15 Underrated Films By Great Directors

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Since film’s beginning, there’s always been one person responsible for any film’s success or failure: the director. The role of the director, however, would come into the spotlight upon the publication of film critic Andrew Sarris’ 1968 book, The American Cinema. The first American critic to give credence to what would become known as ‘the auteur theory.’ The role of the director would become associated with specific aesthetic and thematic trademarks of a given filmmaker. This essay would compare a director and a painter, taking these artists out of the shadows and thrusting them into the spotlight. 

As the proverbial ship’s captain, these iconic filmmakers range from Old Hollywood greats like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Howard Hawks to modern auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, and David Fincher. However, among their better-known works lie hidden gems that add color to their immaculate filmographies. Today, we’ll count down these hidden gems from your favorite directors!

1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures.

Several films from the great Steven Spielberg could have made it onto this list – War of the Worlds, 1941, Amistad, and Munich- are all potential candidates. However, one outlier that sticks out in the Spielberg oeuvre: A.I. Development started on this film in the early 1970s by Spielberg’s friend Stanley Kubrick, an auteur in his own right. After Kubrick’s death, Spielberg moved forward with the project, centering on an android child who searches for his mother after being replaced by a real boy. Bleak by Spielberg’s standards, this film represents the perfect marriage of Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s styles.

2. Death Proof (2007)

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company.

This Quentin Tarantino horror film is the second half of a double bill with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. It follows a maniac stunt driver who uses his car as a killing machine and the women who try to stop him. Derided at its release as an insubstantial entry in Tarantino’s catalog, the film has been reevaluated recently as a fun update on the classic Russ Meyer women-in-cars films of the 1960s. It’s a rip-roaring good time!

3. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

The final film by Stanley Kubrick, this psycho-sexual thriller follows Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise) and his paranoid odyssey down the streets of New York after his wife, Alice (played by Cruise’s real wife at the time, Nicole Kidman), reveals that she’s had sexual fantasies about a sailor she met at a party years earlier. Featuring Kubrick’s trademark detachment from his subjects paired with a dark sense of humor, this film was unfairly maligned at its release as being too obtuse and confusing. It has aged wonderfully as a paranoid thriller about a man losing touch with his wife and the world around him.

4. Auto-Focus (2002)

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader’s career as a director is fascinating. He has several classics under his belt, including Blue Collar, Hardcore, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. This thriller, based on a true story, follows television actor Bob Crane as he descends deeper and deeper into the world of pornography. Featuring Schrader’s usual archetype of the lonely man, this Greg Kinnear/Willem Dafoe two-hander plays great to fans of true crime shows like Dateline or The First 48. 

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5. Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964)

Photo Credit: Gibraltar Productions.

A late-period effort from Rio Bravo and His Girl Friday director Howard Hawks, this screwball comedy follows Roger (Rock Hudson), a fishing salesman, who his boss convinces to enter a fishing tournament despite knowing nothing about the sport. The only Old Hollywood film that this author can think of that includes a scene involving a bear riding a bicycle.

6. Frenzy (1972)

Photo Credit: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions.

The penultimate film by the great Alfred Hitchcock, this sleazy mystery adheres to Hitchcock’s usual ‘wrong man’ formula. It follows the hot-headed ex-Royal Airforce officer Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), who’s wrongfully accused of a series of serial killings plaguing London. It is the closest Hitchcock ever got to making a De Palma film. This darkly comedic thriller sees an older Hitchcock working in top form!

7. Donovan’s Reef (1963)

Photo Credit: John Ford Productions.

John Ford’s tropical hangout film follows three World War II veterans, Donovan, Gilhooley, and Doc Dedham, as they try and maintain Doc’s stock in his company after his daughter learns of an illicit affair with a woman he’s had on the Polynesian island of Haleakaloha. Seeing Ford playing in a low-key register is undoubtedly unique, but the central performances by John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and Jack Warden, paired with its glacial pace, make this soar!

8. Model Shop (1969)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Director Jacques Demy of Umbrellas of Cherbourg tackles his first-ever film made by an American studio. The film, which follows an unemployed Vietnam draft dodger who pursues a woman he’s only ever seen a glimpse of, marks an interesting evolution of Demy’s trademark artificial style. Combined with the bluntness of 1960s America, the film is given a strange mood that feels unlike anything else in his oeuvre. It is an underrated film by one of the best directors ever to do it.

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9. Hustle (1975)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

After their first collaboration with 1974’s The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds and Robert Aldrich reteam for this gritty crime thriller. Hustle follows Lt. Phil Gaines, a hot-shot homicide investigator who must solve the murder of Gloria Hollinger, a teenage sex worker found dead on the shore of a beach. Procedural but never dull, Aldrich’s knack for violence comes in handy during a climactic shootout between Reynolds and Ben Johnson.

10. Track of the Cat (1954)

Photo Credit: Wayne-Fellows Productions.

Legendary director William A. Wellman’s Technicolor Western follows Curt Bridges (Robert Mitchum) as he contends with not only the interplay of his family drama during a snowstorm, but also a mysterious panther who keeps killing his cattle. Thrilling and claustrophobic in equal measure, this film is worth checking out for the novelty of seeing one of the films that would go on to inspire Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

11. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) 

Photo Credit: Bert E. Friedlob Productions.

The final American film by genre auteur Fritz Lang follows an author caught in a conspiracy plot while trying to prove that he can commit the perfect murder. One of the earliest examples of a director doing ‘late-style’— the term for an older director leaning heavily into their chosen themes and aesthetics—this film is full of harsh black-and-white photography and Lang’s knack for punchy dialogue and gritty characters.

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12. THX-1138 (1971)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Before directing Star Wars, George Lucas directed this sci-fi film for the USC School of Cinematic Arts as his thesis film. The film centers on a society where emotions are suppressed and Androids police citizens. It is an early example of Lucas’ chops in the sci-fi genre.

13. Cruising (1980)

Photo Credit: United Artists.

William Friedkin’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning films The French Connection and The Exorcist, this hypnagogic murder mystery follows Steve Burns (Al Pacino), a homicide investigator who has to go undercover to track down a murderer in New York’s gay community. Controversial upon its initial release, this raw thriller still packs a punch for those who can stomach its more extreme content.

14. Silence (2016)

Photo Credit: SharpSword Films.

This late-period effort from Martin Scorsese follows two Jesuit priests who must confront their faith while doing missionary work in Japan, where they are caught under the death grip of the Tokugawa shogunate. A heartbreaking film, Silence perfectly explores Scorsese’s preoccupations with men’s relationship to faith and the nature of doubt.

15. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

This English-language adaptation of the Steig Larson paperback novel follows journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) as he investigates a forty-year-old cold case involving the disappearance of a debutante’s niece. Seeing David Fincher’s return to his thriller roots after 2009’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this twisty ride will keep you on the edge of your seat for its 158 minutes!

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