Cinephiles and Film Scholars have long debated the merits of the “auteur theory,” where the director serves as the primary creative force in the filmmaking process. Critics argue that a director authors a unique style throughout their catalog of films.
When many big-name directors make their mark and fine-tune their approach, they stay in their creative comfort zone. No one envisions Wes Anderson helming a gritty crime procedural. Could we live in a world where Spike Jonze directed the next Marvel movie? Not likely, but boy, wouldn’t that be cool?!
But occasionally, a popular director leaves his comfort zone to tackle something wild and different. Find here examples of auteur movie directors taking that proverbial risky swing, resulting in some of the best (and worst) movies of the last few decades.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
One of the great visual stylists, Ridley Scott, defined the look of science fiction and fantasy in the 1980s with Alien, Blade Runner, and Legend. In 1991, the influential filmmaker turned heads when he agreed to direct Thelma & Louise, the feminist road film written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri.
Khouri’s screenplay initially attracted Scott to produce the genre-bending film. But studio executives wanted to change the controversial ending, so Scott signed on as director to protect the bittersweet finale. The filmmaker cast Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in the title roles, following two best friends on a wild road trip where they become criminal outlaws through a series of comic misadventures. The picture deftly moves between drama and comedy, exploring the systemic misogyny baked into the U.S. justice system, especially for the victims of sexual assault.
As a director, Scott embraced the less is more approach, allowing the potent mix of Khouri's sharp script with the powerful performances of Sarandon and Davis to anchor the film. But the filmmaker brings his grand visual style, framing the movie like a classic western with widescreen vistas inspired by the John Ford classic Stagecoach. The end result earned Scott his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
The filmmaker Michael Mann immerses audiences in urban jungles that explore the thin line between police and criminals. The director paints his characters in moral shades of grey in crime thrillers like Thief, Manhunter, Collateral, and his epic masterpiece Heat. Mann even co-created the iconic 1980s TV procedural Miami Vice. But Mann took a sharp detour from his asphalt jungle playground into 18th-century colonial America with a sweeping adaption of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel The Last of the Mohicans.
Mann brings his mesmerizing camerawork and period detail to the story of Indian trappers protecting two daughters of a British colonel during the French and Indian War. The film features Daniel Day-Lewis in his hunky prime and a star-making turn by Madeline Stowe. The pair’s natural chemistry elevates the romance of the classic frontier adventure. But it’s Mann’s staging of the intense battle sequences between the Indians and the British forces that make this film a standout. Mann’s cameras seem everywhere, capturing the brutality of the Indian's head scalping their victims.
Last of the Mohicans remains a rare period piece for Mann. While the film remains an outlier in the director’s filmography, many fans debate if this or Heat is Mann’s great masterpiece.
Director/Writer James Cameron became a household name by crafting the sci-fi action classics Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. But underneath the hi-concept ideas and propulsive action sequences beats the heart of a romantic. The Terminator and The Abyss are, at their core, love stories. Even Cameron’s flawed action-comedy True Lies works due to the romantic chemistry of leads Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis.
When Cameron announced that he would direct a star-crossed romance set to the backdrop of one of the great maritime disasters, Hollywood snickered. But Titanic works largely thanks to the love story of Jack and Rose, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Despite Cameron’s clunky script, Winslet and DiCaprio make the romance work by playing the characters as teenagers who feel their first brush with romantic desire. In her first starring role, Winslet carries the picture and makes Rose the central character of the epic film.
Titanic remains one of Cameron’s best directorial efforts. The mega-hit features all the hallmarks of a Cameron picture, with a strong female lead, a moving love story, and groundbreaking visual effects. The director brings his action bona fides to the film’s nearly hour-long sinking sequence, and after 25 years, it still stuns.
Taiwanese director Ang Lee built a career helming wildly diverse projects like the Jane Austen romance Sense & Sensibility, the darkly comedic The Ice Storm, and Hong Kong-style actioner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Comic book fans practically foamed at the mouth when Lee signed on to direct a big-budget version of Marvel’s green-skinned monster anti-hero. The director made an exciting, if off-beat, choice to tackle a comic book property.
But Lee’s bold take on Bruce Banner and his Hulk alter ego divided audiences and critics. Lee displays top-notch technique, with beautiful camera work and roving line effects that split the screen into comic book-style panels. The cast of Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, and Sam Elliot perfectly inhabit their comic book counterparts, bringing compelling drama to the material. Yet the film’s narrative plays like a fever dream with a psycho-Freudian subplot between Bruce and his estranged father, played by an over-the-top Nick Nolte. This version of the Hulk features little of the “Hulk smash” style action that MCU fans crave, and the CGI visual effects have aged poorly since the film’s 2003 release.
Lee’s Hulk cratered at the box office and remains an odd, if unique, addition to the superhero genre.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron seemed like a strange choice to direct the third entry of the popular Harry Potter franchise. The stylish filmmaker had only one PG-friendly film to his resume, the 1995 version of the classic novel A Little Princess. Otherwise, Cuaron built a catalog of boundary-pushing films like the modern-day retelling of Great Expectations and the steamy Mexican set Y Tu Mama Tambien.
After two mediocre entries directed by Chris Columbus, the Harry Potter series had fallen into a creative rut. Cuaron brought a fresh coat of paint, giving the world of Hogwarts a gothic makeover with a lived-in feel, eschewing Columbus’s brightly lit cinematography. The three principal leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, give strong, confident performances, no longer leaning on Columbus behind-the-camera coaching. And this is the only Harry Potter film that feels like a complete movie instead of an entry in an eight-film franchise.
Cuaron’s darkly operatic visuals and quirky comedic flourishes recharged the Harry Potter universe, and the gothic production design became a hallmark of the franchise. Among many Potter fans, The Prisoner of Azkaban remains, arguably, the best adaption of the seven-part book series.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Michael Bay, the maestro of hi-octane blockbusters like Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, was on a roll in the late 1990s. Director Bay embraces mainstream sensibilities with no shame whatsoever, specializing in cliches and plot holes galore. While the IQ drops when watching a Bay-directed picture, his movies are always fun, over-the-top spectacles. But the director took a creative gamble when he agreed to direct Pearl Harbor, chronicling one of the darkest hours of American History.
In theory, the patented Titanic formula of an action filmmaker directing a period romance seemed like a sure thing. But Bay’s mainstream sensibilities get in the way of anything resembling deep, heartfelt drama. The film stars Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett as two childhood friends who fall for Kate Beckinsale’s Navy nurse stationed in Hawaii. But the love triangle lacks passion and heat thanks to an uninvolving script from Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace.
Yet the film deserves watching for the spectacular, nearly 40-minute Pearl Harbor attack sequence. Here, the film springs to life, and Bay uses his action bona fides to great effect. The director expertly stages explosive set pieces, recreating the horror of the Japanese assault that leveled America’s naval superiority.
But the intensity of those 40 minutes can’t save the rest of this 3-hour dud. In the end, Bay course corrected and returned to the world of the sugary, empty calorie action spectacles.
Batman Begins (2005)
In the early 2000s, Warner Bros. searched for a fresh new director to reboot their Batman franchise. The studio wanted a back-to-basics approach after Joel Schumacher nearly killed the film series with the overwrought Batman & Robin. The surprise choice was Christopher Nolan, who had the art-house hits Memento and Insomnia under his belt at this point in his career.
Batman Begins proved that Nolan was the perfect filmmaker to remake The Caped Crusader, exploring the vigilante's deep-seed psychology and his connection to the crime-ravaged Gotham City. Visually, Nolan keeps a dash of the stylized Burton atmosphere with flashes of the slick, tightly edited framing that would become his signature. The director wisely cast Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine in the roles of Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, and Alfred, a trio that formed the emotional core of the franchise.
Batman Begins launched Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, exploring the vigilante’s relationship with fear (Batman Begins), chaos (The Dark Knight), and pain (The Dark Knight Rises).
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
It’s safe to say that Steven Spielberg qualifies as one of the great living directors of modern cinema. Over the last 40 years, Spielberg has directed an impressive array of films in nearly every genre. His 1985 adaption of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is unlike anything the filmmaker has ever done. The brutal, somber Schindler’s List proved Spielberg a serious filmmaker, winning his first Oscar as best director. The 2021 remake of the movie musical West Side Story became one of his standout hits.
But the War World II actioner Saving Private Ryan pushed Spielberg’s filmmaking into dark territory, with the director revealing war's bleak horror. The film stars Tom Hanks, who leads a group of soldiers to retrieve Matt Damon’s paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action. While the film plays like a typical War World II action drama, Spielberg shines in the bookend battle sequences. The opening at Normandy Landings shows Hanks and other soldiers marching onshore through a haze of machine gun bullets. The brutal, gore-filled 20 minutes rewrites the rules of War World II filmmaking.
While Schindler’s List had its share of intense moments, Spielberg removes all traces of his sentimental style for the 1998 war epic. Spielberg won a well-deserved second Best Director Oscar, while Saving Private Ryan, in one of the great upsets in Oscar history, lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
The debate over the Disney-era-produced sequel trilogy hit warp speed with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. After JJ Abrams successfully (financially, anyway) relaunched the franchise with The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm handed the reigns to writer/director Rian Johnson. The indie filmmaker made a fascinating choice with only one sci-fi film, the time travel mystery Looper, to his credit. Many Star Wars fans enjoyed The Force Awakens, but Abrams's film leaned heavily on nostalgic pandering and less on franchise world-building.
There’s not a trace of nostalgia to be found in The Last Jedi. Much like Luke Skywalker does to his lightsaber at the start of the film, Johnson tosses aside the Star Wars rule book, bringing a deconstructionist lens to George Lucas’ space opera. Johnson focuses on the new characters of Rey, Poe, and Finn, pushing the legacy figures of Luke and Leia into the background. The film explores the power of myth and how students eventually turn against their teachers. Watching Rey and Kylo Ren realize that it's time to let these legends of the Jedi and Sith fade into history rewires the hero's journey concept that frames the Star Wars franchise. The reveal of Rey’s mystery parentage being drunken “nobodies” is an ironic inversion of Darth Vader’s “I am your father” twist in The Empire Strikes Back.
The Last Jedi caused a major disturbance in the force upon its release, dividing the Star Wars fandom. While many fans loved Johnson’s daring franchise-altering entry, just as many fans loathed it. Much of their ire was directed at the portrayal of Luke Skywalker as a broken Jedi who lost his faith. But to be fair, Johnson worked with the tools that Abrams handed him. That hard zig-zag between two very different filmmakers doomed the sequel trilogy, as no single creative vision guided the new set of films.
For nearly 50 years, the James Bond series never attracted an A-list filmmaker to craft an entry in the long-running spy franchise. While Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan have gone on record saying they would love to do a Bond picture, any director would be boxed in by the franchise restrictions. But for Bond’s 50th anniversary, the producers signed Academy Award-nominated Sam Mendes, the director behind American Beauty and Road to Perdition, to helm the next chapter of Daniel Craig’s gritty 007.
Mendes delivered one of the most critically praised and stylish-looking Bond films with Skyfall. In addition to Mendes, the producers brought acclaimed screenwriter John Logan to rewrite the script, giving Mendes and Craig meaty material to work with. Skyfall bristles with tension, drama, and humor, bringing Craig’s 007 full circle by introducing new versions of Moneypenny and Q. But this would be Judi Dench’s final turn as M, giving a powerhouse farewell performance.
Bond producers coaxed a reluctant Mendes to direct the follow-up entry Spectre in 2015. But that film failed to reach the creative high of Skyfall, embracing a more traditional Bond adventure that introduced an updated Blofield. Of the 25 films in the Bond series, Skyfall stands arguably as the best in the now 60-year-old franchise and helped usher in more big-name directors to play in the 007 sandbox.
In the 1980s, Paul Verhoeven was one of the more fascinating directors to migrate to Hollywood. The Dutch filmmaker courted controversy by filling his films with heavy doses of sexuality, violence, and social satire. Verhoeven scored big hits with the cyberpunk actioners RoboCop and Total Recall, followed by the Hitchcockian thriller Basic Instinct. But the director stunned Hollywood when he announced that he would direct a musical set in Las Vegas.
While technically not a traditional musical, Showgirls does feature dance musical elements and plenty of backstage drama. The premise offers fertile creative ground in the All About Eve-inspired story of Nomi, a talented stripper who rises the ranks to become a famous Las Vegas showgirl. But Verhoeven recruited his Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to write the script. The resulting screenplay, filled with campy dialogue and ridiculous plot twists, does the cast no favors.
Showgirls became one of the first major theatrical releases to nab an NC-17 rating. The film earned the controversial classification thanks to the extensive nakedness of the mostly female cast and a laughably bad scene in a pool. While Gina Gershon and Kyle Maclachlan get the campy tone of the picture, Elizabeth Berkley, in her first starring role, received savage notices from critics that nearly ended her career. As Nomi, Berkley got to show off her impressive dancing skills, but the part needed a more seasoned actress to make the role work. Much of the blame falls on Verhoeven, as the director focused on pushing the envelope (or opening it)–so much so that he forgot to make an entertaining movie.
Fortunately, Showgirls found a second life as a campy masterpiece, becoming a “it's so bad it’s good” classic. It remains an odd, rare misfire in the impressive filmography of Paul Verhoeven.
In the early 1980s, John Carpenter rose to fame by directing influential horror films, including Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. The prolific filmmaker earned the moniker “master of Horror” by taking B-movie plotlines and remaking them with a stylish sheen. Yet the director crashed and burned with his first big-budget studio project, The Thing, flopping at the box office upon its 1982 release. This led to Carpenter to detour from the horror genre, accepting an offer from producer Michael Douglas to helm the sci-fi romance Starman.
The somber film shows a different side to Carpenter as this was a rare work-for-hire project, directing a screenplay he did not write or produce. The film stars Karen Allen as a grieving widow who falls in love with a visiting alien, played by Jeff Bridges, who clones the body of her recently deceased husband. Carpenter imbues the picture with a sweet, melancholy tone anchored by standout performances from Bridges and Allen. While the film features several not-so-subtle “Christ” allegory moments, the strange romance works mainly due to the chemistry between the talented two leads.
Starman remains an overlooked gem among Carpenter’s more popular horror masterpieces. And in an ironic twist, cinephiles now consider that big “flop” The Thing one of the director's best films.