Whenever anyone asks me who my favorite underrated director is (this has happened all of twice), I always respond with the same answer: Cameron Crowe. Underrated might be the wrong word but the point is, if you asked 25 film buffs to make a list of the top ten directors in the industry today, Crowe probably doesn't even come up. And I think that's wrong, especially if you made the list exclusive to writer-directors. He has an incredible ability to create characters that are inherently easy to invest in and therefore, he is able to connect with his audience in whatever setting he chooses to work in. Crowe is also, of course, a soundtrack marvel, the rare filmmaker who not only knows music but also knows how to use music. And that last part is the key. Crowe always gets credit for picking great songs but the reason those songs are so great is because they fit the film, the scene, the moment. He does this better than anyone else. Crowe loves music and he loves film, two things I happen to love myself. (If he ever makes a sports movie and combines my three pastimes, my head will probably explode upon viewing the first trailer.) With We Bought a Zoo opening this weekend (Crowe's first non-documentary since 2004), I thought it prudent to take a brief look back at the director's career and consider the merits (and faults) of each of his films (excluding documentary features).
6. Vanilla Sky (2001) - Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
I just rewatched this film for the first time in about a decade and I have to say, it's not nearly as bad as I remembered. It isn't good, you understand, but I've been pegging it as "terrible" whereas in reality, it's only "below average." Vanilla Sky has some promising concepts at its core and I actually think Cruise delivers an earnest, quality performance. It is so overly complex, however, that it quickly becomes convoluted and tiresome. I can understand why Crowe took on the project and why he would want to stretch himself. But the film seems unsure of itself and I think that's indicative of Crowe's feelings. In a post-Inception world, there's a place for Vanilla Sky but it simply couldn't work (at least in this configuration) in 2001.
5. Say Anything (1989) - John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney
I saw this movie for the first time only a year or so ago and therefore my opinion of it is probably somewhat lower than those who experienced it as teenagers. I don't think it's one of Crowe's better films but it is one of the better performances by Cusack. His boombox-over-the-head scene is iconic, of course, but it is his disaffected, directionless persona that makes Say Anything work. His "plans for the future" diatribe is one of my favorite scenes from the '80s.
4. Singles (1992) - Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon
Like Say Anything, I was late to the party on Singles. In fact, I just watched it for the first time all the way through a few days ago. The feeling I get from this film is that it is a personal project trying not to be a personal project. Crowe was living in the Seattle area at the time of its filming and wanted to do something about the burgeoning grunge music scene. Personally, I would watch a movie about a fictitious band or group of bands coming together in early '90s Seattle but maybe I'm alone in that. Anyway, the interconnected story lines of several twentysomethings are woven together nicely and the occasional fauxumentary interviews that pop up from time to time are enjoyable. Pulling Eddie Vedder into the mix was a nice touch, too.
3. Jerry Maguire (1996) - Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr.
It bothers me that it has become accepted, even expected, to bash on Jerry Maguire. Yes, it has been cheapened over the years by constant replays on TNT and yes, its more iconic lines have been spoofed a thousand times. But that's because it's a good movie. Crappy movies don't get replayed over and over or quoted in lame sitcoms. To me, the backlash against Jerry Maguire is like dissing a quality rock band because their song gets picked up on top 40 radio. It's not their fault that the song gets driven into the ground. I will always argue that if you woke up from a 15-year long coma and had never heard anyone say, "Show me the money", you'd really dig Jerry Maguire. This is one of Cruise's better roles and perhaps the only time Zellweger hasn't made me want to punch a puppy.
2. Elizabethtown (2005) - Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon
The difference between the dislike directed at Jerry Maguire and that aimed at Elizabethtown is that I understand it this time around. Elizabethtown is not for everyone; it moves at a snail's pace and if truth be told, it doesn't cover just a whole lot of ground. But that's what I love about it. Elizabethtown is primarily about self-discovery and sometimes self-discovery isn't a roller coaster of excitement and a whirlwind of activities. It also serves as Crowe's ode to the American road and it delves deep into the father-son relationship, a topic that goes uncovered in most of his other works. I will say that I think Bloom was a poor choice; it's not that he's bad so much as he just doesn't quite fit the character. But Dunst is near-perfect and the soundtrack is SPECTACULAR.
1. Almost Famous (2000) - Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup
Just about anytime someone asks me to recommend a movie they might have missed somewhere along the line, I answer with Almost Famous. It is easily one of my ten favorite films of all-time and one of the few that I will hold up as a masterpiece. Based on Crowe's own experiences as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone, Almost Famous is an exceptionally well-crafted film filled to the brim with powerhouse performances, exquisite dialogue, and brilliant music. Crowe put together a perfect cast and got the absolute best out of each member, especially Crudup (Russell Hammond is one of my favorite characters ever) and Hudson (go watch Something Borrowed and marvel at how Crowe managed to get that woman an Oscar nomination). Almost Famous isn't underrated, it is criminally underrated. This scene is just one of the many wonderful sequences contained within.