Hidden gems from the '90s you haven't seen but should

With Hollywood cranking out blockbuster fare at a staggering rate, and arthouse cinema fully coming into its own, the '90s were an excitingly mixed bag at the multiplex. With so many movies being released, it was all but impossible for even the most stringent of cineastes to see everything in a theater. That left many movie buffs trolling their local video stores in search of both big-budget bonanzas and the latest hits from Sundance. Sadly, those searches often proved fruitless, leaving some of the decade's best films largely unseen by the masses. Thankfully, streaming tech has come along to give us all a second chance at seeing some of the decades' hidden gems. Here are a few '90s gems that are absolutely worthy of your attention.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

With plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo to his name, and screenwriting credits on classic films like The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, and Wag The Dog, David Mamet will likely go down as one of the great writers of our time. Though he's directed far fewer films than he wrote, Mamet is no slouch behind the camera either. If you want proof of that, check out his egregiously overlooked 1997 offering The Spanish Prisoner.

The film follows Joe, a corporate climber who's designed a mysterious process certain to make millions for his company. Problem is, Joe won't turn over his secrets unless he scores a big bonus for himself. Matters get hairy for Joe when a wealthy stranger and the FBI turn up with their own agendas. Starring Campbell Scott and Rebecca Pidgeon, and featuring the clever twists, casual cool, and crackling dialogue one would expect from Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner is a stunning exercise in both mood and pacing. It's proof that Mamet's gifts as director were as bountiful as his gift for writing, and it features an absolutely eye-opening dramatic turn from legendary funnyman Steve Martin.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

No single show changed the landscape of television in the '90s more than David Lynch's mystifying murder mystery Twin Peaks. Even after a game-changing first season, the show was unceremoniously cancelled in the midst of its wildly uneven second. Once the show ended, fans were delighted to find out that Lynch still had Twin Peaks tales to tell. One of those tales—that of Laura Palmer's last week on Earth—was getting the big screen treatment in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Free from the creative shackles of television, Lynch used the chance to craft his most complex, uncompromising film to date.

Sadly, even the most devoted of Twin Peaks' fanbase had trouble connecting with Fire Walk With Me's artsy eccentricities. The film proved divisive amongst critics, all but ignored in its theatrical release, and unfairly doomed to a sort of purgatory in the process. For all of its eccentricities, Fire Walk With Me stands as a creative high point for Lynch, breathlessly combining his penchant for experimentation with his trademarked biting commentary on the American dream. Though the film has had its defenders over the years, and long held the title of "cult classic," it still feels like not enough people have actually seen it.  

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

To call the Jim Jarmusch's irreverent, meanderingly prescient approach to cinema an "acquired taste" would be an understatement. So much that some moviegoers avoid his work altogether. With that in mind, it's almost unfair to peg one of Jim Jarmusch's '90s films—Night on Earth, Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai—as the lone hidden gem. If we're being honest, Jim Jarmusch's entire catalogue could carry the mantle of "hidden gem." Since we can only pick one, we'll go with his most accessible effort, the decade-closing Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which had a limited release in '99 before its wider (but still fairly limited) release in 2000.

Loosely adapted from Jean-Pierre Melville's New Wave classic, Le Samurai, Jarmusch moved his silent assassin from the back alleys of Paris to the mean streets of Brooklyn and subbed a never better Forest Whitaker into the leading role. Jarmusch bolstered the film's spiritual insights by frequently quoting Samurai theology and backed his would-be warrior's gritty, urban journey with a head-nodding original score from Wu Tang Clan's RZA. From that mix, Jarmusch spins a stylish, engrossing, deeply satisfying story of modern-day honor amongst thieves. One that remains amongst Jarmusch's most overlooked gems.

Zero Effect (1998)

He might be nuts. He may even be, "terrible, tactless and rude," as his partner not-so-affectionately refers to him, but Daryl Zero is the world's greatest detective. Zero's about to embark on one of his most challenging cases—helping a nefarious billionaire find his missing keys. That's the setup for Jake Kasdan's hilarious, near flawless modern-day Sherlock Holmes tale, Zero Effect.  

We know, the BBC Sherlock brought the character into the modern age. Don't get us wrong, we love Cumberbatch and company's take on Sherlock, it's just that Kasdan actually did it better back in 1998, and he did it behind a career-best turn from Bill Pullman. The ever-underrated actor gives new meaning to the term "chameleon-like performance" in Zero Effect, switching effortlessly between crass, socially inept clown and smooth-operating investigative master. Flanked by Ben Stiller, Kim Dickens, and Ryan O'Neal, Pullman's performance is the centerpiece in Kasdan's stylish, cinematic card trick. Backed by Kasdan's whip-smart screenplay and acute eye for even the tiniest of details, Zero Effect remains one of the best unsung films of the '90s—or any decade for that matter.    

Chaplin (1992)

It's easy to forget, but before Robert Downey Jr. put Marvel on the map with his now iconic turn in Iron Man, he was far from a sure thing in Hollywood. In fact, his drug-fueled hijinks throughout the '80s and '90s made him one of Tinseltown's riskiest hires. Lucky for RDJ—and the movie-going public—Richard Attenborough was willing to take a risk when casting the lead in his Charlie Chaplin biopic Chaplin. Lucky for Attenborough, Downey Jr. rewarded that risk with the finest performance of his then young career.

Chaplin landed RDJ his first Oscar nomination, but Attenborough's film is more than just a showcase for Downey's talent. Though the film didn't fare well with critics—who lamented its 143-minute runtime and overall lack of ingenuity—Chaplin remains a lovingly crafted, in-depth look behind the curtain of one cinema's greatest innovators. The film is likely to inspire viewers to go back and explore Chaplin's own mind-blowing body of work as well, not to mention the mostly terrific work Downey Jr. delivered in the years since Chaplin's release.

Lone Star (1996)

For those of you who don't know John Sayles' name, he was one of the unsung heroes of the '90s indie film scene. Sayles wrote and directed six features over that ten-year span, each building on his character-first approach and centering around acutely personal dramas spawned by unexpected pressures from the outside world. The characters at the center of Sayles' 1996 Texas-set murder-mystery Lone Star are three generations of lawmen—Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, and Chris Cooper—and a beautiful local who, the latter of whom finds herself embroiled in an unfolding murder investigation and a potentially complicated new relationship.   

If it sounds like there's a lot going on in Lone Star, that's because there is. That's also par for the course in any John Sayles film. The director handles Lone Star's twisty narrative with a dexterous hand and a confident cool, utilizing some sly cinematic trickery to unfurl Lone Star's web of secrets at his own calculated pace. Along the way, he also uses a deft bit of writing to explore the complicated politics of border town life, making Lone Star a deeply personal, unabashedly political delight—i.e.,  the perfect John Sayles film.

Red Rock West (1996)

Things have certainly gotten away from Nicolas Cage over the past decade or so, but throughout the '90s he was still deemed an exciting, supremely talented actor, the sort who could handle big-budget fare but still wow in micro-budget indies. So it came as no surprise that he'd follow one of his biggest box office hits—Honeymoon In Vegas—by starring as a wayward drifter in John Dahl's brilliant, neo-noir thriller Red Rock West.

Don't worry if you've never heard of Red Rock West. Not many people have. The film's all but been lost to history since its release. That's a shame, because Dahl's nimble tale of bad luck turned worse, small-town swindling, and mistaken identity is just as slick and sexy today as it was back in 1996. It also happens to feature one of Cage's most understated and effecting performances. Or maybe it just seems understated next to the raw energy the late, great Dennis Hopper brought to this film. With any luck, Cage might one day remember that sometimes less actually is more—no matter how many bees are swarming.

Dick (1999)

Back in 1999, a film titled Dick starring both Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams should've gotten a lot more attention than it did. We're betting if you asked 20 people about the film, most of them would tell you that they remember seeing the trailer for the Nixon era-set comedy, but most of them would also tell you that they didn't actually see the movie. Sadly, in the almost two decades since its release, Dick still hasn't found its audience.

With any luck, the current political climate might change that fact. After all, the girl-power-centric story of political upheaval carries as much weight today as it might have in the year it was set. It certainly carries more than it did in the year it was released. That Dick also features winning performances from Dunst, Williams, and Dan Hedaya (as a brilliant Nixon caricature) makes it worthy of notice. That it wears its heart and politics on its sleeve, is full of insightful stoner-styled comedy, and features a terrific supporting cast of gifted comedians makes it a must-see. Oh, did we mention that Dick is funny as all hell too?  

The Limey (1999)

After breaking through with his Oscar-nominated, Sundance-winning debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Steven Soderbergh spent most of the '90s working on low-budget, experimental films that left many of his fans wondering if the director had gotten lost in the dizzying maze of his own cinematic vision. Turns out Soderbergh was just refining that vision. That much became obvious when he delivered a deceptively straightforward hit in the 1998 George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez-starring crime flick Out of Sight, but it was 1999's The Limey where we began to see the full breadth of Soderbergh's narrative ambition.

Centered around a man's search to find out how his estranged daughter died, Soderbergh utilizes the structure of detective fiction to craft a seductive abstraction of time, memory, and regret dressed up like a common revenge drama. Not only is The Limey beautifully written, sublimely photographed, and elegantly edited, at times it's also laugh out loud funny. It features a career-defining performance from the great Terrance Stamp to boot. That so few people have seen The Limey is the one great tragedy of Soderbergh's illustrious career. Right this wrong today.

Strange Days (1995)

Before she was winning Oscars for heavy-hitting dramas like The Hurt LockerKathryn Bigelow was making waves with smart, inventive genre fare like Point Break and Near Dark. In 1995, Bigelow turned her eye to the realm of sci-fi with her hyper-stylized, cyber-punk thriller Strange Days. Conceived and co-written by James Cameron, the film tells the tale of an illegal VR-peddling former detective who finds himself enmeshed in an ever-expanding cover-up surrounding the LAPD-sponsored assassination of a famed rapper and civil rights leader.

What Bigelow delivers from that setup is a pitch-black exploration of consumption, corruption, and redemption in a tech-addled, near-apocalyptic future. Packed with high-octane action, enigmatic imagery, and brutal violence, Strange Days may have hit a little too close to home for viewers in a post-Rodney King America, though the film's relentless, two-and-a-half hour runtime certainly didn't help matters. Strange Days ultimately went down as one of the bigger flops of 1995, but that hasn't stopped the film's fervid fanbase from continuing to sing its praises over the years. Frankly, it's high time more people started singing.  

Eve's Bayou (1997)

Set amongst the glassy water and sweltering heat of Louisiana bayou country, Kasi Lemmons' heartrending, vividly realized drama Eve's Bayou marked one of the strongest feature film debuts of the decade. Roger Ebert actually named Eve's Bayou the Best Film of 1997, and it even took home a couple of Independent Spirit Awards that same year. Still, it feels like Lemmons' harrowing coming-of-age drama never got the recognition it deserved, and it's all but faded into relative obscurity in the two decades since.

That's a legitimate tragedy. Featuring a towering performance from Samuel L. Jackson and an endearing breakthrough turn from then newcomer Jurnee Smollett, Eve's Bayou paints a patently authentic, beautifully detailed portrait of a young woman struggling to come to terms with the hard truths and moral complexities of impending adulthood. Unlike most coming-of-age dramas, Eve's Bayou never sleights the intellect or internal struggle of its young protagonist. Likewise, it refuses to offer any easy answers; only hard-learned lessons and lingering regrets. Twenty years after its release, the film remains an astonishing directorial debut from Lemmons and a powerful reminder that the former actor (who's only helmed a few small projects since) deserves another shot at the director's chair.  

Stir of Echoes (1999)

The ripple effect from The Sixth Sense's breakout success is still being felt in Hollywood; that is, it seems like every horror film released in its wake comes prepackaged with its own flashy, twist ending. Now, imagine that you released a haunting, atmospheric horror film rife with unsettling imagery—and yes, a shocking twist—a mere month after The Sixth Sense changed the horror game. Even if your film was just as clever and just as scary as M. Night Shyamalan's masterpiece, it'd be virtually impossible to match those Sixth Sense-sized expectations. Such was the case with David Koepp's (screenwriter of Raimi's Spider-Man, amongst other hits and misses) menacing mystery Stir of Echoes.

Following the travails of a working-class dad who starts to experience terrifying visions after a hypnotization hiccup, Koepp's film is often just as smart and creepy as The Sixth Sense. At times, Stir of Echoes even bests Shyamalan's flick on both fronts, but it also features a child who can speak to dead people, so yeah, you can see the problem with its being released after Haley Joel Osment uttered those now iconic words. Just FYI, Stir of Echoes is far from a cheap knock off; you owe it to yourself to find that out.

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

There was Peter Jackson before Middle-Earth, and there was Peter Jackson after. One was a blisteringly original innovator who loved to mix fantasy and reality, never shied away from the shocking, and often pushed his movies well beyond the realm of the uncomfortable. The other delivered almost nine hours of soulless CGI gobbledygook in the form of The Hobbit Trilogy. Wanna guess which one brought us 1994's bone-chilling, biographical crime drama Heavenly Creatures? Spoiler alert: it was the first guy. Though it's not so easy to see what drew Jackson to this true story of adolescent lust and fantasy run amok in the first place. The tale of teen girls falling in love and conspiring to kill the parents that would keep them apart hardly jibed with the gory, genre fare Jackson had made his name on. 

Once you account for the vivid fantasy worlds that the women frequently escape to, Heavenly Creatures starts to make a little more sense for Jackson. While those fantasies are crafted with awe-inspiring care, it's Jackson's tender, insightful treatment of the real-world events that truly set this film apart. It helps, of course, when you've got actors like Melanie Lynskey (from TV's Two and a Half Men and Up In The Air) and Kate Winslet populating that world, but Heavenly Creatures is still a horrifying and soul-stirring entry into Jackson's eclectic oeuvre, even if it remains a largely unseen one.