I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how so many of the people who directed some of my all-time favorite movies are currently MIA or stuck making movies that are beneath their ability. (This is how most of these blogs begin- as random thoughts that I decide might be interesting to expound upon.) When I actually began listing them, I was shocked to learn how many of my favorite directors are no longer relevant or no longer making movies that live up to their former standards. As I got to writing about each individual director, I realized this conundrum has a lot to do with the current state of the studio system in Hollywood- and I’ll get into what I mean by that as we go along. To compile this list, all I really did was go through my megalist of all-time favorite movies (which has 500+ films on it and counting) and look to see who has a serious gap in quality on their recent filmography.
And by the way, before we get started, credit to Robert Zemeckis for making his triumphant return to live-action last year with Flight, or else he’d easily have been at the top of the list. Welcome back, Bob! Keep it up!
Inclusion on the list assumes this writer believes the director still has talent left.
In no particular order:
1. PRE-WHITE HAIR JAMES CAMERON [IMDb]
Capable Of: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: Titanic (1997)
Because White-Haired James Cameron, The Lord of 3D, is not the James Cameron I know and love. Look, I understand he’s probably a lost cause. That’s not gonna stop me from bitching about him, because he’s still my second-favorite director of all-time, behind only Steven Spielberg. Even though he’s lost his way, he’s still a personal hero of mine. I’m not gonna say I believe shaving his goatee and having his hair turn white made him a raving 3D, deep sea-diving lunatic, but I’m not ruling it out, either. When he had brown/gray hair and scruff on his face, he made classic movies time after time. Do the math. The root problem as I see it with Cameron now is that he’s far more interested in technology than he is in storytelling. He seems to be using movies as a way to show off the latest technology instead of a vehicle to tell a great story, which is what movies are supposed to be. Go find an interview with him from anytime in the last decade where he isn’t talking about 3D or some new camera he’s developed. We got very troubling news last week when it was officially announced that Cameron will now be making 3, not 2, Avatar sequels, and that they will film concurrently for releases in December 2016, December 2017, and December 2018. That’s wonderful news for all the lames out there who actually think Avatar is an amazing story filled with interesting characters, but for those of us who love what Jim Cameron used to be, it’s a stake through the heart. On a personal level, this means that I’ll be AT LEAST 40 years old before James Cameron makes a movie that isn’t Avatar-related. Do you understand how fucking depressing that is? I want to cry as I re-read those words. I turn 40 in 2020, but even after Avatar 4 comes out, you know damn well it’d be another 2-3 years before he commits to another movie. As I’ve said before, it appears the James Cameron I idolized growing up died sometime in 1998 after the release of Titanic. He was then replaced by a 3D-worshiping sea dweller.
I hold out little hope that Cameron will ever make another movie that a) isn’t totally reliant upon state-of-the-art computer technology to bring to life, b) costs less than $200 million to produce, or c) is a documentary about the deep ocean. That doesn’t mean he isn’t still the filmmaker I’d most like to see come back to Earth and do something worthwhile one of these days. I realize that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. I realize that if I do a second edition of this list 10 years from now, he’d probably be at the top once again. For now, every time I see or hear the word Avatar over the next 5 years, I’m going to die a little inside. 16 years and counting…
2. MICHAEL MANN [IMDb]
Capable Of: Heat (1995), The Insider (1999)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: Collateral (2004)
Michael Mann is one of the smartest, most talented filmmakers alive, but he’s been stuck making just-okay movies (Miami Vice, Public Enemies) for almost a decade after making the “best movie of the year” twice in a span of 5 years (The Insider in 1999 and Collateral in 2004). Even if you go back a little farther, Ali featured one of the most impressive male performances of all-time from Will Smith, but the movie as a whole wasn’t nearly as good as its star attraction. That means 3 out of his last 4 movies have been disappointments. Then he got involved with a racetrack show on HBO (Luck) that looked promising but was also just-okay, and it got cancelled after one season because several horses had died on the set and HBO didn’t want to deal with the ensuing controversy from animal rights groups. Nobody wet their pants faster at the idea of Michael Mann being involved with an HBO drama than me. Hopefully he’ll get another crack at it down the road. Despite his age, I refuse to believe Michael Mann’s best days are over, as a writer or director.
Mann has a currently untitled movie due next year, and all we know about the plot is that it centers around a high-level hacker who is so dangerous that the U.S. and Chinese governments team up to stop him. The project stars current “It Guy” Chris Hemsworth and recently started shooting in China. Sounds good to me. Mann has also been at the forefront of digital cinema since he shot Collateral digitally in 2004 (nighttime in L.A. has never looked so good in a movie), and I think the technology has finally caught up to his ambition. He and David Fincher are the two filmmakers who have convinced me that digital cameras can look just as good, if not better, than film. I’m really excited to see what he does with the newest cameras, since the tech has advanced a great deal even since his last film came out in 2009. Above all that, I just really, really, really need another great Michael Mann film.
3. JOHN WOO [IMDb]
Capable Of: Face/Off (1997)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Woo has stayed busy in the decade since Paycheck, making 3 or movies in his native China- he just hasn’t made an American movie since then. I kinda wanna rewatch Paycheck just for shits and giggles to see how much of a disaster it really was. I can barely remember it as is, but it’s a noteworthy film in the broader sense because it killed John Woo’s American career and simultaneously ended Ben Affleck‘s first run as a leading man/action hero. For Affleck, that was probably one of the best things that ever happened to him looking back at it. He’s obviously made an amazing comeback since then, but it appears as though Woo either doesn’t want to try his hand over here again or has been forgotten by the American studios. It’s more likely the latter, because I’m sure Woo would come back if given the right opportunity. I’m also fairly certain he’s still a better director than a lot of the younger guys making today’s action flicks. John Woo was arguably the best director of American action movies of the second half of the 90’s. I believe Face/Off is the second-best action movie ever made (after T2), and it’s one of my top 25 favorite movies ever. That script was both a brilliant original concept and a perfect match for Woo’s style. I’m also a huge fan of Broken Arrow (I’d argue Woo was just as responsible for John Travolta‘s 90’s comeback as Quentin Tarantino was with Pulp Fiction), and I think Mission: Impossible II is hugely underrated. I hold out hope for a John Woo comeback here in the States, but I’d be just as happy if he made an amazing Chinese film that caught on over here, too. It’s been too long since I’ve seen some quality slow motion doves.
4. FRANK DARABONT [IMDb]
Capable Of: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: The Green Mile (1999)
Need I say anything? Fine, for those who don’t know what he’s been up to, I shall enlighten thee. Ever since Darabont’s last movie, 2007’s The Mist (which was good, but not great), he’s been working primarily in TV. Since he left The Walking Dead last year, he’s been working on another show called Mob City for TNT, which chronicles the L.A.P.D.’s years-long fight against Mickey Cohen‘s vast network of organized crime. In addition to that, he co-wrote the script for next summer’s new Godzilla movie. So why has he seemingly turned his back on directing movies? It could simply be that television (more specifically cable television) is now the best place to produce the kinds of stories he’s interested in telling. Or perhaps he’s having a tough time choosing another Stephen King novel to adapt (ZING!). I’m glad he’s happy working in TV, and the results have been great thus far, but I refuse to accept that the man who made one of the greatest movies of all-time as his debut feature film has permanently moved on from the big screen. And in all likelihood he hasn’t, but I suspect we’re looking at least 3-4 more years before he directs another film. That sucks. I also wanna find out if he’s got any original ideas floating inside his head. The only thing he’s done so far in 25+ years in the industry are various adaptations of previously existing material. Surely a writer this good has had some original thoughts over the years.
5. WOLFGANG PETERSEN [IMDb]
Capable Of: Das Boot (1981), In the Line of Fire (1993), Air Force One (1997)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: Troy (2004)
I refuse to believe he isn’t a better director even at age 72 than some of the guys half his age getting all the work now. Petersen hasn’t done anything since Poseidon sank (see what I did there?) upon its release in 2006. Did that failure turn him off to modern mainstream filmmaking? Did it turn Hollywood executives off to hiring him? I can’t find any source that can state what he’s doing next with any certainty, only that he’s “developing” a couple of projects, which can mean literally anything. He would’ve been a good fit to make a Bourne movie or even a Bond movie. However, I would like to see him come off the big-budget mountaintop and do something more dramatic as a comeback project, something that doesn’t require $50 million in visual effects. Ever since he did The Perfect Storm in 2000, he’s been on the “summer blockbuster only” highway. He needs to get out of that mindset and go back to being a guy who just makes really good movies. But he’d have to find the right script first, and that’s the rarest commodity of all.
6. JOHN MCTIERNAN [IMDb]
Capable Of: Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
I realize even the possibility of McTiernan returning to Hollywood comes with a huge asterisk, given the fact that he’s currently serving a year-long prison sentence (read about why HERE– it’s complicated). I also realize this makes it HIGHLY unlikely the studios will ever give him another chance when he gets out. Even if he does get the chance, it’s been a looooooong time since he made anything worth a damn. I pride myself on my ability to never walk out of a movie in a theater, but Rollerball (2002) has the distinction of being the first time I ever did it, and I’ve only done so 2 or 3 times since on other films. It’s also one of the few movies I’ve given a “1” rating on IMDb. Needless to say, it’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever [mostly] seen. A year later, he made the Rashomon-inspired military thriller Basic, which was okay but forgettable, and he’s been AWOL since, seemingly focused solely on this epic legal battle. I think this is nothing less than tragic. His 3-movie streak listed above is one of the best threepeats by any director ever. And that’s without mentioning Last Action Hero (the most unfairly critically reviled movie in history if you ask me- it’s fucking awesome), Die Hard with a Vengeance (which I believe is the best Die Hard movie), and The 13th Warrior, another underrated flick. The guy had style without being showy, and understood character in action movies like few directors ever have. Those are traits that have been sorely lacking for the last decade or so. Point is, I hate to see one of the greatest action directors in history sitting on the sidelines whilst big action movies are all the rage. That’s bullshit, and it appears the reason he’s in prison may be bullshit as well.
Again, tragic. If it’s true that he isn’t handling prison well, it makes me angry that this fiasco will have robbed us of such an amazing filmmaker. John McTiernan is the least likely person on this list to ever make another mainstream movie, let alone a great one, but because his previous work had such a huge impact on me, I’m not counting him out until he gets out of prison and announces, “I’m back.” or “I’m done.”
Bonus: Check out the Free John McTiernan Facebook Page, which has been doing a great job keeping up with case and has the support and cooperation of McTiernan’s wife. They even have the address where you can send him mail in prison. I’m seriously considering doing that.
7. JOHN SINGLETON [IMDb]
Capable Of: Boyz N The Hood (1991), Shaft (2000)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: Four Brothers (2005)
Oh, Johnny. How far you’ve fallen. Here’s some perspective: once upon a time, John Singleton was the youngest person in Oscars history to be nominated for Best Director, at age 24 for Boyz N The Hood. He was also nominated for Original Screenplay, both for his debut feature film. In doing so, he was also the first black man EVER nominated for Best Director. You have no idea how jealous I am of those accomplishments. He’s been hit and miss ever since, but by my count he’s made 4 solid films since his debut. Two of those he wrote by himself (Higher Learning, Baby Boy), proving Boyz was no fluke. Unfortunately, Baby Boy was the last original screenplay he got made, and that was 12 years ago. Since then he’s become a studio director-for-hire instead of the visionary he had the potential to become.
His most recent film, the “let’s see if anybody will show up to see a Taylor Lautner movie that isn’t called Twilight” project, Abduction, was literally one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I watched it on Netflix streaming a couple of months ago out of pure morbid curiosity, and only because Singleton directed it. Like, even if someone talked Singleton into the idea the movie had potential because people would show up for Lautner, he had to have read the fuckin script before signing on, right? You can’t put one of the worst “actors” alive in a movie based on one of the worst scripts ever written and expect positive results. Even Twilight fans aren’t that dumb. (On second thought…) It was a horrific misstep that he’s yet to recover from. Not to pile on, but Singleton is also responsible for the worst Fast & Furious movie (2 Fast 2 Furious).
I hold out hope that John Singleton still has something to say as a filmmaker, and that he’s off somewhere working on his own new material, having come to the realization that second-rate studio movies are beneath him. We need more black filmmakers making movies that actually matter. Would the real John Singleton please stand up?
I still don’t know what accent Laurence Fishburne is doing in this movie, but I LOVE IT.
8. KEVIN COSTNER [IMDb]
Capable Of: Dances With Wolves (1990)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: Open Range (2003)
Costner isn’t on this list because he’s made bad choices recently, but simply because it’s been 10 frickin years now since he last directed anything. Did he lose the passion for it? That’s doubtful. So why hasn’t Costner, who is among the 5 best actor-directors alive, ventured behind the camera since Open Range, one of the best westerns EVER MADE? Unfortunately, a quote I found where he explained his absence is sounding all too familiar these days. In 2011, he told British newspaper The Telegraph:
“I haven’t worked for a really long time because I tend to make movies that aren’t sequels, so I’m not exactly in vogue. I can make a movie for $6 million, but most of the time it’s going to be around $30 million or $40 million and Hollywood is very leery of movies that cost between $10 million dollars and $150 million.”
Sigh. Seriously, how fucking pathetic is that last sentence? And you best believe it’s true.
I want to see more of Costner behind and in front of the camera. I love this dude. SOMEBODY GIVE KEVIN COSTNER $40 MILLION TO MAKE A GODDAMN MOVIE.
9. ANDREW DAVIS [IMDb]
Capable Of: The Fugitive (1993)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: A Perfect Murder (1998)
Davis hasn’t done anything since the Kevin Costner/Ashton Kutcher Coast Guard movie The Guardian in 2006. That movie was actually pretty decent, but it’s been 15 long years since he made anything truly memorable. A Perfect Murder is one of the all-time great remakes, and it compares favorably to Hitchcock‘s classic Dial M For Murder, which is one of my favorite movies. I think one of the biggest problems in his case is that 2013 Hollywood rarely makes the kind of movie he specialized in during the 90’s; the medium-budget action or dramatic thriller. That’s one of my favorite subgenres, but studios today would rather go all-in on a $200 million blockbuster targeted at a worldwide audience than risk $50-75 million on something like The Fugitive, which may or may not catch on abroad (it did back in 1993, but modern studio executives have the long-term memories of a newborn child). This means an older director like Andrew Davis (Universal ain’t gonna hire a 67-year old to direct Fast and Furious 8) has to get interested in different genres, or work on a project outside the studio system. Sadly, it seems he hasn’t yet been able to do either.
10. GORE VERBINSKI [IMDb]
Capable Of: The Ring (2002), Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl & Dead Man’s Chest (2003, 2006)
Most Recent Very Good or Great Movie: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
I’m not necessarily concerned about Verbinski being a lost cause, but I am concerned that we’re headed down a path where if he makes another bad decision in choosing his next project, it will have been 10 years since his last great film. As I said in my Lone Ranger review, I believe Gore Verbinski has true greatness in him. The question becomes when will he choose to put that talent to use? He’s got to part ways with Jerry Bruckheimer and Johnny Depp and stop making soulless $200 million blockbusters for Disney. I actually think winning the Oscar for Rango was one of the worst things that could’ve happened to him, because he may now believe he’s already done his awards movie. Hopefully that’s just me being paranoid, but when you put “From Academy Award winner Gore Verbinksi” in the trailer for your new movie, it doesn’t hold much weight if you won that Oscar for a mediocre animated film. Meanwhile, even though Rango looked amazing, I found the story and characters to be quite dull. Then he follows that up with The Lone Ranger, one of 2013’s biggest disasters. Most great directors have made their best movies before age 50, but I think Verbinski could buck that trend if he pulls his shit together and starts making better decisions. But he needs to do it soon.
RUNNERS-UP (in A-B-C order):
–Rob Bowman (The X-Files, Reign of Fire)
–Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy)
–Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous)
–Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister)
–Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) – has been relegated to director-for-hire status, but reunites with Denzel next year in the shot-in-Boston action thriller The Equalizer, based on the TV show
–F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, The Italian Job)
–Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) – He’s only made one great movie, which should put him in the One Hit Wonder section below, but when that one great movie is Eternal Sunshine, I don’t understand why he hasn’t been able to put anything good together in 9 years hence. I mean, seriously…is The Green Hornet the worst decision a talented director has ever made? I think you can make that case. I still wanna know how somebody convinced him to do it, and why he was powerless to stop star/co-writer/executive producer Seth Rogen from essentially taking over the movie. Of all the projects to “go mainstream” on, why that one? It vexes me. Methinks Mr. Gondry needs to get Mr. Kaufman on the phone and convince him to pump out another original script.
–Taylor Hackford (The Devil’s Advocate, Ray) – How the fuck did the guy who directed Jamie Foxx to a Best Actor Oscar win go from that to directing a Jason Statham–Jennifer Lopez action movie? SRSLY.
–Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile)
–Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, The Ghost and the Darkness) – seems to be satisfied working exclusively in TV these days
–Doug Liman (Go, The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) – has the next big Tom Cruise sci-fi flick next year with Edge of Tomorrow, so we’ll soon see if he’s getting back on track
–Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, Unfaithful) – how did he not get the call for 50 Shades of Grey?
-David Mamet (State and Main, Heist) – not the best director from a visual standpoint (and that’s putting it nicely), but I dearly miss his writing on the big screen, and he directs almost all of his own scripts, so I’m happy to take one to get the other
–Roger Michell (Changing Lanes, Venus)
–Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571)
–Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
Pacino had quite the year in ’97 between this and Devil’s Advocate
–Trey Parker & Matt Stone (South Park, Team America: World Police) – stop doing Broadway and make another movie!
Every single time I see a montage in a movie this song starts playing in my head. Without fail.
–Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City)
–Brett Ratner – Yeah I said it. Red Dragon is great, dammit! He has directing talent. He just has no clue how to choose good projects.
–Joel Schumacher (Falling Down, A Time to Kill, Veronica Guerin) – Despite his age (74), I know with certainty he’s still got some gas in the tank, because he just directed two episodes of Netflix’s fantastic original series House of Cards. However, it’s now been a decade since he did anything worth a damn on the big screen. If for some godawful reason David Fincher can’t do The Girl Who Played with Fire, I wouldn’t cry if Joel Schumacher were on the shortlist to replace him.
–Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Dark Blue)
–M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs) – I actually thought After Earth was decent, but it’s not the comeback I had in mind for Manoj. It also felt like Will Smith had more control over that movie than Shyamalan did.
…and RENNY FUCKIN’ HARLIN (just kidding!)
ONE-HIT WONDERS WHO NEED ANOTHER CHANCE:
John Dahl (Rounders– 1998), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast– 2000), Mary Harron (American Psycho– 2000), Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me– 2000), Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog– 2003), Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium– 2002), Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans– 2000), Ben Younger (Boiler Room– 2000)
YOU USED TO MAKE GOOD MOVIES, BUT YOU’RE DEAD TO ME UNTIL YOU PROVE YOU STILL GIVE A SHIT:
Michael Bay, Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Barry Sonnenfeld
So…what conclusions can we draw from the names on this list? I believe there are three overriding factors at play with regards to which directors get which offers in the year of our Lord, 2013:
1) Hollywood now prefers younger directors or directors who come from low budget backgrounds, primarily because they’re cheaper until they become established. They get the added benefit of fanboy sites frequently calling these decisions “brave” or “edgy” (for example, 500 Days of Summer director Mark Webb taking over the Spider-Man franchise, Shane Black directing Iron Man 3, Ang Lee making The Hulk back in ’03), even though the results are rarely optimal. The studios also believe today’s audiences prefer the vision of a younger filmmaker, one who presumably shares their sensibilities. This is of course one of Hollywood’s dumbest assumptions, but it is what it is. Many of the directors I listed above are 50 or older, and many of them cost $5-10 million in upfront salaries, with some of them also able to command chunks of profit participation on top of that depending on the project. This is why notoriously cheap Marvel has never used big name directors on their movies. I don’t think it’s outright ageism, because there are plenty of filmmakers 55 and up still enjoying busy, productive careers. It’s the fact that younger filmmakers are cheaper, more easily controlled (i.e. they don’t get final cut), with the added bonus that many of them shoot and edit their action in the frantic, fast-paced style that Hollywood believes people want to see.
2) The sad fact is that Hollywood isn’t making the kinds of movies a lot of these filmmakers specialized in 10-15 years ago. Like I said above, these idiots would rather risk $200 million on a movie they hope and pray will gross $1 billion worldwide than $65 million on something that might only do $100 million domestic and barely anything overseas. The other popular trend now is the sub-$10 million horror movie, which is low risk and frequently huge reward since people will seemingly pay to see ANY horror movie in theaters. Now, I understand the logic of all that (not the bit where people line up for any bad horror movie- I’ll never grasp that), but if your portfolio only consists of one or two types of movies, you’re putting yourself at huge risk creatively and financially, particularly when a $225 million behemoth like The Lone Ranger flops like the turd that it was. Studios like Disney basically ONLY make tentpoles now. But that’s another topic for another day.
3) As I mentioned with Frank Darabont, some of these directors, unable to put together quality projects for the big screen without going through the immense hassle of securing independent financing, have turned to cable television to express themselves, where they frequently get much more creative freedom and obviously a longer period of time to tell their stories. There isn’t a chance in hell Frank Darabont could get The Shawshank Redemption made in 2013, sad as that is (not unless a huge star like Brad Pitt is playing Andy Dufresne). That film only cost $25 million in 1994, and it would still be less than $50 million today, but the studios do not want to make pure dramas for anything above $30 million or so. Not unless it’s based on a smash hit novel with “brand recognition”. It’s pathetic, really. I’m gonna stop before I truly get my rant on.
I despise writing about this issue because it makes me miserable, but the average moviegoer needs to understand why they’re getting the kinds of movies they’re getting nowadays and why those movies are increasingly being directed by filmmakers most people have never heard of. It’s troubling times in the modern studio system, that’s for sure, and many of our greatest filmmaking talents have been forced to sit idly by because they can’t (or won’t in many instances) land the gigs on the films these people are willing to greenlight. Or it could be that a lot of my favorite directors are getting too old for this shit. Either way, I’m not giving up on these people, nor should you if you truly love the movies.
One more thing…