This post was originally written for Taste of Cinema, a link to the original post is here – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2019/the-10-most-underrated-movies-made-by-legendary-directors/
More often than not, the only way to really get a complete understanding of the way that a director works is to watch everything of theirs that is available. Interviews, movies, behind the scenes documentaries… all of it! However, sometimes even this isn’t enough, and this can come as a great disappointment for some film fans who are really looking to have a strong understanding on how the most cinematic minds work.
There’s always one bonus to exploring the back catalogue of a director though – you usually find a brilliant film, deserving of the acclaim of their biggest and most popular works, that has been forgotten about and left behind.
The majority of the best directors have at least one, some have many, and some have none, but usually there is at least one that makes all of the digging worth it. This list is… hopefully… a handy aid to save you some time in exploring the back catalogues of some of the following directors, or at least to try to convince you to look at some of their films that usually get skimmed over.
Every director featured is terrific, some having a couple of duds but still being completely worth exploring heartily! So, without further ado, here are ten sadly underrated films from either very well known or very acclaimed directors!
1. Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (Martin Scorsese, 1967)
Starting off with one of the most well known directors of all time, the legendary Martin Scorsese’s debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? Starring Harvey Keitel as a western movie buff and a religious young man in a very early performance, and following his character as he navigates a blossoming relationship until striking a brick wall when he finds out that his partner was once raped, the film intricately glares at the kind of Catholic guilt that got in the way of relationships during much of the first half of the 20th century.
Keitel brings the film his all, and though the direction is a little amateurish at times (understandable, as this is a first feature after all), it continues to boast the energy of Scorsese’s later work in the most endearing ways. With incredible editing, a stunning lead performance and so much intelligent imagery throughout, the film is a totally unexpected treat, as well as something very different compared to the majority of Scorsese’s work.
It’s sadly very overlooked, with many of those who do see it having very low expectations to later be blown out of the water and the rest simply skipping over, but just as with almost all of Scorsese’s work in general, it’s a show-stopper.
2. The Testament of Doctor Cordelier (Jean Renoir, 1959)
The horror genre seems like the last one that Jean Renoir would attempt to meddle with, never mind be successful with, but somehow in 1959 he hit yet another home run. Whilst typically passing with flying colours in comedies, satires and romances, Renoir switched up his game here and decided to go for a TV-made horror inspired by the story of Jekyll and Hyde.
With one hell of a leading performance from the excellent Jean-Louis Barrault, consistently stunning chiaroscuro lighting reminiscent of the very best that film noir has to offer and playing out Renoir’s taut, masterful direction (as always), it’s kind of a wonder that this one didn’t seem to stick the landing, the blame more than likely deserving to be placed on poor distribution at the time of release and the rarity of the film even now. It’s a shame, as Renoir clearly has the eye for creating terrific horror (as he did for most any genre), but it was not to be!
3. The Long Gray Line (John Ford, 1955)
It’s a well known fact that John Ford is one of the most important directors to ever grace the screen with their directorial presence, however, one thing that many fail to consider is that maybe his most well known films – The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stagecoach, etc. – aren’t all that Ford has to offer. In doing so, they miss out on a lump of the greatest films of all time, and whilst Liberty Valance still stands out as Ford’s crowning moment – truly a masterpiece, a film so incredible that it is genuinely quite hard to believe – The Long Gray Line (alongside A Quiet Man, They Were Expendable, The Sun Shines Bright… the list goes on) is just remarkable.
Following the majority of the life of the loveable Irish Immigrant Marty Maher as he works in the United States Military Academy, this based-on-a-true-story drama not only glistens in technicolour in a way that would make Stanley Donen blind with envy, but it also manages to capture a ridiculous number of points throughout, intent on exploring a great deal of opposing ideas and viewpoints whilst somehow never becoming confused in what it is actually interested in.
The entire cast is just brilliant, the cinematography is as dreamy as any Hollywood melodrama or musical of the 1950s and 1960s and the emotion involved is breathtaking. If ever you need a film to clean your palette, this is it, a film so perfect that it makes most others look a little bit pathetic in comparison. It towers above most.
4. The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)
Orson Welles and Citizen Kane are almost synonymous at this point, with almost all of his success often being attributed to his 1941 masterpiece, however, many people seem to believe that he only ever made a couple of truly great films when the reality is quite different – Welles has one of the most consistently astonishing film careers of any directors, to the point that it was genuinely difficult to choose between three of his masterful works (Othello, The Trial and The Immortal Story) for the one to be featured on this list, and that is coming from someone who hasn’t even finished Welles’ body of work yet.
Adapted from the famous Kafka novel of the same name, Welles’ film fixates on the story of a man, played by Anthony Perkins in what would certainly be his finest performance if it weren’t for his mesmerising turn in Hitchcock’s Psycho just two years before, who is placed under trial without ever being told what he has actually done, or supposed to have done, that is the cause of the trial in the first place.
Using black and white to an astonishing effect and playing up the surrealist shadowy settings of Welles’ production, The Trial is a bamboozling and disorienting film if ever there was, using trippy set design, narrative and cinematography to almost force the audience into seeing this bizarre world from the perspective of our alienated leading man, and yet the film receives a surprisingly small amount of acclaim nowadays, especially considering that it is a story adapted from no less than one of literature’s most adored writers. The reasoning for this not being so well known is quite unknown, but for your own sake, see it.
5. Ludwig (Luchino Visconti, 1973)
Luchino Visconti isn’t the most well known director, but he sure is acclaimed, and it’s no surprise considering the fact that this man is the cinematic mastermind behind the likes of The Leopard and Death In Venice, but he is also yet another director for whom most of their deserved acclaim is only assigned to their two most recognised films, whilst the rest are left to fend for themselves in the background.
This is especially surprising considering the consistency in his quality of output, and the fact that he has adapted some of the most acclaimed books of all time (such as Camus’ The Stranger – the film even starred Marcello Manstroianni!), but for now we will just look into Ludwig, his unforgettably gorgeous four hour period drama epic abut the titular King of Bavaria, going from his crowning onwards.
If ever there was a visual treat of a film, this is it – a film in which the colours seem to drip over the screen, looking much more like a painting than anything attributive to cinema – and yet, still, it received little attention and continues to be skipped over. Fortunately, it is slowly gaining a following, mainly due to MUBI showing the film at the start of this year and it being giving a treatment by Arrow Academy.
6. The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)
The Passenger is quite surprisingly overlooked, considering that it comes from a director as known as Antonioni, because it’s English as opposed to Italian, and mainly because it stars Jack Nicholson in the leading role… how has this one not caught on? Antonioni is, of course, most well known for his alienation trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse from the early 1960s, and as great of a trilogy as those three make, The Passenger could be the best thing Antonioni ever crafted.
It is an eerily patient thriller about a man who finds a look-a-like of his dead, and so, takes on his life for him from that moment on. To make matters worse, it turns out the man who he has chosen to become is an arms dealer, and so, it isn’t long before both the police and groups of gangsters are out looking for Nicholson’s David Locke.
With some of the most meticulous and brilliant cinematography of all time, this inescapable control over tone and mood and atmosphere that Antonioni uses to completely capture the viewer and their imagination and an astounding performance from Jack Nicholson in the leading role, The Passenger – like every other film on here – is not a film to be missed. Indicator did recently give it a Blu-Ray treatment, so it is more available right now than it has ever been… no excuses to sleep on it anymore!
7. Polyester (John Waters, 1981)
John Waters certainly had a colourful career, and Polyester is one of his most luminous films. Introducing the world to Odorama which is exactly what you think – Waters becoming intent on even bringing you the smell of his frequently revolting on-screen atrocities as well as the unforgettable visuals that always engrave their way into your brain – and then taking the Hollywood Melodrama template and bastardising it with his typical antics, this is just another phenomenal, hilarious Waters satirical masterwork.
As well as being Waters best film, the film also features Divine’s best performance as the housewife who just can’t catch a break from the malicious world she finds herself trapped in by her husband and her children. It’s John Waters’ All That Heaven Allows – you don’t need anything more than that, and it has just received the Criterion treatment, so it has become infinitely more accessible!
8. Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola, 2007)
Francis Ford Coppola has really had a strange career. Accidentally blasting himself to Hollywood stardom with The Godfather – a film he only really set out to make to fund other projects that went on to become perhaps the single most acclaimed film ever made – and its sequel two years after, and then using the money he made from these to start making his own passion projects (Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders – ’80s Coppola really was the best) before crash-landing in the 1990s after making Jack (a film in which a group of children, alongside Robin Williams and Bill Cosby, spend an entire scene farting in a treehouse and laughing… yes, really).
After making nothing for a decade, Coppola came back to cinema with Youth Without Youth, one of the most surprising comeback films of recent memory, maybe of all time. Starring Tim Roth as a seventy year old man struck by lightning who subsequently mysteriously de-ages to around 40, the film is inexplicably gorgeous, filmed with cameras and lenses that seem to soak up this slightly artificial colour that pops more than technicolour ever could.
It only gets better from there, though, as Coppola evidently spend the majority of his ten years missing working on a plethora of wondrous ideas, and then proceeds to throw them all at his unassuming audience at once and lets them juggle as the film roars on. It’s a seriously touching romance, a bizarre superhero film inspired by Benjamin Button and a surrealist’s wet dream rolled into one puzzling yet glorious masterpiece, and it’s a film that only someone like Francis Ford Coppola could have ever really made.
9. Antigone (Jean Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1992)
So, Straub and Huillet are really the exceptions to this rule. Barely any of their films are at all popular, however, this is where just looking at overlooked masterpieces come into play a little bit more – trust me, the film is more than worth the deviation from the point of the list! Mostly following a debate between a King and a young woman caught trying to give her brother a funeral of sorts (against the King’s wishes), intently emphasising every word into this infallible drama of rebellion.
As can be expected with Straub and Huillet, it takes a lot of energy to keep up with, but this one isn’t strict about handing out rewards to those patient viewers who manage to stick with the rapid fire subtitle-reading. This is also maybe the one and only Straub/Huillet film that could be classified as a straight thriller, with this argument being so entrancing. It’s a very hard film to find, but more than worth trying to seek out – the same can be applied to most any Straub/Huillet film.
10. Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
David Cronenberg is most definitely one of the most beloved horror directors of all time, cited alongside the likes of George A. Romero, Wes Craven and Dario Argento just to name a few, but even a name so hailed as a master can’t be successful with every film they release, and Spider seems to be the one Cronenberg that really stands out as one that slipped under the radar of most Cronenberg fans.
Starring Ralph Fiennes in an unsurprisingly stirring performance and one of Cronenberg’s most deliriously disturbing stories to date, Spider is one to be seen more than read about as so much of the film’s impact hinges on the audience being actively involved in the atmosphere that the film is trying to create. It’s certainly a mood piece, but it has as much power as some of Cronenberg’s most famous, including Scanners and The Fly – it’s well worth watching for any horror or psychological thriller fan.