The internet is littered with lists which tell you about the one bad movie a good director made during their career but there’s not that much to be found when it comes to good films made by not so good directors.
In this list you’ll find ten of those. Some of the chosen directors will be controversial whilst others will be completely obvious, but all of them share one thing: they all made one movie in their careers which was fantastic and stood head and shoulders above the rest of their output. And if they managed to have a few more quality movies in there, which really weren’t all that bad, they certainly never came close to that one almost inexplicable exception, which became the apex of their entire output.
Here are ten great films by ten not so great directors.
10. Ivan Reitman – Ghostbusters
In retrospect, it’s damn close to a miracle that a film as funny and inventive as Ghostbusters ever came out of the hands of a director like Ivan Reitman. Sure, just before Ghostbusters, he did one early semi-classic with Bill Murray called Stripes, but let’s not go out of our way overrating that movie. It was a silly film. No more, no less.
But apart from that, the guy has made one misguided movie after another and worst of all, they are all genuinely unfunny comedies. This is the guy that single-handedly dug a grave for Robert Redford when they made Legal Eagles, something he has never quite recovered from.
This is the guy who thought it was a great idea to start making comedies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, casting him as Danny DeVito’s twin. This is the guy who managed to make a boring film, Father’s Day, starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal when they were still at the top of their game and who basically nailed the final nail in Harrison Ford’s coffin when they made Six Days Seven Nights.
Oh…and did I mention Ghostbusters 2? I didn’t, because I have been trying real hard to forget about it for the last 25 years. If you ever wondered why Murray has never wanted to do Ghostbusters 3, just remember Ghostbusters 2.
It’s still a mystery to me how Reitman ever managed to make the original Ghostbusters, the way he did. It’s a classic 80’s comedy and still, after 30 years, a phenomenon which has firmly worked its way into popular culture. Apart from that he also produced a very talented son in Jason Reitman, and for those two things, I thank him.
9. Bryan Singer – The Usual Suspects
Don’t get me started on the tragedy that is Bryan Singer. Here’s a guy who made one of the most awesome films ever with The Usual Suspects and then proceeded to spit me in the face time after time with mediocre to simply plain bad super hero movies, horribly incoherent special effects feasts like Jack the Giant Slayer and even a film with Tom Cruise as a Nazi. Seriously.
Now in all honesty, it wouldn’t have been so bad if he never had made The Usual Suspects. His super hero films are sort of passable (Although it remains a complete mystery to me what anyone ever saw in that first X-men movie, it’s basically horrible and making a Superman film boring is also quite a feat), Valkyrie isn’t the worst film Tom Cruise has lent his star power to (although it’s certainly not the best one either) and Jack the Giant Slayer…well, I have nothing even remotely nice to say about that poor excuse of a movie.
That only leaves Apt Pupil, the film Singer directed immediately after The Usual Suspects. It’s better than anything that followed it but when compared to the film that proceeded it, it’s really not that great a movie either.
But at least we have The Usual Suspects. Who can forget the fantastic screenplay and the wonderful cast. This is the movie that put Kevin Spacey (in conjunction with his role in Seven, which was released the same year) and Benicio Del Toro on my and most people’s radar, not to mention great performances by Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollak, Chazz Palminteri , Pete Postlethwaite, Giancarlo Esposito and Dan Hedaya. It was shot well, edited well, written well, acted well and one hell of a fun ride with a twist for the history books.
No matter how hard he tries, Singer will ever be able to make me forget that early in his career he deceived me into thinking that a major new talent had arrived. It remains a film that’s almost in a league of its own (not just within Singer’s filmography but in general as well) and will forever hold a spot in my heart as one of my favourite films ever. Another masterpiece from a director who hasn’t done anything that comes remotely close to the quality of that one exceptional film early in his career.
8. Russell Mulcahy – Highlander
A surely less controversial pick is Russell Mulcahy. Do you even know that name? Here are some of his best known turkeys: Razorback, his feature film debut about a giant wild boar in the Australian outback, which at least it had some visual flair. The first sequel to Highlander, which is a top contender for worst sequel ever made. Ricochet, an early Denzel Washington vehicle. The Real McCoy, a waste of Kim Basinger, Val Kilmer and Terence Stamp in a film nobody has seen.
The Shadow, a completely unwatchable comic book adaptation starring Alec Baldwin. And more recently Resident Evil: Extinction, where Mulcahy took over the directing reigns from the disastrous Paul W.S. Anderson and nobody even noticed, which really says it all.
But then there’s the original Highlander. It might not be a great work of cinema but boy, was it inspired and a lot of fun. The tale of a bunch of immortals chopping each other’s heads off throughout the centuries is B-movie heaven and became immensely popular once it was released on video. It is the only speaking part Christopher Lambert is somewhat tolerable in, has Sean Connery as a Spanish dude called Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez and a fantastic villain in The Kurgan, played with gusto by Clancy Brown.
On top of that the film benefits greatly from a killer soundtrack by Queen, who seem to have a thing for supplying B-movie oddities with fantastic music, and some truly inspired cinematography and editing. The virtuoso camera work in the wrestling arena at the start of the film and the many cuts linking different eras smoothly are prime examples of this.
Highlander wasn’t a success upon its original cinema release but developed a true cult following later on in life and spawned many sequels and spin-offs, all of which were truly awful. There can be only one indeed.
7. Boaz Yakin – Fresh
Whatever happened to Boaz Yakin? You might not know that name and you might not even know the movie Fresh but that would be a real shame. It’s a wonderful directorial debut about a street-smart ghetto kid trying to stay alive and help out his family by being a delivery boy for local drug dealers. It has a great central performance by the then 14 year old Sean Nelson and also some stand-out supporting roles from Samuel L. Jackson and Giancarlo Esposito.
The movie was produced by Lawrence Bender, who came hot of the success of Reservoir Dogs and Killing Zoe and would also produce a little movie called Pulp Fiction the same year and it features another memorable soundtrack by the ex-drummer of The Police, Stewart Copeland.
The film was not a big success at the time but it was very well received by critics and managed to win the Filmmaker’s Trophy and Special Jury Recognition Award for Sean Nelson at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, the Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance for Sean Nelson and the Bronze Award at the Tokyo Film Festival.
Ever since his debut, Boaz Yakin hasn’t made a decent film. His most well known effort would have been Remember the Titans, another Denzel Washington vehicle (What is it with directors on this list and Denzel Washington performances? I mentioned him in the previous entry and I will mention him again), which was a commercial success but certainly not the best of movies and a whole string of films you have never heard about and which did not get any critical props whatsoever either. Apart from that Yakin has always been a screenwriter and his last credits include Prince of Persia and Now You See Me. Nuff said.
6. Hideo Nakata – Ring
Hideo Nakata had made one horror film previous to Ringu called Joyurei (aka Don’t Look Up or Ghost Actress) but it was hardly seen in the West and a modest success in his native Japan. I featured some bizarre footage which makes it way into the film the characters in the movie are shooting, reminiscent in tone of the footage that the rest of the world would get to know soon enough when Ring was released.
Ring was a worldwide horror success and spawned an enormous amount of sequels, spin-offs, imitations and remakes in its wake. It even added a new specific sub-genre to vernacular of popular culture: J-horror (Japanese Horror). Not that Japan didn’t already have a healthy history of films in the genre, it certainly did, but so great was the success and impact of Ring that now those beyond the limited hardcore horror fans were also exposed to it.
After Ring, every Asian horror film, and some non Asian horror films, seemed to feature a girl with long black hair in front of her face. And can you blame them? Sadako crawling out of the television set, in that creepy spider-like stop-motion manner, still keeps me up at night. Ring was genuinely frightening and unsettling and for most of us, it was a type of horror movie we had never seen before.
Ever since though, Nakata as not been able to come close to his previous success. Immediately after Ring’s breakthrough, there was the compulsory sequel, which felt like an afterthought and a weaker re-thread. He then tried his luck at a romance and a thriller but none of these films came close to Ring’s success.
Dark Water did fairly well but it can be argued that it do so mainly because of Ring’s popularity as it was clearly marketed as the next horror film by the director of Ring, and when analysed on its own merits, it really isn’t all that great and simply seems to recycle many of the elements, which had made Ring a successful chiller. Ever since Nakata’s films have gone from bad to worse, to the point where one can only wonder whether Ring had simply been a fluke. Even so, it was one hell of a fluke.