After a lackluster decade, mysteries came storming back in the 1990s. They also got respect from the Motion Picture Academy, notching several Oscar wins. Most of the movies below are obvious choices, though two are personal favorites. You could make valid arguments for other movies that I’ve left off, such as One False Move, The Spanish Prisoner, Pulp Fiction, Se7en, Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear, and Enemy of the State (a movie that could be seen as prescient given the current questions about NSA spying), along with others, but I’ll stand pat with my choices.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Running the table of major Oscars had only been done twice before Silence of the Lambs, by It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). The movie, based on Thomas Harris’ bestseller, created a cultural phenomenon with Hannibal Lector, a minor character in Harris’ previous book Red Dragon (see Manhunter in the Best of the ‘80s). The image of Anthony Hopkins standing serenely in a pressed jumpsuit, after the chamber of horrors Jodie Foster encounters on her way to Hannibal’s cell, is one of the most chilling introductions of a character ever. Harris took attributes from three different serial killers to create the other villain of the piece, Buffalo Bill: Ed Gein (skinning victims), Ted Bundy (acting disabled to catch victims) and Gary Heidnick (keeping victims in a pit). Gein was also the inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho.
Another Oscar winner (Best Original Screenplay & Best Actress) was the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. They’d explored crime with their movies before, most notably with their debut film, Blood Simple, but Fargo went to a different level with its blend of comedy and crime. Strangely enough, not a single frame of the movie was filmed in Fargo. However, if you want to see the wood chipper used in the movie, it’s on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
While it didn’t win the Best Picture award (it was swamped by Titanic) Kim Bassinger won for Best Supporting Actress while Brian Helgelund and Curtis Hanson picked up gold for the Best Adapted Screenplay, working from James Ellroy’s tough-as-nails noir novel. Jerry Goldsmith contributed an excellent score, as he did with Chinatown in 1974. Many of the scenes in the film (and the novel) were based on actual incidents that have shown up in other films and TV shows, including last year’s Gangster Squad and TNT’s Mob City, but L.A. Confidential got it right.
Out Of Sight (1998)
While it didn’t win an Oscar, this film did bring home an Edgar Award for best mystery movie of the year. (Other winners of the Edgar on this list are Silence of the Lambs, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and The Grifters.) This movie also saved George Clooney’s career after the debacle of Batman and Robin the year before. Scott Frank adapted the Oscar nominated screenplay from Elmore Leonard’s novel, and director Steven Soderbergh delivered a stylish and entertaining film.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Bryan Singer’s mind-twisting film, from an Oscar-winning screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, also made a star (and Oscar winner) out of Kevin Spacey. He’d been working in Hollywood for ten years, most notably playing Mel Profitt during the first season of Wiseguy on TV, and was also the guy in the limo who wants to party with Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. The movie was made on a miniscule $6 million budget. In a poll on the IMDb website, Usual Suspects was voted as having the best plot twist ever, beating out movies like The Sixth Sense and The Crying Game.
The Firm (1993)
I’ve chosen The Firm as the best of the John Grisham adaptations that seemed to come out once or twice a year throughout the 1990s. The Firm was helped by Sydney Pollack’s excellent direction, the jazz piano score by Dave Grusin, and a screenplay by David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel that actually improved on the original book. It has one of the best casts ever assembled for a motion picture. Holly Hunter received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, in spite of only appearing on screen for less than 6 minutes total. (Of course, what she does with that six minutes is incredible.)
A Few Good Men (1992)
From Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” through Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series to Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer books, the courtroom has been fertile ground for mysteries. Rob Reiner’s film, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (based on his original play), was interesting for its move to a military courtroom as well as Jack Nicholson’s performance as Col. Jessup. It made a catchphrase out of “You can’t handle the truth.” While nominated for four Oscars, it got shot down at the ceremony by Unforgiven, which took Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor.
The Grifters (1990)
This movie is based on a novel by Jim Thompson, whose hardboiled stories also include “The Getaway” and “The Killer Inside Me,” and was adapted by another legendary author, Donald E. Westlake. Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen, Philomena) directed the story of three con artists trying to make a big score and then get out alive. Only one of them does. The movie features a voiceover at the beginning by Martin Scorsese.
The ‘90s featured many remakes of early TV shows, most of them forgettable, but The Fugitive bucked the trend by having the movie be better than the original series. The escape sequence, which was done with a real train rather than CGI, is one of the most thrilling ever to be filmed. What really made the movie work was Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of US Marshall Sam Gerard, the most obsessive policeman since Javert. Jones deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor for the role.
Dead Again (1991)
This is a personal favorite, a twisty, metaphysical mystery that was Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to his Henry V. The movie features Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson in dual roles, and Derek Jacobi as a larcenous antiques dealer with a talent for hypnosis. The original screenplay was written by Scott Frank, who would later do two stellar adaptations of Elmore Leonard – Get Shorty and Out of Sight. It also features an uncredited performance by Robin Williams as a psychiatrist who’s had his license revoked.