I have the feeling, however, that I wasn't watching a lot of films in theaters during that year. I can remember spending some of the 80s and early 90s in a comic book/horror movie timewarp*, so it could be that during most (or all) of 1990 I was avoiding the local multiplex for that reason.
The movies below were found via the "1990 in Film" article on Wikipedia.
Some Good Ones
1. School Daze
Less a single story than a series of vignettes about life in a black college. Laurence Fishburne stars as a student activist when everyone's not singing and dancing. Spike Lee was never a very good actor, but his talent as a director is obvious in even this, his second movie.
Fun Fact: Spike Lee went to film school with Ang Lee, and Ang Lee worked as Assistant Director on the film Spike Lee submitted as his Master's thesis.
2. Brain Dead
Bill Pullman and Bill "Game Over" Paxton star in this Cronenbergish movie about brain alteration. I have the feeling the screenplay was very good, even if the direction is lackluster. You'll probably see the twist at the end coming a mile away, but it's still an entertaining movie.
3. Air America
Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. star as two pilots inadvertently smuggling drugs during the Vietnam War. As a film with a message it falls flat, but it's still a relatively interesting take on that period in U.S.-Southeast Asian relations. Not The Killing Fields mind you, but a good vehicle for Mel Gibson at the height of his Lethal Weapon period.
That scene where Gibson and Downey Jr. talk about addiction though. 28 years later, there's a whole other dimension to that conversation.
4. Wild at Heart
Part Wizard of Oz, part "anti-action movie," and one of the most delightfully weird movies you'll ever see. If you find yourself wondering why either Nicholas Cage or David Lynch were ever famous, this is the film to watch. This was the second movie Laura Dern did with Lynch, coming a few years after the equally great Blue Velvet. Diane Ladd is excellent as Dern's deranged mom.
5. The Hunt for Red October
Still the best submarine movie ever made, and yes, I've seen Das Boot. Sean Connery stars as a Soviet sub commander trying to defect, and Alec Baldwin is a CIA analyst trying to catch him. I still think Alec Baldwin's version of Jack Ryan was the most plausible.
Fun Fact: The U.S. Navy initially worried this movie would reveal top secret information about U.S. subs, but they changed their minds after they realized what Top Gun had done for Air Force recruitment numbers.
6. Green Card
An American woman and a French man try to fool the INS, and - of course - fall in love. Peter Weir directed, with Andy McDowell and Gerard Depardieu starring. This movie falls firmly into rom-com territory, but the performances are convincing and the director worked from a well-written script.
7. The Guardian
Druids sacrifice babies to trees somewhere in California. By 1990 Exorcist director William Friedkin was very far from the heights he reached during the 70s, but The Guardian is a decent low-budget horror film.
8. Miami Blues
Alec Baldwin stars as a con man impersonating a cop, with Fred Ward as the real cop trying to track him down. 1990 was a good year for Alec Baldwin. He was great in both The Hunt for Red October and this film.
9. Navy SEALs
I'm gonna start referring to beers as "brain grenades." Yep. From now on that's something I'm going to do.
Michael Biehn (Fuck yeah! Michael Biehn!) and Charlie Sheen (what, him again?) head up an elite team of badasses in this latter-day version of Top Gun.
...and you just know that the black guy getting married at the start of the movie is BAD NEWS.
Fun Fact: Charlie Sheen went to high school with Sean Penn, Rob Lowe, and Sheen's own brother, Emilio Estevez. While schoolmates, the four made their own films using a Super 8 camera.
10. The Ambulance
It's Official: Eric Roberts had one of the Great Mullets of the 1990s. Styled to perfection, feathery - it was the kind of mullet that gets noticed.
The Ambulance is also a well-written thriller with a great sense of humor. Roberts stars as a penciller at Marvel Comics (!) investigating the disappearance of a woman he meets on the street. James Earl Jones also makes a brief but memorable appearance as a detective.
Fun Fact: This was the first movie Stan Lee ever appeared in.
11. Postcards from the Edge
Has Meryl Streep ever been in a bad movie? I've seen most of them, and I haven't seen a bad one yet. Death Becomes Her, maybe. Wasn't too fond of that one.
Streep and Shirley Maclaine star as a mother and daughter struggling with substance abuse as their careers in Hollywood reach a low ebb. It's based on the novel by Carrie Fisher, which was centered around Fisher's relationship with her own mother, Debbie Reynolds. The movie's great, and I'd like to read the book when I have the chance.
12. State of Grace
Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, and Ed Harris star as Irish gangsters feuding in New York. It lacks the visceral punch of The Departed, but certain scenes in State of Grace will remind you a lot of that movie.
And why, you wonder, haven't you ever heard of this movie? ...because it was released during the same f*cking week as another Martin Scorsese movie, Goodfellas. State of Grace is an excellent film, but it's no Goodfellas.
13. Presumed Innocent
Raul Julia was an actor who rarely found a role worthy of his talent. Thankfully Presumed Innocent provided one of the few exceptions to this trend in his career. He's excellent as Harrison Ford's defense counsel.
Harrison Ford, for that matter, is excellent in this movie, too. He plays an attorney accused of murder, and he's wonderfully conflicted throughout. After seeing Frantic and Presumed Innocent I'm starting to reappraise him as an actor. When given the right director and the right script he was very good.
That director, by the way, is Alan J. Pakula. He's directed a TON of classic movies, but everyone (including me) seems to forget his name when compiling lists of noteworthy directors.
Some Bad Ones
1. Bird on a Wire
This movie's excruciating. Mel Gibson plays upon the sex symbol status earned in the Lethal Weapon and Mad Max franchises, and Goldie Hawn screams her way through chase scenes. Those wondering why Detroit looks nothing like Detroit, and why Wisconsin looks nothing like Wisconsin are hereby informed that this film was shot in British Colombia, Canada, far away from (and nothing like) either place.
Air America, also released in 1990 and also starring Gibson, was much better. Mel would make his directing debut with The Man Without a Face just three years after, and would go on to appear in some truly great films besides. Goldie Hawn, of course, has been in better movies.
Director Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford reunite for this story about a gambler in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Redford almost has enough screen presence to carry the whole thing off, and the first half of the movie isn't bad, but the second half is both incredibly dull and full of some of the most melodramatic dialogue known to man.
While watching this movie I couldn't help but reflect on the parts of the Godfather Part II also set in Cuba, during the same time period. "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart." Francis Ford Coppola did a lot more with a lot less.
3. The Rookie
Cheesy cop movie in which Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen chase a ring of car thieves. On what planet are cops allowed to act like this? Even in 1990 most of what Eastwood's character does would constitute both harassment and wanton destruction of property.
4. Loose Cannons
Between Ghostbusters and Being A Pretty Good Actor, Dan Akroyd was appearing in unfunny comedies like Loose Cannons. Gene Hackman plays straight man to Akroyd's multiple personalities, all without a single laugh to be found in the film's 2-hour runtime. Loose Cannons was a critical and commercial disaster, and this fact is unsurprising.
5. The Godfather Part III
Can't blame Francis Ford Coppola for trying, but in the absence of Mario Puzo** this movie was never going to be as good as the first two. What you can blame Mr. Coppola for is the casting of his daughter as Mary Corleone. She is such a terrible actress that you feel sorry for any actors sharing scenes with her.
6. Reversal of Fortune
Jeremy Irons and Ron Silver star in this movie version of the famous Claus von Bulow trial. I get why critics liked it, but I found the characters so insufferable that my mind wandered during the film. Is it possible that Irons played Bulow too realistically?
One That's So Bad It's Good
1. The Forbidden Dance
Just as for every Beat Street there's a Breakin', for every Lambada there's a Forbidden Dance. Laura Harring was FINE, but her sexiness was never going to redeem this story of an Amazon princess defeating an evil corporation with... the forbidden dance!
(Really, that's the plot of this movie. I'm not making it up.)
Fun Fact: Laura Harring eventually married the great-great grandson of "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismark, and even though she and her husband later divorced she retains the title Countess von Bismark.
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*Not to mention masturbating heavily, and obsessing over girls I was too scared to talk to. Ah, to be 15 and crushingly shy once again...
**The script was based on one of Puzo's short stories, but that's the extent of his involvement in the movie.