No matter how highly regarded a director may be, it is often not possible for all of their films to have such high acclaim (unless they’re Jean Vigo or Charles Laughton).
Yet caution must be taken when approaching the “classics” of the celebrated directors, as sometimes their more esteemed films end up disappointing, whereas their lesser known work makes you wonder why it is so lesser known.
1. The Steamroller and the Violin (1961, Andrei Tarkovsky)
It doesn’t take too long to get through Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography, comprised of only seven titles, but it wouldn’t be wise to miss out on his diploma project, The Steamroller and the Violin.
A low-budget 44-minute film that, unlike his feature films, actually resembles less of a film of an ominously atmospheric mood and more of a traditionally sentimental film that looks simply into the parallel lives of a young violinist, Sasha (Igor Fomchenko), and his new adult construction worker friend, Sergey (Vladimir Zamansky).
The connection between the two is obvious, this film examines the two differing vocations of the artful (that enhances life) and the industrial (that sustain life), resulting in Tarkovsky’s most adorable venture into film, this being a far more cheerful and life-affirming film about childhood than his gloomy feature debut Ivan’s Childhood.
2. Shame (1968, Ingmar Bergman)
Given the vast filmography of Ingmar Bergman, there is a variety of different films from different times of his career that are sorely under-congratulated in favour of his most popular work like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Fanny and Alexander, et al.
You could put on this list any underrated film from his early years, like Sawdust and Tinsel or Brink of Life. Or something from when he was firmly established in the ‘60s and ‘70s such as The Passion of Anna or Face to Face. Or one of his very late efforts, like his warmly received TV-movies such as Saraband. But if any single film out of this 40+ film list should be held in the highest regard of Bergman’s work it should be Shame.
A war film from Bergman that focuses on the characters and their constant plight for survival, Shame stars Bergman regulars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann playing a married couple who deal with personal issues amidst and influenced by this larger traumatic scale. The acting from these two is outstanding, though not as hysterical and extroverted as they’ve been in other Bergman films, their performances here demonstrate a way of conveying their descent into utmost dread through more contained acting.
It’s a strong call, but this may be the single most depressing and despairing film directed by Bergman, and that’s saying something. Things start off badly for this couple and get far worse from there as the ultimately gloomy ending looms closer and closer. Also featuring underrated work by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, his stark B&W imagery just adds to the intensely strong apocalyptic feeling Shame brings.
3. The Seventh Continent (1989, Michael Haneke)
The Austrian writer-director made his debut at 47 years old with this uber-serious film about the dramatic folly of the state of late-80s capitalism, especially in the area of Linz with its homogenised culture spawning from this sort of industrialised modernism. A family consisting of father, mother, and daughter go about their days, but feelings of stagnation and profound ennui creep up out of this family and their quest for liberation in the film’s unforgettable third act is unfulfilling and in vain.
A bold film that takes Robert Bresson’s minimalistic and to-the-point style and amplifies it to anxious proportions, this is the first of many films by Haneke that are up-front with their violence and painfully bleak themes of violence and suicide.
He has amassed international acclaim over the years, winning the Palme d’Or twice with The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012), the latter actually ended up nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and a few others at the Academy Awards.
For fans of this understandably depressing filmmaker, it’d be worth having a look at his first three films that loosely make up the so-called Glaciation trilogy, with Benny’s Video (1994) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), which are also disturbing lamentations of real violence in an age of artificiality, but The Seventh Continent is arguably Haneke’s strongest and most angrily honed works of art, one of the bleakest to come from that side of the wall since its release.
4. Husbands (1970, John Cassavetes)
Despite John Cassavetes having broken out as an important independent American director with Shadows and Faces, Husbands opened to some unfavourable reviews, unsurprising since many critics dislike a film because they dislike the characters.
Overglorified critic Roger Ebert got it doubly wrong by comparing the disappointment of this to Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Zabriskie Point (and we’ll get to that film next), plus other prominent critics like Pauline Kael, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Vincent Canby were also unimpressed.
But as Cassavetes’ films (before and after Husbands) have proved, it’s that he is a story-teller who delves into the more troubling aspects of people because he knows how deeply flawed or even outright troubled they can be, and he does not avoid presenting this in his work.
Husbands is an extraordinary and even brave film about a small group of men and it examines their varying selfishness and the contradictory efforts they pursue to satisfy themselves. As the film concludes, it’s aware of the horrendous ways these men act, but makes no judgement.
The film simply divided critics. Though Jay Cocks of Time magazine positively gushed “Husbands may be one of the best movies anyone will ever see.
It is certainly the best movie anyone will ever live through” and Gene Siskel put it on his best of the year list, even with revised criticism the film still got patchy reviews, such as Philip French from The Guardian in recent years only calling it “intermittently brilliant” as well as “highly uneven, painfully drawn-out, deeply sincere, wildly misogynistic and at times agonisingly tedious”.
Most egregiously, the Criterion Collection Cassavetes box-set lists his independent directorial efforts from 1959’s Shadows to 1977’s Opening Night, but omits this 1970 classic (and his other underrated gem 1971’s Minnie and Moskowitz). Husbands was finally given a DVD release in 2009, but if it ever gets its own Criterion release, that would certainly help establish some much deserved reputation for this too-close-to-home and too-near-the-bone examination of masculinity and male friendship.
5. Europa (1991, Lars von Trier)
A lot of von Trier’s work before he started getting into his Dogma 95 style of filmmaking with wonky handheld camerawork has been sorely underrepresented in discussions about this Dane’s body of work, which as it turns out is disparate in style and subject matter.
A far less personal and more political film than his later works, Europa takes place in Germany just after the end of World War 2 and shows an often unseen glimpse of how Europe and its nations were coping after the immense devastation – this certainly makes for an interesting and new kind of film set in the cinematically ubiquitous WW2 setting (even 25 years after its release).
Despite his acetic Dogma 95 rulings, von Trier throws his directorial sensibilities forward into top gear, making this a hell of a stylistic precursor to Sin City, but with the graphic stylisations working for the film’s hard-going political angle. Though most of the film appears in black and white, there are moments where it clashes with colour, and there are some peculiar shots that playfully distort framing and composition by having foreground characters interact with back projections.
Von Trier’s work since 1995’s Breaking the Waves have adopted his familiar style of handheld camerawork and abrupt editing, combined with the morally complex and emotionally wrought tales of guilt-ridden characters, and so much has been discussed about these films that most of the kids these days aren’t even aware of his visually ambitious earlier films, including this visionary kaleidoscopic ode to Hollywood’s post-WW2 era.
6. Zabriskie Point (1970, Michelangelo Antonioni)
The well-regarded Italian director finally made his American debut in 1970, targeting the counter culture crowd like he did with BlowUp in 1966. But perhaps this sort of crowd had past this stage and the film had hardly anyone to be targeted towards, so it underperformed at the box-office. Critics also gave the film a bad rap, unusually for this esteemed filmmaker.
His first film of the ‘70s, about a student activist who kills a cop during a heated demonstration and flees into the desert and is involved romantically with a like-minded woman he meets, was not met too well with critics, some of whom claimed the movie was a cinematographic feast, but lacked in its simplistic political messages.
Peter Craven of The Age wrote “has high claims to be considered the worst film ever made by a director of genius … is still absolutely watchable because of the magic of Antonioni’s eye” and that’s only half true. It’s clear in the film’s own making that it may consider its own cinematography over its themes, as it’s difficult for a film that has barely any dialogue (after its first 30 minutes) to make such direct political points.
The later sections in the film eschew dialogue in favour of a more curious and mildly paced tale between two people which uses mostly visuals (of sprawling American desert landscapes) and sound (experimental rock music) to tell its tale.
Antonioni’s second American film, The Passenger, received more critical success than its predecessor, but it’s a shame that Antonioni made a string of seven masterpieces (from L’Avventura to The Passenger) yet this explosive oddity is often ignored despite clearly being sown from the same Antonioni cloth, making it as good as his other Italian-language and English-language classics.
7. Family Life (1971, Ken Loach)
This English director’s break-out second feature film Kes is still regarded as one of the director’s best films (sitting high up at #7 on the BFI’s Top 100 British Films list), but his follow-up portrayed just as intimate a picture of a troubled young person. Though spotted with moments of inspired and poetic scenes of sentimentality and beauty, this is overall a very harrowing film about Janice, a young woman whose lapsing grip on reality slips further and further as she is bossed around by her uptight and conservative parents.
Ken Loach’s realist style offers up some restraint, letting Sandy Ratcliff’s performance as Janice steal the show, her harrowing portrayal of mental instability is stunningly up-front, as well as the cultural isolation felt by this character caught between the old and the new traditions in this time period.
At times, the film is extremely upfront and very documentary-esque in its portrayal of the mentally impaired, seemingly linking these people to the counter culture.
The film is barely even noticeable these days (its Wikipedia page doesn’t even sport a photo), but the people behind this film cared enough about the subject matter that it’s sure to be a comforting and cathartic viewing experience for folks experiencing something similar to Janice.