5. Tim Burton
Burton’s dark and quirky imagination resulted in some excellent films during the 80s and 90s, from “Batman” to “Edward Scissorhands” to “Ed Wood.” “Planet of the Apes” aside, even the beginning of the twenty-first century held some successes: “Big Fish,” “Corpse Bride,” “Sweeney Todd.” But then Burton made “Alice in Wonderland,” and – with the exception of “Frankenweenie” – his filmography has been headed downhill ever since.
“Alice in Wonderland” is just about the gloomiest adaptation of Carroll’s book imaginable. The strangeness of the story is off-putting instead of charming, and Carroll’s vibrant imagery is diluted into drab colors and tedium. Vampire comedy “Dark Shadows” is slightly more fun, but the humor is tired, the tone is inconsistent, and the plot itself feels as lifeless as its lead character.
“Frankenweenie” was a solid step back in the right direction, but in “Big Eyes,” Burton’s imagination seemed to be stifled again. Distinctive visuals aside, the film is a formulaic biopic that feels strangely muted, never quite capturing the emotional highs and lows of its story.
Christoph Waltz phones in his performance, exhibiting the same exaggerated charisma he has used in just about every role since “Inglourious Basterds.” Burton’s latest, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” is an adaptation of a young adult fantasy book that does very little to differentiate itself from all other adaptations of young adult fantasy books.
4. Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam’s filmography has always been somewhat uneven – “Brazil” is much better than “Jabberwocky” – yet he managed to make it into the twenty-first century without making a bad movie. But then came “The Brothers Grimm,” and since then, he hasn’t been able to regain his footing.
“The Brothers Grimm” is a mishmash of various fairy tales that adapts its sources without much color or originality, dragging on for a full two hours and never layering much emotion or character beneath its weary homages and dreadful CGI.
Next came “Tideland,” an ugly, uncomfortable, and occasionally close-to-unwatchable fantasy about a young girl left alone at a decrepit farmhouse. Gilliam’s artistic vision is singular, sure; too bad the film can’t move beyond its own overwhelming unpleasantness. “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” the story of a travelling theatre company and an immortal man who owes his daughter’s soul to the Devil, is better but still a pale shadow of Gilliam’s pre-2000 inventiveness. Gilliam’s latest, “The Zero Theorem,” has some fascinating intentions but lacks the focus to follow through.
Perhaps when Gilliam’s dream project “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” finally gets a release after decades in development hell, his career will get back on track.
3. Spike Lee
Documentaries aside, you could argue that Lee has been in decline since 1989, with a couple excellent films – “Malcolm X,” “25th Hour,” “Chi-Raq” – bringing up his average score. That’s not to say that all of his post-1989 work is bad; it just can’t measure up to the pitch-perfection of “Do the Right Thing.”
The twenty-first century has included some of the most poorly received films of Lee’s career, including “She Hate Me,” “Miracle at St. Anna,” “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” and a painfully unnecessary remake of “Oldboy.” I cannot discern any reasons why an American remake of Park Chan-wook’s classic revenge tragedy would do anyone any good, and Lee did not manage to discern any either.
That said, Lee does bring a unique directorial confidence to the screen even in his weaker works. “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” for instance, is no great film, but its treatment of vampirism does go to some places we’ve rarely seen before. Lee’s experiments don’t always work, but they’re usually interesting; his boldness is still there, even if he often takes it in ill-advised directions.
Lee may be on the downward slope at the moment, but he looks set to make a comeback this summer with “BlacKkKlansman.”
2. Kevin Smith
There’s “Clerks,” and then it gets worse from there. Smith turned out a few more successful 90s comedies – “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” – before settling into his middling 2000s phase, where none of his efforts were downright bad, but none of them were great either. “Clerks II,” for instance, offers some moderate laughs without fully recapturing the indie spirit of the original.
It’s the 2010s where things fall off completely. “Cop Out” is a humdrum homage to much better buddy cop movies. Most of its jokes don’t land or stick or really even make it off the ground, and it’s hard to even pay attention to the well-travelled turns of the plot.
“Red State,” one of Smith’s only diversions from comedy, is more engaging but also overstated and sloppily constructed, constantly overestimating its own impact. Then comes “Tusk,” an overextended horror comedy founded on an absurd body horror premise (a man being turned into a walrus) that outstays its welcome. If you thought it couldn’t get worse, then check out the haphazard, moronic, and excruciatingly unfunny “Yoga Hosers.”
1. Terrence Malick
Between 1973 and 2011, Terrence Malick made five visionary and visually stunning films, always allowing at least five years (and even up to twenty years) in between the release of each project. 2011’s “The Tree of Life” is a spectacular achievement, full of striking images and meditations on the nature of human existence.
But then Malick veered too far into abstraction, substituting quasi-philosophical voiceover mumbo-jumbo for actual insight. He churned out three narrative films and a documentary between 2012 and 2017, with each film more pretentious than the last.
“To the Wonder” adapts the style of “The Tree of Life” to a woefully tedious set of romances, a collection of love affairs incapable of evoking any empathy or emotion. The multiple narrators drone out sophomoric reflections on their lives as Malick shows them strolling through fields and generally doing nothing to disprove the blandness of their personalities.
“Knight of Cups” and “Song to Song” follow the same form, with each assembling a highly talented cast – a roster that collectively includes Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, and many others – to perform Malick’s pompous dialogue and narration. The characters behave in ways so far removed from normal human behavior that identifying with them is practically impossible.