10 Underappreciated Films From Well Known Directors

Film directors from Kubrick to Spielberg have hidden, underrated gems on their CVs. Here are 10 of the best...

One of the pleasures of becoming hooked on a particular filmmaker is stumbling across a hidden gem that rarely receives the attention it deserves. In tribute to such delightfully unexpected moments, the following list picks out a few hidden treats scattered across the work of a number of well-known directors with the hope of giving them the attention they deserve.

1. The Tenant (Roman Polanski)

Following on from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, the final instalment in Roman Polanski’s unofficial ‘Apartment trilogy’ tells the story of a man experiencing an identity crisis after moving into an apartment where a woman committed suicide. Released after the brutal murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate, The Tenant came at a dark time for Polanski but his lack of embarrassment when it came to directly facing his own weaknesses, particularly his decision to cast himself as the timid protagonist, is more than admirable in this brooding thriller.

With its slow pace and awkward dialogue, The Tenant was much less palatable for mainstream audiences than the immensely successful Chinatown released a few years prior. Although, despite passing by somewhat undetected upon its release, it remains a cult favorite. In a similar way to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, the film has to be seen to be believed. It has its terrifying moments and is one of Polanski’s most honest expressions of despair and grief with themes of paranoia, solitude, and madness.

2. Waking Life (Richard Linklater)

The intricacies of human interaction is something Richard Linklater has shown a particular interest in throughout his career. While Slacker and the Before series take a down to earth approach, Waking Life combines sociology and philosophy in a much more multifaceted and abstract design. The characters have no fixed state, morphing into each other as they converse and debate while settings shift and seep into new spaces.

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Animation is something Linklater utilises to its full potential, conveying the complexities of abstract thought and lucid dreaming through the most expressive cinematic tools available to him. In a similar way to his later film A Scanner DarklyWaking Life is an intellectual challenge which might help explain why it often receives less attention than many of his other films. It’s an enlightening experience, particularly for anyone open to exploring the multiple realms of existence.

3. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)

Never afraid to tackle controversial themes, Pedro Almodóvar takes subversion to extremes in The Skin I Live In. Most notable is his move away from the frivolity of his earlier melodramas as he combines his existing style with a new venture into unsettling territory. Tonally, the film troubled some fans as Almodóvar took a starkly serious approach in order to tell the story of a surgeon driven to great lengths after a series of family tragedies. The film owes a debt to a number of classics including Eyes Without A Face as well as the work of David Cronenberg. Melodrama is always at the heart of Almodóvar’s films, however, and this is something The Skin I Live In never strays too far away from despite Almodóvar’s fresh approach.

Complex and well envisioned, with endless twists and turns, The Skin I Live In shows how great filmmakers are able to work within a variety of genres. Rather than becoming set in his ways over time, Almodóvar has become a more confident and ultimately more competent filmmaker and The Skin I Live In is substantial proof that his ideas remain as fresh as ever.

4. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)

For a man considered to be one of the great American directors, with a huge back catalogue to choose from, it’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg has a number of films that frequently go unmentioned by both audiences and critics.

Utilizing the emotional overtones of his earlier family classic E.T., Spielberg reworks a well-worn Pinocchio story into a futuristic tale of parental abandonment and coming of age. Starring Haley Joel Osment in his prime as the good-natured David who wants nothing more than to be a ‘real’ boy, the film has enough heart to humanise its androids and give the science fiction genre a much more emotive quality than it has often been allowed.

The film had a solid foundation from the get-go, mainly due to Stanley Kubrick’s attachment to the project and his influence in the early visual conceptualisations and set designs. Spielberg still makes the film his own but is also not afraid to venture into darker territory than he perhaps would naturally with depictions of robot lynchings and a handful of painfully bittersweet moments.

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5. Polytechnique (Denis Villeneuve)

Denis Villeneuve is a director who has only risen to fame recently with the success of Prisonersand art-house buzz of Enemy. Although his films frequently explore unsettling themes, a trip back to his roots reveals a truly morose tale. Concerning himself with the Montreal Massacre, Villeneuve treats the matter with utter seriousness, depicting events from numerous angles, shooting in crisp black and white and retracing the story in a calm and collected manner.

In a similar way to Gus van Sant’s Elephant, written as a response to the Columbine school shooting, Polytechnique stands back, leaving the audience to ponder over the motives of brutality. The film is tightly conceptualised with a short running time and able to make a big impact through a simple set-up.

6. The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)

Along with the likes of Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut, Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni is a film school favourite. Despite being most notable in the history books for his trilogy on modernity and its discontents (consisting of L’AvventuraLa Notte, and L’Eclisse), Antonioni made a rather remarkable film in the decade following his most remembered works and it is one that continues to be overlooked by critics and scholars alike.

Gorgeously shot with the finest cinematic palette available, The Passenger is an enigmatic tale of a man, played humbly by a young Jack Nicholson, who attempts to assume a new identity but finds himself unable to escape his past. There are little luxuries on the other side of his transition and the film sees him, often literally, running around in circles as past and present lives slowly merge.

Stylistically, The Passengerhas a blankness to it with Antonioni’s observational approach and decision not to add a musical accompaniment. He draws attention to the scenery, placing his protagonist within a foreign environment and allowing the audience to stand back and watch.

7. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)

Despite his death at the end of the twentieth century, cinematic legend Stanley Kubrick made sure that he left behind a puzzle that conjured up enough questions to keep fans scratching their heads well into the millennium. The mixed reception Eyes Wide Shut received was mainly due to questions surrounding whether or not Kubrick left his final masterpiece or a mere hoax.

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The film is a puzzle for sure. Tom Cruise plays Bill, a doctor who spends the majority of his time retracing his steps after stumbling across a bizarre cult. The film is a metaphor for sexuality in crisis, infamous for depicting scenes of ritual sex, and there is something innately fascinating about its dream-like and often detached atmosphere. In true Kubrick style, there’s an eeriness to every interaction, made even more unsettling by a creepy piano riff. The film is the work of both a genius and a joker. It doesn’t reveal its answers easily but it hints and twists in a gripping fashion, leaving enough subtle clues to warrant numerous viewings.

8. Watchmen (Zack Snyder)

Taking into account how Watchmen was considered to be an unfilmable graphic novel, it’s impressive to watch such a successful adaptation play out in full cinematic glory. The never-ending political and social relevance of the story, combined with the technology needed to be able to convey it, makes Zack Snyder’s attempt more than praiseworthy as he approaches the source material in a respectful and considered manner.

Set during the Cold War in an alternate reality where superheroes exist, Watchmen translates political struggles into a pseudo-history. Despite its fictional elements, the story has an uncanny amount of truth behind it and its metaphorical implications never falter despite the times changing.

Although Snyder inevitably had to tweak elements here and there, for the most part, scenes are seamlessly translated from page to screen; many are exact reproductions of Dave Gibbon’s original drawings made even more glorious with the attachment of a fitting soundtrack.

9. Gerry (Gus Van Sant)

Character and landscape collide in Gus van Sant’s tale of two men lost in the desert. Gerry is unsurprisingly overlooked as it’s a challenge to watch people experience such extreme exhaustion and despair. What it provides though is a fascinating study of the human condition, made enriching by the way Van Sant boldly tests both audience and character simultaneously.

Where cinema of duration filmmakers like Bela Tarr and Pedro Costa construct visual masterpieces in each frame, Van Sant chooses instead to slowly strip back his aesthetic as the film progresses. It is the perfect way of conveying the move from rationality to basic impulse as the two men realise that survival is all the matters. The final result is a unique experience and a challenge worth undertaking in order to assess your own patience and survival instinct.

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10. Pusher (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Before venturing out of his home country, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made a collection of low budget gangster films which proved to be a success and help him shape the career he has today. Despite Refn being known as a stylish filmmaker, the genius of Pusher is not confined solely to its aesthetic. As a poor and overly-stylised English language remake proved, it was Refn’s characters who made the series great, with the simplest exchanges and interactions made completely gripping by a confident script.

Stylishness comes naturally to Refn but his characters are also relatable even when in completely unusual predicaments. He interest in violence can be off-putting but also perhaps appealing to many viewers who would otherwise sneer at world cinema.