This is a companion piece to my other director-centric article, my picks for the Top Five Overrated Filmmakers, in which I discussed movie-directors who get way more critical support and fan-credit than they deserve. Today I’ll tackle the opposite end of the spectrum: Directors who have proved their worth, have made good (in some cases, great) films, and yet are still unappreciated by the movie-going public, or worse, are actively maligned by them and critics.
Let’s get to it:
5.) Sylvester Stallone: While Stallone is certainly an easy target for teasing for a variety of reasons (his slurred speech, his permanent scowl, his steroid-fueled senior citizen build, etc.) the man can direct an action-movie like it’s nobody’s business. I understand in the 2010’s context, his ’80’s-throwback films are not for everyone, and Stallone has never been the best at crafting thematically complex screenplays or deep characters, but as a visual filmmaker, as a director, particularly of hardcore, violent action (i.e. true action), he has few equals and even fewer superiors.
Rambo (2008) and The Expendables (2010) are unabashed guilty pleasures with absolutely no shred of shame between them, but that’s something I admire about Stallone’s body of work and an aspect of his personal filmmaking style that I argue is a strength rather than a weakness. The man has clear affection for his ’80’s-commando heritage and makes no apologies about what he loves in cinema.
To that end, the man is a capable actor and boasts some impressive screenwriting credits (e.g. Rocky , First Blood , Rocky Balboa ). Yes, the man has turned out a lot of crap and driven multiple great franchises into the ground, but what people often forget is that those famed franchises were created in large part due to his creative input.
4.) Billy Wilder: I’m anticipating many people going, “Who?” or “Huh?” after reading that name, which is exactly my point. When most people think of the Golden Age of Hollywood (late 1920’s — early 1960’s), the first directors that come to mind are the likes of Howard Hawkes, John Ford, Victor Fleming, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, and of course, Orson Welles. Relatively few people outside of film academia bother to name the director of Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Some Like it Hot (1959).
A big reason for Wilder’s overlooked status is because he exemplified classical Hollywood filmmaking so well. During the rise and early dominance of the American film industry, movie-production was streamlined and standardized through the major studio system and a screenwriting style dependent on continuity editing. Filmmakers in old Hollywood were encouraged to think of themselves as employees of a particular studio, embrace uniformity in style, and direct through “invisible storytelling” — a style of editing that sought to fully immerse the audience in the story and characters at hand and to specifically not draw attention to the process of filmmaking behind them. In this system, producers held a lot of sway (arguably even more than they do now) and complete artistic auteur-freedom as in the case of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1942) was a rarity.
Part of the reason why the French New Wave and filmmakers like Jean Luc Goddard, Federico Fellini, and their American New Wave counterparts were considered so daring and revolutionary was because their styles were so reactionary and rebellious to this older style. The generation of directors of the ’60’s and ’70’s were perceived (and largely still are regarded) as rock ‘n roll filmmakers, nearly autonomous artists who championed filmmaking craft as an art-form rather than a product or commodity (the term auteur was popularized during this period), and called attention to the craft and process of filmmaking itself with then ground-breaking (for mainstream cinema) techniques like jump cuts, long tracking shots and long takes, freeze frames, hand-held cameras, and breaking the 4th wall.
Most classical Hollywood directors did none of these things, and Wilder least of all. In many ways, the contrasting styles and production processes of the European and American New Waves versus Golden Age Hollywood represent the two extremes of filmmaking commerce and art. Great works of cinema have been produced in both systems and between both philosophies, but unfortunately some individuals get left behind in the scuffle.
Wilder’s directorial style is not as flashy or rebellious as anything Goddard or Scorsese made, but I’d argue his style was as artistic and self-aware as anyone’s in the business before or since. His use of framing, blocking, and set design were as gorgeous as any European counterpart, and his screenwriting prowess produced two of the most iconic film noir’s ever and one of the best comedies. Wilder embraced story and characters much more than his later New Wave colleagues, and he used his camera to emphasize those with powerful precision. Not too bad for an Austrian immigrant who arrived in the United States not knowing a word of English…
3.) Ben Stiller: Jumping forward half a century, we come to the comedy actor that most people still aren’t even aware is and has been a full-fledged feature-film director since 1994. For your edification, the man has directed and written (among others) The Cable Guy (1996), Zoolander (2001), and Tropic Thunder (2008).
The guy can definitely act and lead a comedy cast, but the fact that he has such a versatile, savvy satirical mind and melds wacky premises with gleeful abandon while never drowning in silliness is impressive. To that end, he knows how to cast for great characters and knows when to bring in (and how to use) outside acting muscle like Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson in Zoolander and the dynamite supporting roster in Tropic Thunder. As evidenced by films like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Stiller’s sheer ambition can sometimes outstretch his filmmaking abilities, but his imagination and self-awareness always come through in the end. He is arguably the most underrated comedy-filmmaker of the past few decades.
2.) Ben Affleck: Now we’re getting to the underappreciated directors whose reputations really anger me. I understand Affleck is not a particularly good actor, and he’s starred in some dumbass films (e.g. Armageddon , Pearl Harbor , especially in 2003 (e.g. Gigli, Daredevil), but the man has long since transcended his tabloid-fodder persona with his screenwriting and directing credits.
Put simply, the man is a great screenwriter and director. Not good, but great. He co-write the brilliant Good Will Hunting (1997) with Matt Damon, co-wrote and directed Gone Baby Gone (2007), co-wrote and directed The Town (2010), and directed and produced the Best Picture-winning Argo (2012).
Every single one of those films is wrought with tension. Argo and The Town in particular are high-octane thrillers absolutely bursting with excitement, even when no violence or action is occurring on-screen. His characterizations are always solid, he writes emotional and realistic dialogue, and he understands and appreciates the visual power of film. To date, no man has summarized the current sociopolitical climate of the United States quite like Affleck.
1.) Zack Snyder: Was there ever any doubt? Synder has been on the receiving end of a never-ending onslaught of fanboy-rage since he made it big, so let’s complete a rundown of his filmography, shall we?
- Dawn of the Dead (2004) — Along with the transcendent, bizarrely artsy 28 Days Later (2002), this movie started the new millennium pop culture-“Zombie Renaissance” and is widely considered to be one of the best remakes of all time. Though I already covered in my Top Five Overrated Filmmakers piece how I feel about the 1978 original, George A. Romero’s film is a beloved horror classic and Snyder’s remake not only reinvigorated the premise for a new audience, but it took the source material in its own direction and created a genuinely scary, thrilling experience out of it. With his directorial debut, Snyder did the impossible.
- 300 (2007) — This is where Snyder broke out and subsequently gained many fans and haters. I understand numerous aspects of 300‘s story are quite silly, but the film has a great visual style, a refreshingly bloodthirsty approach to mainstream blockbuster action, and is above all else notable for featuring Gerard Butler’s lone good lead performance. To that end, 300 dramatized the Battle of Thermopylae the way the ancient Greeks would’ve done it: Big, bloody, fantastical, and completely over-the-top. Leonidas’ Spartans would be proud.
- Watchmen (2009) — For his third feature film, Snyder would again take on the impossible, and again, he would deliver. This is where things start to get really controversial, so let me get right to the point: The timeless Alan Moore comic was successfully adapted in no short order thanks to Syders’ great visuals, his wonderful use of a Tarantino-caliber soundtrack, and yes, his delicious slow-motion action. I don’t get where the haters are coming from on this one, other than the standard kneejerk book/graphic-novel nerd-rage at perceived “blasphemy” of their religiously defended Scripture. Away with your close-mindedness and fan-worship! Snyder took a hyper-violent, R-rated, 162-minute film with no stars and made it work. It’s not perfect, but it runs like a purebred stallion. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is.
- Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010) + Sucker Punch (2011) — Honestly, I haven’t seen either of these films, but even assuming both these films suck, they don’t compromise Snyder’s filmography in light of the above, and moreover…
- Man of Steel (2013) — And now we’ve come to the most controversial film of Snyder’s career, soon to be followed by the likely even more controversial Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). It seems the summation of Snyder’s work would be the word “divisive,” which explains but does not excuse his supremely underrated status. While there are many people who were either indifferent to or loved the Superman re-reboot, just as many can’t stand it and see the burgeoning DC cinematic universe that’s being built on it as a desperate reaction against Marvel’s immensely popular franchise. I’m actually one of the few people who’s not in either the loved-it or hated-it crowd, but I do lean more toward the lovers than the haters simply because I enjoyed my time with Man of Steel, and quite frankly the film is neither worth my hatred nor even my annoyance. It had good action, a good villain, great visuals, and a mediocre overall story and supporting characters. I’m not seeing any blasphemy here.