Underrated is a term that is frequently misused by both film fans and critics. In an age where we view constant feedback on the Internet if something isn’t universally praised or awarded and we’d like it to be, we often bemuse it as underrated. What underrated should mean for a film is that it receives wide distribution but is left out of that larger discussion from both audiences and awards and critics allow the aggregate Rotten Tomato and Metacritic scores to become the end of the discussion as being liked within their community.
Perhaps I’m setting myself up to use this term incorrectly too with this piece, but ultimately, I’d just like to elevate a few directors who are doing very interesting things in an industry that’s constantly being referenced as creatively bankrupt in America.
When it comes to modern American auteurs, we’ve created two levels of excitement. There’s the universally agreed upon by fans and critics that any announcement of a new Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers or David Fincher film is met with salvation. That’s our trifecta that’s pointed to for our absolute best talents within the medium by both fans and critics. Then there’s the second level of filmmakers who are immensely championed by critics and have their sizable fans within the cinephile community but have a little bit more of a colder view from the mainstream public, like Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, and Quentin Tarantino (who really exists between these two planes, as someone who’s immensely lauded as an auteur but also receives criticism for his lifting from previous films made by others) as a few examples. For all the hand-wringing from both fans and critics about the future of cinema, how foreign directors are making the best Hollywood films and what that means for our identity within the film world and, of course, the studio’s corporate interests to just make remakes and sell movie universe maps these directors are our bastions of salvation for the American film industry.
But there are many other directors who are making great American films and have not been elevated to the prestige event film status that everyone above has to some level. Because the names below are not agreed upon as “must see” as soon as their films are announced like the names above, we’re labeling them as “underrated” at our own peril.
Below are five fully vetted American auteurs whose every film should be looked forward to with great anticipation. To land on this list, I’ve cherry-picked the number of three films minimum, because to be an auteur (verified blue checkmark), one has to have established a stylistic theme in their filmography, whether that’s the type of narrative or a specific sepia-toned look. And because this list is built in to tie into a specific director with a new film out this week, James Gray, his auteur mantle defense gets the most attention. And why are we focusing on nationality? Outside of accusations that the American film industry is creatively bankrupt, that’s how Cannes rewards the Palme d’Or—to the country of the winning director, regardless of the language spoken or which country funded it —and hey, the French invented the term “auteur” and they’ve have propped up Gray with two decades of support at their festival. (Peep the amazing Cannes 2017 lineup here.)