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Best films often dispelled to cinematic obscurity

Brian Doxtader | Monday, April 16, 2007

All careers have peaks and valleys, and even our best movie directors are no exception.

There are a lot of movies that we can all agree on – Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and The Coen Brothers’ “Fargo.” But there are also a lot of overrated and underrated films in those directors’ oeuvre. Here’s my take on a few of the more over and underrated films from some of the top American directors.

Steven Spielberg

The over: “Schindler’s List” (1993)I hesitated to talk about “Schindler’s List,” but it’s important to separate the film as cinema from its content. I have issues with “Schindler’s List” – it’s a bit too long and (most pressingly) everyone speaks English. I understand that Spielberg wanted the film to reach as wide an audience as possible, but I think viewers would have dealt with subtitles for the sake of authenticity. I’m also not crazy about the ending because (like many Spielberg films) it dips into over-written sentimentality, where silent understatement would have worked equally well.

The under: “Minority Report” (2002)”Minority Report” isn’t just a great film, it’s a ripping good yarn with an entertaining and thought-provoking plot. This is perhaps Spielberg’s best marriage of ideas and action, preserving the core of Philip K. Dick’s story while attaching it to an incredibly well-made action piece. It’s also one of his strangest and quirkiest films, which makes it as endearing as any of his most beloved pieces. Plus, Spielberg milks a surprisingly great performance from Colin Farrell that alone makes it one of the director’s most accomplished works.

Martin Scorsese

The over: “Taxi Driver” (1976)I’ve mentioned before that I think “Taxi Driver” is overrated. Not to say it’s not a great film (it is), but parts of it feel terribly outdated, and the film meanders more than any other Scorsese piece (including “Mean Streets”). Unlike his other films, “Taxi Driver” feels like the time period it’s from – the film seeps the 1970s, when it was clearly trying to achieve something more timeless. Robert DeNiro’s fantastic performance is what holds “Taxi Driver” together, but it’s almost novelistic in nature, which hurts it cinematically.

The under: “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988)For some reason, this film gets left out of conversations involving the great Scorsese films, but it’s his most personal and passionate work. The controversy surrounding “Last Temptation” might have hurt its reputation, but anyone who can see through that will see that it’s one of Scorsese’s most consistently thought-provoking works. It’s also filled with underrated performances, especially Willem Dafoe’s tortured Christ, which remains one of the strangest and most emotionally effective portrayals of Jesus ever committed to celluloid.

The Coen Brothers

The over: “The Big Lebowski” (1998)The Coens’ follow-up to “Fargo” was received with ambivalence upon its original release, but the film’s reputation has grown, and it’s now considered one of their classics. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as good as everyone says it is.

It’s funny, sure, but it meanders badly and its “cooler-than-cool” post-“Pulp Fiction” attitude means that it’s a grand statement of style over substance.

The under: “Miller’s Crossing” (1990)What a spectacular and underrated film this is. Stylish to an extreme, “Miller’s Crossing” isn’t a film about gangsters, it’s a gangster film. The Coens aren’t interested in authenticity and they come off as guys who saw a bunch of old mafia films and decided to try their hand … and strangely enough, it works.

It’s got all the trademarks of the Coens’ best work, with quirky characters and oddball dialogue, but attached to a darkly serious undertone. It also has some of their best setpieces, including a famous scene set in the forest that features some excellent acting from Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro, set against gorgeous cinematography by Barry Sonnenfield.