Underrated movies, overrated directors: A watchlist against auteurship

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I’ve never been a big fan of “auteur theory” — the idea that a film’s director is the sole creative origin of its content and themes. It’s more commonly known as that thing that film kids seem to fall back on when talking about their favorite movies. I’m pretty guilty of it too. “It’s Scorsese/Tarantino/Kubrick at his very best!” we’ll say, as if name-dropping the film’s “auteur” director is itself an argument for its merits. 

Something about assigning a director complete creative “responsibility” doesn’t sit right to me. I suppose I could wax Marxist here: Giving the director all the credit fetishizes their role in the “apparatus of production” or something. Or I could go the feminist route, pointing out it’s almost always straight men who get the auteur treatment.

At the same time, though, “auteur theory” leads to a lot of films getting excluded from their respective director’s canon. Let’s face it: Francis Ford Coppola is “The Godfather”; Martin Scorsese is “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver.” So gathered here, you’ll find lesser known films from some of the most often-auteured directors in Hollywood. None of this isn’t to say that these directors aren’t worthy of their praise, or that their more popular films aren’t excellent. But these films are worth talking about — with or without the dreaded director name drop. 

“The Conversation” (1974)

Following a private eye hired to investigate a cryptic exchange between a seemingly innocent young couple, “The Conversation” is a film about paranoia. On the surface, it’s paranoia of the most unconscious variety, of those intrusive thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. But it’s just as much about feelings of inadequacy as it is about secret murder plots; as much about loneliness as it is about its central conspiracy. “The Conversation” argues that it is not the very primal fears of death or survival but these deep-seated social fears that bring out the worst in us. And boy, is it convincing.

Bill Butler’s meticulous, calculated camerawork and Gene Hackman’s startling lead performance bring this incredible thriller to life. Oh, and it’s directed by Coppola.

“The Conversation” is available on Amazon Prime Video. 

“The Color of Money” (1986)

People often like to talk about the film industry’s “reboot culture” like it’s a new phenomenon, but it certainly has its roots in Hollywood’s Golden Age. “The Color of Money” sees Paul Newman reprise his role from “The Hustler” (1961) as Fast Eddie, a now-aging pool hall conman. When he stumbles upon a talented but delinquent up-and-comer (Tom Cruise), Eddie takes him under his wing. The film utilizes the pair’s begrudging but charged partnership to great effect, exploring themes of maturity and integrity with its unique and undeniably stylish premise.

Though it certainly has the general feel of a Scorsese film, the chemistry between Newman and Cruise is simply enthralling. And with a nail-biting screenplay by Richard Price and “The Hustler” alumnus Walter Tevis, this character-driven drama is compelling and confident from start to finish.

“The Color of Money” is available on Amazon Prime Video.

“The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994)

“The Hudsucker Proxy” begins in familiar territory. In this seemingly run-of-the-mill, oddball business satire, a starry-eyed and optimistic mailroom worker is given the promotion of a lifetime. But this film simply oozes with off-the-wall, period piece charm: From its towering art deco skyscrapers to its deliciously evil corporate bigwigs, the Rockefeller-era corporate America that “The Hudsucker Proxy” presents feels equally parts cartoonishly over-the-top and grimly dystopian.

Tim Robbins leads with a bumbling but lovable charisma, but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as a mud-raking, transatlantic-babbling journalist is the film’s real standout. And though Roger Deakins gets plenty of credit for his cinematography in other films, this Coen Brothers flick wouldn’t be the same without his eye for framing and symmetry.

“The Hudsucker Proxy” is available on Amazon Prime Video.

“Get on the Bus” (1996)

The 1995 Million Man March is one of those moments in civil rights history that seems to be brushed somewhat under the rug. The event certainly had its issues: The idea of a “men only” protest event doesn’t entirely square with modern standards of activism and its organizer, Louis Farrakhan, is overtly anti-semitic. “Get on the Bus” doesn’t shy away from these controversies, but embraces them as part of its project to explore the shortcomings of masculinity in BIPOC communities. It is more an extended conversation than an average road trip film. As a result, “Get on the Bus” challenges the idea that there is a singular, uniform Black American experience, without losing sight of the sharp wit that holds it all together.

While it does make use of Spike Lee’s directorial signatures throughout, it’s certainly Reggie Rock Bythewood’s empathetic and deftly paced screenplay that makes this film so memorable.

“Get on the Bus” is available on Netflix.

Contact Olive Grimes at [email protected]. Tweet them at @ogrimes5.