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20 Overlooked Movies Made By Famous Directors

12 January 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Liam Hathaway

underrated movies acclaimed directors

Here are some great films which often do not seem to get the attention they sorely deserve. They come from famous directors, or directors that have at least enjoyed some degree of success. Whether they were small-budget debuts, box-office bombs, critically panned, overshadowed by the director’s previous or future work or simply never caught on with their contemporary audiences – they are still sadly overlooked.

Some of the following titles may have since garnered small cult followings but are still arguably under the radar. Though this list is not always suggesting that the mentioned films are the respected director’s best work, these films are still definitely worth a watch.

 

20. Following (1998) by Christopher Nolan

following-christopher-nolan

What is it about? Before Nolan became one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, he started his career by shooting this tiny film on a shoestring budget in monochromatic black and white with a typically perplexing narrative. A writer follows pedestrians in order to gain inspiration for a novel – he is soon approached by a burglar who allows him to ‘follow’ his break-ins and other criminal activities.

Why is it overlooked? Considering the average box-office earning of every other Nolan film is somewhere around $500 million and Following took in around $200,000, it must give you some idea as to why. Although, his future success has shed light on this interesting little film.

 

19. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) by David Lynch

Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me

What is it about? A prequel to Lynch’s own celebrated cult 90s TV show, Twin Peaks concerning the brutal and mystery-shrouded murder of a prom queen and the revelations and dual-lives which surface from the small town’s populace as a result. The film gives us the harrowing last seven days of Laura Palmer (said prom queen, and a frightfully intense performance from Sheryl Lee too).

Fire Walk With Me is often an incredibly horrifying experience and goes to places where even your nightmares are not supposed to take you. The series often delved into sordid subject matter but here it is propelled it to an almost exhausting degree (see the ‘Pink Room’ scene and Killer Bob’s blood-freezing occurrences).

Why is it overlooked? Where to start? Well, the series’ focus of dreams involving backward-speaking dwarves, visions of foretelling giants and “damn fine coffee” struck a chord with contemporary audiences. But, by the time the film was released, the novelty of the show had long worn off and audiences just wanted answers – plain, un-enigmatic answers. To many, the film did not deliver and most of the show’s cast could not reprise their roles or were written out and instead replaced with jarring cameos from David Bowie and Chris Isaak! Even Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has very little screen time!

The film was a commercial failure and was lambasted by critics, many fans of the show were left frustrated by its lack of tied loose ends which remained after the TV series’ abrupt cancellation. Lynch’s response to its failure was Lost Highway a film even more alienating and cryptic, but not nearly as disturbing. Fire Walk With Me is not Lynch’s best work a long way – but severely overlooked nonetheless.

 

18. Spider (2002) by David Cronenberg

spider movie

What is it about? David Cleg, a constantly mumbling and clearly confused man (Ralph Fiennes) is released from a mental institution and begins to piece together his repressed childhood memories. There are many great Cronenberg films that do not feature exploding heads, corpus invading parasites or vagina-like chest slits such as M. Butterfly, Crash or Eastern Promises; Spider is one of his most accomplished yet uncelebrated ventures outside of his popular body-horror work.

Why is it overlooked? Trying to discern Fiennes mumbled delivery of lines is especially tough without subtitles and with it being a Cronenberg film, many people will be turned off to the fact that no one sprouts tentacles or implodes. But, those who stick with Spider will be gifted with a compelling and ultimately sinister piece of work.

 

17. Duel (1971) by Steven Spielberg

duel movie

What is it about? Duel is film that condenses the elements of a thriller into the most bare and simple of forms – a massive truck chasing a man in a small car for 90 minutes resulting in nothing but pure suspense. “Psycho on wheels” as Spielberg put it himself.

Why is it overlooked? Duel was initially a TV movie that got a small theatre release due to its overwhelming ratings response. Needless to say, it was pivotal in getting Spielberg’s career in film up and running. Though regarded as a mini-masterpiece, Duel was later overshadowed by homesick aliens, an iconoclastic archaeologist and genetically engineered dinosaurs among other high-concept cinematic endeavours. Four years after its release, Spielberg would have effectively recreated Duel on water with a shark standing in for the truck in the original blockbuster, Jaws.

 

16. Salvador (1985) by Oliver Stone

salvador-1986

What is it about? The film features a down on his luck, alcoholic but veteran photo-journalist, Richard Boyle (James Woods) who ventures to El Salvador to earn a quick buck covering what he believes to be a small civil war. He eventually ends up becoming unwillingly and emotionally attached to the horrendous events which he is supposed to be covering objectively and later falls in love with a woman whom he intends to rescue from the country. The film features one exhilarating combat sequence from the perspective of the journalists who are ‘shooting’ with cameras within the actual war-zone.

If you like Platoon, watch Salvador to see how Stone got his practice of simulating war to memorable effect. James Woods’ performance is the highlight of the film as he changes from a slob to a determined freedom fighter.

Why is it overlooked? Though not Oliver Stone’s first directorial offering, Salvador pre-dated the release of his most popular and financially successful releases. The likes of his hugely successful Vietnam War movies such as Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July, his more politically charged outings such as Wall Street and JFK and even his more controversial and somewhat deranged Natural Born Killers or U-Turn left Salvador almost completely eclipsed even though it is Oliver Stone’s first official “Oliver Stone movie”.

 

15. A Simple Plan (1998) by Sam Raimi

A Simple Plan

What is it about? A group of three small-town Americans discover a crashed plane loaded with $4 million in ransom money and decide to keep it leading to the unveiling of family secrets, betrayal and murder. The film is a brilliant exploration into the capability of committing unspeakably evil acts of that people possess, even the supposedly good people. A Simple Plan maintains a level of suspense that is often at an unsustainably high level and keeps you empathetically hooked right up until its emotionally shattering denouement. Also, Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristically spare score adds to the film’s cold visuals and injects an element of creepiness to the proceedings.

Why is it overlooked? Though it was critically hailed, the film failed at the box-office. Also, A Simple Plan happens to be one of Raimi’s films that was released during the void of time between his revered Dead trilogy and the blockbuster-comic-adaptation-resurgence-starting Spiderman trilogy – his most popular work.

 

14. The Addiction (1995) by Abel Ferrara

addiction movie

What is it about? Picking up his usual gritty aesthetics and tendencies and dropping them in a more heightened supernatural territory. With The Addiction, Ferrara carved an interesting fable out of his usual New York setting incorporating vampirism to serve as a blatant metaphor for the drugs and catholic guilt. The latter being a recurrning theme in the director’s work.

Why is it overlooked? Ferrara’s more notorious films are what made his name, the trashiness of Driller Killer and the depravity of Bad Lieutenant are what has stuck in audiences’ memories the longest; The Addiction is a decidedly subtler and less painstaking experience. Also, despite featuring Ferrara favourite Christopher Walken on the front cover of the DVD, he is only in the film for little over five minutes.

 

13. Spontaneous Combustion (1990) by Tobe Hooper

Spontaneous-Combustion-movie

What is it about? Sam, (the ever watchable Brad Dourif in a rare starring role) whose parents were test subjects in an atomic bomb facility learns that he can control fire with his mind. Though not a great, or even good, film by any means – Spontaneous Combustion falls into the dubious ‘hilariously terrible yet astonishingly entertaining’ category.

Why is it overlooked? Hooper’s career trajectory took a slight nosedive regarding quality after making the game-changing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other 80s horror staples such as Salem’s Lot and Poltergeist. Even the overwhelmingly bizarre box-office flop Lifeforce has now got its following. Spontaneous Combustion is the career mid-point where his films which were pretty damn good and ones which were astonishingly bad met to maniacal results.

 

12. Until The End Of The World (1991) by Wim Wenders

Until The End Of The World

What is it about? Another film that dealt with the anxieties of approaching Y2K; Until The End Of The World is a visually breath-taking experience that concerns a worldwide panic instigated by a nuclear satellite that has fallen out of orbit and threatens to debase large parts of the globe into a Chernobyl-esque waste land. Wim Wenders who had near enough perfected the ‘road movie’ with films such as Paris, Texas and Kings Of The Road decided to display his mastery of the formula by creating one that traversed multiple continents with an apocalypse themed, future-based narrative.

Why is it overlooked? Wenders’ New German Cinema work remains his most renowned work and ‘Until The End’ was deemed a total misfire by many and was a major box-office flop – largely due to a staggering two hours being cut for theatres rendering it a nonsensical mess. Still, the director’s cut is the way to go despite its whopping run time that nears five hours!

 

11. Rumble Fish (1983) by Francis Ford Coppola

Rumble Fish

What is it about? Something of an art-house/coming-of-age drama and Coppola’s second foray into adapting S.E. Hinton material for the big screen following The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish is a decidedly better and more visually audacious film. The narrative follows a young gang member, who aspires to follow in the footsteps of his older and effortlessly cool but mysterious brother. The film features many up-and-comers of the time such as Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Laurence Fishburne, Chris Penn and Coppola’s own nephew, Nicolas Cage as well as a sublime percussion based score from Stewart Copeland of The Police.

Why is it overlooked? Rumble Fish is virtually a French New Wave film made in Oklahoma, something that simply did not translate well with mainstream audiences and was met with mostly negative reviews upon release. After the tumultuous production of Apocalypse Now, Coppola opted for smaller productions for his next few films and they suffered greatly in comparison. Much like William Friedkin, the director’s earlier releases have tended to overshadow much of his later output. This is the best of the directors post 70s work.

 

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  • Thatcher Ford Volz

    I’m Glad ‘After Hours’ is number 1, it’s one of my favorites of all times.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Sidney Lumet’s Failsafe was largely ignored in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s laugh-out-loud Dr. Strangelove.

  • nrvs

    After Hours is my all time favourite movie. Very happy to see it on this list :)

  • Ted Wolf

    Nice list.

  • Leon Horka

    What about Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz or Simon of the Desert?

  • sminnis

    A Simple Plan is my favorite Raimi film.