Top 5… Directors Who Haven’t Yet Beaten Their First

Sometimes a director will knock a film out of the park on their first go. This is never a bad thing, unless of course the director then spends the rest of their career chasing a high they may never achieve again. Whether its a matter of a budget they can’t handle, an inflated ego, troublesome actors or the interference of a pesky, meddlesome studio, these directors just haven’t managed to get things together to relive those past, initial glories.
5. Frank Darabont – The Shawshank Redemption
There are few people in the world who don’t like The Shawshank Redemption, yet it was Darabont’s first feature film after just a short and a couple of TV movies. Since its release in 1994 Darabont very nearly reached its heady heights again with the similarly Stephen King scribed The Green Mile, but it was overlong and a tad too depressing at times for my liking. The Majestic is under-appreciated but nowhere near as good, and though I really like The Mist, it can never be more than a slightly above average monsters-from-a-parallel-dimension B-movie. The Walking Dead had the potential for greatness, and is still very enjoyable, but it’s doubtful whether anything Darabont makes will ever reach Shawshank-like levels of greatness.
4. Kevin Smith – Clerks
Made for a paltry $27,000, Clerks came out of nowhere, and Kevin Smith has been resolutely trying to relive its immense success ever since, primarily by making no fewer than five other films set in the same universe. Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back were too puerile, and the rest have their highlights but just don’t cut it. The closest Smith came was with the original’s sequel, set 12 years later but following the simple formula of the two directionless slackers through a day at their dead-end jobs, primarily at a convenience store and then a fast food joint. Those films not made in the ‘Viewaskewniverse’ (Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri Make A Porno, Cop Out) are universally derided, though I think Jersey and Zack are at least worth a watch. Cop Out is just terrible, and I refuse to own a copy though I consider myself a Kevin Smith fan. Unforgivably, I’ve still yet to watch Red State, and I hear very mixed reviews, so I think its safe to say it isn’t as good as Clerks, but I’ll let you know once I’ve finally seen it.
3. Sam Mendes – American Beauty
Mendes has made some great films, this cannot be disputed, and his upcoming take on Bond with Skyfall looks promising, even though the name is terrible. Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go are all brilliant, yet wildly different pictures, and Jarhead is OK I guess, but it was American Beauty that is the truly faultless picture (other than the floating carrier bag, I don’t think that really holds up). Whether it was Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning performance, the stellar supporting cast or that amazing soundtrack, the film has yet to be bettered by Mendes.

2. Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones – Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Terrys Jones and Gilliam had been heavily involved with the writing of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the visionary sketch-based TV show that preceded the films, but the pair’s directorial debut was, in my opinion, one of the greatest comedic films to come out of the UK, if not the world. Reportedly the pair didn’t work too well as a directing duo, so Jones took the helm on his own for Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, and both suffered a little because of it. I don’t really rate anything Jones has made since (The Wind in the Willows isn’t bad) and though Gilliam has made some memorably odd and troubled pictures, I’ve never managed to latch onto them quite as well as I did with the Holy Grail. Of his later works, Brazil stands out as being the most visionary and imagination-fueling, and I’ll always have a special place for The Fisher King. I haven’t forgotten Fear and Loathing or Twelve Monkeys, I just haven’t really seen them well enough to comment.
1. Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker – Airplane!
This isn’t so much a directing team (known collectively as ZAZ) trying to match former glories, but an entire genre, as through repeated, increasingly tired efforts, most recently from Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, the auteurs behind such modern-day classics as Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck and 2013’s Oscar-lock The Starving Games, the parody film has certainly seen better days. And those days were no better than in 1980, when Airplane! was released. The directing trio went on to try their hand at other parodies, and indeed hit gold amongst them with the likes of Top Secret! The Naked Gun and it’s first sequel and the Hot Shots films, but then they also made Scary Movie 3 & 4 and Baseketball, and Jerry Zucker went and directed Ghost, so there’s only so much I can forgive these guys for. The fact that he made Rat Race gives him a little room to breathe. It would have been amazing if the three had managed to make another Airplane! (no, not the sequel). Surely it couldn’t have been that difficult? Well, it turns out it was. And don’t call me Shirley.
Honourable Mentions
Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs (Controversial, I known, but I’ve always preferred Dogs to Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and the rest of his films.)
Richard Kelly – Donnie Darko (This seems to be a popular choice, but didn’t quite make it onto the list as I’ve yet to see either Southland Tales or The Box, mainly because they’re wildly regarded as terrible and nowhere near as good as Darko.)
Duncan Jones – Moon (Although he’s only made one picture, Source Code, since his breakout, I get the feeling that David Bowie’s son is going to be chasing after Moon’s glory for a while)
M. Night Shyamalan – The Sixth Sense (The only reason the king of the ever-decreasing quality films didn’t make the list is because The Sixth Sense isn’t his debut feature, that honours goes to the 1998 comedy Wide Awake featuring Rosie O’Donnell, that I haven’t seen and sounds terrible.)
Edgar Wright – Shaun of the Dead (Scott Pilgrim vs the World is nothing short of a masterpiece, and Hot Fuzz is pretty damn great too, but neither will match Shaun, and Wright is understandably heading back to the Pegg/Frost well for The World’s End to try and relive the glory again, but I don;t mind because I’m sure it will be brilliant too.)
Adam McKay – Anchorman (It’s no wonder McKay has tried to scale the comedic heights of Anchorman’s cult success, but his efforts thus far to re-bottle Ferrell’s lightning have failed, though it hasn’t stopped him from continuing to work with his regular collaborator, and who can blame them for making Anchorman 2?)
…and the Worst
Farrelly Brothers – Dumb & Dumber
Around about Stuck On You, I think the Farrellys gave up. I don’t blame them, as though the film was OK, it was hardly groundbreaking and rarely funny, and the same could be said for Shallow Hal and Me, Myself & Irene, the two films the brothers made before it, as well as The Heartbreak Kid and Hall Pass, which they’ve made since. I hear that The Three Stooges isn’t bad, but it was barely released in the UK, and I’m not very well acquainted with the source material.The only movie that came close to Dumb & Dumber‘s sheer unrivaled sense of insanity and idiocy is There’s Something About Mary, but that was too set-piece based and suffered from Cameron Diaz trying to be funny. I’m glad the Dumb & Dumber sequel seems to have stalled, and am pleased that Jim Carrey walked out, as I don”t think the brothers could have made any improvement upon the original.
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10 thoughts on “Top 5… Directors Who Haven’t Yet Beaten Their First

  1. I had a strong feeling as soon as I saw the title of the list that Kevin Smith would be on there. Not so much because he hasn't made a better movie than Clerks, but because he claims it so often. I've been a fan of all of his movies and I would put Chasing Amy, Clerks 2, and Red State above the original.

  2. Amy and Clerks 2 are both good choices, and I agree they are the better of his other films, but for me it's Clerks all the way. That said, it's been a few years since I last saw it, so my opinions may have changed.

  3. Great article, and I agree. But I will add that I adore Twelve Monkeys, and consider it Gilliam's finest work. In a very bizarre way, I thought it had more soul than Brazil. Of course, if you're talking about the team of Gilliam and Jones, then you might have more of a point. I continually waffle about which I think is better, Holy Grail or Life of Brian, because I think both are fantastic. I love Airplane! I love that it's your first choice here. Great pick!

  4. Thanks! Twelve Monkeys is in my (admittedly large) re-watch pile. Some days I do prefer Life of Brian to Holy Grail, but I think Grail is more quotable, and it was my first foray into the wonderful world of Monty Python, so it generally wins out.

  5. I might give the edge to 12 Monkeys on Gilliam films. I really need to rewatch and re-evaluate Brazil, though. Grail is my favorite of the Python films, though.For Kevin Smith, I give the nod to Dogma, which never fails to make me laugh and still manages to hold true to Catholic catechism. I realize that might be an unpopular choice here. Clerks is funny, but so much of it is so wooden. I know that's part and parcel of how it was made, but I couldn't get over the local theater vibe I got from it.

  6. Nice list although Tarantino is definitely controversial. This isn't first films but rather about early works: Speilberg's latest isn't as good as they were, while George Lucas has been living off the original Star Wars fame for far too long. Why doesn't he make new movies?

  7. I think Lucas recently retired from movie making after some Internet backlash from Red Tails, which he produced, and he'd just had enough of the Star Wars mobs harrassing him constantly, so I don't blame him. I won't go into it here, as he may be being mentionned in next week's top 5…As for Spielberg, some of his earlier films are so great that nothing is ever likely to compare – Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders – but my hopes aren't very high for Lincoln, and Robopocalypse appeals to my robot/end of the world attentions.

  8. 12 Monkeys and Brazil both need re-evaluating for me, and I love Dogma too (first Smith film I saw) I just think it has more stupid moments in it that annoy me than Clerks.

  9. On your main list I agree with four, but disagree on Gilliam. I feel he's done several movies that are better. In addition to the ones other people mentioned there is also the little seen The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which I enjoyed quite a bit.On your other mentions I disagree on Edgar Wright. I feel each of his movies has been better than the one before it.

  10. I think you may be Wright about Edgar, not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. His later films are at least as good as Shaun, so consider this a retraction. As for Gilliam, I intend to eventually go through and visit/revisit all of his films at some point, so I'll update then (in about 5-6 years time).

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