NEW YORK – Today's hottest young directors have achieved the kind of success many filmmakers only dream of, but now that they're on top, the pressure to create another perfect project is weighing heavily.
"When you have such a high profile, everyone scrutinizes movies you make," said Movieline film critic Stephen Farber.
Steven Soderbergh, M. Night Shyamalan and Sam Mendes each have new films out -- Full Frontal, Signs and Road to Perdition, respectively -- and critics are taking a hard look at these recent efforts.
"You can understand the choices that all of them made," said Farber. "All are respectable movies in different ways -- I wasn't wild about any of them -- but none are embarrassments."
Soderbergh became the golden boy of Hollywood in 2000, directing Erin Brockovich and Traffic, which both earned him Best Director Oscar nods. (He won for Traffic.)
His current release, Full Frontal, is a documentary-style film that examines the lives of some emotionally challenged characters in Los Angeles. Julia Roberts is in it -- but that's about the only similarity to his recent hits.
New Yorker film critic David Denby called Frontal "perhaps the most naively awful movie I've seen at the hand of a major director."
While some critics like Time magazine's Richard Corliss have praised the film for its inventiveness, early buzz reveals that audiences simply just don't get it.
Fox News entertainment reporter Bill McCuddy asked Frontal star Blair Underwood if he thought people would have trouble admitting they didn't grasp Soderbergh's vision.
Underwood shook off that notion, but acknowledged that many viewers were confused by the choppy plot.
"[Soderbergh and I] did a press junket together, and a number of people came in and said, 'I didn't get it. It didn't make sense to me.'"
According to Underwood, having a mainstream success wasn't Soderbergh's goal.
"I think he gets a kick out of the fact that some will get it, and if you don't, that's OK."
The film may not be another blockbuster, but some appreciate Soderbergh's leap back to the indie format.
"It's a healthy sign he wants to go back to independent roots and keep himself stimulated. I only wish that the movie were better," Farber said.
Shyamalan was nominated for Best Director in 2000 for his thriller hit The Sixth Sense. He followed it up with the somewhat disappointing Unbreakable -- its box-office take of $100 million worldwide paled next to The Sixth Sense's $300 million -- but has continued to mine the suspense genre with Signs.
Farber compared Shyamalan to Alfred Hitchcock, one of Hollywood's most-applauded directors.
"[Hitchcock] worked in one genre," Farber said. "He didn't choose to venture out or attempt the range of other directors."
It's an understandable model to follow, but dangerous in today's entertainment world.
"If one bombs, it's a major setback and can send someone's career reeling, unlike Hitchcock's time," said Farber.
While early reviews of Signs praise Shyamalan's craft, many criticize his repetitious nature.
"[Shyamalan's] signature style can be chillingly effective at creating a mood of terror, or wonder, or both," wrote Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman. "At the same time, the Shyamalan Trance is starting to look a bit like a tic, a honeyed, hermetic fusion of the techniques."
Among these top three directors, Mendes is in the most unusual position. His debut film, American Beauty, won a whopping five Oscars, including Best Director. His latest effort, the star-studded Road to Perdition, stirred up some Oscar buzz, but got mixed reviews from audiences and critics.
However, even if Perdition didn't impress audiences as much as Beauty, the industry will give him some leeway -- at least for now, experts say.
"He's got to be very careful now for the next one," Farber said. "He was such a golden boy after the first movie. His second effort was respectable. But people are really looking for the third one to be great. If it's not, they will really knock him down."
A director's moment in the sun can quickly fade to a lonely shade in Tinseltown. Michael Cimino experienced a dramatic fall from grace in 1980 by following 1978's Oscar-sweeping The Deer Hunter with Heaven's Gate, which bombed so badly that his career never regained its glory.
Today's hot directors -- Mendes, Soderbergh and Shyamalan -- have to carefully navigate their next few projects to avoid such fatal choices, said Farber, but are on solid ground so far.
"At this point they haven't made major miscalculations," he said. "They're still in there and intelligent about what they're trying to do."