Top 5 Most Underrated American Filmmakers

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Blessed are the filmmakers who don’t care about recognition, for there’s always a good chance they won’t get it. If they do, it may come too late — when they’re dead, for instance, never a convenient time. They may receive praise from the critics, but not from their peers (i.e., the Oscars), or vice versa; it’s always nicer to get both. Perhaps the cruelest recognition is that which doesn’t last, which is probably also the most common. Lists like this are intended to right those wrongs. Their inevitable subjectivity raises questions such as, “Shouldn’t these be the five most overrated directors?” or “what about these 20 other underrated ones?” Fair questions, both of them, but see if this list doesn’t persuade you.


5. Arthur Penn (1922-2010)

Penn’s filmmaking career got off to a fast start, as his second film, a conventional telling of the Helen Keller story, 1962’s The Miracle Worker, earned Oscars for co-stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. But it was the series of movies that came afterward that would realize Penn’s full potential. Mickey One, a picture starring Warren Beatty as a standup comedian, is shadowed throughout by intimations of McCarthyism and is a bit behind the times for that (the movie was released in 1965), but its attempts to mimic the French New Wave are very much of the moment. The Chase, a seldom-seen thriller starring Robert Redford that came out a year later, encapsulates the 1960s as accurately as any film you’ll find. And then there was Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the movie that changed everything. The heightened violence and nihilistic attitude were reviled by critics, but helped to make the American cinema of the 1970s possible. Penn would never have his finger so on the pulse of society again, but Little Big Man, his 1970 anti-western starring Dustin Hoffman, remains a must-see. Rambling, shambling and not a little rough around the edges, the movie is a more accomplished picture than most filmmakers are able to accomplish after a lifetime of practice. For Penn, it was a lesser work. Nominated three times for Best Director, he never won an Oscar.


4. Bob Rafelson (1933- )

Rafelson has made only about a dozen movies, just two of which still matter, but those two — Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) — went a long way toward defining an era of American filmmaking that people, both outside but especially inside the industry, still talk about with awe. Inevitably, the movies of the 1970s are remembered perhaps too fondly today, especially when many of the titles cited are considered. That Rafelson’s two movies are often overlooked now is a woeful oversight. Both star Rafelson’s frequent collaborator, Jack Nicholson, when he was young and still maturing as an actor, and not the caricature that he chose to play off of for much of the remainder of his career. In Marvin Gardens, in fact, he plays against type, taking the quieter role alongside fellow bad-boy actor Bruce Dern in a get-rich-quick story set in Atlantic City. Five Easy Pieces, which starred Nicholson as a classically trained pianist from a well-to-do family who chooses instead to wander around aimlessly from one dead-end job to another, neatly presaged the mood of the nation in the 1970s, when the idealism of the previous decade’s various movements gave way to cynicism.


3. Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

How does a director of more than 50 motion pictures make it onto a list of underrated filmmakers? The fact is a director the caliber of Lumet, one of the most important filmmakers in American cinema, cannot help but be underrated. Some of the reasons are obvious — 14 of Lumet’s movies were nominated for Academy Awards, while he received a Best Director Oscar nod four times (for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict). He never won, having to settle instead for a lifetime achievement statuette in 2005. But trivialities such as awards fail to encompass the breadth and depth of Lumet’s work. Despite being so prolific, the quality of his work never wavered, even toward the end of his career. He made the films he wanted to make, something not everyone in Hollywood can say, most of them forays into social realism that explored problems facing our society, films that sought to make a difference. And Lumet managed, routinely, to attract the finest screen actors to his pictures, always eliciting their best work. Even so-so performers rose to the occasion in his movies. Vin Diesel, for instance, was quite solid in 2006’s Find Me Guilty, which considering Diesel’s other work is nothing short of remarkable.


2. John Carpenter (1948- )

Carpenter wouldn’t be on this list if the film genre he essentially invented got more — well, any — respect. Most slasher flicks as they generally exist today don’t deserve much consideration, especially when compared to Carpenter’s original Halloween, a babysitter-vs.-stalker horror film that was a huge hit when it was released in 1978. Shot on a ridiculously small budget of $320,000, it went on to gross $65 million in its initial release. Numbers like that usually guarantee a steady livelihood in movies, but Carpenter’s road has never been a smooth one. More than most, however, his career has shown the value of reassessment. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) was overlooked at the time, but is today considered one of the more entertaining, if cheesier, thrillers of that decade. Other titles such as The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982) and Starman (1984) have retained recognition far longer than many may have considered possible at the time. These are Carpenter’s success stories; there were many more failures over the years. But Halloween alone cements his legacy. The movie’s many, many knockoffs have supplanted the suspense of the original with ceaseless gore, but when the time comes to reassess the picture that started it all its simple, brilliant effectiveness will be there waiting.


1. Paul Thomas Anderson (1970- )

Few contemporary filmmakers suffer the malady of being overlooked. Rather, it’s the effects of too much praise that are usually the problem, something many cinephiles consider to be precisely the situation when it comes to Paul Thomas Anderson. Unlike the work of too many modern-day auteurs, however, Anderson’s films — as evidenced by his three strongest, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will be Blood — have remained accessible as they’ve grown in complexity. And unlike with other auteurs, it’s not the ever-changing technology of filmmaking that drives him so much as different ways of storytelling — his movies often appear to be about one thing when they’re really concerned with something deeper — and the magic that can be found in moments of performance, both big (Daniel Day Lewis’s demented oilman in There Will be Blood) and small (countless examples in the ensemble picture Boogie Nights). His five films have resulted in five Oscar nominations, not a bad ratio, three of them for his screenplays, which indicates where his interests lie. In an era when many movies don’t need to be seen more than once (or at all) to get what they’re about, Anderson’s films not only stand up to but demand repeated viewings.

(Slideshow photo credit: © Nathan Hartley Maas)

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Todd Hill has been a working journalist since 1987, with a focus on meteorology, climate studies and the Hollywood and independent film industries. After 20 years in the media maelstrom of New York City, Todd is now based on a farm in the rural highlands of central Ohio.