A Salute to Hollywood’s Underrated Filmmakers and Actors

Forrest Hartman


There is an interesting phenomenon in art where the most critically acclaimed creators often fail to reach the broadest commercial audiences. Some of this can be explained by “the bandwagon effect,” a psychological phenomenon where people embrace a fad or trend primarily because others are doing so. While the bandwagon theory might explain why EVERYONE seems to know and love The Rock, it doesn’t explain why an extraordinary number of exceptional artists never convince audiences or producers of their full potential.


In this article, we’ll look at 10 filmmakers who – by my estimation – are underrated. An article like this is, of course, fraught with difficulty because my definition of “underrated” may differ from that of readers. So, we’ll start by defining terms. We aren’t talking no-names who have been universally ignored by fans, critics and peers. Rather, this list is populated by artists who are often celebrated in critical circles, but have not received the widespread recognition they deserve. We will also note upfront that this list is far from exhaustive. There are hundreds of additional names that could populate a story like this because – sadly – great art often goes unrecognized at the multiplex. In the interest of changing this, I encourage you to populate our comments section with your picks.


Terrence Malick

Although writer-director-producer Terence Malick is an arthouse darling, it’s borderline criminal that one of the most thoughtful storytellers in cinematic history is largely unknown. Case in point: Malick’s last feature film, the World War II drama A Hidden Life, opened with just over $50,000 and grossed less than $2 million in the United States. In the meantime, Jumanji: The Next Level – also released in 2019 – collected more than $320 million at the domestic box office


One needn’t love everything Malick has made. His pictures can be slow because he acknowledges that film is a visual medium, and some of his best works – The New World (2005), The Thin Red Line (1998), Days of Heaven (1978) – play more like visual poetry than a traditional motion picture narrative. Even when his work falters, however, his ambition is obvious. Malick’s artistic passion is something we see with other directors who could have easily made this list – Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch – and this commitment to pushing boundaries is what film lovers deserve. 



Giancarlo Esposito

You know his face.  He pops up in unexpected places in TV and film, always for the better. He’s also done a load of work in animation thanks to the emotion he conveys with his voice alone.  Still, Giancarlo Esposito most often finds himself a supporting player to bigger stars.


Don’t get me wrong, he’s excellent in utility roles, but he has the chops to carry a full load. The fact that his presence always makes projects better seems to argue that Hollywood casting agents are missing the boat.


Willem Dafoe

Critically, Willem Dafoe gets noticed plenty. He has been nominated for four Oscars. It’s worth noting, however, that only one of those nominations – for 2018’s At Eternity’s Gate – has been for a leading role. And … he’s yet to win. What hurts most is that Dafoe’s consistently great work often remains unseen. For instance, almost nobody in America has watched At Eternity’s Gate. That picture made four times more money overseas than in the U.S. and still only brought in $11.5 million worldwide.


Before anyone starts weeping for Dafoe, we have to acknowledge that he’s landed a few blockbuster roles. He was the Green Goblin in a several Spider-Man films, and he was a lead in the 1994 Jack Ryan drama Clear and Present Danger. He also works consistently, which is more than a lot of actors can say. Even so, Dafoe seems underutilized.


Toni Collette

As happens with Hollywood actresses, Toni Collette has transitioned from hot property to B-lister. This has nothing to do with her talent. We can likely chalk it up to sexism, ageism and the fickle nature of pop culture.


Collette is – simply put – incredible in every role she touches. Zeena the Seer in Nightmare Alley? Check. Joni Thrombey in “Knives Out”? Yep. Annie in “Hereditary”? Uh huh. And those are just roles she’s played during the last four years. Collette was, arguably, at her career peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s when she starred in The Sixth Sense, Changing Lanes, About a Boy and Little Miss Sunshine. She doesn’t seem to be a first-call actress anymore. She should be.  


George Clooney

“Wait,” you say, “not long ago George Clooney was one of the most sought-after stars on Earth.” That’s a reasonable assessment. As an actor, Clooney’s recognition may have even exceeded his considerable talent. The problem is, he doesn’t get the same level of reverence when people start talking directors.


Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was one of the wackiest (and best) pictures of 2002. He followed that with Good Night, and Good Luck, an exceptional Edward R. Murrow biopic that is required viewing in my History of American Journalism course at California State University, Chico.  It’s true that he has directed imperfect movies. Leatherheads (2008) and The Monuments Men (2014) have flaws, but so do pictures by Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese. Yet Clooney doesn’t get the reverence that those directors do. I think that’s a shame. In 2020, Clooney directed and starred in the underrated apocalypse drama The Midnight Sky, and in 2021 he released The Tender Bar, a heartfelt coming-of-age story about a boy who grows up in the orbit of his uncle’s bar. Clooney may not be the best director of his generation, but there’s every indication he’ll be producing compelling work for years to come.   



Wes Anderson

Just as Terence Malick is revered in certain circles, writer-director Wes Anderson has a loyal following. It’s just too small.


We’re talking about a man who – since 1996 – has given us Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yet his last feature – 2021’s The French Dispatchmade less than $20 million in the United States. That same year, Venom: Let There be Carnage drew more than $90 million its opening weekend. I have nothing against Marvel Comics movies, but really?


Patrick Stewart

See a pattern here? I clearly gravitate to artists who are known in the industry but haven’t received the opportunities they deserve. Stewart, who has played exceedingly challenging roles in theater, has largely been typecast on screen. Most know him as either Jean-Luc Picard from the Star Trek franchise or Professor Charles Xavier from the X-Men films. There’s no shame in that, as these are iconic roles that made him a hero to nerds worldwide. But he’s capable of so much that we haven’t seen on screen. Like Dafoe, Esposito and Collette, Stewart has had a successful career, but he deserves more high-profile projects that demonstrate his range.     


Brad Bird

A glance at Brad Bird’s credits is all one needs.  


He first gained fame in animation, as a writer-director for The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Then he made Ratatouille, another breakout animated hit. But Bird wasn’t satisfied as an animation legend. In 2011, he directed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and it was exceptional. Consider his behind-the-scenes and producing work on a host of other well-known projects, and it’s clear that Bird is among the most talented people working in film today. More movie buffs should know his name.



Kirsten Dunst

Outside of her time as Mary Jane Watson in Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man films, Kirsten Dunst hasn’t exactly had an A-list career. Like the other actors mentioned here, she consistently works but hasn’t landed enough high-profile roles to match her talent. Hopefully her astounding turn in 2021’s The Power of the Dog will become a defining moment that changes her career trajectory. Dunst has proven herself capable of producing performances with remarkable emotional depth.  We deserve more of them.


Terrence Howard

Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard as Rhodey in the Iron Man franchise seemed to be a turning point in the latter actor’s career. Back then, Howard was fresh off an Oscar nomination for the 2005 music drama Hustle & Flow, and the sky seemed the limit. Since then, he’s made a lot of movies, but outside of his stint on the TV drama Empire, hasn’t captured the momentum he once had. The losers in all this are movie lovers because Howard is a wonderful actor with enough charisma to tackle more high-profile roles than he’s given.


Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, Highbrow Magazine’s chief film critic, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches at the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico. He is also the adviser to The Orion student news organization at Chico State.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Daniel Benavides (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)


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