As an entertaining way to count down to the finale of 2023, we decided to do a Carolina Theatre take on a New Year’s Eve tradition: the “top ten” list! Our Senior Director of Film, Jim Carl, sorts through hundreds of Retro film submissions twice a year, so we thought it would be fun to put his list-making skills to the test (see his musings in our “My Take:” blog series). So here it is, the top ten LEAST requested blockbuster films from the 1990s. You likely won’t see these in a Retro line-up anytime soon, so get ready for a blast from the past, some nostalgia, and a lot of laughs!
#10: SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY (1991) Every now and again, a picture comes along that everybody’s gotta see, just so they too can be in the dark. These films succeed solely on the strength of their leading actor or actress, no matter how awful the reviews might be. Honestly: After the success of 1990’s “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts could have appeared in a remake of “Benji” and it would have made money. Instead, she chose this bland woman-in-distress thriller as a follow-up and, indeed, audiences followed. It became the 8th highest-grossing film of the year and cemented her as a bonafide box office powerhouse, one of the few women in Hollywood allowed to become one at the time. And that’s all good and well. Nowadays, most people can’t tell the difference between this psychological thriller and the thousands of others just like it. They certainly wouldn’t search for it in theaters but, possibly, The Hallmark Channel would do the job.
#9: THE FLINTSTONES (1994) That this picture grossed $341 million worldwide is actually the least shocking, and perhaps only interesting, aspect of its existence. People almost always flock to see the latest iteration of whatever precious childhood thing (cartoon, action figure, videogame) Hollywood has decided to bastardize, just so they can later bletch how it didn’t live up to their expectations, ruined their childhood, blah, blah, blah. At least “The Flintstones” has the distinction of being the last theatrical film of Elizabeth Taylor, an honor I’m sure her estate still includes in every press release. It’s also cute, kinda dumb, and gets straight to the business at hand. This is the type of wildly popular family entertainment that makes tons of cash but has no shelf life whatsoever. It’s as disposable as the McDonald’s kid’s meal box that accompanied it. Nowadays, it’s mostly forgotten by the same generation who once promised to feed it, like a pet rock, and Gen Z has its own precious childhood things to get fickle about.
#8: WATERWORLD (1995): Somehow, you just knew this picture would appear on this list, didn’t you? What more can possibly be written about this film that hasn’t already been said? Advance buzz was so bad that – without having seen a single frame of footage – folks started calling it “Fishtar” and “Kevin’s Gate.” In 1995, you were an outlier if you announced yourself as a fan of this movie; while professing disdain for it was a way of proclaiming that you were averse to the direction Hollywood blockbusters were heading – still a popular mantra, even in 2023 (we’re all staring at you, “Wish.”) It’s fun, it’s slick, it’s carefully crafted, and everyone does their schtick, but audiences find themselves not really caring. “Waterworld” grossed $264 million worldwide. Far from a landmark, it remains a part of Hollywood history all the same.
#7: AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) In the pantheon of overpraised Best Picture Oscar winners, this movie has seen its reputation steadily crawling up that unfortunate list. You might think that a movie about a helpless young naïve teenager being preyed upon by a gross older dude would be more repulsive now, in 2023, than it seemed in 1999, but that’s the least of its problems. It’s become one of those “message movies” that people once claimed to adore, but only because that’s what they believed everyone wanted them to say at the time. Here are the facts: the film grossed $356 million worldwide but it has never once appeared on a Retro survey in 25 years.
#6: DICK TRACY (1990) As a person who hated “Dick Tracy” upon its release, I can’t say whether people who loved it in 1990 love it more or less today, but I do know I wanted it to appear on this list, so here we are. My inclusion of it will be excellent fodder for all you pencil-nibbling, spiral-notebook fanatics who keep insisting to me that “This is Spinal Tap” is a masterpiece, even though I clearly don’t feel that way about it. Whatever. “Dick Tracy” was the 9th highest-grossing film of the year. It starred Warren Beatty and Madonna. Nobody cared in 1990. Nobody cares today. Moving on.
#5: A BUG’S LIFE (1998) Once upon a time, the idea of a feature-length animated movie getting made “entirely on computers” was a fresh, young thing. “Toy Story” got there first in 1995, becoming the #1 movie of the year, so you just know Disney wasn’t gonna let this crazy experiment go to waste. Three years later, we got the world’s second all-CGI animated movie, and when it made $363 million dollars, several generations of traditional hand-drawn animated artists suddenly found themselves without a sense of humor. Here’s the thing about CGI: As the technology improves, it renders everything that came before it almost unwatchable, with a few exceptions. This was the 4th highest-grossing film of the year. Nowadays, audiences would laugh this picture about a colony of ants off the screen, no matter how hard it tries to impress them with its faded artistry. Unlike 1950s stop-motion animation, whose creakiness is often seen as endearing or charming, the gatekeepers of CGI take no prisoners.
#4: BASIC INSTINCT (1992) Is there a single image that screams “It’s the 90s!” more than the sight of Sharon Stone, smirking while holding a cigarette, sitting legs crossed atop a chair, looking like a goddess in that angular white dress? It’s so iconic, it’s become one of the most-memed movie images in history. This neo-noir erotic thriller grossed $352 million and catapulted Stone into overnight movie stardom after years of struggling as a B-list actress. She became the new Bo Derek, for better or worse, and the face of 90s female empowerment. Director Paul Verhoeven will always have his fans, but for most, there’s other movies to pick from his filmography. If this film wants a legacy to boast, it’s this: Only a handful of humans in the history of planet Earth who started watching “Basic Instinct” have ever turned it off.
#3: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) Audiences have always had a love it/hate it affair with this picture, even as it was earning $140 million worldwide and becoming the 10th biggest moneymaker of the year. Here is the granddaddy of the “found footage” horror genre. Every year, some social media influencer declares “the found footage genre is dead!” and every year a new one comes along and proves them wrong. The genre is seemingly here to stay, for better or worse, but you won’t find too many people clamoring to see this movie back in theaters again. Despite being the picture that founded the first truly new genre in a long time, consensus among audiences these days regarding “Blair Witch” is shrug-inducing at best. It exists, mass slaughter ensues, and that’s enough.
#2: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998) This twitchy underdog seemingly came out of nowhere and raked in $289 million worldwide, culminating in an upsetting Best Picture win at the Academy Awards, and has seen its reputation steadily implode ever since. Its triumph at the Oscars is viewed now more as a crime than an accomplishment, trying its best to be forgiven. Apart from its now-dubious connection with Harvey Weinstein, the single greatest sin this picture committed, apparently, is stealing the Oscar from “Saving Private Ryan,” which is the movie everyone now agrees should have won that night. Nowadays, most kids are made aware of its existence because clips from it appear in “Scary Movie.” It’s a horrible legacy.
#1: ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991) Poor Kevin Costner can’t catch a break. Most critics hated this picture upon its release, and most surely still feel the same way today. And yet Costner was such a full-breed movie star at the time, it became the #2 highest-grossing film of the year and earned $390 million worldwide. Nowadays, you won’t find it often on Retro surveys, but that’s because its memory seems to have faded from most moviegoers, too. It remains as a kind of altar to the actor, a trial you must endure to prove you’re a true fan of this blue-eyed demon, but nothing else.