6. Arthur Penn
Pre-80’s Career: Like other 70’s contemporaries Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn had toiled away in television for more than a decade before getting the chance to direct and break through into the film industry. His first handful of films sported solid performances and interesting nuances – particularly the French New Wave-inspired “Mickey One” (1965) – even if the majority didn’t connect with audiences.
It wasn’t until his second teaming with Warren Beatty resulted in the landmark classic “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), a radically fresh film that flawlessly blended humor, romance, and violence in a manner never seen before; it quickly solidified him as one of his generation’s most important filmmakers overnight. He hardly disappointed with his stellar and diverse follow-ups – “Alice’s Restaurant” (1969), “Little Big Man” (1970) and “Night Moves” (1975).
He closed the decade out with the infamous “The Missouri Breaks” (1976), a film where the chaotic egos of Jack Nicholson and the increasingly nutty Marlon Brando fought from day one and created a tumultuous production. Despite its messy nature, the film has rightfully been reevaluated as a unique and undervalued western, with Penn’s talent peering through the chaos.
Aftermath: After the ordeal and media stink left after “Breaks”, Penn’s reputation was slightly smarting; he began playing it safer, yet unfortunately his output suffered and become increasingly bland. The retreaded drama of “Four Friends” (1981), middle-of-the-road thriller “Target” (1985) and the abysmal money-job “Penn & Teller Get Killed” (1989) all contributed to a once-exciting reputation drying up with only a few bland TV movies to fill up his filmography before his passing.
Exception to the Rule: The icy chiller “Dead of Winter” (1987) is a great little genre movie from the seasoned director. Keeping it simple but atmospheric with its fun premise, Penn steps up to the plate to make an effective thriller showcasing his strong work with actors (Mary Steenburgen and Roddy McDowell are excellent) and confident assuredness behind the camera. An excellent if forgotten effort by the once important director that deserves a watch.
7. Dennis Hopper
Pre-80’s Career: After struggling as a minor actor in the 50s and 60s, Dennis Hopper became a cultural phenomenon when he directed and starred in “Easy Rider” (1969), a movie whose revolutionary shake-up of the filmmaking scene resulted in the wave of ‘New Hollywood’, and Hopper became the voice of his generation. That title was quickly lost when his cocaine-fueled destructive nosedive sabotaged his follow-up, the messy yet undervalued “The Last Movie” (1971).
After being segregated from Hollywood, he returned as a stronger force with the critically celebrated (yet strangely also overlooked) “Out of the Blue” (1980). A devastatingly grimy family drama infused with the emerging punk rock scene, it firmly cemented Hopper’s reputation as a fierce filmmaker.
Aftermath: Throughout the 80s, Hopper began to slowly rebuild the bridges he had burnt by becoming a reliable character actor, landing random directing jobs along the way. Yet, they felt impersonal and lacked his usual passion from before; for example, the beyond dated gang flick “Colors” (1988) and the sloppy ‘Alan Smithee’ thriller “Catchfire” (1990).
Eventually he hung up his filmmaker spurs with the painfully unfunny comedy “Chasers” (1994) and solely focused on solid acting efforts, with his filmmaking foray seen as solely an interesting footnote in a fascinatingly unpredictable career.
Exception to the Rule: Whilst guilty of being a money job for Hopper, “The Hot Spot” (1990) is an impressively tense and sweaty neo-noir that is deliciously watchable. Held up by the strong lead trio of Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, and a drool-worthy Jennifer Connelly, it was saddled with a sharply twisted script. Sure, it lacks Hopper’s personal voice, but his no-nonsense approach to the dark material and his embellishment of the genre’s grey morality resulted in an overlooked gem.
8. Michael Cimino
Pre-80’s Career: After toiling away as a script doctor, Michael Cimino’s filmmaking voice arrived with his eccentric Clint Eastwood caper “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), yet it was his awards-winning masterpiece “The Deer Hunter” (1978) that catapulted him into one of the most respected filmmakers of said decade. The world was Cimino’s oyster, with carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted next.
Unfortunately, that project was the infamous “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), a film that ran wildly over budget, bankrupted an entire studio, and soured the director’s reputation for years to come.
The film has rightfully been reassessed in its director’s cut form as a extravagant ode to the medium, but there’s no arguing that it was the death knell for one of America’s most creative periods. Due to its production hell, studio heads took control away from the director, and the repercussions are still felt to this day.
Aftermath: Cimino never recovered; his opportunities didn’t dry up, but the results were never well received. It didn’t help that his difficult reputation only grew worse as he fought the producers tooth and nail with every film, leading to sub-par and compromised results. Examples of this include “The Sicilian” (1987) a lush but misguided Mario Puzo adaptation; “Desperate Hours” (1990), a painful attempt at neo-noir; and “The Sunchaser” (1996), an underwhelming indie drama dud.
It was a sad spectacle that due to behind-the-scenes backbiting, or just plain hubris, the director could never get his mojo back on track again before his recent passing in 2016.
Exception to the Rule: “Year of the Dragon” (1985) is a crackingly good cop thriller, which was sadly written off as racist and indulgent for its time. Sure, there are plenty of flaws (the overlong runtime, Mickey Rourke being too young for the lead), but Cimino directs with a barnstorming confidence that’s both fierce and muscular.
The action scenes are filled with an effective intensity that is sadly missing from the PG-13 action flicks of today; the gunplay is exhilarating yet equally horrifying. Do yourself a favor and seek this one out – it’s some of the best work Rourke and Cimino have achieved, not to mention a no-holds-barred exercise in effective cop thrillers.
9. Monte Hellman
Pre-80’s Career: Monte Hellman, like so many prominent filmmakers, got his start directing schlocky genre movies for Roger Corman throughout the 60s. The majority of them starred a pre-fame Jack Nicholson and displayed a surreal depth hidden beneath their genre trappings. This run culminated in his celebrated duo of ‘acid Westerns’ like “The Shooting” (1966) and “Ride the Whirlwind” (1966), which had gained buzz amongst the drive-in crowds and underground critics.
He emerged in the 70s with what fans consider his masterpiece, “Two Lane Blacktop” (1971). The existential road movie was a bleak response to the optimism of the early 60s, and although it didn’t connect with audiences at the time, it has since gained a gargantuan reevaluated reputation.
He filled the rest of the 70s with the equally individual and offbeat genre movies “Cockfighter” (1974) and “China 9, Liberty 37” (1978) that have also enjoyed a cult following since as well.
Aftermath: Hellman’s career halted after the 70’s drive-in scene evaporated, leaving him no commercial trapping for him to deliver his disorientating art-house aesthetic.
Strangely enough, he did provide major contributions to pop-cultural watersheds – he was a producer on “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) and second unit director on “Robocop” (1987) – but as a director, the pickings are slim and unsatisfactory. A horrendously bad horror sequel, “Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!” (1989), and a frustratingly convoluted attempt at a comeback, “Road to Nowhere” (2011), remain his inferior contributions since his peak period.
Exception to the Rule: Hellman’s “Iguana” (1988) is easily his strongest post-70s movie, a bizarre, sea-worn twist on “Phantom of the Opera” with a bit of Herzog thrown in. It was a rare occasion where Hellman enjoyed a larger budget than usual, although its tepid reception due to its harsh sexual and violent material had it quickly swept aside. Still, it’s definitely one of the more unique films out his filmography that needs to be seen to be believed.