Resting on your laurels gets a bad rap. There's absolutely nothing wrong with following a success with absolute silence. After all, leaving that dead space is how you let other people know where to put their applause. But some people, artists in particular, are so dead set on topping themselves that they feverishly try to rack up more triumphs before the dust has even settled from the first, resulting in careless and hasty career that looks suspiciously like a pile of human feces. The problem is a combination of people falling in love with their own success stories and believing in themselves when they really have no business doing either of those things.
Getty "Note to self: Shit yeah."
In the case of the following four directors, they would have been better off creating one great movie and then bowing out of the spotlight forever. Instead, they insisted that the world keep watching while they strangled their own reputations to death with a roll of 35 mm film. To their credit, they were likely trying to adhere to the adage "Strike while the iron is hot." Unfortunately, that flies in the face of the adage "Quit while you're ahead," which only proves that culturally, we almost never know what the fuck we're talking about.
The Best Movie: Donnie Darko
The Rest: Southland Tales, The Box
Richard Kelly is one of the only directors in history capable of retroactively ruining his first movie just by making more. Nearly everybody in 2001 was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon (me included), even if they didn't quite understand what the hell happened in the movie (me again). The pacing, the characters and the performances made audiences feel like Kelly was a director who knew what kind of story he was telling. Everything about the narrative, even the most convoluted sections, felt purposeful and necessary, like an impenetrable classic novel no one actually gets, but one that includes a bunny suit and a bunch of Tears for Fears songs.
Of course, fans were eager to peel away the layers. They devoted entire blogs and forums to unraveling the movie and analyzing each beat. Everyone was so busy feeling good about themselves for being so smart that they forgot the possibility that the movie might not make any sense.
Getty "Haha, so hold on. I was supposed to be a superhero the whole time? Oh man, I'm so glad you never told me that."
As soon as Richard Kelly released Southland Tales, set in a futuristic Los Angeles, and The Box, set in a slow-moving river of anachronistic bullshit, even his most ardent supporters took a break from ravenous fandom to privately decide if maybe Richard Kelly was an idiot. Both movies are so meandering and pointless, and so full of empty-calorie surprises, that suddenly critics had a big enough sample size to isolate patterns, and sadly, everyone slowly figured out that what Donnie Darko concealed behind mystique and pretension was actually just bad storytelling. The sequel to Donnie Darko only reinforced that fact by drawing attention to plot holes everyone was too forgiving to notice the first time around, and then stretching them wide enough to throw a jet engine through.
Still, there are people who adamantly believe that Kelly's movies are good. They will defend Southland Tales to the death, screaming "It's satire!" because that's a word they heard other people use to redeem things that are unforgivably bad. But the truth is, Richard Kelly is not good at making movies, and we all would have carried on mistaking him for a genius if he just would have stopped after his first film.
3 John Singleton
The Best Movie: Boyz n the Hood
The Rest: Higher Learning, Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Four Brothers
Right now, Boyz n the Hood is sitting on a shelf in the Library of Congress for its cultural significance. John Singleton nearly won an Academy Award for directing it, making him the first black person to ever be nominated for that award. And after his monumental achievement creating a critically acclaimed film about inner-city kids struggling to be something more than the sheddings of a broken socio-economic system, he went on to build an illustrious career making movies about cars going really fast.
Tracking the progression of John Singleton movies is like watching Charlie from Flowers for Algernon slip back into retardation. Boyz n the Hood not only is a smart and entertaining narrative, but also makes a valuable point about the people who are tossed aside when society cuts its losses. Then his films gradually get more and more broad until the closest thing to a point in any of his movies is the edge of Shaft's badge when he throws it into the wall of a courtroom like a ninja star... of justice.
Even the early movies like Higher Learning have a moral that's so heavy-handed it's embarrassing, and that was two decades ago. Since then, he's only seemed interested in action movies starring pretty people. Oh, and his entire career has culminated in Abduction, which, if you're unfamiliar, is The Bourne Identity for teenage girls starring Taylor Lautner's torso. There's not a lot of room for social commentary when all the dialogue is filled with high stakes lines like "There's a bomb in the oven."