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The Most Underrated Movies From Iconic Directors

Movies are far more than just a good story and a collection of great actors. Without a skilled director, even the most brilliant script featuring an incredible roster of stars can fall flat for audiences. Over the years, cinema has seen plenty of great filmmakers directing the action, with some early greats including Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and Ida Lupino. Directing movies became an art form all its own, and some of the best directors are often among the most influential people in Hollywood.

However, even the greatest directors can't make every movie a winner, and some have nearly as many misfires as massive hits. Then again, not every great film is beloved right out of the gate, while others are overshadowed by more prominent works from an auteur. 

From William Wyler to Kathryn Bigelow, we've zeroed in on some of the most talented and influential filmmakers in history and collected their most under-appreciated movies. These films are every bit as good as their best but never received the level of acknowledgment they deserved. So dim the lights and prep the popcorn, because it's time to give these overlooked gems the spotlight.

Ridley Scott: Black Rain

Ridley Scott has been creating classics left and right since the 1970s, including some you may not have even realized were his. His most successful run of films is no doubt his back-to-back-to-back classics when he directed a trio of pop culture masterpieces "Alien," "Blade Runner," and the Tom Cruise fantasy favorite "Legend" in a span of six years. However, he never let up, with a list of greats that includes "Gladiator," "Thelma & Louise," and "The Martian." In 1989, though, he directed a crime thriller that has become one of the decade's most underrated action movies

Starring Michael Douglas, Andy García, and Kate Capshaw, "Black Rain" centers on Detective Nick Conkling, a less-than-scrupulous cop in New York City who nabs a member of the Japanese mafia. Conklin is unhappy when his superiors force him to escort the thug back to his native country to face justice. When the crook escapes his custody, Conklin must begrudgingly team up with a local cop to track him down in the Japanese criminal underworld.

Thanks to a distinctive visual style and a brilliant score from Hans Zimmer, Scott delivers a gritty, grimy crime drama a little ahead of its time. Though the script isn't as tight as Scott's finest work, it's an action-packed film noir set almost entirely in urban Japan, giving it a unique flavor for the era.

William Wyler: Detective Story

Along with Frank Capra, John Huston, and John Ford, William Wyler is considered one of the best directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. His most celebrated films span just about every genre, from the fanciful romantic comedy of "Roman Holiday" to the epic biblical adventure of "Ben Hur." He won the Academy Award for best director three times and was nominated nine more, including for a 1952 film often left off lists of his best-known works — the Kirk Douglas crime drama "Detective Story."

Though the film's plot is driven by Detective Jim McLeod (Douglas), a righteous cop who will stop at nothing to pursue justice, "Detective Story" is far more than a simple police adventure. McLeod's quest is to take down a man named Karl Schneider (George Macready), a man who is wanted for murder but is actually an abortion doctor whose clients are unfaithful women. When McLeod finally closes in on Schneider, he discovers that one of his most recent patients may be his own wife.

A story with a lot to say about an important and controversial social issue that remains a touchy subject to this day, "Detective Story" was greeted with warm reviews on its release, with The New York Times calling it "bruisingly real." As the years passed, the film has fallen by the wayside, overlooked in favor of Wyler's bigger films — despite being just as good as his more notable work.

Kathryn Bigelow: Near Dark

Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow has had an odd career. She's been responsible for films that are considered the top of the craft — like military drama and best picture-winner "Zero Dark Thirty" — while also delivering cult classic action schlock film "Point Break." However, her most underrated film is her sophomore effort "Near Dark," a film that was so ahead of the curve it flew under most people's radar when it was released in 1987.

Starring "Terminator" alums Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen, "Near Dark" is a bizarre fusion of vampire horror and neo-Western. A bleak look at the life of a group of undead eking out a desperate living in a small town, it lacks the traditional horror of contemporary films like "Fright Night" or the coming-of-age story seen in "The Lost Boys." Instead, it's a dreary black comedy about a cowboy named Colton (Adrian Pasdar) who is drawn into the world of the unliving by a beautiful stranger named Mae (Jenny Wright). 

"Near Dark" features intense, blood-splattered gore, making the most of its low budget thanks to shrewd direction. An astonishing deconstruction of the vampire mythos, the film is genuinely terrifying and never glorifies the life of the immortal bloodsuckers, unlike so many others. It may rarely be mentioned when her name comes up, but "Near Dark" is truly one of Kathryn Bigelow's best.

Martin Scorsese: Kundun

When it comes to crime dramas, Martin Scorsese could be king, producing some of the most iconic films in the genre of the last 50 years. From "Mean Streets" to "The Irishman," Scorsese excels at gritty character dramas, and while he has veered outside crime dramas from time to time, the genre is his bread and butter. So it should be no surprise that critics regularly pass over his 1997 biopic "Kundun" when discussing his best work, as it feels like a major departure from his more widely accepted films.

"Kundun" chronicles the life of Tenzin Gyatso, the spiritual leader of Tibet better known to the world as the Dalai Lama. The film follows his youth as he was anointed the reincarnation of the Buddha, the invasion of Tibet in 1950, and his complicated relationship with the communist regime that took control of the Tibetan people. Praised by critics on its release for its lush cinematography, some felt it lacked character and story

In its glowing review, The Chicago Tribune summed it up best, calling the film "hauntingly beautiful, raptly serious and vastly ambitious, 'Kundun' is exactly the sort of movie that critics complain the major Hollywood studios never make — and then tend to ignore or underrate when it finally appears." Unfortunately, the film was a flop at the box office, which didn't help its place in the minds of many.

Akira Kurosawa: I Live in Fear

If you've never heard of Akira Kurosawa, you can't really call yourself a cinephile. Either way, you've definitely experienced his influence, with a legacy that cannot be understated. His films "Seven Samurai," "The Hidden Fortress," and "Rashomon" are some of the most influential films in movie history, inspiring the likes of "The Magnificent Seven," "Star Wars," and countless others. While Kurosawa's most notable films have often been epic action movies and thrillers, his most underrated is surely the 1955 drama "I Live in Fear."

The film stars Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune who, at 35 years old, believably plays Kiichi Nakajima, an elderly farmer terrified of the threat of a nuclear assault on his homeland. Set not long after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kiichi thinks that another atomic strike could happen any day. He urges his family to relocate to a foreign country, believing a remote village in a faraway nation will provide safety for him and his loved ones.

Released just a decade after the end of World War 2, "I Live in Fear" is an exploration of the genuine terror that permeated Japan in the years that followed. It examines how the use of atomic bombs took a toll on the national psyche as much as it had physical consequences on the cities that were struck. A powerful and poignant tale, "I Live in Fear" deserves wider recognition for diving undauntedly into the emotional consequences of war.

Brian De Palma: Blow Out

Brian De Palma has produced an all-time great cinematic classic in just about every major genre. This includes his seminal 1976 adaptation of the Stephen King novel "Carrie," the 1983 gangster groundbreaker "Scarface," and the spy movie franchise starter "Mission: Impossible" in 1996. However, back in 1981, he directed a forgotten thriller starring John Travolta, a major star then fresh off a string of hits including "Saturday Night Fever," "Grease," and "Urban Cowboy."

Perhaps looking to reshape his image, Travolta took the role of Jack Terry, a sound engineer who uncovers a sinister assassination plot. It all starts when he's working on recording audio for a low-budget movie and inadvertently records the death of a prominent political figure. When he realizes he has the only evidence of what quickly becomes clear is a murder and subsequent coverup in a political conspiracy, Terry becomes the assassin's next target.

A stunning suspense story, "Blow Out" was well-reviewed but ended up a dud at the box office and is seldom uttered as one of the director's best. Still, it was once cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of the films he'd take with him to a desert island, high praise from one of Hollywood's greatest directors (as well as a reason he cast Travolta in "Pulp Fiction"). That he lauded De Palma as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation while not picking one of his better-known classics proves just how underrated the film really is.

Steven Spielberg: Hook

Director Steven Spielberg is responsible for some of the most influential movies of the last 40 years. From the pulpy adventures of the "Indiana Jones" franchise to moving dramas like "Schindler's List," we could fill an entire article just listing his accomplishments as a director without even touching on the incredible works he's brought to cinema as a producer. Still, for all his success, Spielberg has his share of clunkers too — movies that met with a critical drubbing or disappointment at the box office. However, 1991's "Hook" sits underrated somewhere in the middle.

A modern-day update on the story of Peter Pan, the film is something of a sequel to the age-old fable. Robin Williams stars as Peter Banning, a lawyer who has forgotten that he was once the child adventurer Peter Pan. When Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Peter's children, he's forced to return to Neverland and remember who he really is. 

Critics have long knocked "Hook" for lacking the directorial flare that Spielberg showed in films like "Jaws" and "The Goonies," but he infuses the adventure with a sense of wonder few others could. The cast gives delightful performances and while released in 1991, the film still has an '80s adventure feel. Meanwhile, the central conflict between the adult Peter and his crew of embittered Lost Boys brings a unique spin to the heart of the film. It may not be a masterpiece like "Jurassic Park," but it deserves more credit than it receives.

Stanley Kubrick: Barry Lyndon

Director Stanley Kubrick has one of the most interesting careers of all the filmmakers on this list. Though he has just 12 feature films spanning five decades, nearly all of them are universally beloved, with his movies earning scores of Academy Award nominations, including four for best director. From "Paths of Glory" to his final film "Eyes Wide Shut," nearly every movie on his resume is well-known and easily recognized by most audiences. That is, all except for the 1975 drama "Barry Lyndon."

A rare period piece for Kubrick, "Barry Lyndon" focuses on the titular Lyndon (Ryan O'Neal), a charming 18th-century commoner who always seems to be getting into trouble. After crossing paths with a wealthy widow (Marisa Berenson), Lyndon schemes his way into a position of standing when he steals her heart and takes up the role of her late, well-to-do nobleman husband.

At the time, some mistook it for little more than a painstakingly authentic visual treat and criticized it for being too slow. As a result, it never gained the popularity or had the cultural impact of Kubrick's more noteworthy films. Still, recent years have seen new viewers rediscover its brilliance. "Taste of Cinema" applauded the movie for its subversive themes and philosophical undertones while calling it Kubrick's "overlooked masterpiece" and a "much more piercing insight into the human condition" than some of his previous work. 

Danny Boyle: Millions

The British director Danny Boyle struck gold in 1996 with the uncompromising black comedy "Trainspotting" and never looked back. What might make him so unique is how unpredictable he's been in his choice of projects, from space adventures and zombie apocalypse movies to epic dramas and even a pair of biopics. In between some of his biggest hits, Boyle made "Millions," a heartfelt family film that has escaped the notice of many.

It revolves around nine-year-old Damian (Alex Etel), a boy who always has his heart in the right place. He and his brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon) are dealing with the death of their mother when they discover a big bag of cash that drops from a moving train. While his brother wants to use the money out of greed, Damian tries to find ways to use it to help those in need in increasingly more impactful ways. As he struggles with the weight of such a responsibility, he communes with the saints for counsel, but when he begins to attract attention for his generosity, he finds himself in a world of trouble.

Perhaps because the film features no big, marketable stars, or perhaps because of its simple, almost saccharine premise, "Millions" has seemed easy to forget. Still, the film is a tender, poignant, and wholesome moral story of love, faith, and forgiveness. Just because it's a film the entire family can enjoy doesn't make it any less than Boyle's best.

Alfred Hitchcock: Spellbound

Ranked the greatest director of all time by "Entertainment Weekly," Alfred Hitchcock's contribution to cinema is immeasurable. Beyond his incredible filmography, Hitchcock practically rewrote the rules of cinema and invented an entirely new visual language for film (per Farout Magazine). With a career that spans the silent era through the 1970s, everyone is familiar with Hitchock's best, but his most underrated has to be the 1945 Gregory Peck psycho-drama "Spellbound."

In "Spellbound," the master of suspense crafts a groundbreaking thriller with a stunning twist that would influence any number of following films. Gregory Peck stars as Dr. Anthony Edwardes, a debonair and charming new hospital director who beguiles the long-time and well-respected psychiatrist Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman). When questions arise about Edwards' past that he seems powerless to answer, Peterson must work with him as her newest patient, delving deep into his psyche, breaking down the walls of his mind, and learning if he is actually a murderer.

Admittedly, few Hitchcock aficionados probably would balk that we're calling "Spellbound" underrated, as it's always been regarded as a great film, full of stunning imagery and a captivating mystery. While it received Oscar nominations for best picture, best supporting actor, and best director, it still doesn't come close to being as well known as the likes of "Psycho," "The Birds," and "Dial M For Murder." In fact, the film doesn't even rank in our list of the director's 20 best.

Spike Lee: Clockers

By his mid-30s, director Spike Lee was already the preeminent director to capture the truth of the Black experience, as noted by Entertainment Weekly, who put him on their list of greatest directors of all time. By the turn of the millennium, Lee had helmed groundbreaking films like "Mo' Better Blues" and "Jungle Fever." He hasn't let up since, continuing to produce acclaimed films well into the new century, including the Academy Award-winning "BlacKkKlansman." However, one movie that always seems to be overshadowed on looks back is 1995's "Clockers."

Starring Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo, and Mekhi Phifer, "Clockers" is more of a traditional crime drama — which may be why it's less noted than the likes of "Do the Right Thing." It told the story of Strike (Phifer), a low-level pusher who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a rival dealer. When Strike's brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) claims responsibility, it puts Strike in the middle of a battle with a pair of determined detectives who still think he's the killer.

One of the earliest films to spotlight the street-level drug trade and how it can trap Black youth, "Clockers" provides a glimpse into a world most of America was largely unfamiliar with. A spiritual precursor to the likes of "The Wire," it features a strong cast, while Lee's distinguishing directing talents are on full display. It might not be his best, but it's far better than it gets credit for.

The Coen Brothers: The Hudsucker Proxy

The Coen Brothers are best known for their gritty, violent, and often unexpectedly funny thrillers like "Blood Simple," "No Country for Old Men," and "Fargo." Any major movie fan could rattle off a number of their famous, beloved films that deftly mix dark comedy with clever crime capers. Sadly, their 1991 comedy "The Hudsucker Proxy" rarely gets much love.

Just as funny, clever, and charming as any film they've ever made, "The Hudsucker Proxy" may be overlooked because it's more of a straight comedy than many of their bigger works and lacks a big-name superstar actor in the lead role. While George Clooney and Tom Hanks lead "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Ladykillers," respectively, this one has Tim Robbins. While Robbins is just as good — if not better — than both, he was not a high-profile draw. Co-written by Sam Raimi, the film stars Robbins as Norville Barnes, a low-level clerk at Hudsucker Industries who is put in charge of the entire company by scheming executive Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman) in an attempt to weasel his way into power.

A fun, stylish production, "The Hudsucker Proxy" is a critique of big business that, while not hitting every note perfectly for critics, delivers dark satire by the bucketful. The cast — which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Campbell, and Steve Buscemi — is a treat giving appropriately over-the-top performances. Though not as well-remembered as "The Big Lebowski," it might deserve to be.