What do Allison Anders, John Cassavetes, and Alfred Hitchcock have in common? Aside from — in spite of? — being great directors, they’ve all made films that for whatever reason failed to land with the critics, the public, or both. But are their “failures” those of the filmmakers or of imagination on the part of the audience? 

In the list of underrated movies by great directors that follows, IndieWire argues that often it’s the latter. These are films that were misunderstood — in several cases, by their own makers, which is part of what led to their public dismissal — or that never had the chance to be misunderstood because they were barely seen due to vagaries of timing and marketing. While they don’t necessarily represent the directors’ best work (though in a handful of cases, they do), they’re all better than their reputations and filled with pleasures characteristic of the filmmakers’ oeuvres.      

The criteria for selecting these movies was fairly simple: They had to be films that, in one way or another, were underappreciated at the time of their release and remain so today. This is different, in some cases, than unappreciated; Martin Scorsese‘s “Cape Fear” was a hit and garnered its share of respect, and even a once-lambasted bomb like “Eight Million Ways to Die” has seen a slow but steady rise in popularity thanks to partisans like Quentin Tarantino. The question is whether these movies are as well regarded as they ought to be, and our answer is no!

“Cape Fear,” for example, isn’t just a solid foray by a great director into conventional genre filmmaking — it’s a Scorsese classic that deserves to be ranked alongside masterpieces like “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Casino.” (Interestingly, “Raging Bull” and “Casino” got even more mixed reviews in their time than “Cape Fear,” but quickly underwent critical reevaluations that have thus far eluded that film.) In 1991, “Cape Fear” had the bad luck to be Scorsese’s follow-up to “Goodfellas,” a game-changer that not only represented a giant leap forward for Scorsese but for cinema in general. Probably any movie that the director made after “Goodfellas” would have been seen as a letdown, and the fact that he chose a commercial assignment like “Cape Fear” left him even more open to criticism — never mind that some of the greatest American movies ever made, from “Touch of Evil” to “The Godfather,” began as similarly mercenary endeavors for their helmers.

Therein lies the issue at the heart of this gallery: too often movies by iconic directors carry the baggage of what came before and can’t be judged on their own merits in their own time. Maybe devotees aren’t in the mood for a director to try something different. Maybe they simply weren’t able to get to the theater fast enough to see the movie before it closed due to bad luck and bad marketing. And in several cases in this list, the directors did themselves and their movies no favors by publicly expressing their own dissatisfaction with the work — when John Cassavetes trashed “Big Trouble” it more or less shut down any debate about the movie, since if its own maker didn’t like it, who would?

Well, maybe a lot of people if they actually gave it a chance. Here we present that film and 16 others that deserve another look — listed in no particular order.

With editorial contributions by Ryan Lattanzio, Wilson Chapman, Alison Foreman, and Kate Erbland.

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