Hollywood suffered a huge creative drought through most of the mid-1990s, as it fell back into very conservative choices (history will probably say the same about 2008-2012) while it was climbing out of the recession of the early half of the decade. Most people will point to 1999 as the best year in movies, probably since at least the 1970s, but often overlooked is 1993. There are a few classic movies from the year — Jurassic Park, Philadelphia, True Romance, Groundhog Day and Army of Darkness (which is at least a classic to me) — and it’s probably the most popular year ever for movies that are replayed on TBS: The Fugitive, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sleepless in Seattle, Cliffhanger, Tombstone, Cool Runnings, The Three Musketeers and Rudy all came out in 1993.
But there are several movies from that year that aren’t as frequently mentioned, and now that we are 20 YEARS removed from 1993, I want to highlight a few movies that deserve to be seen by a new generation on Netflix, that still hold up well, and can provide a lot of entertainment value. If you’re under 30, you might have missed these the first time around. If you’re over 30, or if you didn’t miss them the first time around, many of them are definitely worth of a rewatch now.
Benny and Joon — Adorably whimsical, Johnny Depp’s performance in Benny and Joon is flat-out astonishing, as he plays an eccentric who basically communicates through Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin acts. He falls in love with the mentally ill Joon (Mary Stuart Masteron, filling in nicely for 90’s stock Winona Ryder role), and the movie deals with the consequences of her mental episodes that are triggered by her jealousy. It’s a very sweet, very touching, and completely magical romantic comedy.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape — Clearly, ‘93 was a break-out year for Johnny Depp, who anchored my favorite film of the year, a movie about a dysfunctional family with a morbidly obese mother and a mentally handicapped son (Leo DiCaprio, rightfully nominated for an Oscar). Juliette Lewis fills the trailer-trash stock Winona Ryder role in Grape, a downright remarkable and elegiac tale of a broken family that is bittersweet as hell.
Dave — Philadelphia came out in 1993 and would be a groundbreaking depiction of a gay man with HIV, which would lead to the first studio comedy about a gay man, 1997’s In and Out. Dave is the perfect movie to pare with In and Out in those hugely popular Kevin Kline double features that the kids are engaged in all around the country (or if you’d prefer, pair it with The American President for feel-good movies about presidents). It’s kind of like a John Hughes formula mixed with Frank Capra’s optimism, as it follows a presidential impersonator who fills in for the real president when he has a stroke while sleeping with his mistress. Dave, who runs an employment agency, uses his position as POTUS to find work for down-on-their-luck folks. It’s a sweet, infinitely rewatchable, light, and good-natured movie with a few salient points to make about politics.
So I Married an Axe Murderer — Before Austin Powers ruined him, Mike Myers’ darkly comic romantic comedy arrived in theaters with mostly a thud in 1993. Thanks to a hilarious performance from Myers (in several roles) and Nancy Travis (the poor man’s Annie Potts), and one of the more memorable soundtracks from the 90s, Axe Murderer has gained a small but appreciative following. It’s one of those films that a lot of people don’t get, but the ones that do will quote the ever-living crap out of it for years, as they should.
This Boys’ Life — Another DiCaprio film, this one with Robert DeNiro as an abusive step-father, This Boy’s Life may be the best film ever based on a memoir (it’s based on the memoir of Tobias Wolffe). It’s not light watching — it’s bleak and slow — but again DiCaprio’s performance elevates it into a powerful rites-of-passage tale about a teenager willing himself to escape a horrible and dysfunctional family life.
Kalifornia — It’s been 23 years since Brad Pitt’s break-out role in Thelma and Louise, and while Kalifornia is not my favorite Brad Pitt movie, it’s still my favorite Brad Pitt performance (besides Floyd in True Romance, another 1993 movie). He plays a sociopathic hayseed in something akin to a pre-Natural Born Killers film exploring serial killers. Pitt is fantastic in this terrifyingly creepy film (Juliette Lewis plays the stock Juliette Lewis character).
The War Room — The War Room, a political documentary about the machinations behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 political campaign, is a little more meaningful to me because I was on the other side of the wall from the War Room, working for Clinton’s campaign as a volunteer. It’s an intimate and compelling look into presidential campaigns, at how much political operatives like James Carville and George Stephanapolous mean to them, and the gritty examination of numbers and demographics and soundbites that go into getting elected, which admittedly was more eye-opening at the time, before cable news demystified the inner workings of a presidential campaign.
Searching for Bobby Fischer — You wouldn’t imagine that a movie about chess — this one is based on the life of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin — could be as compelling and gripping as this, but it is, and I don’t know why Bobby Fischer was not nominated for Best Picture in ‘93 (or at least, best actor for Ben Kingsley, who plays Fischer’s chess tutor). It’s about a kid who has to maintain his decency as a human being as he is transformed into a vicious, tormented, and cold-blooded chess player. It’s basically an intelligent, complex, and supremely well acted version of The Karate Kid with chess instead of martial arts, and you wouldn’t believe how high the stakes can feel in a movie about chess.
A Perfect World — It’s the Eastwood film that came after Unforgiven and it has unfortunately drifted from most people’s memory. It’s an outstanding character study, about a escaped convict (Kevin Costner) who kidnaps a kid because he heeds a hostage to make it to the Mexican border, as Eastwood’s federal agent is in pursuit. The film is largely a study of the flowering father/son relationship between Costner’s convict and the kid who looks up to him. It’s an absorbing, and quietly entertaining film that kind of sneaks up on you and blows you away. It’s also a great reminder of how good an actor Kevin Costner can be.
Six Degrees of Separation — This is the film that introduced Will Smith as an actual, legitimate “actor,” and it’s probably still the best performance of his career. It’s also a really engaging story about a con man who claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier, who lies his way into the house of an affluent family, posing as a boarding school friend of their children. Based on the real-life of David Hampton, who himself lied his way into the homes of Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinise, and Calvin Klein, it’s an interesting study of the upper class and their willingness to accept these lies rather than be considered a racist.