Filmmakers love to compliment other filmmakers. Critics make a living at it. Add in the general public’s generous word of mouth, and it becomes easy to believe everything you hear about someone. For every film director whose talents go unsung, there are probably five more whose true abilities become lost in a tidal wave of praise long before they deserve such attention, if ever. No two movie fans are likely to agree on who those five may be. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find the same names on lists of both overrated and underrated filmmakers — and not surprising, either. Every movie director on this particular list has made at least one great motion picture. But if it’s true that one should be judged by his worst work, not his best, then these five movie directors (six, technically) have a lot to answer for.
5. Joel and Ethan Coen
If there were an Oscar category for Best Coen Brothers Film, surely that award would go to 2007’s No Country For Old Men, a movie that rode its critical raves all the way to a Best Picture win, only to have disappeared from the consciousness of most cinephiles ever since. The Coens’ pictures have a way of doing that. There are exceptions, of course. The Big Lebowski (1998) remains adored by many, but its cult status obscures the film’s real value, as a star vehicle for Jeff Bridges and some other actors and little else. One could say much the same about Fargo (1996), the Coens’ best-known movie. The brothers have made 15 motion pictures since 1984; their ratio of hits to flops is fairly impressive. But the majority of their films, including some of those hits, have been pointy-headed genre homages that, while possibly intriguing from an academic perspective, have not tried particularly hard to entertain their audiences. Moviegoers can always sense when they’re being treated as an afterthought, and the Coens have been guilty of this time and time again, from The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) to The Ladykillers (2004), which also features Tom Hanks’ worst performance on screen. The Coens took a significant leap away from their condescending ways with their 2010 remake of True Grit, a genuinely entertaining picture, but given their track record it may not be much cause for optimism.
4. Terrence Malick
The works of prolific artists are naturally looked at with suspicion, as if someone that productive can’t possibly be creating works of consistent quality. It stands to reason, therefore, that the movies of Terrence Malick — only five within the past four decades — should be among the finest ever made. Some people do indeed believe this, critics mostly. They’re wrong. Malick has never made a terrible film, but virtually all of his pictures have suffered from a profound case of pokiness. His first directorial effort, 1973’s Badlands, about a pair of outlaw drifters, although it benefits today from intriguing casting (a very young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek), is remarkable for its utter lack of momentum, a sign of things to come. Malick later took a 20-year break from making movies, but the break appeared to do him good. His 1998 World War II film The Thin Red Line is his best. Seven years later, however, he was back to his old tricks with The New World, a nature-laden meditation on the John Smith-Pocahontas story that may feature the finest reproduction of birdsong on film, for those who are into that sort of thing. The Tree of Life (2011), heralded by critics and pretty much unseen by everyone else, crystallizes as well as any of his movies the Malick method — alarmingly long, meandering sequences of image and sound, interspersed with plot-driven passages too short and infrequent. Malick asks a lot from his audience, perhaps too much.
3. Gus Van Sant
Trying to make sense of Gus Van Sant’s long and varied career as a filmmaker is probably a fruitless endeavor. If it were any easier he might not be on this list. He started strong with Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), flawed films with moments of brilliance that showcased his desire to shine a light on typically ignored segments of society. A more commercial endeavor, his 1995 picture To Die For is highly watchable and features some of actress Nicole Kidman’s best work. Van Sant went fully mainstream with Good Will Hunting (1997), but the huge success of that film is largely thanks to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who wrote the screenplay and won Oscars for their work. Van Sant then had a couple of commercial flops, including a pointless frame-for-frame remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, before going indie again with three pictures — Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, from 2002-05 — each agonizing in their own ways. Gerry, for instance, is an utterly plotless movie starring Damon and Casey Affleck as two guys named Gerry who wander around the desert and talk about nothing of consequence. Van Sant followed up this fallow period with 2008’s Milk, a film about gay rights activist/politician Harvey Milk that won two Oscars on eight nominations. Milk is not an overrated picture, and neither would Van Sant’s career be were it to represent any consistent level of quality.
2. Alfred Hitchcock
Film writers frequently look back and reassess the careers of directors long judged to be geniuses, a healthy exercise. Re-evaluations made with the benefit of hindsight can be insightful. Was Citizen Kane, for instance, mostly just Orson Welles showing off? Probably. Did John Ford make the same movie over and over again? Not really. Too many reassessments are just writers slamming popular filmmakers because they’re so popular, i.e. Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. And then there’s the case of Hitchcock (who was British by birth, but became an American citizen in the mid-1950s). The brilliance of Hitchcock’s 1960 picture Psycho must be acknowledged, and probably always will be. Movies such as Vertigo, Rear Window and North by Northwest are routinely championed by cinephiles who haven’t watched them in decades. Watch them today, and you’ll find they don’t hold up terribly well. Beyond those four titles, much of the rest of Hitchcock’s movies — more than 50 from the silent era to the early 1970s — feel like hack work, especially now. Take, for instance, The Birds (1963), which remains entertaining and not a little scary. The plot is hackneyed, the characters one-dimensional, and the resulting film is fairly ridiculous. The biggest problem with Hitchcock’s pictures today — and this is hardly his fault, really — is that they’re thrillers, and countless filmmakers since Hitchcock have gotten infinitely better at making successful movies in this genre. His talents, quite simply, have been usurped.
1. Tim Burton
It’s not unusual for overrated film directors to receive the love of critics while being largely ignored by the average moviegoer. Tim Burton, however, was forsaken by critics a long time ago. Unlike a lot of moviemakers, who start out creating small indie flicks and then graduate to larger, less challenging fare, Burton has always been a commercial filmmaker. Many of us have forgotten that he made three Batman movies early in his career. That franchise suited his strength — there was a lot of black involved. Burton’s films are typically dark and strange in both tone and appearance, usually with an appreciation for Gothic sensibilities whether it suits the material or not. In fact, it’s gotten so that Burton doesn’t make a movie anymore unless he can Goth it up — or spin it as a starring vehicle for actor Johnny Depp. The history of film is full of frequent director-actor collaborations, but rarely have they been this long lasting — Depp has starred in eight of Burton’s pictures. The partnership no longer serves either as well as it did back in the days of Edward Scissorhands (1990). A Burton-Depp production is no longer assured of commercial success, and can often be the scene of cinematic crime — in Burton’s 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reimagining, Depp plays Wonka as an effeminate sissy who looks and acts like a sex offender. Not a good move. It’s time for them to part ways. Burton, in a rut as a filmmaker, is pulling Depp in the same direction.
Todd Hill’s first novel, Dutchess County, is now available in stores, or through Amazon.com.