Q: We need to honor Andrew Sarris for one more week. Sarris, as one of the patron saints of the auteur theory, loved to champion filmmakers he felt did not get the respect or recognition they deserved. So this week I want to know: who, in your eyes, is an underrated auteur? Who would be the director readers would be most surprised to find in the pantheon of your own version of "The American Cinema?"
The critics' answers:
"Without a doubt, I’d pick John Sayles (who I was happily surprised to see in the top spot on Andrew Sarris’ 1992 Top Ten). He makes magic out of morsels, is a true pioneer of indie cinema, and has wonderful range that I find incredibly under-appreciated. He has this innate ability to take a topic that might be the exact opposite of your personal interests and not only compel you, but also make you passionate about the people/world/scenario. 'Limbo,' 'Lianna,' 'Passion Fish,' 'Lone Star,' 'Brother From Another Planet.' He’s not just an auteur who makes it difficult to pick a favorite film, but also one who makes it difficult to pick a Top 5, or maybe even Top 10."
"James Gray is my nominee for an under-appreciated auteur. Born in 1969 in New York City, Gray is a second generation Russian-American, a curiously underrepresented cultural force when compared to their Irish or Italian counterparts. He's done for the Russian émigré what Scorsese did for the Italian American, producing perfectly crafted insights into the communities in which he grew up. Semi-unremarkable technique portrays a rich vision, and alongside his muse Joaquin Phoenix, Gray has created some of the finest modern fables in all of the American cinema, yet is appreciated in greater note outside of his home country. Much of his work has been touched by misfortune: his sophomore effort, 'The Yards' passed through the infamous Weinstein circus of the mid-1990's, his vision butchered by meddling hands, while 'Two Lovers,' the romantic masterpiece derived from Luchino Visconti's 'Le Notti Bianche,' was consumed by Phoenix's staged descent in to a faux-breakdown upon release in 2009. It was on the promotional trail for that film that the initial stages of the actor's 'I'm Still Here' phase took place, arguably harming the film he was supposedly promoting far more than anything else. In the years since 'Two Lovers' Gray has been the subject of a book for the first time (Jordan Mintzer's 'James Gray'), and the basis of a documentary (Christophe d'Yvoire and Jean-Pierre Lavoignat's 'James Gray's Anatomy'), suggesting that the filmmaker's stock is indeed rising theoretically and critically, if not commercially."
"I saw a movie at this year's Tribeca Film Festival that completely knocked me on my butt: 'Postcards from the Zoo,' by Indonesian director Edwin. It was unlike anything I'd seen at Tribeca up until that point (or, frankly, since), and I was utterly baffled by the fact that almost no one screened it. Truly, it could've been TFF's answer to Sundance's 'Beasts of the Southern Wild.' How and why this never came to fruition is a more detailed (and political) question than can be answered here, but -- at the time -- I felt compelled to write a love letter to the movie, naively hoping my plea would find its way to some film executive. Edwin is undeniably talented, combining an understated, naturalistic style reminiscent of Sofia Coppola with a fantastical and emotionally intelligent flair for storytelling that conjures Jeunet's 'Amelie' or a live-action version of Ghibli. He's that rare director who trusts his audience, never overtly holding our hands to lead us through metaphor, simply allowing his story to unfold and wrap itself around us. My experience seeing 'Postcards from the Zoo' at Tribeca was the first time I'd ever watched a movie that truly felt under the radar -- wrongly so -- and it was both frustrating and oddly exhilarating. I only hope 'Postcards' eventually finds a distributor in the States, so I can share Edwin's masterpiece with colleagues and friends. Either way, he's a relatively unknown director who is now firmly on my radar."
"I always loved that Sarris included Robert Flaherty in his top tier of auteurs, although he did recognize that Flaherty’s films hardly seemed like true documentaries. Nonfiction cinema is an interesting area of discussion with the auteur theory because their small crew size escapes much of the collaborative art obstacle and yet often times the editor is enough of a contributing force that they alone keep even the most personal docs from being primarily one-man efforts. Still, now more than ever we see tons of documentary auteurs, whether they be subjective first-person-style filmmakers or directors simply consistent in their style, tone, or interests. Most documentarians are underrated, but above them all I’d say Frederick Wiseman is most deserving of respect and recognition in this regard, especially since his works are more personal than many realize. And even though he’s considered a major figure in cinema, Netflix doesn't carry any of his titles, in spite of Wiseman’s efforts."
"As it often happens with such questions, picking one director out of a hundred all-time favorites was an agonizing process, the resolution of which was not too unlike blindly picking a name out of a hat. Forsaking all other masters, I'm going with Mikio Naruse, to my eyes the greatest of the great Japanese masters (Ozu, Mizoguchi, etc.). He's the auteur director, sometimes the co-writer, of some of the most sublime movies of his or any era: 'Floating Clouds,' 'When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,' 'Yearning,' 'Scattered Clouds,' 'Flowing,' 'Older Brother Younger Sister'... the list goes on. Paradoxically, when he was at the peak of his powers, his sensibility tended to resemble nothing more special than a slightly-more-supple-than-average handling of bittersweet, soapy melodrama. Truth be told, it's not so much that there are all these deeper layers of meaning that require repeat viewings and an electron microscope to reveal -- but if you are inclined to get acquainted with his work, you'll come to discover that there's much to admire, and much to be surprised by. A phrase that is often invoked to get an approximation of what his movies are like is 'light tragedy;' there was hardly a big emotion he didn't deploy without somehow applying some kind of leavening or counterweight emotion, with impeccable taste, and an enthralling force of personality. For American viewers who cannot exactly pick up and move to New York and wait seventeen years for the next Naruse retrospective, alas, the official pickings are slim: one Criterion disc and a handful of silents released on a 3-disc set through Criterion's Eclipse label. There are more, however, if you know where to look -- almost all of his 89 extant films are 'out there,' equipped with English subtitles thanks to angelic, thankless fans. Then again, if you don't want to go down that rabbit hole, Hulu Plus streams near-immaculate prints of 14 Naruse films for a modest, monthly fee. If you're like me, you'll wish you were watching them right now."
"Though she only has four directed films to her credit, I think Kelly Reichardt is certainly one of the most fascinating up-and-coming auteurs. Reichardt's latest feature, the brooding, slow-burn western 'Meek's Cutoff,' topped many best of lists last year for its stark imagery and desperate tone, but all of her features, including 'River of Grass,' 'Old Joy,' and 'Wendy and Lucy,' have been amongst the most striking American independent features in recent memory. Certainly Reichardt's signature minimalistic style and socially conscious thematic undertones give her films a distinct personal stamp that's worth studying under an auteurist lens."
"Okay, I'm going to go way out on a limb here and name someone I doubt anyone else will even think of and that's Australian horror/genre filmmaker James Wan. Now mind you, I was not a fan of the original 'Saw,' although I respected its craft and the fact that it could lead to such a vast franchise, but I think he really showed his stuff on the follow-up 'Dead Silence,' which had problems but is a visually stunning film. I was equally impressed with last year's 'Insidious,' which took what I loved about 'Poltergeist' and brought it to the modern day, and like 'Dead Silence' it had such a unique vision in terms of the spirits and the world they inhabited. Wan wears his influences on his sleeve and while not all his films have worked narratively, I find him to be the best of the modern horror auteurs along with Ti West, who actually is American… but you didn't specify they had to be American necessarily."
"Putting aside the sticky of issue of just what constitutes an auteur, the filmmaker I think doesn't get his due is George Roy Hill, mainly because his oeuvre is as eclectic as any American director since Howard Hawks. But whether he was making Westerns, science fiction, rom-coms, dramas or musicals, he accrued an extraordinary slate of films: 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' 'The World According to Garp,' 'The World of Henry Orient,' 'A Little Romance,' 'Thoroughly Modern Millie,' 'Slap Shot,' 'The Sting,' and on and on. Hill battled Parkinson's Disease later in life and made few public appearances after his final film, 'Funny Farm,' so he didn't get the kind of film-festival accolades or critics-group prizes that would have cemented his reputation as a great post-WWII filmmaker."
"A whole bunch of Japanese filmmakers immediately sprung to mind, because naturally when I think of Sarris' 'The American Cinema,' I think about Japanese filmmakers. To be honest, I'm usually thinking of Japanese filmmakers, regardless of the prompt -- my response to the Pixar question a few weeks back was almost 'Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell,' until at the last second I remembered that 'Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell' was only the *working* title for 'Cars 2.' Anyway, where was I? Right, Masahiro Shinoda. Shinoda is no stranger to global acclaim, but his absence from the pantheon of true masters is as troubling as it is destined to be undone. Criterion (and recently their Hulu channel) have taken pains to affirm Shinoda's enduring greatness, but I've yet to get the sense that people are appreciating what Criterion's efforts are insinuating. Shinoda isn't / wasn't explicit enough in his radicalism to overshadow the more fetishized of the feral auteurs to emerge from Japan's turbulent 60s (Shinoda, for example, never made a film that ends with its heroine parading her lover's severed penis around the streets of Tokyo), and his rabid curiosity and arresting directorial command were often overlooked for their B-grade trappings. In the interest of keeping this in check, I'll just say that 'Pale Flower' is the greatest yakuza film ever made, 'Killers on Parade' is the sort of gleefully demented stuff that practically paved the road leading to the Alamo Drafthouse, 'Himiko' is haunting, 'Double Suicide' remains one of the most boldly confrontational meta-experiences the cinema has to offer, and 'Silence' -- which Scorsese is hell-bent on remaking -- is the movie that 'The Passion of the Christ' so desperately wished to be, as mercilessly thorough an examination of faith as 'Ordet' or 'Breaking the Waves.' And, as if he weren't cool enough already, I'm also pretty sure that he is in no way related to that Shinoda guy from Linkin Park."
"Richard Quine, a brilliant comedy director—he was the mentor of Blake Edwards--who was no less adept at melodramas and film noirs. Among his best work: 'The Solid Gold Cadillac,' in which Judy Holliday is a common stockholder in a major manufacturing corporation who ends up blundering her way to the executive suite—I dream of a remake for the new era of Wall Street malfeasance, with Anna Faris in the lead. And then there is 'Strangers When We Meet,' in which Kim Novak (Quine’s muse and unrequited love object) is a West L.A. housewife trapped in a passionless marriage who enters into an affair with her architect neighbor (Kirk Douglas). It is one of the great movies about the underside of the postwar American dream of domestic bliss—the movie 'Revolutionary Road' wished it could have been."
"The most criminally underrated modern auteur is Joe Dante, the brilliant filmmaker responsible for such scathingly funny and socially aware genre films as 'Piranha,' 'Gremlins,' 'The 'burbs,' 'Gremlin's 2: The New Batch,' 'Matinee,' and 'Small Soldiers.' In their own ways, each of these films examines the breakdown of different American institutions and the ripple effect their failures have on the common man. By imbedding cutting and unflinching critiques of issues like capitalist greed, paranoia, militarization, and artistic compromise within Classical Hollywood narrative structures, Dante engages and entertains viewers simultaneously, a rare feat for any mainstream auteur. Dante's cinema is always a seamless and entertaining rage against the machine."
"To me an auteur is someone whose work you can look at blindly and say, aha!, this is by so-and-so. My pick is Errol Morris. No one ever approached the documentary film from a perspective like his before and, while there have been plenty of imitators, no one out there has ever quite duplicated his style. The logline for 'Fast, Cheap and Out of Control' looks like a bunch of random words stitched together haphazardly, but the film harmonizes and emerges as one of the more insightful (and beautiful and fun) works ever put to film."
"Larry Cohen, mad genius behind 'It's Alive' and 'God Told Me To.' I just discovered he also directed 'The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover' which was described as 'Watergate-sploitation.' The man could tell a story, seemed to love his actors and, in his horror work, built upon a tradition, something a lot of modern horror films mistake for tracing over the lines. I would also say Val Lewton, a filmmaker I love in a similar way. They made 'those kinds of pictures' but with love and a belief in genre as a means by which they could get their own demons out of their heads. Seriously: consider scheduling a double feature of 'It's Alive' and 'Cat People' sometime soon."
"I'm not sure it would surprise anyone, but the director in my personal 'pantheon' or maybe 'far side of paradise' category who I don't think gets sufficient mainstream critical appreciation (although he's well beloved of Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier) is the late Richard Quine, director of the wonderfully muted and sad romantic comedy 'Bell, Book And Candle,' the deceptively Hollywoodized romantic tragedy 'Strangers When We Meet' and many other searching, beautifully shaded off-kilter genre pieces (his noir with Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray, 'Pushover,' was a film Godard had in mind while creating 'Breathless'). Check him out!"
"Two directors in my pantheon come from television and so, despite each making only a few features, have a huge catalog of filmed material to justify their auteur status: Joss Whedon and Mike Judge. They both have identifiable visual signatures and rhythms; the fact that each writes his own material means that each is particularly attuned to character and dialogue, and it's easy to tell when you're in their cinematic worlds. Whedon's career has been a long exploration of friendship, family, and teamwork in the context of serving something bigger than yourself; Judges's a long consideration of the role stupidity and authority plays in making ordinary people's everyday lives a dim comedy."
"I'm constantly beating the drum for the once-popular Japanese actor and filmmaker Jūzō Itami, director in the 1980s and 1990s of 'Tampopo,' 'The Funeral,' and the 'Taxing Woman' duo. Son of noted pre-World War II director Mansaku Itami, he took up screenwriting and directing at age 50 and made ten films of remarkable thematic and tonal consistency, mostly jabbing at his native culture's institutions and over-accelerated Westernization. His first films proved incredibly popular in Japan and in the West, especially 'Tampopo,' a 'noodle Western' constructed of comic vignettes where sex, food, and genre conventions collided. He knew what he wanted to say and had the talent and, thanks to early successes, opportunities to foster even more personal projects despite the gradual lessening of box office receipts. While not conforming to the early notion of an auteur navigating the system and plugging in personal expression where he could, Itami totally oversaw all aspects of his productions and imbued them with his clear-eyed, bittersweet views on justice, tradition, and common human foibles. His entire body of work deserves reevaluation and discovery as a major chunk of late 20th-century popular art."
"The beauty of today's cinephile culture in which we have better access to things that few had even heard of 30 years ago. The problem is that having your own secret auteur is more difficult. 'Underrated' auteurs usually fall into two categories these days: the first are often mainstream Hollywood directors who works have been misjudged (Paul W.S. Anderson, Nevidine/Taylor), and then there are directors emerging from the margins of cinephelia whose work is widely unseen, much less even known by many film critics. Sometimes championing these artists feels like shouting into a black hole, but isn't part of film criticism pointing your audience to films and filmmakers they wouldn't otherwise see? That being said, I'm choosing the Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo. Some people may know Szabo from his more recent work on films like 'Being Julia' or possibly 'Sunshine' with Ralph Fiennes, but his early and very autobiographical work from the 1960s is highly personal and emotionally mesmerizing. 'Father' is a devastating film about the way children often create myths and how those affect the choices we make when we're older, and 'LoveFilm' is an expressive look at the fallout of the 1956 revolution (both are out via Kino DVD in decent transfers). His work in Germany with the actor Klaus Maria Brandauer is more reserved in their approach toward a more objective narrative, but brutal in their examination of figures who succumb to the pressures of a totalitarian state (His film 'Mephisto' took on special meaning when it was later revealed he had been an informant himself). I'm not sure why Szabo's films never became as well known as the work of Godard or Fassbinder or Antonioni, but he's a New Wave figure who took the auteur label seriously: you cannot remove the man from the films, nor the films from the man."
"I think Lynn Shelton is going to be the second woman to win a Best Director Oscar. She has an almost mystical ability to draw out the most natural performances from her cast. I think she's gonna find the right project at the right time with the right stars and just take over the world."
"The names that I toyed with this week included Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, or even David Gordon Green, but since this is really about who I find to be an underrated auteur, I have to be honest and go with Kevin Smith. I think that in all the fuss over his off-the-field antics if you will, many people have lost sight of his talents as a filmmaker. Yes, it may have taken him up until the last few years to really hone his directorial skills, but that's never been what makes him interesting. It's always been his writing and his take on male bonding. In a way, he didn't just help to revolutionize indie cinema in the '90s and assist in creating the bromance genre that's so popular today, he also was sort of a different branch of the mumblecore movement to me. The visuals have always been second to the characters and their issues (with the possible exception of 'Red State,' which was actually well shot and works on different levels than usual for Smith), and I've responded strongly each and every time. I'm kind of a Smith apologist at this point, and that's fine with me, since when I think of underrated auteurs, he's one of the first that pops into my head."
"I'm going with John Dahl -- and Andrew Sarris might've agreed. Dahl peaked in from 1989-1994 with three straight top-shelf modern noirs, 'Kill Me Again,' 'Red Rock West' and in particular, 'The Last Seduction.' Then, though he's directed some quality television, Dahl seemed to drift away, though 'Rounders' in 1998 and 'You Kill Me' in 2007 suggested he remained an enviable storyteller. Sarris recognized Dahl's value. In his review of 'You Kill Me' -- an under-appreciated and dark 12-step comedy -- Sarris wrote the film 'reaffirms Mr. Dahl's distinctive role as the Val Lewton of B movies for our time.'"
"I would have to pick Edward Burns as an underrated auteur. Ever since bursting onto the scene with his Sundance-winning 'The Brothers McMullen,' he's been doing his own thing his own way. Some people mock me for liking his stuff as much as I do, but I've always found Burns' mix of character-based comedy and drama to be very relatable. I'll be the first to admit that he has yet to make the theoretical Great American Film. Nevertheless, I believe he has a singular voice. He writes, directs, and acts in his own projects, many times using a crew of no more than three people. Burns has been a pioneer of new release models for indie films, too. His last two flicks, 'Nice Guy Johnny' and 'Newlyweds,' scrapped theatrical release altogether, instead opting for a VOD/DVD/iTunes rollout. The approach was successful on both counts. Love him or hate him (and he seems to inspire that kind of response), Burns is a filmmaker who marches to the beat of his own drummer, exploring the lives and loves of everyday characters in an intimate way."
"Noah Baumbach is often regarded as the least impressive member of a group of loosely-linked directors that includes his predecessor Whit Stillman and his frequent collaborator Wes Anderson. And it’s not hard to see why; Baumbach’s films are pricklier, more cynical, and generally harder to enjoy. At best, Baumbach is generally regarded as the creator of a single masterpiece: 2005’s divorce drama 'The Squid and the Whale.' 'The Squid and the Whale' is his best movie, but his oeuvre is packed with films worth seeing, from mid-90s curios like 'Mr. Jealousy' and 'Highball' to more mature, divisive work like 'Margot at the Wedding' and 'Greenberg.' His skill was clear from his first film, 1995’s 'Kicking and Screaming.' It’s his funniest and most accessible work, but it also manages to capture the confusion and ennui of post-graduate life more completely than any other film I’ve seen (and, I’ve found, makes a perfect graduation present). But it’s his last three films -- 'The Squid and the Whale,' 'Margot,' and 'Greenberg' -- that best show off the full range of his talents. As both a writer and a director, Baumbach has developed a unique ability to capture petty, unlikable people in a way that feels uncomfortably realistic. There are plenty of films about anti-heroes that you’re 'not supposed to like,' but Baumbach has made two consecutive, fascinating films with genuinely unlikable central characters. Both are difficult (and often unpleasant) to watch, but they stick in my mind in a way that few recent dramas have, and possess a voice and style that’s unmistakably his."
"Bennett Miller. How a guy directs two excellent films in a row ('Capote' and 'Moneyball,' respectively, the former being one of the better movies of the aughts) without being included in conversations of this sort is beyond me, but hopefully 'Foxcatcher' will earn him some more street cred."
"Most of Don Coscarelli's films are so blatantly gonzo and surreal that he's become somewhat of a cult-auteur over the past twenty years. Like Cronenberg, Lynch and Verhoeven (side note: if you don't think Verhoeven is an auteur, I'd love to argue that out with you at a later date), Coscarelli's films make wily presumptions about the state of things sexually and politically in America culture. Sure, he has his clunkers (see 'The Beastmaster'), but look at 'Phantasm,' a wholly original and terrifying horror film with some of the most unique visual tones of any horror movie in the past 30 plus years since its release. I think its Coscarelli's last two films however that have really set him apart. Coscarelli's adaptation of Joe Lansdale's 'Bubba-Ho-Tep' is one of the strangest films I can remember, and his distinct stye comes through brilliantly. His newest film, 'John Dies at the End' and the upcoming sequel for 'Bubba-Ho-Tep' look to me like Coscarelli's style is maturing without losing the eccentric charms of his previous films."
"A perfect filmmaker that does not get enough credit from general audiences or critics is Tom McCarthy, the vastly underrated director of 'The Station Agent,' 'The Visitor' and 'Win Win,' all stories of lower middle-class American life. His films are presented without flashy camerawork and do not call attention to themselves or their subject matter but they are so full of clever wordplay, strong character moments, and heartfelt storytelling. He is an auteur of sincerity."
"German director, Doris Dörrie. From 'Men...' to 'Nobody Loves Me' to 'Cherry Blossoms,' she makes brilliant observations on men and women, love and sex."
"The most underrated auteur currently working today? Rob Zombie, whose work boasts not only a unique gonzo-backwoods-carnival-from-hell style, but also a potent undercurrent of nasty nihilism -- and, specifically, a consistent view of family and society, as horrifyingly dysfunctional systems -- that sets his films apart from so many of their modern genre brethren."
"I have been annoyingly persistent in my support of Paul W.S. Anderson, that video-game adapter with an eye for compositions in-depth and a natural flair for 3-D. But alas, I can't induct him into my Pantheon just yet. Or at least until 'Resident Evil 5' comes out. Right now he would be filed next to Allan Dwan in 'Expressive Esoterica.' I would instead induct one of Anderson's ancestors, Raoul Walsh. Here's another genre artist who adapted disreputable material (adventure and western novels), and was equally adept at utilizing new technology, from widescreen in 'The Big Trail' to 3-D in 'Gun Fury.' But while Anderson's films assert a striking visual personality, his characters tend toward flat archetypes. Walsh is a masterful visual stylist, of vast vistas and clogged urban jungles, but he also injects his characters with a swaggering vitality. His characters compose a rogues gallery of could-be heroes, aware of virtue but more inclined to light out for the unknown and express their individuality, however self-destructive that may be."
"Out of all the directors out there I choose Whit Stillman. He only has four movies to his name, but three are impeccable and the fourth is still pleasantly entertaining. Watching one of them is like entering 'a self-contained world with its own lawns and landscapes,' to borrow Sarris' own words on the subject of pantheon directors. Visually I'm not sure there's much you can say about his movies, but they have an old-fashioned optimism and mannered charm that's refreshing and clearly defines the boundaries between his world and ours."
"His remake of 'The Wicker Man' notwithstanding, Neil LaBute is an underrated auteur. His directorial style is distinctive, and his dialogue always has depth. Films like 'In the Company of Men' and 'Your Friends and Neighbors' show an uglier part of America, one that deserves to be explored. I always rush to see his dark comedies because he's unafraid to have his characters play cruel games on each other. His stuff is both compelling and wrenching, which is precisely why he'll get his own chapter if/when I write my own version of 'The American Cinema.'"
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on July 2, 2012: