In a medium dominated by the celebrity of actors, recognition can be tough for directors to attain. Few crack through the mainstream pavement of being behind the camera, but those that do (Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg) are eternally lauded as the torchbearers of cinematic creativity. Conversely, filmmakers who have scored box office hits, critical praise, or even a few Academy Awards are often swept up in the broom of time; save for the dedicated cinephiles who preserve their artistic relevance.
The directors on this list fall under the latter category. Many have at one point or another made a splash in American cinema, basked in their five minutes of fame, and eventually returned to their loyal core audience. Several have even drawn praise in the form of a Best Director Oscar, an award that’s proven its inability to recognize legendary figures (Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Robert Altman) since its inception.
So while the characteristics of greatness are often difficult to define, these particular filmmakers have undoubtedly slipped through the cracks of conversation and into movie-making oblivion. These are the 10 Most Underrated Hollywood Directors of All Time.
10. Tony Scott
Ironically, one of Hollywood’s most successful action directors initially pursued a career in the documentary field. Raised in the shadow of older brother Ridley, Tony Scott started out doing commercials and short form docs in the U.K., before ultimately making the switch to fiction with 1983’s The Hunger. Though unsuccessful, the film sparked the interest of American producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who commissioned Scott to direct 1986’s summer smash Top Gun.
Gun introduced what would become the Tony Scott template: working class heroes, popcorn-thriller storylines, and an emphasis on the adrenaline of the artform. Rarely is a Scott scene (or plot) restricted by a static camera, but instead a flurry of movements, edits, and propulsive colors that saturate films like Days of Thunder (1990), Enemy Of The State (1998), and Spy Game (2001).
Each of these outings carry with them an impeccable pop style, one that has deservedly gone on to dictate the last three decades of action in Hollywood. Yet somehow, the reverence that comes with such wide spanning influence avoided Scott, who passed away in 2012.
Posthumously, the action auteur’s filmography remains an amazing achievement. Top notch collaborations with Shane Black (1991’s The Last Boy Scout) and Quentin Tarantino (1993’s True Romance) highlight Scott’s ability to adhere to a killer script, while acting muse Denzel Washington made a career out of playing the director’s upright hero in five films. One of which, 2004’s Man on Fire, resulted in Scott’s ultra-frenetic masterpiece. Appropriately enough, it drew mixed reviews.
Tony Scott’s tantalizing movie candy may have worn the tooth of stuffy film critics, but that shouldn’t condemn a brilliant career of high-end lowbrow entertainment. Without Scott, who knows where the modern blockbuster would be.
9. Walter HillWalter Hill’s greatest claim to fame is being the guy who directed 48 Hrs. (1982), the influential buddy-cop comedy that introduced the world to Eddie Murphy. In terms of success, it’s an understandable focal point. But for cinephiles with a particular eye towards criminal fantasy, the rest of Hill’s resume is grossly forgotten. And fun.
Getting his start as a screenwriter in the early 70’s, Hill sharpened his haiku-style dialogue in crime pictures like Hickey And Boggs (1972) and The Drowning Pool (1975) before landing himself a seat in the big chair. Once promoted to writer/director, Hill would continue to push this sparse agenda through the film noir masterpiece The Driver (1978) and the cartoony cult classic The Warriors (1979); two box office failures that revolutionized arthouse leanings in action cinema. By Integrating violence, fantasy, and a Jim Steranko level of comic book influence, Hill’s films embodied hipster before the term became an ironic compliment.
This eccentric style would be pushed even further in 1984’s Streets of Fire, a synthpop ode to old school action that beat Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005) by two decades. Coupled with the delightful comedy of Brewster’s Millions (1985) and the Frank Capra-esque noir of Johnny Handsome (1989), the director’s exaggerated flair and old soul dialect are a weird world unto themselves. Part Sam Peckinpaugh, part Howards Hawks, all Walter Hill.
Embracing his B-picture status wholeheartedly, Hill has made a career of inverting genre conventions and twisting them to meet his own definition of cool. The results? One of Hollywood’s hippest and most maligned careers.
8. Paul SchraderAs another screenwriter-turned-director, Paul Schrader has meticulously shown what skilled storytelling can do in the guise of a single motif: “the man in the room.” Coined by Schrader himself, the phrase summates his eternal theme of loners in a world of obsession, self-destruction, and eventual redemption – inspired in equal parts by Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and the director’s own darkened psyche. All elements that make sense from a man raised Midwestern Catholic, did not see a movie until he was eighteen, and began his career as a film scholar.
Schrader’s early works are intriguing (1974’s The Yakuza), but the scope of his creative mission wouldn’t arrive until he penned Martin Scorsese’s dark masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976). Diving head on into a skanky world of lust, violence, and deep-seeded depression, the script; along with 1980’s Raging Bull, gave Schrader the juice to strike out on his own. Fortunately, he took the dire isolation of his characters with him.
Beginning with Hardcore in 1979, and running through American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), and The Walker (2007), Schrader’s dazzling monuments to professional men of the night are some of Hollywood’s best modern film noir. As a master of existentialist undertones, he shades each character study ever so slightly, amassing a distinct viewing experience each time out. This obsessive nature also applies to Schrader’s biopics, which range from the pornographic (2002’s Auto Focus) to the poetic (1985’s Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters).
It’s baffling that Paul Schrader is ignored as a great director, especially given his close association with Scorsese. Regardless, the sheer uniformity of his resume is a brilliantly compulsive achievement. Some men are so good at telling stories that they can tell the same one over and over. Schrader is one of those men.
7. Joel Schumacher
In an age of retrospect and internet revision, it’s flooring that a single terrible picture is still enough to condemn a great career. But such is the case with writer/director Joel Schumacher, whose been unable to escape the batnippled shadow of 1997’s megaflop Batman & Robin. It’s hilariously bad in every way, but judging Schumacher solely by this film is like remembering Brian De Palma for The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990) – it’s misleading, and more than a little unfair.
Getting his start as a costume designer in the late 70’s, Schumacher took the old school approach and worked his way up the Hollywood ranks to direct St. Elmo’s Fire in 1985. As a slightly matured take on John Hughes’ Brat Pack, the film established Schumacher’s loose signature: blue collar direction wrapped in a sleek commercial package.
Be it teenage vampires (1987’s The Lost Boys), young death defiers (1990’s Flatliners) or racially sensitive lawyers (1996’s A Time To Kill), the director never compromised entertainment for art, and the studios loved him for it. Conversely, Schumacher’s pictures, though workmanlike in style, sneaked in a thematic punch that rivaled the artsiest of auteur filmmakers.
The trio of masterpieces that bear his stamp: Falling Down (1993), 8mm (1999), and Phone Booth (2002), are about as bleak as Hollywood has ever gotten. Each film tackles the mental demise of modern man, but through rotating genres (drama, noir, suspense) and a chameleonic talent for the material, Schumacher played ball with the commercial mold and wound up expanding its very limits. As a result, the goofball epidemics that were his Batman films are ultimately buried under four decades of first-rate material.
From glossy to gritty and everything in between, Joel Schumacher’s textured career is one of craftsmanship and exceptional storytelling. It’s nothing particularly flashy, but a collection of work this detailed needs nothing more to impress.
6. Michael Curtiz
Born Kertész Kaminer Manó in 1886, Hungarian director Michael Curtiz summed up his movie method with a single pithy quip: “Who cares about character? I make it go so fast nobody notices.” That was how he made films, for better or for worse. Often times, it turned out for the better. Especially at Warner Bros. where genre pictures milked the thrill of arrows and tommy guns – a knack the director quickly spun into box office gold.
Visually, Curtiz had few equals. Technicolor spectaculars that included Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) are filled to the brim with kinetic action and lavish production, single-handedly legitimizing the swashbuckler for decades to come. As the first of twelve collaborations with acting muse Errol Flynn, Curtiz became the cultivator of adventure films long before the invention of the summer blockbuster. But while these pictures flawlessly showcased his talent for imagery, it was with the melodrama that Curtiz truly found his stride.
Family oriented stories like Four Daughters (1938) and Mildred Pierce (1945) are textbook examples in directorial subtlety, contrasting a superficially tame world with emotionally raucous undertones.
Along with The Sea Wolf (1941) and Casablanca (1942), they integrated immaculate taste with some of the best acting of it’s time, courtesy of icons like Joan Crawford and Humphrey Bogart. The latter film, Curtiz’s unquestionable masterpiece, remains the ultimate Hollywood experience: snappy dialogue, glamorous stars, and a craftsmanship that ages like fine wine. That it’s still regularly cited as one of the greatest films of all time is a credit to it’s multi-faceted connoisseur.
Equal parts adventure visionary and dramatic savant, Michael Curtiz’s talents as a filmmaker are as sly as they are impressive. A running addition to the box office kings of yesteryear, his award heavy resume is a thing of nuanced beauty. Here’s looking at you, Curtiz.