Sometimes even the greatest directors don’t win over audiences straight away. We take a look at 10 underrated films – from superstar filmmakers – which either deserve greater attention or are perhaps better works than the director’s most famous movies.
When all is said and done, a director is judged and remembered for one’s films. Perhaps this explains why all of them want their greatest films to be the legacy they leave behind. The fortunate aspect is that such films would forever encapsulate the director’s style and beliefs, even after the director has passed. The unfortunate aspect is that the rest of the director’s films are often overlooked, the director is defined by his or her classics. The problem bothers even the most famous of directors, which is why this list exists. It hopes to shed light on the lesser known films of prominent directors, exploring the depths of what these filmmakers are capable of. I am not claiming these to be their best films, but they certainly deserve more attention. With that being said, here is a list of ten underrated films from famous directors (in alphabetical order).
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)
Regardless of your opinion of Soderbergh’s work, it is nearly impossible to deny his versatility. Not only has he tackled various genres confidently, he has never been hindered by the size of the screen either. Despite being a TV film, Behind the Candelabra never feels limited in scope. Instead, I view it as one of Soderbergh’s most touching films. Telling the true story of renowned pianist Liberace and his male lover, the film examines the development and collapse of their relationship. What is most impressive is the simple approach Soderbergh takes. There are hints of commentary on fame and what it means to be gay but ultimately, he paints a human portrait of two men wanting but failing to love each other. This scenario provokes the sympathy of many, acting as the starting point for Soderbergh to reflect the larger world these characters share with us. Although the film did win multiple awards, I still think it deserves to be recognized even more, as one of Soderbergh’s best works.
Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)
It may be true that Polanski has long past the pinnacle of his career, but his recent films do not disappoint either, Carnage being one of the highlights. The plot is simple. Two kids get into a fight and their parents meet to resolve the issue. Set in a single apartment and unfolding in real time, the film forces us to watch these parents as they turn from civilized individuals to foolish drunkards. In front of Polanski’s intimate and scrutinizing camera, the adults are satirized for claiming to uphold virtues, but end up more childish than their own kids. Polanski proves his never-ending innovation by tackling such a restrained comedic tale, unlike anything else in his filmography. The restrains perhaps make the film a less memorable one out of his works, but it nevertheless shows that masters never stop challenging themselves.
Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)
Eastwood as a director may be a hit or miss for many, myself included, but his hits are undeniably heart-wrenching. With such a reputation attached to his name, it is understandable but unfortunate that Changeling has gone relatively unnoticed. Based on true events, the film revolves around a woman’s attempts to prove her returned “missing son” is merely an imposter. This serves as the foundation for Eastwood to explore women rights and political corruption, two ideas that never seem to decrease in relevance. He tackles them thoughtfully and persistently, forcing us to confront these issues head on. Indeed, he is so invested in examining these social issues that he occasionally forgets to tell a compelling story first, placing this already decent film one step away from excellence.
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Before flying off into space in one of cinema’s technological milestones (Gravity), Cuarón was already a well-established director within the film community. But the general audience seems to be so captivated by the awe and excitement of Gravity that they ignore the fact that Cuarón can achieve the same while on a dystopian Earth. Children of Men accomplishes that precisely by telling the story of the first pregnant woman in eighteen years and a man’s journey to protect her. Not only are Cuarón’s signature long takes present – and arguably blended better with the film’s tone than Gravity’s opening take does – it is also a riveting drama on various levels. You can enjoy it as a war film from the victims’ gritty perspectives, or ponder over its commentary on the value of a human life. Regardless, the film offers something for everyone to contemplate long after its haunting final shot.
Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
It is really hard to find an underrated Spielberg film, given that his entire filmography is well known to many. Nearly each of his films have been studied and the ones that haven’t, end up on lists like these. Even so, some always remain undeservedly less famous, Minority Report being that exactly. The film takes place in a future in which murderers are arrested before the crime, based purely on premonitions. When a man learns that he is predicted to commit murder, he is forced to prove his innocence. This is probably the most disguise Spielberg has ever applied to a philosophical undertone, seamlessly weaving complex ideas about free will into an energetic and mysterious story. The perfect balance between philosophy and story allows anyone to become engaged, justifying Spielberg’s rank among one of the highest in cinema.
Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002)
I’ll admit that this film is nowhere near the heights of Fincher’s other mysteries, but Panic Room on its own is nonetheless a suspenseful ride. The film follows a mother and daughter during a home burglary and that pretty much summarizes the plot. Fincher takes advantage of the confined setting to enhance claustrophobia, evoking both the characters’ and audience’s fear of being aware but not knowing where the intruders are. The expert use of pacing and cinematography further add to the film’s uneasiness. Although the CGI is slightly outdated and the story is not packed with twists, to witness Fincher’s suspense building in such a unique setting alone is certainly worth the watch.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987)
When discussing coming-of-age films, John Hughes is a director you simply cannot miss. It is probably because of this that whatever he makes outside of the genre is often overlooked. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the epitome of this phenomenon. The film is about a man’s struggle to get home for Thanksgiving amidst horrible weather, while stuck with an irritating salesman in the same predicament. As they go on this journey together, the audience witnesses a hilarious and ultimately touching film. It is rather hard to elicit sadness or empathy in comedies, but Hughes has no trouble with that. By the end, we are crying just as much as we are laughing, a testament of Hughes’ brilliant handling of emotions.
Pushing Hands (Ang Lee, 1992)
As one of the few Asian directors to have successfully sustained a reputation in Hollywood, Ang Lee has proven to be an epic and emotional storyteller. But he did not start off with the grand scale of Life of Pi, nor the innovative choreography of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His directorial debut Pushing Hands was surprisingly small, focusing on an elderly Chinese man who moves to live with his son in America. Lee evokes all sorts of emotions without ever getting sappy: loneliness for the father’s inadaptability, tension due to cultural misunderstandings, regret for the torn father-son relationship and so on. His confidence behind the camera is astonishing for a first-time director, explaining his path towards becoming one of the most respected directors working today.
The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
Similar to Spielberg, Nolan has a filmography in which every film is well known (side note, I am not comparing the two in terms of reputation). But it can be easy to overlook the film he made amidst the hype of the Dark Knight trilogy – The Prestige. The story centers on the rivalry between two magicians and their attempts to create the better trick. Although it was adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest, Nolan manages to make it his own, injecting his personal thoughts and aesthetics into the tale. The common themes of love and identity are addressed, while the Victorian setting fits perfectly with Nolan’s enigmatic tone. The audience is drawn in by the smooth transition between both magicians’ perspectives, but the audience too are deceived. Nolan’s expertise is in having us think that the magic is the illusion. But no, it is the magician.
Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009)
Despite having only four feature films up his sleeve, Jonze has cemented himself as a creative force to be reckoned with. While Her is easily his most famous and arguably best film, his other works should not be ignored, in particular Where the Wild Things Are. Based on a classic children’s book, the film follows a young boy’s venture into a mysterious island inhabited by the Wild Things. Perhaps the unexpected intensity from a children’s film – though Jonze does not consider the film to be solely for children – left audiences at the time unsure of what to think, but in retrospect, the film balances maturity and innocence beautifully. What makes it especially relatable is how Jonze uncovers the child in each one of us, still trying to make sense of the world.
Written & Compiled by Ron Ma
Over to you: what are your fave underrated films by famous directors…