In today’s cinematic landscape, there are many treasured filmmakers working. We can count ourselves fortunate to be able to await a new Paul Thomas Anderson film this December (unfortunately Daniel Day-Lewis’s confirmed last picture), for example. Scorsese still continues to release strong films consistently. Producing not feelings of anticipation and expectation, however, are some arguably inferior operators.
During this age of incessant ratings and instant reviews, every filmmaker knows that their work is under increased scrutiny. We the audience love to discuss which directors are producing masterpieces and which aren’t. Lots of filmmakers, one feels, won’t relish this new role the internet plays in film criticism.
Thousands of opinions, thousands of online voices. Put simply, if one isn’t creating what would be expected from their talent, there’s no escaping finding out about it. Occupying the following list are just 10 examples of directors who it could be claimed are overrated. Good filmic output from them seems lost amidst a wave of mediocrity. Justifying these selections, this list will consider their more recent films and whether they deserve the hype and acclaim that they’ve initially received.
10. Tom Ford
Tom Ford transferred over from the fashion world to make A Single Man in 2009. Since then he’s only followed up with one other film, last year’s Nocturnal Animals (2016). It might seem hasty to cite someone with only two films to his name as overrated, but such is the level of fawning and enthusiasm over the fashion designer’s works that it feels only right to look closer at them; to check that they’re not knockoff handbags rather than the real deal.
Starting with his sophomore feature, Nocturnal Animals certainly is a visual treat: it’s art direction is impeccable, as one would only expect from Ford. Every frame feels like one of his meticulously prepared fashion shoots. However, when looking for depth under the glamorous facade, none can be found. It’s a two-hour act of vapidity, a hollow exercise in setting and tone. Based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Amy Adams plays the latter, a sleek and sophisticated LA gallery owner. Her seemingly idyllic life is shattered by the arrival of a manuscript written by her ex-husband Edward: his novel tells the story of a teacher who finds a trip with his family in Texas turning bad fast.
As she reads it, Susan is forced to confront the nightmarish memories of her past. A source story with scope for a solid psychological thriller film, the attention to the visual aspects feels overdone and distracting. Resultantly, it’s unclear what Ford’s point is by making the film, though it surely feels like he’s trying hard indeed; the impression, however, is of an expensive exercise in style. By the film’s end, it just feels immensely soulless and pretentious.
A Single Man doesn’t suffer the same problems so deeply, probably because it’s based on arguably stronger source material, the classic Christopher Isherwood novel with the same title. Again, though, the ultimate viewing experience is only of witnessing a series of immaculately conceived visual scenes. Colin Firth does give a stirring performance providing a graspable human soul to proceedings but for such an important novel with its activist spirit and powerful themes of gay identity Ford feels like the wrong person to do it justice.
It’s glossy, sure; it’s stylish, yes; but more substance is needed to convey the isolation and sorrow felt by Firth’s George after he loses his longtime partner. When considering Ford’s output, then, the overwhelming sensation is what one might have expected from a fashion designer making the leap to cinema: the feel for humanity, the understanding of substance and profundity seems lost under the surface level beauty. Great films can’t just be good to look at.
9. Tom Hooper
Another director with a relatively small filmography, Tom Hooper has been a perennial favorite of the Academy with his unsubtle Oscar-bait films since 2010’s The King’s Speech. It’s his famous adaptation of Les Miserables (2012), though, that’s most well-known. A bold attempt at bringing the stage version of Victor Hugo’s novel to the big screen, it became infamous for Hooper making his cast sing live on set instead of using recordings. While the audacity should be commended, the end product is sorely lacking. Aside from Anne Hathaway’s tearful rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, most seem unprepared for it; Hugh Jackman is too hammy, and everyone remembers Russell Crowe’s valiant attempts to deliver his lines.
The problems don’t stop there, though. Hooper’s camerawork is convoluted: by seemingly trying to recreate the atmosphere of the stage-set musical, he keeps the focus tightly on the actors in each scene, which only serves to create a claustrophobic sense of the whole film being shot on small sets; more Broadway than Hollywood. The much-vaunted Oscar-winning scene with Hathaway’s Fantine is a prime example of this, as the camera never swerves from the terror in her eyes and the spittle around her mouth. It’s show-stopping acting for sure, but it feels too punishing, too calculating.
Ultimately one feels like Hooper struggled with transferring the stage action to the screen environment. Every cast members performance, not just Hathaway’s, is overwhelmingly overacted. Consider how miscast Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are as the Thenardiers: they’re playing the comedy relief, yes, but in a film devoid of any humor, they end up becoming cartoonish in comparison. The rest spend the entire film in serious tones, bellowing their emotions but it all feels rather bland and exhausting for the audience.
In The King’s Speech, Hooper capitalized on Colin Firth’s stirring central performance which garnered most of the acclaim and it feels like the same formula was utilized in Hathaway’s starring, albeit small, role. And that film, too, felt disingenous: perhaps one of the most blatant examples of an Oscar-bait film in recent times, it’s all about the glory, the surface with no true creative or original spark beneath. For a narrative taking place mostly in just 2 locations – Buckingham Palace and Lionel’s house – the only reason for it to be a film at all seems to be for to achieve greater fame. Hooper is never going to be a director that’s going to shock or surprise.
8. Jason Reitman
A director who started with a remarkable run of successes – Thank You For Smoking (2005), Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) – Jason Reitman has seen his reputation tainted by a series of recent misfires. His latest, Men, Women and Children (2014), was his worst received film yet and for good reason.
A needless preachy effort tackling our society’s addiction to the internet, it was blatantly obvious what Reitman was aiming for: an important and timely piece of social commentary. The outcome, however, is far too lambasting. While he’s taken on issues in society before, in Men, Women and Children, the human touch is missing, meaning the connection with his audience is lost too. Each chapter regarding different families and their experiences online feels ludicrously forced and blatantly obvious in its indictment. The whole scaremongering feeling borders on the absurd. Labor Day (2013) was another that felt too calculating.
The coming-of-age tale became melodramatic in Reitman’s hands and the film descended into saccharine romance stereotypes. It was unclear what Reitman was truly trying to say by making it. It’s somewhat bemusing to consider Reitman’s collapse, for he is above all a relatively safe director: there’s no visual thrills, no inherent style to his directing, as he presents American tales about American society. When working with Diablo Cody, despite her obnoxious tendencies, Juno and Young Adult (2011) were energetic and fizzed thanks to the screenplay. Perhaps it’s just that Reitman peaked too soon and has lost his ability to present human stories in a relatable manner. It’s notable that he’s pairing with Cody again for his next film, Tully, perhaps an admonition that he’s in need of a little help in getting his career back on track.
7. The Wachowski Sisters
Leaving aside M Night Shamalayan, have any directors fallen as quickly from the critical adulation as the Wachowski Sisters? Creating the era-defining Matrix trilogy, their offerings since those have ranged from the downright terrible to the spectacular failure. When reflecting on that first Matrix (1999) film however, especially if one watches it now for the first time, it’s difficult to see why it received the acclaim it did. Combining postmodern philosophy themes with gloriously stylish special effects, including the famous bullet-time phenomenon, the film had audiences in thrall. But nothing, truly, felt original: bullet time had been seen in a similar form a year earlier in Blade (1998) and most of the plot enthused pseudo-spiritual nonsense.
By the end, the film seemed to have degenerated into a solid but safe action epic, leaving behind most of its high concept story. In evaluation, The Matrix seems like a film of and for its time. It dominated the zeitgeist as a pop culture phenomenon precisely because of when it arrived: in the final throes of the 20th century, in a society both excited and fearful of the rise of new technology, The Matrix seemed to encapsulate these feelings for a world on the precipice of change. This is also exactly why watching in 2017 is different to seeing it at its birth. After its moment of relevance, such a film can seem hackneyed and useless. The less said about the two sorry sequels the better.
In the subsequent years, The Wachowski Sisters haven’t been able to concoct a similar successful recipe. Speed Racer (2008) had stomach-churning special effects and a limited plot; Cloud Atlas (2012) tackled a complex story but was too overambitious and overwrought. But it’s their latest, Jupiter Ascending (2015), that feels like a stunning misstep.
Ridiculous dialogue, sloppy narrative, an over-reliance on visual effects; everything about the film was preposterous and showed the duo’s weaknesses as filmmakers (they certainly weren’t helped a poor but expected showing from Mila Kunis and a wildly over-the-top villainous performance by Oscar favorite Eddie Redmayne). Since its release, The Wachowski’s have ventured to television to make their show Sense8 but if they are to return to filmmaking, it will be with drastically reduced expectations and a much-beleaguered reputation.
6. Kevin Smith
A hilariously lucky product of the 1990’s American independent cinema movement, Smith started with the cult classic Clerks (1994), a film that seemed hip with its Tarantino dialogue and black-and-white colour. It quickly struck a chord with Generation-X slackers: here was a schmuck like me, making a film at the very corner store where he used to work.
With its shoestring budget, handheld camera and amateur actors, Smith crafted a film that was to many fans and critics an authentic slice of American life. It was, seemingly, anti-Hollywood, and it was adored for this very quality. The dialogue mostly tackled pop culture in a delightfully pointless way. While it does have relatable characters and some funny set pieces, it certainly was overhyped, a claim Smith himself has concurred with.
The biggest problem with Clerks was that it gave such an untalented hack the platform to go in search of fame and cinema success. Before his sophomore film Mallrats (1995) was released, Smith said at a panel chaired by Roger Ebert that he’d happily do anything a studio asked him to do, if they paid for his films and, while Ebert and others thought this was said in jest at the time, his resultant filmography makes for queasy viewing in light of this statement.
Mallrats, for example, dropped everything redeemable about Clerks, including the appealing black-and-white colour. Cop Out (2010) was a complete lazy entry into the buddy action genre and felt like the type of film Smith would have onetime mocked; Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) was a lame attempt at creating a Judd Apatow comedy. Unfortunately for the director, being given bigger budgets and bigger opportunities has only served to highlight his ineptitude behind a camera.
It’s futile to even mention entries like Yoga Hosers (2016) and Tusk (2014). If Tarantino and Smith represent the polarities of the American cinema audience – the first the devoted cinephile who devours every film genre to learn everything he can about the art, the other the lazy armchair fan, passively accepting of what pop culture intends him to like with no sense of for the classical or artistic – then their career trajectories portray exactly what would be expected. Let Smith return to his living room, where his immaturity and juvenilia can be left off of our screens.