Cinema’s greatest filmmakers have taken their greatest films up mountains that tower above the films that dot the hillside below. Sometimes a great filmmaker has to spend years on the hillside before building up the strength to scale a mountain with a film. Other times, a great filmmaker reaches a creative peak early in his career but then must descend from it and spend time on the hillside regaining the energy to scale another mountain with another film.
And during their time on the metaphorical hillside, many great filmmakers make terrible films. Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear (1994), Spike Lee’s She Hate Me (2004), and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010) are somewhat recent examples. Sometimes, however, a great director will make a great film during his time on the hillside that should have been taken to the mountaintop to bask in the sunshine of recognition, but for a variety of reasons it instead remains on the hillside hidden in the mountain’s shadows from the less informed viewer.
To avoid habitually regurgitating the same film over and over, great filmmakers will occasionally step out of their comfort zone and make a film unlike their others. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) are two modern examples. I believe such films are essential in providing filmmakers with the perspective needed to remain passionate about their craft and confident in their stylistic choices. But audiences will often refuse to accept these unorthodox films from their favorite filmmakers, and, no matter how great such a film is, they will discard it like a beast discards its mutated offspring.
Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) exemplifies this phenomenon. If you ask me, Scorsese will go down as the greatest American filmmaker who ever lived, and film scholars will use The King of Comedy, his most unorthodox film to date, as proof of his greatness. It is, alongside Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), my favorite satiric film. But audiences didn’t want to see a Scorsese satire and critics weren’t prepared for it. It bombed at the box-office and didn’t receive the accolades it deserved.
Instead of telling a gangster story that digs into the depths of the soul, Scorsese uses The King of Comedy to tell a comedic tale that reveals the madness of celebrity worship. Starring Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, an obsessive fan-boy and wannabe stand-up comic, the plot follows his desperate attempts at becoming famous. By kidnapping Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the host of a popular late-night show (The Jerry Langford Show), Pupkin forces his way onto national television to do his routine live. Although his jokes get laughs, the ending of The Kind of Comedy is a bit ambiguous. Like the character of Travis Bickle (also played by Robert De Niro) from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Pupkin has an overactive fantasy life and, as a result, it is up to individual viewers to decide how much of the ending, which shows him rising to the upper most echelon of celebrity, actually happens and how much is merely wishful thinking on the part of Pupkin.
Set in 1913 Mexico during the revolution, the plot takes off after John Mallory (James Coburn), an IRA explosives expert on the run from the British, and Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), a Mexican bandit who leads his many children on smalltime heists, cross paths. When Juan learns of John’s talent with explosives, he nicknames him “Firecracker” and tries to persuade him to assist his family in robbing the Mesa Verde national bank. At first John refuses the offer, but after learning from his fellow revolutionaries that the Mexican army is using the bank as a political prison, he cons Juan into providing the firepower needed to free the prisoners. Although Juan is furious when he becomes a hero of the Mexican revolution rather than a rich man, he gradually and grudgingly accepts his new role.
Leone uses this unlikely alliance between Juan and John to structure what is — excluding his later masterpiece of the gangster genre Once Upon a Time in America (1984) — his most ambitious film, in spite of its flaws. While his earlier westerns are flawless at what they do, they don’t do as much as Duck, You Sucker! does. Politics, friendship, class, race, torture, family, sacrifice, loyalty, war — Leone, the highest rated of filmmakers, comments on all these lofty issues with this underrated film, and, though too sentimental and campy at times, it leaves a grand impression in the end. And with Coburn and Steiger at the top of their games and Ennio Morricone doing the music, Duck, You Sucker! also has the unique distinction of being the best acted and scored buddy film of all-time.
It usually takes a few films for great filmmakers to tap into their greatness. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), and Sophia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides (1999) are recent exceptions to the rule. The early films of most great filmmakers act as exercises that tune the techniques they use for their later films — their great films. Brian De Palma’s Murder a la Mod (1968), Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park (1969) are ignored for a good reason: because they are unworthy of the filmmakers who made them. All but the most serious of film scholars would be doing themselves a favor by ignoring them.
Occasionally, however, an early film from a great filmmaker that lives up to its director’s name is ignored because it is mistakenly thought to be a minor work. Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) is an example of such a film. Directed by Werner Herzog — who brought us awe-inspiring works like Fizcarraldo (1982) and, more recently, captivating documentaries like Into The Abyss (2011) — it is about a group of dwarfs who take over the facility they are being kept at. Because the guards and the facility director are also dwarfs, there is not a single standard-sized actor in the film. The film depicts these rebelling dwarfs having the time of their lives breaking windows, ghost-riding automobiles, lighting fires, killing livestock, and creating as much havoc as they can muster up.
The images of Even Dwarfs Started Small are beautifully grotesque. And while the plot doesn’t amount to much, it does offer some scathing commentary on the self-destructive uselessness that all too often results from uprisings fueled by the mob mentality. Why is this film from the great Werner Herzog ignored to such an extent that it’s not even considered a cult classic? Maybe it’s simply too weird. . . but David Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead (1977), is celebrated for that very reason. Maybe because it’s a German language film the American audience that would appreciate it are turned off. . . but Alejandro Jodorowsky’s two most embraced and similarly surreal films, El Topo (1970) and Santa Sangre (1989), are both Spanish language films. So I don’t know. All I know is that it is a underrated film from highly rated filmmaker.
When surveying cinema’s greatest filmmakers, two broad groups form: the first group is best represented by Stanley Kubrick who continually reworked scripts even after shooting began, who had his actors perform an infinite number of takes on any given scene, and who generally obsessed over every detail of his films until near perfection was realized, and the second group is best represented by Alfred Hitchcock who told Roger Ebert in a 1969 interview that “when you finish the script, the film is perfect,” who viewed his actors as animated props to be arranged as needed, and who seemed to begin his next film before finishing his last film. A result of their contrasting approaches to filmmaking is that Kubrick only made thirteen feature films while Hitchcock made more than fifty.
Woody Allen is in the Hitchcock camp. While the great filmmakers in this camp often make just as many, if not more, great films as those in the Kubrick camp, they also make far more flops. It’s largely a question of production over perfection. Although Woody has had some impressive stretches — from 1975 to 1979 he made three of his greatest films with Love and Death, Annie Hall, and Manhattan – he has also had some hopeless slumps, the longest of which spanned from 1998 to 2002. Over the course of these five years, Allen made four of his worst films including Celebrity (1998), Small Time Crooks (2000), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), and Hollywood Ending (2002). It was, however, in the middle of this slump that Woody made Sweet and Lowdown (1999), his most underrated film.
Working as a fictional biopic with hints of a a mockumentary, Sweet and Lowdown tells the story of Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), the self-proclaimed “second greatest guitar player in the world.” The greatest, as Emmet admits over and over, is Django Reinhardt. Woody uses Emmet’s unhealthy obsession with Django, the real-life greatest jazz guitarist, to project the 1930s of the American imagination with whiskey-flowing speakeasies, fast-talking flappers, and broken-nosed mobsters. But the real greatness of this underrated classic of Woody’s is in the unconventional love-story that develops between Emmet and the dimwitted mute girl played brilliantly by Samantha Morton. Although Sweet and Lowdown is as charming as the funniest of Woody’s early films and as honest as the most brooding of his later films, it rarely receives the praise it deserves because it was released in the midsts of Woody’s worst slump.
5.Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)
Robert Bresson’s name is mentioned more than his films are watched, which is inexcusable. While his greatness is often acknowledged by critics and sometimes by contemporary filmmakers, the public, even those among it who proclaim themselves cinephiles, seem to categorize him as a pretentious ‘art-house’ director from Europe whose films can be skipped. The truth, however, is that Bresson is the greatest filmmaker that France has ever produced (yes, even greater than Jean Renoir) and his films are as captivating as they come. In fact, as enjoyable as the always popular French New Wave films are, Bresson’s films display a mastery of craft and a clarity of vision that is unparalleled in French cinema. Even Jean-Luc Godard, the quintessential French New Wave filmmaker, admitted in a 1957 issue of Cahiers du cinema that “Robert Bresson is French Cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is the German music.”
A lot of Bresson’s greatness comes from his ability to channel the Catholic themes of sin, guilt, atonement, and redemption into his stories and characters. While Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, and, of course, Martin Scorsese all flavored their films with these uniquely Catholic themes, Bresson’s minimalist approach to filmmaking gives his films a thematic focus that forces his audience to look intensely at themselves and at their world. And, unlike the other great Catholic filmmakers, Bresson juxtaposes these themes with the existentialism of Albert Camus, his French peer and predecessor.
Pickpocket (1959) is Bresson’s best film and, because all his films are underrated, it is naturally the most underrated of them all. It tells the story of Michel (Martin LaSalle), an alienated and intelligent young man living in a Paris studio, who dedicates himself to learning the art of pickpocketing while his mother slowly dies under the care of her beautiful young neighbor, Jeanne (Marika Green). As the film progresses, the police inch closer to catching Michel while he develops a perplexing relationship with Jeanne, and, at its conclusion, viewers are left wondering if Michel has atoned for his sins of theft by accepting his love for Jeanne. With Pickpocket, Bresson does in 75 minuets what Fyodor Dostoevsky needed 669 pages (of my Modern Library edition) to do with his legendary 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. For this reason alone, Pickpocket should rank among the greatest films ever made, but it rarely does.