5. Spike Lee
It takes a renowned and talented director to have his filmography granted with a titular title: when one hears of a new Spike Lee Joint, the expectancy is a politically-engaged, explosive and socially aware piece. For a filmmaker with over 30 films to his name, there are bound to be failures as well as successes, middling affairs as well as those given mass critical acclaim, but since the turn of the century, Lee’s too regularly seemed to be striking out. Of his last 10 feature films, only three could be said to have received a mostly positive reaction (25th Hour , Inside Man  and Chi-Raq ).
In remaking the cult classic South Korean film Oldboy , Lee inadvertently created one of the worst films of the century so far, certainly one of the worst remakes. While it should be noted that his version tries its best to strive for originality and unique interpretation, the film just doesn’t work. Lee doesn’t seem like a capable action director and some of the sequences feel forced. Reworking a film that was already known for its grotesque challenges of viewership would always present problems but, unlike the original, there’s nothing redeemable – no affecting love story amidst all the decay, no energy or chemistry from its performers. His followup to this didn’t bring any redemption, however.
The ambitious but overshot Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus  is a retelling of the 1973 blaxploitation film Ganja and Hess (yet again suggesting Lee was in a particular creative rut around this time), about a wealthy African-American anthropologist who is transformed into a vampire after coming into possession of a cursed African dagger. An atonal and unsubtle film, Lee doesn’t appear to know what he wants to achieve with it; it’s at turns a horror, romance drama, and goofy comedy. His latest Chi-Raq has fared better with critics, but the overall impression is of a once legendary, explosive talent struggling to keep his head above the parapet. His films, for one, have suffered alarming losses cumulatively at the box office.
For a filmmaker with such an extend filmography, this can be used against him when people discuss his career: why is it that he’s given a myriad of chances after such a troubled run? The same accusation, if this is the case, would have to be levelled at Woody Allen who has mostly made poor, almost parodical efforts in the 21st century. It’s simply a matter of respect for 2 directors who on their day can create powerful and memorable pictures; they’ve earned the right to be allowed to fail but Lee needs a hit soon.
4. David O. Russell
A director known for being a quirky filmmaker among the Hollywood elite, David O. Russell hit a career peak from 2010 to 2013 with his successful run of films: The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013). It was impossible to escape his omnipresence. Russell was given such praise as being the best director of actors of this century. But closer appraisal of the above trio makes for more sobering viewing.
In the overwhelmingly acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook, a film about severe mental illness – in the form of Bipolar Disorder and Grief – somehow dissolved into a mawkish family drama. It sadly felt like Hollywood Does Mental Health, where problems are mere screenplay moments to tick off on the lighthearted way to happiness and joy.
The casting felt manipulative too: by entrusting the main two characters to extremely bankable stars looking for prestige roles in Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and also including a new chance for Robert De Niro to recover from his late period malaise, Russell created an immediately winning trio for awards season. Too often, the impression one is left with while watching the film is that mental illness was just another David O. Russell quirk touch to transform what would be an otherwise stereotypical screwball romantic comedy.
Put another way, it allowed Silver Linings Playbook to be marketed as something different, something with extra meaning, without the director actually having to create a work of any depth or quality. That mental illness in reality is a debilitating and serious experience rather than a kooky personality trait seems lost to the film, leaving the viewer feeling like he’s just faced something quite disingenuous and fake. This rise to making prestige pictures, so to speak, seemed to begin with The Fighter: for all his resolute wackiness and reputation, Russell appeared to finally want something more than what his earlier works received, namely Oscars. That secured a full seven nominations; Silver Linings Playbook managed one more in 2012.
This trend didn’t stop with the showy and chaotic American Hustle two years later. A retro 1970’s piece about the FBI Abscam operation during this time, the period and costume design was so ludicrously overwhelming (granted, it was a decade of fashion that could be denigrated with the same phrase) that it threatened to overshadow the already complex true story that the film detailed. Simply, the film is a dazzling mess. Losing the narrative under a wave of genres – thriller, caper, satire, farce are just some of the descriptions for it – Russell seemed to have cobbled American Hustle together rather hastily. One needs only to look at Christian Bale’s abysmal comb-over that is overly apparent from the opening scenes and becomes too alarmingly noticeable to focus on the story or anything else that’s happening; A Trump-ian triumph of disastrous hairpieces.
While this might be all acceptable for some, the all-encompassing kitsch does begin, much like the polyster suits adorning the lead actors, to wear thin. It could be claimed that the film’s success had more to do with Russell’s hot streak of acclaim and eye for casting, a claim given credence by the fact that his following film, the unfortunately named Joy (2005), was a complete critical failure. Perhaps we as an audience have had our fill of Russell and his schtick for a while.
3. Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola sometimes feels like an enigma: a floating, elusive and faint figure prancing on the frontline of American auteur cinema. Her canon, too, almost seems to be imitating her, with its dream-like visuals full of pondering and self-absorption. Before becoming a filmmaker in her own right, Sofia, as her surname suggests, came from cinema royalty. Her immediate integration into Hollywood privilege, through her father Francis Ford, has informed her subsequent filmmaking. Upon closer look, then, a recurring theme through her work is a targeted attack on Hollywood and its toxic culture.
Here lies the cause of her divisiveness: her disdain for the industry that she was given an unfair platform in, that her career was enhanced through, can seem highly hypocritical. Is it bold protest or just plain privileged posturing? Her films, sometimes, feel alienating not only to the characters but to the viewers. Her downbeat version of a Wong Kar-Wai film in Lost In Translation (2003) was a little too ruminative to impress; The Bling Ring (2013) felt as soulless and empty a satire as the lives of its young protagonists. Her first and latest films serve as encapsulations of Coppola as a divisive operator.
The Virgin Suicides (1999), the adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel about the lives of 5 teenage sisters in a middle-class suburb of Detroit in the 1970s, feels somewhat like an exercise in sophisticated angst. It’s also grating to watch a film about young girls having their creative impulses stifled made by a debut director given such an insider boost (her father co-produced the film). It’s all quite self-indulgent.
Her latest release, The Beguiled (2017), is maddening but for different reasons. Based on a novel previously adapted in a film starring Clint Eastwood in 1971, it centers on an injured Union soldier during the Civil War, played by Colin Farrell, who seeks refuge at an all-female Southern boarding school. Soon enough, sexual tensions arise and rivalries are formed between the women. There is scope here for a great film but it’s hard to detect any reason behind Coppola’s version. The tale is stripped, it’s too short, and any malice and menace is simplified. Even the key amputation scene is startlingly undercooked. This could’ve been a strong feminist film, emphasizing the group turning against the scheming soldier to a greater level, instead of settling for nothing more than bubbling melodrama.
This would’ve been a unique and original take on the story but it needed a director with more conviction; Coppola never seems to know what she’s aiming for. This points to an underlying issue with her whole filmography: it always feels like she has more to say, that she’s reaching for something but never fully commits. The dreamy, ethereal quality to her work can, as a result, come across as arrogance.
2. Ridley Scott
Is there a director with a more inconsistent canon than Sir Ridley Scott? Maker of early definitive masterpieces like Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), in more recent times his output has been sorely lacking in filmic quality and critical success. Since the beginning of this century, out of 14 feature films perhaps only The Martian (2015) holds up to scrutiny; it’s a deplorable run for a director regularly cited as a master and a visionary.
There have been some truly shocking entries into his filmography, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) for one. Featuring a woefully miscast Orlando Bloom, it’s a testing experience to make it through. Considering it takes such an historically interesting subject like the Crusades and creates a tedious narrative that even the more positively acclaimed Director’s Cut can’t save, the film feels like a wasted opportunity. The ridiculously overhyped Gladiator (2000), while a solid swords and sandals epic, never merited its numerous Oscar nominations.
Returns to the Alien universe in Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) have yielded no rewards. It’s in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), however, that one can’t quite believe it came from Scott. The epic biblical drama was criticized for its lack of any humor or excitement, leaving the production with a feeling of emptiness. Looking at his recent filmography, this seems to be a recurring problem: films like Robin Hood (2010), The Counsellor (2013), Body of Lies (2008) and those mentioned above feel drearily soulless. Mostly, they’re just forgettable.
Scott was able to succeed with the overarching seriousness of films like Blade Runner precisely because of their quality, their content imbued with a great imagination and innovation, but his recent output consists of films that may be solid fares for lesser directors but when they’re associated with such an acclaimed filmmaker appear worrying signs of a terminal decline. It makes one thankful that Denis Villeneuve helmed the immaculate Blade Runner sequel.
1. James Cameron
Alongside Steven Spielberg, no filmmaker is more widely known in mainstream Hollywood than James Cameron: he’s made two of the biggest box-office successes of all time, as well as two fervently acclaimed science fiction films. Combining large amounts of money and positive reviews doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, however, and there are question marks surrounding each entry in his filmography.
It seems only right to start with the infamous Avatar (2009). An undoubted landmark in the history of cinema, Cameron’s epic was 10 years in the making. The film made extensive use of new motion capture filming techniques and was hailed as ushering in a new era in cinematic technology. Amidst all the flash and the expensive effects, though, was a clumsily executed rehashed narrative.
Set in the mid-22nd century, when humans are colonizing the planet Pandora for its rich minerals, the increasing growth of the mining begins to threaten the local tribe, the Na’vi. In the middle of this is a love story between Sam Worthington’s Jake, a disabled former marine who is part of the Avatar program used to explore Pandora’s biosphere, and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri, the daughter of the leader of the Omaticaya Na’vi clan.
The parallels with previous films are alarmingly striking: it shares most of its plot with Dances with Wolves (1990), in which a native people is helpless without the leadership of a white-savior figure from the invading, powerful white oppressor. Various other similarities have been noted, amongst others, with Pocahontas (1995) and The Last Samurai (2003). Considering this unoriginality, it can be hard to decipher if the connections are merely inspiration or plain plagiarism.
The obvious characterization of the piece is hampered further by flat and dull dialogue. This is all to say that Avatar works purely on a technical level rather than as a piece of storytelling. The overall impression is that Cameron knew it could get by on its famous special effects alone, at the expense of anything deeper. There was never, for example, a moment where one doubted the endpoint of the story; nothing of true drama occurred.
Continuing with lavish epics, 1997’s Titanic was inescapable for its generation, winning 11 Oscars, making global stars of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, and becoming the first film to make $1 billion worldwide. Again, Cameron deserves credit for his imagination and visual eye: the 80 or so minutes depicting the Titanic’s terrible demise is horrifically spellbinding. It’s the rest of the film that truly offers little reward and is at points tedious and maudlin. The screenplay is, simply, atrocious (see Jack’s classic line “I’m the king of the world!” for all the evidence needed). Corny, melodramatic and, in Billy Zane’s wildly over-played villainous performance, truly rubbish, it confirms that Cameron is a master of his technological skills only.
The film, like Avatar after, also suffers from being too long. While Avatar’s plot was an ideological message from Cameron, Titanic’s story is just a derivative copy of old Hollywood romances. Like Avatar also, Titanic was a film planned years before its release, time filled with much critical and public speculation, and this sense of anticipation most likely has a lot to do with their box office successes. In surmising Cameron’s career so far, it’s evident that he has a fantastic skill with big screen spectacle but not much else. Indeed, it’s notable that Terminator 2 (1984) and Aliens (1986), arguably his two best films, were predominantly written by others. If nothing else, if enough people call out Cameron, if something can shatter his built-up ego, perhaps the general public can be spared the astonishing four planned sequels to Avatar.