Landmark Movies from Prolific Directors that Nobody Talks About
by Jason Koenigsberg
We can all list a directors greatest films. I am sure we can all name the ones from them that bombed and disappointed. We can also sit around and debate their most overrated and under appreciated films. But some directors careers take a turn where they go down a path and stay in their new comfort zone for the rest of their career.
Here are a list of forgotten milestone movies that represent the last of their kind for each director. In some instances the directors would move on to bigger and better projects and never look back, in others they stayed in a sort of artistic purgatory never to reemerge to the cinematic genius they once illustrated. Most of these films are landmark pictures that have been overlooked because the director has become synonymous with the work that came after it.
Martin Scorsese-Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
I previously wrote about Bringing Out the Dead in my Essentials column calling it the forgotten Scorsese masterpiece. The 1980’s and 90’s were not exactly a great time for Martin Scorsese, sure he was well respected and released some of his finest works such as Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Goodfellas (1990), but he struggled to get most of his pictures made. Until the new millennium, his highest grossing film was the remake of Cape Fear (1991) bringing in $79 million. That would all change after Bringing Out the Dead which underperformed badly at the box office. His next film was Gangs of New York (2002) and started a fruitful partnership with actor Leonardo DiCaprio. He was given a huge budget by disgraced Miramax studio head Harvey Weinstein, and the outcome was 10 Academy Award nominations and a box office hit. Most of his films since Gangs of New York have yielded similar results, hit with audiences and critics, award nominations and respect and admiration from everyone. He finally took home a long overdue Best Director Academy Award for The Departed (2006). He has had one of the best career resurgences in the history of the business and been one of the most successful directors since the year 2000 with his features Gangs of New York, The Aviator (2004), The Departed, Shutter Island (2010), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and Silence (2016). Five of those films starred DiCaprio and they were all big hits, five of those films Scorsese earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and all of those films were box office successes other than Silence. The days of Martin Scorsese being a struggling artist ended with Bringing Out the Dead. Since then critics, audiences and the Academy have been honoring and rewarding the director for his work. Praise he should have received long ago, but this overdue acclaim is well deserved nonetheless. Bringing Out the Dead was the last time Scorsese released a film that was ignored by the masses.
Clint Eastwood-Blood Work (2002)
Remember back when Clint Eastwood used to direct movies that were not perennial Oscar favorites? Most of the pictures he healed between his directorial debut Play Misty for Me (1971) and Bloodwork (2002) were released as run of the mill studio productions. Films usually made for Warner Bros. that did not warrant an awards bait campaign. Even Unforgiven (1992) which one Best Picture and Director at the Oscars was a summer movie release that had legs and made a long lasting impact on critics and Academy members. That all changed with his Oscar winning feature Mystic River (2003) and ever since then most of the movies Clint has directed are treated as a prestige picture. His films Absolute Power (1997) and True Crime (1999) were both released in February and March respectively, far from the usual December limited release that gets the Oscar voters attention. Even Million Dollar Baby (2004) was originally scheduled for release in March of 2005, but some Warner Bros. executives thought they had something special on their hands so they pushed the release date to a qualifying run in December, a wide release in January, and the rest is history. Million Dollar Baby took home Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Eastwood’s second), Actress (Hilary Swank’s second) and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman’s first and thus far only Oscar). Mystic River started the Academy’s decades long love affair with Eastwood’s films, Million Dollar Baby solidified it and since then his films are met with a reputation that his previous films never had regardless of how exceptional they were. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), Invictus (2009) and American Sniper (2014) all benefited from an awards campaign, even his films that failed to earn Oscar nominations or make a dent at the box office like Hereafter (2010) still have a prestige element and ad campaign that make them more than just the usual movie. Blood Work, the story of an aging detective (played by Eastwood) on the trail of a serial killer who is responsible for the murder of a woman that gave Clint’s character a heart transplant, is a very good mystery thriller released during the summer. It came and went from theaters without much fanfare. Critics were divided and audiences were indifferent. It did not flop but was not a huge hit either. Blood Work is the last time in thirty-one years Clint was a director for hire. Ever since he has been a director where the studio backs his films with an Oscar push.
George Lucas-American Graffiti (1973)
It is hard to imagine life without Star Wars (1977). It is even harder to imagine George Lucas’ career without Star Wars. Well it once existed, a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, George Lucas was a regular director trying to make movies with his film school friends Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Star Wars was actually his third feature film. His first was a small dystopian sci-fi flick THX 1138 (1971) starring Robert Duvall. With a title like that and the grim subject matter Lucas was probably not expecting it to be a huge hit and it was not. Lucas is even modest about the initial success of Star Wars and how he traded shares with Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind also released during the summer of 1977. Lucas did have a huge success with his sophomore film American Graffiti (1973). It was a box office hit and earned five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and two for Lucas as Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. American Graffiti was the story of a few high school grads cruising the streets of their hometown on their final night of summer before they go off to college in 1962. This movie would go on to inspire the TV series Happy Days, The Wonder Years, an American Graffiti TV series, and Richard Linklater’s modern classic Dazed and Confused (1993) about looking back on life during the summer of 1976. By 1977 Lucas was an auteur with the same status as his buddies Spielberg and Scorsese. However the massive success of Star Wars changed him and his directorial career. George Lucas the director would disappear and George Lucas the businessman would emerge and Star Wars has consumed his life and career ever since paying very well into his bank account. He would go on to serve as a writer and producer on many other projects like the Indiana Jones films and Willow, Lucas would only direct three more features, The Star Wars Prequel trilogy. He is happy with his career and one cannot fault him for the decisions he made since they paid off well and he has the career he wanted. But we can only wonder what might have been if he did not let the Star Wars empire dominate his career and if he continued to try and direct films like his buddies Spielberg and Scorsese. American Graffiti was the last George Lucas film before Star Wars changed the course of history for our lives and his career.
Peter Jackson-The Frighteners (1996)
Similar to what Star Wars did to George Lucas, Peter Jackson’s career took a similar trajectory after the massive worldwide success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Prior to 2001, Peter Jackson was a New Zealand born horror specialist. His sole foray outside the horror genre was the Academy Award nominated Heavenly Creatures (1994) which was also the big screen debut for Kate Winslet. He earned a well deserved Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and then Universal gave him his biggest budget yet to make a horror movie. The Frighteners is a fun, scary movie. It never takes itself too seriously but immerses you into a world of ghosts and paranormal hijinks combining elements of his low brow horror films with comedy and fantasy. The Frighteners came and went from theaters in the summer of 1996, which was dominated by big special effects blockbusters like Independence Day, Mission: Impossible, and Twister. It did not even earn back its $30 million budget yet somehow Peter Jackson was able to talk the studio heads at New Line into giving him $300 million to make the epic Lord of the Rings films. He can obviously talk a good game and since the success of those films earning a multitude of Academy Awards and earning billions at the box office worldwide, his career has taken a very different path than the one it was on at the time of The Frighteners. He branched out a little with his King Kong remake in 2005 and went back to the well of a female centric drama based around tragic events with The Lovely Bones (2009) both were met with middling responses from critics and audiences. So he went back to what earned him the most adoration and money and directed three separate three hour films based on The Hobbit. It was an attempt to desperately recapture the magic that he found with The Lord of the Rings. He has not directed a film since The Hobbit trilogy and he certainly does not have to. It might be interesting for him to return to his independent cinema roots and make another horror film. It may not even be possible for him to go back and make a film on a shoestring budget like he once did and rely on his ingenuity. The Frighteners remains the last Peter Jackson film before he went to Middle Earth with Lord of the Rings and pretty much stayed there.
James Cameron-True Lies (1994)
Before James Cameron was The King of the World he was a director of some of the biggest blockbuster movies of the 80’s and 90’s. He was a visionary director with big hits under his belt such as Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and True Lies. To this day Cameron’s visionary underwater adventure The Abyss (1989) remains his only film to underperform at the box office. What nobody could have predicted was the path his career would take after winning the Best Director Oscar for Titanic (1997). James Cameron would virtually walk away from directing conventional blockbuster movies and instead has only directed one feature film in the twenty years since Titanic. That film of course was Avatar (2009) which broke all sorts of box office records that Titanic had set twelve years prior. Cameron obviously knew what he was doing and took his time. If there is one man in Hollywood that knows how to spend $200 to $400 plus million and still make a profit, it is James Cameron. He also has spent a lot of time exploring the deep sea floor, creating foundations for restoring history, archaeological expeditions dealing with everything from the Titanic to the lost tomb of Jesus Christ, to directing documentaries about life thousands of miles beneath the sea. True Lies represents his last film as a director on par with Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Robert Zemeckis. Filmmaking now is almost an afterthought for James Cameron and he uses cinema to further develop his special effects ideas and innovations that he used on Avatar and will continue to create and use on its sequels. True Lies itself is not only a relic from the action packed blockbusters from the 90’s and the last movie in James Cameron’s filmography that was a big hit, just not one of the biggest hits of all time. Even with True Lies Cameron was never just a director for hire. This was a big summer event movie and was treated as such by the studio. James Cameron is no longer just trying to make a hit, he is now with every picture trying to redefine the medium. True Lies is one of the best films he ever made. Reuniting him with his Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was the third and thus far final time they worked together. Arnold plays a US secret agent living a double life, keeping secrets from his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) and his daughter (a very young Eliza Dushku). Eventually through a series of convoluted events his wife finds out and she becomes involved in his adventures. It is a fantastic action-comedy and makes one wish Cameron made more motion pictures since his visual flair was matched by his ability to direct larger than life actors into giving very human performances.
The Wachowskis-Bound (1996)
The Wachowski’s, formerly Larry and Andy now Lana and Lilly Wachowski, seemingly became an overnight sensation and among the Hollywood elite when they released The Matrix in the spring of 1999. That film has dominated their careers ever since and it has been a blessing and a curse. It was a monumental hit, won four Oscars and changed action movies for the next decade. They have been plagued to duplicate that success and despite two financially successful sequels, they have never come close. What people may not know is that they directed a small lesbian film noir crime thriller called Bound that earned critical praise and found its audience. The rest of their films are the furthest thing from Bound. Their first big screen credit was as writers when they sold their script for Assassins (1995) to Warner Bros. hot shot producer Joel Silver who hired Richard Donner to direct it and Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas to star in it. The result was a snooze fest but it did contain a lot of the techno jargon they would later use to much greater effect in The Matrix. Bound was as far from the crowd pleasing action sci-fi blockbuster they had success with three years later, but it proved that they could direct an unconventional drama with romantic, sexual and suspense elements. When The Matrix changed the landscape of blockbuster movies around the world, there was no going back. Bound would remain a relic, lost to many, known by some as a nifty little crime thriller, known to others for winning the MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. Either way it has become the odd film out on their resume which include mostly big budget special effects heavy pictures like Cloud Atlas (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2015). Since everything they have directed since The Matrix and its sequels have bombed at the box office, perhaps it is only a matter of time before they return to their independent roots to direct another film more like Bound.
Ridley Scott-G.I. Jane (1997)
Like Martin Scorsese, the 1980’s and 90’s were not very kind to brilliant visionary director Ridley Scott. He had success with his second feature the sci-fi horror classic Alien (1979) and sprinkled in a few hits throughout the next two decades like Black Rain (1989) and Thelma and Louise (1991). He even earned his first Best Director Academy Award nomination for the latter. However for the most part, his films underperformed. His most famous film from that era was Blade Runner (1982) and that flopped since it was released around the same time as Spielberg’s E.T. After Thelma and Louise the 90’s were especially tough for Ridley Scott. His next three films 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), White Squall (1996) and G.I. Jane (1997) were all box office disappointments despite some very favorable reviews. G.I. Jane would be a landmark film in Sir Ridley Scott’s career as well as its star Demi Moore. This would be the last time Demi Moore was an A-list marketable name for a major motion picture. Her star power had been dwindling after a series of flops like The Juror (1996) and Striptease (1996). G.I. Jane was a very physical and emotional performance and one of Demi Moore’s best, she gets into shape, shaves her head and bears her soul, it’s too bad nobody paid to see it in the dumping grounds of late August 1997. This was her final straw for the studios to give her the star treatment with a name above the title on a film. After the receipts came in for G.I. Jane Demi Moore took three years off from acting in films only to return as the star of the little seen indie drama Passion of Mind (2000) and then have a pivotal role three years later in the underperforming Charlies Angels: Full Throttle (2003). For Ridley Scott’s career it marked the last time he struggled to direct a film. His next movie was Gladiator which not only was a huge box office smash, but won Five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Ridley Scott earned his second Best Director nomination. That film brought back the long dormant sand and sandals epic. Ridley Scott initially scoffed at the idea of making that film because he said it was a dead genre. However since the success of Gladiator, Ridley Scott has become one of the hardest working directors this century making almost a movie a year, an output astonishing considering most of his films are budgeted around $100 million. This is more impressive than Woody Allen’s output of a movie a year since his films are all dialogue driven and do not require any big special effects. Ridley Scott followed Gladiator up with the one-two punch of Hannibal and Black Hawk Down both released in 2001, the latter of which earned him his second consecutive Best Director nomination. The past seventeen years Ridley Scott has been more of a movie making machine with his tremendous output than the struggling director he once was. Sure they are not all hits, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood (2010) were both big flops, but they were sandwiched between successful hit films like American Gangster (2007) and The Martian (2015). At age 80 he shows no signs of slowing down. In 2017 alone Ridley Scott had two big movies released with Alien: Covenant and All the Money in the World. His career resurgence has produced some of the most visually stimulating and intelligent big studio blockbusters of this era. It seems that Ridley Scott is going strong as ever and only death can stop him. So let’s hope he continues. G.I. Jane was the last time he struggled to direct a film or get his name attached to a project because since then no studio has been reluctant to hire him. It was the end of the tough times for him and now he makes whatever movie he wants with whatever budget he wants.
Spike Lee-Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Spike Lee has been very busy the past decade directing movies, documentaries and short films. But most people would not know it since they get very little fanfare, advertising or attention from the mainstream media. Miracle at St. Anna marks the last time Spike Lee directed a big budget film for a major studio. It died a quick death at the box office in September of 2008 making less than $10 million on a budget of $45 million. A shame since his previous big studio endeavor the heist drama-thriller Inside Man (2006) was his biggest box office hit making over $100 million worldwide. Since then he has been busy directing the movies he wants to make like Red Hook Summer (2012), the Old Boy remake (2013) and Chi-Raq (2015). The problem is most people did not know they existed and did not get a wide theatrical release. They may have stumbled across them on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but those films did not receive any commercial campaign to get audiences to see them in theaters. It seems that mainstream America (or white America) has turned its back on Spike Lee and is no longer interested in what he has to say as a filmmaker. That is a real shame since his recent movies, especially Chi-Raq are as potent and pertinent as ever to the working class as they have been. Miracle at St. Anna was a long, boring dud of a war film about black soldiers in World War II Italy trying to survive, save some innocent children and steal some priceless artwork. The Simpsons did it better with their episode about Grandpa Simpson and his Fighting Hellfish with the artwork, but the rest was a noble effort and it was nice to see Spike Lee tackle the war genre. Maybe someday he will have a career resurgence but it seems that the career path he started with Do the Right Thing (1989) and continued with outstanding films such as Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998) and 25th Hour (2002) ended with Miracle at St. Anna. He is still a relatively young man by director standards, Scorsese, Eastwood and Ridley Scott could all be his father, so who knows what the future holds for this talented filmmaker.
Paul Thomas Anderson-Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Paul Thomas Anderson has been no stranger to Academy Awards love. Yet something happened after his outstanding and eccentric romantic-comedy-drama Punch-Drunk Love won big at the Cannes Film Festival and received no Academy Award nominations. Instead of writing and directing a movie every other year, he took a more noticeable and prolonged time between his next feature and has continued that trend for the most part ever since. It would be five years after Punch-Drunk Love when P.T. Anderson would reemerge with a feature film and it was well worth the wait. There Will be Blood (2007) was a brilliant indictment on the Bush administration and the heavy cost that our societies reliance on oil has developed and all the blood, death, and ruined lives that has been a result of our nations greed and lust for oil. As great as it was, it was a major departure from his previous four films which all had similar elements with its actors, cinematography, sets, story arcs etc. This was the first film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s that did not star Philip Seymour Hoffman. Most of his other films had actors that connected each film especially Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). There Will be Blood did not feel like any of his previous pictures, and none of his films since quite fit into the P.T. Anderson cannon that his first four films do. Punch-Drunk Love represents the last of his films that feels like they are from the same director. It is also the best film of Adam Sandler’s career and showed that he could give a terrific performance with a talented writer and director behind the camera. It is a phenomenal love story about the power of love and what being in love can make people do. Since then he has changed his style to one of a more timeless, epic and prestigious feel. The Master (2012) felt more like There Will be Blood than Boogie Nights and the same can be said for his newest film Phantom Thread in theaters now. Maybe someday Paul Thomas Anderson will make a throwback picture to his early days, but Punch-Drunk Love marks the end of one stage in his career as a director and There Will be Blood marked the beginning of the stage of his career he is in now.
Robert Rodriguez-Sin City (2005)
This one is a little more unique. I was a big fan of Robert Rodriguez’s work and wondered why his career seemed so stagnant after the failure of Grindhouse (2007) while his buddy Quentin Tarantino’s had seemed to skyrocket. They both directed that film and Tarantino’s career had improved drastically winning his second Screenplay Academy Award for Django Unchained (2012) while Robert Rodriguez was stuck making B-movies like Machete (2010) and its sequels, and more kids movies. The real answer can be found here. It involves Harvey Weinstein sabotaging his career on purpose since his girlfriend at the time was Rose McGowan, one of his most vocal victims of sexual assault. It’s really sad that this is what ruined or at least halted his career. As of now his last hit movie was the highly influential R-rated comic book adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City. It featured an all star cast and told a gritty, surreal film noir with the visual style of a graphic novel. The black and white cinematography with deliberate use of color is still a beauty to behold. It is arguably Rodriguez’s best film and has inspired and influenced many other hit films such as 300 (2007) with its use of green screen, and The Wrestler (2008) since it helped boost Mickey Rourke’s career.
Oliver Stone-U-Turn (1997), Any Given Sunday (1999), Alexander (2004)
This is a tough one to determine where his career started to trend downhill. Pound for pound one could easily argue that Oliver Stone’s output from 1986 to 1995 established him as the best director from that era. In 1986 he exploded onto the scene with his two films Salvador and Platoon, the latter which took home Oscars for Best Picture and Stone won for Best Director. He continued his hot streak with Wall Street the following year earning Michael Douglas the Best Actor Academy Award and he never stopped until a misstep with the skewed drifter lost in a small town dud U Turn (1997). A career low point for both Stone and its star Sean Penn. Oliver Stone would rebound two years later with Any Given Sunday, possibly the best football movie ever made and it helped launch the career of Jamie Foxx. At that point he was known as a stand up comic and not a serious actor, well he proved to the world that he could handle his own with scenes opposite heavyweight actors such as Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, and James Woods. This eventually would lead Jamie Foxx down the career path of starring in more dramatic roles like Ali (2001), Collateral (2004) and his Oscar winning turn as Ray Charles in Ray (2004). But for Oliver Stone what seemed like a good movie and he was back on the path to making his usual social commentaries about American culture and history, was actually the last time he made a tense and timely satire on US values. It would be five years later when Oliver Stone would have his next theatrical release and unlike Paul Thomas Anderson, this was not worth the wait. Alexander (2004) starring Colin Farrell as the Macedonian military leader was the first time Oliver Stone directed a movie that was not some sort of social commentary on America. Sure it had elements of history and war, both genres he had proven to be adept with, but Vietnam is very different than Ancient Greece. What we had on our hands was a bad version of Gladiator (2000) with none of the visual flair or political intrigue of Ridley Scott’s film. It was one of the biggest flops of the year and the biggest disappointment of his career. A friend of mine who loved movies and worshipped Oliver Stone described Alexander as being more disappointing than his parents divorce. Oliver Stone was out of his element, so maybe he could bounce back with his next film. He decided to make a movie about 9/11, but not give it the same treatment he did the Kennedy assassination with JFK (1991), he decided to make a sentimental sappy feel good story about two Port Authority police officers that survived the terrorist attacks. World Trade Center (2006) was the least Over Stone film he had made at this point of his career. He followed that up with W. (2008) which he made when W. Bush was still on office for crying out loud, and then went back to the well to make Wall Street 2 (2010) which nobody asked for. The once great director had fallen far and was completely out of touch from what made his films great. The man who made Natural Born Killers (1994) one of the gutsiest and most grueling movies of the 90’s had now been reduced to saccharine trite and had completely lost his edge. Oliver Stone stated in his commentary for the movie JFK that it was an event that inspired him in his youth to go out, make a change, make discoveries, go on a quest for the truth and his movie JFK is a masterpiece. Maybe he should let the next generation tell the stories about 9/11, George W. Bush and Snowden (2016). I once considered U-Turn a blip on the radar of the otherwise stellar career of Oliver Stone. Maybe U-Turn was when he lost his edge and Any Given Sunday was a fluke. Either way he has not made a respectable social commentary or entertaining movie since and from Alexander on it has been a very cold streak with a series of stinkers. But seriously look at his reign at the top with two Best Director Oscars for Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July (1989) and he should have won a third for JFK. In between those films he had Wall Street, Talk Radio (1988), The Doors (1991). Then he made Heaven and Earth (1993) and Nixon (1995) which would be two of the best films of their respective years. Nobody was better than Oliver Stone for a nine year period from 1986 to 1995. It has been a sharp decline in quality since Nixon and Oliver Stone’s movies keep feeling like he is lost wandering aimlessly in the woods trying to find his mojo, the same drive that made his earlier films so powerful, compelling and felicitous. Instead of a trailer since I could not pick one movie, here is a terrific video tribute to Oliver Stone’s filmography.