9 of the Worst Films From Oscar-Winning Directors (and What to Watch Instead)

9 of the Worst Films From Oscar-Winning Directors (and What to Watch Instead)
Image: Netflix
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The list of directors who have never won an Academy Award for directing is, perhaps, more revealing than the list of those who have. Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Pedro Almodóvar, Howard Hawks, Jane Campion (yet) — none were deemed worthy of cinema’s highest honour.

Mel Gibson, on the other hand, has a directing Oscar, as does Kevin Costner. That’s fine, I suppose, but I’m not sure that either of them is in quite the same constellation as a Federico Fellini. The point being: the Oscars aren’t a flawless indicator of genius, nor is one instance of genius a guarantee of reliable quality. Even the medium’s very best directors have made some very bad movies or (an even more pronounced sin) some incredibly dull and tiresome ones. Life’s too short for that kind of nonsense, so here are 9 films from Oscar-winning directors you should probably avoid, and 13 to watch instead.

Always (1989), directed by Steven Spielberg

On one level, Steven Spielberg’s overblown, tonally incoherent World War II-era comedy 1941 is a worse movie. As is his lame ode to product-placement, so is Ready Player One. But those movies at least linger in the viewer’s memory — not so Always, a mostly competent old Hollywood remake that stands out only as Spielberg’s most forgettable film.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Watch instead: Hook (1991)

It’s almost undoubtedly the most debated entry on Spielberg’s filmography: though contemporary reviews placed Hook very near the rock bottom for the beloved filmmaker, those who love it really, really love it. Coming just a couple of years after Always, it cranks up the gentle fantasy elements of that movie a with the aid of a Robin Williams doing his early ‘90s family film schtick at full volume. It feels like a movie that almost got away from its director, but only because it wears its heart on its sleeve like almost none of Spielberg’s other pictures (which is saying something). Whether you defend it or consider it a piece of grade-A schmaltz, Hook isn’t easy to forget.

Where to stream: Binge

Great Expectations (1998), directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón has taken home two Best Director Oscars, one for Gravity (2013) and the other for Roma (2018). In truth, he’s never made a bad movie, but his revisionist take on Great Expectations is his most uneven — a visual marvel with a central romance that is mostly paint-by-numbers.

Where to stream: Disney+

Watch instead: A Little Princess (1995)

If you’re looking for the director’s distinctive take on another classic work of literature, 1995’s A Little Princess is a slightly more straightforward, but nevertheless enchanting, adaptation.

Where to stream: Netflix

Hulk (2003), directed by Ang Lee

Another deservedly lauded director, Ang Lee also has two Best Director Oscars, for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012). Though he brought undeniable style to his proto-Marvel film (and it’s more interesting than the 2008 take), it’s too chatty for a special effects movie, and too full of wonky special effects to be anything deeper, despite the turgid pacing, which has lulled many into declaring it a misunderstood masterpiece.

Where to stream: Binge

Watch instead: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Lee’s other big action movie, Gemini Man, also falls flat, so go instead for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ang Lee stylishly and thrillingly updates wuxia tropes (involving larger-than-life martial artists), many of which parallel the conventions of comic book storytelling. There’s a reason it was one of the highest grossing subtitled films in Hollywood history: This thing plays like gangbusters even on mute.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Cats (2019), directed by Tom Hooper

Though doubtless destined to be become a midnight cult classic, it’s not at all clear that the film’s A-list cast (Judi Dench…gurl) signed on for the discourse on feline buttholes that became the film’s overriding pop culture imprint.

Where to stream: Netflix

Watch instead: Les Misérables (2012)

Hooper presumably seemed like a good fit for Cats on the basis of his earlier, more successful adaptation of that other mainstay modern musical, Les Misérables. His 2012 adaptation is excellent, even if poor Russell Crowe can’t sing his way out of a paper guillotine.

Where to stream: Binge

The Rookie (1990), directed by Clint Eastwood

Eastwood won a very well-deserved Oscar for Unforgiven in 1992, as well as a fairly well-deserved one for Million Dollar Baby in 2004 — 74 at the time, he remains the oldest winner in that category and is, of course, still working. The extremely prolific director has a filmography that includes triumphs as well as tragedies, including this ill-conceived buddy cop movie. It would be a forgivably generic action movie were it not full of Latino stereotypes, mystifying casting, and an ugly, thoughtless rape scene.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Watch instead: Mystic River (2003)

Unforgiven is obvious, and very reasonably seen as Eastwood’s best, but his haunting Mystic River is a far, far more interesting take on the crime drama than The Rookie. The tones are very different, but this one is more rewarding, provided you can handle the pitch dark subject matter.

Where to stream: Stan

Hillbilly Elegy (2020), directed by Ron Howard

Hillbilly Elegy received a wildly mixed response upon its release: critical reviews were generally negative, but the film was nominated for a number of awards, as well, including Glenn Close as Best Supporting Actress Oscar…but also a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie (she lost both). It might be just the sheer weight of prestigious names (Close, Howard, Amy Adams) involved here (and Howard’s reputation for sincerity) that lead people to cut this dull, cartoonish drama and its broadly stereotypical characters any slack at all. That the writer of the memoir on which the film is based has since made a career of aping whatever political positions might serve to get him, someday, elected to something, hasn’t helped the film’s standing.

Where to stream: Netflix

Watch instead: Apollo 13 (1995)

There are a handful of Howard-directed films based on non-fiction books that might fit the bill, including A Beautiful Mind, for which he won his Oscar. That movie’s fine (quite good, even), but Apollo 13 is better, and it’s certainly his most beloved.

Where to stream: Binge

 

Mimic (1998), directed by Guillermo del Toro

Mimic is, perhaps, better than a movie about hyper-evolved cockroaches has any right to be — and that’s to del Toro’s credit. But this was the director’s first American film, and only the second feature of his career, so the notoriously controlling Weinsteins stepped in to ensure that what might have been an offbeat masterpiece was, instead, an interesting but fatally compromised film — the only one in the director’s varied filmography that isn’t an unqualified success.

Where to stream: Binge

Watch instead: Blade II (2002)

Given relatively free reign, del Toro showed here what a talented director with a distinctive vision could do with a bit of studio product. It doesn’t have the emotional resonance of something like The Shape of Water (or even Pacific Rim), nor is it meant to: this is a pure action movie with all of the gloopy viscera and splattered blood of a gruesome horror movie. If only more of our modern superhero movies had this much style.

Where to stream: Paramount+

Alexander (2004), directed by Oliver Stone

It would be hard, you might think, to make a boring biopic around the life of Alexander the Great. Whether seen as hero or villain, this was certainly an eventful life, and one that’s had cultural relevance that’s lasted for more than 2,000 years. This film take on his life mistakes ponderousness for intelligence, and only comes to life briefly in some decently rendered action scenes. It also never bothers to reconsider any of the lazy and dull Orientalist tropes that have plagued this sort of history for way, way too long. Full disclosure here, and this is rare for me: I’ve never been able to make it all the way through Alexander, not in any of its three various director’s cuts, and I’ve given up on trying. If the last act pulls the whole thing together into a cohesive bit of genius — well, I suppose I’ll never know.

Where to stream: Binge

Watch instead: JFK (1991)

In the era of QAnon, Stone’s penchant for conspiratorial wheel-spinning seems less charmingly quirky and more like the forerunner of much of the more extreme thinking that’s lately become inescapably mainstream. Still, there’s no question that JFK remains a compelling bit of storytelling — sort of modern American history by way of The X-Files. Given our growing lack of interest in actual history, this’ll doubtless be taught in schools one day.

Where to stream: Netflix

What Lies Beneath (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Perhaps it just isn’t a great fit — Zemeckis has proven himself a master of diverse styles, but this supernatural Hitchcock homage falls flat and, committing the worst sin imaginable for a mystery thriller, ends on a note that’s more silly than shocking. Everyone here is capable, but it’s too much pastiche and not nearly enough originality.

Where to stream: Disney+

Watch instead: Allied (2016)

While Zemeckis hasn’t attempted anything quite like What Lies Beneath’s explicit horror again, there are hints of Hitchcock’s spy dramas in this World War II-era thriller, with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as lovers with competing agendas. It didn’t get a ton of attention upon release back in 2016, but it’s a solid entry in the director’s latter-day filmography.

Where to stream: Apple TV

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