Everyone’s good friend Univarn made a good point when he asked me “What makes a director underrated?” Maybe an even better question: What exactly does underrated mean? I’m extremely guilty of throwing this term around without ever really defining it. I guess in a very broad sense, underrated means a discrepancy between proven talent and degree of praise. But how do you quantify praise? Is it the number of Oscars someone has won? I hope not. Is it the number of unofficial best lists someone appears on? Maybe, but probably too difficult to nail down. There’s no real easy way to determine this, which I guess makes the term underrated a bit flimsy.
Alas, I’ve done this list and want it to mean something. So I’m looking at praise as how often these men (yes, no women on the list) are positively discussed in articles, blogs, social media, etc. In other words, these are the ten directors I believe aren’t discussed enough in these outlets. Some are older directors; some work today. What they all have in common is that I think they’re better than they get credit for. Here’s why:
10.) Jonathan Demme—The first of two Oscar-winners on the list. How exactly can an Oscar winner be underrated? Well, how often do you find yourself extolling Demme as one of film’s greatest minds and talents. The Silence of the Lambs is one of the best thrillers ever. Rachel Getting Married landed easily on my Best of the 2000s list. Philadelphia—a tremendously moving film. And that’s not even getting into his exceptional skills as a documentarian.
9.) Mike Nichols—I’m stealing this one from Anna Long over at Defiant Success. Nichols never really crossed my mind for this list, but after mulling it over, I think he’s terribly underrated. He burst onto the scene in the 1960s with two absolute masterpieces—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Since then, he’s had a few misfires (maybe “films time has forgotten” is a better term). But The Birdcage, Primary Colors, Closer, Charlie’s Wilson War—all excellent. Then there’s Angels in America—one of the best miniseries ever.
8.) Robert Aldrich—He’s got one of the most eclectic resumes ever—Kiss Me Deadly, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard. All are great films, yet I don’t think I’ve heard as much as a peep regarding Aldrich’s excellence as a filmmaker.
7.) Thomas McCarthy—Some of the directors on this list have had long, fruitful careers. Others have only directed a few, but none have directed as few as McCarthy, who just released his third feature film—Win Win. I’m hoping to catch that later this week, but word is it’s every bit as good as McCarthy’s first two films—The Station Agent and The Visitor. Why is he underrated? First, he’s obviously talented. And second, the guy still hasn’t gotten a wide release over the course of his career.
6.) Philip Kaufman—Here’s a guy that made this list pretty much because of one film. But come on, have you seen The Right Stuff? I’d love someone to make the argument that it’s not one of the best films of the 1980s just so I can have a good laugh.
5.) Michael Apted—Despite what viewers of the latest Narnia film might think, Apted is a really talented guy, who’s something of a jack of all trades. He’s responsible for one of the most interesting, ambitious, and admired film projects ever (The Up Series). He’s also directed some tremendous performances over the years (including Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning turn in Coal Miner’s Daughter). On top of that, Apted is near and dear to my heart for directing the first ever James Bond film I’ve seen, The World Is Not Enough, which I’ll strongly defend as one of the series’ most unique and intriguing entries.
4.) Doug Liman—Again, not a ton of heft on his resume, but I don’t think Liman gets nearly enough credit as a director. He kicked off one of the best franchises of the last decade (The Bourne series). Swingers is a ton of fun, and I even enjoy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which despite its problems, is a really enjoyable ride. His last film, Fair Game, showed a whole new level of emotional depth and, I think, signals a turn away from popcorn and toward heavier material. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here.
3.) Tom Tykwer—Run Lola Run is just awesome. I haven’t seen The Princess and the Warrior, but I hear tremendous things. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a fascinating piece of work. And though I found The International quite problematic as a whole, Tykwer’s direction still stood out to me.
2.) Peter Weir—The gross mishandling of last year’s The Way Back would make you think its director, Weir, is an inexperienced hack. In reality, he’s probably Australia’s greatest director ever, and his resume is littered with brilliant films—Dead Poet’s Society, Gallipoli, Witness, and Master and Commander, just to name a few.
1.) Mike Leigh— If things had taken a different turn in his life, I could see Leigh as a psychologist. The way he breaks down the human condition is more insightful than anything else I’ve ever seen. Anyone who regularly reads my blog shouldn’t be surprised by this choice. Mike Leigh is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers, and I think everything he touches is pure gold. Happy-Go-Lucky, Naked, Another Year, Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies—all tremendous films, full of emotional complexity and well-developed characters. The fact that this guy hasn’t won an Oscar (if not for directing, then writing…c’mon!) is a shame.