4 Directors Who Have Never Made A Bad Film

Great directors make great films. But at the same time, in careers that span decades and multiple films it’s almost unavoidable to occasionally make a stinker. The five directors below have never made a bad film, and though most are in the early stages of their careers, this is a pretty incredible accomplishment. If you ever browse the video store aisle and see the name of one of these directors on the cover, you know it’s going to be quality. Hopefully they can continue their streaks in the years to come.

1. Christopher Nolan

He’s made comic book movies (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight). He’s made film noirs (Following, Memento, Insomnia). And he’s made the most original summer blockbuster of the past decade (Inception). Is there anything Christopher Nolan can’t do? Maybe comedy, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Nolan imbues all his films with an amazing visual style and intelligence. He doesn’t play down to the audience or use cheap tricks or gimmicks (cough, 3D) to get people into the theater. At the same time, he makes mainstream films that both cinephiles and casual moviegoers love, an incredible feat within itself. To not make a bad film on top of that is miracle. Studios love Nolan because he’s a sure thing. No matter what film he makes it goes on to destroy box office records and win almost unanimous critical acclaim. No wonder they give him free rein to do whatever he wants, because whatever money they put into a Nolan film they’ll make back threefold, and then some.

The Best Christopher Nolan film: Memento. Inception‘s great, but Memento is still my favourite Nolan film. It’s famous for being the film that has a plot that plays in reverse chronological order but its more than just that. It’s a dark exploration of revenge and the human mind, and it also has a killer ending (and beginning).

2. Jason Reitman

If you’re the son of a famous, renowned filmmaker you better come out knocking the ball out of the park. Jason Reitman’s done that three times already. Thank You for Smoking was an incredible satire with arguably Aaron Eckhart’s best performance ever (sorry Two-Face!). Reitman followed that up with Juno, nominated for Best Picture, and then followed that one up with Up in the Air, also nominated for Best Picture.

Reitman’s talent is bringing out career-best performances from his actors (and also career-starting ones…Ellen Page). The action in a Reitman film comes from not explosions or shoot-outs but from verbal tennis matches and snarky wit. The dialogue in Juno could get a little grating at times, especially in the beginning, but somehow Reitman was able to make the Diablo Cody script sound natural and believable, something that the second film she wrote (Jennifer’s Body) wasn’t able to manage (the worst line was a character asking another if she was “Jello,” meaning jealous. It sounded like what thirty-year old mom would say to appear cool in front of her teenager’s friends.)

Best Jason Reitman movie: Up in the Air. This is probably the best film about the 2008 recession because it doesn’t spend its time pointing fingers at greedy executives or have hero who’s trying to make things right.  It’s not about how or why the recession happened. It just did.  The news gave us statistics that 50,000 jobs were lost in a given month, families were being evicted from their homes, and billions of dollars were being poured into the banks to correct things. But what we didn’t see was how people carried on. And that’s exactly what Reitman chose to focus on.

3. Darren Aronofsky

Love his films or hate them, Aronofsky has an uncompromising artistic vision that carries over from one film to the next. He’s created some of the most visceral and intense sequences on film this side of David Cronenberg and created the ultimate “Say no to Drugs” PSA (Requiem for a Dream). Most of his films flirt with the horror genre (and if he was categorized as a horror director he may have made a few of the scariest films ever made), but he’s also directed an incredible character study (The Wrestler) and an under appreciated masterpiece about immortality and love (The Fountain).

For one of the uniquest visions in cinema, check out an Aronofsky film. They’re movies unlike any other you’ve seen before (unless it’s another Aronofsky film).

Best Aronofsky film: Black Swan. For a film about ballet, it’s incredible that it’s one of the most intense experiences of the year. Aronofsky ratchets up the tension with each scene, building up the suspense to an unbearable degree. By the time it was over, I was exhausted. It’s exhilarating when a film can accomplish that.

4. Ben Affleck

Yes, he’s only made two films as a director so he’s not exactly a statistical wonder. But if we add in the film he wrote with Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), that puts his tally to three good movies, which is an impressive feat (let’s not talk about his streak of acting in horrible films).

Affleck has made two great crime thrillers (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) set in Boston. Like Woody Allen and New York, Boston is Affleck’s muse and it shows in his films. He painstakingly recreates the atmosphere of the city onscreen, hiring real Bostonians in bit parts or as extras and capturing the ethos of the place brilliantly. It’s been said that Affleck may be this generation’s Clint Eastwood. It’ll be interesting to see if his directorial efforts can live up to that statement.

Best Affleck Movie: The Town. It has great bank heist sequences and an incredible shoot-out in Fenway Park. What more do you need to know?

Honorable Mention: Every other film of David Fincher.

There’s a pattern to the films of Fincher. Like the Star Trek movies, only his even-numbered efforts are great films. Just look at this scientific list:

1. Alien 3 (Bad)

2. Seven (Great)

3. The Game (Not great, but decent)

4. Fight Club (Great)

5. Panic Room (meh.)

6. Zodiac (Great)

7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (However you judge its merits, its not great)

8. The Social Network (The Best Picture Winner of 2010…though I still haven’t seen it)

So if we only count even-numbered Fincher efforts, he’s the fifth director who’s never made a bad film.


10 Responses to 4 Directors Who Have Never Made A Bad Film

  1. Get off your The Facebook and go see The Social Network!

  2. Dave says:

    Yeah too early for Affleck. Alexander Payne, Noah Baumbach, Jason Reitman and Sofia Coppola also.
    Arronofsky missed on The Fountain and I’m a big fan. Reminded me a lot of a Malick film w/o the maturity of having lived a long life.I agree with 1 & 2 though.


    1. Alien 3 (Bad due to studio interference)

    2. Seven (In the top 5 of the modern serial killer genre with Silence, Manhunter, the little seen Citizen X (HBO) and American Psycho)

    3. The Game (Great…. M. Night couldn’t have pulled this off in his heyday)

    4. Fight Club (One of the best adaptations of a novel ever.)

    5. Panic Room (meh…. You’re on the mark with that one)

    6. Zodiac (Have to resee this one again but I read the book by Robert Greysmith first so I’m biased)

    7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (However you judge its merits, its not great) Agreed. Technically brilliant but boring as f*ck.

    8. The Social Network – (A brilliant, landmark film – Best film of the ’00’s. On par with Network)

    My list has a few so-so films but the degree of difficulty is much higher. Meaning they were VERY prolific. Except for one, Malick. Kurosawa was the greatest director of all-time. Period. Says who? Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg. Good enough for you? No need to even try to defend his work.

    Clint Eastwood – 35 films. Bonus points for acting in almost all of them and writing the music for 6. I won’t list them all but let’s start with Sudden “Make my day” Impact in ’83. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000142/
    Not too shabby a run.

    Kubrick – 13 films – threw out the shorts

    Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) , A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

    Even though Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t well received it was held up to the very highest of standards. For example I cringe when people say Scorsese’s Casino was just ok. Had you never seen Goodfellas or The Departed then you would be saying that it was the Greatest Thing Since The Godfather. Goodfellas is in my all-time top 10. A tour-de-force of movie making. The acting (one Oscar, 3 Noms), the period music, the use of v.o., The Copa scene with that amazing stedicam tracking shot, pullback zooms (The diner betrayal scene), quick pans, freeze frames, cinematography, set design, wardrobe, casting and editing. The opening credits by the legendary Saul Bass… who did Hitchcock’s best films. It’s a film class unto itself.

    It lost to the kinder, gentler Dances With Wolves due to all the violence which is what made Goodfellas great. Marty said that to not show real violence does the viewer a disservice. They weren’t cute, lovable teddy bears like Tony Soprano… they were psychotic, pricks like Tommy DeVito.

    Maverick directors like Peckinpah, Penn and Kubrick had the right ideas back in the late 60’s. They were the innovators of this excessive style but yet they got panned for their adherence to realism.

    To a lesser extent the implied violence of In Cold Blood and even going back to Cape Fear, The Manchurian Canidate, Psycho and Touch of Evil at least implied the seriousness of the violence (rape, torture, serial killing). People bash Tarantino but get this: “During a screening of Reservoir Dogs at a Film Festival in Barcelona, fifteen people walked out during the ear scene, including horror film director Wes Craven and special effects artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf In London). Baker later told Tarantino to take the walk out as a “compliment” and explained that he found the violence unnerving because of its heightened sense of realism.” [Wensley Clarkson – Quentin Tarantino: Shooting From The Hip]

    Stuart Gordon, director of Re-Animator, one of the judges at the festival had his head buried in his hands during the screening. And this was after the screening of Peter’s Jackson’s Dead Alive (aka Braindead). LOL.

    Stylized violence has it’s place (see Tarantino or Woo) but who really pulls that off well? That’s what inspired Haneke to put the infamous rewind scene in Funny Games. There is no happy ending in real life. Violence as entertainment has numbed us to the reality of the harm that it really does in society. Columbine for example. Violence just begets more pain, suffering and loss. The good guys DON’T usually win. Sadly in a dumbed down world Haneke’s too smart for the room in the cinema world today.

    Malick – 5 films… but what a five.

    Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) , The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), The Tree of Life – at Cannes presently (2011)

    Ok, so hardly prolific but WOW, what a batting average. Especially since it was done over a 40 year span. You either ‘get’ him or you don’t. Another filmmaker too smart for the room.

    I don’t throw the word ‘genius’ around lightly but it has never been more apropos for a filmmaker than this guy. Maybe Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Scorsese, Lynch (in his own demented way… he took weird to an almost obsessive level) and to a lesser extent mid 70’s to mid 90’s Spielberg and 70’s Coppola are worthy or the honor. People leave out Coppola’s The Conversation in mention of his great films. Ask a sound editor/designer about Walter Murch’s landmark use of sound which carried over to Apocalypse Now which was the precursor to THX and Dolby. For that matter Alan Splet’s sound design in any of Lynch’s moves. Only Kerrigan H. Lodge’s haunting Clean, Shaven, where Peter Green plays a schizophrenic, comes to mind where the sound design was an absolutely essential part of the movie.

    On the technical front, I have to include these filmmakers visions who were so grand that the had to found their own visual effects houses. Cameron –
    co-founder of Digital Domain, Lucas – founder of Industrial Light & Magic, and Peter Jackson – founder of Weta Digital and The Wachowski Brothers partnership with Manex Visual Effects and BUF compagnie . Not since Kubrick has a group of filmmakers advanced film technology ahead 10-15 years at a chunk.

    Not the greatest storytellers per se but their trickle-down effect can’t be dismissed. BTW I’m not including The Rings trilogy, Heavenly Creatures, THX-1138, American Graffiti, Bound and The Matrix in this discussion for storytelling.

    What about Star Wars and Avatar you say? Lucas has said on numerous occasions that Star Wars was basically a remake of Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress and Avatar was a remake of Disney’s Pocahontas. See: http://filmdrunk.uproxx.com/2010/01/james-camerons-avatar-disneys-pocahontas/james-camerons-pocahontas

    Some examples of the trickle down effect. Donnie Darko was made for 4 mil but was able to use the water alien effect from The Abyss for next to nothing. Whether you like 3-D or not at least Cameron did it right and it WAS impressive. Now let’s see what Nolan does with it with Batman.

    Peter Jackson’s motion capture revolutionized CGI characters. See Avatar for the trickle down effect of that. Avatar took 14 years because it took that long for the technology to catch up with Cameron’s ideas. He used Jackson’s WETA effects house.

    It’s Lucas’ use of the RedOne HD cameras on Revenge Of The Sith that trickled down to Soderbergh’s Che and Fincher’s The Social Network. Too bad Soderbergh’s retiring in the next few years. 😦 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/23/steven-soderbergh-retiring-says-matt-damon_n_800783.html

    The Wachowski’s, the creaters of bullet time and the 360 view-morphing shot. They took John Woo’s bullet ballet and one-upped it to the 10th power. Ironically there inluence trickled down to videogames. Ask a 12 year old videogamer what bullet time is? He’ll school you. The Max Payne series was the one that started it all.

    Just look at BUF compagnie’s “selective” but impressive track record espeally early on – Jeunet, Fincher, the Wachowski’s and Nolan:

    The City of Lost Children (1994), Batman & Robin (1997), Fight Club (1999), The Cell (2000), Panic Room (2002), S1m0ne (2002), Matrix Reloaded (2003), Matrix Revolutions (2003), Van Helsing (2004), Finding Neverland (2004), 2046 (2004), Alexander (2004),
    Batman Begins (2005), Angel-A (2005), Revolver (2005),
    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), The Prestige (2006), United 93 (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007), Be Kind Rewind (2008), Speed Racer (2008), The Dark Knight (2008), Splice (2009), Knowing (2009), Enter the Void (2009), Avatar (2009), and Thor (2011)

    Scorsese – 51 films. Throwing out shorts (8) except for New York Stories because it wes part of a trilogy.

    1968 Who’s That Knocking at My Door, 1972 Boxcar Bertha, 1973 Mean Streets, 1974 Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1976 Taxi Driver, 1977 New York, New York,
    1980 Raging Bull, 1983 King of Comedy, 1985 After Hours, 1986 Color of Money, 1988 Last Temptation of Christ, 1989 New York Stories – Life Lessons, 1990 Goodfellas, 1991 Cape Fear, 1993 Age of Innocence, 1995 Casino, 1997 Kundun, 1999 Bringing Out the Dead,
    2002 Gangs of New York, 2004 Aviator, 2006 Departed, 2010 Shutter Island

    Documentaries: Seen only 6 but I’ll take his word for it.

    1970 Street Scenes, 1974 Italianamerican, 1978 The Last Waltz: (The Band), 1978 American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, 1995 Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, 1999 My Voyage to Italy: Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through Italian Movies, 2003 Feel Like Going Home, 2005 No Direction Home (Dylan), 2008 Shine a Light: (The Stones), 2010 Public Speaking, 2011 Living in the Material World (George Harrison)

    See above for my thoughts on Scorsese.

    David Mamet – 17 films. Bonus points for writing almost all of these too. No shorts or docs also.

    1987 House of Games, 1988 Things Change, 1991 Homicide, 1994 Oleanna, 1997 The Spanish Prisoner, 1999 The Winslow Boy, 2000 State and Main, 2001 Heist, 2004 Spartan, 2005 Edmond, 2008 Redbelt

    Check out his impressive writing credits: The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, About Last Night… The Untouchables, Black Widow, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Wag the Dog, The Edge, Hoffa, Ronin, Lakeboat, Hannibal

    The Rest: Michael Mann, The Coens, Eroll Morris, Terence Davies, Wong Kar-Wai, Almodovar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Del Toro, and Hayao Miyazaki, Jason Reitman all probably belong.

    One or two films put these directors on the fence:

    Burton – Planet Of The Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… both remakes BTW.
    Jeunet – Alien: Resurection… especially with a script by Whedon.
    Ang Lee – The Hulk puts him in here sadly.
    O’ Russell – I ♥ Huckabees. Too exitential even for the art house crowd.

    The acquired tastes: Lynch (the studio f’d up Dune), Wes Anderson, Guy Madden, Fellini, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jarmusch, Waters, Bunuel, Cronenberg (I’m thinking Crash and Naked Lunch and not so much of his horror stuff) Peter Greenaway, Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz. These directors films are more subjective so much tougher to judge.

    Sadly other prolific directirs like Woody, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, and promising directors like David Gordon Green, Richard Kelly, Larry and Andy Wachowski all faded but what great runs thay had.

    Others like Beresford, Weir, Peter Jackson, Pakula, Bogdonavich, Jewison, Lumet, Redford, Spike Lee, O’ Russell, Van Sant,Lyne, Parker, Woo, Raimi were too up and down through their career.

    Then there’s the guys who push the envelope like Gilliam, The indie side of Soderbergh, Spike Jonez, Michel Gondry, Kerrigan H. Lodge, E. Elias Merhige, Philip Ridley, Tarantino, Herzog, Haneke, Van Sant, Gaspar Noé, von Trier, Miike. They get an E for effort from me. If you’re going to make a bad film… at least shoot for the stars. Arronofsky’s The Fountain and Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales come to mind recently. I’ll take those films over Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (Batman went uber-dark and look how well that turned out) or Richard Linkletter’s remake of the Bad News Bears where they made the Kelly Leak character (Jackie Earle Haley… nice to see him back) into “some incipient Calvin Klein model pretending to be a skate-punk” (thanks to filmsnobby from IMDb) and took Tanner’s best lines out: “All we got on this team are a buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin’ moron!” and “Jews, spics, niggers, and now a girl?”. Although ironically the use of ‘fag’ and ‘homo’ was still ok.

    Just imagine if they tried to remake Blazing Saddles today… Mel Brooks said the only reason he was able to go so far is because Richard Pryor co-wrote the script and gave him the greenlight on all the n*gger jokes… Mel put him up for the lead but was turned down for Cleavon because Richard he wasn’t a “name” actor yet.

    • Dave says:

      Meant to take Reitman out of the first paragraph.

    • Modest Movie says:

      Thanks for the great comment! I’m glad you pointed out Alexander Payne, Noah Baumbach, Paul Thomas Anderson, and others. There are a ton of directors who deserve to be on this list.

      I’m not sure about Clint Eastwood though. He’s one of my favorite actors and he is a great director, but a few of his films (Gran Torino especially) would make me exclude him from the distinction of never having made a bad movie.

      Also, do you have a film blog? I couldn’t find the link anywhere…

      • Dave says:

        No blog yet. been too busy replying to other great blogs. lol.

        You can throw him out for his early chimp movies alone but if you start in 83′ his run is more than impressive. Didn’t like Gran Torino? May I ask why? I’m mean he’s the best actor/director of all time. Redford, Costner, Foster, Gibson, Stiller, Deniro, Stallone, Babs, Beatty, Christopher Guest, Denzel, Clooney, can’t touch him even with all their films combined. And he wrote the music. Only John Carpente,r that I know of, can claim that title of being a prolific scorer also.

        I left Spike Lee and Jonze, Mel and Albert Brooks, Branagh, Sean Penn, Woody Allen, Ron Howard, Reiner, Favreau, Pollack, Welles, Attenborough, Todd Field, Kevin Smith, Tarantino, and Cassavettes out because they are more directors that act than actors that direct.

      • Dave says:

        Oops… Sean Penn should be in the actor who directs category.

      • Modest Movie says:

        I didn’t like Gran Torino because the acting was pretty poor (especially the boy Clint befriends) and I thought some of the lines (“Get off my lawn!” or any of Walt’s racist rants) were either awkward or laughable. And don’t get me started on Clint’s raspy singing at the end…

  3. Pingback: The Host « Modest Movie

  4. Jonathan Kirk says:

    Great write up bud. But I thought Casey did gone baby gone. Or was it I’m still here he did. Yeah I stand corrected.

    • Modest Movie says:

      Hey Kirko,

      Glad to see you’re enjoying the blog. That list is a little old now and I’ve realized there are plenty more directors who are probably more deserving. I’ll have to update it sometime.

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