Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week: What is your favorite great movie by a ‘not-so-great’ director?

Some creative people have one great work in them. It happens. I recall a story about someone asking Joseph Heller if he ever got tired of talking about Catch-22 (which is kind of funny, because that’s not his best novel), and he said something along the lines of being happy he even wrote something as universally loved as Catch-22, so of course he didn’t mind talking about it. I imagine he would have been perfectly happy talking about God Knows or Picture This (a better book than Catch-22), but he knew he had written a great book, so he talked about it. Some other creative people might get grumpy about it and want to talk about their most recent thing, but it’s okay if they only did one great work. Most people don’t even have that in them.

I often think about this when it comes to movie directors. I don’t keep up with directors as much as I used to, but I once knew what directors were doing, and I found it interesting that some of them had one great movie in them, and either they didn’t make many other movies or their other movies just didn’t come close. The first time I thought of this, I think was when I saw Jacob’s Ladder and couldn’t believe that Adrian Lyne had directed it. Jacob’s Ladder is a brilliant psychological horror movie, and Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, and Danny Aiello are all superb in it (the rest of the cast is good, but those three are the main characters). It digs under your skin and stays there, and it’s beautifully shot to maximize the discomfort of Robbins’s disturbing journey through his post-Vietnam life. Lyne didn’t make bad movies, exactly, but his other movies were just slick entertainments: Foxes, Flashdance, 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and after Jacob’s Ladder, Indecent Proposal, Lolita, and Unfaithful. It seems almost impossible that among those entertaining yet shallow movies, he would do this extremely weird and dark and traumatizing movie, yet he did. It’s still bizarre to me.

My favorite movie by a “one-hit wonder” director, though, is Once Were Warriors, the harrowing domestic drama from 1994, which was directed by Lee Tamahori. Both Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison are astonishing as the Maori couple who love each other and hate each other in equal measure, and the movie gives us an unflinching portrait of the racism in New Zealand against the Maori, the rage that engenders in Morrison’s character, and how Owen’s character tries to shield that from her children. It’s not a comfortable movie, but it’s brilliant. Tamahori has never made anything remotely close to it, and it’s too bad. He moved to Hollywood and made Mulholland Falls, The Edge, Along Came a Spider, Die Another Day, xXx: State of the Union, and Next, plus two other movies, The Devil’s Double and The Patriarch, which I haven’t seen but can’t imagine are anywhere near his debut (although the latter takes him back to New Zealand, so perhaps it’s a return to form). With the exception of Die Another Day, which is in the running for worst James Bond movie, none of those are terrible movies, but they are schlocky action movies, and it’s too bad that Tamahori either wanted to do them or couldn’t do the kinds of movies he wanted to do in the States. But Once Were Warriors remains a superb movie, and it’s weird to think the guy who directed Pierce Brosnan windsurfing a tsunami could do something so amazing.

One more movie I can think of is Hardware, which I mentioned in December’s Previews post. Richard Stanley hasn’t made a lot of movies, and I haven’t seen the few he has made, and I’m not even sure if Hardware counts as a “hit,” because it’s not like it did terribly well at the box office or is a wildly acclaimed movie, but dang, it’s really cool. Dylan McDermott gets a robot head from a nomad as a present for his girlfriend Stacy Travis (in a post-apocalyptic world, natch), but the robot is a military prototype and it turns on and starts building a body and trying to kill poor Stacy Travis at the same time. It’s a claustrophobic horror/thriller, and it just works really well. Stanley had a bad reputation in Hollywood for his work on The Island of Dr. Moreau, from which he was fired (and, given that 2021 sucked, he was accused of domestic violence and immediately filed suit against his accuser for libel and slander), and as I noted, he hasn’t made a bunch of movies, but Hardware is keen. Plus, it has an amazing soundtrack, with “The Order of Death” by Public Image Ltd. and Ministry’s “Stigmata” being the highlights.

Do you have any great movies made by maybe not so great directors? Let me know!


  1. Eric van Schaik

    It’s another case of YMMV
    I love all of the 3 films below.

    Bull Durham made by Ron Shelton.
    I’m not a big Kevin Costner fan but he hits all the right buttons in this one. Plus I like baseball.

    Commando made by Mark L. Lester.
    One of the best movies with Mr. Schwarzenegger.

    Demolition Man made by Marco Brambilla.
    It’s the only Stallone movie I have on Bluray. What do you know…

    Hardware is a movie I saw a very long time ago. Liked it a lot.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I’m not sure if Commando and Demolition Man are really “great,” although I love them both, but yeah, Lester and Brambilla have never really done anything close to them, have they? And Shelton is an excellent choice, as Bull Durham is superb and nothing else he’s done – either directing or writing – has come close.

  2. I’ll offer up a good movie made by a terrible studio, Monogram’s 1942 Black Dragons (director: William Nigh). Monogram were almost the rock bottom of the Poverty Row studios (PRC beat them there) but this is an entertaining low-budget film (if you can get past the anti-Japanese racism) with a great exchange between a doctor and Bela Lugosi:
    “You don’t look like you’re in any danger of dying.” Lugosi: “All men are in danger of dying. The only question is … when.”
    William Castle never made a great film, but Matinee with John Goodman as Castle with the serial numbers filed off (that must have hurt!) is a wonderful film.
    View to a Kill has the “worst” status in the Bond series locked up. Or the 1967 Casino Royale if you go non-canon. License to Kill is mediocre but it’s not at that level.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I’ve never seen Matinee, but I always wanted to. Some day …

      Well, Die Another Day is just in the running, sir! It’s worse than A View to a Kill, though, because of Walken, who’s just batshit insane enough to make that a bizarrely entertaining movie, not a good one. There’s not enough Rosamund Pike in Die Another Day to make that one entertaining! πŸ™‚

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Man, I only saw Hardware once, on TV, some time in the mid-1990s and hardly remember any of it. But I do remember liking it. And also *really* liking that the Ministry’s “Stigmata” is included in the soundtrack. The entire album that song is from, Land of Rape and Honey, is an absolute masterpiece.

  4. Le Messor

    One of my favourite movies, and a movie that you don’t even mention in front of me, had the same director:
    The Lost Boys, and any theoretical to the (also not good) Batman Forever.

    Though I thought Flatliners and his Phantom Of The Opera are both okay.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I think Schumacher has made several very good movies – maybe not great, but very good – which mitigates his two Batman atrocities a tiny bit. Flatliners, Falling Down, Tigerland, and Phone Booth are all far better than they have every right to be, and that goes to the acting, true, but also the directing. Even his excessiveness (in Flatliners, for instance) works in context. But yeah, Batman Forever is pretty bad. It’s not as bad as Batman & Robin, though!

      1. Le Messor

        I’m pretty sure the movies I listed are the only ones I’ve seen by him. Falling Down and Phone Booth aren’t my kind of thing (and I didn’t know they were his). Never heard of Tigerland.

        1. Eric van Schaik

          Falling Down is a great movie (IMO), with some great lines:
          “We’re not the same, I’m an American, Your a sic asshole” Great stuff. πŸ˜‰

          Front Line Assembly used this quote and others on the Millenium album (with Dave McKean cover art).

    1. Le Messor

      I only kind of remember that. I just remember that she was in it! πŸ˜€
      It’s been a long time since I saw it, though, and all the pre-Craig Bonds (and the Craig Bonds) blur in my head (I didn’t even remember Walken was in it, tbh.)

  5. Terrible-D

    Brett Ratner and Red Dragon. While I prefer Manhunter (no surprise, since it’s from a fantastic director), it was an excellent adaptation with strong performances from Norton and Fiennes.

  6. Eric van Schaik

    Kevin Conran made Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow.
    It starred Jude Law, Gwryn Paltrow and Angelica Jolie.
    I thought it was a great movie, but if Mr. Burgas thinks the same… πŸ˜‰

    1. Greg Burgas

      Conran (Kerry, that is, not Kevin) is a good choice, as Sky Captain is the only movie he ever made, and it was quite good. I’m not sure he counts because it’s his only feature – who knows if he has another good movie in him, but he hasn’t gotten a chance to make it?!?!?!? πŸ™‚

    1. Greg Burgas

      Not a bad choice. I haven’t seen any Rocky movies, but Sly’s other movies don’t fill me with confidence! (He did direct Rocky IV, though, and don’t people like that one?)

      1. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        Rocky IV is the insane fever dream where Rocky ends up getting cheered by a Russian crowd as he fights their champion.

        The ranking of the series is usually along the lines of:

        1. Rocky (directed by John Avildsen, who also did the Karate Kid movies)
        2. Creed (directed by Ryan Coogler)
        3. Rocky Balboa (directed by Sly)
        4. Creed II (directed by Steven Caple Jr)

        People then slot Rocky II/III/IV (all directed by Sly) depending on personal preference, and everyone agrees that Rocky V (directed by Avildsen) is the worst.

  7. Die Another Day is one of the best Bond movies. Spectacularly nuts. I love it. All Bond movies are watchable for me, but my least favorites are probably You Only Live Twice (I should revisit this one, though), Diamonds Are Forever, and maybe Tomorrow Never Dies (even though Michelle Yeoh is one of the best Bond ladies and the bit with Vincent Schiavelli is great).

    I can’t think of a good answer to your question. I was tempted to say Mac and Me, directed by Stewart Raffill, but 1. I don’t think anyone would agree with me that it’s a good movie, and 2. I also like his Tammy and the T-Rex.

    Since we’ve established my tastes are suspect, maybe I’ll go with Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Yes, that’s right– I’m not a big PTA fan. But that one was good.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Tomorrow Never Dies is much better than Die Another Day, sir! I would like Die Another Day if it were more spectacularly nuts, as you put it, but while some of it, the parts that aren’t are really bad. Oh well.

      Diamonds Are Forever is definitely in the running for worst Bond movie.

      I’ve heard … maybe not good things about Tammy and the T-Rex, but that it’s a movie you definitely need to see. Perhaps I shall.

      Yeah, your Anderson choice makes no sense to me, because he’s such a good director. You’re a crazy man, Mr. Reed! πŸ™‚

  8. fit2print

    I spent pretty much the entirety of my 20s binge-watching pretty much exactly the type of movies you’re describing.

    I didn’t set out to complete an unofficial degree in films by directors who “had one great movie in them, and either didn’t make many other movies or their other movies just didn’t come close” but it appears that’s exactly what I “achieved.”

    Long story short… to say I have suggestions is something of an understatement…

    Steven Zaillian, Searching for Bobby Fischer – riveting film for Queen’s Gambit fans

    Dean Parisot, Galaxy Quest – by Grapthar’s hammer, this one needs no introduction

    Edward James Olmos, American Me – yes, Cmdr Adama directs (and acts in this baby too)

    Ramon Menendez, Stand & Deliver – Olmos is always great but he’s at his finest here

    Vincenzo Natali, Cube – cult SF movie that is truly mind-blowing (just avoid the sequels)

    James Mangold, Copland – proof that Sly Stallone can legit act (no, really)

    David Anspagh, Hoosiers – #3 (at worst) on the finest-ever sports movies list

    Philip Borsos, The Grey Fox – a slow-burning western (ain’t they all) but magical

    Martin Brest, Midnight Run – #3 (at worst) on the funniest-ever comedies list

    James Bridges, The China Syndrome – Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda. ‘Nuff said

    Carl Franklin, One False Move – tragically underappreciated crime film with Bill Paxton

    Bill Duke, Deep Cover – tragically underappreciated crime film, part deux, w. Jeff Goldblum

    Neil Jimenez, The Waterdance – one-of-a-kind masterpiece (bonus: Eric Stoltz)

    Carl Schenkel, The Mighty Quinn – Denzel + eye-popping camera work

    Ulu Grossbard, Straight Time – Eddy Bunker’s best novel + utterly stellar cast

    Leslie Harris, Just Another Girl on the IRT – tragically, the first and only Harris film

    Morgan J Freeman, Hurricane Streets – nope, different Morgan but still a terrific movie

    Daryl Duke, The Silent Partner – cult Christmas movie from the Great White North

    Tony Kaye, American History X – “harrowing” does not begin to describe this one

    Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko – this mind-bender also very likely needs no introduction

    Michael Lehman, Heathers – “cult” film that just about everyone has, in fact, seen

    John Mackenzie, The Long Good Friday – non-Scorsese gangster films don’t get any better

    Ivan Passer Cutter’s Way – little-seen Jeff Bridges mystery, though John Heard steals the film

    Dick Powell, Enemy Below – by far the oldest flick here, it’s Das Boot long before Das Boot

    Tim Robbins, Dead Man Walking – Sean Penn is… yep… always great. Maybe never better

    Joseph Sargent The Taking of Pelham 123 – the non-Denzel original is actually much better

    Tom Shadyac, Liar Liar – I’m also surprised there’s a Carrey movie on this list but it’s gold

    Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade – if only B-B hadn’t met Angie and sold his soul to H’wood

    Tom Tykwer, Run Lola Run – in German but with so much running there’s no time to talk

    Geoffrey Wright, Romper Stomper – another harrowing flick about Nazis (who are not Trump)

    Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World – proof that great movies can be made from great indie comics

    Jonathan Mostow, Breakdown – absolute sleeper of a thriller (bonus: Kurt Russell)

    Kevin Reynolds, Fandango – post-college coming-of-ager with a very young Costner

    Thom Eberhardt, Without a Clue – 1988: peak comedy year (c.f. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)

    Phil Alden Robinson, Sneakers – under-the-radar caper featuring late, great Sidney Poitier

    Doug Liman, Swingers – “It’s money!” (worth seeing for the answering machine scene alone)

    1. Greg Burgas

      Let’s see …

      Zaillian is more of a screenwriter, and he’s done some amazing stuff, but I agree with you about Searching for Bobby Fischer. If we open it up to television, he directed all but one episode of The Night Of, which is excellent.

      I’ve never seen Cube, but I swear I read a novel with the exact same plot in the 1970s/early 1980s. I can’t find any reference to it, though, so maybe I’m a crazy person.

      Cop Land is superb, but Mangold also made Logan, which is terrific, so I’m not sure he counts.

      The Waterdance is a good one. Of course, it’s Jimenez’s only directing credit, so who knows if he has another great movie in him!

      Michael Lehman has done a lot of good work in television, but as far as feature films, yeah, Heathers is an anomaly in his CV.

      I disagree with you about Tim Robbins. He’s made three feature films, and Dead Man Walking is probably the WORST one, even though it’s very good. Bob Roberts is brilliant, and Cradle Will Rock is very good.

      I disagree with you about Tykwer, too, because The Princess and the Warrior, which he did right after Run Lola Run, is also excellent!

      I disagree with you about Liman, because I think Go is better than Swingers. But Swingers is a very good movie, I agree.

      I’ve actually seen a lot of the movies you mention, and while I don’t know how right you are about some of them because I’ve only seen that particular movie by that director (Romper Stomper, to pick one at random), I know enough about most of them to agree with most of them (Jonathan Mostow, to pick another one at random). Interesting list!

  9. While I won’t attempt to respond to all of those, The Long Good Friday, Mighty Quinn and Midnight Run are all outstanding. Cube is remarkably good.
    Donnie Darko I found a pretentious, insufferable mess. Ghost World is well executed but it doesn’t work for me.

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