The Best ’90s Movies You’ve Never Heard Of

Growing up, I got experimental with the video rentals from my local supermarket. Here are the gems I found*:

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1999: Blast from the Past

Brendan Fraser is infamous for his wacky and weird roles in movies such as The Mummy and Bedazzled, but among his lesser known films is a more down-to-Earth role — literally. After a brilliant professor, played by Christopher Walken, and his pregnant wife, played by Sissy Spacek, watch the Cuban missile crisis unfold on television, they head down to their underground fallout shelter…just as a plane crashes into their house. Thinking that bombs have hit, they seal the doors for 35 years, during which their appropriately named son, Adam, played as an adult by a wide-eyed Fraser, is given a worldly education by his father. Then the day comes to return to the surface…and things get complicated, no less so when Adam meets Eve (yes, really), played by a yummy Alicia Silverstone. A satire masquerading as a romantic comedy, Blast from the Past is a clever musing on generational changes and the tension between a romanticized past and a seemingly fractured present.

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1998: Mighty Joe Young

If you thought Charlize Theron only played cinematic badasses such as Imperator Furiosa and Lorraine Broughton, while Bill Paxton goofed off in James Cameron movies and got down with Big Love, you’d be wrong. In this lesser known Disney movie based on an older film, Paxton’s conservationist character assists the daughter of a murdered primatologist (inspired by Dian Fossey) who is seeking refuge for her best friend, a 15-foot gorilla named Joe. Rick Baker’s creature shop did an amazing job with special effects, giving Joe a realistic and heartbreaking portrayal. But it’s Theron who captures your heart with a sweet face and the African melody she croons to Joe. Get your tissues ready!

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1997: MouseHunt

In this delightful DreamWorks comedy by Gore Verbinski, director of Pirates of the Caribbean, Nathan Lane and Lee Evans play bumbling brothers who are handed a string factory, a half-box of Cuban cigars, and an old house in their father’s will. Amidst their facepalm-worthy business and life decisions, they go to extremes to remove a pesky mouse from the house. The mouse, played by both an animal actor and a puppet, steals the show, although Christopher Walken as a manic exterminator is a close rival. The film features classic actor William Hickey, as well as Broadway stars Ernie Sabella and Vicki Lewis, who with Lane round out a scenery-chewing cast.

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1996: Marvin’s Room

The year before Titanic made him a heartthrob, Leonardo DiCaprio was sharing the film set with cinematic greats, playing a troubled young man whose mother Lee (Meryl Streep), is called to provide a bone marrow transplant for her estranged sister Bessie (Diane Keaton). Don’t worry, it’s not as Lifetime Original Movie as it sounds. Based on a play, this film offers engaging performances by all actors, but DiCaprio is truly wonderful, showing his capability for nuanced acting at an early age.

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1995: Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain

Who says treasure hunting is just for boys? Christina Ricci and Anna Chlumsky play adventurers who hike into Bear Mountain seeking gold, and as it usually goes in these types of movies, discover more about themselves. This movie is the perfect combination of Goonies-style adventure stories with ’90s girl power.

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1994: The River Wild

The ’90s excelled at brilliant thrillers that explored, even celebrated, the dark side of humanity. The River Wild is no exception, with Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly as strangers-turned-monsters in a tense thriller set atop an even more intense backdrop of the Salmon River Rapids. Meryl Streep turns in yet another brilliant performance as the mom whose marital problems won’t stop her from kicking ass. The River Wild is a particularly unique thriller with exceptional talent, and it will leave you with chills as cold as the river water.

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1993: Fire in the Sky

In 1975, several loggers came to the police with a chilling tale: one of their group had been lost in the woods, where a bright light in the sky appeared to consume him. Immediately, they fell under suspicion of murder, until the missing logger showed up and claimed to have been abducted by aliens. This film has a delightfully Spielberg-esque take on what’s largely been determined to be fraud, imagining a scenario in which Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) is indeed captured and experimented on before being released naked back on Earht. Backed by a tense dynamic among the ensemble, Sweeney’s engaging performance makes the film. In real life, the loggers were behind on their contract and could only escape with their heads under extraordinary circumstances. Whether or not they engineered them — and the film plays with both prospects — they created a cultural phenomenon that the film serves as pseudo-documentary.

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1992: FernGully

Hey, did you know that Tim Curry, Christian Slater, Robin Williams were not only in a movie together, but all played rainforest creatures? FernGully is a parable about development of rainforests with toe-tapping, occasionally edgy musical numbers sang by Curry and Williams. The film has all the schmaltzy goodness of animated films cooked up with ’90s existential dread. Sure, it’s a little heavy-handed on the environmental message, but I dare you not to kinda-sorta root for the nyah-nyah velvet voice of Tim Curry as the smog monster. Seriously, just watch it.

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1991: White Fang

A young Ethan Hawke braves the cold in this adaptation of Jack London’s novel about man’s best friend. As a young gold prospector befriending a wolfdog, Hawke brings a nuanced performance to an exquisitely beautiful film about a time-honored relationship between man and canine. Even beyond that, the film offers grander musings on humanity and nature.

Honorable Mention:

1990: Avalon

If you’ve ever wondered about the immigrant experience in America, Avalon is a good place to start. A charming and magical film about a Russian Jew living in Baltimore, the film also explores the rise of modernity and the challenges of family in a poignant and delightful film that blends drama and comedy.

  • This list is just American films! International films soon to come.
  • Follow me for more musings on film, or show me your appreciation! Next up: new film reviews and an overview of lesser-known films of the ’80s.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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