While The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump dominated the conversation in 1994, the year also had a number of movies that were unfairly undervalued or have been largely forgotten over time. This Roundtable makes a case for some of our favorites from that year.
Wikipedia has a helpful list of all the films released in 1994.
The most underrated film of 1994 has to be Mixed Nuts. Why, you ask? Directed by Nora Ephron, starring Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Anthony LaPaglia, Juliette Lewis, Adam Sandler, Liev Schreiber, and Rita Wilson, not to mention cameos by Parker Posey, Jon Stewart, Garry Shandling, Steven Wright, and Rob Reiner. Need I go on? The snappy dialogue, neat and tidy plot, along with a southern California Christmas setting all made it a holiday tradition in my house growing up. It wasn’t until college that I realized not everyone grew up watching this classic. Maybe the themes of suicide and serial killers, lightly mixed in with the miracle of Christmas, made it off-putting to the more pious or traditional families that time of year. (Mine is made up of morbidly hilarious heathens.) It isn’t necessarily the best film of the year, but it certainly deserves more clout than it has now.
M. Enois Duarte
One of the best Christmas movies ever hit theaters in the spring of 1994. Not only did it completely go under the radar that year, it’s also rarely talked about or included on the holiday must-watch list. That movie is the cult black comedy The Ref, starring an extra-flippant Denis Leary, an excellent Kevin Spacey, and a fantastic Judy Davis. At first glance, the R-rated film is not the sort that immediately comes to mind when deciding to watch a heartwarming holiday feature with the entire family. However, the plot touches on all the tropes moviegoers expect about the importance of family and what really matters during the holidays. Every year, I include this movie on my list of Christmas flicks to watch, sometimes as a double feature with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Sadly, The Ref doesn’t enjoy the sort of love it truly deserves.
One of 1994’s biggest surprises for me, and a film I’ve always felt never quite received its proper due, was Mike Nichols’ Wolf. A horror movie for grown-ups, this literate, entertaining thriller cleverly combines suspense and satire to produce a werewolf film that has both bark and bite. Jack Nicholson stars in the title role (if anyone was born to play a salivating, wild-eyed werewolf, it’s Jack!), playing a mild-mannered editor at a hallowed New York publishing house whose life is gruesomely transformed after he’s bitten by a ferocious wolf one night on a deserted Vermont road. Not long after, he begins his metamorphosis in both a literal and figurative sense, becoming not just the physical incarnation of a wolf, but the vernacular one, too! The incisive, often inspired script by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick (with uncredited help from Nichols’ erstwhile and legendary sidekick Elaine May) transmits the message that deep down we’re all wolves living in a dog-eat-dog world barking up a host of trees while voraciously searching for our share of juicy red meat (the rawer the better!).
Nicholson deliciously chews the scenery in a typical no-holds-barred performance and creates crackling chemistry with the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer, who brandishes some sharp claws of her own. Excellent support from James Spader, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Plummer, Richard Jenkins, and David Hyde Pierce enliven the tale (eagle eyes will also spot Allison Janney and a young David Schwimmer in bit parts), while Nichols fashions an eerie yet tongue-in-cheek atmosphere that nicely mixes tension with wicked humor.
As I wrote in my Blu-ray review of the film a decade ago: “Wolf is a monster movie for grown-ups, and for those seeking ghoulish fare with a touch of perverted romance, plenty of humorous overtones, and a mild fright quotient, Nichols’ stylish film fills the bill. It may not be one of the director’s best efforts, but it’s an intriguing curio that deserves a look.” And that still holds true today.
Delving into the films of 1994, it’s a little staggering how many I’ve seen, remember, and yet don’t really care for. It’s also staggering that one of the lesser movies that I like, Junior, came out the same year as True Lies. Skirting that line between hit and gem, When a Man Loves a Woman fits the underrated bill. With some real-life drama involved, the movie is not an easy watch, but both leads, Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan, are fantastic and playing at least a bit against their typical roles. In spite of being a lengthy drama, it’s the kind of movie that I can catch somewhere on cable and be very tempted to stay for a while. It’s almost as though taking a taste of this movie after having watched the whole thing, and taking in the performances and a tough scene or two, is enough. That speaks to the special quality of the movie.
With absolutely zero attention from the Academy or whatever you wanna call that HFPA cult in charge of the Globes, the Coen brothers’ New Year’s classic The Hudsucker Proxy isn’t just, you know, for kids. Paul Newman is sublime as Sidney J. Mussburger, Tim Robbins is at peak goofy, and oh my is it fun to see Jennifer Jason Leigh chew dialogue with aplomb. From a pair of filmmakers who have made their share of brilliance, the fact that a movie like Hudsucker is still kind of a cult thing is a downright shame. Even lesser Coen fare is still miles ahead of almost any other film in contention
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
The Hudsucker Proxy isn’t exactly a title that rolls off the tongue. Still, Warner Bros. was undaunted, offering the Coen brothers what was by far the largest budget they’d ever had up to that point in their career.
It was a colossal flop. The critical reception was decidedly mixed: a far cry from their usual adoration and the multiple Academy Award nominations they’d enjoyed with Barton Fink just a couple of years prior. Audiences, if they were even aware of its existence, avoided The Hudsucker Proxy like the plague. And that checks out, seeing as how the title evokes some kind of infectious disease. It’s hard to fathom that three of the brothers’ most successful, most enduring films would immediately follow this critical and commercial misfire.
The odd man out as ever, I’ve always loved it, from the moment I first read in the trade press about its premise. Even with as awful as my taste in movies was in high school, I could not possibly resist a fictionalized account of the invention of the hula hoop. Its loving, art deco recreation of the Big Apple is stylish as hell. I still can’t get enough of the snappy dialogue and performances, prone to quoting “You know, for kids!” and Paul Newman’s gruff “Yeah yeah, sure sure” at any possible opportunity. I get all warm and fuzzy when I recognize nods to it in pop culture, such as the homage to Charles Durning’s boardroom plunge in the most recent season of The Venture Bros. Oh, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as an ace reporter with that Gatling gun patter straight out of a Hepburn screwball comedy… ! It’s heaven.
There’s nothing out there quite like The Hudsucker Proxy, and… well, that uniqueness is part of the reason why it cratered at the box office. It’s one of the most underappreciated gems in the Coens’ filmography, and it’s waiting for you on Blu-ray if you haven’t yet basked in its warm, nostalgic glow.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
One excellent film that mostly flew under the radar in 1994 was The Professional (a.k.a. Léon, a.k.a. Léon: The Professional). Directed by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), the movie features truly standout performances by Gary Oldman as a corrupt cop, a young Natalie Portman as the only survivor of a family brutally murdered by Oldman and his crew, and Jean Reno as a simple-minded hit man who reluctantly gets drawn into the conflict. Portman and Oldman would go on to earn Oscars later in life (Portman for Black Swan and Oldman for Darkest Hour), but it’s Reno’s calm, cool, and menacing hit man – with an unexpected soft side – who wins us over and has us cheering. The relationship that blossoms between Portman’s and Reno’s characters is simultaneously sweetly innocent and awkwardly inappropriate. This aspect of the story may have been one reason the film didn’t fare better at the box office, but if you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out.
I reviewed The Last Seduction earlier this week, so I wrote up a long entry about The Hudsucker Proxy for this post instead, only for two of our other contributors to do the same immediately afterwards.
Some other notable titles from that year include Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (featuring another excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh performance, playing famed witticist Dorothy Parker), Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Ang Lee’s delightful Eat Drink Man Woman, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter. I need to find time to revisit all of those.
We’re not looking for the big blockbusters or the major Oscar nominees, so no Speed or Shawshank Redemption, please. Those movies have gotten plenty of attention over the years. What smaller movies from 1994 do you think are worthy of another look?
I love Clean Slate.
Dana Carvey plays an L.A. private eye with short-term memory loss (his memory resets every single day, so each morning he has a “Clean Slate” to go off), that gets tangled up in a complex missing person/theft plot complete with mobsters and a super-hot love interest played by the gorgeous Valeria Golina.
The movie is so much damn fun and nearly no-one I recommend it to has ever even heard of it. I Olive Films recently released a Blu-Ray of it that I need to pick up….
Oh boy, I think I saw that in theaters…I was on a “date” (age 13, so ya know) and we were the only ones there.
M. Enois Duarte
LMAO! I remember that movie, but it’s been ages since the last I saw it. Didn’t watch in theaters but rented it when it hit the shelves of my local video store.
Yeah I remember renting it several times over and rewatching it endlessly. I actually found the opening on YouTube and was reminded of the breezy California/mid 90’s carefree vibe the movie has. Ahhhh simpler times. Check it out here:
M. Enois Duarte
HAHA! Forgot about the eye-patch Jack Russell Terrier!
‘Heavenly Creatures’ is an easy pick for me. Jackson did an amazing job telling this story from the perspective of these deeply disturbed girls. Most filmmakers probably would’ve opted to tell it from the perspective of a cop or a lawyer, especially considering how popular courtroom dramas were in the 90’s. Jackson makes a huge leap from the types of campy b-movies he’d been making up until this point.
That is my pick, too. Introducing Kate Winslet!
The Ref is one of my all-time favorites so I loved seeing that mentioned.
Looking it up, ’94 was a hell of a year for movies!
As much as I love Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, and Shawshank, I’m going with Clear and Present Danger. Having seen The Fugitive just one year prior, I was on a Harrison Ford high and C&PD did not disappoint. Ford is still my favorite Jack Ryan.
Not really underrated, though. That movie got good reviews and was a big hit.
I just looked it up. I didn’t realize it performed so well. On a budget of $62m, it earned $215m worldwide.
In that case, I’ll go with Blown Away, starring another actor in a post-Fugitive role (Tommy Lee Jones) and Jeff Bridges.
Thinking about it, there sure were a lot of movies about the IRA in the ’90s, weren’t there?
If you are feeling nostalgic for the IRA plots from the 90’s, check out Jackie Chan’s/Pierce Brosnan’s ‘The Foreigner’ if you haven’t already.
Most of the films released in 1994 got the recognition (or lack thereof) they deserved. The Hudsucker Proxy is not underrated; it’s just not good. There are good things about it, but its treatment by audiences and critics was fair. Mixed Nuts isn’t any good either, sorry. Definitely not underrated. The Professional is a great movie and everyone says so; no one doesn’t like that flick that I’ve ever heard of. Gary Oldman is the biggest draw in that and he’s not a draw, so that’s one of the reasons why it wasn’t a blockbuster.
The Ref and When A Man Loves A Woman are good choices for underrated.
My choice is Blue Chips. Good sports movie about the other side of sports, and both prescient then and timely now in regards to all the college sports scandals coming out in the past decade.
I like your comment and mostly agree; however, if you’ve never heard of anyone who didn’t like The Professional, look no further: I hated it. Thought Oldman was relentlessly hammy and that the stuff between Natalie Portman and Jean Reno was embarrassing. Couldn’t find much else to like about the plot or the direction. Sorry. Hey, it takes all kinds.
My choices for underrated 1994 films, after a quick glance at everything released that year: Serial Mom (not perfect but way better than I expected) and… that’s it! Loved Heavenly Creatures, Ed Wood, and Quiz Show, but they were both Oscar nominated and very well-reviewed, so I wouldn’t call them underrated at all. Otherwise, 1994 had some real standouts but loads of absolute stinkers (My Father the Hero, Blankman, Exit to Eden, Baby’s Day Out, Getting Even with Dad… I can’t bear to go on).
Can anybody weigh in on the odd comedies Princess Caraboo, Cabin Boy, and Clifford? Secretly great films, so bad they’re good, or just bad? I haven’t seen them, but I know they have cult followings.
‘The Chase’…Red Hot Chili Peppers in a lifted monster truck, Charlie Sheen dressed as a clown, a sexy BMW, and the original Buffy…so 90’s, so good.
Oh, and can’t forget Henry Rollins as a cop, and Cary Elwes as a news anchor.
I agree that the majority of the movies here are well know, well loved, and would crop up in nearly any conversation about the “best of the 90’s” among 30-40 year old males. I swear, one of the first movies I bought on DVD, and the Blu-Ray, was ‘The Professional’, and ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ was constantly playing on HBO around 95-96, to where I still remember every scene but haven’t watched it in 20 years.
I’d say, if it hasn’t been released on Blu-Ray yet, and good, then it’s still “underrated”.
M. Enois Duarte
Haha! Another good pick! Can’t believe I actually paid money to see it in theaters.
Good pick. Kristy Swanson was so goddamn hot in that movie. Apparently her and Sheen hated each other’s guts and filming was a complete nightmare lol.
Rapa Nui with Jason Scott Lee. A dramatization of the end times of the Easter Island settlers.
I see mentions of The Hudsucker Proxy already, so I’ll skip that and go with another Tim Robbins film, I.Q. It may have done ok when it came out, but it’s mostly forgotten now.
Also, before Usual Suspects the now-known-as-box-office-poison Kevin Spacey was on a roll. Not only was he in The Ref, but also the hilariously dark Swimming With Sharks.
My favourite is ‘The Flintstones’. I have seen it 50+ times on VHS and DVD (don’t own the Blu), have three copies of the soundtrack, all the Mattel action figures. I know it’s considered a bad movie, and frequently mentioned in the same league as ‘The Phantom Menace’, ‘Crystal Skull’ and ‘Blues Brothers 2000’, but I LOVE it. I was 10 years old at the time, so, yeah, the perfect age. I’ll never trash the movie. In my gullible eyes, it’s a misunderstood masterpiece.
I will go with The Crow and Threesome. If the Crow isn’t considered underrated, I will stick with Threesome.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, starring Robert DeNiro, is, in my opinion, a brilliant retelling, and DeNiro gives us what I consider to be the most human portrayal of the monster, next to Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein.
I believe it was panned by most critics but I absolutely loved Radioland Murders. It was zany and ridiculous but that was sort of the point.
I know it isn’t underrated but it wouldn’t be right to not mention True Lies. When are we going to get a proper widescreen release of this movie? I’d be happy if they just quietly released it on streaming sites. At this point something is better than nothing.
Interview with The Vampire is one of my all time favorite movies – yet I don’t think I ever saw it until about 12 years after it came out. After seeing the movie, I had to dig into the books, and it is now one of my all time favorite books. I probably make it through that movie about once a year.
True Lies was one of the first Arnold action movies I ever remember seeing, and I loved it. Yeah, its a bit cheesy, but its a fun movie. Unfortunately, it gets no love from the director or the studio.
I cannot believe Stargate was 1994 – it feels older, but this may be because it spawned three television series, across multiple networks, and a horrible webseries. It just feels like it has been around forever. Granted, 1994 was 25 years ago, but it feels more like its been around for 30 or more.
Star Trek Generations may very well be my favorite Star Trek movie, and not because it has both casts in it, but there felt like there was a very good story there with Soran, and fleshed out Guinan’s backstory a bit more. This movie was shocking when I first saw it – when the Nexus ribbon hit the planet and destroyed it and the Enterprise, we were all like WTF just happened?!?! Now that plotline is not that unusual, but I don’t ever remember it happening before. And the fact that they resolved this without bringing Q in was amazing.
This year was also a good year for comedies and dramas. It was a good year in cinema.
Ed Wood was a box‐office disappointment but a critical and cult favorite, and so perhaps itʼs more underperforming than underrated. But itʼs about the making of some underrated or at least widely panned films, and so an honorable mention is in order.
‘Richie Rich’ flopped and marked the end of (young) Macaulay Culkin’s acting career. Underrated movie, with a truly excellent screenplay and fantastic Silvestri music.
The Ref! Hands down one of my favorite Christmas movies. The scenes with their family at dinner never cease to be funny as hell.