A proud pastime of movie-lovers the world over is debating whose favorite filmmakers are better than others. It’s remarkably similar to how sports fans boast over their favorite sports franchises or players, or how music-buffs argue whose beloved artist is more “mainstream” or “selling out” or is more influential.
Debates over favorite filmmakers, namely directors, are as fierce as any sports fan, music nerd, or religious zealot. Steven Spielberg or James Cameron? Martin Scorsese or Brian de Palma? Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher? Ingmar Bergman or Jean Luc Goddard? Bernardo Bertolucci or Federico Fellini? Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa? Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick?
A frequent point of debate that crops up among us cinephiles is which directors are overrated and which are undervalued. Whose work is inherently more awards or mass-audience-friendly and gets way too much benefit of the doubt? Conversely, whose work is more niche and culturally under-the-radar yet is every bit as talented and nuanced as industry household names?
Given the natural equilibria of underrated vs. overrated matters in the universe, this post concerning filmmakers (primarily directors) whom I think receive far more academic credit, artistic reverence, and public adoration than they deserve, will of course be followed soon by the inverse list (i.e. my most underrated filmmaker picks).
So without further ado, here goes my list of top five selections for the most overblown filmmakers in cinematic history (or at the very least, in recent memory). Please note that I do not necessarily think any of these screenwriter-directors are bad, but rather that they are given way, way too much hype and praise relative to the overall quality of their body of work.
5.) Christopher Nolan: This was as an easy one, I’ll admit. The English-Hollywood mastermind has become one of the biggest household names in Hollywood since the turn of the millennium and also one of the biggest targets for fanboys to lampoon and scoff at in the process. While few average citizens recognize the man’s photograph, as I noted in my Interstellar (2014) review, everybody know’s the man’s name, and that’s all that matters in the movie-making business.
While much, if not all, of Nolan’s work following The Dark Knight (2008) has been fairly divisive among hardcore cinephiles, most of the public absolutely adores all the man’s work and return to the theatre for film after film without fail. How many other filmmakers could get away with making a nearly three hour-long 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)-esque/Stanley Kubrick-tribute space opera that cost $165 million and grossed over $670 million?
While I applaud the man for using his mega-mainstream status to bring fairly obscure projects and niche genres to a wider audience, the fact remains that Nolan is little more than a thinking-man’s Michael Bay. The man is good, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not the next Stanley Kubrick (you’re thinking of David Fincher…). The secret sauce to Nolan’s immense success has been his ability to write mega-blockbusters that are actually somewhat intelligent and pay attention to the basics of character-development. Most of his fame can be attributed to TDK, which is deserved, and Inception (2013), which most certainly is not. Moreover, much of the rest of his filmography is commendable but nothing amazing. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was a bust, Interstellar was admirable but narratively shaky, Memento (2000) was interesting but not terribly complex or thought-provoking, and The Prestige (2006) is famous for having two extraordinarily good-looking leads (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) and having a decent M. Night Shyamalan-twist.
Other than The Dark Knight (2008), and perhaps (to a much, much lesser extent) Batman Begins (2005), I’m not seeing anything too groundbreaking, folks. Sorry
4.) Tim Burton: Ohhhh yes, you heard that right. If you thought I was ballsy or crazy enough to go after Nolan fans, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Known for his enigmatic taste for creepy, dark humor, Gothic visual style, and the macabre, Burton has adopted legions of loyal followers who are in love with his nerdtastic and admittedly very unique filmmaking vision. To this day there are countless thirty-somethings who profess to how Burton’s more classical take on Batman (1989, 1992) is superior to Nolan’s realistic crime-drama opera. To some extent, given the geeky-Gothic demographic that Burton overwhelmingly plays to, I can understand why people would think this way. How they manage to do that is something else entirely.
While I’m quite partial to some of Burton’s earlier classics (e.g. Edward Scissorhands , Beatlejuice ), I’m not too crazy about any of them, and many of the most popular projects with which he’s frequently associated (e.g. James and the Giant Peach , The Nightmare Before Christmas ) he actually had minimal involvement and negligible artistic input. To that end, I’m just not a fan of the guy’s incredibly weird, creepy, dark style, and this is coming from a guy who loves stuff by David Fincher, Nine Inch Nails, and Aliens (1979, 1986, 1992)! Where Burton falls short compared to those guys is that, to me, Fincher and Reznor make things that are creepy and cool, while Burton just makes stuff that is…well, really creepy. And really fucking weird.
Moreover, Burton has not made a good movie since 2000. His recent projects, which include everything from tiresome, bloated live-action versions of beloved children’s cartoons (Alice in Wonderland ) to cheesy science-fiction reboots (Planet of the Apes ) to endless collaborations with fellow weirdo Johnny Depp, are laughable. The once-great(?) Tim Burton seems perfectly content to become a parody of his former self and let his career take a creative nose-dive while taking Depp down with him.
3.) Wong Kar-Wai: This man is perhaps a good summation of all that I dislike in foreign and domestic arthouse drama. I’ll give the man credit for some incredible sound-design and luscious color-palettes, but quite frankly his films are dull bores to watch. Apparently Wong is known for his “groundbreaking” challenge of conventional cinematic storytelling techniques and his refusal to be “enslaved” by traditional narrative cinematic cliches. That’s all fine and good, but if you’re not managing to say or convey much emotion through all those pretty colors, I’m going to check out of your film no matter how smooth those camera-pans are.
I certainly don’t hate his filmography or even his style as a whole, but I just cannot get on board with Wong’s screenwriting. If I wanted someone to craft a sensual romantic sequence, Wong would be the first cinematographer I’d call, but as far as characterizations and story arcs go, his experimental approach leaves a lot to be desired. For those of us not wanting to be constantly lulled to sleep, we need at least a little bit of story formula to bite onto.
2.) Robert Rodriguez: I cannot understand how a man with such a close professional and personal connection to Quentin Tarantino has managed such a lackluster movie-making career. Rodriguez’s entire legacy has been his rise through the ranks as a scrappy, chump-budget independent filmmaker, but unfortunately that origin-story has become his modus-operandi ever since. Unlike his close friend Tarantino, Rodriguez’s visual style, screenwriting, and overall storytelling look cheap, feel cheap, and are cheap.
Where as someone like Tarantino or even Hitchcock takes traditionally lowbrow material (slasher stories, grindhouse flicks, blaxploitation cinema, Hong Kong kung fu, animal disasters, etc.) and turns them into high art, Rodriguez takes those same concepts and merely distributes them in a wide-release schedule —- no intriguing commentary or inventive cinematography needed! I’m sorry people, but Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) and Sin City (2005), as fun as those movies are, do not cancel out the Spy Kids trilogy (2001-2003) and fucking Sharkboy and Lava Girl (2005).
1.) George A. Romero: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2008), Survival of the Dead (2009)…you get the picture. While I’ll always be one of the first to applaud the man for imagining such brilliant ideas and premises for the horror genre, like fellow visionary George Lucas, the man is and always has been an invaluable brainstormer rather than a brilliant executioner of great screenplays.
Simply put, all of Romero’s horror “masterpieces,” including and especially Night and Dawn, are complete campfests. Without a doubt they were groundbreaking upon their release, but both Night and Dawn have aged horribly in the decades since. Quite frankly I find the original Dawn of the Dead hard to watch save for a good laugh-out-loud experience, and the characterizations, dialogue, and acting of Night of the Living Dead are so cringe-worthy I have never made the effort to revisit the picture.
Romero’s career legacy is the perfect example of nostalgia and creative influence overwhelming and whitewashing objective assessment of cinematic quality. Much in the same way that the early James Bond movies were hugely influential in terms of their contribution to and establishment of narrative convention in the spy-thriller genres, but largely feel hokey, awkward, and stilted today, Romero’s painfully lacking execution of the original zombie films are continually and willfully overlooked as payment of the man’s creation of the modern zombie.
Put another way, Romero’s most famous films are likely what the original Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983) would have been if George Lucas had been given full creative control back in the day. The original Star Wars underwent numerous rewrites and compromises between then young, up-and-coming Lucas and 20th Century Fox before it debuted in ’77, and it’s often forgotten that Lucas neither directed nor wrote any part of The Empire Strikes Back (by far the best film in the series), and neither directed nor was the principle screenwriter behind Return of the Jedi. What Lucas mainly functioned as was the creative spark and conceptual brainstorming-machine behind the original trilogy masterpiece, and that’s a big reason why those films were such as success. Contrast that with Lucas’ complete creative freedom in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005) and you begin to see my point.
Similarly, Romero is a gifted cinematic ruminator and conjurer of incredibly original ideas, and yet when it comes to penning those ideas to script, let alone directing them on-screen, things start to fall apart. The Dead series is and always has been a chump-budget, independent franchise (no film’s budget surpassed $15 million), and as such allowed Romero to operate completely free of major studio interference or script rewrites.
Cinephiles consistently point to director freedom and creative-control as indicators of, or precursors to, artistic merit and success, and in general I agree with that sentiment. In this day and age of family-friendly ratings and studios’ insistence to edit auteur pictures into oblivion, I understand and for the most part support filmmakers’ need to operate with reasonable control over their artistic destiny. But the key word there is reasonable. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, it’s a team effort, and as such no director, no matter how talented or lauded their legacy, should ever think themselves above constructive criticism and outside input. The downsides of artistic compromise always receive so much press that people forget the benefits. Sometimes filmmakers, even particularly smart or creative ones, need a reality check.
This phenomenon of artists getting sucked into their subjective world free of criticism is not uncommon. How often do amateur writers or filmmakers stumble when they never let anyone examine their work or offer advise? Filmmaking cannot and should not operate in a vacuum, and Romero’s operation within a creative vacuum such that he’s largely done whatever he’s wanted for most of his career is why is films are so sloppy. You may call that heresy, but I merely call that being honest and taking a film for what it is. Are Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead incredibly important, influential films in the horror genre and pop culture in general? Hell yeah, they are. But are they artistic masterpieces that have stood the test of time? I argue hell, no.
Then again this is a truly riveting survival-horror sequence :