Quantifying success can be problematic, especially when it comes to a subjective art form such as cinema. That hasn’t stopped us from looking back through film history and examining the directors we felt have been overlooked or underestimated in terms of their importance, contributions, and artistry. In many cases, lack of commercial appeal can prevent a filmmaker from finding the critical success they deserve — especially since Hollywood measures its greatest achievements by the almighty dollar. Other directors’ films display an unheralded genius too frequently unnoticed. Here are ten underrated filmmakers for your consideration. Feel free to chime in with your own picks, below.
Harron grew up in a family of actors and eventually found herself a popular figure in New York City’s underground music scene during the 1970s, contributing work to the fanzine Punk. That anarchic spirit became chilling, organized chaos in her best-known feature, an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Harron transformed the wild, excessive novel — many of its passages thought to be unfilmable — into a carefully balanced, smart satire that served Ellis’ biting cultural criticisms well.
“You must do the things that frighten you,” the director said in a recent interview. “Everyone wants me to do another American Psycho, but you can’t really recreate that. That was a really amazing book and project. Not that I wouldn’t love to do another black comedy, but if that material isn’t there, you can’t do it. You can’t fake it. I also don’t want to do something that’s edgy again, just for the sake of it. It has to be interesting.”
It wasn’t the first time Harron imprinted us with her “madness.” Her freshman feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, first drew us close to the fringe with Lili Taylor’s fantastic performance as real-life assassin, Valerie Solanas. Harron’s 2005 biopic about bondage pinup Bettie Page, The Notorious Bettie Page, teased that same delirium (the model had a reclusive breakdown).
The director’s gothic coming-of-age-tale The Moth Diaries has been her least successful film to date. Had the movie not been released in the midst of a tween Twilight era, would it have fared better? Harron’s focus on challenging material and provocative characters leaves audiences waiting years between features, but her reputation as an iconoclast is secure.
Hammer Films’ gothic horror legacy — and its famed onscreen titans of terror that have portrayed the heroes and monsters of legend (most importantly, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) — has overshadowed the faces behind the camera. One director from the British film studio, however, made an indelible mark on the company and the genre itself, setting the standard Hammer’s filmmakers would continue to emulate throughout the 1970s. Terence Fisher’s style became a Hammer trademark with the monumental feature, The Curse of Frankenstein — the studio’s first foray into horror and their first color picture. The same moral dilemma at the center of the 1957 film, in which Cushing’s doctor battles his own moral ambiguity and the forbidden science he conjures in his lab, appeared throughout Fisher’s filmography. Amongst Hammer’s lurid Technicolor vixens and creatures wrapping the righteous in their capes was Fisher’s thoughtful, emotional study of pity and terror — beings engaged in a mythic power struggle between the darkness and light. Fisher mastered his craft in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed — a sophisticated union of the filmmaker’s layered thematics and dynamic style.
Lynne Ramsay’s haunting, beautifully captured adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was nominated for Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or in 2011. We hope it will be Ramsay’s long overdue breakthrough, and look forward to seeing her work in the Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman-starring Jane Got a Gun. It was more than a decade before Kevin that the Scottish director created another sensitive, harrowing portrait in her lauded debut, Ratcatcher — about another character in a desperate search for escape. Morvern Callar came shortly after — an equally mesmerizing, immersive, and elliptical work laid bare.
Somehow, Todd Solondz has managed to carve a career for himself that has made him one of the most influential and underrated directors of our time. His dark, satirical proclivities have shielded him from complete mainstream success. Where others temper uncomfortable subjects with irony (John Waters), surrealism (David Lynch), or philosophy (Steve McQueen), Solondz denies audiences an escape from the insecurities, bitterness, and disasters of his broken characters. Not everyone sees the humor in pain.
“In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity,” Roger Ebert wrote of Solondz’s 1998 film, Happiness.
Other efforts like Storytelling show Solondz refusal to compromise. When the 2001 film was branded with an NC-17 rating, the filmmaker plastered a red box over a sex scene between Selma Blair and Robert Wisdom that echoed with racist slurs. The MPAA refused Solondz’s request to print “Censored” over it.
Some critics have pointed to 2011’s Dark Horse and 2009’s Life During Wartime (a follow-up to Happiness) as a lethargic misstep, but it only proves Solondz continues to be a divisive director that has often been overlooked in the same way as his damaged outcasts. Solondz’s response? “People have certain expectations about where I should go, and it seems inevitable that I’ll disappoint. If you don’t have expectations, you don’t have disappointments.”
We could write novels about how few science fiction films are taken seriously by historians. Many so-called sci-fi filmmakers don’t even afford their pictures the same kind of intelligence and heart that directors like Jack Arnold lavished upon their productions. Arnold’s 1950’s sci-fi slate — The Incredible Shrinking Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and It Came from Outer Space being some of his best — is punctuated with rare, transcendent moments. Philosophical questions are contemplated by men rapidly vanishing before their own eyes and forces of nature embedded in the swamps of the human subconscious. Restrained, clever, and atmospheric, Arnold’s penchant for fantasy didn’t hobble his ability to present downright weird scenarios with thoughtful honesty. Instead, he made you question just how outlandish they really were.
Susan Seidelman found her most recent success in television — her direction of Sex and the City‘s pilot episode being a major highlight — but her filmography reads like the underrated movie guide to the 1980s. Even her collaborators follow suit: Laurie Metcalf, Glenne Headly, Ann Magnuson, and Roseanne Barr (who became most famous for her own TV series that was ahead of its time). Seidelman studied film at New York University and found a home in the city’s underground music and club scene in the late 1970s. “There was a very vibrant scene around CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, and it was starting to become well known… ” the filmmaker shared in an interview. “But it was really about music, not film… though there was some crossover, which is how I ended up working with Richard Hell, and Debbie Harry starred in an Amos Poe film called Unmade Beds (1976).” She made her debut with the authentic, gritty Smithereens — which also starred Hell and Susan Berman (an unknown) as a Jersey girl in the fading 1980’s East Village punk scene. The film became the first indie considered for a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. “I started to get scripts sent to me… but most of the scripts were really bad. A lot of them were female teen comedies, and just very silly,” Seidelman said. “I was very aware that because there were so few women directors to begin with, if a woman got some attention for making an independent film and landed a Hollywood movie — and it didn’t succeed at the box office — you never heard from her again.” Her first studio break, Desperately Seeking Susan, became a box office success (thanks in part to rising star, Madonna), but the projects that followed (Making Mr. Right, Cookie) never found the same critical support. Female revenge fantasy She-Devil became an early feminist fable, but didn’t give the director the traction she needed for a comeback. Seidelman’s DIY aesthetic has still secured her a place amongst New York’s No Wave luminaries like Beth B., Charlie Ahearn, Jim Jarmusch, Nick Zedd, and Poe.
Roger Corman has helped many of cinema’s finest directors get their start in Hollywood, and Nicolas Roeg — known mainly to the art house circuit — is no different. He was a teenager when he began working as an editing apprentice and eventually found himself assigned to second unit on Lawrence of Arabia and as Corman’s cinematographer on the low-budget maestro’s compelling adaptation of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Roeg made his directorial debut (in collaboration with Donald Cammell) with the 1960’s trip film, Performance. It was Mick Jagger’s first movie role, and the real-life controversy surrounding production (arrests, drugs, sex, a police raid, and several urban legends) cemented its notoriety. The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie, gave Roeg another cult hit. His solo debut, Walkabout, took place in the feral Australian plains and further demonstrated Roeg’s talent for kaleidoscopic layers and non-linear framework, exploring questions of identity, time, space, and hidden phantasmagoria. Don’t Look Now became the labyrinthine pinnacle of this sensibility. Other features like Eureka and Cold Heaven faced distribution woes. The Witches was well liked, yet bombed at the box office, and stories like Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession continued to be ahead of their time in terms of structure. Never quite as accessible as the usual art house fare, Roeg is one of cinema’s greatest forgotten masters.
Neil Jordan has enjoyed a celebrated career that touts mainstream blockbusters (Interview with the Vampire), comedies (We’re No Angels), complete bombs (High Spirits), crime favorites (Mona Lisa), art house stunners (The Crying Game), and sensitive, stylish fantasies (The Company of Wolves). He’s perhaps the most versatile of the directors mentioned here, but the Irish filmmaker remains vastly underrated. Jordan’s on-again, off-again relationship with Hollywood was soured early on after the lackluster performances of films like High Spirits and We’re No Angels. A career as a novelist and screenwriter has also occupied his time, and it’s clear that Jordan does his best work when he can live with it the longest. The filmmaker admits his singular vision took precedence over the mechanics of Hollywood early in his career:
“I was hungry… I liked the idea of doing things that I hadn’t done before… So for me, it was a ‘why not’ situation. As for the writing of the short stories and novels, well, I suppose I never imagined I’d be making movies, so writing was the next best creative step… If you had an imagination it was writing, and the only reason I became interested in movies was that, as I’ve said, I began to write scripts. I found the process so invigorating, but also disheartening in what would happen if they went through several pairs of hands. So I’d imagined the scripting process very clearly, but I knew I’d have to have control over it for it to be worthwhile to me.”
Jordan continues to traverse emotional cinescapes with his character dramas and a television stint as creator of The Borgias — all of which deserve more of our attention.
Everything you need to know about the French pioneer’s underrated contributions to cinema is visible in his 1927 silent epic, Napoléon — about the French Revolution leader’s early years. It was intended as the first in a six-part series, but the scope of Gance’s innovative camera techniques and experimental processes made it nearly impossible to budget within reason. The film required its own special widescreen. Polyvision was created with three cameras, simultaneously projecting the trio of reels for a panoramic view. It would lay the foundation for future techniques and other widescreen processes. Gance took risks by shooting on location, filming with color (the footage wasn’t used for the premiere), and experimenting with music used in the movie. The film was cut to pieces by MGM, which resulted in poor critical reception. Napoléon was painstakingly restored over two decades and was finally met with acclaim during the 1970s and 1980s, but Gance’s contributions deserve further consideration overall.
Barbara Loden’s Wanda, which also stars the actress-director, was the filmmaker’s debut picture and the only feature she would make before succumbing to cancer at only 48. Wanda was rare for its time — a self-portrait of sorts, as Loden had escaped Marion, North Carolina to pursue a film career. That needn’t be considered, however, to appreciate the emotional intimacy Wander offers. Set in the dreary coal-mining region of Pennsyvlania, Wanda drifts from her family and loses herself in the bottle and the arms of a criminal. Loden’s quiet, stark character study, which doesn’t assign judgment or feminist praise, won the 1970 Pasinetti Award at the Venice Film Festival. During her final days, Loden was planning an adaptation of a feminist classic — the Kate Chopin novella, The Awakening, set in New Orleans during the late 19th century. One could argue against nominating any filmmaker with only one movie to their credit as being underrated, but Wanda is an oft-forgotten and important vérité contribution that displays an exploratory spirit and leaves audiences wondering what could have been.