1. Fight Club (1999). Okay, this may be cheating a little, as this movie was plenty controversial when it came out and got a lot of press. However, it didn't win any awards, even though it should have, and it doesn't seem to come up much these days. I love this movie. The three leads - Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter - have never been better, and the story - even if you know the twist - is powerful and gripping and never compromises. I love movies that allow the story to resolve itself logically, and Fight Club never backs off even at the end. The reason for its greatness, I think, is because it doesn't give us easy answers, and it forces us to consider things we'd rather not. That's why it didn't win any awards, either. But it should still get the love!
2. Zero Effect (1998). Since this movie prompted this post, I should mention it. This movie had franchise written all over it, but it was far too smart for the mouth-breathing troglodytes who go see Sin City with their kids in strollers. Bill Pullman as Daryl Zero, the world's most private private investigator, and Ben Stiller as his Watson, Steve Arlo, are both brilliant in their roles. I have mentioned before that Stiller is a fine actor who is wasting his talent, but here he gets a perfect character and a great script to work with, and he makes it shine. Pullman, another underrated actor, is fantastic as Zero, who never wants to leave his apartment and relies on Arlo to track down facts while he interprets them. Ryan O'Neal is perfectly smarmy as the businessman who hires Zero but has plenty of secrets, and a good chunk of the movie is filmed in Portland, so that's an added bonus. Apparently the television show Monk was loosely based on this movie. And that's a freakin' hit. There's no justice.
3. Fearless (1993). Fearless is Peter Weir's last great movie, although he's done some decent stuff since then. Watching this movie is an astonishing experience, from the beautifully recreated airplane crash at the beginning, to Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez's drive in the Volvo, to Bridges popping strawberries even though he's allergic to them. Bridges survives the plane crash and becomes, well, fearless. He is disconnected from his wife, played wonderfully by Isabella Rossolini, and finds that he is drawn to Perez, another survivor, but one who lost her baby boy in the crash and is wracked with guilt, something her husband, played by John Turturro, can't understand. Bridges makes it his mission in life to save Perez from her guilt, and as he grows further away from his wife, Rossolini gives a stronger and stronger performance. It's a brilliant movie that won nothing (Perez was nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and rarely gets its due. You can't go wrong if you want to see a bracing portrait of people caught in a situation that nobody has much experience with.
4. Dark City (1998). Alex Proyas made The Crow, another great movie (but not on this list, because I think it's more appreciated than this is), then he made this, then he made ... I, Robot. Oh well - two out of three isn't bad. This is an amazing science-fiction film, with Rufus Sewell (whatever happened to him?) as John Murdoch, who wakes up one night with amnesia and a dead hooker in his hotel room. He quickly learns that he's being experimented on by aliens who want to discover more about the human soul, and things get messier from there. This features great performances all around, from Sewell to Jennifer Connelly as his wife, William Hurt as the police inspector who is investigating the case but also wants to find out why a colleague of his has gone insane, and Kiefer Sutherland doing his best Peter Lorre impersonation. It's a moody, noir-ish kind of movie, and it has a creepy kid with a knife. You really can't go wrong with a creepy kid with a knife! Appreciated by the nerdy sci-fi set, maybe, but sadly not by the rest of the world, even though it examines topics such as what love is and what makes us human. And things blow up!
5. Election (1999). When I hear people talk about Alexander Payne, they talk about Citizen Ruth, his savage satire of both sides of the abortion debate, or About Schmidt, in which Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates get busy in a hot tub. Eeewwww! Both are good movies, but neither can hold a candle to this, a nasty satire of politics set in high school. Matthew Broderick is a schlub who matches wits with Reese Witherspoon, whose Oscar this year may have been for this role (I think the Academy likes to do that a lot). Witherspoon is truly awesome in the role of Tracy Flick, mainly because we can all remember a student like her from our high school days. Chris Klein (!) is very good (!!) as the dumb jock (oh, no wonder) who opposes her in the race for student body president. He's the only decent one around, it appears, as Witherspoon and Broderick up the ante of evil at every turn. This got nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar, which is where you can usually find the best movies of the year, but when About Schmidt came out, everyone seemed to forget this. Which is a shame.
6. Lone Star (1996). John Sayles is famous for a lot of things (I once saw one of his plays). Among other things, he wrote the screenplay for Pirahna so he could finance his own movies, and he's written and directed most of his movies all by himself since then. He's hard to pin down - he made The Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, The Secret of Roan Inish (another very good movie), Men With Guns (which is mostly in Spanish), and Limbo, among others. Lone Star might be his best - it's a beautiful story about a border town in Texas, and as with many of Sayles' movies, the many characters and their stories overlap with each other. Immigration, racism, progress, assimilation, family ties, violence - all are tackled, and examined without giving short shrift to any and without saying any of them are easy to deal with. The main story deals with Chris Cooper as the town's sheriff investigating the 40-year-old murder of Kris Kristofferson, the town's sheriff back in the bad old days. Cooper's father, played by Matthew McConaughey before he felt the need to take his shirt off in every movie, may have killed him, but the townspeople loved Buddy Deeds (McConaughey), so they don't want to talk. It's a marvelous movie with a wonderful love story (Cooper and Elizabeth Peña, whose mother disapproves of Cooper because he's white), and it always forces you to look at the characters in new ways. It also got an Oscar nomination, also for Best Screenplay. See what I mean about the best movies showing up in that category?
7. The Princess and the Warrior (2000). I have mentioned this movie before, but it's worth mentioning again. This is Tom Tykwer's follow-up to Run Lola Run, and while not as brash or frenetic as that movie, this one (also starring Franka Potente) is much more interesting because of what the characters go through. Potente falls for a bad man, but as we get to know the two, we wonder exactly what is "bad" and "good." It's an interesting movie because there's a palpable sexual tension between the two leads, but Tykwer is much more interested in looking at spiritual love rather than physical love. This slows the movie down a bit, but viewers who want to experience a real relationship should remain patient, because it all comes together satisfyingly.
8. Once Were Warriors (1994). If you're looking for a light-hearted romp, avoid this movie like the plague. This is one of the more unsettling movies you can watch, but that doesn't detract from its utter brilliance. It's the story of a Maori family with, to put it mildly, issues. Rena Owen, who plays the mother, is trying to keep her kids safe and away from all the problems kids face, as well as dealing with the racism that Maoris face in New Zealand. Temuera Morrison, who plays her husband, is a brutal drunk who, when he's sober, is devoted to his wife and kids. Unfortunately, he's rarely sober. This is one of the most powerful movies you will ever see, and it's mostly because of the performances of Owen and Morrison, although all the actors in the family are excellent. The director, Lee Tamahori, came to America and has made thrillers or action movies (Mulholland Falls, The Edge, Along Came A Spider, Die Another Day, xXx: State of the Union), but I doubt he'll ever approach making something as good as this again. He was arrested in January for seeking sex with an undercover police officer while dressed in drag, so he might not be making too many movies in the future. Whatever troubles him, there's no denying that this is a brilliant film.
9. Unbreakable (2000). Shyamalan may be known for The Sixth Sense, but this, his follow-up, is better. Its "twist" doesn't have the same impact, but it doesn't need the same impact, because it's not really about that. This is much more about Bruce Willis becoming a hero and what makes a man do heroic things and how he can overcome adversity. It's also about a man trying to recover his family, because they don't see him as a hero anymore. It's a complex picture, and one of the reasons why I think it doesn't get recognized like it should is because Shyamalan tells the story through the lens of comic books - Samuel L. Jackson's character collects them and discusses their myth-making ability, something "regular" people aren't ready to deal with yet (I hope the continual success of movies based on comic books will change that). This is a fascinating movie about good and evil, and why people commit horrible acts, and it remains Shyamalan's best film (okay, I haven't seen his pre-Sixth Sense stuff, but I can't imagine it's better).
10. Before the Rain (1994). For some unknown reason, this movie has yet to come out on DVD, which is a shame. It's a haunting movie about the problems in Macedonia during the 1990s, and even though that might date it, it's also a movie about war and how it destroys people, but not necessarily in the way you think, and also about how we never learn anything even though we think we do. It's told as three different stories, two in Macedonia, and one in London (with a Macedonian photographer). Milcho Manchevski, the director, plays time tricks with us, so that we are never sure when something is happening, but in the end, it becomes clearer and we understand why he did it the way he did. This movie stars the brilliant Katrin Cartlidge, who died a few years ago much too soon. Some cable channel should do a Cartlidge retrospective - this movie, Naked, Breaking the Waves, Career Girls, Topsy-Turvy, From Hell - she didn't make fun movies, but she sure made excellent ones!
11. A Pure Formality (1994). Krys and I rented this a while back (like, in '96 or '97) and when it was over, I turned to Krys and said, "I can't believe how much I loved that movie." This was astonishing, because usually, when I see a movie for the first time on the television, it doesn't blow me away. But this movie mesmerized me. Since then, two of my friends have seen it, and they liked it but weren't enthralled by it, so your taste may vary. It stars Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski (yes, that Roman Polanski) and very few other people. Those two dominate the screen, and it's a good thing, because almost the entire movie takes place in a police station, in an interview room. Depardieu is a writer who has become reclusive, and one night he's hauled into the police station where Polanski interviews him about a corpse they found. Depardieu has no idea what he's talking about, and the conversation between the two men slowly reveals the mystery. This is one of those "twist" movies, yes, but it's brilliantly done and the twist is fascinating and doesn't ruin the movie when you see it a second time (which is what a good "twist" does - makes the movie even more enjoyable). A very underappreciated gem.
12. Heathers (1989). I don't know - is Heathers underappreciated? If it is, it shouldn't be. Teen angst has never been skewered as sublimely as Michael Lehmann (who went on to direct Hudson Hawk and 40 Days and 40 Nights, among others) and Daniel Waters did in this movie. Everyone is perfectly cast, too - Christian Slater can use that faux-Nicholson thing he does to good effect, Winona Ryder is brilliant, and I'm not even sure if Shannon Doherty is acting or just being herself. This movie ripped popularity cliques, teen suicide, teenage rebellion, jocks, hippies - everyone in the high school world, really. Let's all shout: "I love my dead gay son!" Brilliant. Again, I'm not sure if it's underappreciated, but it should be on a short list of great movies of the 1980s.
13. The Fisher King (1991). Terry Gilliam rightly gets credit for Time Bandits, Brazil, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but for my money, The Fisher King is the best of the lot. This movie moves me in so many ways it's almost painful to watch it. We get Jeff Bridges (hasn't he won an Oscar yet?) and Mercedes Ruehl (who did win an Oscar for this movie) and Robin Williams (who was nominated) and Amanda Plummer, all of whom give career performances. The two love stories (between Bridges and Ruehl, and between Williams and Plummer) are both much better and more real than almost anything you have ever seen on screen, and both Williams and Bridges have to make spiritual journeys to become full-fledged human beings, and they both must overcome horrible obstacles to do so. It's amazing that Gilliam managed to pack so much into this movie and does it so well. It's funny, it's sad, it's adventurous, it's beautiful, it's scary, and it's powerful. Man, Gilliam got it right with this!
14. Grand Canyon (1991). Lawrence Kasdan brought us The Big Chill, but I've never seen that, so I can't speak to that. I like Kasdan a lot, and this movie is fantastic, with a huge cast all intersecting somewhat randomly in Los Angeles. It's a story about race that is more subtle than Crash, it's a love story between two mature adults (Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard), it's a story about empty nest syndrome (Mary McDonnell is upset because her husband, Kevin Kline, is drifting away from her and her son is growing up), it's a story about violence in the movies and why people like it so much when real violence is so horrific (Steve Martin is a producer of violent movies who gets shot and has an epiphany). This is a powerful, uplifting movie about people and how we can all get along, if we only try a little. It was nominated for an Oscar for - wait for it! - Best Screenplay. Imagine that.
15. Bowfinger (1999). Movies making fun of Hollywood better be good, because it's so easy to make fun of Hollywood that we can do it! Luckily, Frank Oz gives us Bobby Bowfinger, wonderfully played by Steve Martin, a hack director with no money who comes up with a plan to film action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) secretly and then get his approval later. For the closeups, he stumbles across Kit's brother (also played by Murphy), a bumbling fool with bad vision. The movie they make, "Chubby Rain," is funny enough, but Kit Ramsey is a member of a strange church that couldn't possibly remind anyone of Scientology, and Terence Stamp plays his mentor brilliantly. Heather Graham is the "dumb blonde" who turns out to be not quite as dumb as everyone thinks. This is a wild movie that is fluff, sure, but very well-made fluff. I have mentioned before that Murphy deserved an Oscar nomination for his stunning dual role, but because it's a goofy comedy, the Academy ignored it.
Those are just 15 examples off the top of my head. I'm sure there are more (The Spanish Prisoner! The Rapture!), but I think I'll rein it in. If you're looking for movies that are under the radar, aren't huge blockbusters that are, let's face it, crap, and were criminally overlooked by the Academy in favor of junk like Forrest Gump, check these out. Anyone got any others?