Julian Schanbel's "At Eternity's Gate" tackles Vincent Van Gogh's life in deceptively simple ways. The film's eloquence derives in the fact that Schnabel is much more interested in the torment and the undue respect the painter of "Starry Night" never got from his cohorts. Van Gogh himself would approve of this intimate channeling — the visions and torment that seeped through the impressionist painter are dealt with head-on in Schanbel's film.
Willem Dafoe’s performance as Van Gogh is exhilarating; pouring heart and soul into the role of a man so open to ache and despair that he can't help but drive himself to passionately paint. At some point Van Gogh tells a friend that he paints because it's the only way to "drain out the noise" the anxiety that would lead him to eventually cut off his own ear, something that Schnabel smartly avoids re-ennacting.
Dafoe, now in his early 60s, is 25 years older than Van Gogh was when he died at the age of 37, but that doesn't even matter. A particularly memorable scene has Dafoe speaking to the head priest at an asylum he's been locked in. The priest, played by Mads Mikkelsen, tells Van Gogh that his work, quite frankly, stinks and that it shouldn't be considered a 'painting,' or at least what the standard definition was back in the 1880s. Van Gogh responds by saying that he feels like he's painting for people that haven't been born yet. Suffice to say, Van Gogh changed the game, albeit posthumously. Despite not selling many of his paintings he was, by all accounts, ahead of his time with an impressionistic style that would be copied to no ends in the centuries to come.
This got me thinking about all the great cinematic artists that didn't get their due until much later in life or even after their deaths. It's a very common thing, so much so that I had to limit it to just the classics:
“Vertigo” and “Psycho”
You could make the case for many other Alfred Hitchcocks, but it's the classics that I've chosen; "Vertigo," and "Psycho," both of which garnered controversy for their depiction of violence and sexuality. “Psycho” especially got off to a rough start with critics, which culminated in reviews calling it "gimmicky" and "tacky." In a particularly noteworthy review, the New York Times said it had “not an abundance of subtlety” and was an “obviously low-budget job.” Judging by some other reviews I've read, the Times review could be considered one of the kinder pans of the film.
“2001: A Space Odyssey," "Barry Lyndon" and "The Shining"
You could also make the case for every Stanley Kubrick movie, from "2001: A Space Odyssey" on. It isn’t a major surprise that “2001” had many heads scratching back in the day, but even "Barry Lyndon" had a rough time also, with critics rallying against the cold, detached, slow and self-conscious artistry on-display. Hell, "The Shining" even got Kubrick a Razzie nomination for worst director. I am, however, still waiting on that critical reappraisal for "Eyes Wide Shut" to happen.
"The Night of the Hunter"
Charles Laughton's directing debut and he would never direct another film after it. One of the most mentioned and influential American films of for critics, filmmakers and cinephiles today has to be. Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter." However, not only was it a box-office disaster, but critics hated this gothic-horror masterpiece as well. 'Hunter' was a hybrid of genres that can now seem rather pedestrian and normal, but it was sadly released in the wrong era, back when the mix of magical surrealism, and horror just didn't exist. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times stated the film was "weird" and that it "goes wrong." Now it's all but heralded as a masterpiece and is a requirement for every student at film school. Cahiers du Cinema named it the 2nd greatest movie ever made and BFI's important Sight and Sound Poll has it listed as the 63rd greatest movie of all-time.
“Rules of the Game"
I'm not the only person that considers director Jean Renoir's French comedy of manners to be a masterpiece, most hardcore cinephiles do as well. This late ‘30s film, set in the Bourgeois French countryside, was the most expensive French movie ever made at the time. Renoir was coming hot off the heels of an incredible streak of critical successes, which culminated with his classic "La Grande Illusion." So why was "Rules of the Game," a scathing indictment of France's 1%, so hated by critics? Well, it doesn't help that the film was temporarily banned by the French government. Upon its release it was trashed by critics in the United States as well —A New York Times review said "the master has dealt his admirers a pointless, thudding punch below the belt." Renoir said the film's failures "so depressed me that I resolved to either give up the cinema or to leave France."