From Cape Fear to The Silence of the Lambs, the ’90s were packed with Oscar-winning thrillers. But the decade also has a few duds in the genre, too.
After the Hollywood studio system had gotten set in its ways throughout the ‘80s, American cinema got a shot in the arm in the ‘90s as independent movies rose to prominence and some much-needed artistry made its way into mainstream blockbusters. Directors like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme brought this artistry to the thriller, revitalizing cinema’s most exciting genre and setting a new template for thrillers going forward.
The decade brought some great thrillers — introducing serial killers like Hannibal Lecter (well, the Anthony Hopkins version, at least) and John Doe to moviegoers — but those great thrillers were followed by derivative knockoffs.
Best: The Fugitive (1993)
Movies based on TV shows rarely work out, but Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive is one of the finest examples of a TV-based movie working out. Davis reimagines the story of Dr. Richard Kimble being falsely accused of his wife’s murder as a three-act open-and-shut case.
The “one-armed man” isn’t just a gimmick here; it’s a guiding light for the plot. With Harrison Ford as Kimble and Tommy Lee Jones as the U.S. Marshal on his tail, The Fugitive is a terrific cat-and-mouse thriller.
Worst: The Bone Collector (1999)
Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie were wasted in The Bone Collector, a weak attempt at bringing Jeffrey Deaver’s tetraplegic detective character Lincoln Rhyme to the screen.
The plot is completely ridiculous. It’s supposed to be a detective story, but it has all the hallmarks of a mundane, formulaic slasher.
Best: Heat (1995)
Michael Mann paired up Robert De Niro and Al Pacino on the big screen for the first time ever for his captivating crime thriller, Heat. The film chronicles a cop’s relentless hunt for a notorious bank robber through the lens of a definitive cinematic portrait of Los Angeles’ seedy criminal underbelly.
The movie has a shootout sequence that’s so visceral and realistic that it’s actually taught during police training.
Worst: Death Wish V: The Face Of Death (1994)
The first Death Wish movie is one of the most iconic vigilante movies ever made. It has an effective, simplistic setup: after Charles Bronson’s wife is killed and his daughter is assaulted by home invaders, he sets out to exact revenge, and he does just that.
The fifth movie in the franchise, The Face of Death, the narrative is needlessly complex. In this one, Bronson fights gangsters while trying to protect his girlfriend from her mafia kingpin ex. Simplicity is the key to making these movies work, so it’s no surprise that this one fails.
Best: Cape Fear (1991)
Most remakes are a waste of time. If a movie is great then there’s usually no point in remaking it because the story was already told perfectly. But trust Martin Scorsese to do a fine job of remaking a classic. The renowned director expertly updated the timeless story of a family on the run from a murderous psychopath with modern thrills and filmmaking techniques.
Robert De Niro’s Max Cady is just as chilling as Robert Mitchum’s from the 1962 original, but unique enough to stand on its own, while Scorsese’s direction is decidedly Hitchcockian, right down to the Saul Bass opening titles.
Worst: 8MM (1999)
Nicolas Cage stars in 8MM as a private investigator who stumbles into a terrifying underworld when he’s hired to verify the authenticity of a snuff film.
Despite having a fascinating world to explore and an intriguing setup, Joel Schumacher’s movie is unnecessarily sadistic.
Best: Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s controversial debut novel wasn’t fully appreciated in its time, but it’s come to be recognized as a zeitgeist-capturing masterpiece.
Edward Norton and Brad Pitt each give one of their all-time greatest performances in the lead roles, while Fincher’s energetic cinematography and editing keep the story moving along at a brisk pace.
Worst: Sleeping With The Enemy (1991)
Julia Roberts brings her A-game to Sleeping with the Enemy, and it starts off with an intriguing premise about a woman fleeing an abusive relationship.
However, it quickly devolves into schlocky exploitation that capitalizes on the shock value of domestic violence for another derivative stalker thriller that blends into the crowd.
Best: The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
The only horror movie to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most riveting thrillers of all time. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are infinitely compelling as Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, respectively, each more than earning their Oscars.
The grisly terror of the serial killers’ crimes is contrasted with an earnest critique of gender inequality in male-dominated industries.
Worst: Kiss The Girls (1997)
Adapted from the James Patterson novel of the same name, Kiss the Girls got Alex Cross’ cinematic ventures off to a pretty shaky start. Morgan Freeman brings his all to the role of Cross, but the movie as a whole is confusing and uninspired.
It seems like Kiss the Girls wants to recapture the visceral thrills and social commentary of The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s just grisly without the artistic value.
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