Lately it seems that the directorial masters have been slumping into mediocrity. Here are several once great directors that are churning out the worst movies of their once illustrious careers.
This one should come as no surprise. The director who earned the nickname of the “Italian Hitchcock” after crafting visual masterpieces like Deep Red, Suspiria and Inferno managed to throw his credibility down the toilet over the last two decades. We’ve discussed how this atrocity began on our list of Movies Ruined By the Director’s Cut. Argento’s film Opera, beginning as promising as the very best in his filmography, suddenly takes a face-first nosedive into a bucket of balls with an ending so nonsensical and pretentiously stupid that it threw all credibility out the window in a matter of seconds. Such flights of fartsy became the earmark by which film fans would measure the now sputtering remains of Argento’s career. This was never more evident than in his avid defense of the truly abysmal and self-indulgent Mother of Tears, an effort that was supposed to be the capstone of the otherwise singularly impressive Three Mothers Trilogy (in companion with Inferno and Suspiria). A filmmaker who once used gore to trigger tangible reactions of viscera and dread was now relying on it solely for its cheap effect — maybe he should make a Saw movie. Mother of Tears is a plodding, convoluted, vacuous singularity of suck. Not even his daughter Asia’s bodacious breasts could save it. While we’re on the subject, what in the holy mother of ass is up with that? I mean, yes, your daughter is gorgeous, Dario, but do you have to film her naked every time you put her in something? Freud would have a field day with your crazy Skeletor-looking ass. But I digress. Cut to present day, and the once gifted and truly remarkable visual stylist worthy of comparison to Mario Bava has become a self-parody with his newest mockery of the macabre, Dracula 3D. A film that features a post-Hobo With a Shotgun Rutger Hauer, looking like he’s either in serious pain from holding in flatulent laughter, or unabashedly embarrassed to be cast alongside the worst looking CGI effects this side of a Stephen Sommers picture, and of course, yet another scene of Asia Argento naked in a bathtub. Those are the two best effects in the whole movie.
Francis Ford Coppola
Let’s all just sit back for a moment and mourn this one, because the inclusion of Mr. Coppola is probably the saddest entry on this entire list. Because this man made The Godfather Trilogy and Apocalypse Now. Just digest that for a moment. You are talking about four of the greatest films ever made (or at least three); absolute titanic examples of the art form of filmmaking. Apocalypse Now is the kind of hell-spun genius that comes along only once in about fifty lifetimes. It’s downright perfect. On top of those monuments of magnificence, he also made The Conversation, The Outsiders, and crafted some of the horror genre’s most exhilarating imagery with his version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula… even if one of those images happened to be Gary Oldman dressed like Eddie Izzard if he came swirling out of a soft serve ice cream machine before getting dusted with a cloud of cocaine. But then there was Jack: A Robin Williams vehicle of syrupy saccharine (I say saccharine because it causes cancer) so corny, manipulative, and bone-crushingly bad, it almost makes you wish you were watching Patch Adams, a thought that makes me want to wrap my lips around a glock. If you drove with the windows down in 1996, you would occasionally hear loud thunderclaps on clear days, as entire movie theaters full of people across the country face-palmed in unison. This is a movie so bad that it singlehandedly sank the career of the guy who created The Godfather. Ho-lee-shit. Guess how many films Coppola has made since Jack. Five. That’s it. And one of them was the black hole of science fiction known as Supernova, a movie so slap-chopped by interfering producers that not one, but three (!!) gifted directors had their names taken off it (Coppola along with directors Walter Hill and Jack Sholder worked on this first post-Alan Smithee Hollywood bomb under the pseudonym Thomas Lee). Since Jack, Coppola has mainly focused on producing, and perhaps that’s for the best. We can only hope that he has one more masterpiece left in him. His newest oeuvre, Twixt, is available on Netflix streaming, and we will let you decide for yourself if he’s managed to scrap together some remnants of dignity.
Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan first burst onto the cinema scene with the erotic thriller Exotica in 1994 where he enjoyed a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes and followed up with The Sweet Hereafter in 1997 where he won three awards at the prestigious film festival. The upswing for Canada’s most promising director since David Cronenberg continued to rise with Felicia’s Journey and Ararat, making Egoyan a force to be reckoned with. A critical darling and arthouse favorite, Egoyan was well on the way to becoming a great director. Unfortunately, that all abruptly changed with the inexplicably awful and miscalculated NC-17 erotic thriller, Where the Truth Lies. A cinematic misfire so outrageously bad and misguided it has to be seen to be believed, it successfully derailed the public from taking Egoyan seriously and further eroded his credibility with the critical establishment. While Egoyan had something of a comeback with Chloe in 2009, the once great Egoyan now found his career in continual decline both artistically and commercially. In recent years films like Devil’s Knot would reinforce the newly formed notion than Egoyan had devolved into a bad filmmaker continuing to make films without the audience that championed his work in the late 1990s. It’s a shame because The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey remain transcendent character studies with fine British actors starring in them. Felicia’s Journey especially remains a criminally neglected gem, with a powerhouse performance from the late Bob Hoskins, and is arguably one of the best and most unique films about a serial killer. Seriously, how did the once subtle and nuanced director of those films get so wacky with Where the Truth Lies?
There’s no denying Spike Lee is one of the most talented filmmakers and surprisingly solid actors to emerge from the school of Scorsese in the late 1980s. Bursting onto the scene with films like She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and the mutually celebrated and controversial classic Do the Right Thing, the Atlanta, Georgia based auteur represented the most brilliant voice in independent African American cinema since Melvin Van Peebles or even Charles Burnett! Always a vitriolic rabble rouser, Spike Lee’s argumentative firebrand nature was as heated as the strengths of his films, which seemed to continue to go upward with Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues before peaking with Malcolm X. In a short amount of time, Lee proved to the filmmaking community he was a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately as time went by for Lee, however, that same antagonistic persona would prove to be the director’s undoing. In between uttering controversial remarks, notably taking aim at Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima before turning over Miracle at St. Anna almost as a rebuke of those films, critics and audiences couldn’t help but tire of Lee’s shenanigans and see his arguments as part of the problem instead of a solution. Just as quickly as he rose to fame (or infamy, depending on your point of view), the young director found himself fading into irrelevance. Accused from the very beginning of fanning the flames of hate and violence, Lee’s vitriol reached a boiling point when he tweeted the home address of George Zimmerman only to learn later it was incorrect and the occupants had to leave home due to death threats before filing a negligence suit against the director. While Lee managed to still garner a few more hits over time, including 25th Hour and Inside Man, he successfully managed to undermine his public image and has since been turning to Kickstarter for funding his projects. If there’s any indication as to how far the once mighty provocateur has fallen, it’s with his American remake of Oldboy, a film so dreadfully miscalculated and mismatched it proved to be the biggest flop of 2013 and the worst film of his career without question. That said, I’m still of the belief Mr. Lee still has another good film left in him, if he could just stop giving into impulsivity and xenophobia for once.
Tobe Hooper changed the face of horror films forever with one film in 1974, the now timeless classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nothing like it had come before but many pale imitations have followed and continue to do so. Formidable, impeccable and relentlessly terrifying, it became the very definition for which the horror genre would come to be known. Spawning several sequels as well as three modern reboots, Hooper’s effort solidified his status as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. But if you take a good look at Hooper’s career as a whole, interesting as it is from a schlock fan’s standpoint, there isn’t a whole lot else for the aged auteur to be proud of. From moving out of the way of Steven Spielberg on Poltergeist to his brief three picture stint with Cannon Films, resulting in his one other legitimately good film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (serving as the basis of House of 1,000 Corpses), the man has had a string of one bad and silly headed horror movie after another. Where Hooper seems to have a knack for intimidating with his horror pictures, his science fiction ventures such as Lifeforce, his remake of Invaders from Mars and Spontaneous Combustion are unabashed exercises in batty ridiculousness. Worse still, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a film he didn’t even really direct in the first place are his only genuine moneymakers to name in a long list of box office failures. Toolbox Murders seemed like a minor comeback for Hooper, who also has since dabbled into television and literary work. But beyond that, if you break down the oeuvre of the man dubbed the most influential horror director of our time, Hooper’s really just a one-hit wonder. That’s not to say his crap isn’t enjoyable or reasonably well done. Considering his stature and moments where he’s shown just how well he can do horror, he’s more than capable of doing better than he’s chosen to. Where many are quick to pick on John Carpenter’s supposed rise and fall from grace, remember how many more worthwhile movies are on his roster compared to Hooper’s. For those of us who were members of the video store generation — you remember when you actually had to drive there? — we can recall the moment when it was all over for Tobe Hooper: It was a small release back in 2000 called Crocodile, and it proudly proclaimed “from the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on the cover. When you’re directing the straight-to-DVD knock-off of Lake Placid, cash in your chips, because the house has officially taken you.
For a brief period of time, Neil Marshall was among the top up and coming British horror directors, having achieved both critical and commercial success with his low budget indie masterworks Dog Soldiers and The Descent. Called among other things ‘the best horror film since Alien’, The Descent promised a skillful, intelligent and uncompromising director with a singular, intensely controlled vision. Though only boasting two features on his resume, Neil Marshall quickly became a director worth paying attention to. Very swiftly however, that changed with his attempt at making a big budget, star studded picture, a post-apocalyptic ode to Mad Max called Doomsday. While working with the same crew and writers he’d been with all along, the filmmaker who made mountains out of molehills with his prior features now produced an overblown mess that amounted to very little in terms of critical or commercial success. In its worldwide grosses, Doomsday barely broke even and managed to do considerable damage to Marshall’s reputation. The downfall didn’t stop there with his medieval historical action film Centurion, taking in less than half of its budget at the box office as well as taking a beating from the critics. Although Marshall has been prolific in directing television including an Emmy nominated episode of Game of Thrones, he has had yet to secure feature film work. With several planned features in limbo thanks to two less than aesthetically appealing flops, Neil Marshall was a potentially great director that fell hard. Hopefully one day he’ll get up to speed again.
Paul Schrader is too gifted of an artist to be on this list. Having written Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as well as directed American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Auto Focus, Schrader is an ingenious storyteller to learn from and respect. While every director has fumbled the ball from time to time, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist among Schrader’s misfires, for the most part the aged, self-driven auteur has managed a pretty respectable career. That is, until he decided directing troubled actress Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen was a sound idea. Co-written (before being disowned) by Bret Easton Ellis, The Canyons is a hatefully awful excuse for a film Mr. Schrader needs to take his name off of. While Schrader’s films have never been box office darlings, the exception with The Canyons besides everyone turning in dreadful performances is that Schrader either truly believes he’s made a misunderstood masterpiece or he wants us to believe it so he can’t take the blame. Around the time Schrader condemned BBC film critic Mark Kermode as being ‘unfit’ to review The Canyons, I kept thinking of Steven Soderbergh introducing Schizopolis in which he abdicates responsibility for unspooling an incoherent film. According to Soderbergh and Schrader, it’s “not the artist’s fault” per se that we fail to get it. It’s not that we didn’t get what Paul Schrader was trying to do with The Canyons. The problem is we cannot accept this as a Paul Schrader film. Reportedly, Schrader’s wife and colleagues urged him not to proceed with The Canyons, saying he was “crazy” for moving forward with a potential career ender. While I’m of the belief that Paul Schrader still has a great film left in him, he ought to heed his wife’s advice in the near future.
When we think of Ridley Scott, our tendency is to pine for his earlier masterworks such as The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner and Legend. All four films represent the British director at the height of his creative powers, using massive set pieces and even larger cameras to tell the epic stories of his characters struggling for survival in a harsh and unforgiving world. All were heavy on symbolism, all were intensely dark, and all were impeccably crafted by a master of design who created back-to-back two of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Early detractors of Scott would dub his characters as thinly veiled archetypes at the service of an equally thin plot, paper cut-outs if you will. While I’m willing to discredit those claims (particularly in the case of Blade Runner), I’ve no problem sharing their views with regard to everything of his that followed Legend. Gone are the long shots eager to cram as much set design into the frame as possible in favor of a muddy rapid-fire image you’re not really allowed to see. Gone are the rich characterizations that made his earlier work instantly relatable. Where Alien and Blade Runner were at once commercial as well as intellectually stimulating, Gladiator and Hannibal by contrast pander to the lowest common denominator. To call Scott a mere shadow of his former self would be too modest, as the now movie-mogul might be able to command sets as overblown as the ones in Exodus but not with the heart or soul of the man who gave the world some of the most intelligent and enduring films of the early 1980s.
M. Night Shyamalan
Very few directors barrel out of the starting gate with as much promise as M. Night Shyamalan. Even his biggest detractors — one hell of a long list — still proclaim The Sixth Sense as a singular thriller, crafted meticulously by the hands of a born filmmaker. His followup, Unbreakable, was met with less admiration by audiences who were — more or less — expecting The Sixth Sense 2: Electric Boogaloo. But as it does so often, time has told a different story: This unique and spellbinding comic-inspired thriller is becoming more widely regarded as Shyamalan’s unsung masterpiece. (I couldn’t agree more.) Then there was Signs, another blockbuster hit despite much-debated logistical issues that many critics, including Roger Ebert, saw as unimportant to the permeating themes of the film’s narrative. But then came The Village… and then Lady in the Water… and then The Happening (Crappening?)… and by the time we got to The Last Airbender, people were booing at the mere sight of Shyamalan’s name as it appeared in the teaser trailers for Devil. His last abysmal failure was the shockingly awful After Earth, a movie so vacuum-sealed with Hollywood nepotism, they didn’t even put Shyamalan’s name in the previews. The age-old saying of “how the high and mighty have fallen” couldn’t possibly have more defining relevance. This is a man who had the world by the balls, and managed to collapse under the weight of his own ego. One scene from Lady in the Water boils it down succinctly: As Bryce Dallas Howard looks deep into M. Night Shyamalan’s eyes and tells him that his writing “will change the world”, that’s the equivalent of removing your floating rib so you can fellate yourself in the dark, behind a curtain of egomaniacal shame. His next film, The Visit, boasts a promising trailer… just like all his other films. If he has any hope of resuscitating his career, he’ll need to bust out the shock paddles, an adrenaline needle, and every trick in the book, because the last person to bring back something this dead was Jesus.
Two-time Academy Award winning writer-director Oliver Stone is something of an egotistical bad boy in Hollywood. Always convinced of his own press clippings and penchant for drama, Stone’s career as a serious artist in Tinseltown working as an art-house director with access to Hollywood money and players was solidified with his timeless 1986 Vietnam autobiography Platoon. Known for his honesty as well as his tendencies towards fictitious embellishment, Stone’s notoriety continued to rise until the early 90s when his career peaked with JFK and Natural Born Killers. After NBK, Stone was among the world’s most important creative visionaries and social commentators assailing hypocrisies of the past and present. And then came a little known lark called U-Turn, a nihilistic neo-noir with Joaquin Phoenix consisting of meandering and scene-chewing that provoked derision from even ardent followers like Roger Ebert. From there, Stone had a minor comeback with his entertaining football drama Any Given Sunday which employed his trademark hyperkinetic editing and noise drum soundtrack. It wasn’t until one of Stone’s most sought after historical subjects, Alexander, arrived to completely destroy the director’s career. Overblown and obnoxious, Alexander tanked at the box office and did even poorer with the critics who were quick to dub Stone ‘at the end of his rope’. It didn’t help that in the forthcoming decade, Stone would recut Alexander several more times to no avail, embarrassing his reputation even further. W was seen by some as a return to form with regard to the political thriller, except that unlike JFK and Nixon, according to co-star Richard Dreyfuss (who has since gone on about his dislike for Stone), Stone removed all the politics from W until it was this impotent dud. This hasn’t had any bearing on Stone’s ego, who once told Quentin Tarantino ‘You make movies. I make films.’ Looking at the provisions, it’s fair to say which of the two auteurs has maintained relevance and which one hasn’t.
The Wachowskis first burst onto the cinematic scene with their low-budget 1996 lesbian neo-noir, Bound, and quickly established themselves as the most technically proficient and skillful filmmakers since David Fincher. Confident and daring, the Wachowskis soon tapped into mainstream cinema and redefined the science-fiction action thriller model with their second feature, the groundbreaking box office smash The Matrix. Going on to become the top selling DVD of all time when the format was still in its infancy, the Wachowskis found themselves on top of the filmmaking world, establishing a rapport and creative autonomy with Warner Brothers not enjoyed by a major director since Stanley Kubrick. They were the talk of Tinseltown with enormous anticipation surrounding whatever they were prepared to do next. Some point to their latest effort Jupiter Ascending as the turning point for their careers when backlash against the dynamic duo began, but in actuality it started much sooner with the release of the still controversial Matrix sequels. Despite breaking box office records with both films, fans of the first film started sensing an ‘emperor with no clothes’ as it were. Many jumped ship but the sequels still bared their share of ardent defenders. The release of V for Vendetta, a film they produced and wrote but didn’t direct, proved to be a financial success for the Wachowskis. But when it came to writing and directing their own material, everything after The Matrix sequels began to lose money. Speed Racer still has yet to recoup its production costs in worldwide sales and while Cloud Atlas did eventually break even with home video sales, the Wachowskis were garnering the reputation as credit risk. Even so, the Wachowskis maintained a devoted legion of fans eager to see whatever they had to offer. And then came Jupiter Ascending, which quickly became known as the most colossal critical and commercial bomb of its kind since Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. A film so shockingly awful, it forced even the Wachowski’s most dedicated disciples to question the validity of their careers and body of work as a whole. Were they as good as we made them out to be to begin with? With the impending release of their foray into television, Sense8, they may have a chance to redeem themselves and renew audience interest in their efforts. For the moment, however, much like Icarus, they’re a case study of budding talents who flew too high too quickly before the sun melted their wings.
-Blake O Kleiner