40. Empire Records
Directed by: Allan Moyle
Ah, the coming-of-age story. There was no sub-genre more hijacked for a quick buck in the 1990’s. In between the good ones (“Dazed and Confused,” “Boyz in the Hood”), the cheesy ones (“She’s All That,” “She Drives Me Crazy”), and the under-appreciated ones (“The Man in the Moon,” “Angus”), there were the middling ones that, if anything, boasted a cast that would go on to bigger, better things. Enter “Empire Records,” which is not only a coming-of-age story, but one that takes place at a record store, no less. Talk about the double dip. The entire film takes place over the course of one day, focusing on the employees, played by Anthony LaPaglia, Ethan Embry, Renee Zellweger, Rory Cochrane, and Liv Tyler. The independent record store is in Delaware – the hot spot of American music – and sees Joe (LaPaglia) allowing night manager Lucas (Cochrane) to close the store alone for the first time. Through the receipts, Lucas figures out the store is going to be sold to a major record chain. And so the drama begins. It’s not sweeping, to say the least, It’s intimate and a little over dramatic, but that’s the way the sub-genre tends to lean. Either way, that list of stars went on to do incredible things after this little almost cult classic. And yes, freshman year dorm girls – I have finally watched it. It’s okay.
39. The Brady Bunch Movie
Directed by: Betty Thomas
So, here’s an idea. Let’s take an incredible “of its time” television show and update it into a movie. Even better: let’s leave the main characters in the time of their sitcom, but update the world around them. Enter “The Brady Bunch Movie,” a surprisingly entertaining – however stupid and unnecessary – introduction of the classic mixed family to a new audience in the mid 90’s. Starring Shelley Long and Gary Cole as the Brady parents, the cast was filled out with other updated versions of the original kids, most memorably oldest daughter Marsha being portrayed by a young Christine Taylor. But, rather than simply delivering an extended episode, the story shifts the Brady’s enclosed 70’s world into the 90’s, where the rest of the world around them has followed the world’s clock, but they haven’t. From there, it’s basically just an amalgam of “Brady Bunch” episodes, from Marsha being hit in the face with a football to Davey Jones performing to the high school prom, but in the context of the 1990’s, where typical teenage problems have shifted dramatically. There’s nothing brilliant about the film, but of the strange classic television updates the 1990’s gave us, “The Brady Bunch Movie” was one of, if not the best, if only for Gary Cole’s performance.
38. Canadian Bacon
Directed by: Michael Moore
Six years earlier, Michael Moore first put his political stamp on the country with “Roger & Me,” a documentary about the closing of the GM plant in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. After years of toiling away on documentary TV, he finally wrote, directed, and produced a rare fictional film, though not short on political subtext. “Canadian Bacon” rings truer today than it ever has, which shows us a president (Alan Alda) with a dropping approval rating and declining economy, trying to find anyway he can to restore American faith in him. So, in an absurd turn of events, he agrees to do the unthinkable: start a war with our neighbors up north. After a drunken brawl begun by an American sheriff in Niagara Falls named Bud (John Candy), the president latches on to the international scuffle, allowing the delivery of anti-Canadian propaganda, resulting in a ridiculous uprising of hatred toward America’s peaceful northern neighbors. To sum up, in an effort to improve American sentiment and patriotism, the president manufactured a war. At least it’s only a fictional film, right? Moore’s first (and really only) foray into fiction is actually an incredibly funny and far-fetched piece of satire that feels outdated and modern at the same time. But, political satire may not get much sillier. Besides, who would start a war with Canada? Canada is great…(that last part is for my editors)
37. The Net
Directed by: Irwin Winkler
THE INTERNET IS DANGEROUS. One of the first post-world wide web “beware the technology” movies brings Sandra Bullock back, this time as a systems analyst named Angela who telecommutes to work. When one of her coworkers sends her a floppy disk (yes, floppy disk), she becomes a target, as the disk contains a backdoor into a computer security system called “Gatekeeper.” She runs to Mexico, where she ends up hospitalized and unconscious for three days. When she wakes up, she doesn’t exist. Her identity has been completely erased and can only regain it by turning over the disk. From there, we get cyber-terrorists, minimal hacking, the FBI, and, of course, Dennis Miller. This movie does not age well, but who could expect it to? The world wide web had barely taken hold in the general public and was far from the cultural behemoth it is now. Bullock was becoming a star and, while she is consistent in this thriller, there’s nothing about it that makes it more memorable than most other films like it from the mid-90’s, except for the early “identity theft through the Internet” storyline which has been done and redone ever since. So, at least it gets points for that.
36. The City of Lost Children
Directed by: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
“The City of Lost Children” is a French film that delivers a fairy tale story that leans a little bit horror, but feels more sci-fi/fantasy. Krank (Daniel Emilfork) is an evil scientist, kidnapping children to steal dreams, since he is unable to have his own. One of these children is the adopted brother of a carnival strongman named One (Ron Pearlman), who bands together a group of orphans to help him save his missing sibling. The plot is a tad convoluted and incredibly inventive, but it’s a beautiful dreamscape of deep thought. Pearlman almost faked his way through the French, sounding out all his words phonetically, rather than learning the language. While that sounds a little stilted, it actually slows his performance down and gives it more depth. The score is composed by the great Angelo Badalamenti, better known for his frequent collaborations with David Lynch (he wrote the “Twin Peaks” theme). Caro and Jeunet’s other films (Delicatessen, Amelie, etc.) tend to be incredibly imaginative to the point that plot nearly disappears, but that cinematography is so vivid that, depending on the choice of genre, can be either horrifying or enchanting. Or both.
35. Tank Girl
Directed by: Rachel Talalay
A comic book movie that has become a cult classic, despite its “flop” status. “Tank Girl” assembled a strange collection of people: Malcolm McDowell, Ice-T, a young Naomi Watts, and Geena Davis’ sister from A League of Their Own (Lori Petty). Iggy Pop is in here, too. Petty stars as the titular Tank Girl who, alongside Jet Girl (Naomi Watts) join a group of rebel outlaws to fight back against a corrupt government (actually the Water & Power Corporation, headed by Malcolm McDowell), holding a tyrannical rule over the resource-scarce earth in 2033. Years earlier, a comet hit the planet, disrupting the rain cycle, leaving the world as a desert wasteland. Not a great movie at all. Rachel Talalay’s directorial work is mostly for TV, jumping between a bunch of different shows, including “Doctor Who” and “Ally McBeal.” But, this was her last foray into feature film, after “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” and “Ghost in the Machine.” Not a great track record, but this weird little indie film based on the British cult comic strip still found an audience in the weirdly eclectic mid-90’s.
34. Devil in a Blue Dress
Directed by: Carl Franklin
Based on Walter Mosely’s 1990 novel of the same name, “Devil in a Blue Dress” is a neo-noir thriller starring Denzel Washington as a private investigator nicknamed “Easy,” trying to pay off his mortgage after losing his job as an airplane mechanic. He has no training, so it’s a perfect career choice. He meets DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) in a bar, who asks him to help find a white woman he believes is hiding out in the African-American community within Los Angeles. The woman is Daphane Monet (Jennifer Beals), the fiancee of the favorite to become the next mayor. But, as anyone will tell you, don’t get mixed up in a missing persons case involving politics. It cant possibly end well. “Devil in a Blue Dress” borrows plenty of themes from the Raymond Chandler-style film noirs of the past, but puts it into an African-American setting, allowing for a little more flexibility with story and narrative. Washington was still in the early days of his quality run of films in the 90’s and early 2000’s, eventually leading to a Best Actor win for “Training Day” in 2001. “Devil in a Blue Dress” almost functions as a prequel to his work in those subsequent crime dramas that he has mastered since.
33. Billy Madison
Directed by: Tamra Davis
Slapstick comedies have always been around, since the days of the studio system. Eventually, gross out comedies got their heyday in the late 70’s and 80’s, from “Animal House” on. Then, a funny thing happened in the late 80’s. More so than before, studios began hitching their wagons to particular actors with big theater draws. But not action stars or dramatic thespians…to comedians. And not necessarily great ones. Adam Sandler could be worse (Pauly Shore comes to mind), but what good faith he earned early on his career has since dissipated, despite continuing moneymaking at the box office. Sandler’s first real leading role in his man child template was “Billy Madison,” which was literally about a grown man taking part in child activities – here, finishing kindergarten through high school to “earn” the ownership of his father’s company. Long before I grew incredibly tired of his shtick, Sandler was at least tolerable as the half-man/half-monkey amalgam he had created on film. “Billy Madison” is funny. Even returning to it today, it’s inane, lazy jokes is butted up against some moments of legitimate heart, which show flashes of future talent Sandler would display in much better films and performances (“Punch Drunk Love,” “The Wedding Singer,” “Spanglish”). But, like him or not, it pretty much started – in the movies – here.
32. Living in Oblivion
Directed by: Tom DiCillo
Plenty of movies about Hollywood exist, but few actually focus on independent films and how those get made. “Living in Oblivion” is a three part story about one 24-hour period on a low-budget movie set. The film follows director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) as he struggles on a Manhattan soundstage to complete a film with no budget at all. His entire crew seems to be working against him, putting obstacles everywhere he turns. “Living in Oblivion” is supposedly based on director Tom DiCillo’s work on his previous film, “Johnny Suede,” which starred Brad Pitt. In this film, Brad Pitt’s stand-in is Chad Palomino (James LeGros), a transparent up-and-coming actor who sees nothing but his own needs and requirements. Meanwhile, he’s working to keep his lead actress on board (Catherine Keener). The film is really just three extended sketches, the third of which features the movie debut of Peter Dinklage. In the end, “Living in Oblivion” is really just a 90’s version of Truffaut’s “Day for Night,” but it provided a nice vehicle for Buscemi (who never gets a lead role) and really cuts into the insanity of filmmaking in the modern day moreso than most other attempted Hollywood satires.
31. Bridges of Madison County
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
One of Meryl Streep’s 19 Oscar nominations came for this deeply romantic adaptation of Robert James Waller’s novel of the same name. “Bridges of Madison County” was more or less a two-person play with Streep and Clint Eastwood, who play Robert Kincaid, a photographer who happens to arrive at Francesca’s (Streep) home, looking for directions to a local bridge. Francesca’s husband and children are away and she’s feels uncomfortable helping this complete stranger. But, in the end, she shows him the bridge, using the time to talk about her own life and her difficulty being a war-bride from Italy. From there, a four-day, incredibly passionate romance begins, all of which she eventually records in three journals worth of writing, detailing her internal pain and suffering thanks to the separation and loneliness she has felt her entire life. Robert helped cure that emptiness, if only for a brief moment, resulting in the one true love of Francesca’s life. “Bridges of Madison County” is a love story that feels equally melodramatic and honest, thanks entirely to the performances of its two leads, specifically Streep. It’s an incredibly simple story, but with the right execution, it can be effective. “Bridges of Madison County” pulls it off, serving as a model for plenty of films since.