6 Underrated Films From Classic Filmmakers

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Panic Room (2002) © Columbia Pictures; The Colour Of Money (1986) © Touchstone Pictures and Silverscreen Partners II; The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) © United Artists and Irish DreamTime

Prolific filmmakers generally make a film every few years and legendary filmmakers have generally worked for several decades. It is unsurprising then that among all of those many revered works come a few films that slip through the net of posterity. Sure, the box office might be rewarding and the critical reviews positive, but these ‘underrated’ films never have a long shelf-life. More often than not, these overlooked films serve more as exercises in genre or style than they do the meaningful works of art that audiences come to expect from such recognisable filmmakers. However, these underrated films are still essential viewings for their respective directors, they just come with slightly less prestige.

Ridley Scott – Black Rain (1989)

Black Rain (1989) © Jaffe-Lansing Productions and Pegasus Film Partners

It did not take long for Ridley Scott to achieve his status as a world class filmmaker: his second and third films were Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). Renowned for his ability to create immersive environments—chiefly cities—in his films, it feels a shame that Scott’s 1989 cop thriller Black Rain has been overlooked for its intoxicating urban photography. Mostly set in Osaka, and shot on location there, the smoky city feels similar to the futuristic production design of Blade Runner, yet here it is all caught up in a gripping thriller in which Michael Douglas’ macho-cop and Andy Garcia’s smooth sidekick must escort a member of the ‘yakuza’ back to Japan. With an unforgettable death scene and spades of hellish visuals, Black Rain is a worthy companion piece to Scott’s sci-fi films. 

David Lean – Ryan’s Daughter (1971)

Ryan’s Daughter (1971) © Faraway Productions

David Lean was Britain’s greatest filmmaker in the 20th century, known for brisk Charles Dickens adaptations and enormously long historical epics. In the peak of his career following Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1966) he made Ryan’s Daughter, another 3+ hour period piece with Oscar winning cinematography. Yet Lean’s Herculean strength met its match in the critical and financial savaging he received for Ryan’s Daughter, leaving him to lick his wounds before making another film 14 years later (A Passage to India, also very good). Time has been kinder to Ryan’s Daughter than the critics: the cinematography alone is worth losing an afternoon to due to Lean’s patience for the right clouds to appear in the sky before filming. Injected with a more feminine spirit than his previous films, this romantic epic set in 1917 Ireland also contains a brilliant, admittedly dated, John Mills performance. 

David Fincher – Panic Room (2002)

Panic Room (2002) © Columbia Pictures, Hofflund/ Polone, Indelible Pictures

Crime, sin, and obsession are some of the hallmarks found in David Fincher’s filmography. His signature editing is cleanly cut and he likes a twist. Yet Fincher is also fascinated by style; The Killer (2023) and Mank (2020) feel like Fincher showing off his technical skills instead of expanding on his musings on violence and frail masculinity. In 2002 he made Panic Room with Jodie Foster, a young Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, and Jared Leto. A tight thriller that owes much to Alfred Hitchcock, the film sees Foster and Stewart play a mother and (diabetic) daughter who are stuck inside their home’s panic room when burglars arrive. The camera work is immensely creative; impossibly moving around home objects with some computer-generated assistance whilst the video surveillance adds a level of voyeurism that makes all thrillers more eye-popping. The pacing is taut and Fincher milks the scenario out for every last bit of gold. A cracking Friday night thriller. 

Martin Scorsese – The Colour of Money (1986)

The Colour of Money (1986) © Touchstone Pictures and Silver Screen Partners II

Is this the first legacy sequel? Martin Scorsese, synonymous with the title ‘America’s greatest living filmmaker’, has churned out classic after classic since the 1970s. Yet despite his well-documented views on modern-day cinema, it has been overlooked that he has made two remakes and a sequel in his time. The latter is The Colour of Money, a film notable for two things: earning Paul Newman a long overdue Oscar for playing ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson and, along with Top Gun (1986), turning Tom Cruise into an A-list movie star. A follow up to 1961’s The Hustler (which saw Paul Newman pole-vault into the Hollywood ranks), Scorsese’s film sees Newman and Cruise blasting 8 balls and swinging cues around with gusto thanks to Thelma Schoonmaker’s sublime editing. It refuses to be anything more than a compelling story about generational divide but externally it is also a clear passing of the movie-star torch from a declining Newman to an energised Cruise. It also proved that Scorsese could find financial success without brutal violence.

Spike Lee – Inside Man (2006)

Inside Man (2006) © Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment

A spiritual companion piece to Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Inside Man stars Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Clive Owen plays a bank robber whose crime escalates into a tense hostage scenario. Denzel Washington is the detective hot on his heels. A simple thriller yes, but director Spike Lee came on board and elevated the picture with an acute visual style that alternated controlled Steadicam work with shaky handheld camerawork. His flash-forwards utilise a high contrast aesthetic too; this is what happens when a studio film is given to a wizened filmmaker. Inside Man does not have the angry fire that defines Lee’s racially driven classics, but it successfully marries story with technique in a strong enough way to showcase the director’s adaptable talents. 

John McTiernan – The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) © United Artists and Irish DreamTime

He may be a convicted felon now, but there was a time when John McTiernan was the greatest action director of the 1980s and 1990s. His work still holds up—this is a man whose crime has not tarnished the reputation or themes of his films. After unleashing Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and the surprisingly efficient Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), McTiernan’s career seemingly diminished. But with The Thomas Crown Affair, a remake of the 1968 Steve McQueen classic, McTiernan delivers a total blast.

Pierce Brosnan, at the height of his 007 powers in 1999, plays Thomas Crown. Thomas is a billionaire with too much time on his hands so he steals a Monet painting. Rene Russo is the detective investigating him, subsequently falling in love. It is a simple, cliched premise but McTiernan’s confident, swift direction always keeps everything before the camera moving, allowing the star chemistry between Brosnan and Russo to capitalise on the cat-and-mouse antics. Bookended by two brilliant heist sequences, you will have a hard time wiping your grin off your face when Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’ starts playing. Impossibly cool.

Words by Jacob Hando


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