By Matt Singer | Criticwire August 20, 2012 at 10:03AM
Q: What's the greatest film by a not-so-great director?
The critics' answers:
"First thing that comes to mind is 'Dark City.' Easily one of my favorite movies, and a great, weird noir-ish, sci-fi world. Alex Proyas could have something great within him still, but we certainly haven't seen it."
"Dennis Dugan is not a well-regarded filmmaker. In fact, he's responsible for some of the most critically reviled movies in recent years. You can blame 'Jack and Jill' on him, as well as 'Grown Ups' and 'Problem Child.' Most of his work is downright awful, but despite these duds, he's made one terrific comedy, and that's 'Happy Gilmore.' This Adam Sandler vehicle, in which he plays a hockey player who takes up golf, is still funny after more than fifteen years. It has interesting character scenes (Ben Stiller as a deranged nurse), and gut-busting physical gags (Sandler brawls with Bob Barker). I'm not always in the mood for 'Happy Gilmore,' but no movie makes me feel better after a rough day."
"There are people who will tell you that Bruce Lee was the real director of 'Enter the Dragon,' and Exhibit A in their argument is the remainder of Robert Clouse's filmography. Clouse would go on to direct the fake-Bruce-Lee portions of 'Game of Death,' Jim Kelly's goofy 'Black Belt Jones,' the hilariously bad Joe Don Baker kung-fu film (!) 'Golden Needles,' the all-time stinker 'Gymkata,' and a number of forgettable B-pictures. None of them had the ferocity and subtlety that the Little Dragon possessed in Clouse's lone great work."
"I'm going to be stoned for this (not from weed, but from people throwing rocks at me) but Uwe Boll's 'Rampage' actually isn't unbearable to watch. It's definitely a film he put obvious effort into."
"'A Christmas Story.' Bob Clark made a few good movies ('Black Christmas,' 'Tribute,' 'Murder By Decree'), at least one big hit ('Porky's'), and a lot more misses ('From the Hip,' 'Loose Cannons,' 'Rhinestone,' 'Turk 182!,' 'Baby Geniuses'), but he really hit the jackpot with 1983's 'A Christmas Story.' Everyone loves this movie, and it's nice to know that a director who made lots of junk will always be remembered for one of the most beloved Christmas films of the past fifty years."
"I immediately thought of Warner Brothers pre-codes for this question, for which directors were valued for speed more than anything else. Their main tasks were staying on time, under budget, and keeping the electric antics of James Cagney in the frame. Of the innumerable gems to choose from, I'll go with 'Blonde Crazy,' directed by the rather anonymous pre-code king Roy Del Ruth, in which Cagney and sassy spitfire Joan Blondell con their way across the United States. It's the kind of movie that makes you believe in the so-called genius of the system."
"I hope I won’t be tarred and feathered for my answer: 'Alien.' 'Alien' is a film I didn’t see until I was a senior in high school, over 20 years after its release in 1979. I liked the film a great deal, partly because I’d convinced myself that the whole thing would be as gruesome as the infamous chest-bursting sequence and was thrilled to find that wasn’t the case. Every aspect, from the production design, to the slow-burn tension, to the unforced and natural performances, worked for me. As the years have gone by, I’ve become more and more impressed with 'Alien'; nowadays, I could work it into my top 50 films of all time. But outside of 'Alien' and 'Blade Runner' (which I like, but don’t love), I’ve never thought Ridley Scott was a good director. I find most of his films -- including this year’s 'Prometheus' -- hollow and dispassionate (The only unique element of 'Prometheus' is its visual beauty, an area I don’t think Scott excels at in most of his films, which are grimy to look at). His films are popular, and he’s held up high by many, but he is the very definition of 'not-so-great' as a director to me, just as 'Alien' is a great film."
"This feels like a really obvious and uninspired pick, but I've got to go with 'The Sixth Sense.' M. Night Shyamalan's breakout was such a huge, popular hit it actually seems to have improved the initial reception of his next couple of movies. In retrospect, I feel the flaws of 'Unbreakable' and 'Signs' were largely forgiven because 'The Sixth Sense' was so good. We gave him the benefit of the doubt, but his subsequent films proved he didn't deserve it."
"It's a tie, depending on how one chooses to define 'greatest.' If I include amateurs then the obvious answer is 'The 8mm Film of the Kennedy Assassination,' quite possibly the single most important shot-sequence ever committed to celluloid. Abraham Zapruder had no intention of capturing world history, much less 'making art.' But there's no denying that he framed the subject, got the story, and managed to stick with the event as it unfolded much better than many seasoned photojournalists could have. But if we take 'greatest' and 'not-so-great' to indicate works that, despite their technical limitations, provide both immense pleasure and a perhaps-unintended documentation of the effort that produced them, then Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' is my choice hands-down. Silly but heartbreakingly earnest, it displays not only the limitations of a director whose reach exceeds his grasp, in terms of both talent and resources; it also captures the dynamics of a surrogate family of outcasts with the acuity of Fassbinder and the tenderness of John Waters."
"The classic answer, I think, is Michael Curtiz, who was a studio director-for-hire making like three films a year, but somehow in the middle of all that made 'Casablanca.' But I haven't seen many of his other films, so that doesn't seem entirely fair. So instead I'm picking not a great film, but one very close to my heart: 'Elf.' I used to think it was evidence that Jon Favreau was a truly gifted filmmaker, but everything that's come since suggests that's not exactly true. But 'Elf' really is perfect to me, the movie I want to watch every Christmas and that perfectly balances silly humor with this giant, ungainly heart. I love it, and that's enough for me to forgive 'Cowboys & Aliens.'"
"It's 'Hairspray,' director Adam Shankman's adaptation of the Broadway musical (which, in turn, took its cues from John Waters' fantastic film). Led by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, this buoyant comedy hit all the right notes by planting its tongue firmly in its cheek and encouraging its audience to sing and dance along. 'Hairspray' was so delightful it was easy to suddenly overlook Shankman's putrid output prior to 2007. Look at those titles! 'The Wedding Planner' with Jennifer Lopez! 'Cheaper By the Dozen 2!' Vin Diesel's 'The Pacifier!' Adam Sandler's 'Bedtime Stories!' I held out hope that Shankman's return the musical genre for 'Rock of Ages' would set him straight once again. But when that tone-deaf dud struck a sour chord, I realized that 'Hairspray' was a fluke, a great film somehow created by a largely disappointing director."
"I'm very excited to see what Sam Mendes can do with 007 when 'Skyfall' hits theaters in November, but I'd have been perfectly happy if Sony had given Martin Campbell the keys to the Bond franchise and told him to lock up when he was finished. Campbell's first crack at 007 came in 1995 with the pretty good 'GoldenEye' (though it made an even better video game). But 'GoldenEye' was just the training wheels for his 2006 reboot, 'Casino Royale,' which saved the James Bond franchise from the excesses of 'Die Another Day.' 'Casino Royale' would have been a challenge for any director: in a single film, Campbell needed to (1) honor the history of one of cinema's most popular franchises, (2) excise the missteps that had plagued the Bond franchise for at least three films, and arguably three decades, (3) sell audiences on his decidedly non-Brosnan new Bond, Daniel Craig, (4) find a way to shoot the film's second act -- which takes place almost entirely at a poker table -- in a way that didn't feel static and boring, and (5) make audiences believe a romantic subplot starring the most notorious womanizer in cinematic history. It's impressive that he managed to make a coherent film, let alone a terrific one (and Marc Forster's follow-up, the messy 'Quantum of Solace,' shows just how easily Campbell could have bungled the job). But 'Casino Royale' is all the more impressive when you look at the rest of Campbell's underwhelming filmography, which includes the ridiculous mountain climber thriller 'Vertical Limit,' the turgid melodrama 'Beyond Borders,' and the godawful 'Green Lantern,' which seems to have put his directorial career on life support. But don't worry, Martin -- there's always 'Bond 24.'"
"I suspect films from M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Bay, and Joel Schumacher will be popular answers this week, and for good reason. Truth be told, I considered all those guys too. But then I remembered Bob Clark's 'A Christmas Story.' Let's look at Clark's career. Yes, 'Black Christmas' is a cult classic, and the sexist, degrading 'Porky's' inexplicably has its defenders. Beyond that, Clark has a pitiful resume that includes the Sly Stallone/Dolly Parton turkey 'Rhinestone,' muddled comedies like 'Turk 182!' and the Dan Aykroyd/Gene Hackman abomination 'Loose Cannons,' not one but TWO 'Baby Geniuses' pictures, and 'Karate Dog.' (That last one represents the second time in cinema history that Chevy Chase gave voice to a mystery-solving canine, and believe it or not, it's even worse than 'Oh! Heavenly Dog.') In the middle of it all is 'A Christmas Story,' an unassuming and sweetly nostalgic yuletide tale that perfectly captures what the holiday season feels like when seen through the eyes of a child. The film has become a classic in ways few others ever have. People cherish 'A Christmas Story,' not only because it's great, but also because it never gets old. I can't think of another movie that could sustain being shown on a continual 24-hour loop once a year."
"Depending on what you think of him, Kevin Smith is a good example here with 'Chasing Amy,' but since I maintain that he's a solid director who doesn't get the credit that he deserves I initially resisted the choice. Still, solid isn't great, so I'm going with him. Smith's third feature is incredibly touching and suggested an emotional core that I wish he'd have tapped into more during his career. The film is one of my ten favorite of all time and just a terrifically entertaining romantic dramedy that has the ability to make you both laugh and cry in equal measure. As for the men I nearly cited, Luke Greenfield for 'The Girl Next Door' sprang to mind (a guilty pleasure of mine), as well as Irwin Winkler for 'Life as a House' (ditto). I also heavily considered David Gordon Green for 'All the Real Girls,' but I held back since I haven't completely given up on him as a director and think he might still have it in him."
"'The Sixth Sense,' directed by the since-then disappointing M. Night Shyamalan. I got a phone call (yes, back in the day we used to actually get phone calls inviting us to screenings), asking me to come see 'the new Bruce Willis.' It was a busy time, so Disney set up a screening for me in their Park Avenue space, scheduled to start so I could then get over to the 'important' screening of the day, 'Eyes Wide Shut,' anticipated to be the 'prestige' hit of the summer. I sat in the Disney screening room all by myself. I watched 'the new Bruce Willis' unfold. There weren't even credits on the print. You can imagine how I felt. Shaken, and stirred, I found myself walking across Central Park, muttering out loud, trying to figure out how this director, a newbie to me, pulled off what he pulled off. I must have looked nuts. This many years, repeat viewings and sloggy follow ups from Shyamalan later, I still wonder how he pulled that one off. And, every time he's got a new picture coming down the pike, I hold out hope for his magic to work yet again."
"I couldn't do my original answer -- Alexander Mackendrick's 'Sweet Smell of Success' -- simply because I hadn't seen his other films, and my choice of Christopher Nolan's 'The Prestige' would lead to plenty of hate mail, so for me the best choice has to be Sydney Pollack's 'Three Days of the Condor.' Though I haven't seen 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?,' Pollack's other films all range from average ('Tootsie') to unwatchable ('Out of Africa,' 'The Interpreter'), but 'Condor' is so different that makes me want to use that Sarris quote on Robert Parish: 'What burst of Buddhist contemplation was responsible for such a haunting exception to such an unexceptional career?' 'Condor' fits in with the same feeling of the 70s conspiracy thrillers, but it's existential in nature, almost devoid of any real action. It's the only one of Pollack's films where his frames speak as strongly as his characters, and he allows towering structures to engulf Robert Redford throughout. The film has a conspiracy that is explained, but it seems pointless because the film asks the question of what one man's actions answer. That final freeze frame -- ripped straight from 'The 400 Blows' -- speaks exactly to the film's moral ambivalence and more importantly its truly cynical nature."
'Blade Runner'!!!!!!! (Alternate answer: 'About a Boy')
"My first instinct was to say 'Carrie' because 'Scarface' is overrated and De Palma's got a bunch of junk on his filmography. 'Blow Out' and 'The Untouchables' work for me though, so I'm going with 'Tombstone,' which is credited to director George P. Cosmatos -- who replaced screenwriter Kevin Jarre after the studio took issue with his 'Searchers'-style approach. In fairness to the departed Mr. Cosmatos, I've never seen 'The Beloved,' 'Massacre in Rome,' 'The Cassandra Crossing,' 'Escape to Athena' or 'Of Unknown Origin.' But nobody else has either. Sure Kurt Russell actually directed it, but he doesn't have any directing credits to his name. Perhaps you want to argue 'Tombstone' is just an 'average to good' movie and not a 'great' one. Fine. I'm your huckleberry."
"I will nominate Phil Joanou for 'Three O'Clock High.' Admittedly I have not seen his other films nor his TV work but that wonderful underappreciated '80s classic is tops in my book. And I've never seen it but I wonder how many times 'Event Horizon' will be mentioned on this list. Or for that matter, 'The Rock' -- it's still really good. I don't care how many whirling stupid CGI robots Bay throws at us, 'The Rock' still plays. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, The Mummy!"
"I really like 'American Graffiti.' Who'd'a thunk George Lucas had it in him?"
"I'm not sure if Kurt Wimmer has a large enough body of work to really judge what sort of director he is, but his film 'Equilibrium' is a classic cinematic example of 'one of these things is not like the others, one of these things does not belong.' Considering his other directing credits are 'One Tough Bastard' with the legendary Brian Bosworth and 'Ultraviolet,' 'Equilibrium' has to be considered Wimmer's masterpiece to this point. Yeah, it isn't perfect but it does manage to be a fun, slick dystopian action movie that introduced the world to Christian Bale the action star. That alone makes it Wimmer's best film and a sign he just might be capable of making another good movie someday."
"'Groundhog Day' by Harold Ramis. I can't think of any other movie that holds up so well to repetitive viewing. I've lost count on how many times I've seen it and it's still as funny, touching, thought-provoking and thoroughly original. Needless to say Bill Murray is excellent in it. It's a classic of our time, which not is something I'd say about Ramis' other movies. They're not all terrible, but 'Groundhog Day' stands out. A one-hit wonder."
"If I start at the top of my list of favorite films and simply go down the ranks until I find someone who lucked into something legendary, I guess my answer would have to be the classic Bollywood musical/western/bromance epic 'Sholay,' which assured director Ramesh Sippy a place in the firmaments of his native film industry. Unfortunately, 'Sholay' is also the *only* Ramesh Sippy film I've seen, and while I presume there's a good reason for that, I'd feel wrong so blithely dismissing the rest of his work. Likewise, I've got to excuse Nelson Pereira dos Santos and his masterpiece 'How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman,' especially because 'Vidas Secas' is nearly as good. So I guess that leaves me with James L. Brooks and 'Broadcast News,' one of the best American films of the last half-century and a movie to which we still can't quite catch up (it seems more relevant with every passing year). 'Terms of Endearment' is obviously unworthy of consideration due to the fact that one of the main characters is named 'Flap Horton,' 'Spanglish' is a mess, 'I'll Do Anything' is way weirder than a 'Say Anything...' sequel needed to be, and the fact that projectionists were willing to do the bidding of their bosses and subject paying audiences to all of 'As Good As it Gets' is proof that the events of 'Compliance' are well within the bounds of plausibility. Oh, also, 'How Do You Know.' James L. Brooks is a genius, and his influence on contemporary culture is incalculable, but as a director... he made 'Broadcast News.'"
"Boy, you're really going to get us into trouble with our opinions of what constitutes a 'not-so-great director.' I'm going to pick 'Splash,' which represents the sweet spot between Ron Howard's origins as a quick-and-dirty Corman alumnus and his eventual status as a warm-and-cozy Hollywood hack. That 1984 mermaid tale gets both the comedy and the romance just right, and it was part of a one-two punch that year (with the criminally underrated 'Bachelor Party') that first set up Tom Hanks as a leading leading man of his generation."
"I will always contend that Renny Harlin is one of the Top 5 worst directors to ever have been given a budget and a crew but 'Deep Blue Sea' is a movie that has stood the test of time as being a bonafide cult classic. It's still quoted by many of my friends today and I could watch it over and over and find good things to say about it even if it's just the entertainment value of watching 'smart sharks' chomp down on people. Second best shark movie after the original 'Jaws.'"
"Looking over some of my favorite films to answer this question, I saw a common theme among great films by not-so-great directors: a very specific, special type of performance in front of the camera that constitutes the raison d'être for the whole film. Anything starring Jackie Chan, The Marx Brothers or Fred Astaire, for example, probably doesn't need a great director to succeed. Just let the cameras roll and those performers make the magic happen. My pick works in similar ways, but with a character: 'Goldfinger' by Guy Hamilton. Hamilton was lucky to have a great performer in Sean Connery, but he was also able to rely on the consistent, comforting pleasures of a 007 movie: tuxedos, martinis, gadgets, women and henchmen."
"This one's easy. With Joel Schumacher at the helm, 'Falling Down' is surprisingly grittier, more intense, and just more intriguing than it has any right to be. That's not to say there isn't a certain didacticism at work in the film which one associates with the simplistic Schumacher. But for a while, 'Falling Down' had me convinced that the director was misunderstood or on the receiving end of some bad breaks in Hollywood. I'm sure that the movie has served as a calling card for Schumacher in a sense, perhaps contributing to the unerring ability producers and prominent actors have had to convince themselves that working with him could potentially be in their self-interest. In subsequent years, the only explanation I have for 'Falling Down''s success is the peculiar confluence of self-assurance displayed by lead actor Michael Douglas, the casting of a stable of fine character actors supporting him, and the gritty cinematography by Andrzej Bartkowiak -- who coincidentally went on to become a bad director himself. There is something both obvious and endearing about former costume designer Schumacher's decision to show the slow degradation of Douglas's jobless 'D-FENS' -- from frustrated prole to sociopath-misfit-gone-postal -- in the character's clothes and look. Douglas, eschewing his typical blow-dried locks for a flat-top and horn-rimmed glasses, begins his journey through a pressure-boiling L.A. in the typical short-sleeve, gleaming white button-down and tie one associates with middle management. But by the time he reaches the Santa Monica pier for a face-off with Robert Duvall's retiring cop and we've gotten to know all of D-FENS' scary quirks and pathologies, Douglas is wearing stark black fatigues, an externalization of his broken mental state. This simple costuming decision is at once facile and sophisticated, representative of 'Falling Down' as a whole. It's enough to fool you into thinking Schumacher was reaching for something he might just have been capable of achieving for once: art."
"I'll go with Irvin Kershner and 'The Empire Strikes Back'. His earlier work isn't very inspiring, and neither are the three films he directed after 'Empire': 'Never Say Never Again,' 'Traveling Man' and 'RoboCop 2'. He is the only one who directed a 'Star Wars,' 'James Bond,' and 'Robocop' movie though, so we'll give him that."
"One of the challenges of this question is finding a director that the majority agrees is not so great. However if there is one director who is universally (and arguably unfairly) criticized, it's Michael Bay. Now while I have a fondness for the first 'Transformers' (I know...) I believe that 'The Island' is his greatest film and a great film in general. While its science-fiction concept may not be wholly original, it is still a compelling one and while its trailer ruined the surprise, its reveal in the film itself is expertly done. Without the trailer, the first 45 minutes or so of 'The Island' is a character-driven and story-driven mystery. While some begrudge the film for ditching its concept and moving into the action territory, Michael Bay is a good director of action. 'The Island' is visually stunning, exciting, and has great ideas underneath its shots of things blowing up in slow motion at sunset. This was one of the first films I watched multiple times in a theater when I was 10 and I recently caught up with it on Blu-ray to see if the film stood up to my now more film-versed self. While I certainly saw what some were critical about this time, I still found it to be a film that shouldn't have been a box office flop. To those who criticized and didn't go to see 'The Island': 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' is your fault!"
"For me, the director that immediately comes to mind is M. Night Shyamalan. There's no denying 'The Sixth Sense' breathed new life into the horror genre upon its release, and his follow-ups, 'Unbreakable' and 'Signs,' were well-constructed and enjoyable -- if not flawed -- exercises in genre. But after 'Signs,' his career took a steep decline. His last two features ('The Happening' and 'The Last Airbender') were so abysmal that it's hard to believe the same guy was responsible for 'The Sixth Sense.' Shyamalan's career has taken such a bad turn, that's hard to believe people ever took him seriously, and I don't think it will ever fully recover."
"In order to answer this kind of question, there's the temptation to pick a film by a director that lots of people like -- I don't think I need to name any of them, as it will suffice to say that my sympathies lie with the more militant auteurist types who buck against the perennial award favorites, and who take pleasure in castigating some of those directors as, among other designations, "middlebrow." There are plenty of cases where a director I'd otherwise -- coolly, but not coldly -- classify as 'not great' has managed to make a genuinely great film at least once in their career. On the other hand, one has to examine the whole idea that 'it takes a master to make a masterpiece,' but I won't go down that slippery slope -- at least, not today. And anyway, 'not great' isn't the mission: 'not-so-great' is. So I'll go you one better: one Edward D. Wood, Jr., upon whom popular wisdom has bestowed the honorific 'Worst Director of All Time,' made one film, 'Glen or Glenda?,' that is truly, madly, deeply one of the essential masterpieces of 1950s cinema, and not just in the up-is-down, corporations-are-people framework of demonstrating hip, ironic reverence to Bad Movies. 'Glen or Glenda?' is a confessional broadside, a freak cross-pollination of faux-documentary footage, gauche, Kenneth Anger-esque fantasy sequences, and the irrational presence of Bela Lugosi, uttering nonsensical rhymes and exhorting someone (you!) to 'Pull zhe shtring!' It is awkward, fumbling, true of heart, demented of mind, an exquisitely moving and strong-willed piece of camp art. All of Wood's subsequent films were made with the same desperation-alley production values, but none had the alchemical luminescence, the go-for-broke brilliance, of 'Glen or Glenda?'"
"'Joe vs. the Volcano' by John Patrick Shanley, the quirky screenwriter and playwright who spun up this magical fable for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The MVP of his crew must have been Bo Welch, the production designer who came up with a beautifully twinkle-lit Manhattan cityscape, the Moon as a nighttime ray of light, and a Hawaiian punch bowl of a volcano. The end result is whimsical and sweet, a classic romantic comedy. But the best film ever made by someone with questionably little talent might be 'Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo' by Sam Firstenberg, the absurdly slamming and funky 80's dance-off masterpiece that is perhaps a new definition of the world's most delicious cheese."
"I'll go for the man we love to hate, Paul W.S. Anderson. I have a real soft spot for 'Event Horizon.' I love the premise, the visuals are impressive (especially on the big screen) and although it all goes to hell (literally) in the last half-hour it's a damn fine space horror film. I'll watch anything with Sam Neill in it, and the soundtrack featuring the late great Michael Kamen and Orbital is a great forgotten gem. Well worth a revisit if you've got a large TV and a decent sound system."
"Other than ‘The Rock,’ which I love, I can’t help but think of all the filmmakers who have done only so-so work with fiction movies but have directed great documentaries. The one that pops in my head immediately is Penelope Spheeris and her ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ trilogy. Say what you want about 'Wayne’s World,' but she doesn’t necessarily deserve credit for how good it is, especially if you put it in the context of her whole career. But each of her ‘Decline’ documentaries is an extraordinary record of a specific L.A. music scene. If I have to choose one of the three, I’ll pick the hilarious second film, ‘The Metal Years,’ with its wild portrait of rock ‘n’ roll excess. I really wish she would give us more of these kinds of films for the sake of not just music but America’s cultural history."
"I have a hard time imagining a truly great film that isn't, to a significant degree, the work of a great director. Like, people snark on Michael Curtiz, but just because 'Casablanca' is the best movie he ever directed doesn't mean he spent the rest of his career jerking off: the guy visibly knew what he was doing. But, the qualifier of "greatEST" makes this a little easier, which is how I arrived at 'Speed,' the directorial debut of veteran cinematographer Jan de Bont. 'Speed''s really pretty glorious. It's genuinely exciting, and relentless up until the very end (with Keanu's 'Yeah? Well, I'm taller,' coming when it does, easily one of the most self-aware moments of his entire career). De Bont went on to never direct anything remotely good ever again (with the possible exception of 'Twister,' though that is decidedly removed from the traditional definition of 'good') but he'll always have 'Speed,' probably the best American action picture of the 1990s."
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on August 20, 2012: