This list identifies directors whose filmographies have experienced an overall downward trend. It does not propose that each and every film by the director in question is worse than the one before; there are exceptions to these patterns of decline. The point is that none of these directors have managed to scale back to the heights they reached at the beginnings of their careers.
10. Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s propensity for making serviceable but unremarkable historical dramas is traceable back to 1997’s “Amistad” (or even 1985’s “The Color Purple,” depending on who you ask), but he continued making great films until the early 2000s. His first three films of the millennium – “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Minority Report,” and “Catch Me If You Can” – may not reach the heights of the classics he directed during the 70s and 80s, but they are still above-average films.
But with the release of “The Terminal” in 2004, Spielberg swerved too far into the sentimentality he has always been accused of. The ten films he has made since “The Terminal” are a mix of solid but unexceptional historical pieces (with “Munich” and “Lincoln” in the top tier), middling sci-fi like “War of the Worlds” and “Ready Player One,” and disappointingly uneven family fare like “War Horse” and “The BFG.” And that’s not to mention the fridge-nuking letdown that is “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
Perhaps Spielberg will make a comeback someday, but right now, he seems incapable of recapturing the lighting-in-a-bottle magic of his twentieth century films. “Ready Player One,” his most recent effort, seems to indicate that he feels bound by an obligation toward the era of cinema he shaped. Unable to repeat that success, he looks back at it, and that nostalgia is never quite as compelling as something altogether new.
9. Michael Mann
Sure, Michael Mann proved pretty early on in his career that he his capable of making a bad movie (see “The Keep”), but then he went on a streak of great films that didn’t let up until “Ali” in 2001. “Ali” is a good film, but it shows the beginning of Mann’s decline; though his dynamic style is still present, the narrative feels emptier and messier than almost anything else in Mann’s career, contrasting with tightly plotted thrillers like “Manhunter.”
Mann returned to form briefly with 2004’s “Collateral” before quickly switching back to the wrong track with 2006’s “Miami Vice. The film brings the emptiness and messiness slightly visible in “Ali” to full fruition. Mann’s script gestures at various passions and desires, but the characters are so flat that none of the emotion registers, and we are left with a completely disposable undercover cop plot spoken in monotone and framed in drab colors.
Though “Public Enemies” is not a bad film, the downward trend remains evident. Mann’s style, while captivating as ever, cannot mask the emptiness at the core of the story. The characters simply do not seem to feel the emotions Mann wants them to feel. 2015’s “Blackhat” – a hollow, tedious thriller about hacking – represents the lowest point of Mann’s career since “The Keep.”
8. Darren Aronofsky
Whether Darren Aronofsky has ever made a great film is the subject of some debate, but there’s no denying that the first couple entries in his filmography are less divisive than his recent work. After capturing gritty intellectual paranoia in “Pi” and the harrowing consequences of drug addiction in “Requiem for a Dream,” Aronofsky made “The Fountain,” an abstract, aesthetically innovative story of love and immortality that spans eons of time. Met with both reverence and disdain by critics, “The Fountain” prefigured the variance in critical opinion that would surround his later work.
“The Wrestler” was the peak of Aronofsky’s career, and “Black Swan,” while compelling and creepy, shows a preference for impact over insight seeping through. Aronofsky’s real fall is “Noah,” a dreary, bombastic Biblical epic with an ill-advised fusion of family drama and lackluster CGI action.
“Mother!” has its defenders, and I am not one of them. It seems difficult to find a more misanthropic movie. Aronofsky clobbers you over the head with his allegory: once you realize that he’s miniaturizing Biblical and ecclesiastical narratives, the metaphor never really deepens or expands.
There’s some memorable imagery and impressively crafted claustrophobia, but by the time the credits roll, all Aronofsky has really said is that the human race is hopelessly selfish and cruel.
7. Peter Jackson
During the 80s and 90s, Peter Jackson specialized mostly in horror comedies with high entertainment and gore factors. In the first few years of the new millennium, he made one of the best film trilogies of all time with “The Lord of the Rings.”
Then Jackson entered his overindulgent phase. Seemingly stuck in a groove of making three-hour-plus movies, he made the intermittently exhilarating but mostly just inexplicably long “King Kong,” which doubles the original’s compact runtime. Jackson followed “King Kong” with an ill-advised adaptation of “The Lovely Bones,” an overwrought meditation on grief full of erratic tonal shifts and hackneyed conceptualizations of the afterlife.
“The Hobbit” trilogy demonstrates Jackson’s indulgent tendencies at their most extreme. Jackson stretches Tolkien’s relatively slim novel over nearly eight hours, and neither Martin Freeman’s spot-on performance as Bilbo nor Howard Shore’s brilliant score can distract from the sheer excess of the trilogy.
Highlights like Bilbo’s interactions with the dragon Smaug or the dwarves’ Misty Mountain song are forgotten beneath goofy gravity-defying antics, irritating side characters, narrative fat, and gratuitous CGI. “The Battle of the Five Armies” is particularly disappointing, turning a battle that only occupied a couple pages in Tolkien’s novel into endless computer-generated mayhem that fully forsakes the earlier trilogy’s reliance on practical effects. “The Lord of the Rings” feels faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision; “The Hobbit” feels like a desecration of it.
6. Francis Ford Coppola
During the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola made the first two “Godfather” films, “The Conversation,” and “Apocalypse Now,” which meant that down was really the only way left to go. The 80s and 90s held a few successes – including “The Outsiders,” “Dracula,” and the disappointing but nevertheless serviceable “Godfather: Part III” – but everything felt positively mediocre compared to his 70s work.
All of Coppola’s work since then has oscillated between average and outright bad. “Jack” is the schmaltzy and occasionally tone-deaf story of a boy whose body ages several times faster than he does, and despite Robin Williams’ zany efforts, the movie never does anything particularly inventive with its admittedly intriguing premise.
“The Rainmaker” is a solid enough John Grisham adaptation, but again, all of the subtlety and ambition of Coppola’s 70s work is glaringly absent. “Youth Without Youth” is worse, a misguided romance-mystery that drowns its ideas about time and perception in a muddled plot and pretentious symbolic gibberish.
“Tetro” is a perfectly acceptable family drama, but “Twixt” is probably Coppola’s worst movie, a confused, clichéd horror flick that whisks together an assortment of horror tropes – vampirism, nightmares, serial killers – into an uninspired examination of grief and the creative process.