salesman (William H. Macy) and two petty criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). It’s a borderline under the radar film. But is another that makes this list because anyone who still hasn’t seen it is doing themselves a great disservice.
Varsity Blues (1999)
This one’s for you sports movie fans out there. “Varsity Blues” is a vastly underrated sports film, mainly because it competes in the crowded sub-genre of football movies. If you like both the television series and movie, “Friday Night Lights,” then you’re bound to enjoy this one.
“Varsity Blues” is a sports and coming-of-age story that takes place in the high school football-obsessed state of Texas. It’s a bit less serious than the movie “Friday Night Lights” and is certainly much funnier. Whether you’re a football fan or not, “Varsity Blues” is a film that anyone can relate to; it’s as much about navigating the difficult transition from the end of high school as it is about football. If you enjoy high school story movies, then you can be sure that “Varsity Blues” will be satisfactory for you.
“Juice” is a true under the radar film from the ‘90s. The movie itself and the acting performances don’t get the credit they deserve. “Juice” is a crime thriller that stars Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, and Khalil Kain, a group of high school friends in Harlem trying to navigate the rugged, dangerous city life. Oh, and yes, you read that right; Tupac stars in the movie, and he’s brilliant. “Juice” is another story that can fall under the coming-of-age category. Yet, the stakes are much higher, and the theme morphs into survival of the fittest. The movie is raw, authentic, hard-hitting, and intense at times. It’s worth your time just to see Tupac’s performance alone, although the film is so much more than that.
Primal Fear (1996)
“Primal Fear,” like “Swingers,” often gets overshadowed by the subsequent stardom of one of its main characters. “Primal Fear” is one of Ed Norton’s best but lesser-known acting performances. He stars in the film alongside Richard Gere, who plays the attorney for Ed Norton’s character, an altar boy accused of murdering a well-known Catholic archbishop. “Primal Fear” is filled with twists and turns and exceptional acting. The film put Norton on the map and marks the beginning of one of the greatest short stretches in acting that he put together to round out the ‘90s, as he starred in classics like “American History X,” “Rounders,” and “Fight Club,” to name a few. “Primal Fear” is a gripping movie that is an absolute must-watch for Norton fans.
The Doors (1991)
Last but certainly not least, we have “The Doors,” yet again starring Val Kilmer. This movie might not belong on the same cinematic pedestal like the others on this list, but it’s certainly an enjoyable watch for music fans and lovers of the ‘60s and ‘70s periods. And obviously, it’s certainly a good movie for fans of the musical band “The Doors.” The film is a great period piece and is a highly insightful look into what made Jim Morrison and “The Doors” counterculture icons. The ever obscure Val Kilmer was ideally suited for this headlining role as Jim Morrison. It’s quite hard to imagine someone else who could’ve done it better. If you’re a fan of that period, the hippie lifestyle, and music, then add “The Doors” to your movie list.
Main photo by Sean Benesh