10 Once-Great Directors Who’ve Lost Their Touch

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Rob Reiner has a new movie in theaters this Friday; it’s called The Magic of Belle Isle, it stars Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen, and it is just plain terrible. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point in the Reiner filmography; after a hot streak that included the likes of This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, and Stand By Me, Reiner went cold after 1995’s The American President and hasn’t made a great movie since. It happens — for every Scorsese that maintains a consistent quality for decades on end, there are plenty of filmmakers who don’t (even such greats as Hitchcock, Wilder, Chaplin, and Hawks were turning out clunkers at the end of their distinguished careers). In fact, we took an inventory, and dug up 10 more contemporary filmmakers who have gone cold; check them out after the jump, and add your own in the comments.

Francis Ford Coppola THE GOOD: The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now THE BAD: New York Stories, The Rainmaker THE UGLY: Jack, Youth Without Youth, Tetro

Few directors so personified the spirit of the 1970s than Francis Ford Coppola, who made a series of brilliant films that were both genre exercises and works of art. His final masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, hit just as the excesses of the era’s auteurs were becoming newsworthy, and that film’s brilliance was overshadowed (at the time, anyway) by reports of its never-ending schedule and ballooning budget. Those stories made it harder for Coppola to make the movies he wanted in the subsequent years, and his ’80s output was hit and miss, with some gems (Peggy Sue Got Married, Tucker) and some coals (One from the Heart, The Cotton Club). He finally went back to the Godfather well in 1990, with imperfect results, and there was little in his ’90s output to inspire much enthusiasm — particularly not the much-maligned Jack, his 1996 Robin Williams tearjerker comedy. That debacle kept him out of the director’s chair for over a decade, but he appears to have forgotten much of what he knew about moviemaking in that time; his first two “comeback” movies, Youth Without Youth and Tetro, were gorgeous to look at and utterly empty-headed, and when his Twixt premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, critics called it the worst one yet. (It has yet to secure domestic distribution.)

George Lucas THE GOOD: Star Wars, American Graffiti THE BAD: Star Wars Episode III THE UGLY: Star Wars Episodes I-II

Lucas had only made two previous films when he struck gold with Star Wars in 1977, but those three films, taken together, made for an impressive filmography: the warm and winning American Graffiti, the cold and Kubrickian THX 1138, and the crowd-pleasing swashbuckler that made him his fortune. Instead of continuing to hone his craft, though, Lucas stepped into the role of producer, handing off directing duties for the Star Wars sequels and later projects like Willow and (eek) Howard the Duck to other filmmakers. But his decision, after twenty years, to return to the Star Wars universe meant a return to directing — and hey, no need to warm back up with a small-scale project or anything. Sure enough, his Star Wars prequels looked like the work of someone who hadn’t made a movie in two decades. His pacing was slack, his storytelling was shoddy, the dialogue was painfully tin-eared, and then there was (shudder) Jar-Jar. Episode II was even more unfortunate, and though Episode III was a bit of an improvement, we can’t say that his recent retirement announcement struck us as a particularly bad idea.

John Carpenter THE GOOD: Halloween, Christine, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing THE BAD: Escape From LA, Village of the Damned THE UGLY: Vampires, Ghosts of Mars, The Ward

In the 1970s and 1980s, Carpenter was the genre king — Ebert wasn’t just blowing smoke when he compared him to Hitchcock in his review of the 1978 smash Halloween. Carpenter’s films expertly juggled elements of horror, sci-fi, and action (often simultaneously), and he made movies that entertained his audience without treating them like morons. But in the 1990s, he started to falter, with half-baked efforts like Memoirs of an Invisible Man and the ill-advised Escape from New York sequel Escape from LA Around the time he started slapping his name into his titles, he started making movies no respectable filmmaker would want their name anywhere near; if you’ve never had the experience of suffering through John Carpenter’s Vampires or John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, count yourself lucky. After the latter tanked in 2001, Carpenter sat out much of the subsequent decade, his only directorial credits a pair of Masters of Horror episodes. His return to the big screen, last year’s The Ward, was barely released to mostly negative reviews.

George A. Romero THE GOOD: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow THE BAD: Land of the Dead THE UGLY: Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead

Respect due: Like Carpenter, Romero’s made a horror film that pretty much redefined the genre and clearly influenced everything that came after it — and in the case of Night of the Living Dead, he also created a template for crafting independent film on a shoestring, even if you don’t live in LA or NYC. He may well have topped that film with its first sequel, the relentless (and darkly comic) Dawn of the Dead, but by the third film, Day of the Dead, the series was starting to show its age. He didn’t return to the Dead for twenty years, but when he did, it went very, very bad; 2005’s Land of the Dead managed to coast on nostalgia (and a twisted Dennis Hopper performance), but its follow-ups, the 2007 “found footage” mess Diary of the Dead and 2009’s Survival of the Dead, look less like the work of a master than half-baked rip-offs.

Tim Burton THE GOOD: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood THE BAD: Mars Attacks! THE UGLY: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes

Where do you even start with Tim Burton? His debut feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, announced the arrival of a unique and distinctive stylist, but he’s seldom managed to match that style with compelling narratives, and he hasn’t made a thoroughly successful film since Ed Wood, which was, good God, nearly 20 years ago. (You guys can keep yelling out “Big Fish” if you want to, but I saw that movie, and you’re all delusional.) He’s just spinning his Goth wheels these days, finding pre-existing properties and turning his art designers loose on them — his penchant for remakes finally reaches its logical conclusion with his next picture, remake of his own early short Frankenweenie. Maybe that film will serve as his comeback, or at least as a reminder of a time when he was as interested in substance as style.

M. Night Shyamalan THE GOOD: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs THE BAD: The Village THE UGLY: Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender

We don’t really need to elaborate on this one, right? Okay, good. Next!

Lawrence Kasdan THE GOOD: Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado, Grand Canyon THE BAD: Wyatt Earp THE UGLY: Dreamcatcher, Darling Companion

Kasdan was one of the most respected and successful screenwriters of the early 1980s, co-writing the scripts to hits like The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and using those credits to become a highly successful writer/director. His output got spottier in the ’90s, but he could still entertain when he stuck to warm comedy/dramas like Mumford and Grand Canyon. Then he made the disastrous decision to take a crack at sci-fi/horror, and his 2003 Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher was so universally reviled that he didn’t direct another film for nearly a decade. The film that he finally made, this spring’s Darling Companion, was far from a return to form — it was a twinkly, soppy, vanilla mess, sorely lacking the witty dialogue and compelling characters that were Kasdan’s specialty back in the day.

Oliver Stone THE GOOD: JFK, Nixon, Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers THE BAD: World Trade Center, South of the Border THE UGLY: Alexander, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

We’re a little shaky on this one, since we’ve not yet seen Stone’s new movie Savages; it’s out tomorrow and the advance reviews are just all over the damn place. But whatever its quality may be, it’s a pretty clear attempt to return to the extreme territory of Natural Born Killers, which is a smart play for the once-controversial filmmaker; his recent output has been spotty as hell, from the pandering World Trade Center to the near-incomprehensible Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to the fawning “documentary” South of the Border to the endless, crushingly boring Alexander. Maybe, with Savages, he’ll get back some of the rough energy that made his earlier films so thrilling. Our fingers are crossed.

Robert Zemeckis THE GOOD: Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit THE BAD: Cast Away, What Lies Beneath THE UGLY: The Polar Express, Disney’s A Christmas Carol, Beowulf

If you’d like an argument for the dangers of technology, look no further than the career of Robert Zemeckis. In his glory years, he used the toys and tools of visual effects to enhance the storytelling of Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump, but when he hit a creative (if not financial) wall with the twin 2000 releases of Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, Zemeckis took a strange path. For a full decade, he abandoned live action altogether, becoming obsessed with “motion capture” computer animation. His preoccupation resulted in his three worst films to date, the trilogy from Uncanny Valley Hell: Polar Express, Beowulf, and the Jim Carrey Christmas Carol. There may be hope for him yet, though; his first live action film in a dozen years, the Denzel Washington vehicle Flight, comes out this fall, and the trailer looks terrific.

Ridley Scott THE GOOD: Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down THE BAD: Body of Lies, Prometheus THE UGLY: A Good Year, Robin Hood

We know this one’s going to tick you Prometheus fans off, but the fact of the matter is this: Scott hasn’t made a great movie in quite a while, and his kinda-sorta Alien prequel certainly wasn’t it. There was a time when no one could beat Scott for genre thrills and first-class potboilers, but he’s become so obsessed with subverting expectations and faux-intellectualism that he’s forgotten how to properly tell a story, and while co-writer Damon Lindelof bears at least some of the responsibility for the riddle-me-this nature of the picture, Scott’s been coasting for a while now. Prometheus certainly didn’t repeat the pain of recent efforts like A Good Year (the movie where Russell Crowe drinks wine in the countryside) or Robin Hood (the movie where Russell Crowe tries to remake Gladiator in Sherwood Forest), but it’s not a step in the right direction either.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!